a short story
Christine and Jason went to a new friend’s costume party dressed as grizzly bears. They learned to mimic a bear’s loose, muscular, pigeon-toed gait, and they artfully constructed outfits from shaggy fake fur. The couple spent much of their free time preparing for the party by sewing their costumes and watching videos of bears on the internet together. Jason had never seen one outside of a zoo, and Christine liked to remind him of the many times she had seen bears in the wild on backpacking trips. Christine was proud to know more about bears.
Jason grew up in the suburbs near a large city, and Christine lived in a rural farming community until she moved a few miles away, to go to college. They met while studying engineering in a small town that Jason loved wholeheartedly. Christine loved it halfheartedly, and she had been the one that wanted to move. “In your own little hometown old memories drag you back into the past, and in other people’s little hometowns you always remain an outsider. The only way to escape is to move to a city,” she had told Jason. Jason resisted at first, but later worried that he would lose her if he refused to move, and so he relented.
They only knew one other person at the party, and so at first they kept to themselves, standing in the kitchen, taking whiskey shots and eating apples. Christine snorted with disgust when she spotted a package of store-bought blackberries. The berries reminded her of the effusive generosity of the land she had left behind, where love bubbled up from the ground and formed prickly vines that crested into sweet dark fruit that belonged to everyone and no one. “I’ll be fucked if I ever actually pay for blackberries,” she said loudly. Several people turned around when she said this, and they looked her up and down with puzzled expressions on their faces before going back to their conversations.
None of this bothered Christine. She was comfortable whenever she was with Jason, whom she regarded as a magnificent, brilliant, loving, and honest man. She felt that he could shelter her from doubt, leaving her free to do as she pleased.
The drunker Christine got, the more she acted out her role, making loud bear noises instead of talking to people and pretending to catch fish from the host’s tank. Jason followed suit, and together they stole food from the plates of fellow partygoers and they got down on their hands and knees, crawling in an ursine way while people pretended to be afraid. Someone knocked over a trash can by accident, and they rifled through it for a second, which made everyone laugh. They became the focal point of the party, as they were obviously the ones having the most fun.
The morning after the party they walked through San Francisco’s Mission District where they had lived for the past six months. It was still dark, and both of them were drunk. They were in their bear suits and face paint, talking about their new life and the small town they had left behind that fall.
Christine listed things she missed about living in the country. “I miss silence. I hate the way the sound of traffic just fills my brain here. I feel like someone is always rushing towards me, but even worse is the sound as the car passes and recedes in the distance; the drone of it is so lonely, it makes you feel like someone is always leaving you.”
Jason worried about Christine, who was often depressed from her job as an engineering consultant. She worked at a firm that specialized in restoring ecosystems, trying to recreate the abundance of the land around San Francisco Bay before it was pilfered and razed. The slow progress being made by her firm left her feeling frustrated and drained. When she came home she usually stared silently at the walls of their small apartment for awhile, distractedly petting their dog and the cat they rescued from a negligent neighbor. “Sometimes I just want everyone to get out of my face,” she said to Jason one day. However, Jason noticed that on her days off Christine seemed freer and more energized than ever before. Soon after they moved in, they went inside a normal looking Thai restaurant and discovered that the waitresses were all very hot looking drag queens. Christine was entranced, all smiles for days afterwards. “It’s not the drag queens, exactly,” she said to Jason. “It’s just that people do unexpected things here.”
They both paused as they walked past a bakery, and their nostrils flared as they took in the aroma of donuts, leaving them open to the booze-sweat scent of a homeless man who was nestled into a seldom-used doorway. “I wonder what we’d be able to smell right now if we were bears? We’re probably missing out on so much! I read somewhere that Grizzlies can see as well or better than we do, and they have a much better sense of hearing and, of course, smell.” Christine seemed exasperated as she spoke, frustrated by the limitations of their species.
