We Are All Animals
by Amanda E. Montei
Jay liked to say that the day he found Sophia on the beach she looked like a waif, like something that had washed ashore. Jay liked to say this, but Sophia didn't like to hear it.Her hair was matted and her eyes sallow, she knew this, but she didn't much care. The beach was dirty, and she was running her hands through the sand, someone's aged cigarette butt between her thumb and forefinger. Jay wore a heavy suit and loafers and Sophia was more concerned with the cigarette, but when he passed her she found herself saying, "You'll never get the sand out of your shoes."
Jay stopped. The gloaming shrouded his face like a burka and Sophia could only make out his eyes. Jittery, caffeinated, surprised, he looked to her and said, "I like that. It makes me feel connected." He sat beside her without invitation.
It was understood that they were both looking for something, someone, and had found it in each other. They took their shoes off and scooped sand with them like children. When they finally stood, they smiled at each other and fitted their shoes, sand still inside them, over their numb and immobile toes, and they walked, their feet heavy, their bodies light.
After the beach, Jay took Sophia into his loft, high in the sky above the city, and pointed out the bay, sailboats playing in the water. She told him that sometimes she thought in status updates, especially late at night. Sophia is: bored, content, brazen, quixotic, recumbent, neglected. She told him that this phenomenon had a direct effect on her daily attitude. On her overall, actual, in-the-flesh "status." She did not tell him that she felt this way nearly every minute of the day, or that she felt she was slipping into an imagined version of herself. She didn't want to scare him off.
Now, every day, Sophia thought of Jay as a product, a commodity that she had ravenously and naively consumed. She felt the victim of false advertising. She had thought, when she first met him, that because he tolerated her, because he looked at her like a child, he understood her. She now knew this wasn't true. She also knew that there was nothing worse than loving someone who didn't understand you.
Every night Jay poured Bordeaux for himself and Sophia drank Nyquil over ice with a maraschino cherry garnish because it was the only way she could get to sleep, although it made her feel common and weak to rely on something so unnatural. She read somewhere that color diversity tricked your palate, so that you think you are tasting something good, even when you are not. Like, for example, when you are drinking Nyquil. This was the reason for the cherry. The Nyquil was blue.
So they spent their nights this way, and once a week, while Sophia flipped through Jay's leather-bound tomes and found laws that she thought were ridiculous, Jay proposed and Sophia refused.
"You're incapable of normalcy," he said once.
"Sophia is incapable of normalcy," she said. "Good one."
He looked hurt and she came to him, the fancy bracelet he bought her jingling on her bony wrist. She held onto it.
"I want to touch something, do you get that? Not this," she said, holding up her arm. "Something you can't touch. That's what I want. To touch what you can't touch."
Jay kissed her forehead and went back to his work. She felt very stupid.
No elephants on Market Street without leashes. This was one of her favorites. She dreamed of one day convincing Jay to buy her an elephant. She would ride it through the city proudly, trampling streetcars and snapping their wires with her bare hands, until she was wrestled off by police and thrown into handcuffs.
Sophia is: pugnacious!
In the mornings, Sophia and Jay sat on the fire escape and drank coffee. She felt like a couple of plastic lawn ornaments up there, seething with hauteur. The buildings around them always seemed to be pushing the sky further up and away from her, the Transamerica building piercing the sky like a needle through cloth. She was sitting up there the day after it happened, a little mirror in her hand as she stroked black onto her lashes, and for the first time she felt vertigo.
Makeup made Sophia feel like a prostitute, but like the Nyquil, mascara was a subterfuge. It quieted the voices, covered the reality. Maybelline Very Black was one of her few vices, and so she allowed herself the indulgence. Her hands shook and that irritated her, took all the fun out of it. Exasperated by the intricacy of the application, she often had the urge to write all over her face with the wand. But she thought, just maybe, he might say she looked beautiful. Maybe he'll think I have beautiful eyes. Maybe he'll think I'm born with it.
"Petty petty pettifogger," she sang to Jay.
She loved to call Jay a pettifogger. First, it was joke. Now, she meant it. It began when she found out he worked as a prosecutor. This was the day she began falling out of love with him. He suspected the nickname was a slight but didn't know what a pettifogger was and didn't care enough to find out. She hated that.
