Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

The Lives and Deaths of Beloved Animals

Miguel Syjuco

When she called to him, he hollered back to the kitchen. ‘Give me a minute, Sugar, I just need to finish what I’m scribbling.’ He listened. No answer.

He was supposed to be writing today. But it snowed the last two days, three feet, and he had begged her relentlessly to go play outside with him before it melted. He had bought a blue plastic toboggan with a sticker on it that said ‘Wacky Carpet’. Already the white was falling off the power lines, even if it was still ten below. Sunny and gorgeous and cruel. Last night everything was frosted like a marshmallow cake, softening all the hard edges of the world outside. But from the window in his study this morning he could see crusted snow wilting precariously from the tourelles of the buildings across the street. Imogen had never made a snowman. She’d only seen snow twice. More excuses for him not to write today. He was supposed to be writing about prize-winning things, unspeakable violences or unarticulated tendernesses, the minutiae of life, the grandeur of death. If not death, then at least about cancer. 

Or grandparents in the Holocaust. So many contests needed winners, but first they required $15 reading fees, self-addressed stamped envelopes, double-spacing, hope, a dash of arrogance. If only he was a Jewish writer. Uh-oh, he thought, was that anti-Semitic? He liked to write in the third person so that he could get away with writing about what he knew intimately. 

The kettle whistled and again he listened for Imogen. Her footfalls creaked the slanted floorboards of their little apartment and the whistling descended then died. Eventually, you live with someone long enough you don’t need words. 

Though sometimes in those silences you listen for what you fear may not be there. Seeing as she was occupied, he quickly checked his Facebook. He had recently reconnected with his old friend Zeynep in Istanbul. When she friended him back last week he saw her profile and recognised a common friend among her network. Susannah was someone he had neither seen nor thought of in years. Or at least sometimes he thought of her, but it was more that he thought of the guilt. He hardly knew her, but he knew himself all too well. Anyway, Susannah looked happy. She was one of those types who put as her profile picture a photo of her smiling with her boyfriend. They both sure looked happy. But in the photos we choose, aren’t we all? Photos always have elements of wishing. 

After seeing that picture, he had written Zeynep asking if he could ask her advice. Permission to ask for advice. That’s the difference when you’ve fallen out of touch. They’d been good friends in Paris many years ago. They often reserved the studio and the digital Canon and practised taking glamour shots of each other. They were amazed at the miracle of good studio lights, even though the pics turned out more like those in the Kmart catalogues. Not great for their fashion photography portfolios. Usually he and Zeynep just sat in cafés, or she took him along with the Turkish contingent to alumni events at The American University in Paris, where everyone mercifully spoke English. He was amazed at how good it felt to be understood on even the most basic level. Even if he didn’t like the students there at all. There’s something garish about American students in Paris. But he liked the Turks. Just like Filipinos, they remembered splendour and had long grown accustomed to waiting for better times.

Eventually, you live with someone long enough you don’t need words. Though sometimes in those silences you listen for what you fear may not be there. 

Zeynep responded to his e-mail: ‘Sure,’ she said, ‘ask away.’ She even used a smiley face emoticon. ‘I was in Vienna last weekend, saw some old college friends,’ she also wrote, ‘and it was nice. I could be myself, no judgements, if you know what I mean.’ Another smiley emoticon.

He thought maybe she knew what he wanted to ask her. How could she? Had Susannah talked to her about what happened? If so, what had she said? Such self-regard, he thought, ashamed of himself. Why on earth would she bother talking about me anyway? Sometimes I forget not all women are Manila girls: virginal and coy and perfumed, every boy they kiss is their prospective husband (whom they’ll marry without test driving, who will cheat on them, who will make them wish divorce was legal and thank the Blessed Virgin that the Church allows annulments to rich people). Susannah wasn’t a Manila girl. She had tattoos, big ones. On her shoulder and her back. He doesn’t remember what they were, because it was dark in his bedroom. Only that she had big tattoos and a voice that didn’t match them. 

Anyway, he decided to come out with it and ask Zeynep. While he was writing her, Imogen came into his room with a bowl of sliced apples and oranges. He quickly switched browser windows when he heard her coming. The BBC news page. He’s always worried about Israel and Palestine. Even though this thing with Susannah happened years before Imogen, he felt like he was doing something transgressive. Not that it was wrong. Maybe embarrassing. He didn’t want Imogen to think of him that way. Like other guys. Even for a night a long time ago. Nobody wants to be a cliché. 

