I answered the phone in my apartment and heard the sloping drawl of one of my students, Travis. "Miss Diana," he said, "Could you come on down the stairs a minute?"
It was early May on the Great Plains. The University of Nebraska had just let out for the summer, and there was an aroma of pasture and cow everywhere, even -- when the wind was right -- at the center of the city. I didn't want to be in Nebraska. I was 26 years old, and I wanted to be writing novels, not grading papers on detasseling corn. But I had just finished my first year of teaching, and I had no idea what to do next.
A year earlier, my boyfriend had married me fresh out of graduate school in New York, only to decide a week or two later to call it quits. He announced that he was moving to Paris with another woman and that I could just go to Nebraska and teach freshman composition.
For months afterward, I felt like my skin had turned to dotted lines, everything -- wind, rain, strangers' glances -- passed right through me. I spent a lot of time gazing out the window of my high-rise apartment in downtown Lincoln, thinking of the crystal-gray light of Paris and wishing I were anywhere else in the world than where I was.
I TOOK THE ELEVATOR DOWN. Travis, Tammy, and Shane, from Composition 115, spring semester, were sitting together on a leather bench in the sleekly lit lobby of my apartment building. The three of them had attended the same one-room schoolhouse, and they constituted the majority of their graduating class. Shane was holding a big carton that said "Xerox Paper" on the side. From deep within the box came a murmurous grunting and a sharp, rhythmic pulsing, as if it contained an internal organ. Everyone walking through the lobby looked at the box.
Tammy wore her hair in a high, stiffly sprayed froth of curls. She pushed back some strands and said, "Miss Diana, we just wanted to thank you for how much you've helped us with our thesis statements this year, and correct speech and whatnot, and Travis and Shane thought of this sweet little gift."
"It's not much," Travis said. Shane held out the box; I tentatively looked inside. There was a baby pig looking me right in the eye.
The idea for the pig must have come from a day at the county fair a few weeks earlier. Travis had noticed me hanging over the pigpen railing. He'd tipped his hat and ambled over in his high-heeled, pointy boots. "How dee do, Miss Diana?" he'd asked. My students said things like that all the time.
"Hi, Travis. I love these piggies," I'd gushed, straining to touch one. "Don't you?"
He'd turned crimson and touched his hat again. "Yes, ma'am," he'd said. "My cousin Shane raises them."
So they had decided to give me one. As I looked at her, I think my heart slowed down. I reached in; she sniffed my fingertips, then began to nose against the side of my hand.
I scooped her up. Her belly fit snugly into my palm; a low continual grunting pulsed through her body. Her trotters were pink and soft as fingers, her ears were perfect miniature triangular flaps, and her tail was a delicate spiral. Her eyes were clear and unafraid, fringed with long, transparent lashes. We gazed at each other.
"She ain't nothing but a runt, Miss Diana," Shane said apologetically.
I barely heard him. I think I waved to them. I carried the carton up in the elevator: The box shook and thundered and emitted piercing squeals that made everyone hug the elevator walls.
Back in my apartment, I released her, and she raced across the carpeting, her tiny legs shooting out, her ears upright, her mouth relaxed into a natural smile: a pink spark.
I named her Chloe, the Greek word for blooming. I thought of her as the goddess of flowers.
I felt a touch of vertigo as I watched her; something buzzed in my chest. This was terrible, like falling in love with the absolutely wrongest person in the world. There were so many problems with this situation that I knew I couldn't let myself think about any of them.
That first night, I fed Chloe straight out of the refrigerator. I followed her around with a sponge and paper towels, telling myself, this is ridiculous -- we aren't allowed pets in this building, much less livestock. Finally, I sprawled belly down on the carpet in front of the TV, and after much grunting and rooting, she paced and circled and settled herself squarely on my posterior. The matter was decided.
CHLOE QUICKLY got the hang of a litter box. She also had no objection to lazing in a warm bath like a bubble. She slept tucked under my arm and woke me by pressing her snout against my neck and face, a damp, ardent snuffling in my ear. And her natural smell seemed to be a slightly sweet scent of milk with occasional traces of my own perfume (a friend once picked her up, sniffed, and said, "Issey Miyake?").