Soon they were crawling along Mission on their hands and knees, trying to capture that particular swagger that big bears have; that elegant, corpulent rolling of muscular limbs and rounded haunches. “I’m a mama bear trying to fatten up for the winter,” Christine said, and pretended to teeter on her hind legs and look into a trash can. A man walked around the corner texting and saw her in the shadow.
“Holy Fuck!” he said, and when she stood up and into the light he flushed with embarrassment. “Jesus, I really thought you were a fucking bear.”
City people, they both thought.
The man left and suddenly they really felt like bears, and they got down on their hands and knees again, laughing and growling. They turned off Mission and headed down an alley. Jason started to rock a big trashcan, imitating what he had seen so many bears do in shaky home videos. He fumbled drunkenly, and the can toppled over. They heard a person yelling and they stayed in character, running away on all fours. “I hope we hear something about grizzlies in San Fran on the news tomorrow,” Jason whispered when they stopped, hiding in a doorway and watching the yelling man look around.
When they were about seven blocks away, they got back on their hands and knees, and Christine knocked over another can. No one come out yelling this time, but some raccoons started moving in on the spilled garbage, tipping and waddling on their black leathery paws. A cat crept closer, and then a coon snarled and chased it away. Both of them were essentially well-behaved people, but the loud toppling of the cans and the wave of funk and chaos spilling over the concrete was thrilling to them as bears.
Suddenly, the raccoons vanished, hissing. “Huh,” Christine thought as they turned and walked away. They went a couple steps forward when Jason looked back, hearing the trash rustle and expecting to see the raccoons again. Instead, they saw a large dark shape moving within the shadows pushing around an ice cream box. It stopped and raised its snout, stepping towards Jason and Christine, its enormous head hanging low from a large blonde hump at its shoulders.
“Jason, it’s a grizzly bear.” said Christine, fear and exultation cascading over her body.
The bear’s eyes gleamed, and its brown fur blew in the cold wind like the short grasses of the tundra. It was big, and it reminded Christine of pictures of bears she had seen in late summer, after they had deposited a solid layer of body fat during several months of hyperphagia.
They watched, transfixed, as the bear rifled through the pile. It dug around for a little while, and then it sniffed the air and wandered over to a chain link gate that enclosed the back entrance of a Mexican restaurant. It stood up on its hind legs and put its front paws on the fence, bouncing its weight against the metal, flexing its long muscular arms and jiggling the fat on its belly. The gate held, and the bear gave up and walked off in the direction it came, sashaying slowly away from Christine and Jason.
They picked up their pace to get closer to the bear, and at about thirty feet away it spun around to face them. It popped its jaws and charged. The turned and ran but it gained on them easily, its long limbs raining down on the pavement and its mouth open as though it were about to envelop them in a wide tunnel of teeth.
When it was about ten feet away the bear stopped, lowered its head, and swept its gaze over the narrow alley. It sniffed the air and placed its big feet carefully on the pavement like a cat avoiding broken glass, walking toward them at an angle. The bear’s dark eyes moved anxiously, and Jason and Christine backed away slowly. They felt bad for trying to get too close, ashamed that their presence made the bear uncomfortable. “We were asking for it, I guess,” Christine said as the bear turned again and walked slowly away, glancing back every few steps.
The bear continued down the dark, straight alley until they could no longer make out the texture of its fur. Christine wondered what the fur felt like. Despite being afraid of the bear Christine longed to touch it. She felt her heart sicken a little as it left them.
Jason saw the sadness in her face as she watched it disappear. He ran over to the gate the bear had struggled with and lifted the pad lock that was holding it shut. “Can I borrow a few of your bobby pins?” he asked Christine, and she rifled hurriedly through her hair and handed him some pins. He picked the lock easily, and Christine gazed at him admiringly, realizing that after three years there was still a lot about him that she didn’t know. She wondered if she should ask him how he learned to pick a lock, but thought better of it, knowing that he didn’t like to talk about himself or his past.
