by Mark L Anderson
I’ve always been fortunate when it comes to break-ups. More or less, I’ve never ended things with an earth-shattering argument, never ruined a favorite song, drank myself to oblivion, or had to burn all my photographs of someone. Well, I did have one bad experience. Years ago, I had a partner I’d been with for a couple of years, and we were very comfortable. I thought we were going to spend the rest of our lives together. But then they transformed into a raccoon.
It all started one morning after I misplaced the honey. By ‘misplaced’ what I really mean is that I put it in one of the cupboards instead of leaving it half-stuck to the Formica counter. We’d already had some small fights over my compulsive night-tidying, and we’d tried to meet each other halfway, but I simply couldn’t bear to have a sticky mess on the counter.
“A little disorder won’t kill us,” my partner would say.
“Food messes attract bugs and bugs carry diseases. So it just might.”
“You could learn from our raccoons. They know how to make a mess and have a good time!”
‘Our raccoons,’ yes. I was certain that if we hadn’t already owned an insecurely attached cat, I would have walked into the house one day to find my partner watching slasher movies and feeding popcorn to the conniving animals.
Now I admit, especially when I was stressed or low on sleep, my compulsions led me to some odd behavior patterns. I’d get up in the middle of the night and wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep until I cleaned up whatever mess it was that festered in my mind. Only sometimes, still one foot in the door of a dream’s delirium, I’d put things in strange places. One morning I found the paper towels in the fridge — that sort of thing.
So, it didn’t necessarily come as a surprise when my partner texted me that morning asking where I’d hidden their precious honey.
Uh oh, night tidying strikes again. I’m sure it’s in one of the cupboards, I texted back.
No, they texted, no, no, no.
I understood they needed their honey for their coffee, but it was crunch season at work and I was struggling to keep up, frantically trying not to be buried alive under the tomes of paperwork our clients had failed to provide us until ten seconds after the deadline. If I didn’t stay on top of things the piles of legal pads and binders would surely have compressed down to some carbon-rich rock that would have made for a decent headstone. “Here lies ———, He Tried to Subdue Our Chaos, Foolish Mortal.”
Long story short, I didn’t remember exactly where I’d put the honey and I wasn’t responding with my partner’s desired level of urgency when they had to wake up without their treasured ambrosia. When I didn’t reply soon enough, they accused me of donating their expensive, raw, organic honey to the rambunctious community of urban fauna that often dug through our trash at night. Admittedly, I misread their distress and suggested they should ask the animals if anyone had seen the honey.
The last text I received from them read, I’m leaving to go live with the raccoons. This is goodbye, followed by several crying emojis, a jack-o’lantern, and four foxes. My best guess was that since our phones didn’t have a raccoon emoji they were creating one using arcane emoji algebra.
It was a long day, the kind that left me wondering if we would have been better off not inventing paper in the first place. By the time I was released from the onslaught of clerical malcompetence, it was dark and I would have sworn it was midnight even though it was only half-past seven. I’d forgotten about the honey fiasco altogether.
I was looking forward to a quiet evening of watching television and complaining about my coworkers. Usually, my partner would be in the living room when I got home, either working on some art project or journaling. They’d finish up what they were doing, we’d make dinner, then we’d watch something on the television. It wasn’t much of a ritual, but it was ours, and it was enough for me.
But when I walked in, they weren’t there. “Hello?” I called, walking into the kitchen. It was a small house, so they probably would have heard me if they were home, whether they were in the upstairs office or our bedroom downstairs.
The cupboards had been completely emptied and their contents were piled all over the counters. Bags of rice, pasta, beans, about ten half-emptied jars of peanut butter — there wasn’t enough room for everything so the coffee grinder and our collection of fancy cooking oils were in the sink. My partner’s favorite corgi mug spilled presumably unsweetened black coffee across the linoleum floor, its handle broken off.
At first, I wasn’t even mad, I was rather impressed by the magnitude of the mess. I mean, I understood they were upset over not finding the honey, but this seemed a bit excessive. Were they getting back at me by making me clean it all up? As I said, we’d had a few small arguments before, but nothing remotely like this.
