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Excerpt

Rabbits for Food

Binnie Kirshenbaum

May 22, 2019 
The following is from Binnie Kirshenbaum's novel Rabbits for Food. Bunny, a writer, fully unravels at a New Year's Eve party and goes to the hospital where, instead of receiving treatment, she chronicles the lives of her fellow patients. Binnie Kirshenbaum is the author of History on a Personal Note, On Mermaid Avenue, An Almost Perfect Moment, and others. Her novels have been on Notable Books lists by The Chicago Tribune, NPR, TIME, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post.

Prompt: An Introduction (300 words or less)

Bunny
Funny Bunny
Bugs Bunny
Bunny Wabbit
Honey Bunny
Easter Bunny
Fucks like a Bunny
Bunny Bunny Punkinhead
Voyage to the Bunny Planet
Playboy Bunny
Ski Bunny
Beach Bunny
Dumb Bunny
Dust Bunny
Energizer Bunny
Echo and the Bunnymen
Bunny Lake is Missing
Bunny Hop
Fluff Bunny
Bunny

Where to Begin

December 31, 2008. All too often paper hats are involved. Other things about New Year’s Eve that mortify Bunny are false gaiety, mandatory fun and that song, the one that’s like the summer camp song. Not “Kumbaya,” but that other summer camp song, the secular one, where everyone links arms and they sway as they sing, “Friends, friends, friends, we will always be.” It’s not that song either, but the New Year’s Eve song also requires arm linking and swaying and it sentimentalizes friendship with an excessive sweetness that is something like the grotesquerie of baby chicks dyed pink for Easter. The overplayed enthusiasm for the passing of time, the hooting and hugging at the stroke of midnight baffles her, as does the spastic rejoicing to be that much closer to old or dead, as if old or dead were something to be won, like a three-legged race or American Idol. The only way Bunny knows to keep safe from the countdown New Year’s Eve is to lock herself in the bathroom and wait for the fanfare to fizzle out like the silvery sparks of a Catherine wheel.

But there is time yet.

It’s still morning, and although her eyes are closed they might as well be open, the way she knows Albie is there at the foot of the couch, looking down at her, just as she knows that he is wearing blue jeans, a pair faded from wear—never pre–faded or stone-washed or anything but 505 Levi’s—and a light blue button-down oxford shirt, one of the same Brooks Brothers button-down oxford shirts he’s been wearing since he turned twelve. For thirty-three years he’s been wearing the same make and style shirt, although there has been variation in the color. That is, if you consider white to be a color. On his feet are rubber beach slippers. Not flip-flops, but rubber slippers with two wide straps that crisscross; rubber slippers that are generally worn at the beach by skinny old men in plaid swim trunks whose perfectly round bellies protrude as if they’d swallowed a honeydew melon whole, the way a snake swallows a rodent whole, and you can see, all too clearly, the shape of the mouse until it is digested. When a python swallows an alligator or a person, such as that fourteen-year-old boy in Indonesia, the shape of the meal is sharply defined for days or weeks. This is one of those things she wouldn’t have minded not knowing, and it’s not an easy thing to forget. Even now, when there is much that she forgets, she remembers that if an anaconda eats your dog, the outline of your dog will be visible for far too long. Although Albie’s belly does not protrude like a honeydew melon, he has developed a hint of a paunch, just a hint but, coupled with the rubber slippers, it is enough to distress her. Then again, what doesn’t distress her? Well aware that when she opens her eyes, she will find him dressed exactly as predicted, and for the duration of a flashbulb popping, she will hate him for his predictability, and for the forlorn irrevocability that accompanies a solid marriage, a marriage that requires no effort, which is meaningful disappointment only if you stop to give it some real thought, if you stop to give it, like the rubber slippers, more attention than it deserves.

“I’m awake,” Bunny says.

To sit beside her, Albie needs to sidestep one of the five or six stacks of books on the floor. Books stacked without a plan, just as the books in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are arranged carelessly. His books. Her books. The books she reads, as opposed to her books, as in books she has written. Those, the many remaindered copies of them, are in boxes and, like all bogeymen, they are hidden under the bed.