Imogen stood beside him. ‘It’s nearly midnight in Manila. Aren’t you going to call your father for his birthday?’ she said.


‘It’s his birthday.’


‘Don’t you think you should call him?’

When she left, he continued with his email. He didn’t reveal everything to Zeynep either. He clicked ‘Send’. Then went and played in the snow with Imogen. Their laughter was a balm. Though he found himself wondering if she was playing it up. Sometimes we try so hard we lose track of what’s real.

What had happened with Susannah, see, was that six years ago he arrived in New York. It was summer and the start of his new life. He wanted to hook up his old friend Lorenz with Susannah. For three reasons. One: Lorenz didn’t have a girlfriend. Two: he did, back in Manila. Three: because he didn’t like Susannah’s teeth. She was cute, though, especially when she smiled with her mouth closed.

When he called her she suggested they meet at a café on MacDougal Street in the Village. Near her place. He couldn’t believe she mispronounced it. Mac-Doo-Gul. He wanted to ask her, ‘Isn’t it pronounced Mac-Duh-Gal?’ But he didn’t. He did ask if it was a Chinese joint. ‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s Italian.’ He said, “Café Chow?” She said, ‘Uh, yeah.’ When he arrived, he couldn’t find it. Then he saw it. Café Ciao. He was embarrassed and went straight to the bathroom to powder his nose.

When he stepped out, Lorenz was already there. 

‘Oh!’ Lorenz said. ‘Mister MacSniffles!’ As they shook hands, he passed Lorenz the vial. Lorenz smiled, ducked his head and looped some of his long hair behind his ear. 

Susannah arrived. Petite, pretty, in those goldy-flowery-Canal-Street Chinese sandals every girl was wearing those days. Good in theory. Except he hated those sandals. Her voice was really sweet. And possibly annoying. She’s really sweet, he thought, I wonder if Lorenz will dig her? They ordered sangrias and fiddled with their menus. They looked at each other across the table, the way people do at tables. The waitress came, produced a pen from behind her ear, like a magician, and inquired if they’d enough time. They asked for another minute.

‘Are you boys hungry?’ Susannah asked. ‘The pizzas are kinda big here. Let’s just split one?’

‘The Del Mar sounds good,’ he said. 

‘Where’s that?’ Susannah said. 

‘Um, number twelve. It’s got garlic, shrimp, anchovies...’

‘I don’t do anchovies,’ Lorenz said. 

‘Why not? Allergic?’

‘I like anchovies,’ Susannah said.  

‘I don’t know,’ Lorenz said. ‘I’m not allergic. I just don’t like them. They’re all slimy and shit.’

‘Hold on,’ he said. ‘Tell me something. Why’s it the negative has to win over the positive?’ Lorenz and Susannah looked at him. ‘I mean, I like anchovies. You can say I don’t like not having anchovies. Why’s it that if someone doesn’t like something that’s enough to deprive everyone else of it?’

‘Because,’ Susannah ventured, ‘you’ll like it okay without the anchovies.’

‘But what if I don’t? Like I said, Lorenz doesn’t like anchovies, I don’t like not having anchovies. When it’s said like that they’ve equal gravitas, validity...’

‘Gravitas?’ said Lorenz, looking at Susannah. 

‘... but if I say I like anchovies, and Lorenz says he doesn’t like anchovies, then he wins out. Not liking something carries more weight than liking something.’

‘Just fucking order something else,’ Lorenz said. Susannah smiled without opening her mouth. The waitress came back.

‘Can we have the Del Mar,’ he said, ‘but can you put the anchovies on just one side?’

‘I’m sorry,’ the waitress said, putting her pen behind her ear. ‘I don’t think we can.’

‘Why not?’

Lorenz said: ‘Just fucking order something else, wouldya?’

‘No, hold on. I’m just wondering. I’m a man who knows what he wants.’

The waitress made her pen reappear, wrote on her pad, then left. 

They all looked at each other across the table again. They talked about Paris, about how he and Lorenz and eight friends had backpacked all of fucking Europe, about their friend who’d bought a pack of Gauloises even if he didn’t smoke so’s he could offer them to chicks and chat them up. Then they talked about Giuliani, about the ‘I’m a Polite New Yorker’ pins for sale at Gray’s Papaya, their fucking awesome hot dogs, how this wasn’t a Chinese restaurant, 9/11, and how truly agonising it was to see all the photos of missed people papering the walls around ATMs, phone booths. He talked about how the post office had raised the price of sending letters, from thirty-six cents to thirty-seven. Susannah said now you had to buy one-cent stamps.

