Many of us have night terrors. I know I do. That feeling, lying there in your bed at night—it suddenly turns tight and claustrophobic. All you can see is the end of your pillow, everything halved in the darkness, a bubbling up and overflowing.
In the dark I’ve thought of parents dying, knives penetrating flesh, school shootings, tornados. These things are sudden, and impactful. It is one such night, and I am thinking of things terrible to me, this time about the millions of animals sitting in cages in the dark, barely able to move their limbs. Not sudden, but unmovable. Eternally fixed. I think of their wet noses, their ears, and their eyes. I think they can feel fear, pain, and discomfort. Maybe they feel overwhelming sadness, or hopelessness. Maybe they don’t know why there are there.
The next night, I lay in bed, thinking about what to make for dinner the next day. Cooking is my therapy. We have fresh zucchini and bella mushrooms. We have potatoes. I make a list in my head. Maybe a cubed hash thrown on the skillet. Do we have onions? Momentarily, I think of the small animals whose homes are ravaged by farm equipment to get these vegetables. Heads stripped off; babies killed. Fur matted with blood. I push that thought aside. Maybe roasted vegetables. Maybe I’ll stop by the store on the way home for some chicken.
I get home and look at the package of chicken breasts in my hand, labeled “free-range, organic.” In my mind, I rip the breast from the bird. It’s no longer living, and it never was. It’s a body part.
I overcook the chicken on the stove. It sizzles, dying. When I eat it, it’s thick and sinewy. Dissatisfying. “Ruined.”
I’ve had stints with vegetarianism. When I was in high school, I didn’t eat meat for two years. Everyone in my family was confused. But you love tongue! They’d say. I sit down to a huge family gathering at my grandfather’s senior living home. He mills about, stuffing people’s plates. He knows I don’t eat meat. I hold a hand in front of my plate as he holds out a spoon with fish purée. He says, in Russian: “This is fish! Not meat!” and piles it on.
My friend and I tried to save a family of ducks last year. Caught downtown in an open space between a mall and its parking lot, the mother trying to keep her babies close to her breast as they petered around on soft feet. We didn’t know whom to call, but we figured we should call someone. We didn’t want the ducklings to be crushed by the cars.
I am averse to the idea of extinguishing any life. Ants crawling, a beetle scurrying across my headboard, a chipmunk with its tail erect as it darts across the street. The fact that I can feel this way and survive is an oddity. I do not think of myself as benevolent. I am underdeveloped.
My mother always sucks every bit of meat from the bone, sometimes even the marrow. When younger, I’d watch her, and look on with confusion as others left entire pieces of chicken still lingering, glued to the bone. Their meal was unfinished; flesh left behind. I was always taught to clear my plate, not because children were starving elsewhere, but probably because my family once was hungry. I now think that my grandfather, on my mother’s side, still buys up ridiculous amounts of surplus cereals and yogurts with coupons because he’s still suffering from the trauma of war. There were times when his family didn’t have enough to eat. I’m like my mother; I leave the bone clean.
I know that animals tear at one another. It is part of a system. I don’t like to see that either. I don’t like the idea of prey.
I can see the edge of my pillow, but I’m falling asleep. I’m wondering if tomorrow morning I will decide to become a vegetarian again. I’m wondering if I’ll be craving a steak, ready to rip meat from bone.