Richard Chiem | Animal

Before anything else, he realizes he is a person. He has somehow reached this point in his success to consider the question of what is a good person? He is feeling quite detached from where he is. On TV the camera slowly zooms out and frames him in the scene. The stadium is a closed roof stadium and filled to capacity. There are no clear faces in the crowd that can be seen from the ring, only colors. Mouths open and close and form loud haunting chants. Flashing cameras illuminate small pockets of the crowd.

Everyone is having a profound moment of art.

The fighters are losing weight at every blow, as though evaporating. Red gloves glow like neon. The opponents circle and hover above the canvas.

He punches like he doesn’t remember who he is and begins to drift elsewhere. He keeps breathing, letting in more pain. He is punching and blocking out the sound of the crowd.

A woman whispers to her husband in the crowd, God in heaven, he is going to kill him, and the husband wonders about the bet he’s made. The crowd cheers and wants.

River punches relentlessly beyond thought.

The bell rings.

His eyes are cuts; buzzing lights hang above them like a floating city. There is a slight peace in standing still in the center of noise.

He knows to let it envelope him now.

He knows this strange peace when being very still when being watched or being filmed.

His face is the only clue people rely on. River wonders if Sam is watching the fight, if she is sitting down or walking around, if she is eating food or listening and glancing over at the television as she walks her dishes to the sink. His face is a question to the people jeering and the men commentating and the flashes competing for pictures and Sam is at home, watching his response.


Sam asks if he wants to swim, standing on the other side of the patio. The pool water jets therapeutically and softly in the underwater light. In the dark, River says nothing and begins undressing. They are left alone to do whatever they want in the winter, when the water is freezing cold, undisturbed by other tenants. No one else wants to swim in the pool but River and Sam in the winter. There is something revolutionary and nervy about swimming pools at night, he thinks. Dirty red leaves float on the dark slow moving surface. When he turns his head slightly back around, they consider each other. The pool is at the center of the apartment complex, with surrounding walls with closed blinds and windows, hanging laundry.

Sam comes closer and squeezes different parts of him and stays at his arm. He only acknowledges her by tensing his back muscles in her hands. She can hear the water lapping at the sides of the dark blue pool. Palm trees drag and sway framing the sky.

She looks at her hands on his back as though dreaming them there. But she moves her hand and the hands move.

River dives into the freezing pool under a breeze and splashes below. Under cold water, in slight agony and pleasure, he can hear muffled slow traffic from the road. His ears pop and pop. Touching the bottom of the pool, he stretches his back muscles and hamstrings and thinks he wants to die. From above, Sam stares at the closed double doors from the wrought iron gated entrance before lowering herself to the floor with her chin on her knees. There are a few glow in the dark green signs that read NO HORSEPLAY. There are no traces of birds or small animals on the ground or in the dimly lit trees. Without moving a muscle, she is very close to the homeostasis state.

Laying down, she folds her hands on her stomach and watches a slow shooting star turn into a small plane into blue and red blinking lights.

River gets out of the water and drips footsteps around her. The body changes temperature around his lungs and face.

She says, When you went into the pool without me. You abandoned me in that moment.

She says, It was nasty of you.

She realizes her mind trying to shut River out for weeks now. When he comes up in conversation between friends or strangers, she abstains from saying anything. When talking, she has been enjoying just looking off in her hands. She remembers going to the grocery store earlier in the day, not wanting to buy anything for either of them. They both sink into the hot tub, the milky light, the rising steam.

He says nothing.

She asks, Yes?

He says, Yes.

I felt no obligation for some reason, to answer you.


He asks if he is striking a nerve, whether or not he is upsetting her. She wants to tell him anecdotes and ignores the question. Lately, they have been openly ignoring each other’s questions. Often instead they only exchange stories with things they see throughout the day, of common people and familiar faces they see everyday. Sam cups the water jet with her palm. She has been having uneventful dreams, like one where she is only looking to answer a craving for Diet Coke. She is walking somewhere imagined in a dream city or along a highway. She wakes and sleeps next to him. The days suck into weeks into months and assemble themselves into the future.

He says, You never answered my question.

She says, Because it was a mean question. You know what you’re doing.

River says, This feels like an energy ball. My hand on the water jet.

She says, I was just thinking that, staring at the jet on her side of the pool.

He says, You were just thinking that.


