All through their first date, there was no mention of dogs. Not once did she say, "I like dogs" or "I love dogs" or even "I have a dog." So naturally, dogs were the furthest thing from his mind. But when he picked her up for their second date at her East Sixth Street apartment, he found himself faced with several unpleasant surprises.
She lived on the block that many referred to as Little India, in a slummy basement studio under a restaurant called the New Delhi Deli. He knew she was a struggling actress, but somehow--when he'd first met her as a long-term temp at the midtown marketing communications firm where he worked--she'd seemed too grounded, too practical and, as he saw it, too "normal" for such an eccentric address. The entranceway smelled of curry, the narrow hall inside smelled of something dead, and he heard her neighbors abusing each other in a variety of incomprehensible tongues. It was a far cry from his doorman building on the Upper West Side.
The second surprise came when she unbolted the door and let him in. He was met with a smile, a kiss on the cheek, and--emanating from under the futon bed frame--the unmistakable growl of a surly canine.
His breath caught and he tried to control the tremor in his voice. "Oh," he said. "You have a dog?"
How could she have hidden this from him?
Of course, he knew, there was no way she could have realized this was a problem--no way she would have assumed that he was just one of those people filled with a sense of terror at even the measliest Chihuahua or geriatric Scottie.
He tried to set it aside, but as the evening proceeded, it continued to remain a mental obstacle. All he could think of was that English toy spaniel of hers back home: that "Hoo-Hoo."
While their first date had been smooth and uncomplicated--meeting and departing in separate cabs in front of Lincoln Center--very adult, very clean, very cosmopolitan--this second date ended with an awkward goodbye on the cramped sidewalk in front of her apartment, gripping greasy doggy bags. They stood, flanked by rotting trashcans, shaking hands half-heartedly as he tried to mutter something about being too exhausted to come in for coffee.
In the break room at work the next day, Bruce--his only friend in the office and the guy who had first convinced him to screw up his nerve and ask her out--leaned against the Snapple machine, leering like Groucho with vaudevillian eyebrows, and grilled him about the events of the past night.
"It was kind of okay, kind of not okay . . . " He tried to explain about the dog. But it was clear that his friend was disappointed, that in asking how the second date went, he had been hoping for some revelation regarding her preferences in underwear and the degree to which she shaved, not a discussion of dogs and quirky phobias.
He watched his friend fabricate a makeshift coffee filter with several paper towels and begin to brew himself a gritty pot of coffee, nodding patiently throughout the process as he listened. The brewing was a messy little procedure that he personally could never tolerate, hence his own bias toward the Snapple and its one clean step: open, drink, discard. As his friend fished out the stray granules with a soggy NutraSweet packet, he offered his advice: "The trick with dogs is you have to let them know it's your turf. It's an instinctual thing. But you kick 'em once, hard in the ribs, and they respect you."
This seemed extreme. "I could never do that to an animal," he said. "He might get mad."
"You could always poison the mutt," Bruce said with a straight face. "You know--grind up glass or a little D-Kon in some hamburger."
He glanced over at her desk. She wasn't there. The company had hired her week-to-week, so perhaps she wasn't even coming back. "Actually, it's only been two dates. No big deal. I could just drop the whole thing--not see her anymore."
Bruce frowned. "That seems a little rash."
"Excuse me." It was her. With a swish of hand-painted silk, she eased past them, smiling that billboard smile as a pardon, wafting patchouli and cinnamon exotica like a whiff of the Trade Winds. She moved from cabinet to cabinet, bouncing on tippy-toe at each one--a gypsy girl dance, opening and shutting and peering inside. The effort raised the hem of her sweater enough to expose the small of her back where the silk skirt, slung low across her hip-bones, clung to her small firm ass. The vision, frankly, made him hunger for an early lunch. And made Bruce elbow him.
"I'm on a mission," she announced, not turning around, not noticing that they were checking out her ass. Or at least his friend was. "Tabasco."
"A little tapas for lunch?" Bruce asked.
"Fruit salad." Her nose crinkled; the boat neck of her loose-knit sweater slung lower off her shoulder as she shrugged. "I'm weird." He could see the black bra strap through the holes.
"Aha!" The last cupboard revealed a red, crusty bottle. They watched as she twisted off the cap, patted one long finger against the top, then against her extended tongue. Her eyes widened; she panted rapidly; her hand slammed against the countertop.
