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Book 1 – Chapter 3 – Corpse Fox – Part 2

The ride home wasn’t so bad. It would have gone smoother if I’d had someone with me. Before I left, I tied on my tail in the bathroom. It would have been weird to go home without it. Scratch that – it would have been numbing to go home without it. I could make the walk to Central and out of Davis Square with my eyes closed. A lot of people regularly do. I wouldn’t have had to worry about it getting stuck in doors, pulled by obnoxious children or having some fetishist stalker after me. But I would have been hiding it, and trying not to freak if someone kicked my bag.

When I was in the first grade, on my way home from school I would pretend I was Penny from Inspector Gadget. It made the trip faster. However, the three foot tail behind me slowed time down. The ten steps from the bathroom to the front door became twenty when the security guard had his eye trained on me. When I found a seat on the subway, three whole conversations stopped when they noticed my tail curl behind me before I sat. A guy winked at me like, “What else can that do?”

I was out, but for the life of me I couldn’t tell anyone exactly what I was outing except that I wanted this. It was part of who I am. If someone had a better metaphor, I was all for it.

I could have used Trisha or someone with a similar tail beside me. There’s strength in numbers.

I was such an over-process factory that I sat through two episodes of Seinfeld in my apartment before I could think straight. My unmonitored computer waved to me on its table. I logged on and did a quick search of Craigslist for harnesses. I rationalized that used leather goods weren’t only cheap, they were already broken in.

Any searches for exotic items bring up the most off-the-wall, crazy and unrelated results, so I’m amazed when I actually find what I want the first time. I was lucky. Four or five results down, I found an ad for a fifteen dollar ponygirl harness, “custom designed for the tail of your choice,” posted by a woman named Elory Burke. The ad said the leather was nearing twenty years in age, but it had spent most of that time wrapped in soft cloth. It was in good shape and she had given it a thorough rubdown in oil.

She was also selling wrist cuffs, a ceremonial glazed bowl for Wiccan ceremonies, and a series of size 12 dresses for short women.

I sent her an email with my contact information, asking if it was still available.

My phone rang a few minutes later. I was dressing for a run to the Diesel Café, and I almost didn’t catch it. The caller’s name was blocked. I said, “Hello?”

I expected an older voice instead of the girl at the other end. She said, “Oh, hi,” and waited a few seconds and swallowed. “Sorry, I was hoping to get your voice mail.”

I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I said, “Do you want me to hang up? I won’t pick up next time.”

She said, “No, it’s okay. I guess I should tell you.”

I said, “What? Who is this?”

She said, “We haven’t met.” A finger scraped over the mouthpiece, and she whispered with another person.

I said, “I have your number. What’s your name?”

She said, “Kelly. It’s Kelly. Look, please don’t be mad. It wasn’t her fault.”

I was ready to hang up, and I should have. I just breathed.

She said, “Della and I were tested a couple weeks ago and the results came back. We have herpes simplex two.”

I swear my intestines cramped up. I said, “Put her on the phone.”

They murmured again and one of them laughed. They left me waiting, and I knew the answer. She said, “She’s not here. You should get tested too.”

“Let me speak to her, or I’m coming there now.”

“She doesn’t live in JP anymore. I’m really sorry. We’re telling everyone. She didn’t mean for this to happen.”

“When did you start to show symptoms?”

“I have to go. You probably don’t have it, but get checked, okay? Bye.”

I wrote down her number and stared at it. Kelly had effectively flushed my love life down the toilet.

I always counted myself as really careful, latex gloves and trimming fingernails careful. I thought that after spending time with a person, I would know. I went out with people who debated Michel Foucault and Susie Bright for fun and talked about their stripping careers. They had to open up to me.

Della only forgot to mention that she was fucking other people, people with diseases, before putting her mouth on me. I could hear her rationalizing that I wouldn’t get infected, probably. If I was already, where was the harm?