My father, a Jordanian immigrant, is Muslim; his religion considers pork to be unclean and taboo. So, he was horrified by this turn of events and would call me from New York and shout, "Do you still have a pig in your house?" Then Mom would come on the phone and say, "Dear? Do you really need a pig at this time in your life? Do you really think that's what you need right now?"
In the background, Dad would yell, "No!"
I DIDN'T LIKE THE LEATHER collars at the pet shop, so I knitted her a halter and leash from pink wool. Then I would smuggle her down in the elevator (much grunting and rooting under my jacket), and we would go out for our constitutional.
Sometimes we'd pass a baby in a stroller who'd lift both hands and look at Chloe without blinking. Chloe would pause, examine the baby and move along. Office workers and secretaries on their breaks knew her by name. Chloe was polite but restrained with strangers, allowed cats to nuzzle her and wasn't above chasing dogs.
And then there were the farmers and ranchers who wandered into town. They dressed in overalls and seed caps, their eyes set in a deep squint. They nodded at me, then their gaze fell upon Chloe in her angora halter. They would come to a dead halt, toothpicks frozen in one corner of their mouths, lips parted, hands hanging. Beyond all speech. Often they looked stricken, as if witnessing a terrible upset in the natural order of things. Once a farmer in creased coveralls took two steps back, pulled off his seed cap and said, "So that's how they do it in the city."
Perhaps it was just coincidence that after I got Chloe, my life began to change. Nebraska worked its way into me. After a few early phone calls, my husband had disappeared as if he'd never existed at all -- our marriage seemed like something I'd dreamed. With Chloe, I forgot about him entirely.
Chloe and I went for rides; inside 10 blocks, the city tapered away to open lots, grazing cattle and long, flat planted fields of winter wheat and alfalfa, undulating banners of greens and tans. Scents and dust and wind came into the car. Chloe would stand and put her snout out the window, her whole body trembling. Were invisible farm voices beckoning her away?
We went to parties, we met people, we got around. Midway through June, we struck up a friendship with Vernal, a young man who worked at the feed store. Vernal mixed a special feed just for Chloe and gave her all her shots on the counter at his store. He'd quit being a veterinarian's assistant, he said, because he couldn't stand putting animals down. People didn't know anything about their animals, he said.
I laughed and told him that Chloe liked brie and jelly on crackers, that she came when called and that she knew how to sit and shake hooves. I told him that sometimes I'd squint at Chloe, and, if I didn't blink, it seemed like I could literally see her growing.
He smiled his handsome, even smile, shook his head and then asked me, as if giving in, "Well, are you already fixed up with someone else?"
I stroked Chloe on the sweet spot under her chin. Before I could say anything, he asked, "Can I take you line dancing over to the Pla-Mor Ballroom?"
I wasn't divorced yet, but there was no doubt that I was free. That night, Vernal and I went to the Pla-Mor, where I danced very badly indeed. But I didn't let that stop me.
CHLOE AND I WERE AWAKENED one morning in mid-July by a blast of noise. Sirens were going off everywhere. I turned on the television, and a weatherman was saying: "The funnel cloud is touching down at the corner of O Street and 195th . . ."
The phone rang, and Vernal said, "Not to alarm you -- things're going to be just fine -- but you might want to take a look out your window."
I opened the blinds on my bedroom window, and while I sat on the bed with Chloe, we watched a distant but quite distinct white wraith dip out of the clouds. The white thing sucked up a veil of dirt and turned into a black twister; it tilted to and fro, and its roar vibrated through the floorboards. After the twister passed, I lifted Chloe from my lap and saw that her hooves had left red welts on my thighs. I carried her to the bathroom scale and discovered that she'd gained 40 pounds in one month.
