A M Y B O N N A F F O N S
I’m trying to hide from my sailing instructor, Venus Montgomery Venus, and it is not going well. Why did I decide to take these sailing lessons? There was a Groupon, but it wasn’t just that, it was that I thought I might finally overcome my fear of water through some form of exposure therapy, without having to enter the water directly.
I had never liked water but lately I had been dreaming of water filling the rooms of my house, filling my mouth and ears, until I was unable to move or breathe. I had been avoiding sleep so as to avoid these dreams. I had also been avoiding literal water, except when absolutely necessary: stepping into the shower with the grim resignation of a soldier going into battle, fully expecting that I might not survive the experience. There were so many ways to die in a shower. Well, really, there were only two or three, but they were all terrifying. You could slip and hit your head and fall unconscious into the bathtub, your foot knocking the drain cover into place as you fell, and drown there when the tub filled up. Or you could have a panic attack due to your fear of water; you could pass out and hit your head on the way down and die of a subdural hematoma. I had watched all the medical dramas on TV, I knew it could happen.
I started seeing a therapist, who only asked if I had often wet the bed as a child, and then seemed uninterested in the topic of water, and started asking questions about my parents that I did not want to answer.
My parents did not become refugees from an oppressive regime and build a new life and a bedbug-extermination business from scratch so that their only child could spend her days weeping with exhaustion at her office job, giving wide berths to pools and ponds and puddles, texting them alerts when she got in and out of the shower.
Venus Montgomery Venus, the sailing instructor, won’t stop using me as an example: choosing me as the first person to do every exercise or demonstrate each new skill.
This is perhaps natural, as I am the only adult in the class, the rest range in age from six to eleven. But each demonstration requires me to leave the group and walk incrementally closer to the edge of the boat, incrementally closer to the water. It’s too much, it’s just too much.
I sob, audibly, and of course this gives away my location behind the pile of life-jackets in the supply shed, and there is Venus, smiling down at me and saying my name. “Sasha?”
Venus Montgomery Venus is a tall blond nonbinary steampunk aficionado with a tattoo of an armadillo on one arm and a muskrat on the other. They said on the first day they grew up sailing (which of course is code for extremely wealthy), and that teaching sailing was their “day job” which allowed them to “pursue art” the rest of the time. I looked at the schedule; Venus only taught four hours per week. I wished my day job was only four hours per week and that I could spend the rest of my time playing in a rock band while inhabiting the persona of a time-traveling Victorian spiritualist.
Well, did I wish that? What would I do with time, if I had it? Even the concept of that much free time was a tantalizing, terrifying blankness. I didn’t really have hobbies. No close friends who lived nearby; all my friends seemed recently to have disappeared into the suburbs, into parenthood, leaving me like the cheese in that song, standing alone. I’d had a fiancé, Armand, but he had been ghosting me for months, so I probably didn’t now. I liked to go to the farmers market and then arrange all of the vegetables neatly in my fridge when I got home. I did crossword puzzles. I vaguely enjoyed these things but would not have wanted to do any of them for more than an hour per day. My interest waned when pushed to the edge of anything.
“Do you think,” says Venus, sitting beside me, “That your fear of water is really a fear of repressed ancestral emotion?”
“How would I know that?”
“I know this witch. She’s really good. She could probably help you.”
I take the card that Venus hands me, which reads Willow Wilkerson, Ph.D.
“She has a Ph.D. in—witchcraft?”
“No, in nutritional science. Unrelated.”
Everyone seems to call themselves a witch now, like my cubicle-mate Tanya who is always putting crystals between our workspaces as an “energy buffer.” At lunch she reads a brightly printed book called You Go, Witch!, that I once saw on a display table at Urban Outfitters. One day I let her read my astrology chart and she told me that I had a “very difficult Neptune placement” and after that I tuned out.
But I’m desperate. That night I call Willow Wilkerson’s phone number and arrange an appointment. She happens to have a cancellation the very next day.
It is not until I show up at Willow Wilkerson’s “home office” that I realize she lives and works on a houseboat.
