Leisel didn’t decide to become a vegetarian. It was simply assumed. No one in her family ate meat, though her father occasionally snuck a cheeseburger when he thought no one would notice. Leisel’s mom either didn’t detect his carnivorous indiscretion or she chalked it up to a lapse in judgment for the sake of familial harmony. Leisel could smell the meat on him, though; his body odor shifted, became danker and muskier. Leisel always knew.
She did remember becoming a vegan. She was eleven, the summer before sixth grade. The day was white hot and as she rode her Schwinn up the driveway, sweat dripping off her bangs and into her eyes, she saw a yellow moth caught in the grill of her grandmother’s sedan. She’d stopped, still straddling the bicycle, and watched the nearly translucent yellow wings flutter in the breeze, trying to convince herself that what she observed was just a little bit of life left in the creature’s smashed exoskeleton.
“We can’t save them all, ducky,” Gran said, letting her hand rest softly on Leisel’s sweaty hair.
Leisel decided right then that she would save as many things as she could. At eleven, this seemed like a reasonable commitment. It didn’t take long before she began to realize just what this meant. Her dedication did not waver. When she thought of the chicken in its tiny cage laying eggs for her baked goods, she quit eating eggs. When it dawned on her that her loafers we made of the large, gentle-eyed animals that watched her from their pastures as she drove to school, she stopped wearing leather. She often thought of that moth, the seemingly insignificant being that gave its life so her Gran could babysit while her parents went to the movies. Everyone thought she’d grow out this phase.
“You have admirable dedication, Leisel. It is a slippery slope, having a heart and conscience as large as yours, just remember that.” Gran said.
Leisel had never been out of Minnesota when she met Peter during her third year of college. He was wiry and coiled like a spring from his curly hair to his taut calves. He walked on the balls of his feet, bouncing almost imperceptibly, and his eyes darted quickly, always watching, assessing, considering. They graduated and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in an old, drafty brick building in St. Paul. They found jobs, he as a community organizer and she collecting signatures for various environmental causes on street corner. Their passion for causes stoked their relationship. They consumed one another like flames ravishing a meadow. Leisel thought she’d never be full, that she’d always crave more of Peter’s voice, his observations, his long, thin hands gesticulating wildly, spearing words as he spoke and holding tightly to her hips as they embraced.
One day he sat on the coffee table in front of her, his hands clasped between his knees, his eyes focused on her face, not scanning the room. She felt afraid of this attention. He told her he had to return to Montana, to his family’s ranch in Lolo, his grandfather wasn’t well. Leisel felt the tears prick her eyelids as she melted into the couch cushions.
“Come with me, Lees.”
Peter spent most of the two day drive warning her about various things about Montana: the bears, the roads, the gun-toting locals. He conceded that Missoula, just to the north of Lolo, was more liberal and progressive than most of Montana, but assured her that this was a blue oasis in a sea of red and she should not be fooled.
Leisel was not afraid.
He did not tell her about all the meat. Peter’s parents were certain that vegetarianism was a passing fad; that humans were simply meant to eat meat. They weren’t sure what vegan even meant and made little effort to accommodate Leisel’s diet. She ate the occasional salad and slice after slice of white bread. She was always hungry, but terrified that sneaking food between meals would offend Peter’s broad shouldered, vociferous mother.
Finally, Peter promised to take her out for a full meal. He took her to his favorite restaurant in Missoula, the one with more than one vegetarian entrée on the menu. Leisel’s mouth watered as she scanned the menu.
“May I get you something to drink?” Their waiter wore tortoiseshell glasses and a knit cap pushed back on his head. His slim black jeans were tucked behind the tongue of his Converse and Leisel felt her shoulders relax. There wasn’t a belt buckle in sight. “If you are interested in a glass of wine, I’d recommend this Cote du Rhone. This is a limited production and we have the only cases sold in the state of Montana. It is worth every penny, in my opinion.”
Leisel raised her eyebrows. “That’s a strong endorsement. Why so good?”
“This wine is a whole different wine drinking experience.” He shifted his weight as though he were ready to tell a story. “It’s like a meal. It tastes like dark, smoked meat. And—the richness, it’s hard to describe. I’m not much of a hunter, like, I only get one animal a year, right? But this wine, it smells like that hunting smell.”
Leisel recoiled. “Hunting smell?”
“Yeah, you know. That mixture of the earth and the snow and the firs and the animal itself. You know, that smell? It’s completely, well, unique. It’s rich and deep–it’s like a full-body encounter. I get a little shiver every time I smell it. It’s the best smell, it’s being alone, in the woods. It’s primal.”The waiter stopped and looked at her. She was nodding. “I get that shiver when I drink this wine.”
“I’ll have a glass of that, please.”