It wasn't just that Chloe was growing. I'd return home from errands and could hear her crying for me all the way down the corridor. Sometimes I'd see the apartment door shuddering in the frame as she battered against it; the inside of the door was pocked and scarred from her hooves. When we went out, the two of us had to skulk up and down the stairwell, praying not to run into the property manager.
Vernal suggested that she stay at his farmhouse, but I wouldn't hear of it.
By the second week of August, there was a note stuck to the front of my apartment door.
There had been other notes -- little yellow Post-its with terse messages such as: Management regrets to inform you that "pets" are not allowed. Or: We will consider you in violation of your lease if you do not have your "pet" removed from the premises.
This one was different. It was a letter printed on creamy stationery tucked inside a matching legal-size envelope. I didn't open it.
IN AUGUST, I was offered a position at the University of Michigan: fewer classes and more money. But could I move a pig that would eventually weigh more than 200 pounds to Ann Arbor?
An animal is not the same as a child, but it is entirely possible to love an animal as if it were. There are many people who will know what I'm talking about. It seems that this is the way that our hearts are built.
I gave Chloe a bath on the last Friday in August. She stood still while I dried her with a big towel. I sat hunched on the bathroom floor, and she stood next to me and rested her chin on my shoulder. I could hear her pulse thrumming through her. "What should I do, Chloe?" I asked her.
I wanted to take Chloe away. I wanted to go live on the Jersey Shore with my pig. I could see the two of us there on the brown beach, wandering barefoot, far away the tiniest outline of New York City wavering like a mirage above the water. That was all I could see. I waited for the rest of it to come to me -- about how we would live, eat, take care of ourselves -- but all I could see was the walking on the beach.
I started thinking about all the things I used to know for certain, like about getting married forever. Like how I hadn't planned on teaching for a living. Like about how you made plans about the future, and they were supposed to unroll before you like an intricate silk carpet.
A few hours later, I handed Chloe's leash to Vernal at the front door to his farmhouse. He lived in a white clapboard house tucked up tight on acres of billowing fields. My knees were shaking. I kissed Chloe on the top of her head and waved to Vernal, who stood watching me with his hands on his hips. His CD player was going in the kitchen, Hank Williams singing, "Your Cheatin' Heart."
AFTER A YEAR IN MICHIGAN, I returned for a visit. Vernal waited at the gate to his property holding his Stetson in both hands. He looked like a man with an awful confession to make.
"She wouldn't stay indoors anymore," he admitted. "She kept trying to bust out." Finally he tried letting her into a pen with his other hogs, and she seemed calmer.
We walked around to the back, to a pen bustling with immense pigs -- white, pink and spotted. My heart fell: I'd never be able to identify her in this crowd. I climbed into the pen. The mud came up over my ankles. I called out, "Chloe?" feeling stupid and a little desperate. And then, a huge soprano shriek went up. The hogs shuffled and parted, and a big pink pig with unusually intelligent eyes came running from the other end of the pen.
We are forever being told who and what is desirable, acceptable and lovable. But I think that sometimes there must be nothing quite as satisfying as loving the sort of person or animal that no one else expects you to love. It's the sort of thing that surprises you, springing up from hidden sources, deeper reserves, and so it feels more real.
She surged into me and nearly knocked me over; the wooden slats of the pen shook against our weight. She was squealing, her mouth open in her great, natural smile. She was hot and damp and completely animal; I could feel the deep, alien muscles moving under her skin. I squatted face to face with her, stroked under her chin, and she calmed down. She was well over 200 pounds, barely recognizable; her silky little trotters were now hard and sharp, and her hide was tough. She was a pig, that was clear enough. But I rested my face against hers and felt the thrum of her grunting pass through both of us. I put my arms around my girl, and she stood perfectly still.
Finally I rolled back in the mud, and Chloe looked at me with that steady gazing that only certain animals -- and people -- are able to sustain; the look that says: I know you. The wind blew around us, and the fields of wheat and alfalfa glowed like hammered metal. At that moment, there was nowhere else in the world that I wanted to be.
Diana Abu-Jaber teaches creative writing at the University of Miami and is the author of two novels, Crescent and Arabian Jazz.