I hesitate before the ramp connecting the dock to her house and consider turning away, when Willow Wilkerson appears at the door: a petite brown-haired woman wearing a billowy caftan. She says, “Sasha?”
“I’m afraid of water,” I tell her. “It’s why I’m here.”
“Perfect,” she says.
“Yes. Come take my hand.” She walks up the ramp, extends her hand, and I take it lightly.
Steeling all of my courage, I take her hand and let her guide me onto the houseboat. My heart is pounding the whole time, like I’m about to skydive or bungee-jump. This is unnatural, I think for the six hundredth time, humans are not aquatic creatures, it’s why we evolved out of our gills. Stay on land where it’s safe; stay on land, stay on land.
I don’t know what I expected the houseboat’s interior to look like—perhaps like a massage therapist’s office?—but there is no furniture, only piles of bones. Little bones, big bones—piles of femurs, I suppose—that reach the ceiling.
Willow Wilkerson hands me a bone roughly the size and shape of my own arm and tells me to start gnawing.
I’m aware of how weird this all is but I am a fundamentally obedient person. Obediently, I lift the bone to my mouth and start chewing. “Gnawing.” I immediately feel self-conscious. What is the difference between chewing and gnawing? Am I doing it right? The bone tastes bad, and it’s too large for my teeth to gain purchase.
I look up at Willow Wilkerson, for guidance, but it seems she has been replaced by a wolf. Or turned into a wolf. Yes, turned into one; the wolf is wearing her clothes. It’s standing on its hind legs, its middle covered by the billowy caftan.
“Does it feel strange to gnaw on a bone?” she asks. But not out loud, in English. She makes a low inquisitive growl whose meaning I comprehend perfectly. That’s when I realize that I, too, have become a wolf. I look down at myself; I’m covered in fur. I try to exclaim in surprise, and it comes out as a growl.
My surprise at my wolfliness is almost immediately replaced by hunger—and suddenly the bone looks appealing. I begin to gnaw, and now it feels right. I gnaw and gnaw. I think, I could do this all day. Have I finally found a true interest? I could be a professional gnawer, or at the very least a passionate hobbyist.
As I gnaw, I become aware of a tantalizing smell. Willow Wilkerson, or the wolf who was Willow Wilkerson, has gone behind a door at the other end of the boat and is now standing a few feet away from me holding delicately between her teeth a giant, juicy rare steak, dripping with blood. I immediately salivate. I’ve never seen anything look so good in my life.
I approach her, growling low. I can tell that she wants me to have the steak, but she also wants me to fight her for it.
Just when I’m almost there—when I’m so close I could extend my tongue and lick it—Willow the Wolf takes off. She bolts across the length of the boat, runs out onto the walkway connecting the boat to the dock, and hurls the steak into the sea.
I don’t think twice. I’m following the steak, pushing myself off the walkway with the full force of my hind legs, crashing into the water. I feel my jaws close around the steak just as I remember: I’m in the water, and I don’t know how to swim.
But I do. Something instinctual is kicking in, my front and back legs moving in concert, and I’m doggy paddling to the dock, the steak clenched between my teeth.
Then I’m at the dock and Willow Wilkerson, human again, is standing there, offering me a hand, and I realize that I’m human again too, though the steak is still in my mouth, and it still tastes amazing. I’m lightly treading water. I reach one hand up, then two, and Willow pulls me onto the dock. She’s incredibly strong. I don’t say anything, not even thank you. I just kneel on all fours, dripping, and eat the steak.
I must look insane. A fully-clothed woman, soaking wet, kneeling on a dock, tearing apart a steak with her teeth and bare hands. My face is glistening and bloody, my hands wet with juice. But I don’t care.
Finally, when I’ve torn all of the meat off the bone and my belly is full, I lie down on the dock, sated. The sun beats down on my face. I’ve never felt so good in my whole life.
Willow’s face appears above me. She smiles. “I think this was a really good first step,” she says.
