What I first liked about her was the dog’s ridiculous name. He was a degenerate looking, blunt-nosed Chihuahua, tail curled up to reveal a third eye that pulsed when he was enraged, which was often. I was about to overtake them, jogging on the reclaimed rail trail at Haggett’s Pond during the worst Lyme tick infestation in years.
“Baby Man,” she screamed, and I stopped. The dog was thrashing around in the tall grass on the side of the path, snarling, snapping, clearly in pursuit of dangerous game. A field mouse, say.
“What kind of name is that,” I asked, affecting what I hoped was a handsome look of intrigue and not ridicule. I’d recently broken up with a lovely woman who was hell-bent on an eventless life, and I was venturing back into the Game, looking for something a bit less charted. Baby Man had now returned and stood protectively in front of his mistress, foam dripping from his muzzle. His quivery legs held the threat of enough bounce to rip the pleasant look off my face, when a deer bounded through the woods not more than twenty feet from the path. Baby Man shrank against her legs and whimpered, looking up in terror. She picked him up, and he hid his snout in her armpit.
“That kind of name,” she said, and combed through his blonde fur, looking for the monstrously tiny bloodsuckers. This being the worst tick season ever, anyone foolish enough to be in the wilds exuded the toxic smell of 80 proof Deet. I’d even sprayed my jock strap. But her lemony scent cut through the poisoned air.
“No bug juice?” I asked, sniffing.
She held me in her gaze. “My method is to completely strip when I get home and do a slow, long, and thorough body search.”
As if hypnotized into lunacy, I replied, “Do you need any volunteers?”
She looked at me expressionless. “That’s not what I’m saying. You need to not listen so carefully to me.”
Thinking she’d made a mistake by including the negative, I said, “What?”
“Exactly,” she said. She would come to call me Baby Man, but by then the original Baby Man and I had bonded over our mutual desire for her attention. And I began to wonder then, if this listening thing, or not listening thing was the theme of our relationship.
She was, I discovered, a lesbian. Non-gender specified, non-binary, fluid, she likes to say, a “they.” As a therapist, I try never to make assumptions. But who can deny the accuracy of first impressions: the butch hair, the flat chest, the shapely long, strong, and tanned legs, the high ass. A certain squaring of the jaw. I’d stepped up my jogging schedule, hoping for more chances to bump into her, and next time, there she was, arm entwined with another woman’s who reeked of Deet like me. There was something moving in the way their arms attached, their sweat mingling and glistening the golden hair on their akin, and I thought her friend was likely a volunteer in those long, slow, body searches.
"No Baby Man today?” I asked. Too soon it turned out. Around my ankles a small disturbance, like a swarm of flies, and then a furious yapping.
“Back up,” she said, holding out an arm.
I am, actually, an excellent listener—credit my profession. Maybe that’s why when I’m off the clock I don’t listen so well. Entranced by the sight of her lips forming words, I stepped toward her. Baby Man struck like Cleopatra’s asp. His tiny teeth—sunk into my ankle—were quite sharp.
“Oh Jesus,” yelled Baby Man’s owner. “I’m so sorry, but what the fuck’s wrong with you?” The other woman said, “Christ, Shelley, it wasn’t their fault.”
Baby Man’s owner is Shelley. The other “they” is Kim. She was more feminine, with long curls and pillowy chest squashed into her armpits by a sports bra. Shelley was like an adolescent boy. Hard edged.
I have nothing against non-gender specified humans, and I have a client who is trans and one who is queer. I know it’s all politics, all about the oppressive inequities of privilege, my privilege as a white male. I think non-binary makes sense, an evolutionary leap (but how is it that the simplest, the basest organisms, those that have been around forever and have shown no evolutionary change whatsoever, are both male and female? Just a question.). And I, too, have had impulses (not acted on) to be less masculine, have wondered about the feel of nylon against a shaved calf, the slip of foot into stiletto (I know, I know, clichés), but the grammar flummoxes me. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve used my two non-binary clients to engage Shelley.