Sometimes I forget not all women are Manila girls: virginal and coy and perfumed, every boy they kiss is their prospective husband...

Each time they laughed, Susannah smiled that crowded smile of hers. He looked at Lorenz, who was looking at her. Lorenz got up to order another round because the waitress sucked. With Lorenz gone, he asked Susannah if she wanted some and she kind of smirked. As if impressed and pleasantly shocked. Or unsure if she should accept. This wasn’t the guy she knew in Paris. She took the vial from him and went to the bathroom. He watched her go. She was like a little doll. Those fucking Chinese slippers.

She was still in the bathroom when Lorenz got back. He asked Lorenz: ‘So, what think?’

‘Hella cute, man.’

‘Yeah, and some chick, too. Half-Thai, half--Onaks. I think. A real go-getter. I heard she put herself through college. Full scholarship. Speaks like four languages. Learned like Thai massage and wanted to make a business out of it, but people kept getting the wrong idea.’

‘Happy endings!’ Lorenz exclaimed. 

He didn’t know how to respond. He often didn’t know how to respond to guys. He had a stock of cool replies but they didn’t always apply to every situation. Such as this one. So he said: ‘Yeah, dude. Haha. But, um, that’s gotta suck.’

Lorenz agreed. They smiled as Susannah came back. He didn’t like how Lorenz was smiling at her. She passed the vial under the table. Lorenz went back to the bathroom. 

He came back. They picked at the pizza, which had no fucking anchovies on it whatsoever. They finished their drinks. OutKast was playing and Lorenz said, ‘Dude, remember when we saw these guys at Area 51?’

Susannah rotated her empty glass in place and interrupted: ‘So you boys want to check out somewhere else?’ 

After much discussion they decided on Remote Lounge, because none of them had been there. Lorenz had read about it in Time Out. ‘They have like these cameras at every table. The article said it was a voyeur’s dream or some bullshit.’ 

Susannah piped up: ‘Or a shy person’s nightmare.’

When they got there they sat at a table with separate terminals. They surfed the channels on the screens and checked out other people at other tables. They found each other’s channel, took pictures of each other, made faces. Lorenz did this perpetually cool three-quarters look, sleepy eyed. The other two made hesitant faces. More cutesy than funny. He tried to give his best Tom Cruise smile. They all had more drinks. Lorenz told a story about how he didn’t have lunch all day, so he went home and there was no food at home, so he went and got this sandwich at this new place in Chelsea that makes unique sandwich combinations, like his had avocado and salmon roe with turkey slices and cranberry chutney and cilantro, and how he was kind of disappointed but maybe because he didn’t order the right thing. Then they got more drinks. 

He passed Susannah the vial. She went and came back. Passed Lorenz the vial. He went and came back. When Lorenz sat down he found Susannah sitting on his friend’s lap. 

He took a picture of Lorenz’s expression. 

The rest of the night is a blur. Somewhere along the way they lost Lorenz. 

Did they even pay the bill at Remote Lounge? In the back of the taxi they make out so much some Bridge-and-Tunnel fuckheads pull up at a light on Sixth Avenue and honk and shout to the taxi driver, ‘Hey, buddy, your fares.’ The driver, accent India and Queens, says, like he sees it all the time: ‘Yeah, I know.’ 

They get dropped off at the corner of 70th and Riverside. Did he tip the driver enough? Upstairs, he leaves Susannah outside in the living room so he can tidy up his bedroom. When he comes out she has her face pressed up against the huge living room window. Like a little girl at a pet shop. They’re thirty-four floors up; the lights of both the Chrysler and the Empire State Building sing proudly from among the lesser skyscrapers. ‘Look at this view!’ Susannah exclaims. It’s his parents’ apartment. From behind he puts his arms around her. He’s proud and ashamed of the apartment. She leans back into him, lifts her face to his. Their kiss brings them to his bed. The GW Bridge sparkles like a diamante necklace in the distance. 

In the constant city glow he first sees her tattoos. In the shadows he touches her small breasts and rubbery nipples, runs his palms over her lithe body. She’s like how he imagines a dancer. She goes down on him. Then mounts him in cowgirl, but he’s so coked up he can’t keep it erect. ‘Wait,’ he says. ‘Your turn.’ Gets up and lays her gently on her back in the center of the bed. He goes down on her. Her legs shiver as if she were cold. She begins to buck against his face. He looks up at her: ‘Feeling good?’ he asks. She looks back at him. Eyes narrowed with pleasure. Eyes widening with shock. She squeals, ‘Oh my God! Oh, my, God, I’m sorry!’ He touches his face and looks at his hand. Blood. He tells her, ‘I just thought you were really wet.’

