Holiday reading Award-winning story
Kathryn van Beek is engaged in doctoral study on the topic ‘‘writing to change the world’’. Inbetween changing the world, she’s developing a collection of short stories called Pet, which explores the relationships we have with animals. This story, ‘‘Emoti
She bites me when she’s stressed. My hands are patterned with punctures. But I know how to calm her down, now – grip the back of her neck, wait until her breathing slows, and then rub her behind the ears. She’s my emotional support animal, but I’m her emotional support animal too, in a way.
It’s the first time I’ve flown with her. My therapist wouldn’t give me a certificate so I bought one online. You can get anything you want online. That’s how I got Tania. I don’t declare her at checkin because I don’t see the point. To be honest, I don’t think they’ll even know she’s here. I don’t think they need to know. But I’ve got the certificate in my wallet as back-up in case I’m questioned. ESAs are very common overseas, but we’re a little behind. I’m an early adopter. In the future they’ll do a news story on me and Tania. They’ll say oh you were so brave even though the authorities of the day were against you. And I’ll say yes things were so backward then, but when you do what you think is right there are only ever positive consequences.
It’s like paying the optional carbon offset on my ticket. There’s a small negative impact on my bank balance, but overall the consequences are positive because they plant more trees. Do I think most other people pay the carbon offset? No I do not. But if I didn’t stump up, I’d feel guilty about all this flying. I’m flying much more than I thought I’d have to. But it’s not my fault the clinic’s in a different city.
I feel bad when Tania goes through the security scanning machine in my handbag. But really, what choice do I have? It’s uncomfortable for both of us but it only lasts a few minutes. I tied Tania’s feet to a piece of driftwood so she’d look taxidermied, and I gave her some of my Midazolam and packed her down tightly under my sweater so she’d stay still. My handbag comes out of the machine and down the conveyer belt without incident, and I pick it up and walk briskly to the disabled toilet cubicle. I open my handbag, run my fingers under the tap and rub water on Tania’s face. She tries to bite me when she comes to, but I was expecting that. I put my hands around the back of her head and hold firmly until she stops fighting.
‘‘I’ll be your emotional support animal,’’ I whisper.
I sit down in the departure lounge. My bag wriggles a bit, and I shift on my seat so it looks like it’s me that’s wriggling. There are lots of sportylooking people here, they must be on their way to some kind of tournament. Sporty-looking guys tend to go for sporty-looking girls, that’s just how it goes. There are lots of sporty-looking people in this country, but I’m not one of them. I’ve been searching for a quiet and serious kind of guy, but the best one I know flew to Vietnam to marry a girl he found on the internet. They’d never met before, but now they live together. He brought her to a work function. They seemed happy.
There’s a man drought in this country and no one is doing anything about it. There’s a man drought for Tania too, contained in my handbag, but it would be irresponsible to allow her to breed. It’s irresponsible to allow humans to breed, too. We’re always going on about how we have to kill all the possums and cats, but who brought them here and made them wild? And who tramples acre after acre to make more homes where more people can produce more children who’ll just make even more mess? Everyone thinks their baby is the one who will save the world, but they’d be better off trying to change things themselves.
Our flight number is called and we all file onto the plane. I don’t need much luggage for these trips. Previously I took one small handbag with my wallet, keys, phone, pen, notebook, Midazolam and pepper spray. I’d prefer to have a Taser, but they’re not allowed on planes. Neither is pepper spray, but mine’s in a little case that looks like a perfume atomiser, and it gets through security every time. Today I’ve got one large handbag containing the aforementioned items, plus my sweater, the driftwood and Tania. I’m seated between a man and a woman. It’s hard to tell if they’re large or if the seats are small. The man’s legs are so long that the only way he can fit in his seat is by manspreading with his thighs out on 45 degree angles. That’s what you get when you fly Jet Star. But when you take as many flights as I do, you can’t be flying Air New Zealand all the time.
A middle-aged man with a Slazenger jacket and an ex-army strut marches past, followed by 16 burly high school girls in track pants. They jostle and joke as they make their way to their seats at the back of the plane. War-like instincts. That’s what I think about people like that. They’ve got war-like instincts, and it’s better for everyone that they have sport for an outlet, otherwise they’d be out on the streets killing things.
The plane taxis down the runway, and I try to stroke Tania through the bag as we take off. I’m torn between wanting to comfort her and not wanting to give the game away. I wonder if the change in air pressure will make her ears sore. I feel bad for her, but is what I’m doing any worse than taking a baby on a plane? And that’s considered perfectly socially acceptable.
