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On Animals

Embrace, the Longways

By Milan Bhandari

It begins over a quarter century ago—you enter the bathroom of your grandparents’ Brooklyn apartment to find him there, patiently resting upon a metal washbasin. As a young girl, you’ve never seen a thing like him—the brownish body, the perforated legs, the whisker-like antennae, the calm, unflinching demeanor. You let out a scream and flee, determined never to re-enter the bathroom again. He does not follow.

Precariously perched back upon the same toilet seat, you look down at the dark, wet drainage hole, aware that your principle disadvantage is a lack of knowledge—never knowing where he is, or when he will strike. You are consumed by what, as a child, is both the worst and most obvious horror of all—that while you sit here, bare-bottomed and alone, he might work his way through the pipes, crawling up the inside of the bowl and ultimately, into your rear. Once inside, who knew the unspeakable horrors his prickly legs and studious antennae might act out within you? The thought is enough to make you clench yourself up into a ball of stress, only lengthening the duration of your trips.

Because you are young and human and believe yourself entitled to do so, you immediately decide to hate him. As force of habit, you conjure up his image to practice this hate. While in the safety of your own bathroom, you imagine him biting at your toes, poking his antennae into your foot, drawing blood. At the dinner table, your eyes catch a dark spot of light and suddenly you see him standing on your plate, marching across your pizza, creeping inside your Sprite can, doing all the things you find despicable. You surprise yourself at how much anger you can create just by using your god-given mind, the way you can actually make your ears burn red at the thought of a new potential grievance.

In your eleventh year, some older girls give you the same name as him. It makes no sense, given they have no idea of its relevance, yet it sticks. And one day, while standing in line outside the locker room waiting for your gym teacher to return, your classmates turn venomous. Over and over they chant it, spitting while they do so. It’s not the popular girls, but the mid-tier ones just ahead of you. You shake your head and retreat, looking for an out, but there’s nowhere to go. Everyone around has caught scent and moved in. Girls without a motive point and laugh. Something about that word and being able to place it with a face renders you instantly offensive to them. Shut up! you yell back, but the more you scream, the more they enjoy this moment.

Despite this, and the onset of your awkward adolescence, you gain no newfound sympathy for him or his plight. To the contrary, your hate for him grows in direct correlation to the pimply population of your face. You are not an outcast. You are a normal girl with friends and enemies. And yet, you can’t help spending your alone time fixating on the latter. Them, along with the revolving cast of you-know-who’s, who never seem to notice you, no matter how much you smile or be nice or laugh at their jokes. After brushing your teeth at night, you lean into the bathroom mirror, staring into your own eyes, until the rest of your face falls from focus, and you can’t help but see your own beauty. You whisper to yourself, just to hear the voice of somebody that close.

Trips to your grandparents’ become sporadic. And yet, his incursions into your life continue in new venues, at unforeseen moments. On a family vacation in Miami, after losing grip of your father’s hand, you catch a glimpse of him entering a dimly lit corner store. At summer camp in Vermont, while hiding out in a dumpster, you find him doing the same, under a chewed slice of cantaloupe. During your post college Asia trek, you spot him twice—once in Shanghai, near a puddle of milk in the gutter, and once in Kuala Lumpur, taking the steps down to the train platform. Then, a year later in Buenos Aires, at the musty, underground salsa bar where you let a strange man buy you three gin and tonics, and again in Lima, outside the newspaper stand you frequent for American magazines. Each encounter is punctuated by a brief pause—a slight gasp on your end, a quivering of the moustache on his—followed by your joint departures.

You get an advertising job out west and enter the labor force with an unbridled exuberance. For the first time in your life, there are no rules. You surround yourself with new friends, people you meet along the way at work and clubs, breezing through your weeks with an energetic anticipation for what lies ahead. You’re driven by the constant feeling of being on the brink of something. By default, you spend most of your weekends in bars, learning to love the taste of drinks, arriving back home at hours your mother would have never approved of. You are moving on, moving forward, you tell yourself. Yet, some mornings, you wake hung over and confused, with the notion of having seen him out, somewhere. Amidst the flurry of late nights, and that recurring dream where you’re driving your car from the backseat while he works the pedals, however, it’s just too difficult to keep track.

As the years pass, you think less and less of him, and eventually forget him altogether. That is, until one day, after mindlessly staring at the 3D Pipes screen saver on your office computer, when you recall him and begin to ponder all those years in between. Days later, as if on cue, you return to your trendy, yet unkempt apartment to find him standing there, in the middle of your expensive burgundy rug. You freeze. He looks up nonchalantly, patting the soft ground with his many legs.

You feel a rush, a tide, a something—that begins at your stomach and rises up to grip you by the throat. Like gulping wine in reverse. It’s been years since your last meeting, and instead of thinking things through, you rely on instinct and embrace the thing you find closest at hand—that god-awful hate you still know so well. Your ears heat up. Your space has been violated, and you are the victim. You are back on the seat, he is entering the bowl. You turn the lights off as much for him as you, and retreat to your bedroom.

Before you can formulate a plan, you switch on the bedroom light to find him suddenly standing there also, staring up at you from the ground next to your bed. “Fuck you,” you whisper, halfway regretting your words as they escape your lips.