 He runs to the bathroom. He feels so naked, his flat ass so exposed. He comes back a few minutes later with a towel wrapped around him. There are balled-up bloody Kleenex on his night table. Susannah is hiding under the covers. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I don’t know how that happened. It’s not supposed to be that time of the month.’ He doesn’t know what to say. ‘It’s okay,’ he says, knowing it’s the dry air-conditioned air, the rough coke, the oversensitive blood vessels that were supposed to be cauterised when he was a kid, but he had kicked and screamed like a bitch and his mother had told the doctor to forget about it. ‘It’s okay,’ he tells Susannah, benevolently. The nice guy.

When they wake up the next day he feels like his insides have been scraped out. He can’t breathe through his nose. She asks if she can treat for breakfast. He says he has to go up to Columbia for orientation or something. He walks with her to the subway. He kisses her dutifully. Says he’ll call her. She goes down the stairs for the downtown train. He goes down the stairs for the uptown train. She waves as they both descend out of view. He waits thirty seconds. Then goes up the stairs and walks back home. 

‘They have like these cameras at every table. The article said it was a voyeur’s dream or some bullshit.’ Susannah piped up: ‘Or a shy person’s nightmare.’

He didn’t remember if he had used protection. Didn’t remember what her tattoos were, what she smelled like, tasted like, in what sweet position they had slept in. He felt guilty that he didn’t remember. It was the least he should do. He did download their pictures from the Remote Lounge website. Still has them, six years later. Shoddy black & white electronic images, cheesy smiles, but shoddy and cheesy in a hipster-cool po-mo way. Why is it he remembers most her teeth and slippers? And so, without telling Zeynep all the details, he asked her if he should maybe email Susannah. Say sorry. He told Zeynep he didn’t want to be one of those guys.

Later that night, he found that Zeynep had emailed back. ‘It’s always good to get these things off your chest,’ she wrote. ‘So do it! I mean that’s how I see it. She got married last year, so you can’t go wrong. Maybe it would be the restart of a good friendship.’ Another smiley emoticon, this time with a semi-colon to make it wink.

He navigated Facebook and looked again at Susannah’s profile photo. She was living in New York and was smiling. Her guy had long hair and was some sort of Eurasian something. Maybe even Italian. He was smiling too. They looked happy. Who would it have comforted if he brought up that bloody strange night now? 

He decided, or hesitated, or rationalised. 

He doesn’t email her. Forgets about it. 

Days pass. Weeks. Months. He grows older. 

Proposes to Imogen in Venice, during the winter carnevale. Almost falls in the gondola when he stands to get on one knee. They marry in Lincolnshire, so her father, who five years ago was given six months to live, is able to attend. The newly-weds settle in a Midwestern college town so he can start his teaching career and continue writing.

Though the young couple share all their secrets, he never tells her about what happened with Susannah. He doesn’t want Imogen to think less of him. She grows to think badly about him in other ways. Personal ways and general ways. Ways that are his fault, others that are hers. Some of them she accepts. Others she hopes will change with time. 

They adopt two babies from China. Name them Somerset and Adeladia. The kids grow up trilingual, overeducated, well-travelled. They think the world of their parents. They love being the children of successful academics. It helps them get into good universities. Over the many holidays the family plays Scrabble in French, or the automatic writing games of the Surrealist artists. They make good memories as a family. Have lots of cats, six of them, and two dogs – a beagle named Darwin and a cocker spaniel named Genevieve. The lives and deaths of their beloved animals are regular reminders to appreciate life.

The children grow into their independence. Somerset takes to parting his hair like his father despite the style having been unfashionable for many years. Adeladia is nothing like either of her parents. Their father is equally proud of both his children for those very reasons. Somerset even marries a Filipina from Manila because, in part, he says, that is his culture. They had met at flying school. His father suspects he is making up for not being born Filipino. Adeladia one day comes out as a lesbian. Which is, despite the parental acceptance and strained smiles, a big disappointment. Imogen always comes to bed sadly after family get-togethers and says, ‘But she was always such a pretty girl.’ Her explanation of heterosexuality. Her inability to understand, despite her constancy in trying to decipher the ciphers of life. No peer-reviewed journal would ever explain such mysteries.