I checked the rest of the house and confirmed that they must have gone somewhere. I sent a text saying that I was home and waited to hear back. My mind soon wandered off into dismal avenues, and I tried turning off my brain by watching the next episode of the sitcom we were bingeing.
At nine o’clock I resolved to finally call them. I’d become truly worried that they’d driven off angry, uncaffeinated, and ended up in a ditch or the hospital. At ten I messaged their closest friends, who hadn’t heard a word from them all day. At eleven I heard a rustling in the backyard and, hoping it was my partner, I rushed to check.
I opened the door to see the pack of raccoons had knocked over our trash and were scrupulously sorting through its contents. They were the most mischievous animals on the face of the planet, but I didn’t have it in me to chase them off. So I sat on the back stoop and watched.
There were four of the bandits that night, though I’d only seen three before. The biggest one rummaged inside the bin, emerging victorious with a sausage I’d burnt. It didn’t mind the char. Two of the others deftly opened the plastic garbage bags and spread the trash around, licking at wet wrappers. The last raccoon stood a bit further off, holding a honey container and giving me a quixotic look. Not the kind of honey we had, mind you. It was the kind with a bottle shaped like a bear. The lost honey came from a local organic farm and was packaged in a mason jar, real high-quality stuff, happy bees and all that.
The odd raccoon paused from licking its honey to stare at me for a good long while, and something in its expression, maybe its steady gaze or the way it cocked its head, gave me a very strange idea — could it be?
All night I waited up for some sort of response.
In the morning I called out from work. I let someone else deal with the avalanche of incorrect signatures.
Twenty-four hours after my partner’s last text, I filed a missing person report. It was the longest day of my life. I thought in obsessive circles of anxiety. Our relationship had been a little strained, both of us depressed by the short, sunless days. We’d had nights where every word we spoke to each other felt like stepping on glass, but we’d always talked it out and made amends. I had a hard time believing they’d actually gotten angry enough to leave, so I braced myself for a phone call from the police or hospital explaining the worst had happened.
I slept some that night. Truth be told, I knocked myself out on the couch drinking a generous helping of honeyed bourbon. On the television, the male lead burned through a handful of first dates, and his friends suggested zany self-improvement methods so that he’d be able to hold onto someone. He wore two sweaters to make himself look more muscular but ended up sweating so much his date, a doctor, wanted to rush him to the ER for tests. He took up drinking fernet to make himself appear sophisticated, but his date was put off by all the sour faces he kept making. I told myself it would be funnier when I rewatched it with my partner because they would tear him apart.
The next day, though hungover, I went back to work in hopes that pawing around at paperwork would keep my mind distracted. I made sure the correct signatures went to the correct incompetent office managers, who followed by making sure they went in the correct filing cabinets which would, most likely, never be opened again.
That night the raccoons plundered my trash again. Each day the spectacle of the mess grew. The mysterious fourth raccoon had a different jar of honey.
When the police ultimately decided my partner could be missing they came to my house and took notes. They told me I didn’t need to leave my kitchen in disarray.
I poured my energy into reorganizing the cupboards. If everything had the perfect place, maybe I wouldn’t put the towels in the fridge. When my partner came back the honey would have one dedicated location and it would never get lost again.
A few days later my partner’s best friends, Jenn and Ashton, stopped by to talk and cry, assuming the worst. We drank hibiscus tea, my partner’s favorite, and racked our brains trying to think of something, anything, we could do. I used the corgi mug, even though it had a broken handle. I asked if they thought it was my fault.
“There’s no way they’d leave without telling me first,” Ashton said.
Jenn agreed and brought up that if the police couldn’t do anything she knew a psychic who might be able to help. I didn’t really believe in that sort of stuff, but I figured it couldn’t hurt, so Jenn brought the psychic by the next day.
“I sense a disturbance in this house,” Madame Treespeake said in an overdone, lilting cadence as soon as she stepped through the door. She wore a faded, emerald cloak and I’m fairly certain her frizzled hair was actually home to a family of starlings. I had a difficult time believing she was a real psychic when she seemed to have stolen her aesthetic from a 90’s children’s horror novel. My suspicion was that an actual psychic might look like anyone else and wouldn’t have to lean so hard into the branding.
