Jean found Grünewald after months of online searching at her administrative job at Columbia University. In a spacey religion professor’s narrow office, she thanked cardinals, deleted spam from the National Council of Churches, and booked flights to Mexico on the sunny side of airplanes. When the professor wasn’t getting paid ten grand to muddle through tirades on Religion and Its Critics at conferences in Caracas and Krynica and Madrid, he joined her in the office. He shuffled paper towers that blocked sunlight and sandwiched decades of dust as she arched her back and typed. But when the professor was gone, her fingers paused over the keys. She opened new tabs, directed her browser to Petfinder, and looked at the dogs there.
She chose dogs to check in on. There was a Shar Pei raggy with extra skin and a poodle with a shiny boil like a third eye. There was Tick Tock, a blue heeler who was speckled and sweet except for her teeth, so coated in tartar they looked like jagged gums. Jean noted their weaknesses (bites babies, pukes after eating, requires daily rectal suppositories) and reformulated her life around them. She could come home straight after work each day, forfeiting her rare social engagements. She could wake up at seven-thirty instead of seven-fifty to walk in Roosevelt Park. And there was more than enough room in her bed, vacated months ago by her first and only girlfriend.
Jean wrote to the grim email addresses on the dogs’ profiles. There was firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Their replies retracted promises made in the listings. Black Shadow is actually in Louisiana, one said, not the Bronx. Anna-Sophie does like people, but only seniors. Even when the dog wasn’t outed as crippled, dangerous, or hundreds of miles away, Jean gave up after a few exchanges. She asked for additional photos and information, fashioned an improved portrait of her lifestyle, but nothing more. When it came to logistics—meeting the animal in question, home visits, fronted adoption fees—she balked. She felt like she was jilting a chat room lover, but she couldn’t move farther than that.
One day, after the professor drifted off to lunch, Jean scrolled through the non-dogs on the site. There were bulimic hogs, mice and hamsters bundled in lots, and self-critical parrots. Then there were the reptiles. No walks, no hair, tiny poops. Whatever it was would be less cuddly, but at least it would be alive.
After pages of bearded iguanas and frowning turtles, Jean found Grünewald. He was a snake, but his eyes were warm and wet, and a rakish tongue poked sidelong from his mouth. Jean emailed the account, expecting Grünewald to fall by the wayside like the dogs. But snake people weren’t like dog people. Terry responded immediately, clearly and intelligently, without bleeding heart run-ons or retracted information.
Terry lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Jean had been there once before, but this was much deeper in, off Franklin Ave. On her way there she passed fried chicken huts and jerk chicken houses, discount stores with nested plastic baskets exploding on the street. Guys hissed at her, even though she wore a rainbow button on her chest.
Terry’s apartment was wrapped in Indian silk and smelled of urine. He lifted Grünewald from a glass tank.
“Here’s my boy,” Terry said. “Found him in a junkyard in Lefferts Gardens, napping in someone’s old clothes. See, he’s a little nicked up, still underweight, but perfectly healthy.”
Jean took Grünewald, her hands barely coming together around the cold meat of his trunk. His eyes were drips of deep water. She saw him in a rainforest in Brazil, coiled with an emerald wife in the shade. Then he was twisting in a net, riding a steamer, flopped into the junkyard.
“How old is he?”
“That’s the thing. The vet put him at twenty so, you know, less of a commitment. Boas live to about thirty, which is a lot to sign up for. We get tons of mature animals like this turned in by widows or surviving kids.”
Terry tried to give Jean the terrarium.
“You should have this. You’ll at least want to keep him in here at night.”
“That’s okay,” Jean said. “I think I have one at home.”
She didn’t want to tell him she couldn’t carry it alone. Without Margaret, Jean was left without anyone in the city intimate enough to help with lugging and other unpleasant tasks.
“I’ll pick up another if I can’t find it,” Jean said. As though a glass trunk could hide in her precisely square studio, practically void of closets and drawers.
She accepted a cardboard box and Terry’s card. Grünewald thumped from end to end in the box as she headed back up Franklin. Jean felt safer, though, when the men howled. She imagined opening the carton and pushing it into their lively groups.
That first night Grünewald slept curled in a corner of Jean’s studio. It felt better to have someone there. She’d spent every night with Margaret after she graduated and moved to the city a year ago: weekends here on Hester Street and weeknights on Central Park North.
Even when they didn’t have sex for weeks, even when they woke up and went to bed at such different hours that they never woke the other, curling up in sleep-sour sheets, Margaret held off the reality of Jean’s life in the city. All Jean’s friends were back in Somerville, where apartments were cheap, old and sunny and it didn’t smell like garbage until it was too cold to smell like anything. She should have been there, too, had planned to be. She’d wanted to continue working at the homeless shelter, a yellow room in a church basement full of heavy, deferential men.