Willow indeed seems to have cured me of my hydrophobia after just one session; the act of showering no longer terrifies me. But now I have a new problem: I’m always hungry.
Though I have gone back to being a person—I sit in my cubicle from 8 to 5, I go to the farmers market, I do my crosswords—some part of me remembers being a wolf, and that part of me is not satisfied with how things are. It’s partly a physical hunger—I’ve begun eating more meat, meat at all three meals—but not entirely. When my belly is full, I still feel hungry. I don’t know what I’m hungry for.
I think perhaps I’m hungry for sex, so I go on a date and devour a man. I’m not used to devouring men. Usually on dates I am guarded and watchful, vigilant for flaws. But this time the man sits down across from me and the details of his person barely register. I only smell a whiff of flesh; I only think: meat. I can barely wait until we’ve finished our cocktails before I suggest that we get a cab to my place. We’ve only just slid into in the backseat before I begin to consume him. He seems stunned, in a good way. Back at my place, it’s like I’m trying to eat him with my mouth and my vagina at the same time. He obligingly fills me up, and I come, but as soon as it’s over I’m hungry again, and not for him. I’m hungry for something I can’t seem to name, perhaps something I’ve never even tasted, some experience or quality of experience.
My parents call, concerned that I haven’t been in touch. Usually I text them every two or three days to check in about my showers. I apologize for the silence and tell them I’ve tried an experimental treatment that seems to have cured my problem.
“That’s great,” says my mother. “You know, we weren’t going to tell you this because we thought it would freak you out, but maybe you can handle it now that you’re cured. Your grandmother didn’t die in a nursing home, like we told you. She drowned.”
“In the depths of the Black River, yes, in the old country, before you were born.”
“Who was the woman I thought was my grandmother, then?”
“Just some woman at the nursing home.”
“You found me a fake grandmother at the nursing home?”
“Yes. We wanted you to have everything.”
“What else did you lie to me about?”
There’s a long, telling pause. “Yeah, mainly just that,” says my father.
I decide to let this slide—for now. “Did anyone in our family ever die of hunger?” I ask.
Their long silence tells me that this is a stupid question. Of course they did. The name of my parents’ homeland was synonymous with famine in the American imagination for the better part of a decade. It’s why they came here.
“Never mind,” I said. “I don’t know why I asked that.”
“Are you eating enough, dear?” asks my mother, trying to change the subject, sort of.
“I’m eating more than enough,” I tell her.
“Good.” She sounds truly pleased.
As a child, my mother was always making thick gluey stews and telling me how lucky I was to have them. She never mentioned starvation, not directly, but I got the message: not everyone was so lucky as to have stew every day; even in her lifetime she had not always been so lucky. Even so, I longed to eat what my classmates ate: something that was distinctly shaped and crisp around the edges, like chicken nuggets or onion rings, or something that was purely sweet and artificial, like HoHos or Ding Dongs. A food that announced its own uselessness, that existed only for pleasure. Like the clitoris.
Now I think maybe that is what I’m hungry for. Pure, useless pleasure. But onion rings and Ding Dongs don’t do it. My palate has evolved. The artificial chemical burst of packaged desserts evokes nothing more than a weak nostalgia.
I want a pleasure that also nourishes. Or a nourishment replete with pleasure. It seems that in my life these two things have always been distinct. Pleasure, as such, has been weak and thin, just an occasional bright veneer upon survival. I try to conjure childhood memories of pleasure. I think of ice-skating, of having cake on my birthday, of visiting the zoo. But these memories also feel choked with sadness, somehow. Even as a child I’d been so heavily aware of pleasure’s rarity and evanescence; I seem to have mourned its swift passage even while it was happening.
Now, I keep thinking of that moment on Willow Wilkerson’s dock, eating the steak. It seems that this was the only moment of my life in which pleasure had saturated my body’s experience of time. I want to replay the moment over and over; I want to relive it. I even try masturbating to it, to try and trick my body into that quality of pleasure through another means. It doesn’t work.
