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

Sunday Star-Times - - News - By Kathryn van Beek


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.

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