Jason pulled a couple of clean bags full of expired ground beef out of the dumpster and ripped them open, spilling the meat over the pavement. They watched the bear sniff the air and return quickly to them and the spilled meat. Jason backed away, and the bear glanced at him out out of the corners of its eyes, as though trying to look as if it was ignoring him. When it was done with the meat the bear climbed into the dumpster, shoveling some trash onto its belly and taking a long time to lick some packages clean.
“We should head for that other burrito place a block down,” Christine said when the bear climbed out. All three of them crossed the street. A few cars passed them and stared but didn’t seem to notice the bear. But once it was across the street the bear turned down an alley past the apartment building, no longer trailing behind them. “It must be full,” Christine concluded.
“It ate so goddamn much!” Jason said, shaking his head.
Christine and Jason started to follow but the bear turned and snorted, and they worried it might charge them again. They backed away, and watched it disappear as the sun began to turn the sky a vibrant oceanic blue, their excited pulses ringing like bells through their bodies. “I can’t believe it!” Christine whispered reverently. “I thought the last grizzly bear to live in California was shot in 1922! And then to find one right in the middle of the city – goddamn, it’s so wonderful that it makes me want to set fire to the Palace of Fine Arts and SF MOMA.”
They crawled into bed, intertwining their arms and legs, their dog and cat curled up behind their backs. Christine touched Jason’s eyebrows and jaw, and then she cupped his biceps in her hands and ran her fingernails lightly down his arms. She kissed his chest. “You’re beautiful,” she said to him, and he said it back to her. When they made love that night Christine felt like she was leading him through a dark, humid forest full of wild creatures.
The next night Christine convinced Jason to try to get the bear back. They downed some whiskey and went out at midnight, roaming around and opening up dumpsters and knocking over trash cans, smiling like maniacs, grabbing each other’s hands and kissing fervently. The bear returned, its eyes twinkling like lakes reflecting a starry sky, it’s massive shoulders heaving upwards like ocean swells. This time they had hidden some scraps of meat inside the entrance to the apartment, and the bear followed the meat trail through the doorway and into the hallway, moving hesitantly into the enclosed space. They set a plate with a hamburger patty on it in the entrance to their apartment, and they turned on a little fan to blow the scent of the meat down the hall. The bear walked carefully up the slick linoleum stairs as it followed the trail of meat.
They had hidden scraps of meat around the apartment, and the bear rummaged around shelves and cupboards for awhile, knocking over books and dishes and lamps while they watched, fascinated and ecstatic. Jason edged over to their front door, slowly closing it, afraid that the bear would leave after it was done eating. In between bites of cooked egg, the bear looked Jason in the eyes, watching him start to close the door. It stopped eating and flattened its ears, barking and moaning. It came toward him, its head lowered. “Open the door!” Christine whispered nervously, intuiting that they should not make the bear would feel caged. The move felt disrespectful to her somehow, and she was disappointed in Jason for thinking that he could corral the bear in the apartment.
Jason swung the door back open, and as the bear trotted out its huge body made the stairs creak. They stood at the top of the stairwell and watched the bear disappear into the night, and Christine relaxed once more into a state of deep wonder. She reached over and held Jason’s hand.
He squeezed her hand a little, then let go. He turned to look at their apartment: the broken glass, the meaty pile of bear shit still steaming on top of a throw rug. “God, why there? It could have crapped on the linoleum, for fuck’s sake,” he said. Jason caught sight of himself in the mirror. His face looked tired, and he realized that he was going to have to go to work in a few hours with a hangover. And they’d have to clean the apartment that night, or at the very least they needed to get rid of the shit and the glass. Jason worried about what it would be like to go to work the next morning, how he would have to hide the events of the weekend from his new friends there, because they would doubtless think him insane. If any of his coworkers came across a bear in San Francisco they would have reported it to Fish and Game instead of luring it home.
Christine, however, was overjoyed. “I can’t believe we got it to come in here! Wow, real bear poop! I bet there aren’t many people in The City who can say a grizzly bear shit on their floor.” she knelt down and sniffed it, crinkling up her face in disgust, pretending to throw up.