"Is it petty fucker you call me?"
He was clinking around inside and she was chewing the chalky edge of her coffee cup, cursing the artificial taste. She watched the people below but her vision was bad and everyone looked blurry and without end, fading into their surroundings.
"When I say it," she said, "I picture an old fart." She did not tell him that more and more he was beginning to look like an old fart to her. His rough hands, which she once saw as strong and full of salvation, now felt pedophilic on her legs.
She had eyeglasses, the fold-up kind that come in little metal cases, the kind you buy at the drug store that only make your vision worse, but she rarely wore them. She simply could not justify spending more than $5.99 on eyeglasses. When she first bought them, Jay laughed and said she looked like an old woman. She found this ludicrously ironic but if ever he came around when she was wearing them, she jumped, ripped them off before he could see and played like she had never been wearing them.
She began to put on her glasses but Jay came out on the fire escape so she lay them down, gave up on clarity, widened her tired, puffy eyes and tried to bat her lashes a bit. Her eyes felt dry and watery, and she couldn't stop squinting. She looked to her arm.
"My skin is flaking," she said.
"I'm used to it," Jay said. He opened his paper and smiled, then moved his hand along the top of her hair.
Before she met Jay, she wouldn't use Downy. She thought fabric softener was just another prodigality. And besides, it irritated her skin. Made her feel tight all over and trapped in her own skin. Before she met Jay, she would rub organic Jojoba Oil on herself everyday. She'd get all greased up, slicked up, and then pat herself dry. She didn't want to look like she was trying. No way. She was just tired of being the boyish girl with her father's eczema.
Sophia is: trapped in her own skin.
But Jay needed his fabric softener. She said she could just feel her skin cracking up when she put on a sweater washed in the stuff. Her skin scrunched up and turned rosy and no amount of oil could soothe her. Jay told her it looked like she had ringworm.
"It's a Pyrrhic victory," she said. "This Downy thing."
"You can wash your things separately," he said.
"You'd rather me smell like Winter Breeze than feel comfortable?"
"No," he said, dropping his paper. "I'd just rather smell like Winter Breeze than dirt. You want these crazy things when you live in the real world." She followed him inside. She felt lonely and regretted her flippancy.
Jay was putting his lunch together in his way. It was something she used to love about him. It was always the same. He sliced one-half of a tomato and one-quarter of an onion daintily, stored what was left. He pre-measured his mayonnaise, one tablespoon only. He stowed his cottage cheese snack awkwardly in a Ziploc. She always did wonder how he ate that cheese out of a bag. But all she heard now, as he shoved his victuals into plastic, was that commercial. Your tuna salad sandwich is in it for three hours. But it's going to spend a lifetime in a landfill.
"That's four," she said. "You just used four bags in under five minutes. Isn't that a little ridiculous?"
The morning was slipping from her grasp. It was sour now.
She didn't want to speak this way to him. It was a compulsion. If she didn't say anything now, she might call him up later, while he was at work, and say the same thing. And then, sorry I just had to get out. This was the way it worked for Sophia. It was on television, in the papers, on a sign, for minutes. But it was going to spend a lifetime in her head.
"You're a little ridiculous," he said, licking his fingers. "Do you want to compare waste? Destruction? Oh, I think you've got me beat after yesterday."
She vowed to stop using oil at all and to pump her clothes with Downy. Anything to keep him from touching her.
Sophia sat on the toilet and drank four cups of coffee while Jay got ready for work.
"I'm sick of hearing about the !Kung," she told him. "I'm sick of hearing professors stumble over the pronunciation. Why does everyone bring up that tribe? Just so they can sound as though they're trying to get their mouths around something they could never understand?"
She plucked Jay's pumice stone off the edge of the bathtub. It was sea-green but graying with skin debris. She stuck her tongue out in disgust and she wished he could see her.
Sophia is grossed out.
She said, "What's so bad about sitting in court that you have to grind dead skin off the heels of your feet?" He laughed. She laughed too but she wanted an answer.
