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Dearest Creatures

When species meet, there is an eruption of feelings, a set of contacts, and certain points that intersect. Instincts are set and done. Language starts to touch and attach to bodies. All things happen before they settle. Species sync. They dance. They correspond.

“Dearest Creature,” a phrase that Virginia Woolf uses to begin letters with Vita Sackville-West. The two had an affair while Virginia was writing the novel Orlando. Like many relationships, they parted ways, but they continued to write, keeping one another updated on each other’s lives and whatever has remained post-affair. Back and forth, a friction, a path, a connection. Dearest creature, a queer correspondence unfolds.

When we think of the word “queer,” we connotate it with desire: a desire unknown to the heterosexuality and normalcy our parents have continued to pass onto us. For this writing on friendship, I want to think of queer as strange, peculiar, and hard to communicate. I want to think about how I situate myself to the world through my own queerness and unknowing in relation to something other than me. Much like Virginia and Vita trying to understand what they mean to each other after a secret affair, I want to connect with my own relationships, particularly with my pets, and understand them better with my unknowing.

I walked two miles to a Petco in Jackson Heights. The past few days, my roommates and I have been searching for another member to add to our home. We were not allowed to have a dog or a cat, but small animals in cages were okay. We went to pet stores in Union Square, Greenwich Village, Rego Park, and Maspeth. I was feeling sad one day, so I walked to the Petco in Jackson Heights. In an enclosure all alone sat Bartholomew, a guinea pig. I looked into his eyes, and he looked into mine. An abyss that returns the gaze.

Art by Meredith Waugh

Remember the first pet you’ve ever had? I was two. My parents got me a baby African spurred tortoise. She was so small. She grew up with me until she was too big for my trailer park home. We gave her away to relatives who had a backyard. My parents let me name her. What does a two-year-old name a tortoise? Goo Goo.

Shortly after Bartholomew – or Bart – we adopted Ernest, or Ernie. Bart was nearly a year old, while Ernie was about two months. I’ve never had guinea pigs before, but apparently, there’s a law in the Netherlands that forbids the adoption of one guinea pig. They cannot be alone, so we got two.

Ernie is the baby in our family. He’s playful, sweet, and wild unlike Bart, who is more reserved but still sweet. I look into Ernie’s eyes, and they are a beautiful blue.

Dearest creature, you took me to Flushing, to the place where I bought you cookies for your birthday and a house-warming dinner. All I can think about now is the look in your eyes when you were looking at me under the lighting design of a heated lamp, next to the windows that illuminate the bright insides, and the neon off of Mainstreet that make this place feel so foreign. You apologized more than I thought you would. You looked at me, waiting for the abyss in me to respond. I do want to see you again.

I’m more of a Jacques Derrida than a Donna Haraway when it comes to animals. But both resonate with me in many ways.

In high school, I was starved to learn about postmodernism. When I was registering for classes at the university I attended, I stumbled upon a course syllabus named “Modernism/Postmodernism.” This is where I found out about a book of poems by Amy Gerstler called Dearest Creature. The title became an obsession (I had it as a Tumblr URL and still use it today for some passwords shhhhh). At the end of the poem “He,” there is a queer correspondence that is written so beautifully between a man and his dog.

He knows he deserved it. He sits down on the welcome mat, taps off his ash, and kisses the dog’s furry head. She wiggles her hindquarters and licks the knee of his jeans.

It is funny to know now that I did – and may still – have a fear of dogs. I wish I knew why.

It is also funny to know that people are afraid of rats. I understand how they are viewed as vermin, but they are my favorite animal. I feel like it is my destiny to love them: I was born in the Year of the Rat, and my father had them as pets when he was in college. I’ve had the pleasure of being paired with Sophie, Speedy, and Chumlee. I currently have a rat named Corey. It is hard to find a domesticated rat in New York City, but I was lucky to have found him in Jackson Heights. His previous owner had to give him away because Corey was aggressive towards other rats, and they thought it’d be best to be by himself. Though he is aggressive, he loves people. The sweetest thing.

Art by Meredith Waugh

I loved how Corey’s previous owner named her rats. She named them after places in Queens. There’s Juniper named after Juniper Valley Park, Jackson is named after Jackson Heights, Elmer is named after Elmhurst, and Corey’s brother Lemon is named after Lemon Ice King, an ice cream place. Corey is named after Corona.