Jenn, Ashton, and I walked through the house with Madame Treespeake, who claimed her powers came from communing with the wood-spirits of an old-growth forest, hence the name. She uttered several “ooooohs,” and “aaaaaahs.” At one point she paused to sing in what I assumed was either Gaelic or gibberish to a houseplant I had woefully failed to water since the disappearance.
Once she finished with her ‘scannings,’ Treespeake had us sit in a circle in the kitchen, claiming the energy build-up was strongest where ‘it’ had happened. She tapped her crystal topped walking stick against the linoleum and began chanting my partner’s name in her deepest voice. Jenn jumped in enthusiastically, but it took some coaxing for Ashton and me to add our voices to the ritual. I felt an almost hypnotic effect. But when we finished, Treespeake simply said that my partner had not disappeared at all.
Jenn and Ashton drove off with the eminently unhelpful Madame Treespeake, and I thought I wouldn’t know where to find a real psychic, but that cartoonish woman certainly was not one. My partner would have loved that, of course. They would have known much better than Jenn or me. If I’d been a better listener I might have picked up on that as well.
Later, I went into the backyard and watched the raccoons. I told them how it went — police, friends, psychics: they all turned out to be positively useless. As always, the strange new raccoon tilted its head and listened.
I bonded more with those raccoons over the coming weeks. Picking up the mess in the backyard, normally a chore I couldn’t keep myself from doing, necessitated a level of effort I simply couldn’t dredge up. It was as though cleaning up the trash, the last remaining mess of that day, was an admission that my partner truly was gone. So for weeks, I let the animals have their filth. When I finally cleaned it up I felt like I was betraying them.
To absolve myself of guilt, I stopped at a gas station and bought a pack of hotdogs on my way home from work. Just this one time. I’d give them the hotdogs and say goodbye, and that would be that. They’d surely move along once they stopped having free dinner at my expense.
The raccoons were already in the midst of their heist when I got home. It was an impressive work of athletics and artistry. The big one had crawled on top of the bin and the others were scratching at the sides. If the seasoned criminals continued, I’m sure they would have toppled it over shortly. I pulled a lawn chair nearby and opened the hotdog package.
It didn’t take long for them to approach and take the squishy meats. They walked over one by one with no fighting, and each plucked a hotdog with delicate paws before running off on two legs to eat. I was impressed by their manners.
Only the strange raccoon stayed beside me while it ate. Something in the way it paused between bites and looked into my face reminded me so much of my partner. I got to thinking again. Of course, it was a crazy thought. But the raccoon had shown up the very day my partner disappeared, and Madame Treespeake said herself: they did not disappear—they were still here. Maybe the psychic wasn’t a charlatan preying upon my desperation after all.
I didn’t completely embrace the truth, at least not at first. But I did buy more hotdogs.
It’s difficult to listen to your partner once they’ve become a raccoon. Or rather, it’s difficult to discern what they’re trying to express through their subtle raccoon expressions. They would crawl onto my shoulder to eat, and I’d reflect on the mistakes I’d made. It’s true I hadn’t always been the best listener. I’d failed to compromise. I let entropy take its course when I should have been proactive about building our relationship and charting the course of my life.
Sometimes, I brought them new jars of the organic honey they still loved.
Every night, as that bleak winter turned to spring, I brought hotdogs home for the raccoons. Of course, I never told anyone this. We’d spend hours in the backyard. I’d talk, and they’d listen, though I never decided if they could really understand my words or not. Some nights we’d just sit in silence, sinking into that comfortable quiet which had always been when we felt closest to one another.
I quit that job that put me in such grim spirits and found more meaningful work at a nonprofit. Eventually, I qualified for a better position in a city on the west coast. I knew they were proud of me for pursuing a better life, but that didn’t make leaving any less hard.
I bought them one last jar of honey before I left. They took it without ceremony and I watched them enjoy it as they always did, hoping that somewhere in the sweetness of their wild heart they would remember me forever.
Mark L Anderson is a writer living in Spokane, Washington where he served as Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. He also co-founded the Broken Mic reading series and has traveled across the U.S. reading poems in coffee shops and living rooms. He works as a barista at a vegan bakery and he sincerely hopes you enjoyed your latte. It has a heart on it. (Photo: Dean Davis)