Venus in Fur
A story about a man, the woman he loves, and the dog she loves more than him.
He recognized her instantly as his adversary. Despite the thin black lips bared in a replica of a smile, there was no mistaking Millicent for a friend. She circled George’s ankles, sniffing and rooting, and then in a gesture at once defiant, indulgent, and confirmatory, urinated on his shin.
“Millicent!” Helen chided. “Bad girl! Naughty Millie!”
Millie lowered her tiny head, revealing a white vertical stripe that slid through the toffee-colored fur with the ease of a loosed arrow. Helen scooped up Millie and rubbed their faces together. “She’s berry berry sorry,” Helen said.
Millie glanced up at George. She blinked her bulging, unapologetic eyes. The absence of remorse stemmed from insight as much as imperiousness: Helen’s version of scolding involved a half dozen kisses on her lavender nose.
“It’s okay,” George said, shaking his pant leg.
“I hope it doesn’t stain.”
“A little scrub and they’ll be fine.” He plucked a sponge from the kitchen sink and waved it under the faucet. He was not put off by Millie’s attack. Since the day children had cheered him on, at seven years old, while he dangled a shiny green cricket on his tongue, George had understood that being liked involved enduring some unpleasantness. Scooping up spiders, licking frogs, nibbling worms — these early adolescent acts later had given way to more complicated but equally undesirable social concessions.
“What’s that?” Helen asked and went over to the fire escape. She gazed out beyond the collection of plants that expired on a semiannual basis. “There’s a big truck coming to get you!”
“Where?” George asked.
“I was talking to Millie.” Helen pointed out the window at a dumpster — without her glasses, which she didn’t wear around men, she had trouble identifying distant objects. “See that truck? See that truck?” Millie licked her neck. “She hates trucks,” Helen whispered to George. “Oh no, is that nasty old truck coming for you?” Helen asked, crushing Millie to her chest.
Except for the species disparity and a hundred and thirty pounds, they could have been sisters: Helen, a petite, big-eyed strawberry blonde, and Millie, a runty Pomeranian with freckles on the tips of her glamorous white paws, and eyes as glassy and spherical as soap bubbles. Helen kissed the top of Millie’s head, assuring her that she was safe. “Don’t worry, everyone wubs you, Millie!” It was a performance resonant with the immoderate pride of the maternal, but in this case it was correct. Everyone did wub Millie. The dry cleaner and the hardware store owner fawned over her. The florist and the pharmacist yelped when they saw her. The pizza delivery boy danced with her. The cobbler crooned to her in Italian. The barber, bald and widowed, put down his scissors and sighed whenever Millie trotted past. Strangers on the street gawked at Millie, the bolder ones whistled or waved, children followed until called off by their embarrassed parents, who blushed with delighted apologies. Even the cranky hipster bookstore cashier and the stern Israeli locksmith adored Millie.
Only George did not love Millie. To be precise, he hated her. It was an antipathy that steadily grew over the next six months as he continued to see Helen — and, by necessity, Millie. His animosity had little to do with the reasons he normally disliked dogs: their territorialism, their explosive and pointless vitality, the way they breathed hotly out of their mouths, as if a dirty sneaker were being repetitively squeezed. It was simple jealousy: watching the way Helen clutched Millie to her chest, the way she dotted Millie’s small furry skull with kisses . . . all that misguided, unconditional tenderness outraged him.
A few days before he left for a two-week vacation with Helen, George confessed this private hatred to the Greek Orthodox priest on East Thirteenth Street. Elias was far from nonpartisan — he had often slipped Millie slivers of Cretan sausage — but George admired Elias enough to overlook it. Thin and hollow-cheeked, with an ecstatic dark beard and long black robes that seemed the attainment of stylish severity, Elias would surely understand the awkwardness of the imposition Millie made on George, the ethical confusion, all the troublesome etceteras of a man struggling to secure love for himself in a skeptical, closed-hearted city. And if that failed, George could point out the way Helen cradled Millie in her arms as she walked the streets, like the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, and, in condemning this pagan perversion, George could win an ally.
“You’d like to know how to ask Miss Carver not to bring Millie along?” Elias asked, after George had finished his plea. They were seated in the unventilated study in the rear of the church. The backs of George’s knees were sweating.
“Not . . . quite. I want to know how to tell Helen that Millie isn’t coming.”
“I don’t understand. Didn’t you just say she plans on bringing her?”
“Well she plans on it . . . but she can’t. I never went to the Greek consulate to have Millie’s travel paperwork approved. And we leave Saturday morning. It’s too late.”
Elias flipped a loop of red worry beads tucked into his palm. He looked bored with human nature.
“We all make mistakes, George. Just tell her the truth. Our lives can be overwhelming at times, but people understand.”
George hesitated. “It wasn’t a mistake. I had plenty of time to get the papers.”
“Well my advice remains the same. Tell her the truth. You’d be pleasantly surprised by how forgiving — ”
“Yes, of course,” George interrupted. “I think I should have been clearer about what I’m looking for. I need practical advice. I’m only half-Greek but you’re the real thing. You know the Greek consulate. You’ve got to have some idea about its bureaucratic workings and what a credible excuse might sound like.”
“Are you asking me to lie for you?”
“No, of course not,” George said and smiled. “I’m asking you to come up with a lie. I’ll tell it.”