My dreams have changed. Now, instead of drowning, I am comfortably immersed in the water. I dream of following a whale down to the ocean floor. I am vaguely aware that the whale is Willow Wilkerson. In the dreams, I am a wolf again; not only can I swim expertly, I can also breathe underwater.
When we reach the ocean floor, the whale shows me these large blue cylinders, suspended in the water, faintly iridescent; they luminesce bluely against the nearly-pitch-dark water around us. I understand that I am meant to interact with these cylinders: to swim into them, or around them. I also understand that they represent distinct moments in time: some in the past, some in the present, some in the future. Everything depends on how I interact with them, yet there are no rules for how to do so. My interaction with the cylinders must be intuitive, improvised, dependent on a kind of grace. I know that I possess this ability within me, but something is holding me back: an inhibition, a fear of messing up. The whale gazes at me expectantly. The dream ends.
I have this dream every couple of nights in the two weeks after my session with Willow. Every night I think that this will be it, this will be the night I overcome my hesitation. But it doesn’t happen.
It’s almost time for my follow-up appointment with Willow. She texts me the night before. “It’s a full moon tomorrow,” she says. “I think it would be beneficial for us to meet at night. Could you come at eleven-thirty?”
I tell her Sure, and I find myself the next night walking the plank to her houseboat with dark water beneath me and a bright moon above.
This time, her houseboat-office is not filled with bones. This time it looks like a normal place where a person lives. There’s a threadbare yet inviting yellow couch, some shelves with books.
“Nice to see you again,” says Willow. She pulls on a jacket. “We’re not going to stay here tonight, though. Come with me.”
I follow her back out of the houseboat, to a small lime-green VW beetle parked half a block away. She gets in the driver’s seat, I in the passenger’s. I don’t ask her where we’re going.
She drives us to the edge of town, to a forested area I’ve never seen before. I wonder whether it has always been here, or whether, like the boneyard in Willow’s houseboat, it has somehow appeared just now for my benefit, as part of my treatment.
We exit the car and enter the woods. There’s no path—we’re just picking our way between the trees, stepping over brambles and under low branches. And then, all of a sudden, we are wolves again.
We are running through the forest, the two of us, and it feels so good. My body was made for this loping gait, this command of terrain. We run and run until finally we reach a clearing. Willow stops, and I stop too. There is a circle of wolves in the clearing—ten of them, now twelve including us. I think: right, wolves are pack animals.
We howl, all of us at once, and I immediately understand that it’s idiotic, this human idea that wolves howl at the moon; we are not howling at the moon, the moon just happens to be there and we are howling. We are howling at each other, for each other. We are howling because it is a thing we do together, a thing we cannot do alone, a thing that is about our togetherness and also constitutes the togetherness.
I spend several hours in the woods with the other wolves, doing all sorts of wolfly things. For these hours I am happy. Maybe “happy” is the wrong word: it’s not happy like a present on your birthday, or a smiley-face emoji. It’s happy like being totally absorbed in what you’re doing. Like with the steak, but different: a kind of happiness not dependent upon food in my mouth, a kind of happiness held jointly with others in time, like a song.
But then the night is over; the sky begins to turn grey, and the sun cracks the horizon, and suddenly I am a human woman again. Suddenly we are all humans, all twelve of us who had been wolves: humans, it seems mostly women though a few I’m not sure about, lying in a wet meadow. I feel very shy, and they seem shy too. We look at each other, smile bashfully, look away quickly, draw into ourselves as though suddenly taking a chill. It’s like the moment after an orgasm with a stranger, or the moment when the drugs begin to wear off—the moment when you realize that the universe may indeed be vast and responsive, but you are stuck back in time, in this small awkward package of flesh and thought.
The abandonment and let-down of this moment is tempered somewhat by the fact that we are all clearly feeling the same thing; there is a humor to our shared predicament, and we smile wryly at each other. We seem unable to speak, though. We just stand up, brush ourselves off, and walk back in different directions through the forest (they all seem to know instinctively how to get back to where they started; I just silently follow Willow through the brush).
