Saliva etches itself into memory, a poem in invisible ink.
In my life it has penned a salty calligraphy, a script slathered with grease and good intentions. After the divorce (I was five) there were fast-food burgers (six to ten) and sandwiches smothered with processed cheese food and the pale flabby pinkness of deli-sliced ham. There were pizzas drowning in mozza and discus slices of sausage. There were cheap steaks at the diner, and everything bacon.
It made me happy, when little else did.
As people do, I grew up and moved out and chased after happy. Mostly, I found it in paper bags stamped with logos and heavy with cheap meat and industrialized cheese. Most days, I parked my car under trees and cranked up the heat, and savoured the Eat. It felt safe. It felt like someone (who?) was taking care of me. Always McSame. Always going to never McLeave.
No, I was never very happy, but at least I had meat.
He is a small and slender man. He is a slender, pale and gentle man, creeping towards thirty but the uncultivated whiskers that sprout from his cheek read more like twenty-three. When he tells me his real age, I exhale lightly. He’s just this guy. I think he likes me.
Ooh, a guy hey?
“Yeah, doubt it goes anywhere though. He’s so quiet.”
An inventory of him: he takes pictures. He gleefully Tweets jabs at the Prime Minister. He has a tattoo of crossbone carrots slashing one narrow aspen arm, but there is a lump of broccoli where a skull would be. He has a way of opening his mouth as if to speak, then tripping on his tongue when he looks at me.
So yeah, he seems sweet.
We are in the dying throes of another backlit Canadian winter. We are in IKEA and I am shopping for a dresser. We are somewhere between the Ektorps and the Klippans when I press him about the ethos behind his vegan Jolly Roger.
“What’s your take on honey?”
These words slip out of my lips and I taste the bitter bile of their obnoxiousness, I am hunting for a reason to strike him off my list. “Too reactionary,” I’d say maybe, or too much a purist to handle life with the awkward angles and multitude hypocrisies of me —
But he is not — he is — oh, he shrugs. “I get why people disagree on that,” he says. “I just think, what gives us the right?”
This is not quite the answer I am expecting, having known men already, men who gripped my thigh too tightly as they spoke about animals and purity. And so, in those five short words he exposed me.
Who has the right / where do we stand
My rights end where yours begin
I do not know it yet, but this is the moment I fall in love with him.
My feminism is a conversation.
I speak it in a language indigenous to my place and this time, and yet it spans generations. My feminism is a discussion about how — not what — to think about power and gender, power and race, power and sexuality. How to think about economic policy and health, about violence and safety. How to think about bodies.
Yes, yes, our bodies.
The conversation spills from the center of our bodies, outlining, defending, defining. Bodies as products and bodies as objects, bodies as commodities. Always fighting the ways that those who declare themselves strong, declare their entitlement to the bodies of those they declare weak.
Oh, there it is —
Whispering between the silhouettes of silenced bodies, I hear how the language of my feminism speaks across species. Our species has sorted us into hierarchies: some bodies as tools, some bodies as trash. Some bodies pressed into service in ways living bodies can’t stand, so they’re shot full of drugs and crammed into shapes that balance sheets find pleasing.
This is not lost on advertisers, who have long used women’s flesh and animals’ flesh interchangeably, understanding that both can be painted as something to be devoured, dominated and consumed.
And women —
We’ve been forced to use the language of oppression to outline the boundaries of our humanity: “what you do to the animals,” we cry, “do not do to me.”
This is just survival.
“I felt like a piece of meat,” a rape survivor says, and entwined in that tapestry of sadness is the fact that every morsel of meat lived and died the same way. (And yet, even some purported pro-animal organizations regularly revisit this violence, putting women on a plate.)
Whether or not animals have a soul, I couldn’t say, it’s not something a person can prove. Believe it or not, as is best understood by you, but there’s no question they are imbued with an arrangement of neurons that allows them an experience of this world that we share. An experience lit by the sun, cooled by the breeze, and defined between birth and death by the desire to live free.
And so, they cling to survival, until their blood paints the slaughterhouse floor. They howl and they squawk and they roar, their tongues crying out a terror that only ever ends one way. Their only witnesses are slaughterhouse workers, often drawn from the poor, often men and women of colour pressed into work stained by exploitation and abuse.
I do not know whether a vegan society would be a more just one. I do know this: the same lie that asserts men are entitled to the bodies of women, that the wealthy are entitled to the bodies and labour of the poor, that white bodies can dominate bodies of colour — that is the same lie that allows industrialized meat and dairy production to exist.
What gives us the right, he said -
My rights end where yours begin.
On a crisp night in August, we corralled my two cats into laundry baskets and left the cold and lonely condo that had been for seven years my house, if never really a home. I followed him to an apartment on a raggedy street about a kilometer away or so.
He is the safest place I have ever known.
“Thing is,” he says cautiously, sipping cocktails on a patio the night I stuff my shoes into his closet, “I can’t have a fridge full of dairy.”
I know this, and so never buy any.
Instead, he takes charge of our eating, all of it plant-based and full and amazing. He transforms food into feasts and we eat joyfully: oh, so many things on the menu. Chickpea curry and potatoes roasted with parsnips and garlic. Rib-sticking stews and macaroni rolling in rich sauces. In the mornings, he toasts savoury pizza bagels. At night, we sip wine and devour a gooey apple crumble.
We laugh a lot, when we’re eating.
He is clever, I ache for nothing, there is never a moment where I wish there was animal flesh or secretions on anything. He broils eggplant slices with soy sauce and liquid smoke and it sizzles like bacon. He has a way of frying up tofu to be as fluffy as a perfectly scrambled egg, even though it never saw any side of a chicken.
We talk about books while we eat, about books and ideas and politics, and he never talks over me. He never speaks louder than me.
At night, we fall into bed with glowing bellies and curl up tight like fiddleheads before their full flowering. Our lips wrap around life and our tongues write new memories. The war machines hum demolition ditties just outside our doorstep, but in here there is no cruelty.
In here, there is no —
My God, I am a raw and hurting thing. I am a ragged, raw and mewling thing, but his arms hold open space for me to breathe. He slips out no hidden sighs, seeks no dominion over me.
Love, life and safety —
In here, there is no cruelty.
I will never be a model of purity.
Food is not a destination but a journey, and the veil lifts for me in pieces as my world tilts and shifts. Sometimes I go a week without consuming anything that once belonged to an animal, sometimes a month. Then sometimes, I still slip back into those old memories, into the lonely habit of eating whatever dead and meaty thing is put in front of me.
Those days come less often, lately. Less often with each passing week. Threads are being severed; old habits, unlearned.
We are creatures of privilege. We have a kitchen to cook in and implements to cook with, and the time and energy to put them to use at least a few nights a week. We have access to a wide range of grocery options, and the Fresh Box delivery we get once a week thrills us, fills us with the excitement of what it could be. We are lucky people, to have choices.
So there is that.
Understand: this is a call for choices. The choice depends on affordability, on accessibility, on ensuring that food deserts are watered with healthy produce. And the choice depends on punching up, not punching down: on challenging industrialized Euro-settler animal agriculture, not abusing Inuit women who post pictures of seal skins on Twitter.
And for me —
Cauliflower korma is bubbling on the stove. My love is tending it while I wrestle with these words that I wrote. I press “post,” and retreat to another night where my eyes wince with no cruelty.
Food / love / and safety.