Elias ushered George out of the study. Beneath a bright golden dome as extravagantly decorated as the tattooed back of a prisoner, the wooden pews sat empty. It was an early Friday afternoon in July and too beautiful outside, it seemed, for piety. At the doorway, Elias pulled George aside. “Please remember that I’m always available.”
“I don’t think I’ll be needing any more advice.”
“For Millicent, I mean.” Elias cleared his throat. “Since you won’t be taking her along on vacation, you’re going to need a reliable dog sitter. It would be no trouble at all to find room for her in my home.”
George returned to the post office and sullenly finished his afternoon shift. After work, he skipped the crosstown bus and walked to Helen’s apartment. He was in no rush to give her the news. The sun was setting, sinking behind the river with the disarming and sudden acceleration of the end of things. When George arrived at her building, the doorman waved him past the front desk with indifferent recognition. George entered the empty elevator. Impulsively, he pressed all the buttons. The elevator stopped at every floor, announcing each arrival with a joyful, irrelevant ding. Then he was standing outside Helen’s door, stripped of deferrals.
“Guess what we’re doing?” she cooed, answering his knock. She was dressed in a cream-colored waffle robe that had been loosely tied. Her hair, pulled back into a ponytail, accentuated the size of her eyes. He could hear water splashing into the tub.
“Taking a bath?”
“Hurry!” she said, and raced off toward the bathroom.
He would tell her afterward, he decided, as he rushed through the apartment, undressing. He kicked off his black rubber-soled shoes and undid his belt, nearly tripping over his pants as he shed them in midrun. He flung his shirt on the kitchen counter and tossed his socks over his shoulder like spilt salt. Ahead of him, at the end of the hallway, the bathroom door was swinging to a close. He hurried, excited by the thought of what awaited him. He imagined Helen sliding out of her robe and stepping into the water, her eyes drifting shut as she reclined against the supple curvature of the tub. She would lean her head back, the ends of her hair growing wet and dark. Hearing his footfalls, she would slyly acknowledge his arrival by raising her bare knees up out of the water, twin islands parting in invitation.
He stepped out of his last remaining article of clothing, dangling his boxers from his upturned index finger as he swaggered into the bathroom.
“Why are you naked?” Helen said. Still dressed in her waffle knit robe, she was kneeling beside the tub, inside of which sat a shivering Millie. Her caramel fur was matted to her bony ribs. With her dour, pointy face and pronounced whiskers, she resembled a satirical cartoon of a Beat poet, missing only the beret and cigarette.
“I thought we were . . . the bath . . . that it was . . . ” But he gave up as Helen ignored him to further drench a scrawny, waterlogged Millie with the showerhead. George pulled his boxers back on, one of the more disappointing activities known to man, and sat dejectedly on the toilet lid. Citrus-scented steam gusted against his face. He swatted at the fog with an annoyed wave of his hand.
“No, no,” Helen chided when the dog sneezed. “No getting sickies before we leave for vacation!”
“She’s not coming anyway,” George snapped.
“The consulate was closed,” he said, deliberately softening his tone. “Every time I tried it was the same thing. Sorry. There’s a reason Greece has the worst economy in Europe — no work ethic.”
Helen switched off the tap. She reached for a freshly warmed towel and wrapped it around Millie. “I already took care of Millie’s paperwork,” she said.
“Last Friday. You kept saying how hard it was. So I stopped by. Didn’t I tell you?”
But that wasn’t the important question. The important question was “Who took a bath?!” Helen screamed it twice, then segued into the equally urgent “Who smells like oranges!”
Millie barked, raising her head excitedly into the air.
“You do! You do!” Helen said, her face exploding into rapture. She rubbed her nose against Millie’s soaked neck. The dog squirmed free of Helen’s embrace and head-butted George’s legs. Then she ran out of the bathroom, trailed by Helen.
George caught up to them both in the living room. Millie had found George’s hastily discarded pants in a pile on the floor and was rubbing her soaked hindquarters against them.
“She hates the hairdryer,” Helen explained.
Millie sat up and rammed her head into George’s bare shins again. Then she hopped up onto the couch and shimmied against a cushion. She barked at George with defiance, triumph, joy. All the world was her towel.
They arrived in Athens late in the afternoon and, after clearing customs and picking up Helen’s many suitcases, went to retrieve Millie. The man at the cargo area, smitten, had illegally removed her from her carrier. Helen was surprised to see Millie happily lounging on the cool concrete floor after nine hours in the cargo hold, gnawing on a lamb rib, as Millie was ordinarily an anxious traveler. George was surprised to see Millie at all. He had slipped the man at the loading dock fifty dollars to send her to Rome.
Jet lag consumed their first and only night in Athens, and the next morning they boarded a ferryboat for the Cyclades. Drifting toward the small, uncrowded port of their destination, an overlooked island east of Naxos, George strained for a glimpse of the staggering beauty that he had imagined would greet them. His mother, a first-generation Greek American, had often described her parents’ homeland as a landscape of lush olive groves and luminous beaches. What George saw, however, was a craggy mountainside, dotted with bleached white homes like teeth set in an excavated jawbone. He had anticipated beauty so luscious and poignant that it would annihilate any distance between him and Helen. It was a childish wish in its disregard for the subtleties of engagement, stemming from the same impulse for acceptance that had had him eating worms decades earlier, but it was no less potent for either its simplicity or familiarity, and as he climbed into the taxi beside Helen, he worried that the clamorous, lonely hunger that had dominated his life would never depart him.