"Do you think the Mac people are crazy for the !Kung too? I think they're trying to be clever, trying to make some profound tribal allusion by putting an 'i' in front of everything."
"Baby," he said. "Why do you think of these things?"
She laughed and then felt serious and said, "These are the things I can't get out of my head, Jay. It's like a freight train."
"You just can't treat everyone like dumb animals," he said. "People have agency over themselves."
"I'm not sure they do, Jay." She sighed. "I think it's this fucking class guilt. It's destroying me."
"I can take it back."
"All of it. You're spoiled."
"I know, Jay," she said. "That's the whole deal."
He pulled back the shower curtain and went for a towel. His skin was soft but it was old, so much older than hers, and she had the feeling that she was speaking to her father, though she had nearly forgotten what that was like.
"You don't know what your whole deal is," Jay said.
She followed him into the bedroom and watched him dress. She wanted more than anything to continue what she had started the night before. It was only when glass was breaking, when everything in the apartment looked ravaged, that she felt any sense of decency, any semblance of righteousness. She wished he had not cleaned everything up so quickly. He always found a way to tidy things that made sense to her.
"I want to go away," she said. "I think we need that."
"Why are you so restless?" he asked. "What about school?"
"It's pointless. It's all stuff. Useless overuse of stuff. Anything I want to do, it has to do with wasting something, filling landfills. I don't want any of it."
"Have you ever seen a landfill?" he said. "Why are you such good friends with them lately?"
With him, she felt she was floundering. Her thoughts were muddled and nothing seemed clear except that she was unclear to him.
Sophia is: regression.
"You're going to buy another one, then?" she asked, and he was quiet, going for the door. She didn't push it, she felt too small.
"Goodbye Sophia Plath," he said, kissing her forehead. He called her this because he said it always seemed like she wanted, really wanted, to stick her head in an oven.
"I was thinking this morning I want to be a Greek," she said as she walked him to the door. Something light, she hoped, would keep her from feeling unsettled all day. "Is it a sacrilege if they carry you around on a chair and you're not Greek?"
"Carry you around on a chair?" He was absent, gathering his things. She tried to bring him back.
"Yeah, you know, they do that. At weddings. Seems anyone who carries around other people on chairs are my kind of folks."
"Greek is not a religion."
"Moot," she said. "It could still be a sacrilege. Like racism is a sacrilege. Like doing anything you weren't born into. Faking is a sacrilege."
"So when you fake an orgasm?"
"What can I say? I've been a rebel all my life."
He kissed her forehead again and said, "Try not to stick your head in the oven while I'm gone."
Sophia is: alone.
When Sophia felt depressed, she ate a grilled cheese. Used about half a stick of butter, normally, to fry it. That morning, she watched a whole stick melt in the cast iron pan before she realized she had left the paper on. When Jay came home that night, the first thing he smelled when he walked in the door was the nutty smell of burnt butter.
On her way to school, Sophia walked eight blocks through the Tenderloin to the MUNI. On bad days, she hated anyone who bumped into her, anyone who lay sleeping on the sidewalks, but she always toughed it out. It was an exercise in humility. On good days, she liked the way it felt to watch people being strange. On her walk that day, not long after the sandwich, a homeless man stopped in front of her, bent over, his ass crack in her face, and he puked. Briefly, it felt like a good day.
She made Jay walk with her once. She wanted him to see the grimy raw streets like she saw them. They walked to Union Square, a short distance, and they saw a man crumpled in a doorway, his arm bleeding, his mouth nursing the wound like an animal. The sucking sounds were audible, the blood fresh, but they both ignored him. There was a weighty silence between them the whole way home. When they got inside the apartment, Jay said he didn't understand why she insisted on walking through such an awful part of town.
Her bag was heavy with blank notebooks, dead trees. Sophia never took notes. She felt her shoulder blades reach backwards, towards each other, like they were trying to make love. The sun reflected off the sidewalk, smacked her face. A torrid haze hung above her, traveled through her. An unkempt man was coughing and singing something at the same time. His clothes were threadbare, his face and hair weathered and layered with dirt, exhaust, distress. She took off her backpack, resigned.