But then she met Margaret at a GLSTN conference and kept in touch after a hurried one-night stand. Margaret’s emails intensified as Jean finished up at Boston University, and finally they met again when Jean visited New York to see a pageant enacted by lesbian felons on release from Riker’s Island. She didn’t have anywhere to stay after the experience, and when she realized she wasn’t that attracted to Margaret (who wouldn’t suffer the show but met up after), she drank an extra thirteen-dollar Manhattan to work up the energy. But that night was better than the first. Margaret propped Jean against pillows in the dark, spread her open and heated her insides. Slowly, Jean grew attached in the daylight to Margaret’s severe features and awkward manner, and even to the puffed-rice mole on the end of her chin. Margaret was older by twelve years. But even though her skin was loose and dry, she was far more patient than the miniature, spastic butches Jean slept with in college.
The second night in his new home, Grünewald slept in the corner again, on a crumpled New York Times. But by three a.m., when Jean woke to Sex Positive Night letting out at the club across the street, Grünewald was lying in the middle of the room. His breath rattled through a coin of loose skin on his flank.
“Come on up,” Jean said. She patted the bed, like she would have for Anna-Sophie or Tick Tock or Black Shadow. But Grünewald didn’t stir. His eyes absorbed the yellow cast of the streetlights.
At work Jean looked up the snake’s name and encountered rows of bent-up Jesuses, shot full of open sores. Their gnarled, frozen fingers came up around the nails like spiders impaled while still alive. She read that he was a German Renaissance painter who based all his Christs on plague victims. She didn’t look into him again.
On Friday, at date pick-up time, Jean fed Grünewald his first mouse. It was the kind of mouse people sew ears to, not the kind stylized with almond eyes in children’s tales. It broke a blood vessel on Jean’s knuckle with its square tooth, and lost her sympathy. As soon as the mouse hit the floor Grünewald swept it into a hug, his head pressing into its belly fur while the bubblegum tail and loose leg batted the air. The mouse kicked for a foothold, slowly, slower, and then still.
One morning at five Jean lifted her head off the sticky pillow. She often woke when the vegetable trucks visited Hester Street to unload wooden cases of bok choy. Jean braced herself for the rumbling, the Mandarin, the soft thud of food on pavement. But out the windows the street was empty, still slick from a rare rinsing. The cabbage leaves and stray noodles had not yet collected in the gutter, squished into a spare meal for dogs and intrepid children. What had woken her was her phone, quivering on her bedside table.
Jean saw the picture ID: Margaret’s face eclipsed by a glowing martini. She slid it across the night table, where it clicked against her lamp and continued to blink.
Jean unpeeled her sheets and went to the middle of the room. She straddled Grünewald, the pattern of chocolate buttons winding between her feet. She fit her fingers under his belly and lifted him. She had fed him seven or eight mice now, one a week for almost two months, and he was heavier. Bubbles popped in her spine as she lifted him. He must be forty pounds, she thought. Maybe fifty.
Jean pulled back the sheets and let Grünewald go between them, his purple tongue exploring her sweat stains.
Margaret kept calling shortly before the bok choy each morning. That was when she got up for her job as a news producer at a dinky public radio station. Jean woke with each call but didn’t answer, the snake wrapped silently around her leg or arm. He kept his head where it was warm, in her armpit or groin. Sometimes he tickled her and she let her hand brush her genitals, feeling that her underwear, big and baggy, was clammy and no longer dry.
Jean would have preferred a dog: hairy and smelly and in her face, but Grünewald was almost better for his lack of presence. When she woke each morning to the promise of the glowing phone, the snake close but in another world, it felt like just enough company.
Then Grünewald stopped eating. It happened after work on a Friday. Jean gave him a mouse from the cage she kept over the toilet, but Grünewald didn’t take to it. Jean switched it for another, and that one for a third. She tried the fattest mouse she had and the most active, but Grünewald wasn’t interested. Each mouse returned to the wood dust, freed that week from a slow death.
Terry said snakes don’t eat every week, so Jean didn’t worry at first. But in the past it seemed like one mouse wouldn’t satisfy him. After a feeding he would tilt his matchbox head at her, the meal crammed in his throat, already asking for more. When his fast was three weeks old, Jean called Terry.
“Most reptile problems start with loss of appetite,” Terry said. “You should take him in. Do you have a vet yet? I’ll give you a name.”
The vet, like most good doctors, was on the Upper East Side. Jean set a date.
That night, feeling better about the snake, Jean crashed early. When the phone rang at five she felt so rested, so at ease, that she answered.
“Hey Jeanie,” said the voice. It was deep and scratchy. Jean almost didn’t recognize it.
“Listen, don’t hang up. I know I fucked you over.”
Margaret hadn’t waited until Jean had an evening plan to cheat because she so rarely had one. Jean came home from the professor to Margaret’s eyes peeking through a scribble of pubic hair, two thick legs, shot through with veins, bobbing above her head.
“There’s no excuse, I know. But the thing is, that girl was straight. That’s why I did it.”