I spread myself over a hand mirror on the bathroom floor and checked myself thoroughly. I unfolded my lips and spread out my hood, both sides. I still had razor burn with bumps everywhere that could split open. I had to stop. Herpes hides for years if it has to, but it’s everywhere in the bloodstream. That’s why they can test for it so easily. Every time I cut myself, I could have bled the virus.

The on-line studies said that one out of five Americans has herpes and that one of ten is queer, which I would think meant that one out of every fifty dykes is infected, but it’s still one in five. I knew at least two from college. My body had become a weapon, and I hated it. I couldn’t imagine how anyone talks about it in public without a dedicated cadre of lovers at home, ready to accept them no matter what.

I imagined myself turning into a great Lying Beast who sweet-talks girls from the Diesel for a few months, before opening up to some abuse they are causing her and running away. I could make it a game. With every girl, I could hide one other thing from her: my major, my hairdresser, my fetish wear buried in the back of the closet. With practice, I would forget I was lying at all.

Kelly was calling “everyone,” and like a fish story, that number kept getting larger the more I thought about it. Each of us would have to wage her own little war to keep the world safe from her. I cried on my bed until I burned away my capacity to feel.

I left a message with my doctor. His office closed in the evening, but the operator said they would expect my call first thing the next day.

I ate several peanut butter balls until I could taste again. I logged on-line and searched for Kelly’s phone number. I tried every combination of parentheses and dashes in the search engines. I found nothing.

Elory had replied to my email. The harness hadn’t been sold, and I could come by her house after work if I wanted to inspect it. She lived five minutes from the Forest Hills stop at the end of the Orange Line, in a deep blue house with a roof in the shape of a Pilgrim’s hat.

I responded that I would come by, but I didn’t think I’d stay long.

I took my coat off and picked up a book. I imagined cursing Della if I ran into her, but I couldn’t go through with it. Her soft puckish face would smile at me and fade fast.

I cuddled White-Star overnight. He was completely safe, at least. All kids store their unconditional love in their stuffed animals.

I had to throw off my covers and freeze myself out of bed the next morning. My body had stretched longer during the night. My ankle dipped over the end of my mattress. My saliva stuck to the insides of my mouth. In my head, I played out the conversation I would have at the doctor’s office.

I washed myself carefully in the shower. I was afraid that rubbing my skin would cause a breakout. Hidden diseases don’t make sense. I might have had to give up starches or dairy or lemonade on the third Sunday after a new moon. I didn’t know. We could do a lot of good if everyone, infected or not, was brought up being told they had herpes.

I ate breakfast in time to leave for the train. I was dressed and in the hallway when it happened. A man stepped in front of me, so tall I couldn’t see his head. He wore a loose black sweatshirt and his waist was at my eye-level. His arms were thick and didn’t bend correctly. I don’t believe I saw his hands or feet, but since then my memories have added them – large, twisted and hairy, probably from a slasher movie I watched once. But that wasn’t what he was about. He was benign, just a security guard showing me where to go. And as fast, he vanished.

I had forgotten to put on my tail. I had a moment of dread. Della always had to have her driver’s license even when she wasn’t drinking, and she would take the train home if she noticed it missing on her way to work. This would be my life with the tail.

I laced the ropes up pretty tight. It behaved, and I barely noticed it on the way to the station. On the escalator, I realized I was moving with more fluidity. Air swimming is the best way to describe it. My tail rocked my hips. When I turned a corner, I could lean into it slightly. My feet were lighter. It was weird, but then again, I had the specter of disease over me and I didn’t know what its unspoken symptoms were.

I got so many more stares that morning, my peripheral vision exploded with danger signals. When you wear a strange outfit, the people who see you on the train every day become very curious. The guys and girls my age didn’t bat a lash, but the older women gritted their teeth. They didn’t mean any harm but were dying to ask. When I curled my tail to sit, three of them turned their heads from me.