In Corona, Queens is the Queens Zoo. I have a problem with zoos, and I am very vocal about how problematic they are. The problem is with how we look at animals other than our own. Their history and formations can be traced to early colonialism. Along with animals, indigenous people from non-European countries and the United States were put into cages too. Through juxtapositions of the cages, white Westerners placed a nonhuman logic on nonwhite people. This subjugation by an imperial force further showed them (and that includes the nonhuman animals) off as objects with no conscience or conscious.

The last zoo I went to was the one in Atlanta, Georgia. I went for a friend’s birthday. I felt uncomfortable. Crowds of people surrounding primates in a contained environment. Pointing and giving a name to what they see. “Gorilla,” “chimpanzee,” “orangutan.” All for our enjoyment.

You know what’s crazy? Apparently, some ape species such as the chimpanzee share 99% of their DNA with humans. That’s 1% of difference that makes me look onward as they are contained in a small habitat for the rest of their lives, being gawked at by humans.

In my last year of undergrad, I took a course called “Animals and Performance.” The course looked at performance art that either used animals or questioned how animals can perform using the critical field of animal studies. The first piece we read was John Berger’s “Why Look At Animals?” in their book About Looking. I cannot stop thinking about my own looking.

One of my favorite things the philosopher Jacques Derrida wrote was The Animal That Therefore I Am. An obvious riff off of René Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” Derrida begins his exploration of animality by thinking with the human and the nonhuman animal. What inspired this thinking was when his cat observed him naked when he stepped out of the shower. They both looked at each other. It was like an abyss that looks back at you.

During my third year of undergrad, I fell in love with someone for the first time at the age of 21. It was an intense three months of passion that fizzled out due to him having the flu, me getting depressed, and him moving on. I was upset for two years about it. The remainder of him still haunts me whenever I love. Like Virginia Woolf, I tried to save my relationship through the letters I sent him. They didn’t work.

I mention him because I remember when he left me, he adopted a dog. One night, my friends took me out to a bar, and he was there with his little pup. It bothered me to see him at this bar being happy. I sat in a chair, slowly watching my friends leave for the night, and I just sat in this chair. Paralyzed. Glued. Thinking it was the end of the world and how much love sucks. As I was in my head, his dog was in my lap. The dog nuzzled into me. I cried. Apparently, the little guy forced himself out of his owner’s arms, walked across some people between, and came to comfort me. I never understood why I was afraid of dogs.

Perhaps the worst thing about the creatures in our lives is their mortality. The worst thing about having a companion species with you is that they die. Goo Goo was killed due to a sudden freeze that occurred while she was outside. Sophie, Speedy, and Chumlee all died in my arms. Each one of them knew they were going to die, and they made sure that they got my attention so I could hold them. Even rats don’t want to die alone.

In gleaming moments like these, forming and falling like raindrops, I’d give anything to be one of them, either that man or his dog. Instead, not knowing which end is up, or what saints to pray to, I find myself hopelessly in love with them both.

Dearest creature, meeting you was an accident. Being with you still is an accident. We are confused by what we mean to each other, but we understand that we need one another. We are in sync. This accident is like the accident that causes planets into orbit. We cannot name what we are to each other. We cannot quite put a finger on it. But knowing all of this, we still hold each other’s hands.

Bart, Ernie, and Corey are resting as I write. I am a cautious mother. I make sure they have everything they need, everything they want so they are able to live great lives in my living room in my apartment in Queens. We live simultaneously in misunderstanding each other yet remaining in sync. I believe this is what love is.

With my other creatures, I feel we have parted ways. Demarcated by categories and time. We may call this evolution. I see it as an order of things. Somehow to the world, this is supposed to make sense. I want to work with nonsense because I want us to not part ways. Language with logic can create cuts between us. I want us to attach as if we can stick to one another. I believe it is George Bataille that said, “stop making sense, your sense has destroyed the world.”

And here we are with the remainders. The pieces. We can place them together through associations and feelings. Let us not use logic now. I want to look at you like Vita. I want you to look at me like Virginia. I want to look at you like a cat. I want you to look at me like I am Derrida. Together, we are two abysses corresponding, making a world of our own, a language we understand, a dance.

Dearest creatures, I am glad - as different species - we have met.

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katie wilkerson
katie wilkerson

My God, you've done it again. Everything you write is so lovely. I still remember your emotional correspondence with your passed rat Sophie that you read to our fifth grade class. You've changed so much, and not at all. I am so proud of you, and so happy that you choose to share with us <3

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