FICTION

“I’m Afraid I Might Be Turning Into A Dog”

An excerpt from NIGHTBITCH, Rachel Yoder's novel about an agitated new mother who’s undergoing more than the usual postpartum changes

In addition to the hair spreading on her neck and now shoulders, her pointy teeth, her tail, the next morning her breasts were swollen and tender, and her lower back was cramped. A thick, heavy headache thudded beneath everything she did. This she knew. This was normal, or at least normal ever since her period had come back a year after the baby, a bright deluge or a muddy trickle, a week of flooding or a couple days of next to nothing. She could depend on nothing reproductive now, other than the suffering.

Adding to her premenstrual agony, the fat black cat with its unkempt fur sticking out at odd angles, big green eyes devoid of intelligence, rawled and rawled at the exact frequency that inspired homicidal rage.

Did she perhaps kick the cat a little—mostly by accident, since the thing was always there at her feet, asking for more food, but also the smallest bit on purpose, just enough to loft a fount of gleeful murder-joy inside her chest? Yes.

Out out out out outoutoutout, she grunted, thundering around the kitchen to try to catch the animal, who skittered between the chair legs, then under the kitchen table.

The mother stomped to scare it out, then grabbed its oddly rotund midsection. The cat deflated ever so little and squeaked like a toy. Its tiny legs wiggled as she carried it to the door and propelled it onto the porch.

She used to love the cat, back before she had her son.

She used to love the cat, back before she had her son. It was a beautiful creature, pure black and fluffed extravagantly, with big green owl-eyes and a tiny, high-pitched princess meow that sounded like a bell. She was astoundingly beautiful and, to the same degree, astoundingly idiotic. She meowed frantically until someone walked over to the bowl and pointed at her food and shook it around a bit, at which point she began to eat as if starved. She always darted in the same direction the mother was walking, and then got stepped on, then made a horrible noise and rocketed off to the basement. She ate too much and had become overweight and could no longer properly clean herself, so the mother had to, weekly, wash matted poop from her butt hair, and did so with great disdain. Such a cleaning was necessary since the cat was prone to urinary-tract infections due to what the veterinarian had called an anomalous vulva.

But we made it here together! her husband would say warmly whenever she complained about the cat. He cradled the stupid thing in his arms and argued: Just think, we and this cat all evolved from a single-celled organism and made it to this moment in history, together. We did it!

The mother would let out a bark of laughter, for of course she had never thought of it in such terms before, and it did at least for a time make the cat more a triumphant comrade than a worthless pest, but that camaraderie soon faded.

Oh sure, yes, they had all made it. But, honestly, this cat never would have made it without human intervention. Her breed would have been a palace cat, the cat of the queen, a cat who sat on a silken cushion all day and was fed minced meat that a ruddy cook had prepared. The cat did, then, in a way, deserve to die, if you were playing by evolutionary rules.

Now the mother did not want another thing needing her, needing to be cuddled, fed, washed, cooed at, and doted over. Now she wanted only silence and to not be touched.

Her sense that society, adulthood, marriage, motherhood, all these things, were somehow masterfully designed to put a woman in her place and keep her there—this idea had begun to weigh on her. Of course, it had crossed her mind before, but after her son arrived it took on a new shape, an unwieldy heft, and then even more after she quit her job, as her body struggled to regain its equilibrium.

Her sense that society, adulthood, marriage, motherhood, all these things, were somehow masterfully designed to put a woman in her place and keep her there—this idea had begun to weigh on her. Of course, it had crossed her mind before, but after her son arrived it took on a new shape, an unwieldy heft, and then even more after she quit her job, as her body struggled to regain its equilibrium. And once she was stripped of all she had been, of her career, her comely figure, her ambition, her familiar hormones, an anti-feminist conspiracy seemed not only plausible but nearly inevitable.

She needed to get cat food and other groceries that day, and she did not want to get cat food and other groceries, but she went to get them anyway.

At the grocery store, she could not get out from inside this thinking, that she was trapped, that it was all a plot, and she spiraled into an even worse mood, despite her efforts toward positive thought and the choice of happiness.

She wondered whether she was being hysterical as she wheeled the cart through the produce and past the deli. That was the last thing she wanted to be. She had always prided herself on not being a hysterical woman but, rather, a smart woman with good points who sometimes got a little upset but was mostly cool to hang out with.

Of course, she knew that the concept of “the hysterical woman” was itself a sexist creation, and she rejected the label altogether, but she also made sure no one would ever associate her with such a label to begin with.

The boy babbled, Cookie, cookie, cookie, from his seat in the cart, then did his sign for please, rubbing both his palms up and down on his chest and looking at her with big eyes.

She smiled and touched his nose and meandered distractedly toward the bakery department.

Yes, certainly, her emerging rage was in part a by-product of physiological processes, but how could you not be pissed after having a baby?