I counted the steps to my work’s bathroom from the second I left South Station. My thighs had the life squeezed out of them until I stripped the ropes off.

Justine wasn’t in, but none of her personal belongings had been touched.

I phoned the doctor’s office and they had an appointment open at 3:30. I said yes. It wouldn’t have mattered if I went later – with white collar jobs, everybody works the same hours.

Benny had tacked a photo of a water bottle to the wall of our test bed. He left a note underneath asking whoever was throwing away his empty drinks to stop. He had signed his name. It was really tacky. In my neighborhood when I was a kid, one homeowner collected every piece of dog poo on his lawn and put it in an open box beside his driveway. He had painted on a warning that whoever left it should come pick it up. The box was almost full by the time I graduated from high school.

Benny had put one of those rear-view mirrors on the test bed’s monitor so we could spot the Badger fast. I checked through Benny’s schedule for updates, but he wrote in tiny precise letters which were hard to focus on. I had slept lousy and I had to bite my tongue to keep awake.

While I was flipping between screens, Manager Badger was beside me. He stood inches from my fingers, in his blue vest for important meetings. He kept absolutely stiff without a sound, and the strange thing was, I didn’t see any blue in the rearview mirror. The second I turned to look at him, he vanished. He scared the crap out of me.

I ran back to my cubicle and waited until I was sure I had stopped seeing things.

I spotted him fetching his coffee. I still had to ask for the afternoon off. I caught him in his office when he had finished a call. His window shades were drawn. Roasted almond drifted from his thermos on top of a stack of human resource forms. Neither of his Red Sox or Patriots pen holders had pens in them. He gestured to the chair without looking up from his laptop.

“I have a doctor’s appointment at three thirty,” I said. “It’s important. Something came up last night.”

He folded his hands on his chest. “Is it an emergency?”

“It could be.”

“Will it keep you out of work?”

I shook my head.

“Then I can’t let you go. We’re short-staffed and Justine gave her notice.”

I stared blankly at him. I was always the last to know these things. “Oh,” I said.

He blew the cowlick over his forehead. “I hate to do this to you, kiddo, but that’s how it is.”

I returned to my cubicle. I zoned out at a stack of computer manuals by following the valleys and gulleys made from their edges. I fielded calls in my most brainless, robot girl space. I should have told him I might be pregnant.

Manager Badger walked by, and did not evaporate when I blinked. He pressed a piece of paper onto my desk. A phone number was written on it. “That’s for Justine,” he said. “You can see if she’ll cover for you.”

I picked it up and it stayed in my hand. I stammered, “Thank you,” but he had turned around. He was the sort of guy who took compliments as well as he gave them.

Before I absolutely had to leave, Justine rushed in. She was in her civvies, with jeans and her hair in pigtails. I had been afraid she wouldn’t make it, but she was incredible. I left my last bag of Smarties on her chair, with the key to my notes cabinet. I said to her, “Thank you so much for covering. I wish you weren’t leaving. “

Her hands were still cold from her trip. “Look, I don’t belong here,” she said. “You do. This all comes so naturally to you. You’ve helped me out so much. I’m going to miss you.”

I shrugged, and her chill ran up my wrists. “It won’t be the same without you,” I said. “Cracker junkie.”

“Crack dealer,” she said. “Go on, I’ll be fine. Get to your appointment.”

I packed my bag while she strapped herself in to wait for her computer to become usable. I slipped her my personal email. “Write if you want coffee sometime,” I said. “I really hope you find another job soon.”

She nodded and her pigtails bounced. “I will, really. Get going.”

There aren’t any good ways to say goodbye when you’re on the clock. I headed for the bus with my tail in my backpack. I never saw her in work again and Manager Badger never mentioned her, which was hard, because she made me smile and that was all the thanks she got.

Categories: Book 1 - How Cheryl Got Her Tail, Chapter 3 - Corpse Fox.

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