By Natalie Singer
Once there was a girl who had a wild animal. She had never touched the animal but she knew deep inside her body and her soul that it was hers. She didn’t remember when she first understood she had an animal, maybe she was 12 and it was her first summer away at sleeping camp and she stayed in a canvas tent on a metal cot made up with a sleeping bag and old threadbare floral sheets that felt soft when she rubbed them between her fingers with three other girls including one named Frankie who peed her bed. Frankie peed her bed but she also showed the girl how to peg her jeans tight around her mosquito bitten ankles and hide her candy in a lockbox under the cot so the counselors wouldn’t find it and how to whisper late into the night without getting caught while the July rain drip drip dripped on the dirty canvas roof of the wooden platformed tent. Maybe she met the animal then, that summer, at the summer camp in the mountains with the tents among the pines.
Was the animal there at the camp? She doesn’t know. Maybe she met the animal in the city, maybe she met the animal while riding the city bus to 8th grade, or while riding the metro below the streets to the underground mall downtown that sold Doc Martins and hemp shoulder bags and falafel for $3. Maybe she saw that animal for the first time sitting on the hard blue molded seat of the subway train, gripping onto the shiny pole inside the worn-down car that smelled like stale cigarettes, its body curled up, compact. Was it there on the train she and her animal came face to face? She can’t recall.
Or maybe she has never seen her animal’s face. Maybe she has only felt it, somewhere in her body. Maybe she felt the animal first as a presence when she was three or four, in the preschool in Florida where they did art all day long, in that school with the cool linoleum classroom floor, where they chose some of the older girls to dress as reindeer for the Christmas performance, the girls who got to wear shiny white tank leotards with black sequined elasticized belts and felt reindeer headbands and cherry red dots on their noses, girls who weren’t her, girls she wanted to be. What she would give to march in that line of reindeer but they didn’t choose her, the teachers didn’t, even the teacher she loved most of all, the one she thought about all weekend when she was at home, the days school was closed, the teacher with the shiny straight brown hair who made her a picture in rainbow crayon, a full page of interlocking triangles, satisfyingly geometric, each one carefully shaded a different color from the extra-large box of Crayolas. Why couldn’t she be a reindeer? Why did she want to be one so badly? The girl didn’t know, but maybe it was her animal breathing down her neck, making it flush red as she watched the girls dance in the pageant from her cross-legged seat in the front row on the cool floor.
Maybe many things that moved through the girl’s body over the years can be explained by the animal’s presence, a hovering, not threatening but not comfortable, a memory that isn’t a memory because it never was clear. A soft brown-out, a soft-out, furry, something that lives far back in a cave. Every time she lost control of her body it could have been the animal dropping in, taking her for a walk. The chicken pox she got when she was 5 and her mother was busy at the hospital birthing her little brother, the brother who soon attracted so much attention with his pudgy legs and arms and footlong eyelashes that her best girlfriend from up the street Erika with the freckles seemed not to be interested in the girl anymore but only wanted to see the baby, play with the baby. We have babies in the dollhouse, we can play with those, the girl told her friend Erika, but Erika would wander off down the hall to the nursery and the girl would feel something heavy on her.
The hand, foot and mouth disease she got when she was 12 and couldn’t go to see the George Michael concert, which the girl was both anticipating and dreading, because of that one song, the way George said, I want your sex. But once the red sores crawled across the soles of her feet and palms and filled the inside of her mouth and she had to give the tickets away to her father and his girlfriend, she lay in bed thinking about whether she would ever get the chance to come so close to such a mystery again and she felt the animal then, pressing.
When her sinuses filled and her breath caught short, when she went to the hospital with a throat infection and stared at the nurse through feverish eyelids, when she stared at the nurse with the smooth skin who laid a hand on her burning cheek. When she threw her head back and screamed from the split open middle of herself and pushed out her daughter onto a bloody hospital sheet, into cupped hands, the animal was there then, too, staring from the corner of the room.
It wasn’t only in sickness that she encountered her animal. Grocery store, theater, car accident, office park, train, couch, bed. Over the years, it would appear occasionally in the corner of her eye, a subtle but ominous presence, the animal of it sending a message to the animal of her. She never touched it but once it touched her, at a party when she was young and working days pouring coffee for suits and ties. Nights they went to clubs and in a dark hallway it swept by her, paused, leaned in toward her mouth. Nearly as soon as it touched her it was already moving on, before she could see what kind of animal it was, exactly, and she was left shaking as the wildness slipped away from her.
Natalie Singer is the author of the lyric memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation (Hawthorne Books, 2018). Her writing has been published in journals, magazines and newspapers. Originally from Montreal, she now lives in Seattle, where she works as a storyteller and teaches creative writing. She’s working on her next book, a memoir of micro essays about the wildernesses we navigate. She can be followed on Twitter at @Natalie_Writes.
Jen’s book ON BEING HUMAN is available for pre-order here.