Excerpt From Richard Chiem’s Short Story, “Animal”

xbb 290Sam asks if he wants to swim, standing on the other side of the patio. The water inside of the pool jets therapeutically and softly in the underwater light. In the dark, River says nothing and begins undressing. They are left alone to do whatever they want in the winter, when the water is freezing cold, undisturbed by other tenants. No one else wants to swim in the pool but River and Sam in the winter. There is something revolutionary and nervy about swimming pools at night, he thinks. Dirty red leaves float on the dark slow moving surface. When he turns his head slightly back around, they consider each other. The pool is at the center of the apartment complex, with surrounding walls with closed blinds and windows, hanging laundry.

Sam comes closer and squeezes different parts of him and stays at his arm. He only acknowledges by tensing his back muscles in her hands. She can hear the water lapping at the sides of the dark blue pool. Palm trees drag and sway framing the sky.
Sam feels as though she is dreaming. She looks at her hands on his back as though dreaming them there. But she moves her hand and the hands move.

River dives into the freezing pool, under a breeze and splashes below. Under the cold water, in slight agony and pleasure, he can hear muffled slow traffic from the road. His ears pop and pop. Touching the bottom of the pool, he stretches his back muscles and hamstrings and thinks he wants to die. From above, Sam stares at the closed double doors from the wrought iron gated entrance, before lowering herself to the floor with her chin on her knees. There are a few glow in the dark green signs that read NO HORSEPLAY. There are no traces of birds or small animals on the ground or the dimly lit trees. Without moving a muscles, she is very close to the homeostasis state.

Lying down, she folds her hands on her stomach and watches a slow star turn into a small plane, into blue and red blinking lights.

River gets out of the water and drips footsteps around her. The body changes temperature around his lungs and face.

She says, When you went into the pool without me. You abandoned me in that moment.

She says, It was nasty of you.

She realizes her mind was trying to shut River out for weeks now. When he comes up in conversation now between friends or strangers, she abstains from saying anything. When talking, she has been enjoying just looking off in her hands. She remembers going to the grocery store earlier in the day, not wanting to buy anything for either of them. It seems as though she was buying strange food for a strange couple she has never met before. She pushes her shopping cart to the next available checker. They both sink into the hot tub, the milky light, the rising steam.

He says nothing.

She asks, Yes?

He says, Yes.

I felt no obligation for some reason, to answer you.


He asks if he is striking a nerve, whether or not he is upsetting her. She wants to tell him anecdotes and ignores the question. Lately, they have been openly ignoring each other’s questions. Often instead they only exchange stories with each other, of strange things they see throughout the day, of common people and familiar faces they see every day. Sam cups the water jet with her palm. She has been having uneventful dreams, like one where she is only looking to answer a craving for Diet Coke. She is walking somewhere imagined in a dream city or along a highway. She wakes and sleeps next to him. The days suck into weeks into months into the future.

He says, You never answered my question.

She says, Because it was a mean question.

River says, This feels like an energy ball. My hand over the water jet.

She says, I was just thinking that.

He says, You were just thinking that.


In the kitchen, they frost a cake together for no special occasion. She says she thought of him earlier today going to the grocery store. She says after the errand, she went for a walk and watched cars pass by, turning the wide curve under willow trees next to the apartment complex. She feels every car pass, not hitting her, and she archives her feelings. For days, unsaid things are more and more common between them, like once in the morning in the mirror in the bathroom, when they catch eyes brushing their teeth and distance themselves. They have matching towels they regret buying. She wonders if there is something wrong with him.

He says, Fuck, and stubs his toes everywhere in the apartment.

She begins and watches movies on demand without him being there. Replacing her old favorite movies with new favorite movies, she secretly searches for films and actors and genres he has never seen or does not care for. Some days, he stands there from behind the couch watching with her silently as though simply just accessing memory.

On the dining room table, there are two unopened cardboard boxes of creative wedding invitations, those with fine ink lace and paper, and early wedding presents. For a week, they eat fresh and frozen fruit smoothies made from a brand new blender, and discuss breaking up and canceling the wedding engagement. River watches a space on the couch beside Sam and contemplates sitting down before sitting down, and he brings her a drink. They have received three of the exact same blenders new knives and various designer picture frames. The tension between them can still lead to sex sometimes and brief sweet moments of wanting each other. They pull hair and remain quiet, not speaking.

He calls from the grocery store and ask if they need any more strawberries or anything else.

She says, I am watching a movie, not answering the question.

River says, Bitch.

She asks, What are you saying? Are you calling me a Bitch?

He says, You don’t remember. It’s from a movie we watched together. A man says Bitch to his wife while he is being wheeled away on a stretcher or something to an ambulance and she thinks he is calling her a Bitch. But he was just quoting a movie they watched before.

Sam says, I don’t remember.

She says, I think we’re low on milk and cantaloupe too.

He says, Fucking Bitch.

She says, Fucking Asshole.

River says, Right now, I am riding the shopping cart up and down and back and forth the aisles, and everyone is looking at me. All the employees.

He listens to her falling asleep on the phone, holding the phone with his shoulder, while he picks up two gallons of milk and a magazine for her to read, the special issue of Vanity Fair with famous Hollywood women on the cover. He sleeps with his arm around her while she doesn’t move. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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This is an excerpt from the story “Animal” in Richard Chiem’s short story collection You Private Person. Buy it here.

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