In the kitchen, they frost a cake together without special occasion. She says she thought of him earlier today going to the grocery store. She says after the errand, she went for a walk and watched cars pass by, turning the wide curve under willow trees next to the apartment complex. She feels every car pass, not hitting her, and she archives her feelings. For days, unsaid things are more and more common occurrences between them, like once in the morning in the mirror in the bathroom, when they catch eyes brushing their teeth and distance themselves. They have matching towels they regret buying. She wonders if there is something wrong with him.

He says, Fuck, and stubs his toes everywhere in the apartment.

She begins movies on demand without him. She becomes someone whose personal trivia has changed, replacing her old favorite movies with new favorite movies. Some days, he stands there from behind the couch watching her silently as though just accessing memory.

On the dining room table, there are two unopened cardboard boxes of creative wedding invitations, those with fine ink lace and paper, and early wedding presents. For a week, they eat frozen fruit smoothies from a brand new blender, and discuss breaking up. River watches a space on the couch beside Sam and contemplates sitting down before sitting down, and he brings her a drink. They have received three of the exact same blenders new knives and various designer picture frames. The tension between them can still sometimes lead to sex and brief moments of wanting each other. They pull hair and remain quiet, not speaking.

He calls from the grocery store and ask if they need any more strawberries or anything else.

She says, I am watching a movie, not answering the question.

River says, Bitch.

She asks, What are you saying? Are you calling me a Bitch?

He says, You don’t remember. It’s from a movie we watched together. A man says Bitch to his wife while he is being wheeled away on a stretcher or something to an ambulance and she thinks he is calling her a Bitch. But he was just quoting a movie they watched before.

Sam says, I don’t remember.

She says, I think we’re low on milk and cantaloupe too.

He says, Fucking Bitch.

She says, Fucking Asshole.

River says, Right now, I am riding the shopping cart up and down and back and forth the aisles, and everyone is looking at me. All the employees.

He listens to her falling asleep on the phone, holding the phone with his shoulder, while he picks up two gallons of milk and a magazine for her to read, the special issue of Vanity Fair with her favorite Hollywood people on the cover. He sleeps with his arm around her while she doesn’t move.


Sam leaves a room like someone who will be right back, and does not look back once she has started to leave even if it’s before she knows where she is going. After their most recent argument, one ending with throwing furniture and shoes not at each other but at the walls and down staircases, Sam feels vague and foreign to the apartment that used to be their apartment. The television illuminates the dark warm living room while the microwave illuminates the small narrow kitchen. Sam spins around, contemplating her relationship, where her home is. She cannot tell what, inside her, is innate. The lining of her stomach hums and grows tense. She eats black ice cream and quivers as River is driving to the coliseum. Even when very tired, she can watch television for hours and feel close to bliss. Absolute bliss. She belongs to a particular space on the carpet, a certain cushion on the sofa, the middle of her bathtub, and the space between her bed and wall.

There are times she wants to be unbearable. For an instant, she feels as if she and River have been carrying on some other conversation, role playing the lives of some other couple this whole time. Perhaps they have not been fighting for weeks. Perhaps this all has been just one of them imagining things. She has been asking herself questions in the presence of friends and inanimate objects. Most days, she feels better just walking outside, walking for hours, in stupid directions and small circles around the block.

On the television: River is fighting his match. River seems to be doing okay, although she cannot tell. He has not been hit in the face for quite some time. When watching his matches, she cannot help looking away during the surreal moments. River sometimes mouths her name.

Only in these moments he calls her Samantha.

She keeps the television on when she leaves. On the screen, River’s laughter has been going on for some time, through multiple rounds, catching the attention of other channels, broadcast stations, gossip networks. His laughter, his laughing, has been aired as a heartbreaking, strange coming of age story of a young champion, as though they have been there all along.

The whole world has been right there all along.

Sam calls Mary.

Mary asks, Why is he laughing? I don’t get it.

Sam says, Can you come and pick me up? I am already walking toward you.



Richard Chiem is a first generation Vietnamese American writer raised in San Bernardino, CA. After winning the 2009 UCSD Steward Award, as chosen by Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rae Armantrout, Chiem transitioned from poetry to prose while studying under writers like Fanny Howe, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Sawako Nakayasu. Chiem worked at movie theaters during the day while writing in the evenings, becoming a prominent figure in the small press and online writing community known as Alt-Lit. After being published widely online and in print from 2009 to 2011, his first book of short stories, You Private Person, was published by Sacramento’s Scrambler Books in 2012. YPP has since sold out of its two print runs and will be re-released in a new edition by Sorry House in 2017. In early 2016, Chiem completed his debut novel, King of Joy, the majority of which he wrote in Seattle.