Stealing a glance at Bruce, he saw he was grinning.
"This ought to liven things up!" she said, hoisting the Tabasco and breezing out.
Now Bruce was smirking. "Oh, yeah. You wouldn't want to see her anymore."
She appeared, beneath him, as an undrowned Ophelia, her long crimped hair spread out around her like a fan, the splash of freckles across her breasts revealed to him as a secret surprise. She was giving him the big eyes, looking up at him, and the combination of her elfin ears and the Celtic New Age music on her teeny boombox and the gown she wore--wispy and white and homespun, with long diaphanous sleeves and unbuttoned to the navel--put him in the mind of a fairy queen or some mystical woodland nymph who is kindly and magical, yes, but also just really likes to get it on. She looked amazing lying there underneath him--all the more frustrating because it just wasn't going to happen.
"Don't worry about it." Her fingers feathered the back of his neck, caressing. "It's late, we've been drinking, we're still new to each other . . . relax . . ."
He'd wanted their first time to be fantastic and it hadn't even come close. In fact, it hadn't really happened at all. He'd had to change condoms three times now, in between her embarrassingly rigorous attempts to fluff him. Each time, for some reason, he'd only just managed to get inside her for seconds before losing it. Something just wasn't right.
He considered the fact the it might be the condoms throwing him or the dry, stifling heat from the old-fashioned radiator. That it was happening too fast. That he was scared of getting hurt again. But that all felt like excuses. The truth was, he was nervous.
"Breathe." She pressed her long fingers against his chest, as if maybe he didn't even know how to do that anymore or know the location of his lungs. "Try focusing on your fifth chakra."
He wasn't sure what the hell his "chakra" was, but he knew what he was focused on. It was the one thing cutting through the smoky candlelit patchouli haze of her tiny studio apartment: the two eyes. Froggish, unblinking, ping-pong ball eyes; glassy spheres of liquid light, like portholes into the lair of some mythical hell-beast.
Hoo-Hoo was in the closet, watching.
He calculated it to be a mere twenty-feet--a piddling distance, really, in terms of the lunging capabilities of even an English toy spaniel like Hoo-Hoo caught up in the blind rage of a complicated territorial/sexual jealousy.
He imagined this was what it was like for cowboys sleeping out on the range, keeping watch by the fire, seeing the eyes of Indians and coyotes off in the darkness. It was rattling.
That dog could be on him in a matter of seconds, teeth sunk in to the back of his neck, whipping in the wind like a snarling, flea-bitten scarf as he thrashed and growled and dug in deep. Or worse than the neck: the exposed, vulnerable, much more sensitive fleshy area that was presently engaged in a very integral part of their present activity.
Though not really engaged, he realized, as he again felt the horror of shrinkage; the equipment quitting on him; beating a genital retreat; packing up his toys and running home.
It was easy to see how those cowboys could last so long on the trail without a woman.
He rolled off her, sweaty, sighing, too ashamed to meet her gaze. He covered his face with one splayed hand. But only partially, so that he could keep an eye on the dog.
"It's just nerves," she said. "Our bodies just need a little time to get to know each other. It'll happen."
She reached out again and placed her gentle hand over his heart. He could feel it beating away like the soundtrack to a Hitchcock thriller. She sounded so understanding. That only made it worse.
And he found himself saying a thing he never would have imagined would issue from his lips. He said, "Maybe we should try this another time."
"What is it about the dog, exactly, that troubles you?"
His therapist seemed preoccupied with establishing the exact source of his fear of dogs, as if talking about that moment might somehow make the fear go away. Fat chance.
"What do you think the dog will do to you?" she asked. "Is it the teeth?"
He looked at the clock. Forty more minutes left. "You know," he said, "I really have to go."
"We've got forty minutes left."
"True, yes, but . . . I really don't feel too well." He found himself rubbing his stomach. "I feel . . . I feel queasy."
The merest hint of a smile wormed across her face. "Queasy? How so?"
"Queasy," he said. How so? What did she want as a definition of queasiness--projectile vomiting on her three-thousand-dollar cranberry-colored leather sofa?
"And when you feel 'queasy,' how does that make you feel?"