He gazed out the window as the taxi ascended the cliff, and then, a few coiled kilometers later, the road unfurled into the greater of the two towns on the island. It was a hopscotch of homes and shops, with the greenish-blue Mediterranean peeking through the gaps between houses like a jealous gaze. Helen cleaned Millie’s irritated eyes with a puppy-wipe pad.
The Hotel Sunshine was a meandering, three-story gathering of white rooms and blue shutters. Architecturally, the hotel seemed to have no definite plan but instead to have expanded the way a coral reef grows, with new rooms arriving beside and above the old ones in eruptions of calcified necessity. George followed a confusing pair of hand-painted signs to reception, wiping the sweat from his forehead as he stooped to enter. A pretty black-haired girl sat at a table, folding towels. Behind her hung a collection of painted icons and framed black-and-white portraits of a family. In the corner, a television was softly gossiping.
“Hello?” George whispered, worried that he had stumbled into someone’s living room.
The girl paused from smoothing flat a towel and looked up. Her face broke into a grin.
“Hello! How old are you?”
George smiled. “Forty-two.”
“Tsoo-tsoo!” the girl said and clicked her tongue.
“Tsoo-tsoo,” George replied.
I like this hotel, he thought, and then Helen appeared in the entranceway, calling out for Millie, who, George realized with embarrassment, had been hiding between his legs, the real object of welcome.
“How long has she been with you?” Helen demanded. “I almost stepped on a cactus looking for her.”
The girl came around from behind the table and, crouching, gestured for Millie to approach. Before she could, however, Helen scooped up Millie. The problem, Helen explained, was that she was a bad Millie. A berry berry bad Millie. Such a bad dog she should be squishy-wished.
Ah, but the real problem, as it turned out, was not Millie’s cheerfully exonerated badness but that the hotel did not allow dogs. “This is the way here,” said the girl’s mother, who had been called from the kitchen after Helen had insisted on speaking with an adult. She was balding and weary looking. She smelled of cinnamon. “I am sorry,” she said, wiping her hands on her spotless apron.
“But we made a reservation,” Helen said. “Check the book.”
“We no dog reservations allow,” the mother said.
“They have the hairs. Also the noisy.”
The girl said something to her mother in Greek that, though only faintly intelligible to George, he identified from tone as an appeal.
“I just saw a cat on the stairway,” Helen added.
“Cat is wild,” the mother said. “They goes.”
“You can’t do this,” Helen said, placing a squirming Millie on the ground. The dog trotted over to the girl and turned around to allow the backs of her ears to be scratched. “It’s discrimination.”
“Maybe we should leave Millie somewhere for the week,” George said. “I’m sure we can find a good kennel for her. We’d visit every day.”
Helen pressed her palms together with a pained, prayerful expression. For a brief moment, George entertained the hope that Helen would agree to be separated from Millie. Their seclusion seemed suddenly, almost unbearably achievable. Then, with a puppyish huff, Millie rolled onto her back. Baring her tender belly, she wriggled against the tile floor, her slim furry paws bent at the wrists. Her caramel tail fluffed up and down. She glanced coquettishly out of the corner of her huge, watery eyes. All the women sighed. How could they not? She was cotton candy. She was makeup. She was new shoes. She was strawberry lip balm. She was a girl’s first phone. She was everything pink, everything soft, everything small that fit inside a purse.
They threw their suitcases on the bed, changed into bathing suits, and hid their jewelry in obvious places. As George gathered beach towels and sunscreen, Helen called for Millie.
“Should I take her travel bag or let her walk on leash?” she asked.
“I hate to leave her in the hotel room,” George said, petting Millie with the sole of his shoe, “but sanitation codes don’t allow dogs on the beach.”
Although she wore flip-flops in her own shower, wiped down silverware in restaurants with her napkin, and referred to street hot dog vendors as bacterialists, Helen readily dismissed the local health statute. “Oh please. Millie’s cleaner than our cab driver,” she said, and snatched up the leather leash with the cry “Who’s coming to the beach! Who’s coming to the beach!”
It was a long blazing walk from the hotel. Millie trotted in the shade when she could, and when this became impossible — the homes were sporadically built up at the far edge of town — she veered in and out of their legs in a dignified panic. George frequently tripped over the agitated butterscotch blur at his ankles and pretended, with less success each time, to find it endearing. Despite Helen’s bewitchment with Millie, or perhaps because of it, she hadn’t introduced George to Millie until a month into their courtship. And now, only half a year later, George already recalled those early companionless days with nostalgia. The sprawling, leisurely dinners, the unescorted strolls along the Williamsburg Bridge, the scent of Helen’s perfume on his skin after a night of lovemaking, freesia and labdanum unsullied by Millie’s citrus-scented dog shampoo. Yes, there had been doggie bags and check-in calls to the dog sitter, but they were afterthoughts, incidental gestures. During those heady, blissful first weeks, Helen had been exclusively his.
They arrived at the beach and chose a section down the shore, away from the tourists. George laid their towels on the rocks while Helen looked for a tree to secure Millie’s leash. The only significant vegetation was some forbidding Y-shaped succulents, so she gave up and pinned the leash beneath a cairn of heavier stones.