When I have a baby it will not travel until it’s at least 12 years old. When I have a baby I’ll probably have to re-home Tania. But the baby will become my emotional support animal, and I’ll be hers. I hope it’s a her. You’re not allowed to choose the gender in this country. Perhaps they’re worried that everyone would choose girls and make the man drought even worse. But that seems unlikely, because they don’t seem to be doing anything else about the drought. What they need to do is give men extra immigration points if they’re single and over 5’10. There are millions of single men in China and some of them must be tall.
But of course solving the man drought would lead to a population explosion, and I’m opposed to that on environmental grounds. Perhaps the drought has been intentionally manipulated for that very reason. If that’s the case, I wish they’d done it the other way around. It would be nice to be batting off loads of surplus men instead of living this tumbleweeds life. The men that are available aren’t always so nice, either. They know they’re in hot demand, so they treat you like you’re kind of disposable. Perhaps that’s why I’ve gone eco. I just started empathising too much with single-use items. Now I’m in a satisfying long-term relationship with my moon cup.
I’d like to unzip my bag a little bit so Tania can get some air, but when you give Tania a millimetre she tends to take a mile. She’s cunning like that. The people beside me are scrolling through their phones and I don’t think they’d notice if her little nose popped out the top of the bag, but you never know. Different people notice different sorts of things. I personally wouldn’t notice a nose peeking out the top of someone’s bag, but someone else would. I’d like to reach in to get my Midazolam, but it’s too risky. Instead I focus on Tania’s warm, beating heart. I can’t feel her breathing through the bag, but just knowing that she’s in there calms me slightly.
It’s selfish to fly to a clinic in a different city to try to get impregnated with donor sperm. It really is. There’s the carbon, the hormones I have to take that I pee back out into the water system, the parental leave and the fact the kid won’t have a real dad. On the other hand, that’s society, isn’t it? It’s what I want, and is it really any worse that what anyone else wants? At least I only want one kid. I know people with six. Six! They should be locked up.
These endless appointments are like bad dates. The build-up, the count-down, the excitement of the meeting, and then the slow fizzle of hope when you
realise the chemistry was wrong. If today’s treatment doesn’t work I’ll be eligible for taxpayerfunded IVF. That means even more hormones and even more flights. Intellectually, I know we’re brainwashed into believing that having a family will complete us. But you can’t escape society – not if you want to live comfortably.
A flight attendant comes around to ask if we’d like to buy any food. The man next to me says ‘‘a sandwich’’ without specifying the ingredients. Clearly, a meat-eater. Really, people who take flights shouldn’t eat meat. Of course I have to because I’m on the optimum fertility diet. I have to eat lean beef five times a week. I’m also supposed to eat salmon twice a week, but salmon’s filled with plastic so I take an omega three supplement instead, along with my pregnancy multivitamin and the powder my naturopath recommended. I go to the gym twice a week, I do yoga twice a week, and I meditate every single day. All the hormones I’m taking are making me as sleek and fleshy as a dolphin. My hair’s never been so glossy. I’m probably the healthiest person on this plane.
The flight attendant leans over me to pass the man his sandwich, and the tumult in my handbag tells me that Tania can smell it. What is wrong with people these days? Can’t they sit through an hour-long flight without ordering something wrapped in plastic? The man opens his sandwich and starts eating. My bag keeps on wriggling and wriggling so I press down on it gently and then a bit harder. The wriggling stops.
I can’t say the fertility hormones have done much for my state of mind. Added to the stress is having to do everything during work hours. For the past year all my annual leave has been taken up with appointments. In the old days people made babies at convenient times like evenings and weekends. Now everything’s done in business hours, even artificial sex.
For all I know, the man next to me could be my donor. He could be on his way to the clinic to leave his next deposit. I size him up. Is he the type of person I would want to take genetic material from? I’ve already ascertained that he’s disorganised and not up to the play with environmental issues. He’s obviously not rich and successful or he wouldn’t be flying Jetstar. I pretend to look out the window so I can see him more clearly. His face looks okay. Not handsome, and with that sandpapery ‘not young but not old’ skin that I recognise from the mirror. He looks nice enough. I study him with more affection. He pokes the last piece of his sandwich into his mouth, chews, chokes, and coughs so much that a bit of bread flies back out of his mouth into his hands. He pops the white mush back into his mouth, eats it, and runs his fingers through his hair.