"I think maybe I got a little . . . food poisoning." He was rising now, heading for the door, hand on gut. The room started to vibrate, and the act of touching his stomach seemed to conjure what felt like the beginning of an actual ache.
Things were happening deep inside.
That night, he dreamt of a big, black dog. The dream took place on the playground of his old elementary school. There was the monkey bars, where Corey Heevner cracked his head, and the rings, where the boys would gather to watch Ginny Ramspacher swing, oblivious to her own exposed underwear, and the "Cheese," that climbing structure made of poured concrete, perforated like a slice of Swiss. And he dreamt of the dog, trotting, with little tippy-toe steps, out into the open, his teeth wet and wide, tongue hanging out like a slab of meat, panting. His eyes narrowed like the gunfighter in black in some simplistic spaghetti Western.
He saw the dog's head turn, spotting him, and then that was it.
He didn't want to completely stop seeing her. And she made it clear by her continued attention and flirting in the office that she was still interested, though they both avoided the topic of their one dismal attempt. For a time, he figured he could get by just taking her out to lunch; just casually wandering off at noon, strolling impromptu to any bistro in the neighborhood, springing for lunch, then strolling back to work. It seemed like the best solution.
The first of the casual lunch dates made him want her even more. She quoted whole passages from Tennessee Williams and scolded him for wanting red meat and did her Casper the Friendly Ghost impression and he loved it. Before they left, she stole a limp carnation from the table arrangement and slipped it into his lapel. It looked like a ratty, balled-up Kleenex, but he was glad it was there a few minutes later when they ran into some of his business associates out on the street. The guys looked at the carnation, then again at her and their eyebrows rose, impressed. He felt invincible, like he could maybe work his way back to real dates; evening dates and fending off fierce, indomitable dogs and even sex.
But on the second or third lunch date, she seemed to want to stir things up. "I realize there's been a distinct deceleration in our . . . social interaction," she said, blithely licking the butter knife in a way that made him both smile and wince. "A sort of a down-shifting, if you will."
"What're you talking about?" he said, taking the contaminated knife from her and buffing it clean with his napkin.
"I mean you don't seem to want to see me outside of work anymore. Not since that night we were in bed."
Instantly he panned the room, checking to see if he knew any of the other patrons to whom she had so indiscreetly blabbed this highly personal information. But she remained oblivious, munching her watercress sandwich as if they were alone on a picnic in an enchanted forest.
"I told my healer about that and she suggested--"
"You told your . . . healer about the other night?" God, there was so much potentially wrong with that statement, he wasn't quite sure where to begin being perplexed.
"I told my healer about your sexual . . . faltering the other night, and she suggested we throw the I-Ching. Which we did and what it said was the dreamer is not always far from the dream."
"I'm sorry," he said, no longer hungry, folding his napkin back into neat thirds and laying it back beside the plate, "but what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"It means," she said, "that you have some avoidance issues you need to straighten out with Hoo-Hoo."
He gave the deep breathing thing a shot. No luck.
He checked his watch, feigned alarm, and called for the check.
It was awkward now at work. It would've been one thing to just drift away from her, not call again, but the fact that she was only a few cubicles away, that he occasionally had to go ask her something about certain paperwork, that he seemed to run into her incessantly coming and going from the washroom, was unbearable.
And it was only exacerbated by the obvious signs that lately Bruce--his good friend, his confidant--seemed to be trying to make a play for her himself. He would watch them from his desk; see them lingering over coffee in the break room, kidding each other about inane things like her penchant for Tabasco. That's not funny, he thought. No need to be laughing, folks. There is no humor in hot sauce . . . And yet they continued to smile and tease each other, and watching it made his neck sweat.
And he found himself wandering through her neighborhood at night, trying to blend in with the waves of strolling tourists that jammed Sixth Street; those slumming epicureans in search of the exotic and quaint. Once or twice he spotted her, up ahead, walking swiftly, plastic grocery sacks swinging at her side, negotiating, in a slightly annoyed manner, the nattily-dressed loiterers milling in front of each restaurant awning. Her hair seemed to move through the crowd like an untamed wondrous creature all its own, something dark and wild, and he remembered the rich redolence it had, that singular, foundering night--the musk of some fabled wood found only in a far-off weald--and he surged with the gut impulse to take it all in again, no matter what the cost; to go to her; to risk.