Albie doesn’t write books. He publishes articles and papers in magazines like the Journal of Natural History and Animal Ecology but, for him, public recognition has no bearing on the pleasure he derives from his work. He is freakishly well-adjusted. The books that are his, those he reads, are an eclectic and, unless you know Albie, an irrational lot. Aside from zoology and its related fields, his interests include cartography, game theory, philatelic history, ancient Greek poetry, and magic tricks, among other super-nerd subject matter, although—the rubber slippers excepted—Albie is not a super-nerd person. Not even when he was a teenager, but that could be because he went to Stuyvesant High School where geeky boys are considered dreamy.

Bunny’s range of interests is also varied: history, politics, antiques, animal rights, psychology, fashion, and literature, serious literature, although now she is interested in nothing.

Seating himself on the edge of the couch parallel to her hip, Albie keeps some inches of distance between them, the way you’d keep a few inches back from the edge of a cliff, and he asks, “Did you get any sleep?”

Sleep has never come easily to her, but until recently the drugs worked well enough. But now, two or even three times the prescribed dose brings her no closer to drifting off at night like a normal person. Often, she doesn’t fall asleep until dawn, and from there, she’ll sleep away the day, the entire day. You’d think that ten, twelve, thirteen hours of sleep would be restorative, but hers is sleep that keeps to the surface, as if she were floating on a rubber raft in a pool. However relaxing that might sound, to sleep, to really sleep, is not to float on the surface, but to be deep down near the ocean’s floor.

On other nights, nights like last night, when she does manage to fall asleep before the sun comes up, the sleep is fragmented, interrupted by spates of waking and restlessness. It was the waking, the restlessness, and weeping in distress that had cut into Albie’s sleep, too. Despite that weeping wants an audience, it was never her intention to wake him. To cry when no one can hear you could well belong in the category Bunny calls “Wow Thoughts for Stupid People,” like the sound of one hand clapping. But unintentional or not, there came a night when Albie woke yet again to the ugly noises of his wife’s despair, and he snapped, “Shut up. Will you please just shut the hell up,” at which point Bunny took her pillow and went to sleep, or went to try to sleep, on the couch where a few hours later she put the same pillow over her face to block out the relentless morning sunlight. There she stayed until late afternoon when the sun was less aggressive. On her way to the bathroom, she cut through the kitchen where she found a pot of coffee kept warm but gone stale, and a blueberry muffin from Carol Anne’s, her favorite bakery, on a plate next to a note that wasn’t really a note. It was a lopsided heart and xoxo Albie scribbled on a torn-off corner of a brown paper bag. She wasn’t hungry, but because it was there and because Albie meant well, she broke off a piece of the muffin. In her mouth it tasted like an apple going bad, without flavor and mealy.

What Time Is It

Bunny sits up, but not up up. Her feet are not on the floor, but her back is resting against the arm of the couch, which is camel-backed, olive green velvet. What had passed for shabby chic at the time of purchase is now the furniture equivalent of a dog with mange. The upholstery is shredded, puffs of stuffing stick out like Albert Einstein’s hair. When Jeffrey had commandeered the couch as his scratching post, neither Albie nor Bunny had it in them to chastise the little idiot for what he couldn’t possibly understand. Also, Bunny’s been occupying much of her time pulling at the fabric’s loose threads. Her legs are stretched out and covered by the blanket as if they were useless, and she says, “Some. I slept some.”

It’s been over a week since Bunny last showered or changed the T-shirt she is wearing, which reeks of sweat and fear and emits a vapor which Bunny pictures as a visible fume of noxious gas, like the way a bad smell is depicted in cartoons. But her unpleasant odor is not why Albie chooses to sit more or less parallel to her hip with the three or four inches of couch cushion between them. It’s because sometimes when he touches her, even accidentally, she flinches. It’s not him in particular. She’d flinch no matter who touched her, but Albie is the only one with opportunity. It’s been many weeks, maybe months since she’s seen anyone other than Albie. And Jeffrey. Because it’s incomprehensible to their goofy cat that a snuggle might not be welcome, he jumps onto the couch where he winds his way into the unoccupied inches of space between Albie and Bunny, as if that space were there purposefully, intended for him. Albie strokes the cat’s ears and asks, “How much is some?”

“I don’t know,” Bunny says. “What time is it now?”

Albie checks his watch. “It’s nine twenty-one.” He cannot help but to be exact. Bunny, however, is an approximator. Piecing together the segments, the snippets of sleep, she calculates, “Four hours. Give or take,” she says.

