The Muscle for Escape

by Jessica Handler | The one about the baby walrus.

The Muscle for Escape

This is one of those stories you bring out near last call so you’ll never have to go home, so no one will have to go home, so everyone around the table will be forever dazzled by you and you forever dazzled by them, so the pure overwhelm of I belong here will never stop. It’s a story with a baby walrus and an animal trainer and a stupid television show you worked on, one of a series of oh-so-stupid television shows you worked on, but this one had that cringey host who went on to star in a sitcom and one of his kids grew up to be a pop star and got sued for plagiarizing Marvin Gaye. Anyway, it was the kind of show that sometimes has animal acts, for fuck’s sake, and there you were backstage with your clipboard and your down vest (because soundstages are always freezing cold) and the poor baby walrus was with its trainer, of course, because that’s a requirement with animals and also how the hell else would a walrus get on a soundstage? The walrus was incredibly awkward, galumphing around. For some reason, you stayed near the walrus instead of hurrying to wherever else you were supposed to be (because you were always hurrying on show days) and the walrus was breaking your heart because it was a walrus and adorable and odd and out of place, and then it let out a sort of whimpermoan and barfed all over you.

And you were a twenty-four-year-old woman who got that walrus, because you too always felt odd and out of place although rarely, if ever, adorable, and you’d wanted to barf from the fear and stress and general awkwardness of being you for days, weeks, months, years. Decades. Let it all out. But you didn’t.

You never have. You won’t. And this big soft animal was a baby, and because it was a baby and not a twenty-four-year-old woman in jeans and boots and a down vest, it succumbed to pure overwhelm. You assumed fear or stress. You didn’t think at the time, “I am the walrus,” although maybe “goo goo g’ joob” flitted through your mind before you shut it down.

Someone else cleaned up the walrus puke. The animal trainer, probably, or maybe the sour-faced prop guy who for the longest time you thought was called Penguin when it was really something like Pacman.

This is the way you tell the story, but the walrus didn’t actually puke all over you. You were at least an arm’s length from the animal, maybe more. Maybe a little bit of the puke splattered on your boots, but you don’t remember now. Not quite remembering has become part of the tale.

Here’s a thing you do know: a walrus uses its tough, muscular tail to thrust itself through the water. To pursue. To escape. As last call approaches and you tell this tale, your friends and their friends and people you want to be your friends (and some you pretend are your friends) laugh and make animal sounds of amazement, and this is one of those stories you tell to remind yourself that you have escaped how overwhelming it felt to be that young. You tell this tale, pursuing your own tough and muscular self.

Jessica Handler is the author of the novel The Magnetic Girl, winner of the 2020 Southern Book Prize; the memoir Invisible Sisters; and the craft guide Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. She teaches creative writing and lives in Atlanta with her husband, novelist Mickey Dubrow. More at and on Threads.

This essay is a Short Reads original.

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