And then he'd look down and see Hoo-Hoo, trotting along at her feet and he'd hail a cab uptown and go home.
"No! In the air! Catch it in the air!"
He stood in Tompkins Square Park, on the safe side of the fence, watching some young slacker with a pierced eyebrow attempt to train his black lab to catch a Frisbee. So far, the lab had only two tricks down: 1) standing on the Frisbee and 2) tearing at it maniacally.
It looked exactly like the black lab back in the third grade. The scary dog. "His" dog.
The dog with the Frisbee had the same satiny shine, the same muscular neck.
And it had been a balmy day like this one. Crabapple blossoms drifting niveous on the edge of the playground, bringing also the hard, inedible bounty--like pretend cherrybomb M-80s--great ammo for battles that raged for weeks at a time, broken only by the teacher's whistle, intermittent ceasefires until the next recess. The soil was still rich and loamy, good for staining OshKoshed knees, and the air moved with that tornado season restlessness, sending aloft the dust of winter months; seventy-nine-cent balsa wood gliders, fueled by rubber bands and unbridled joy; and shrieks of terror as the girls chased the boys.
It was during afternoon recess when the dog appeared, bursting across the asphalt, tongue dragging like a stolen red sock and wagging as if it were all in fun, darting from kid to kid like the monkey-in-the-middle. But there was something wrong with the way it walked--not a limp, exactly, but something having to do with that big ugly red thing protruding between his legs--and something wrong with the yearning yowl coming from deep within the dog, so oddly close to the sounds he'd heard through the walls the previous New Year's Eve.
Somebody--probably Eugenie Hibbs--grabbed the dog's tail--just for a moment, and the dog yipped and snarled, and then Ginny Ramspacher began pointing at the dangling, turgid rod and all the girls shrieked with laughter. And the dog yipped louder, almost plaintively, as if in pain, and lunged from kid to kid, hopping up on them, his forepaws thumping them on the chest.
He knew the dog was getting riled, that someone should go get the teacher, and as he turned to run find Mrs. Holsinger and tell her that there was a stray dog loose who might soon bite one of them, the dog suddenly hopped up on him. He was thrown off balance, down on the asphalt, his palms burning, scraped, the dog on top of him. He tried to stand but the weight of the dog kept him on his knees, the forepaws frenzied, churning against his windbreaker. The dog moaned and panted, a guttural wailing like the start of a foxhunt--a heat at the back of his neck--not biting at all, but rubbing violently, purposefully, against the seat of his pants. He tried to right himself, to get off his hands and knees, but it was as if the dog really, really wanted to play horsy. He heard Leonard Macadoo, dumbfounded, ask, "What's he doing?" He saw the cuffs of corduroys, PF Flyers, the feet of his friends gathered round. He strained to reach up to them, to catch a glimpse of them, and he saw the transfixed eyes, but they just stood there like the undead in Plan Nine From Outer Space. He tried to cry out but couldn't. Behind him, he couldn't see what was happening, but he could feel. The dog was practically vibrating, trembling like his older brother's kit Wankel engine had right before it blew because he put it together wrong, and he was pounding against his bottom. He screamed as the forepaws, scratching away at his windbreaker, worked their way under his shirt to the bare skin.
The circle around him broke. He saw the spectator pumps. It was Mrs. Holsinger smacking the dog with her sacred blue binder. "Get!! Get off of him!" she said, in a voice he'd never heard before and the dog skulked off like he'd been caught raiding the lunchroom garbage cans. She pulled him to his feet, told everyone to go inside, and inspected him front and back. She seemed preoccupied with the backside of his clothes, which seemed silly, because it was mostly his knees and the palms of his hands that had been scraped against the asphalt. He lifted his windbreaker and polo and twisted around to find the claw marks on his sides and the small of his back. "He was hugging me," he told her.
"Why did you get near him?" She made no attempt to hide her annoyance. "Couldn't you see that thing was wild? Look at this!" She tugged at his pants. He couldn't look at it, but he could feel it now that she pointed it out: the sticky wet patch all up the back of his shirt and his belt and the seat of his pants.
She sent him to the school janitor--that strange mumbly man who seemed to live in the boiler room--and the janitor marched him back outside, turned him around, aimed a hose at him, and sprayed him off, like he did every day with the garbage cans, till the stickiness was gone and he was thoroughly soaked.