“Rub some more lotion on my back?” she asked, unfastening her bikini top.
George poured the sunscreen into his hands both to warm it and to prolong the anticipation. Helen’s body was dizzying, with generous curves. That she invited his touch still seemed to him a bewildering generosity. His ex-wife’s adultery had done much to banish the meager sensual confidence he’d accumulated over the years, and while rubbing the lotion into Helen’s skin, he felt his disbelief hardening into a carapace of need. He reached around and massaged sunscreen onto her ribs, gracing with just the tips of his fingers the underswell of her full breasts. She pressed down on his shoulder with her chin.
“Who’s a bad boy?” she said.
“Yes you are. A berry bad boy.”
He leaned forward and kissed her warm freckled shoulder.
“Do you want to swim?”
“Race you to the water,” she said.
They sprinted from their towels, scattering stones with their wild strides. George dove in and felt the slick undersea rocks skim his thighs as he quickened toward the deep. He arched his back, arms elongated, and kicking hard, sped toward the surface. Erupting out of the water, he heard Millie’s yelp puncturing the air — high pitched, indignant, hysterical. He wiped the salt water from his eyes, blinking until he could see again. He was alone. Helen had stayed behind, pinned to the coast by Millie, who was hopping and snapping at her ankles.
“Come on in!” George shouted, waving while treading water with his legs.
“She won’t let me! She’s never seen the ocean!” Helen shouted back. She turned to Millie and said, “It’s just water, honey. It’s just water.”
But to Millie the sea was enormous and menacing, and no words would calm her. Helen was vanishing! Life was departing! However sluggish Millie grew from the heat, with Helen’s first steps into the ocean she stirred, racing to the water’s edge and barking until Helen reemerged. George said nothing as he watched this operetta. The past two days had been a wearying series of obstacles and irritations; all he wanted was the simple reward of seaside languor with a handsome body. That this should be obstructed by a dog’s fear seemed an absurdity bordering on injustice.
They left the beach at dusk. The walk back through town in the changing light confused them, and soon they were lost. George asked directions from an old woman sitting on a porch, snapping the ends off green beans.
“Barack Obama!” she said.
The street they were following split into two nameless tributaries. They took a left and later a right. “This seems a little familiar,” Helen said. “I think I remember the bougainvillea on that terrace.”
“Forget it — it’s a dead end.” Helen whistled for Millie to turn around. Released from her leash for the walk home, she was trotting twenty feet ahead of them, rooting through roadside piles of trash.
George saw the cat first. It was a husky gray tomcat with broad paws hosting an extra toe. The whiskers on one side of its face had gone missing, and this deformity leant it the air of a gangster. Turning its back on George and Helen, it stalked up the narrow street toward Millie.
“Where did that cat come from?” Helen said.
“Someone’s house probably,” George said.
“It’s not wearing a collar.”
The cat crept closer, its ears rotating backward.
“That’s not a housecat. Millie honey, turn around,” Helen called out.
Millie ignored Helen, tugging free an ice cream wrapper from the torn bottom of a trash bag. She placed a paw on the wrapper to hold it in place and licked at it with her head turned sideways. From behind, her fanned, white-bottomed tail resembled the lacey bloom of a ballerina’s tutu.
“Millie,” Helen said, carefully stepping toward the converging animals. “I want you to come back here right now.”
The tomcat paused. It sank down until its belly touched the ground. Its thick tail twitched back and forth.
“Millie!” Helen shouted and broke into a run.
Startled by the clatter of Helen’s sandals, Millie looked up from the ice cream wrapper, but it was too late. The tomcat had covered too much distance. He lunged and sprang onto Millie’s back. She yelped. Her giant eyes bulged in terror. The cat swiped at Millie’s side with its massive six-clawed paw and Millie jerked sideways in a futile attempt to dislodge her attacker. She let out a series of panicky cries as the cat continued to batter her, and then Helen was there, wrenching the yowling beast off Millie’s back and flinging it aside. It landed in a collapsible run, sprinting behind a dumpster. Helen scooped up Millie in her arms, cradling her as she mewled. It was a pathetic sound, a wail of misery and betrayal, the disbelieving breach of adulation. They were three streets away when her crying finally stopped, and George, at last, could unplug his ears.
Despite her lurid protests, Mille was unhurt, and within an hour she was padding around the hotel room performing her regular endearments: balancing on her hind legs, raising a paw, defending her knitted stuffed monkey with a tewwifying growl. Every few minutes Helen would scoop up Millie in her arms and dot kisses along her snout. Then she would release the dog, and Millie would scamper back and forth, sniffing various objects, including George, before returning to Helen’s embrace.
In light of the attack, George suggested that they leave Millie in their hotel room when they went out for dinner. Helen, however, wanted to keep Millie as close to her as possible. From now on, she explained, Millie would accompany them everywhere, at all times.
It was a disheartening development for George. Gone were the few luxurious moments of independence when Millie would remain behind napping. Millie came with them to meals and to marketplaces, to monasteries and museums; and as irritating as George found Millie’s constant presence, he found the frenzied reception she met a hundred times worse. Even on an isolated Greek island, Millie inspired giddiness, infatuation, and largesse at every turn. While strays cats lurked under tables in search of trampled French fries, enamored taverna owners placed Millie on her own chair and offered her lamb bones. As scrawny wild dogs sprawled neglected in the shade, another toast was raised to Millie’s health. “If only Millie could drink her wine,” Helen reflected one evening, as a tour group of besotted Swedes sent over yet another glass. If Millie could have partaken of her offerings, she would have been perpetually drunk.