When Willow and I get back to her car, she turns to me and smiles. “Are you beginning to understand your hunger?” she asks kindly.
That week, I notice that I’ve started to see people differently. Not the way a wolf might see them, as prey (though perhaps wolves aren’t interested in humans as prey; certainly the thought of eating a person had not crossed my mind when I was out in the woods). It’s more like I see, everywhere, the photographic negative of that moment in the woods when we all became human again, embarrassed and hairless and vulnerable. I look at Tanya in the cubicle next to me, with her thin hunched shoulders and her gemstone bracelets that supposedly ground the body’s electromagnetic field; I look at Willard from Accounting walking to the bathroom and notice his pudgy stomach, the ducklike walk that he must have been mocked for in middle school. I think, we are all so tender and awkward and cooped up in ourselves. But in Tanya and Willard I also see something else, now—something like an intimation of what they’d be like as wolves, how it would feel if we were traveling in a pack through the forest rather than toiling meekly in our cubicles, apologizing for the odor of our egg salad sandwiches. Is it too late for us? Is it impossible for us to experience something like this in our lives, as humans?
I go on another date. This time, my hunger has calmed somewhat. I find that I do want the man sitting across from me—he has a kind smile, deep brown eyes, long slender fingers that I can easily imagine inside of me. But my hunger in its carnal aspect is low, reduced to a simmer on the back burner.
I find myself, instead, most interested in his humanness—in the specific ways in which it announces itself. In the past I was always so nervous on dates, trying to hide the things that made me seem strange or off-putting, trying to mask the signs of my obvious loneliness. But now it’s precisely those little signs that I look for in the man across from me; it’s the little vulnerabilities that interest and endear me. He keeps making a nervous gesture where he runs his hand through his hair, which causes a cowlick to stick up. When he does this I see how he’s uncomfortable being seen, unsure how to behave on a date; I also see, like a latent alter ego—the way you see Superman in Clark Kent—how he might be as a wolf. I imagine his coat shining silver beneath the moon. I see the animal nobility in him.
His name is Carver and he’s a nurse at the hospital. He doesn’t like the proximity to death, but he likes that he knows how to expertly thread a needle into a vein with a minimum of pain; he knows that being in the hospital is hard enough without someone stabbing at your veins over and over. He sees himself as a dispenser of small mercies to tense, beleaguered people. He has no ambitions beyond this, to continue gently threading veins with needles and smiling kindly at sick people for the rest of his life. I find him very calming.
He asks me questions, too, and I am surprisingly disclosive. I tell him about my childhood, about the stews and the silences. I tell him that I’ve recently overcome my fear of water and am learning to sail. I tell him I’ve been searching for something I’m missing, but the search no longer feels panicked and dire, it feels quiet and bright like holding a small flame in a dark room.
Afterwards, at my place, Carver and I kiss slowly, questioningly but precisely—the way you might step on upturned stones across a stream, taking care with your footing but sort of enjoying the possibility that you might fall in. At some point, when our bodies have warmed up and begun to grow used to each other, we fall in. Then our bodies are submerged in some swift current, and it’s easy; we seem to know exactly what to do, and we do it. Even the few awkward moments are easy, we just laugh and move on. I think of my dream about the blue cylinders; it feels like I have finally overcome my hesitation and swum up inside of a moment.
After, he tells me “I don’t usually do that on a first date,” as though he’s surprised at himself, and I say “Me neither,” but already the word “date” is seeming so quaint and distant, such a strange and artificial word to describe the exchange that’s just happened, an exchange that feels like it has changed something: activated some warm chord in both of us, now resonating through our bodies like vibrations from a struck gong.
“I met someone,” I tell my parents on the phone.
“You mean, a man?” asks my mother, breathlessly.
“Yes, a man.”
“So you’ve given up on Armand?”
“Yes. I haven’t heard from him in six months.”
“Good,” says my father. “We never liked him—he was pretentious. I hated his way of describing podcasts.”
“What does this new fellow do?” asks my mother.