But back to the bite. There was a trickle of blood. I moaned, laid back n the dirt, and acted as if about to faint. Baby Man jumped on my chest, thrust his face close to mine. I smelled his slightly rancid breath, saw his teeth as he snarled, and I swear they were tinged with my blood. I screamed, and he yelped, bouncing off me like a trampoline into the weeds.
Shelley laughed. “You’re made for each other.” I like to believe she said this with some degree of affection. The dog slunk out of the weeds toward her, tail between legs. He trembled at her feet, begging to be picked up. “No,” she said, then nodded at me. “You pick him up.”
“What?” Oh, I’d heard her, all right.
“Go on. That’s how you’ll make friends.”
Was this an invitation to be her friend? My body tensed against the prospect of having my throat ripped out, but my arms, clearly with the prospect of greater gains, reached toward the dog.
“For God’s sake,” Kim said. She snatched Baby Man into the air and pressed him against her chest. “Don’t be an ass.”
I might have added, “Don’t be a bitch,” but didn’t want to start anything.
“You’re not listening,” Shelley said. “You didn’t understand what I meant.” Baby Man was returned to the ground and the three of them trotted away. I hoped she at least understood I reached for that dog despite my terror, and would realize what I was willing to risk for her.
Shelley and I had been friends for a few weeks and summer was on the wane. Which you couldn’t tell from the insistent heat. Only the slightest crisping and coloring of leaves and a hint of autumn’s tang and slanted light proclaimed change. Tick season was about to rev even higher, early fall being one of the most virulent times for the fuckers. I knew her schedule by heart now, but still “accidently” ran into her.
On one walk, Baby Man stopped dead in his tracks, flopped on his back and began squirming in the dirt, as if to scratch an itch. He had a cunning look in his eye. She stooped to rub his belly, fingers trickling over his tiny tummy. He squirmed more frantically, tongue lolling, eyes closing. Imagining her fingers on me, I felt flushed and goose-fleshy in my groin area. But her fingers weren’t on me. Did Kim ever feel this jealousy? Kim—
“So, what are you two?” I asked. “You and Kim. Friends? Lovers?”
Shelley’s eyes were hazy blue, deceptively open, even empty looking. A mystery. She held me in her gaze. “If I said yes, it would fuel your fantasies. If I said, none of your business, it would fuel your fantasies. If I said no, you wouldn’t believe me.”
“What makes you think I’m having fantasies about you?”
She snorted. Baby Man looked up knowingly, his nose wrinkling as if he were laughing with her.
“I’m curious. A student of human nature,” I said. “Every person I meet, like you, helps me be a better therapist.”
She didn’t bother to snort this time, just cast those voodooish eyes over me. We walked in silence for a while. She was wearing very short shorts. My attention was riveted by the taut configuration of her muscles wrapping her thighbones, and the flawless package of her skin. I should’ve kept quiet and tried to match the rhythm of her gait, but I couldn’t.
“I haven’t seen Kim for a while. Where is she? I mean, where are they? Or should I say, where is they?” I was honestly confused, although my trans client, along with Shelley, had been tutoring me.
“You are a curious boy. Very curious.”
Curious as in intelligently inquisitive? Or peculiar? I chose not to be insulted, although Baby Man looked up at me as if in commiseration.
“The more I understand how to phrase things, the better I can help my non-binary clients.”
“Why, oh why, are they going to you?”
“Unfair. I come highly regarded and well-respected. As a therapist.” I could’ve added that I was very adept in the appearance of neutrality. “I’m there for my clients, but I need to get the language straight.”
I realized my error, but before I could correct it, she said, “What do you even know about what they’re facing? Or feeling?”
I could answer this one; I knew how my trans client struggled. “That it’s hard to be unspecified in a specific world. To be chained to one definition of self. And that language is key. It’s power. But I just can’t wrap my brain around the flawed grammar.”
As if this line of conversation was too flawed to continue, she said, “You ask, where’s Kim?”
We stopped walking and I moved closer. “Yes.” I could only hope she was gone, gone in all her solo plurality.
“In the hospital.”
My head snapped back. “What?”
She laughed. “You’re always saying that. ‘What? What?’ I guess it’s a therapist thing. Like stalling to gain control.”
