I Met a Fox

In theory, a brewery is the perfect choice for a first date. The bartender tells you he's glad you came in. You grab two board games from the shelf near the bathroom to break the ice when Eve arrives. After that it's just sit, sip, and listen. It doesn't matter if she's late—ten, twenty minutes. There are no reservations to break or previews to miss. And if she never shows up, you can pretend you're just there to taste their new Milk Stout.

When I return home, I shout to Lance, "I think she had a good time," over the broken alarm of Prince's barks. A year and a half of daily reminders and the dog remains unconvinced that I pay rent, too. "I think she liked me."

Lance nods from the couch and leaves his headphones in.

"Yeah, it was nice," I say. Then, "What are you watching?" Then, "Never mind."

For almost an hour, I'd avoided eye contact with the other patrons, flipping through the instructions to Life and Guess Who, forcing myself to invent excuses for Eve. Her phone died. Her grandma died. Her parents' house was broken into. It distracted my ego from the probable reason: namely, that she no longer cared to meet me.

Chances are, at some point since confirming our date with a "Sounds good!"—while looking for something to wear or checking the price for an Uber or scanning the brewery through the tinted glass doors, finding me shorter than my picture suggested—she'd decided that I wasn't worth her time or effort. She'd shared enough of her secrets among too many men and would keep the rest for herself.

But a loner at the bar, in a stained leather jacket that reeked of almond extract, had convinced me to forgive her. I'd been sitting with my beer, skimming through memories—dish soap, cigarettes, Amaretto—when I turned to the guy and whimpered, "You smell like my Dad's pound cake." After an uncomfortable silence, he answered, "That's cute."

In return for a taste of his cocktail, I tried and failed to explain my situation.

First, he slapped me on the back; then, with his other hand, he rubbed my shoulder. "If it was me, I'd consider myself lucky, eh? You don't know what you're doing, and neither does he. Trust me. Just take it as it comes."

So when Eve finally texts me, "My friend's throwing a party on Halloween - feel free to come over!" I tell her, "No worries."

I try to assemble a Sigmund Freud costume, like Ewan McGregor in Beginners. I already own a bowtie, wool suit, fake beard, and pipe, but Lance says it makes me look like a pretentious asshole, instead of a pretend one.

In retrospect, Freud would have fit right in. Mother Theresa is taking coats by the door, Ruth Bader Ginsburg straddles the banister. Either Adolf Hitler or Charlie Chaplin dressed as him measures his mustache against Frida Kahlo's eyebrow, while Frida pets the rooster protruding from my waist.

"It's toddler-sized," I try to explain, demonstrating that my thighs are losing circulation. "There was only one left in Target. I heard a girl say it was too tight for her, and I thought, Challenge accepted."

Frida retracts her hand and walks away.

I look for Eve beneath the disguises, ignoring the fact that I don't know what she looks like. The oddness of being here flashes by like a bad dream, followed by a moment of regret.

I'd almost backed out. Five minutes after putting on the trailer for Beginners, I'd found the movie on Netflix and pressed Play. The pillows beckoned, offering a simpler road to morning, teasing the relief of cancelled plans—especially since I was stood up first. But Lance and his girlfriend had reserved the TV, and the walls of my room have poor insulation.

It's evenings like this that make me scan job boards across the country, try to envision a life on a street where no one knows me. For some reason, merely the knowledge that Lance is around makes freedom unattainable. My breath becomes shallower. I can't complete a yawn. When I hear his footsteps on the other side of my door, it's as though a belt tightens around my lungs.

There is a costumed fox crouched down at my waist, sniffing the head of my rooster. "Eve?" I ask, but whoever's in the mask ignores me.

"Swiper no swiping?"

The oversized head rolls around its neck like a deflated tire. It looks like it could weigh twenty-five pounds.

"Robin Hood?"

He rises to greet me (the arm hair gives it away), and the head rolls again. Forgetting that his frustrated glare is sewn in, I say, "I can't tell if you're annoyed or entertained."

He shifts the mask to align with his eyes and muffles a response. The fox jaw, latched onto his real jaw, moves as he speaks, in a creepy amalgamation of life and cartoon.

In a faintly Slavic accent, he repeats, "The truth is more strange."

With a whisper, he begins, "The year was 1959. My ancestors were chosen by a Soviet geneticist for a domestication program. Top secret. Their cubs were hand-fed by the doctor, touched and prodded and ranked by aggression. Only the most docile were retained, and the rest were slaughtered and sold as pelts."

"Really?" I whisper.

"Oh, absolutely," he says, "one in every ten."

I nod in response and unintentionally, the lilt in my hips causes the rooster to echo me. Unable to gauge the fox's sobriety, I suppress my giggle into a Huh. I wonder: is he an actor or simply psychotic? Had he written this story earlier so he could leave his own at home?

"After the fall of the Soviet Union," he continues, waiting to regain my full attention, "public funding for the project evaporated. The facility could no longer sustain the care for these childlike animals, and most were released into the wild, an environment which does not value cuteness. And others, my dainty forebears included, were redistributed to laboratories and zoos temporarily fascinated by our unique breed. I, ah—would you like me to hold him?"