Albie leans in closer to his wife seeming like he is going to lift a few stray strands of hair away from her face, except he’s about to do no such thing. “About tonight,” he says. “You know we can cancel. It’s no big deal.”

“I know,” Bunny says, which brings them to a lull in the conversation, such as it is a conversation. Jeffrey’s purring fills the void. His purr is unusually loud for a house cat, more like the purr you’d expect from a tiger, but Jeffrey is decidedly not a tiger. He is more like a battery-operated toy. His purr hums warm against Bunny’s hip, the sound waves ripple. His whole body vibrates, including his tail.

“Four hours is hardly a good night’s sleep,” Albie says.

“Maybe we should stay home. Get some rest. Because if you’d rather not go, I’ll call Julian. No big deal.”

“What time is it?” Bunny asks.

“Nine twenty-three.” Albie does not point out that she’d asked the same question when it was nine twenty-one because, as if the previous two minutes never happened, he too, although not word for word, repeats himself. “I’d be just as happy to stay home.”

It’s true. As far as he’s concerned, New Year’s Eve is no big whoop, which might seem out of character if you knew the incident about the odometer flip; about how as a small boy sitting in the passenger’s seat of his father’s infrequently used Volvo while driving to Far Rockaway, the odometer turned from 9,999 miles to 10,000, and Albie nearly passed out from the thrill of it. His father had to pull off to the side of the road for Albie to breathe in and out of a paper bag. But the flipping of the calendar page from one year to the next does not elicit even a remotely similar effect. But neither does New Year’s Eve disturb him the way it disturbs Bunny.

Second to New Year’s Eve, Bunny’s most loathed holiday is Thanksgiving. She used to loathe Christmas, too, but that changed after she and Albie got married. Although Albie is Jewish, they celebrate Christmas, albeit in their own, irreligious, somewhat screwy way, which has to do with gifts, pancakes, Santa Baby, and old Japanese horror movies. But the only holiday Bunny will claim any real affection for is Arbor Day because it has a purpose, which has value. Also, it’s free of tradition and not burdened with memories. It’s not even celebrated, really.

Last year, last New Year’s Eve, she’d said to him, “You know, I’d really rather stay at home and drink Clorox.” But that was last year. This year, she would say no such thing. This year, to indulge in the kick of a joke or the pleasure of hyperbole is to risk being taken at her word.

Yet, despite knowing that she will experience only despair and regret, every year she forges ahead with the New Year’s Eve celebrations as planned. The plans for tonight are the same as they were last year and the same as 2006, 2005, and 2004, too: a vaguely unpleasant dinner with Trudy, Elliot, Julian and Lydia before heading off to the Frankenhoffs’ after-party to watch the ball drop, which is the worst part of the night.

Dinner out with friends is something they do frequently, which does not mean that it’s easy. First, there is the when of it. They are busy people, their friends, with many dinners on their dance cards. A good amount of back-and-forth is required before they can locate a night mutually free of prior engagements and other obligations. Then, where to go? Where they have dinner is important, important the way a matter of life and death is important because at the next dinner out the previous dinner will be a significant topic of conversation. The dinner itself, the food, will have been either exquisite or overrated and the wine list excellent, although sometimes insufficient, but, always, the conversation is smart and warm and delightful, and what could be bad about that?

But, still. One night, nearly a year ago, they had dinner with Nathan and Philip. They are very fond of Nathan and Philip, though they were far from keen on the restaurant. Aviary, it was called, because the menu was all about freshly killed birds. The bird Philip ate was served with its feet and head, with the beak attached. On their way home Bunny said, “A fucking beak, and he ate it.” Even Albie, a zoologist at the Museum of Natural History, and therefore no stranger to dead birds with their parts intact, had to admit, “That was a little rough.” After that, nothing, not one word, passed between them until they got home. Then, while hanging up her coat, Bunny said, “If I have one more delightful dinner with delightful people engaging in delightful conversation, I am going to scream. I am going to scream and scream and never stop. I will die screaming.”

Albie sat on the edge of the bed to take off his shoes. “What’s wrong with a lovely dinner with lovely people?”

Either there was no explanation or not one that she could articulate. At a loss, she said, “Delightful. I said delightful. Not lovely. Delightful.”

“And the difference,” Albie asked, “Is what?”

__________________________________

From Rabbits for FoodUsed with permission of Soho Press. Copyright © 2019 by Binnie Kirshenbaum.




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