It wasn’t hysteria if the claim one was hysterical about was true, if the systems of which one was a part were set up from the start to put women at a disadvantage. In fact, even though a loose historical definition of hysteria would indict the uterus and out-of-control female hormones, it was these very things that did not handicap women but elevated them, sharpening their minds, availing to them the realities of gender politics and honing critical thinking skills until razor-sharp.

Yes, certainly, her emerging rage was in part a by-product of physiological processes, but how could you not be pissed after having a baby? she wondered as she picked up a wedge of cheese and sniffed it, registering a depth of smell hitherto unknown to her—hay, smoke, honey, a fungal musk, a sweet-rotten tang. Amazing, she thought as she set it back down. A premenstrual sensitivity, she told herself, even though what she feared—with a sharp realization—was that this was yet another canine development, this heightened sense, which only grew stronger and stronger as she moved through the store: the ripe yeasts of the bakery, the baking soda and bitter cocoa of the boy’s chocolate-chip cookie, the milks in all the states of freshness and souring, vinegar from the olive bar, the deadened fields of grass in the bagged-bread aisle, high sharp notes of fresh coffee grounds.

She was alive in a new way as she walked about the store, the boy’s happy face covered in chocolate. She smelled the dark tea and damp dirt of the aged urine in his diaper, then the salt and green of the seafood section. The boy liked to look at the lobsters in the tank, claws banded, wallowing in a pile in the murky water. They stopped to watch the animals tumbling over each other and knocking against the glass.

The grocery store is a locus of oppression, she thought as she wheeled onward, past an old lady who worked at the store and cooked fish-fillet samples in an electric skillet at a small podium.

Bite? the mother asked the boy, pointing to the cookie. Share?

He held the cookie out to her, and she nibbled on the edge. Thank you, she signed, and he clapped his dirty hands. She wished she had an entire cookie, a dozen cookies. She was suddenly ravenous, but, no, that wasn’t right. She didn’t want cookies. She went to the meat counter and bought three thick rib-eye steaks, the smell of pennies and blood and death spinning her into a depthless hunger. They were so beautiful! How had she never before noticed their beauty, the deep red of the meat set starkly against the white swirls of fat. Each a tiny masterpiece, she thought, licking her lips. She asked for more: Two pounds of ground chuck; on second thought, make it three. A half-dozen bratwursts. What about that stew meat? It looked delicious. How about a pound of that? And look at that top-round roast. That one that’s the size of a possum, she said, pointing, to the butcher, who chuckled as he retrieved it from the case. And some premade kabobs for good measure, for vegetables, because that was healthy, she said, getting hold of herself.

Yes, vegetables were very civilized. Dogs wouldn’t buy vegetables.

Listen to what you’re saying, she said to herself.

Stop it, another self said. Stop talking to yourself.

Shit, she thought.

I am angry all the time. I would one day like to direct my own artwork toward a critique of these modern-day systems that articulates all this, but my brain no longer functions as it did before the baby, and I am really dumb now. I am afraid I will never be smart or happy or thin again. I am afraid I might be turning into a dog.

It was a Friday, and her husband would be home from work later that day. She had upward of ten pounds of red meat in her cart. They still needed juice, wipes, yogurt, bananas, crunchy snacks, and a bag of utterly civilized carrots.

Imagine trying to shop for crunchy snacks with a toddler and heightened near-animal sense of smell while the enormity of patriarchal society loomed behind every box of farm-themed crackers, in the crackle of every pretzel bag you picked up.

As she walked through the automatic sliding doors of the grocery store to the parking lot, someone behind her said her name, and she turned.

Sally—single, cute, young, happy, blonde Sal—waved and nearly skipped toward her with glee.

Hey, how’s it going!? she asked, hugging the mother and ruffling the boy’s hair. I haven’t seen you in forever. Do you love being home with this guy? I bet it’s so fun.

Sal worked at the community gallery where she had been director before she stepped down. It had been the right choice. It had. Being at work while her infant lolled on the day-care’s linoleum floor had been agony, but being at home was also agony, just of a different sort.

She wanted to tell the girl: It’s complicated. I am now a person I never imagined I would be, and I don’t know how to square that. I would like to be content, but instead I am stuck inside a prison of my own creation, where I torment myself endlessly, until I am left binge-eating Fig Newtons at midnight to keep from crying. I feel as though societal norms, gendered expectations, and the infuriating bluntness of biology have forced me to become this person even though I’m having a hard time parsing how, precisely, I arrived at this place. I am angry all the time. I would one day like to direct my own artwork toward a critique of these modern-day systems that articulates all this, but my brain no longer functions as it did before the baby, and I am really dumb now. I am afraid I will never be smart or happy or thin again. I am afraid I might be turning into a dog.

Instead, she said, smiling, I love it. I love being a mom.

From the book NIGHTBITCH by Rachel Yoder, published by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Rachel Yoder.