I'm fumbling with the rooster, the peskiest member of our tightening huddle. Whenever I make the slightest move, it whips into the fox's chest like a javelin wielded by my hips. Plus, it cuts off the feeling in my feet. As I try to strip it off, it leaves a trail of feathers and lint down my black jeans.

"Rob?" a girl sputters into the fox's fur. "Dinesh?"

"Fox," I respond on his behalf.

She is dressed like a dalmation but crinkles her nose at me like a bulldog. As she tries to peer into the holes beneath his eyes, keeping their faces just inches apart. I note how fortunate she is that this particular breed of vulpine is so tame. Touching, prodding—you can't do that with a regular fox.

But surprisingly, when she reaches for the mask, he growls and feigns to scratch her. She leaps away; he takes a deep breath; his fixed glare assumes a new, suspicious air. He clasps my cockerel tighter against his chest—as a wily predator would, I begin to consider—and continues his story, either lulling or suffocating it to sleep.

"I was born three years ago in the Palm Beach Zoo. My father, he died on my first birthday and my mother soon after. I don't know if you've ever lost a pet, but I can tell you, when they are your parents, it is much more difficult. The zoo blamed the natural, more aggressive foxes, who were jealous of our relationship with the staff and our preferential treatment. And so, before I could even grieve, they sold me as an emotional support dog to a lady in New York."

"Dog?"

"Yes, females are vixen, males are dog. We went to her office together, to church, to the doctors. We cuddled on the couch and watched black-and-white movies. She was a sad human, yes, but caring and faithful."

"She was?"

"Oh, absolutely," he says.

"What do you mean, was?"

Here, unexpectedly, he lets out a guffaw, a hint of savagery puncturing his delicate veneer. Then, suggesting that more remains hidden, he lifts the cock to his plastic incisors and takes a dramatic bite.

Why do I ignore the warnings of guile? Why do I let him convince me that we're hungry? Why do I follow him to his car? And why does this always happen to me?

Two months ago, I'd found myself sitting in a hot tub with a woman double my age, as she told me about her husband's affair and her daughter's homosexuality. Last month, a kid on the subway invited me to his Jum'ah prayer, and I found myself swinging arms with an Imam on a rooftop in Queens. Now, I find myself driving the fox's car, up two exits and then back down, until he's certain that any curious partygoers are no longer on his tail. He points and I drive, just like in Beginners. I never ask him where we're going. It never occurs to me that I can.

He lives in a mostly unfurnished studio on a quiet city street. Folded piles of clothing on the hardwood floor partition the kitchen and bathroom from his living space—consisting of only a full-sized bed, a bedside table, and what seem to be hundreds of leather-bound notebooks in stacks that stretch from the corner to the door. On the bed is a wad of tissues; on the table are a lamp, a used shotglass, and one of the notebooks. There's no art on the walls, no framed personal photographs, no nicknacks or souvenirs from a lifetime on Earth. Picking up a notebook with the number 80 scratched into its cover, I ask, "What are these?"

"Would you like some wine?" the fox says from the kitchen, only a few feet away, perhaps attempting to steer my attention away from the sole evidence of his humanness.

The attempt is unnecessary, though. The notebook has flipped open in my hands, and the script is in a language I neither understand nor recognize. Like some rotated version of Arabic or Persian, with bold, tree-like lines and dashes of branches breaking off to the left.

Clearing his throat, he says, "I have red or I have white."

"Up to you," I answer, scanning through the other indecipherable pages. His voice has somehow lost its tone of authority. The moment you let someone into your home, I think, finally looking away from Journal #80, you've broken the, uh—

The mask is on the counter.

A man in the kitchen stands without fidgeting, watching me paw at his paltry possessions. At first I'm ashamed for ruining his surprise. Then I resent him for getting hurt by that.

He's younger than I expected. He has smooth olive skin, a clean shave, and sharp edges at the corners of his fade. His posture has fallen. His eyes belie his lost facade of confidence. He looks confused, as though wondering if there's anything he should say, and I remain silent, unable to remember how he'd ever been a fox.

That's where the story should end, in my opinion. After all, I'd come to find out what he looks like, and now I know. Case closed, run the credits. But there's too much momentum to stop what he'd started, too many questions that have to be answered. The script, in a way, is already written. Pointing to his bedside table, the man finds himself saying, "I have one in English. Would you like to see it?"

Last Halloween, I'd been at a quiet bar in Williamsburg, playing Never Have I Ever with a group of friendly strangers. Since I'd never tried cocaine or been to Europe or dove from an airplane, I lost pretty quickly. "But I'd try anything once," I explained, "as long as it won't kill me."

These are plot points waiting for their episodes, unresolved threads in the story of my life. This is a character I'm willing to play, if only just once, and for the next ninety minutes, that's what I do.

It's his confusion, not mine.

It's his pain, not mine.

It's his arousal, not mine.