“What are you talking about?” Jean said.
“Look, can I see you? Let’s get tea. I have a lot to explain.”
“I don’t know.”
Margaret was no looker anymore, but Jean had trouble getting laid even in college. The most game lesbians shied from her unless loaded. There was nothing sexy in her freckled arms and uneven gait. Margaret must have expected an instant conquer.
“I just want to talk.”
“All right,” Jean said. She couldn’t say no. They made a plan for tomorrow. Jean set the phone down. Grinning in the dark, she rubbed Grünewald like a long, legless dachshund.
The next day, Jean felt overdressed in her work clothes. She stripped them off by the hangers in the office, then lingered naked: her pale, puffy body set against the brittle manuscripts and tomes. She pulled on the exercise clothes she kept around in case she ever got the idea to go to the Columbia gym. The fabric was damp although she hadn’t worn the clothes in weeks.
When Margaret came into the café on Amsterdam, Jean didn’t recognize her. She looked over the plodding stranger into the bright, sloping street. But then the stranger sat with her.
Margaret had gained ten or fifteen pounds, and developed an inflamed streak of acne across her cheekbones. But that wasn’t it. She had also sprouted grey whiskers in patches on her chin and temples. Her breasts were spread over the top of her torso, forming a single, flattened swell. Her button-down shirt was tucked in and she wore dress shoes instead of clogs. Suddenly, Jean was grinning, no longer nervous.
Margaret beamed back.
“Hi Jeanie,” she said. “You look pretty.”
Margaret made a pyramid with her hands and ordered a chai latte. Then she said what she didn’t have to say.
“Here’s what. I’m transitioning, Jean. I’m on T. That’s why I ended things. I started shooting in secret and thought you’d disapprove. And I didn’t know if I could be with lesbians anymore. That’s when I met Sheila.”
Towards the end of their relationship, Margaret had stopped tweezing the two hairs that grew from her mole. The mole was hidden now in a sparse forest. Being a man suited Margaret, in a way, her features too rugged even for a butch.
“I guess good old Sheila didn’t work out in the end?”
“Well, she’s married. And I’ve thought about it more, and I think I can.”
“You can what?”
“Be with lesbians. Like you. I want to be with you, Jean.”
Jean considered Grünewald and the glowing phone. The calls would end and they would be alone together.
“Margaret,” Jean said. “I’m with someone else.”
“It’s Mac now. Tell me. Who are you seeing? No one too sensational, right?”
Margaret’s hand floated over to clasp Jean’s. It was a firm, convincing grip that jolted Jean in the underwear. But when she looked up and saw the whiskers and the man that had always been in Margaret’s face, the jolt dried.
“Yeah, actually,” she said, twisting her hand out and sliding it through a puddle of tea to her lap. “I’m with a man now. A natural one.”
Margaret looked up from the foam on her drink and didn’t say anything. When she spoke, her voice was high and feminine.
“I really screwed up. I see that now.”
“Look, I gotta go, Mac. Sorry.”
Jean ran into the street.
At work the next day, Jean stored the snake in a box under her computer. At five she took a taxi through the park and arrived on Lexington Avenue. The vet lifted Grünewald from his box.
“He’s a big boy.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“Tell me about him.”
Jean told the whole story. How she had wanted a dog, how she ended up with Grünewald instead. How now he wouldn’t curl on her limbs at night, just lay beside her like an empty balloon. While she talked, the vet looked in Grünewald’s mouth, pinched the flesh that was loosening and expanding by the day.
“I’m sorry to say this,” he said, flattening his palms on the examination table. “But you have to get rid of this animal right away.”
“What’s wrong? Is he contagious or something?”
“Do you know anything about boa constrictors?”
“Not really,” Jean said. “Just what they told me. Like the mice, and the lifespan. But no, not really.”
“Boas size their prey,” the vet said. “He’s starving himself. He’s getting ready.”
Jean left Grünewald at the Bronx Zoo that afternoon. She wanted to spend one last night with him but didn’t trust herself to stay awake. The keeper took him in, saying he hoped Grünewald would get along with their other boa, Jazz Hands. It would be his past all over again. A tiny rainforest, this time north of Manhattan, where two snakes would curl in sunshine like a caduceus.
That night, when she went to bed, Jean felt dry again. The club let out and the bok choy came, and she didn’t sleep through any of it. But as the light inked over the Mandarin and the fading drunks, she stretched a foot into each corner of the bed and decided that she could use the space.
A version of this story previously appeared in the Minnesota Review.
Lydia Conklin is a cartoonist and writer who lives in New York City with a parade of mean and scruffy dog-orphans. She is the author of the first KtB pamphlet, The Living Cain. Her work is forthcoming or has already appeared in New Letters, Narrative Magazine, The Minnesota Review, The Saint Ann’s Review, Hobart and other places. She is a 2009 recipient of the Astraea Foundation Grant. Her website is Lydiaconklin.com.