I feel the familiar tight feeling, the rising heat through my body, the brain-popping lightness. But I know what to do. I simply need to stand up, lock myself in the toilet at the back of the plane, vomit once, splash my face with water, and spend the next ten minutes breathing deeply no matter who bangs on the door. And this time it will be easier, because this time I’ve got Tania. I stroke my handbag, but it hasn’t wriggled for a while. I hoist it over my shoulder, push past the woman on my right and walk briskly to the back of the plane. A flight attendant with a blonde bun and an orange jacket sees me coming and smiles nervously. Perhaps she remembers me from last time. Last time someone with food poisoning needed the toilet and they made me get out. I had to have a panic attack down the back with the flight crew. They gave me a paper bag to blow into, but the situation wasn’t ideal.
As I near the toilet I can see that it’s engaged. Get out, I whisper psychically to the person inside the cubicle. Get out! I just need to get in there and vomit and splash my face and unzip my handbag and check that Tania’s okay and bury my face in her sweet musky fur. That’s all I need to do. That’s all I need to do and then we will all be okay. Get out. Get out! Get out of the fucking toilet you selfish little piece of shit!
I must be whimpering because the flight attendant takes my arm and steers me behind the curtain, out of view of the other passengers.
‘‘You’re not a big fan of flying, are you?’’ she says with a smile. She holds a paper bag up with her spare hand. ‘‘Just breathe into this. Just breathe.’’
But I can’t breathe, I haven’t felt my handbag move since I pressed down on it, and I need to know that Tania’s okay. I bat the flight attendant’s hand away and open the zip on my handbag a fraction. Nothing. During our practice runs Tania always poked her nose out the second she had the opportunity. I open the zip a little more. Then a little more. I can’t even see her. She must still be buried beneath my jumper. Oh God, what have I done? I move my jumper gently to the side. There’s a flash of fur and teeth and Tania’s gone, scattering the contents of my handbag in her wake.
‘What the fuck?’ yells the flight attendant, her professionalism forgotten.
I turn to see Tania struggling to run down the aisle. She’s not moving as quickly as usual, but it’s surprising how fast she can go with her legs tied to the driftwood. The people in the back few aisles start screaming and shouting, which is stupid because then the people in the front aisles start turning around and screaming too and they’re freaking Tania out. I leap forward and rugby tackle her, the soft shell of my body protecting her from the commotion.
‘‘Don’t worry,’’ I murmur. ‘‘I’ll be your emotional support animal.’’
Out of the corner of my eye I see black heels, sheer stockings and the cuff of an orange sleeve as someone bends down beside me.
‘‘It’s alright,’’ she says. ‘‘Just get up slowly, and we’ll contain it in your bag until we land.’’
I turn my head to see the flight attendant holding my handbag open as wide as her smile.
‘‘Alright,’’ she says. ‘‘Easy does it. Keep a firm hold, and lower it gently in.’’
The other passengers have their phones out, filming.
‘‘Don’t worry about them,’’ she says, signalling to them with her eyes to turn their fucking phones off. ‘‘That’s right, back in the bag.’’
‘‘It’s a bloody ferret!’’ yells Slazenger jacket man.
The sporty teens around him shudder.
‘I’m scared of mustelids, coach!’’ says one. The flight attendant ignores them all.
‘‘Zip it up, right up to the top,’’ she says. ‘‘Now give your handbag a nice big hug, that’s it, and come with me.’’
The pilot comes on the intercom to tell us to prepare for landing. I follow the flight attendant towards the back of the plane, towards Slazenger man, and my handbag starts to squirm. Not just a little bit, but a lot. Tania is totally over this flight, and I don’t blame her. I slow down and walk as carefully as I can. The handbag writhes in my arms and I can barely hold onto it. It bursts into the air, and a sporty teen squeals. I catch the handbag, briefly, before it flings itself from my hands. It lands on the floor and shuffles slowly down the aisle towards the teen. I reach towards it, and the girl shrieks.
‘‘She’s letting it out!’’
I freeze. The flight attendant turns and stares at me, her smile gone. The other passengers mutter and hiss and straighten their backs. Beyond my lurching handbag I see my Midazolan and my pepper spray. They’re under the seat across the aisle from Slazenger jacket man. He sees the items at the same time I do. He looks at me, and I know he knows what’s in the canister. We both reach for it but he grabs it first, whips off the Swarovskiencrusted lid and sprays me between the eyes. Disoriented by burning pain I trip and fall with full force on my handbag.
The flight attendant lets me have her seat at the back of the plane. She covers me and my handbag with a blanket and does the seatbelt on over top. She moves my hands out to where she can see them, on top of my bag bump as though I’m a proud pregnant lady. She holds a cooling gel pack over my eyes and speaks to me in a soothing voice. I can’t hear what she’s saying because my head is on fire. Snot and tears fall uncontrollably from my face onto the blanket. When the plane lands, the security guards and the biosecurity officer come on board to greet me. But they needn’t have bothered. The wriggling in my handbag has already stopped.