Jason mumbled, “How many people want to say that about themselves?” and glowered at her.
They went to work bleary eyed the next morning. Christine was distracted and accomplished very little at work. She had trouble even caring about her job. That night they were both exhausted. Jason was irritable, and Christine was in a kind of dreamy daze, as if she had just had a great time on acid.
They were quiet as they made dinner. While they were eating Christine said, “It seemed like the bear preferred the raw hamburger. Maybe we should just stick with that. I think if we hid smaller pieces around the house we could get it to stay longer, and once it gets used to being in here, maybe it will want to stay and, you know, set up a territory.” Christine imagined that they would win it over as though it were a stray cat, that somehow there would be room for it in their lives.
“Yeah, maybe.” Jason kept his eyes lowered as he said it. He watched his plate as he wrapped some spaghetti around his fork and twirled it for awhile, the ends of some noodles flapping around in a circle like the tail of a dog chasing itself. He wondered why she had to fall in love with a bear, and the frustration in his mind gathered momentum. Why was she so intent on nurturing a giant, destructive thing? She seemed so uninterested in having a baby, and she talked about having babies as though it were a burden, as though it would take away her freedom. But what exactly did she want to do with all this freedom? Was it really freedom to step further and further away from reality?
That night Christine went out by herself in her costume, and a few hours later she was back, watching the bear paw through their kitchen and living room while Jason tried to sleep in the bedroom. He tossed and turned, worried and frustrated, until the bear left and she crawled into bed naked, facing him. He touched her face, he ran his fingers through her hair, and he slid his hand over her shoulder, down her arm, her hip, her thigh. She rolled over onto her back and he put his head on her chest and held her hand to his throat. He fit his lean body as close as he could to hers and then was finally able to sleep. Christine lay awake, thinking about how much she loved him and wondering why he loved her.
Jason convinced Christine to wait until the weekend to try to find the bear again. They canceled plans with friends for that Friday and, instead, spent the night luring the bear into the apartment. This time the bear stayed. After gorging itself and breaking more kitchen stuff it curled up in their bedroom to sleep. They worried that the bear would attack but they also enjoyed the feeling of being enveloped by the bear’s presence. They both felt warm and excited, and they made love, focusing easily on the beauty and strength of each other’s bodies.
They awoke the next morning to bright sun coming through their bedroom window. To their surprise, the bear was still there, sleeping on the rug with its head resting on a pile of dirty clothes and shoes. They watched it for awhile from bed, while Christine read aloud interesting passages from a stack of books about bears. She set down a book on bear behavior and stared contemplatively at the bear for awhile.
“It’s so warm and cuddly looking, but I don’t think bears really like each other’s company.” Christine asked. “Except for the mothers and the cubs. But I don’t think adult bears let each other get too close. From what I understand, at best they merely tolerate each other, like near rivers with lots of fish where they all gather to eat.” They thought about the bear’s animal warmth and luxuriant fur, how its life to them was also unimaginably lonely. “From what I read, individual bears have a certain radius of tolerable distance, and if you enter this personal sphere you can expect to get attacked,” Christine remarked.
Jason got up and made breakfast, trying his best to stay as far away from the bear as possible. It growled at them, and they gave it their breakfast. When it was done eating the bear tromped down the stairs and disappeared into an alley. It came back later that day and took a nap in the living room.
Christine spent all night observing the bear: watching it scratch itself and arise huffily to reposition itself for another long nap, drawing it, and whispering about it to Jason. “I wonder if its male or female? I wonder if we’re feeding it the right food – I think it needs more berries and root vegetables and fiber. I read that bears can have territories between 50 to 300 square miles, so this one probably possesses all of San Francisco. Where could it have come from?” She was quiet for a moment, and then said weakly, “Do you think we should call a biologist or a game warden?”
Jason said he did think they should contact someone. He thought that the city was an unhealthy place for the bear. “What if it eats something it’s not supposed to, or gets hit by a car?” he asked.