Yet just as in Greek myths, where the movement from glory to suffering is inevitable, Millie’s heightened attention gradually became an ordeal for Helen. A picturesque stroll down a residential side street would be transformed, after a glimpse of Millie’s divinity, into a flurry of housewives scrambling for a closer look. Scooters followed behind them when they walked to the beach, manned by dark-skinned boys without shirts, their girlfriends seated behind them and pleading into their ears, Parte mou ena — “Get me one.” Shopping grew impossible: shopkeepers would crowd Millie against a rack of leather sandals, and though Helen would eventually escape with her, by the time they arrived at the next store, a phone call had been made and a new batch of disciples awaited. Helen began carrying Millie in her mesh travelling bag, concealed from her fans.
On their eighth night on the island, after George returned from the mini-market — he did all the shopping now, alone, to avoid the Millie crowd — Helen handed him the leash.
“What’s this for?” he said.
“You mind taking her out tonight? I’m really tired.” She removed a royal-blue tube of moisturizer from one of the shopping bags and went into the bathroom. “I think maybe I got too much sun,” she called out.
Sensing release, Millie rose up on her hind legs. She hopped against George’s leg. He flung the leash under the couch with annoyance. “She just went out a couple hours ago,” he said. “She’ll be fine until the morning.”
Helen didn’t answer him. He peeked through the crack in the bathroom door and saw her positioned before the mirror, rubbing moisturizer in circles on her cheeks. She wore a thin white nightgown that reached to the middle of her thighs. As she leaned in to closer examine her reflection, the nightgown rode up, exposing her peach-colored underwear.
He shrugged into the bathroom and came up behind her. “I have an idea,” he said, kissing the nape of her neck.
“After you walk her . . .”
George and Millie were a quarter mile from the hotel when he realized he’d forgotten the leash under the couch. He considered turning back, but the prospect of revealing his mistake to Helen dissuaded him. He wanted to be heralded as a hero, not a screwup. Besides, no matter how far ahead Millie ventured, invariably she would pause to investigate a potential scrap of food, giving him time to catch up.
They wandered along the outskirts of town, away from the foot traffic of the main streets. This close to the sea, the air smelled sharp and briny. Except for the occasional radio, the houses were silent. Dark-purple wildflowers burst out of the stone walls like children fleeing the yard on the last day of school.
A few feet ahead of George, Millie sniffed at a garbage bag propped beside the entrance of a vineyard. It was a modest well-kept space, staked with wooden trellises upon which grapevines clung. George picked a handful of grapes but they were small and unripe and he let them fall to the ground untasted. Then the moon appeared, sliding out from behind the clouds like a woman slipping out of a dress. George watched in awe as moonlight illuminated the vineyard. He wished that Helen were with him to share in the vision. It was the kind of beauty that induced transcendence, a disarming splendor that could, if he were lucky, tip affection toward love.
Instead he had Millie snuffling among the trash. Angrily, he called out to her that they were leaving. She ignored him. She had detected a salami skin and was snapping at the plastic garbage bag.
He opened his mouth to chastise the dog but then, impulsively, stopped. Some instinct inside George, as yet unacknowledged by him, urged otherwise. In deliberate silence, he watched the animal wrestle in the dirt with the bag. He took a step back. Millie dug her rear paws into the ground, a growl issuing from between her ensnared teeth. George took another step back. Her neck tightened and her head jerked side to side as she devoted the entirety of her small body to obtainment. George took a third step back. Then he spun on the heel of his left foot and ran.
At the intersection, he veered off the path from which they had come and diverted toward the harbor. After ten seconds, he glanced over his shoulder. Millie wasn’t following him. He hadn’t intended to leave her. He hadn’t known what he was doing until he had done it. Then it was done.
When he reached the harbor at last, he stopped to rest. There was nowhere to sit except for a bronze sculpture honoring World War II veterans. George limped over and took a seat on the enormous anchor. His legs felt weak and stringy. His chest ached with exertion. He leaned back against the cold bronze and listened to the lapping of the surf. It was gentle but steady. It sounded like the beat of a child’s heart. Or was it his heart? Or Millie’s, untended for the first time?
George had heard “Who’s a Millie?” “Who’s a Millie-Dillie” and “Who’s the Milliest Millie?” with such regularity that when he awoke to Helen demanding “Where’s Millie?” he at first misinterpreted it as just another of her affectionate mock queries. This time, however, it wasn’t followed by a jubilant cry of “You are!” but by tears.
“I can’t find her. You have to help me find her,” Helen pleaded as George staggered out of bed. With her swollen eyes and disheveled strawberry hair, Helen’s resemblance to Millie was even more striking that morning.
“Yeah, of course.” He yawned. “Did you check the bathroom?”
“I’ve looked everywhere,” she moaned, haunting the living room in her white nightgown. She flung aside throw pillows and got down on her knees to peer beneath the couch. The night before, after returning alone to find Helen asleep, George had zipped the leash into the side pocket of his suitcase until he could safely dispose of it. Yet even with the evidence out of sight, Helen’s ceaseless searching made him nervous.