When a grandkid finally arrives it comes from, as their father calls them lovingly, Les Lesbos. Adeladia and her life-partner, Lucy, adopt a baby from Liberia. They’d considered a sperm donor, so to speak, but all her life Adeladia had heard her father say that adopting is the only moral choice. The grandparents dote on little Jacques. Then Somerset and Nicole get pregnant, as Somerset insists on saying, though the child is later stillborn. A boy. To whom they give a name. And to whose soul they refer to sometimes. A year later they try again. A girl, also stillborn. She is christened as well. Their grandfather, however, cannot remember their names. For whatever reason or reasons. 

Somerset and Nicole slide into their solitude, more and more, which worries their parents. They urge them to move away from Switzerland. Their pleas are unheeded. Problems are always manageable until they aren’t. Anti-depressants are tried, as is counselling. When Nicole is found in the lake, facing away from the sky, Somerset is inconsolable. He sells his yellow Cessna and his flying-tour business and comes to live with his parents in their farmhouse near Aix-en-Provence. One summer day, Somerset takes the greying silver Citroën to the village to buy milk and Le Monde. He does not return. One night, a week later, one of the two fruit trees the family had planted in the front yard, decades ago, is struck by lightning. Its apples thud against a wall, rousing the sleepless couple. He and Imogen watch from the window as the flames burn singularly, more like a giant candle than a pyre. The heat is so profound it melts the solar panels on the roof. They drip like melting snow.

In winter, some years later, Imogen dies in her sleep. It is one of those things. Because, perhaps, of the constant hum of his sleep apnea CPAP machine, he had slept through her final moments. Right there beside her. His foot touching hers as was their habit of reassurance and slumber. Despite their connection, he doesn’t know what happened. Doesn’t know if it was peaceful or violent. Was there something he could have done? He asks again and again. The doctors answer, trying patiently to explain the cause of her death. But he can’t understand. He thinks they are lying. 

He tries bravely to pick up his life. A day at a time. One morning, when the kettle whistles, he calls from his desk, ‘Give me a minute, Sugar, I just need to finish what I’m scribbling.’ The kettle keeps whistling and he realises inexorably that Imogen is gone. He rings his daughter, weeping. She has never before known him to weep. The next day Adeladia arrives with Lucy and Jacques. At night they play Scrabble. A week becomes a month. Finally, when they can stay no longer, he returns with them to Long Island. He just couldn’t live with the empty corners of the farmhouse. 

He considers returning to the Philippines, but everyone he knows there has either died or changed. Besides, he can’t reconcile that when his home country needed him, he stayed away, and now that he needs his homeland it is there for him, faithfully. Adeladia suggests perhaps a seniors’ cruise to the Galápagos, especially since the islands are so under threat they likely won’t last his lifetime. But he knows it will only make things worse. 

Instead, he throws himself into his work. Everyone has kept telling him it will be his work that will save him. He listens to them half incredulously. How can it? Yet he has nothing else to do. Thankfully, Jacques is there. His very simple but difficult task of growing up brings immense fulfilment to his grandfather. A sudden, profound, familiar pleasure, which the old man settles easily into savouring. He is pleased when Jacques decides to take a Masters in Comparative Literature, even though it means the boy must move away to live near Stanford. Little by little, work and life begin to comfort. Upon realising this, the old man works even harder. He comes out of retirement. Starts teaching again. Publishes. Attends conferences. 

At one such conference where he is supposed to lecture – about the role of Philippine Literature in South-East Asian Identity, because Phil Lit has suddenly become popular, in no small part because of him – he suddenly realises he can’t go on stage. Can’t stand at a podium anymore. Not in front of all those staring people with illegible name tags. He finds himself inside the hotel phone booth – he has never gotten over his hate of cell phones – dialling their old Montreal number. Imogen, of course, does not answer. A woman at Beauty’s Nail Salon repeats her hellos. He replaces the phone. Can’t help but laugh at the irony of remembering the forgotten number but forgetting the unforgettable loss. Is it the beginning of his own long goodbye? 

At the hotel bar, he orders a Baileys on the rocks. He orders a third, this time straight. He looks past the large palm trees and into the lobby. In a leather armchair beside the piano, reading a news magazine assiduously, he sees Susannah. She is wearing a tasteful paisley pashmina. He is surprised by how unsurprised he is. She has changed little. Or perhaps she has just changed as much as he, at the same pace that allows him this recognition. He thinks how fitting it would be to apologise now, after all these years. She doesn’t see him when he walks to the elevators. To go up. To go see, while he still can, what the day looks like from the window in his room.