He sniffs out the change in the air with his antennae, and scampers underneath a pile of clothes. Anger gives way to sadness. You hear the couple in the apartment downstairs, and your heart sinks, low enough almost to rest on their living room sofa. None of this would be happening if you weren’t alone, you realize. So you gather up your belongings and concede defeat. During your hour-long drive to the hotel, you stare as much at your silent, un-illuminated phone, as you do the road.

You are torn. A friend recommends Raid, but that sounds too ordinary, and too lethal. You want him gone, but you don’t want to kill him. Something in you has cooled and reached this conclusion. You want a deterrent, a force field to protect yourself within, nothing else. But those things are hard to find and probably cost too much, so you eventually settle for the Raid anyway.

Over time, everything’s weightier. You’ve become consumed by life’s occasional surprises and frequent disappointments. You’ve reached ages you once thought would automatically make you different, and wonder why you still feel the same. You recall making birthday cards for your mother, when she was the age you are now, and tell your friends that you don’t want to have kids, that you never did, that they must have you mixed up with somebody else. You spend hours a week fixing things in the mirror. You go out too much, drink too much, sleep too much, spend too much—all while anxiously waiting for the earth to tilt in your favor.

You’ve exhausted days lying in bed staring at the ceiling, tracing the path that led you here as far back as it goes. You fan through the familiar list of faces, ultimately applying enough cold reason to the events of the past to reach the same conclusion—that it’s nobody’s fault. Not the you-know-who’s who never noticed, not the ones who did but turned out to be someone else, not the friends who decided to act their age, and not yours, either. Nobody ever promised great things ahead. Should you ever have your own daughter, you vow never to read her a single fairy tale.

Two days later you revisit the apartment fearing both extremes—that he may not have escaped in time, or that he may still be waiting for you. You unlock the door and step inside, your eyes scanning the bases of your surrounding walls, the line where floor meets wall, before sweeping down and covering the spaces in between. You feel for a light and cautiously proceed. You stare at the remote, the table, the rug. You lift up the leather sofa cushions, then peer under the sofa itself. Finally, you sit down. Your heart eases. Like one of your brother’s video game villains from long ago, he has disappeared without a trace. This is what you wanted.

Yet, afterwards, as you turn up your television to drown out the couple downstairs, you feel a slow opening of something inside you. You look down at the carpet, the same spot where he stood only days ago, and imagine the gentle patter of his feet. His pronouncement of, “I’m here!”—words you hear now, but didn’t then. You sit back and wonder at the difference between him and the thought of him. The girl downstairs is laughing so hysterically she might actually be crying.

You work backwards, recalling every chance meeting you’ve had, spanning more than two decades now. Staring at your bathroom door, you wonder where all those pipes lead. The longest friendship you’ve ever had is ten years; the longest relationship, two. You picture him somewhere deep within the earth, on the other side of the world perhaps. You wonder if, as he journeys, he, too, endures the solitary, mundane routine of everyday life. Or if duration means something different for him altogether, and when he disappears, he is whisked away into some invisible time warp, preparing for your next encounter. You are prone to such spurts of quasi-metaphysical dabbling, with the purpose of magnifying the importance of your existence. You’ve never known real faith, but appreciate being connected to something, if only to drive away the loneliness for a little while.

You enjoy Mexico City—the heat, the cuisine, the colors, and all the cantinas full of people. You have come in search of nothing, only to get away. Aside from bathing and sleeping, you spend most of your time outdoors, your eyes never far from the ground, as you cross the streets and pass the alleyways. You swim at the bottom of the hotel pool, and massage your feet on the drainage grill of the hot tub. You arrive at the airport relaxed and refreshed, finding a seat alone near the rear of the departure gate.

You aren’t startled to find him under you seat, dying. You accept it matter-of-factly, and lean down further, to be close. His remaining movements—subtle, yet spastic, attempts at getting his crumpled legs to respond—result in a slow spin, a fading black record on the shiny white marble floor. You wonder at his travel arrangements. How he got here, where he’s headed. You’ve rarely had the luxury of shortcuts, and envy him the efficiency of his world, sewers and pipes that get him to and fro without filling him up with the guise of escape. It dawns on you that an airport is no place for him, or rather that he has no need for such a place. Which only makes you wonder why here, now?

Maybe it’s the thought of leaving Mexico and going back home, or just the after-effects of the airport margarita, but watching his pitiable state makes you suddenly want to embrace him—to wrap your skinny, tanned arms around him and squeeze without abandon.

Your seat is called and you get up to leave. You look down to say something, Bye or Thank you, but instead just end up walking away. From your place in line you watch two American business types approach him. One, a pudgy man in a green polo shirt with a laptop bag swinging from his shoulder, kicks him around with his brown shoe, before sending him sailing twenty feet across the floor.

Just before closing your eyes for takeoff, you imagine yourself falling into the embrace of his many arms. You curse yourself for never having counted them (eight? ten?), but no matter. You look out your portal window, past your transparent reflection, and imagine his body not there, back at the terminal, but rather, at some indeterminate location, far into your future. It won’t be an easy thing, hugging a monster like him, but the most important things rarely are.

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