I tell them about Carver and they seem glad that he’s “in the medical field,” though slightly disappointed that he’s not a doctor.
“Listen,” says my father awkwardly, toward the end of the conversation. He clears his throat. “We’ve been thinking about that last conversation”—
“When you asked us if there was anything else we’d lied about,” interrupts my mother.
“And the answer is that there is this other thing,” says my father.
“We didn’t exactly lie,” says my mother. “We just omitted information.”
“The truth,” says my father, “Is that you weren’t an only child, not exactly. We lost a daughter, in the old country, before you were born. She was only two years old. Her name was Katya.”
“The medical care there was so bad,” says my mother. “We couldn’t get to the doctor in time. It was so cold that night. I remember leaving the village, trying to get to the hospital in town. It was a dark country road and we could hear the wolves howling.”
“The wolves were so loud,” says my father. “We felt like they were coming for our baby.”
“Of course the wolves had nothing to do with it, really,” says my mother. “She had a disease. It wasn’t the wolves, it was that fucking country.” She begins to quietly sob.
“That fucking country,” says my father, with real venom.
We are all quiet for a minute. I can tell, somehow, that my father is now crying too, though he makes no audible noise. I am also crying. I realize that I haven’t cried in a really long time. Not when I had my first panic attack in the shower. Not when Armand left me. I must have cried sometimes as a child, but I can’t seem to remember any particular instances. I have always been stoic and expected little.
I tell my parents that I love them and that I’ll call them back. I go into the bathroom and turn on the shower. I stand under the hot water, fully clothed. My tears mingle with the hot water so I can’t tell the difference between myself and the outside world. It feels good. I do not turn into a wolf. Instead I think of the wolves along that dark road in the old country, howling. I think: life goes on, and the cliché means something different than it used to. It used to seem to be about the linear passage of time but now it seems to be about simultaneity, about how while a human woman’s child is dying a wolf is just out in the forest being a wolf. Who knows what the wolves were thinking that night? Maybe they were starving, too. Maybe they were hunting pleasurably, exulting in being themselves, as I did in the forest that night with Willow. Or maybe they once had been human, just as I had once been a wolf; maybe they felt human pain and it was with acute keening grief that they called out that night, sympathetically joining my parents in their terror, chorally witnessing the enormity of the dark.
Willow Wilkerson hasn’t been returning my calls, and I am not surprised when I stop by her houseboat-office and find that it isn’t there. There is no evidence of it ever having been there. I suppose she has just sailed off somewhere, or perhaps she was never there in the first place, “there” in the literal way that the word is usually meant.
I could ask Venus Montgomery Venus about it, about whether they’ve heard from Willow, but that would mean telling them about my experience or at least gesturing with language in its direction, and that feels impossible. Instead I just keep showing up at sailing lessons, learning to tie knots and hoist sails, sharing a bag of Cheetos with the eight-year-olds during the break.
One day, after weeks of staying moored to the dock, we finally push off and enter the ocean. Our sojourn is brief and we are all wearing life-jackets and we are accompanied by parental chaperones, but it still feels profound somehow, to be competently navigating the surface of these waters. I feel like our little boat is bobbing atop the bright surface of time itself; down at the bottom of the sea lie the bones of my grandmother and the old country’s dictator and my baby sister, the detritus of countless shipwrecks, the murmur of traveling whales, and the birthplace of joy.
Amy Bonnaffons is the author of the story collection The Wrong Heaven and the novel The Regrets, both published by Little, Brown. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Sun, and elsewhere, and has been read on NPR's This American Life. She holds a BA in Literature from Yale, an MFA in Creative Writing from NYU, and a PhD in English and Women's Studies from the University of Georgia. Amy is a founding editor of 7x7.la, a literary journal devoted to collaborations between writers and visual artists. Born in New York City, she now lives in Athens, GA. She teaches at the University of Georgia and Emory's Oxford College, and regularly leads online creative writing workshops. You can learn more about her work and offerings at amybonnaffons.com.