Scanning the dark, low windows that ran the length of the building, he saw shapes that were the faces of the entire school staring out at him and he wondered if he'd done something wrong.
This is it, he decided. Steps had to be taken.
It had been at least a week since she'd mentioned wanting to try to get together again. Obviously, she was moving on; pursuing some of the other, less phobic fish in the sea.
He watched as Bruce invited her to join him at a Broadway musical that night for which he had "free" tickets, belonging, he claimed, to the couple who lived next door. But they both had the flu, so they'd given them to him and he'd promised they wouldn't go to waste. She seemed to believe him and accepted.
Steps really had to be taken about Hoo-Hoo.
He had to do it when he knew absolutely that she wouldn't be home. He left work at noon, telling Bruce he thought he might have a little food poisoning and that he really had to go home.
As he left the building, she was refiling dead accounts, firmly ensconced in the Reingold Surgical Appliances file. He knew he had some time.
Stopping at the corner Sloan's, he bought half a pound of raw hamburger and a few other things, then took the Six down to St. Mark's and walked the rest of the way to Little India.
It seemed like forever as he waited on the sidewalk in front of her building, striving for nonchalant till the coast was clear. When pedestrian traffic dwindled to a minimum, he stepped up on a plastic milk crate and scaled the wooden wall that blocked the alleyway. His knee caught and he tore a little triangle in his Perry Ellis shirt, but he made it over, hamburger still in hand.
Counting three over, he located her window, recognizing the arabesque batik tapestry, like a palm reader's bedspread, slung at an angle, that served as makeshift curtains. The window was ajar, of course--to provide fresh air for Hoo-Hoo--but protected from entry by a sturdy burglar gate.
He squinted through the bars of the gate. It was dark as an opium den in there, with George Jones pining away on the radio, left on, no doubt, to keep Hoo-Hoo company. She'd told him once, with a straight face, that the dog thoroughly enjoyed country-western music, leaning more toward the traditional artists than the crossover oddities of today's chart-toppers.
"Hoo-Hoo?" he breathed, the words sounding like a taboo; a terrible crime made even more so by pronouncing it aloud.
There was a yip and a snort, followed by silence. Somewhere inside, he had the dog's attention.
"Come here, boy!" He wondered if the dog could hear the fear in his voice. He tried to remind himself that the bars were there; that it didn't matter how rambunctious or angry the dog got; that he couldn't get at him. But somehow, it was little relief.
With tags jangling, Hoo-Hoo trotted over, nails clicking on the linoleum. And then he was there, face to face with him, his wet, porcine snout poking through the bars, throbbing and quivering at the lusty scent of the meat like a pig at slop.
"Smell good, boy? That smell good?" He murmured it like a mantra as he unwrapped the saran from the hamburger, the patter more for his own benefit, to calm his nerves, than for this slobbering beast now literally licking his chops, cartoon-style, slathering the bars with spittle and growly foam.
The first bloody glob he simply dropped on the sill, not wanting to jeopardize his fingers. Hoo-Hoo slurped it up, dexterously working his tongue like a Singapore whore, and gnashed away at it till it was gone.
Now that the dog knew what it was, he would go for broke.
Checking over his shoulder once to see if he was being watched, he scooped up another hunk of meat and rolled it into a golfball-sized serving, took a deep breath, and held it flat in his shaking, outstretched palm. He felt his heart race. This was it.
"Good boy . . . Attaboy . . . I'm not gonna hurt you, boy . . . " The words came to him like the mutterings of a channeling medium as he moved in again with the meat. The dog whined in anticipation, a high-pitched, throaty plea, and his own breathing turned ragged as the tongue touched his fingers, muscular, wet. Fighting every impulse to flinch, he allowed the dog to eat out of his hand, the muzzle tipped sideways to fit through the bars, to lap up every last shred of the red, bloody meat. He felt the slick hardness of the teeth, harmlessly sliding against his skin as the dog chewed, and the rubbery, purpley gums and the drool puddling in his palm as an uncontrollable sign of approval.
He watched the dog swallow.
And he knew he would be back. He knew he would continue this covert operation, little by little, no matter how many times it took, doing it in installments, brazenly bribing him until he and Hoo-Hoo were friends.