Christine agreed that the bear should have a safe habitat, away from the dangers of humanity. She remembered videos she’d seen of people interacting with bears, most of which were taken by drunken assholes acting macho, or soft-hearted tourists treating bears like oversized squirrels and feeding them crappy starchy food like donuts and white bread. They all displayed a remarkable lack of respect, and she suddenly felt ashamed and wondered if what she was doing was any different. She remembered the sadness she felt when her mom had told her that her touch hurts the leaves of plants (she used to like to stroke them as a kid) and later on when she was scuba diving and learned that corals will die from the poisonous oils of human touch. She thought about the longing she had to touch her pet rabbit’s smooth, fine hair. She hated how he froze when she pet him, tense with displeasure and fear.
Christine agreed to make the call, but never did. Each time he asked her about it, she made up some excuse about how she was too busy. Finally she admitted she wanted the bear to stay, frowning at Jason as though he was giving her a parking ticket. She wanted to protect the miraculousness of the bear’s appearance in the city, as though removing the bear would deplete the city’s soul.
The next day they left the apartment door open, so the bear could come and go as it pleased. Christine stood watch while Jason bought groceries. He found himself spending longer than usual in the store, not wanting to go back to their apartment with its smashed shelves, weird smell, and departure from reality.
Over the next few weeks, Christine started calling in sick to work. This made her feel guilty, but the bear dominated her mind, making it defiant, reckless, and disorganized to the point where she was unable to get much done at the office. Each morning she struggled with herself, often putting on her work clothes and then finding it impossible to leave the bear. She’d promise herself that she’d go to work the next day and make up for the time she took off, only to make the same decision again.
Instead of working Christine hid food around the apartment and spent long hours near the bear, trying to get it accustomed to her presence as she watched and celebrated it through drawings, poems, and quiet songs. She always gave the bear as much space as possible, usually maintaining a distance of at least ten feet. She was afraid of the bear, and the awe and fear she felt for it made her heart push a little harder, it made her feel more awake.
She was lonely in their apartment when Jason was gone, so she dressed up at night in her bear costume and wandered around the city’s alleys with the bear. Despite its incredible strength it appeared awkward, like a gruff infant. Christine adored the way the bear moved, its front legs swinging with a loose, masculine swagger and its hips rolling like those of a belly dancer.
Christine noticed Jason losing interest in the bear, and it frustrated her, making her doubt him for the first time. It was difficult for her to understand that one could ignore something so wild, powerful, and mysterious. She was disappointed that he didn’t want to watch it and study it as she did, amazed that he didn’t long to know what the bear’s inner life was like. She realized that he showed the same lack of interest in her thoughts and feelings, and that he was disinclined to share these things with her.
Jason started going out for beers in the evenings with his friends from work, and often on weekends some of Jason’s closest office friends would invite him over for potlucks. His coworkers often met up with their partners, and Jason begged Christine to go out with him. She did once, and was incredibly bored. She got completely wasted and puked in the toilet of a brewery. “I’d rather be back with the bear,” she told Jason. “They all just say the same thing, over and over and over again….”
Later that week Jason got a flat tire on his bike while heading to the bar to meet his office friends. One of the senior electrical engineers offered to drive him home in his SUV. When they reached the outside of Jason’s apartment he asked Jason if he could use his bathroom. Jason wanted to say “yes, of course” but then he realized that would mean the man would meet Christine, who was undoubtedly dressed in her costume, sprawled out on the floor facing the bear, drawing pictures of it or writing poems to it. He knew the man would be shocked at their squalid, broken apartment. Jason was proud that most people perceived him as a practical, hardworking, professional man, and their home, he realized, was now an affront to that pride.
“Oh, our plumbing is broken right now,” Jason lied. He hated lying in general, and he hated this particular lie, which he thought made it sound like he was incapable of making repairs, or that he lived in a slum. As long as the bear lived in their apartment, Jason thought with dismay, he could never invite his friends over, and he could never be part of the potluck hosting rotation.