"Write a book," she said, dropping the bag in front of the man. He dug through the bag without ever looking up at her, his coarse voice still coughing and singing at the same time.
She decided she would go to the penitentiary, ask the guards if they could find her one of the people Jay had put away. When she arrived, she found the building smoother than she expected. It was modern, like a museum. It curved and rippled around the corner of the block, hugging itself and the street like a ballet dancer. She sat cross-legged on the cold cement and stared up at the prison. She scratched the dry skin on her left palm until her lifeline bled. She remembered the night when, after she grew shaky in the bathtub, her heart palpitating with the thought of Jay fighting to put people in jail, she came to him naked and still dripping and slapped his chest.
"They eat like queens there," he had said, grabbing her wrists. "They don't work, the women take cooking classes, they can't take drugs or do anything wrong. It's freedom in there."
A guard approached her. She wiped the blood on her linen pants, busied her hand in her hair and laughed.
"My hair must be a mess," she said. "You think I'm a crazy person."
He said something, but her head was with the wind. It felt unusually loud and strong and pleasingly bitter.
Sophia is: a crazy person.
"My husband, he put a child away last week. Fifteen year-old kid who shot his father. For the rest of his life, that kid's in it. And he brought a big screen home yesterday."
"How many inches?" the guard said, and seemed very amused with himself.
"Can you just show me one person my husband put away?" The guard shifted his weight. "I just want to see if any of them still smile in there."
He told her they had no way of knowing that sort of information. She was relieved.
Some mornings, when the air was still blue and layered with misty fog, Sophia took the buses out to Golden Gate Park. She wandered through the barren trails and roads until the sun broke through the only real greenery in the city, until she smelled her own sweat and felt human again. That afternoon, she carried her surfboard through the city, out to the park, her face worn, her arms weak and tired. On the bus she could see herself in the window and she felt as though everything about her was new, was unknown. Was somehow there upon her without her ever remembering how it became.
This late in the day, the air felt heavier, thick with exhaust and the smell of garlic and ginger from the Sunset. She liked to see the buffalo, although there were usually only one or two to be found. Today, they had a strange lethargic quality that made Sophia think they were fatally depressed by the smell of the offshore winds, the raw nature that was so close but forever out of their reach. One of them approached her, walked painfully towards the fence, and she felt her heart jump. She wanted him to come near, to touch her face and breath on her, to lick her face and swallow her whole and then his eyes fixed on her and she knew they were listening to the wind and the ocean together.
But he grew tired of her and took a turn and she walked to the ocean and found her way into the water, where she was alone. The water was icy. Foamy and rough, it was wrestling with her. She climbed on the board, arched her back up to the sky like a yogi, pressed her stomach and jutting hipbones into the wood, the wax, and she floated over a hard wave. She choked. Her technique was bad.
Her nose and throat were coated with seawater and her eyes and face stung from the salt, but it was only the lapping of the water she felt now. Only the burn in her arms, loud as a bird in her ear, that she heard. The wrestle had become a dance. She pulled herself through the wet, the dark, out into nothingness, and realized that for now, this was all she wanted. She didn't want to go back to the shore, didn't feel like coming out of the oblivion and into the daylight. After all, the sun was breaking through the clouds and it felt bright and bewildering. She could sleep out here, even with the horizon, eyes lost into the tenebrous water, hugging the board like a pillow, and water would fill her up, and that would be fine.
Waiting for the bus back on Nineteenth Avenue, Sophia saw a semi dragging logs of fresh tree trunks through the city. They sped by her with no origin, no destination, and she thought she could hear her heart break.
She stopped at a payphone just outside of the apartment. Her hand stuck to the receiver and the mouthpiece was clogged with something crispy and orange. Jay didn't answer, but she spoke into the silence. We are all animals, she said. We are caged monkeys. Penned in buffalo on display.
Her note was short: Dearest Pettifogger—Sophia is: taking her head out of the oven. She left it in the pan with the butter.
Amanda's fiction has previously appeared in The Northridge Review and Word Riot. She lives in Los Angeles and is a contributing writer for IAmThatGirl.com. She is currently accumulating a ludicrous amount of debt as an MFA candidate at California Institute of the Arts.