“Venus in Fur”
by Panio Gianopoulos
An excerpt from: How to Get Into Our House and Where We Keep the Money (stories)
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.
To read the rest of “Venus in Fur,” check out How to Get Into Our House and Where We Keep the Money (stories)