Animal Instincts by Matia Burnett

She kept her lizards in a terrarium in the living room; she called them “the Dragon Brothers.” They ate mealworms and crickets and dog food. Crickets always escaped from a crack in the terrarium and their colonies chirped triumphantly from behind the refrigerator. When Sam couldn’t sleep, he sat on a chair facing the lizard terrarium and watched them breathing in the fluorescent lime light, sleeping like terrible dogs, the brothers’ short, heavy limbs sprawled over one another. He envied them. When she left, they would go with her. She would hold them against her white breasts, and she would not mind when their forked tongues paused over her tiny, puckered nipples.

Sam supposed that like any mismatched couple, they’d converged randomly at some crowded place and at a mutually vulnerable moment, and by the time their incompatibility had become apparent, they’re pheromones were already inexorably mixed and detachment would be painful.

It was the animals that connected Taryn to the world. She had found her society in New York City, her niche, and would get together with other animal people. Like Tom, who intercepted truckloads of turtles arriving in China Town, taking them back to his loft apartment in Bushwick where the walls were lined with gurgling aquariums; Tom was in a constant state of anxiety over which aquarium would be the next to spring a leak, as he had been warned by the super that any more algae-green water running through the floor and into the downstairs neighbor’s apartment would spell eviction. Sam still cringed when he remembered the dinner party Tom had hosted, the one where Taryn wore the brown cargo pants and white shirt that she might have ordered from the Amelia Earhart catalog and all of the other dinner guests had something of the desert about them. Over vegan lasagna, Sam could detect the scent of Saharan winds wafting through the aroma of turtle shit and swamp water.

There was Jenny, who was a falconer at the Bronx Zoo and her girlfriend, Sajiko, from Japan. Marty, who caught the stray cats in his neighborhood and had them spayed, and Adonia who ran Reads to Dogs, a charity organization paring cancer-ridden children with illiterate canines. If there was a joke to be made, it was not to be made by Sam. The punchlines always involved things like the coral snake eating the Jell-O salad or the tarantula hitching a ride in the doctor’s wife’s purse.

Sam’s only salvation was that Adonia’s husband smoked. And the two of them smoked on the porch, to the scorn of the others. At last, a companion. Someone who watched something besides Animal Planet, who liked to get drunk and go to punk rock shows but maybe hadn’t found his place in the sprawling metropolis yet, either. But the topic of conversation strayed and landed on tattoos, and Tony said that he had several, and undid the pearly buttons of his shirt to reveal a detailed image of Dian Fossey in a jungle canopy surrounded by silver backs.

Mourning Taryn would be a long process. No matter how many times he vacuumed, her hairs still managed to appear on the bottoms of his socks. The crickets continued to breed behind the refrigerator and occasionally hopped along the ridge of the couch as he watched TV. And Sam found her socks nestled against each other like eggs in a Velociraptor’s nest—Widget, the Chinese Crested had dragged them into a secret enclave beneath the bed. Like the others, Widget had gone with Taryn to her new apartment in Bushwick, alarmingly close to Tom’s turtle refuge.

Did they deserve admiration? Sam smoked on a Williamsburg rooftop overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Bookish people argued over the fairness of the Pulitzer and their internships as fact checkers for the New Yorker.
Admired for their commitment to animal welfare? The children rode on the carousel animals in Bryant Park. Taryn would be walking Widget, anxious to return to her new apartment to study for her exam. They were to be envied, anyway, like the Lizard Brothers, themselves. Envied for whatever enzyme they shared, that they could smell out in one another; detect with a sideways glance on a crowded subway. They had found their people.

Two months after Taryn stood for the last time in the hallway of the apartment with her suitcases (the animals had been sent ahead) and said her parting words, which had been “Aufedersein, Sam” (and he didn’t know why; Taryn had an antipathy toward the Germans), he’d leached the last of the dog piss from out of the carpet and with it, he thought, his longing for Taryn. The floors had never been cleaner and he hadn’t seen or heard a cricket for two weeks.

He brought over Judy, who he met at a Williamsburg bar. An unassuming wallflower in a crowd of thick hip. She was a research assistant at NYU, where she also studied economics. She smelled like linoleum floor cleaner and there was a stiffness about her that suggested she’d been raised around objects she wasn’t allowed to touch. After finishing her third vodka tonic, she started telling him about her father’s tax evasion. She was the one who suggested he take her home, clutching at the gray sweater he’d purchased at Banana Republic for the occasion: “You’re so…actual,” she’d slurred, which Sam figured wasn’t really what she meant to say, but things had stopped mattering.

The sex was awkward and unsettling, and she got up halfway through to throw up. He missed Taryn’s dimpled buttocks, her lopsided breasts and her disproportionately wide hips. But he was pretty sure, not once did the image of a flamingo’s neck cross Judy’s mind as she dementedly caressed his penis and that she didn’t wake in the mornings from exhilarating dreams of riding horses. And, anyway, in the morning, she was gone, and she had even been so diligent as to clean the toilet bowl, the fresh scent of cleaner rising from its burping cauldron.

Feeling muscular and free-minded—experiencing the undeserved lucidity that occasionally comes from a night of heavy drinking—Sam performed pushups on the living room floor and squats, where the Lizard Brothers’ terrarium had been. He thought of Taryn once, the milky scent of her breath, the click of her shoes in the hallway, her habit of pondering a zoological quandary while staring into blank space, and on rare occasions he’d earned the prize of being that blank space. Bushwick no more than a squirreling train ride away, but there was such a greater distance between them, as there had always been. As divergent and dictated by randomness as branches on the evolutionary tree. The crickets no longer chirped from the kitchen.

But that was when he noticed the first bite on his arm, round, angry, itchy. Easily dismissed as a late-season mosquito. But when there were three more the next morning, and more the next and the next, he could no longer deny the infestation. The dreaded parasites that were the topic of New York Times articles, and affluent art dealers’ tearful confessions, and for which remedies were advertised on subways. They had hitched a ride on the wallflower’s purse, burrowed into the stitches of her blue J. Crew blazer, and now had found a new home in the weaves of Sam’s mattress.

They were invisible by day, but at night they twitched their needley pinchers, laid their eggs in his underwear and socks and pant cuffs. He felt them crawling on his body as he lay still in the moonlight, waiting for the pinch that would result in a new clustering welt. In the coming loneliness of November, the only sign that he was an animal of flesh and blood and bone. Food for the hungry. The host. Important.

In the coming loneliness of November, he sat up in bed, drawing his nails across his skin, his guilty morning regiment of scratching, and smiled. Taryn would have been so proud to take his hairy arm.

 
 
Matia Burnett earned her MFA from Columbia University. She currently works in the children’s publishing field in New York City; she is also an obituary writer