“Maybe she got out when the maid came by this morning. Slipped through the door,” George said, wrapping his arms around Helen.
“I didn’t hear a maid.”
“You’re a heavy sleeper.”
“Millie wouldn’t do that. She’s never run off.” She blinked her red, puffy eyes up at George. “Unless someone took her . . .”
Helen shrugged free of his embrace and rushed out of the room. She sprinted barefoot toward the reception office, a streak of pale American melancholy. When George caught up to her, she was interrogating the receptionist’s mother.
“I need to talk to the maid.”
“Miss, no one clean your room today,” the girl’s mother said.
“Then how did Millie disappear? She can’t open doors by herself.”
“She doesn’t have a thumb,” George explained helpfully, sidling up beside Helen.
“The maid stole her,” Helen said. “She snuck in while I was asleep and took Millie.”
The woman asked her daughter something in rapid, agitated Greek. The girl lifted up her head with that peculiar Greek nod of negation. They spoke briefly, heatedly, and then the manager waved her hands in quick little circles of acceptance. The girl turned to address Helen.
“I am sorry,” she said. “We understand you are upset. But the maid has not come yet today. She could not have taken your Millie.”
George had never heard the girl speak more than a few words of English, and her unexpected command of the language unsettled him.
“Maybe you left the door open and she escaped?” the girl asked.
“She doesn’t want to escape me,” Helen said. “She loves me.”
“Yes, of course. I mean maybe she does this by accident. What time did you return with her last night?”
“Around ten,” George said.
“No, at ten you were alone,” the girl said. “You must have walked her later.”
“Did you take her out again?” Helen said.
“I walked her once. We came back at ten, like I said.”
“Maybe you are confusing nights,” the girl suggested.
“You’re the one who’s confused,” George said.
The girl shook her head. “At ten, the news begins and interrupts my music show. This is a disappointing time for me. But then I saw you pass by the window and I became excited to greet Miss Millie. I thought she would make me happy. But when I opened the door, you were alone.”
“This is ridiculous,” George said. “I’m not about to be told by Generation Omega here what I did or didn’t do last night.”
“Why didn’t she bark?” Helen said.
“Exactly. Why didn’t she bark?” George repeated, unsure of the relevance but grateful for Helen’s diversion.
“I don’t understand,” the girl said.
“Because you’re wrong,” George said.
“Millie barks at everything unfamiliar,” Helen said.
“Everything,” George said.
“If a person comes within two feet of the door, she barks.”
“Two feet,” George echoed.
“So this morning,” Helen said coldly, turning to face him, “If the maid had opened the door, Millie would have barked at her.”
Helen spent the day searching the island for Millie. She went alone, refusing George’s offer of help. His revised account of the night’s events had failed to placate her. Yes, he came back without Millie, he’d confessed, but only because he’d accidentally forgotten the leash and she’d run off too quick to catch. And sure that she would return on her own, he’d refrained from waking Helen and needlessly worrying her — it was not that George wanted to continue lying to Helen, it was just that he found the truth intolerable in what it revealed about his desperation.
Helen returned at dusk without Millie. Her face and shoulders were sunburnt, her lips blistered, and her feet had swollen a full shoe size. As she lay down on the couch, she exhaled a sorrowful sigh that descended the musical scale. George ran a bath for her. It was an undesired kindness, permeated with anxiety and servility, but she accepted it out of exhaustion. All day, hope had been bleeding out of her. That morning, the thought of Millie’s permanent disappearance had seemed impossible, but now that night was falling, it had become gruesomely possible. She could no longer put off the empty future that awaited her. A life without Millie was a life without enchantment. Gone were the brash baby growls and the bunny hops, the limpid eyes and the fuzzy ears, the soft belly and the delicate nose . . . Closing the bathroom door, Helen sank into the contours of the tub with another decrescendo lament.
The next day, she searched the far side of the island while George holed up in the hotel room. At lunchtime, he left to buy a toasted sandwich from a beach vendor, and while coming back to the hotel, he heard movement in the bushes beside the outdoor staircase. He froze. The rustling continued. What if it was Millie ferreting through the undergrowth, trying to find her way back to them? Giddiness overtook him at the thought of the reward Helen would grant him for Millie’s return. Gratitude? Forgiveness? Possibly even love?
He drew closer to the bushes. Pushing away his fear of snakes, he parted the spiny leaves and reached blindly inside.
He felt something soft and slight beneath his hands. As he picked it up, he realized what it was: a kitten. Its fur was black except for a flash of white on its belly, and its young body, no more than eight weeks old, was skinny to the point of emaciation. It blinked up at George, its mouth jawing open silently.
That night Helen came back to the hotel empty handed again. She dropped her purse by the door and lay on the couch. George waited for her eyes to close, then he snuck into the bedroom where the kitten was dozing in the closet, George’s contact lens case serving as a water dish. The animal mewed when he picked it up, emboldened by familiarity. He shushed it and crept out to Helen.
“Helen,” he whispered. “I have a surprise for you.”
“What?” she murmured, her eyes still closed.
Gingerly, he placed the kitten on her chest. It stretched its front paws, kneading its claws into her collarbones.
Helen’s eyes fluttered half-open.