One night Christine joined Jason in bed still wearing her bear costume. Jason rolled away from her, disgusted and horny, wishing she was dressed as a human again. She snuggled up to him in the middle of the night, and she woke up to him pushing her away. He gave her a look of frustration and impatience that she had never seen from him before that night, and the look scared her. That morning they fought for the first time, and when they yelled at each other the bear left.
Christine sobbed for hours that morning, after Jason left for work. Without the bear her mind felt vague and lifeless. Around noon she went guiltily to her job feeling weak and defeated, and she worked dispassionately. She was unable to eat all day.
That night Jason proposed that they move out of the city, back to the redwoods and the blackberries and the space they had known before. He talked about buying land near their old home, and he said he wanted to have kids with her. “And we could have goats and chickens and bees and vegetables,” he said. “I miss that life and I know you miss it too. We could live in the country, and there would be bears of course, but they would be outside, where they are happiest.”
But Christine pleaded with him. “No, let’s just stay here for a couple years. I can be whoever I want to be here. Please, please don’t ask me to leave yet!” They cried together on the bed for awhile until Jason left for the couch, where Christine could hear him tossing and turning. The next morning Jason started packing up his stuff. He left the house in the afternoon, planning to stay with some friends while he found a new job and a place outside of the city.
Christine watched him get into his car and drive away, her eyes raw and red, her nerves jangling and a deep sorrow filling her stomach like polar seawater. She worried about the coming months and years, about how she could possibly keep her heart open without his love. She wondered if the bear would come back that night if Jason was gone. She wondered if she should be afraid of it, now that she was alone.
She wandered around her neighborhood, her body feeling unsubstantial. Over the past few days springtime flowers, peonies and daffodils, had started to bloom. She leaned over fences to pull flowers from their stems, and soon she had gathered a big bouquet. A few people glared at her from their windows as she stole from them, but it didn’t bother her. She filled her hands with flowers.
When she went back into the apartment the bear was lying in the living room. It opened its eyes when she came in but didn’t move. She sat down and watched it, and then began arranging the flowers around it, demarcating the radius of distance she had respectfully and timidly maintained over the weeks the bear had lived with her.
Christine pulled the petals off of a giant peony, each one large enough to be a child’s hand, shaped as if making a cup to hold water. She set these at equal distances as she circumambulated the bear. She beheaded daffodils and put them in between the peony petals, and next to these – tight, tiny pink peppery-smelling rosebuds. She sprinkled tiny purple sage blossoms over the larger flowers, and she set the stems and leaves of the plants pointing towards the bear like arrows.
When she was done she stood up and took a step inside the circle of flowers. At first she walked toward it, but then she realized that looming above the prostrate bear would doubtless be interpreted as a threat, so she got down low on her hands and knees, almost slithering forward. The bear watched her, its ears up, but it didn’t move or make eye contact.
She doubted herself during the minutes it took her to get from seven to five feet away from the bear, wondering if what she was doing was stupid and disrespectful. However, as she grew closer her doubt was eclipsed by a reverent longing. When she was a few feet away from the bear it raised its head and looked her in the face. She knew this was an aggressive move, and that it probably meant the bear would attack her unless she retreated. She stopped and returned the gaze from its dark, watery eyes.
“Go ahead,” she said, feeling her voice resonate within her skinny chest, the words tingling like a kiss on her lips. Her eyes filled with warm tears. The bear put its head down and sighed as it relaxed its body. It’s shoulders, belly and hips stretched out across the floor like a range of rolling hills undulating across the horizon. Christine reached out and touched the bear’s chest. Her fingers worked their way down through the coarse outer guard hairs, finding the body heat trapped in the soft, dense undercoat. The feeling swept through her whole body, and she realized she was in love, that for the first time in her life she was completely at home in the world. “I will love you forever,” she said to the bear, who relaxed under her touch like a landscape caressed by the spreading rays of a rising moon.
Originally published in Beatdom #11.
Short story by Paul Kay.
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