The Softer Animal
By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
“No, Dennis,” the voice emerges from the speaker of the iPhone. “I just … I can’t do this.”
“What do you mean?” Dennis says softly, his head sinking into the pillow behind him heavily. “You don’t want to date anymore?”
“I can’t,” the man’s voice says. “I … I have to go.”
Dennis pulls the phone from his ear, shock settling over him like a net. “It was only three, four dates,” he tells himself. “We owed each other nothing.” Inwardly he repeats this over and over, in time with his heartbeat: “we owed nothing we owed nothing he owed nothing he owed nothing … nothing.”
He looks up at the wall beside him — beside his “Wicked” poster hangs a small plaque. “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” reads the Mary Oliver quote. Dennis stares at it for a moment, blinking in the rapidly-falling evening darkness.
“We owed each other nothing,” he repeats again, but the mantra doesn’t work; the heat of disappointment starts to burn through his shock. He runs his fingers through his short brown hair, rests the heels of his palms on his eyes, sighs. Then, he sits up quickly, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. It’s time to go.
Ten minutes later, Dennis walks quickly down Hawthorne Boulevard, his hands deep in his jacket pockets. The streetlights and neon signs shine off the rain-slick sidewalk. He looks up from the reflection, scans over the Saturday evening bar-goers and the bright displays in the windows of the stores. It’s not as though he was in love, of course — Dennis doesn’t believe in love at first sight. Even so, his chest still hurts.
Walking past Red Light, he sees two women inside, one sliding her hand into the back pocket of the other’s jeans as they look through a rack of red dresses. Dennis slows his step, the distorted blare of hipster trash rock flowing out the open door to envelop him. One of the women smiles at the other; through the window he watches them, and gets it.
“He was a good man,” Dennis sighs to himself, “but it wasn’t really him I wanted. It was that smile, to have someone to smile at like that.” He keeps walking.
Above his head, the marquee of the Baghdad Theatre is screamingly bright. He remembers all the times that he’s felt this way: 15 years old and pining in his bedroom for a boyfriend, 19 years old and seductively swinging his hips in a tight green dress, 24 and arriving freshly in Portland to a sea of handsome boys just beyond his reaching arms’ touch.
Dennis looks at a couple holding hands over the McMenamin’s table and it strikes him that, when it comes down to it, he’s always felt this way; he’s always pined for love, has always been called to go the far extreme in hopes that it’d come.
“Will it always be this way?” he wonders. It’s caused so much difficulty, so much pain, led him to do and say and experience things he never desired, driven mad in pursuit. It’s as though the longing was something out of control, something primal and wild inside him, like an animal.
Dennis stops in mid-stride, gasping in front of a Chinese restaurant, stunned. Mary Oliver may be right, he realizes: the body may indeed be a soft animal — but the heart is a softer one, calling out with a louder and more insistent voice than mere hunger or thirst, far more vulnerable than the skin and bone that surround it. Perhaps with the heart it is less an issue of “letting it love what it loves,” and instead coming to peace with the fact that it doesn’t require or ask for our permission to swell and break and beat on its own rhythm.
Dennis shivers with this realization, the raindrops starting to collect on the lenses of his glasses. It’s going to hurt, he knows; his heart is going to scream loudly for things that it can’t have, soar high enough with hope that the fall back to Earth crushes it, swell up into a pulpy delicate thing that fills the cage of his ribs. It will be a soft animal, full of its own self-determination and vulnerability, and all he can do is care for it, do his best to keep it safe, hear it beat and pine and shatter and do it again.
He cries with the beauty of this, the thrill of being alive in all its pain and glory there on rainy Hawthorne Boulevard, amongst the Saturday night people all coming together and moving apart with their chests full with the same mysteries, the same pining, the same softness.
It almost overwhelms him — but instead he turns around on the sidewalk, beaming teary-eyed at everyone, knowing they are just like him, and starts to make his way home in the night.
Nick Mattos is a writer and yoga teacher living in SE Portland. He’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.