Men Who Gut Animals and Build Shelters
by Monica Shie
For most of her life, Gina had dated academics. She liked to think of herself as someone who could see beyond the superficial, someone who could ignore a lack of social graces or even poor personal hygiene to appreciate the genius of men who, prior to meeting her, might have been overlooked due to their eccentricities. She was attracted to men who could expound upon a topic, men who others might find pompous or long-winded, and men who liked to provoke by defending unpopular positions in aggressively pointed arguments, prompting listeners to deflect, saying, “Let’s agree to disagree.” During her marriage, Gina grew accustomed to looking up from a book or news article to inquire of her husband, “Who were the Bolsheviks again?” or “What’s the difference between Shia and Sunni?” and without consulting Wikipedia, he would explain the world around her, in substantial detail, making her feel as if she, too, owned this information.
When the marriage broke apart, she was unsure of things that she thought she knew, such as whether or not Aaron Burr had ever actually been Vice President or if he had merely coveted the position. She found herself constantly telling her daughter, “Ask your dad. He always knows these things.” Sometimes she would look up the things she didn’t know, but more often than not, she tolerated the not-knowing.
In the spring, she read a review of a movie about a group of Jewish resisters who hid in the forest and maintained their community throughout the war. Although she never bothered to see the film, she was struck by a detail in the review. In the forest, it said, the social hierarchies were “turned upside down. The farmers or working-class men who could shoot, gut an animal, and build a shelter were sought out as protectors by the women, including the educated, upper-middle-class women; the formerly desirable scholars of Hegel, Marx, and the Talmud were not.” Gina began to imagine herself in the forest with her ex-husband; the scenario was grim.
Gina had grown up around working-class men in Kentucky, men who hunted deer and drank beer and failed utterly to impress her. She had been impatient, then, to leave her rural upbringing behind and move to a city, any city, where people read books and talked about concepts. But now, considering these same men through the lens of forest survival, she realized that they had skills. She remembered being about ten years old when her cousin, who was a few years older, showed her a rabbit he had shot with a crossbow. He was clearly proud of himself, so to be polite, she had asked him what he was going to do with it. He said he would skin it, and keep the pelt. “Do you want to taste rabbit meat?” he had asked, and she knew he was serious; he could build a fire, make a spit, and cook the rabbit. At the time, she had been horrified. Now—all these years later—she was finally impressed. She put him decisively into the category of Men Who Could Gut an Animal and Build a Shelter. As she waded back into the dating pool, Gina found herself judging men according to this dichotomy.
In the fall, once the divorce was final, Gina registered for a postmodern literature class at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Her objective was twofold; she hoped to venture forth from her familial role while also gaining the professional development credits she needed as an English teacher at a selective middle school. On Wednesday nights, her ex-husband picked up their daughter from aftercare while Gina rode the 1 train downtown.
In class, she struck up conversations with the only other student who remembered life without the Internet. He was a Marine, assigned as a communications officer to New York, where he knew no one; he took community college courses to pass the time. Approaching literature by way of Bukowski, he had somehow stumbled into PoMo lit without really knowing what it was. Later, when she read David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again” to him on a long car ride out of town, he laughed so hard that he had to pull over and re-compose himself.
From the beginning, she thrilled to all the ways that he was unlike her ex-husband. The most obvious was that he worked out relentlessly, running six to ten miles every morning and lifting weights in the gym every evening. She appreciated his strength and fitness, but could have done without his daily texts detailing his workouts. She also liked his competence with small household chores. He replaced a lock, retrieved a spoon from behind the refrigerator, and took out the trash without her asking. He was low-brow, a little rough around the edges, but smart and curious about all the culture he had missed out on growing up in blue-collar Pennsylvania and serving his country as a young man in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When he told her that he wrote poetry, she was terrified. What if the poems were bad? What would she say? But he proved her initial hesitation to be biased. The poems were grounded and disturbing, with raw and brutal imagery. His poems made her like him more. She began to think of the Marine as a man who could both gut an animal and memorialize the event in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter—an ideal pairing. And yet, there was something not quite adult about him, something undefinable that gave Gina pause. She found reasons not to take him out with her friends.
After a few months, however, she pushed her hesitation aside and introduced him to her daughter, a second grader. He juggled some tangerines and made her giggle. He took them to a French restaurant and proceeded to butter their dinner rolls. Gina’s daughter stared at him quizzically. “Mommy can butter her own roll,” she said.
In the teachers’ room, with the copier whirring in the background, she updated her single friends, Kate and Bethany, on the progress of her new relationship. “I like him,” Gina said, “but I’m not sure it’s a perfect fit.”
“You seem pretty sprung on him, actually,” said Kate.