“What the hell is — ”
“Get it off me!” she cried, sitting up with such haste that the kitten tumbled onto her lap. She parted her legs as if to avoid a burning ember.
“Watch out, you’re scaring her,” George said and scooped up the kitten. The animal rested its petite chin on his finger.
“Get it out of here,” Helen said. “It’s feral. It’s full of diseases.”
“Her eyes are a little goopy but otherwise she seems healthy.”
“Just get rid of it.”
“I thought you’d like her,” George said. “She might cheer you up.”
“That’s not Millie.”
“I know. I was only — ”
“I don’t want it. I don’t want anything else. Please,” she said, beginning to cry. “That’s not what I want.”
George apologized and carried the animal outside.
Helen woke the following morning with a fever. Her nose was stuffy and her throat raw. George brought her orange juice and a damp washcloth for her forehead. She sipped weakly at the juice, wincing with each swallow, then handed it back to him and shut her eyes. Soon she was asleep again. He wet a second washcloth and dabbed at the pulp on her chapped lips. Her face was flushed with heat. He pulled the curtains tight, drenching the room in darkness, and went out to get medicine.
The pharmacy was situated between a butcher shop and a newsstand. The pharmacist was an old man with liver spots on his hands. He stared over the top of his square-lensed metal glasses at George, who employed pantomime and his limited Greek vocabulary to relay Helen’s symptoms. The pharmacist made a clucking sound when he’d heard enough.
“You like basket?” he asked George, bagging a clear liquid.
“I don’t need a basket.”
“Basket,” the man said, and dribbled an imaginary basketball.
“Oh. Sure. Basketball.”
The man shook his head. “Football — better.”
When George came back to the hotel, the black kitten was waiting for him. It faced the door politely, like an encyclopedia salesman. George scooped it up and returned it to the bushes. The kitten mewed in defiance. George poked it in its tender white belly and it fell over, quiet and awed.
Helen gagged as she drank the medicine but it brought the fever down. She ate some crackers George had picked up at the mini-market and then laid her head on the pillow without speaking. Soon, her eyes drifted shut. George sat on the edge of the bed and watched her sleep. He had never been allowed to gaze at her with such forthrightness. Despite his admiration, Helen was self-conscious about her appearance. He had twice overheard her on the phone telling a friend that her eyebrows were too blond, that if she failed to darken them, her forehead looked titanic. There were other insecurities voiced: her wide hips, her flat feet, wrinkles at the corners of her mouth. Her dissatisfaction bewildered George, who thought her beautiful. But he understood, too, the injury that still disoriented her. Her ex-husband had left her to marry his pregnant assistant, twelve years younger than Helen, a grievance that she had only mentioned once, on their first date, after George had come clean about his own failed marriage. “She gets my husband and a baby girl; I get Millie.” Then she rolled her eyes, as if to discredit the pain for its egregiousness, its obviousness, and spoke of it no more.
But she was no longer that deserted woman, George assured her while she slept, and though he had defrauded her, too, that had only been out of a longing for more of her. “I just wanted all of you. I’m sorry,” he whispered, as her shallow breath rustled the coarse hotel sheet. “I shouldn’t have let Millie go.”
Helen’s eyelids twitched. Overhead, the fan bullied hot air around the room. George leaned over the bed and kissed her clammy forehead.
Her eyes opened.
“You’re awake,” he said.
She tightened her mouth, deepening the unwelcome wrinkles at the corners.
“You’re going to be okay,” he said, and stroked the side of her face.
She watched his hand touch her cheek.
“By tomorrow you’ll be back to normal,” he said.
“She’s all I had left of him,” Helen said, rolling over and closing her eyes again.
George walked to the harbor. It looked smaller during the day, like a grammar-school classroom we revisit as adults, marveling at the tininess of our past. Calling out Millie’s name, he backtracked along the path that led out of town until he reached the vineyard. He continued shouting her name while moving among the green vines and their hard, unripe fruit. There was no reply — and there would be no reply, George understood. Millie’s high-pitched, pampered bark had been silenced for good. She was gone. Killed by alley cats. Swooped upon by a hawk. Flattened by a truck. She would never survive alone.
Yet what George had failed to recognize was that the world is a different place when everyone loves you. A quarter mile from the vineyard, where a lemon grove opened up into a succession of small, sunlit homes, George glimpsed Millie sitting on a veranda. An array of bones of various sizes lay before her. As George approached the yard, she sniffed a short rib with the delicacy of a sommelier.
She sank back onto her haunches and growled.
Hastily, he unlatched the outer gate. Dusk was approaching, saturating the air with a deep orange light, but the twilit radiance did nothing to obscure him from view, and he ducked his head as he hurried across the lawn.
When he reached the veranda, Millie began to bark. “Shh, it’s me, George,” he whispered, flinging one leg over the banister and levering himself onto the other side. Millie backed away from him, snarling and yipping. “Come on, let’s go,” he hissed, and grabbed for her. She skittered to the side, barking louder. George heard the rumble of an upstairs sliding door as it skidded along a track. He lunged for Millie. She ducked away and circled behind a wicker chair. The thump of approaching footsteps shook the inside staircase.
“Please,” George whispered, kneeling. “Helen needs you. You have to come back. For Helen.”
