Herd Animal

by Isabel Spiegel

Gio says he wants to reincarnate as a herd animal. He sits across from me at the kitchen table sipping a cup of tea and eating a bowlful of muesli out of one of his sun-yellow bowls. He picks up a pair of striped crew socks his mother sent him in a manila envelope from Minnesota, along with toothpaste and a magenta toothbrush he left at her house over Christmas. He holds the socks up over his ears so they dangle, sort of like donkey’s ears next to his smallish head. Face down over his bowl, he looks as if he’s searching for a grassy morsel.

“That’s startlingly accurate,” I say. “How’d you get so good at that?”

“Practice?” he replies.

“But why a herd animal?” I ask, “and what kind?”

“Probably a wildebeest,” he says. “There’s something about being in a pack, everyone eating together, running together. When there’s a threat, like a lion or something, everyone feels the same fear.”

It’s no surprise to me that Gio wants company for his anxiety. First, he’s with me, and second, his mother told his father not to soak in their outdoor hot tub because he might get shot by a hunter. How she thought his stocky, Polish-American father submerged in a hot tub could be mistaken for a deer, I don’t know.

“So, it’s about belonging, then?”

“Probably,” says Gio, pushing his chair from the table and standing up, flicking his ear socks with little twitches, like he’s swatting away flies.

I think I know what a wildebeest looks like and I can picture Gio turning into one, his narrow face and dark hair, intense, suspicious eyes darting to either side while he hastily masticates a savanna. His black glasses stretched to accommodate the increased width of his muzzle behind curved horns.

“Wildebeests exist at this low level of consciousness,” he adds. “They don’t need to do anything to belong. They just do.”

I nod, considering what I might want to be if I could walk my human form out the door and return as something else. It might be easier to be a mineral or some gaseous part of the periodic table. What about oxygen? Everyone needs that. I like to feel needed. But do I really want to be one never-ending inhale? I consider a dolphin, but the oceans are so polluted and there’s something too spiritanimalish about the idea. A turtle would be nice, but what if I get my head stuck in a six-pack ring—a slow strangulation out at sea. I could be a forest animal, but I’d probably die in a fire, like those poor koalas with burnt noses in Australia.

“What about an ant?” I say. “They’ll never go extinct.”

“Well, if you’re basing it on longevity, then yeah, good choice. Ants will outlive people.”

“I don’t know what I’m basing it on. Not dying a horrible death?”

“People die horrible deaths all the time,” says Gio. “How do you want to feel while you’re alive?”

The other day in a park, Gio knelt down on one knee in front of me, and I almost vomited. Turns out he was looking for his wallet and not proposing.

I wonder if macaws, who mate for life, make mental checklists of pros and cons, and if they consider whether or not Mr. Macaw will be the type that can build a proper nest. Or is it just a random shuffling of nature’s feathered deck. There’s no soulmate macaws or fuckboy macaws, they’re all just macaws.

“A macaw” I mumble.

“Huh?” says Gio.

I blush, though he likes it when I act weird.

“Nothing,” I say “Just mind babble.”

“You look so serious. What are you thinking about?”

I think of how safe I feel in Gio’s bed, curled into him fetal with my face buried into his worn T-shirt, inhaling the distinct Gio smell that lives inside his sock drawer. The boyfriend smell I’d like to bottle and save—the smell I take back to my apartment and can’t quite wash out.

“The fact of the matter is that even wildebeest die alone,” I say. “And if you painted one of them pink, all the others would probably run away. That’s not real loyalty.”

“I wouldn’t,” says Gio. “I’d know you, even if you were painted pink.”

“You wouldn’t,” I say.

“I’d still know you, somehow,” he says, slipping his hands into the socks. He cradles my head between his paws. “You’d be the most obnoxious one of the bunch.” He swoops down to kiss me but I turn my cheek before I realize what I’m doing.

“Why do you always give me your cheek when I try to kiss you?”

I’ve been asking myself the same question for months. I force myself to look at him, but my eyes dart to the bundle of sage on the bookshelf that I’ve placed next to a fortune cookie message which says, Nothing worth fighting for ever came easily. I’ve appropriated his home with mini-installations to break up the stark white walls and sparse furniture.

“I’m sorry,” I say. And I am.

“Is it my bad breath?” he blows in my face and I try to laugh.

“I’m counting down from twenty. Pick your animal!” he says, teasingly, taking my bare foot and rubbing the arch the way I like with warm, enveloping hands. I stare at my winter-pale foot in his grasp, the way it complies to his fingers. I picture the skin shriveling and hardening like a shrunken head, the nails of my foot growing long, curling into talons, the way they would slice into his generous palms like paring knives. I think about how he’d wince in pain, surprised by my choice—how he’d run in the opposite direction from fear.

Isabel Spiegel is a writer from Los Angeles, California. Her prose, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in All the Sins, Corium and Smithsonian Magazine.
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