The Marine started spending every night at her apartment. He would arrive after her daughter was in bed and leave at 6:00 am, before she woke her daughter up. She made him coffee, still in her pajamas, while he packed his duffel. He seemed out of place in her tiny kitchen, wearing his fatigues. “I like being your lover,” he told her, “but I also want to be your boyfriend.” In the classroom, while her students were writing, Gina liked to imagine the moment she would hear his key in the lock, when they would sit together on the sofa and drink a glass of wine before heading off to bed, where the sex was athletic and aggressive. Gina began to think she couldn’t live without it, or didn’t want to.
In late spring, the Marine was reassigned to the Pentagon, and he asked Gina to go with him to DC. “How can I?” she said, explaining that it wasn’t just her job, but also her divorce agreement, that made uprooting herself and her daughter complicated and unlikely. The Marine was distant after that, and though he still came into her bed every night, he stopped talking about their lives together as a couple. When Gina finally asked point-blank if he was going to break up with her when he moved to DC, the Marine said it was inevitable. “I need to be with a woman physically to be with her emotionally,” he said. For Gina, it was the other way around. That was the last time they saw each other.
For three weeks, Gina embraced her life as an independent woman, strong and capable, beholden to no man; a woman who could butter her own goddamn dinner roll. She focused on her work, and on her child, and read the novels that were stacked on her nightstand. She was productive and content, but she missed the Marine, and wrote him long emails that she never sent.
Her friend Kate suggested online dating. “You can start with OkCupid,” she said. “It’s free. No commitment. You can try it and delete your profile the same day if you want to. No risk.” Gina read blogs about the perils of online dating, about the five biggest mistakes women over forty make in their profiles, about “how not to sound like a Debbie Downer.” She was reluctant, but Kate pressed forward. “You’re an English teacher. You’ll like it,” she insisted. And Gina did. Here was a medium where she was encouraged to judge a man exclusively on his prose style, on how he presented himself in writing. There were the profile photos, too, but it was the written descriptions that Gina was drawn to. She looked for straightforward profiles, not too long or too esoteric, but not pandering either. She grew wary of the legions of New York men who professed to enjoy cooking a romantic dinner for two at home, and she found it tedious to read through the lists of writers or albums that had influenced these men. She kept her own profile short and to the point: she taught middle school English, she had a kid and didn’t want more, and she preferred to date a responsible adult at a similar stage in life.
Kate gave Gina strict instructions. “You will be flattered at first, and then creeped out, by how many men send you messages. Don’t answer any of them. Not any! Instead, answer OkCupid’s survey questions to help you find a match. But don’t answer all of them! Only answer questions about topics that you might discuss on a first date. Skip all the questions about what you like to do in bed, or anything written by a millennial, like ‘Nuclear apocalypse would be horrific but also kind of exciting. True or False.’ Once you have your matches, filter out anyone who doesn’t fit your specifications exactly, and then—only then—read the profiles and look at the photos. Write to your top three, and I guarantee they will write you back.”
“Does it really work?” Gina asked.
“I met my last three boyfriends that way,” Kate said.
“But you broke up with all of them,” Gina pointed out.
“Yeah, but what else are you going to do? Hang out in bars?” Kate countered.
Gina took her friend’s advice. She filtered for age (40-45), height (5’6” or above), and marital status (divorced with kids). She only looked at non-smokers who were fully employed, and avoided anyone who identified as strongly religious. She left the race preference blank but marked herself as heterosexual, filtering out the men who identified as “metrosexual,” a category that she had to look up in order to find out that it meant “a young, urban, heterosexual male with liberal political views, an interest in fashion, and a refined sense of taste.” She ignored the messages (“Hi sweetie, you have such a nice smile!” or “Wanna hang out?”) and focused on her matches. There were nine men in the New York area whom OkCupid determined to be a 95% match or above for Gina. She read their profiles, looked at their photos, and narrowed it down to three. She wrote to all three of them, and just as Kate predicted, they all wrote her back. Once she had decided that they weren’t serial killers, she gave her phone number to all three of them and then deleted her profile.
The first coffee date that she went on was with the musician. His texts were witty and succinct, and Gina was intrigued by his line of work. After years of teaching classical guitar and music theory at a college in the Midwest, he now played in the pit orchestras of Broadway musicals. She asked him lots of questions about this, and he talked on endlessly. At no point did he say, “But what about you? I’d like to hear about what you do.” No. He was a narcissist, and Gina deleted him from her phone after the coffee date had ended.