Millie paused. She raised a single paw. Then she lowered it and trotted up to George, her feathery tail wagging. He stretched out his hands and she hopped into his arms. It was a trick he had seen Millie do only with Helen, and it so astonished him that he barely got the head start he needed to outrun the elderly couple and their two tearful grandchildren.
“She looks different,” Helen remarked, as Millie lay newly cradled in her arms, nuzzling the skin between her thumb and forefinger. “They did something to her. I know it.”
Before returning Millie, George had checked her carefully for injury — an examination that took less than thirty seconds, since Millie possessed the surface area of a grapefruit — and concluded that no harm had come to her. Helen, however, was unconvinced.
“Her ID tag!” she cried in triumph, seizing Millie’s leather collar. “They switched it out. I knew something was wrong. The monsters renamed her.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Helen said, removing the new tag and flinging it away.
George retrieved the tag from the floor. “Aphrodite,” he read aloud. “A little hairy for a goddess.”
“Oh no, that’s not you, you’re my Millie,” Helen said. “My Millie-Dillie. Yes you are. Yes you are. Who’s my Millie-Dillie?” Millie’s four-pound body trembled in affirmation.
George sat on the end of the bed and rested his hand on his knees. “So everything is okay now?” he said. “Like, with us?”
“You don’t understand anything,” Helen said and began to pack her bags.
But he did understand. They would never go swimming together in the blue ocean. He would never make a wish with her beside a two-thousand-year-old Roman fountain. She would never stand still beneath a streetlight while he gently searched her eye for an eyelash as the prelude to a kiss. All of the stock yet endearing intimacies of love had been revealed, once again, as unattainable. It didn’t matter what he tried, what animal he lost or found, there was no dog cute enough and no cricket repellant enough to distract her from the man he was or from the man she had lost.
A cab arrived to take Helen to the port. The receptionist had booked her a ticket on the midnight catamaran to Piraeus. George carried Helen’s suitcases out to the cab for her and loaded them in the trunk. When he leaned in the open window to kiss Helen goodbye, she raised Millie between them. Millie licked his mouth and barked once with wild delight. They drove away in a cloud of dust.
He slept poorly that night. Everything reminded him of Helen. The floral hush of her perfume clung to the scratchy sheets. The pillow curled in his arms recalled the silken contours of her body, now gone forever.
At dawn, he fled the hotel. Expecting an empty beach, he was surprised to see a gathering of elderly Greeks milling in the sea. The men scooped up water with their palms and poured it onto their gray chests. The women patted their hair with the solicitude of young nurses. George watched them from a ledge of volcanic rock. As the morning sky brightened, the men and women drifted out of the water. Wordlessly, they wrapped each other in towels and left. George came down from the ledge. He lay down on the gray stones. They were small and cool and hard. He curled up and tried to forget where he was.
He woke at noon, surrounded by families eating lunch out of plastic containers. The left side of his face was hot. He brushed away the pebbles clinging to his calves and walked back to the hotel. As he passed reception, the receptionist’s mother called out, “Your room is need change!”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I don’t want maid service.”
The girl appeared in the doorway. “You do not understand. You must move to another room,” she said.
“Why? I still have two more days in the reservation.”
“Your room is for a double occupancy. You are a single occupancy now.”
George packed his suitcase and was led to a miniature, whitewashed crypt at the edge of the hotel.
“There’s no shower,” George said.
The girl leaned into the lavatory and pointed at a bare showerhead hanging above the toilet seat. There was a small silver drain in the center of the floor.
As he slipped the new key into his pocket, he felt Millie’s replacement ID tag against his fingers. He dropped it into the empty bathroom trash can.
The girl strode over and snatched the tag out of the trash. “I am glad Millie has left you,” she said and walked away.
This room did not remind him of Helen. The bedroom smelled of bleach, and in his arms the flat pillow offered the anonymous discomfort of an office chair. The room was poorly ventilated, with only a single window, and in the middle of the night, unable to sleep from the heat, George got out of bed and propped open the front door with the bathroom trash can. He lingered on the hotel landing for a moment to cool off, staring up at the stars. They were sharp and plentiful, undimmed by artificial light.
If there is a mathematical model for loneliness, it is not an infinitely ascending line — it is a parabola. Though often it seems that loneliness will never end, that it will only grow greater and more hopeless, at a certain point it catches, like the end of a pinned elastic, or the gang rush of the expanding universe, and comes hurtling back. This doesn’t happen only once. Loneliness recurs, followed by fellowship, friendship . . . then more loneliness . . . more love. These arcs of loss and discovery repeat themselves throughout a lifetime, a chain of parabolas, a wavelength that mirrors the frequency of the human heart.
Outside, George surveyed the sky with a weary absence of recognition. The constellations were different in this part of the world. Eventually he found Orion, and Libra, and what he thought might be Andromeda, although he wasn’t sure about that one. Then he felt something brush against his bare foot. He looked down. A small black shadow had emerged from the bushes. It circled his foot and then curled up around his ankle like a misplaced comma.
He bent down to reach the cat. He moved slowly so as not to scare her. She was shivering, either from hunger or exhaustion, maybe both. He felt her tiny head brush against his palm, and then her warm dark fur was rubbing against his wrists, pressing closer, safer, tighter, home.
PANIO GIANOPOULOS is the author of the novella A Familiar Beast. His writing has appeared widely and he is the…www.indiebound.org