She was teasing, I’m sure, but I didn’t like how transparent she believed I was. “No, I’m just stunned. Is she okay?” Not that I wanted to misgender, but I was too surprised and curious to maintain my neutrality.
“They got bit by a tick. It’s a different infection, not Lyme. Tests are being run. They feel a little tired and weak. Antibiotics don’t seem to be working. Not sure how long they’ll be in the hospital.” A shadow passed over her, making her features look malleable, as if I could rearrange them, rearrange our story. I reached to comfort, but she backed away. “You smell.” She fanned her face, nostrils flaring. “It stings.”
“Just trying to protect myself.”
“Yeah. All the good it did them.”
I remembered Kim’s toxic odor—she seemed more liberal with the Deet than me.
“Listen, I’m taking off from work so I can spend more time at the hospital. Do me a huge favor? Walk Baby Man next week? You’ll need a leash because he’s not used to walking with you alone. I don’t want him going off path. Ticks and other monsters, you know.”
Of course, I didn’t use a leash. I was only doing what she asked: Not listening. The first day I came to fetch him, I wandered around her apartment, but all the rooms, except the kitchen and living room, were locked. Her bedroom? Locked. Another bedroom or office? A den? Locked. Even the bathroom…but Baby Man led me down the hallway like a realtor, until he got to the doors. His little feet scratched against them like against the locked chambers of her heart.
The first couple of times I walked Baby Man, he kept stride with me, never going off the path. Close enough so I didn’t have to pay him much attention but could let my mind wander to Shelley and my trans client, who had fallen into a funk, trying to decide whether to undergo surgery. They were confused because they felt by being non-binary, they had already transgendered, at least grammatically, and to go from their gender of birth to the opposite would be a political nightmare. When I suggested they could continue with hormone therapy and identify however they chose, I was met with a torrent of tears. Politically correct that may be, they said, but personally they felt like a fucked-up mess. I felt pity for the person in my charge, and relief for myself. This person felt trapped. I felt free. Although I’m sure my client, and likely Shelley, might consider me the most trapped.
I wanted to have a serious conversation with Shelley about this, ask her opinion, but Kim had gone into a coma. Shelley was spending more time at the hospital. With her increased absence, Baby Man became more and more morose. Whatever comfort I tried to offer wasn’t enough. He took to licking his front paws like furry lollipops, until he licked the fur clean off.
The last time I walked Baby Man, a breeze nipped us, and autumn colors burnt the sky. I was worried about his bald feet making him susceptible to the cold, but I was more preoccupied by my trans client. The more I listened, the more it seemed I couldn’t help this person, and I had erred by calling them a him. I apologized profusely, sincerely, but they wouldn’t forgive me. Don’t bother. It’s not my job to make you feel better for misgendering me. I should’ve let it be and sat with their anger, but suddenly, I, too, was angry, and despite knowing better, despite all my training and professional boundaries, asked, Really, do you mean to abolish all sexual and gender attributes? What would you be then? The look they gave me was like the look Shelley gives me, and I wondered if deep I was angry with her for being inaccessible. And angry with myself for refusing to accept who she was.
A sound pulled me from my musing. A whirring vibration came from Baby Man’s throat. It sounded like despair. Before I could bend down to consult him, he leapt through the air and bounded helter skelter into the woods, charting his own hell-bent path. His barks, sharp and ecstatic, echoed, then faded until I could no longer hear him. In the distance I saw that he was after a deer, a strapping buck with a full load of antlers. Where had this foolhardy passion come from? Nothing good could lie down that path—he would get lost, starve to death, be attacked by a coyote, or perhaps be hoofed to death by his heart’s desire.
But look at that Baby Man go.
He was fast disappearing, a bright and tiny blonde dot amidst the crimson and burnt orange of the fall. I screamed his name. But he was beyond hearing, and for a moment I thought of his magnificent and mysterious mistress, who would ever remain beyond me. But Baby Man, maybe I could save him. I crashed through the dense thicket, heart ticking in my ears, and ran pell mell into the woods, running bewildered and desirous, trying to outrun my fears: Did I put on enough poison today? Will I get lost? Who will come find me? Who will hold me close, looking at me clearly, forgivingly, and begin the long, slow, and thorough search?