The second coffee date was with a civil litigation lawyer who immediately put Gina at ease. They discussed their children, their divorce attorneys, and Antonio Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony. Half an hour into the date, Gina realized why she felt so comfortable; the lawyer reminded her of her ex-husband. He had the same professorial demeanor, the same unkempt personal presentation, and within twenty minutes, he was deep into a conversational digression on metaphysical materialism. Before the date was over, he told her that she should read more nonfiction. “I really do like you,” she texted him, “but I don’t think I can date you.”
Gina had not yet been able to schedule a coffee date with her first-choice match, Stefan, a computer engineer who had confessed in his profile that he liked “to fix things.” Initially, she had been attracted to his wavy black hair and boy-band smile. In photos, he looked like a grown-up version of the popular boys that had never asked her out in high school. She found it funny that now, twenty-five years later, she was getting her chance. After a few introductory texts, they had moved quickly to late-night phone conversations, which often lasted over an hour, or until Gina simply could not stay awake any longer. These conversations were about ordinary things like incompetent colleagues or band reunions or the latest ill-advised presidential executive order. They were not, Gina noted, about books—but she let that go. By the time they were able to set up a date, they had moved well beyond the need for an exploratory coffee encounter and opted instead for a Friday night dinner on a strategically chosen weekend when their kids were with their exes.
Stefan showed up at her apartment with a rose and took her to a nearby restaurant with romantic lighting and farm-to-table cuisine. Gina had come prepared with some conversation-ready topics, just in case, but they talked unaided through an after-dinner espresso and, because there was more to say, walked a few blocks through the warm night to a 24-hour café for dessert.
“What are you doing tomorrow night?” Stefan asked her over their second espresso.
Given more time, Gina might have thought better of admitting that she had no plans on a Saturday night. But instead, she said plainly, “Nothing.”
“Would you like to go out with me again tomorrow, then?” Stefan asked, proper and old-fashioned.
“Yes, I would,” said Gina. “Or I could make you dinner.”
“It’s a date,” said Stefan. When he said goodbye, he kissed her quickly on the lips. Five minutes after Gina had closed her apartment door and collapsed happily into bed, she received a text: “I hope the kiss wasn’t too forward.”
“It was just forward enough,” she texted back.
At brunch with her friends the next day, Bethany said, “You’ve jumped into the deep end.”
“He’s perfect,” replied Gina.
“I’m glad OkCupid is working for you, but seriously, proceed with some degree of caution,” warned Kate.
On the second date, when Gina made her signature Greek Mustard Chicken, they made plans for a third, mid-week date, and after that a weekend together. When she woke up in his bed on a Sunday morning, Stefan disappeared into the kitchen and returned twenty minutes later holding a tray set with plates of spinach and gruyere omelets, French toast, yoghurt and fruit. Gina tried to remember the last time anyone had made her breakfast and decided that it was probably her mother back in Kentucky. “I just like doing things for you,” Stefan said simply.
It was in their second week of every-night phone calls that Stefan ended the conversation with a quick, “Love you,” before hanging up. Gina understood that he had said it accidently, used to ending phone calls to his kids this way. It had escaped his lips without thought. But, Gina considered, it spoke to an ease between them, a trust that the OkCupid algorithms had done their work, and there was no risk in acknowledging their good luck in finding each other in this new world of middle-aged, online dating. Neither brought up the offhand comment until a few weeks later, when Stefan told Gina he was falling in love with her. They were drinking wine on his sofa. “Do you remember that phone call, when I said…”
“Yes,” said Gina. “It’s okay. I knew it was a mistake, but I also knew it was true.”
Stefan smiled, slightly embarrassed. Gina liked this about him, this sudden shyness that sometimes came over him. She equated it with the little boy he had described on their first date, the one whose immigrant parents had made him wear a suit to school on class picture day, complete with an American flag pin on the lapel. She was charmed by that little boy, the one who fished broken toasters out of the dumpster behind his apartment building so that he could take them apart and figure out how they worked. She wasn’t as enthusiastic about the college boy who joined a fraternity and dated ex-cheerleaders, who thought that the American Dream was a pretty blonde wife and a house in the suburbs.
“The girls in high school and college were either vapid or stuck up,” he said, by way of explanation.
“I bet that’s not true,” Gina countered. “The girls like me were there too; you just didn’t see us. We were the quiet ones who preferred reading books to hanging out at the mall.”
Stefan considered this. “Maybe you’re right,” he said, pulling her closer. “But now I’ve found you and I’m not letting go.”
Kate and Bethany peered skeptically over piles of mid-term exams as Gina talked about how easy it all had been. The copier whirred in the background.
“Look, we’ve all been on OkCupid,” said Bethany. “Either you are extraordinarily lucky or there is something that he’s hiding.”
Kate agreed. “I’ve been dating three men for the last six months. Collectively, they have everything I want, but individually, they all fall short.”
“I thought you said you were most attracted to the anesthesiologist,” Bethany reminded her.
“I am, but the anesthesiologist doesn’t like nature, and I want to date someone I can go biking with,” said Kate.
Gina raised an eyebrow.
“Biking is really important to me!” said Kate, defensive. She looked at Bethany. “And you once broke up with a boyfriend because he refused to recycle.”
Bethany nodded thoughtfully, remembering.
“Stefan doesn’t read books,” said Gina, in an attempt to commiserate. Her friends looked at her uncomprehendingly.
“Do you mean he doesn’t read novels? Just nonfiction?” Bethany asked, clarifying.
“He doesn’t read books at all. He has one bookshelf, and it is full of manuals, not books,” said Gina. “And he only reads news online.”
Bethany paused a moment, twirled her red pen between her fingers, and said, “Well that sounds like a deal-breaker to me.” Kate nodded in agreement.
“I don’t know,” said Gina. “I really like him.”
“Have you considered that you might be settling for something less than what you really want?” Kate asked.
“No,” said Gina. “I haven’t.” She thought of Stefan’s many kindnesses and wondered if her friends were too picky to ever find love. Aloud, she said, “I wonder, though, if he can gut an animal.”
Kate and Bethany glanced at each other, wondering what Gina was getting at.
In the days that followed, Gina found herself returning to the conversation over and over again. She wondered if she was too complacent, too ready to trade in the excessive difficulties of her ex-husband for someone comparatively easier to be with. The matter of Stefan’s not reading books probably shouldn’t be so easily brushed aside. Had they met when they were younger, his kindness and decency—combined with his good-looks—would have been more than enough to maintain a conjoining of lives, particularly with children. She could imagine Stefan as a dutiful husband, responsible and dependable, different from her own ex. But in middle-age, was this enough? Didn’t she want someone who was more like her? She thought of how Stefan had helped her with her computer, gently making fun of her for describing every malfunction as a “glitch,” and wondered if he ever had concerns about her technical competence. Did it matter? After he had fixed her espresso machine, resurrected her printer, sanded her door so it wouldn’t stick, and built a loft in her daughter’s bedroom, she was less worried about his inability to recognize a Jay Gatsby reference.
On the weekend, Gina accompanied Stefan to his storage unit, which he hoped to clear out as part of his post-divorce purge. They drove up into Yonkers and entered a windowless building bisected by long, narrow hallways lined with locked units the size of walk-in closets. Gina stacked items on a metal trolley as Stefan opened boxes and made decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. Cutting the tape from something wrapped carefully in a thick blanket, they were both surprised to find a crossbow.
“Are you serious?” asked Gina. “This is yours?”
Stefan explained that as a kid growing up in cramped apartments in the city, he had always wanted to see what it would be like to fend for himself, to find out if he could survive in the wilderness. “A cliché, I guess,” he said. He went on camping trips with friends, in summer and winter, and tested himself against the elements, against nature.
“Did you ever shoot anything?” Gina asked, running her fingers along the curved bow.
“Sure—mostly squirrels though.”
Gina thought of her cousin, all those years ago. “What did you do with the dead squirrels?” she asked.
“I skinned them, of course. Well, one of them. I wanted to learn how to tan a hide. It’s really difficult, actually. You have to scrape off all the fat and flesh with a knife; that’s the hardest part. Then you salt it, dry it, and soak it until it softens. Then you scrape it again, and soak it again—this time in an alum solution. After that, you tack it up and oil it.”
Gina could imagine Stefan doing these things meticulously, intent on getting it right. “Do you have the hide?” she asked.
“It didn’t turn out,” Stefan admitted, disappointed still. “I kept it for a while, but then it started to smell. If I did it again, I think I could make it work.”
Gina could almost see through Stefan’s brown eyes the thoughts swirling in his mechanically-astute mind, how he would do it differently if he were called upon to tan a hide at some point in the future. She was strangely excited by this.
As they carefully re-wrapped the crossbow, Gina decided to push her luck. “Let me ask you a question,” she said. “Do you think you could build a shelter?”
Gina expected him to look at her funny and ask her why she wanted to know. But Stefan’s engineering mind was different. His eyes lit up, delighted that he could be of service. “Of course! That’s easy. A tepee style is best; you can thatch it with grass or leaves, and it will keep out most of the cold, wind or rain. If you structure it with a smoke hole, you can even build a small fire inside.”
Stefan continued, detailing the way the long tree branches should be fitted together at the top. Gina observed him, feeling lightly amused and heavily comforted. Adjusting the crossbow carefully on the trolley, she asked, “So how would you add a fire hole to the tepee?”
Monica Shie is a New Yorker living in India. Her work has appeared in The Irrawaddy and SPAN magazine.