He was an Australian flight attendant in town from Dubai, and he only had until dawn. In the doorway of my bedroom he asked, "Are you going to make my last night in New York one to remember?"
"Yes," I replied, about as enthusiastically as anyone could, having just been thrust into the Lea Michele subplot of an ensemble romantic comedy.
We'd met online twenty minutes earlier. His face, a shiny new square in the patchwork quilt of familiar faces and torsos, stood out, and even though he was undoubtedly being inundated with come-hithers from my latitudinal compatriots, I threw my hat into the ring. His profile, you see, described a tall, pale foreign tourist with elastic vowels, a clean bill of health, and a fetish for outie belly buttons. Sensing an in, I wrote to him, "I have one."
He wrote back immediately, "No way."
I responded, simply, "Way."
Fun fact: being born was such hard work for me, so arduous, so toilsome, that I emerged screaming with an umbilical hernia that gifted me for life with an outie belly button. I never touch it; I think it's dark-sided. But, with a man in sight, I was suddenly the old-timey director throwing open the homely understudy's dressing-room door: "You're on tonight, kid! Learn the steps from Daisy and keep those lips closed when you smile."
"Send a pic?" he requested.
Obliging, I lifted my shirt and began to wildly photograph my stomach. I applied a tasteful Instagram filter to the best shot and sent it off. He responded with a slew of exclamation marks and slobbering emoticons and begged to be invited over. Turns out my milkshake can bring one boy to the yard: a fetishist.
He sat on my bed and he didn't slobber, he didn't mouth-breathe, he didn't writhe—what did he do? He grinned sheepishly and said, "Sorry, I'm a bit shy." He was awfully cute. I sat down next to him. "How old are you?" he asked.
"Twenty-nine," I replied.
His mouth dropped. "No way," he said. "I thought you were my age."
He told me he was twenty-three. "I'm not that much older than you," I started, but he cut me off with, "No, it's just—you look good, you look young."
"Well, you know," I replied. "Advances in medicine."
He told me my cardigan was lovely, and, as though someone had pressed play on a Paula Cole song, I jumped on him, koalaed myself to his body, and put my mouth on his. He was a fantastic, tender kisser, and his hands were deft and assured, strong, I could only assume, from maneuvering the beverage cart up and down countless airborne aisles. He lifted my shirt and kissed his way down to my belly button, where he hovered reverently. I squirmed.
"Sorry, it's just—" he said, and brought his mouth in for a landing. I sat up instantly, and he pulled back. "Is that okay?" he asked. "Is that weird?"
"No, no," I replied, wanting to be hospitable. "It's just—new." He dove back onto it and I flinched.
"Oh, wow, you hate this!" he exclaimed.
"It's just that—no one has ever done anything to me there
before," I told him.
"Really? What have the other boys done, just gone around it?"
I didn't want to tell him what the other boys had done, but did offer that, yes, the few who had taken a passing interest in my pleasure had indeed gone around it. He shook his head, staring at my outie with the same love in his eyes that appears in mine when I see passed trays of cheese at a reception. I ran my hands through his hair and told him to go slowly, which he did. He kissed it gently once, and then several times more. It was the most personal impersonal thing I've ever experienced. My body filled with emotion, as though I might at any moment cry or laugh or poop, so I put my hands to my face and quickly chose laughter.
The truth is, I'm scared of my belly button. My childhood doctor told me that I should never travel anywhere that was more than an hour away from a hospital because my intestinal wall could rupture further and I'd start to, you know, come out of myself, unspool. This was summarily debunked years later by my uncle, who's also a doctor. But I've tiptoed around my weird navel ever since, as though it held the key to my mortality, and now I'd, what, invited someone over to put his mouth on it and potentially suck the life out of me.
"Okay, I think I'm ready to move on to other things," the Australian said. "Sorry, I'm a little fucked-up about sex. Not many things turn me on, outside of my fantasy life."
"Oh yes, yes," I murmured, steamrolling over that little tidbit and kissing him again. I wanted to busy his mouth, lest he tell me more about his fantasy life and disrupt mine, in which he was someone who knew me and loved me.
After we finished, he put his arm around me. It was one of the first warm nights of summer, and we lay in the breeze from the fan in my window. He didn't much want to talk about living in Dubai. This was his first visit to New York, and while he'd ascended all of the recommended tall buildings and waited in line for all of the recommended pizza, he'd mainly come here to wander, to get lost, to walk the streets and follow their concrete whims.
"I want to be a town planner," he said, "and I'm mad for your grid."
He'd spent the previous afternoon wandering in disoriented circles through the West Village, and as he told me about it his eyes, like towns themselves, lit up. He'd be back as soon as he could, he said, but the New York flights were the ones all the flight attendants fought over, and he didn't have much seniority yet. "Plus I'm taking two weeks off to go to Berlin for a convention," he added. "Not for work, though." I asked him what for. "One of my passions."
"Oh, is it a town planning convention?" I asked.
"No, my other passion."
"What's your other passion?"
He looked at the ceiling and sighed. "This is where you ask me to leave."
Oh, god, I thought, the aforementioned fantasy life and Berlin. "What's your other passion?" I asked again, picturing a bunch of neo-Nazis doing bath salts in an Embassy Suites.
"You didn't notice anything out of the ordinary in my picture?" he asked.
That's when his profile picture flashed back to me: him sitting on a carpet, smiling, wearing normal clothes, being hugged from behind by someone in a full fox costume. Full fox. Again I sat up: "Oh my god, are you a furry?"
He nodded sheepishly, and the word "sheepishly" suddenly had a different luster.
"You are?" I asked again.
"Yes," he said. "You didn't guess that from my picture?"
I'd thought he was at a theme park!
A furry, for the uninitiated, is a person who identifies very deeply with, and dresses up as, an anthropomorphized animal. There have been quite a few evening news segments devoted to them, with lots of ominous music playing over shots of Care Bears walking down the street holding hands. YouTube it.
"Do you want me to leave?" he asked.
I laid a hand on his chest. "No, but I will need you to answer some questions."
How long had he been a furry? "Since I was eighteen, but I'd had inklings earlier." Who was the fox in the photo? "My ex." Was he also a fox? "No, I'm a dolphin."
"But dolphins don't have fur!" I said, and he rolled his eyes.
"They don't need to literally be furry," he said. "It's whatever animal you are on the inside, whatever you identify with the most. Me, I've always felt like a dolphin, because I'm happy and thoughtful and, like, really alert and intuitive."
"So you have a dolphin suit," I said.
"Do you have sex in it?" I asked, and again he bristled.
"No—it's too hot, and the suit gets sweaty," he replied. "Also, it's a very small subset of furries for whom it's a fuck thing. For the rest of us it's not. It's about play, it's about affection, it's about snuggling and tickling and wrestling. Frolicking."
"Frolicking," I repeated.
"Anywhere. In houses, or outside—fields, parks. There's a frolic in Central Park tomorrow, actually, that I'm going to be missing because I leave—"
I cut him off: "I'm sorry—there's, like, an organized, formal frolic?" He nodded. "What does everybody do?"
"Play. Skip. Roll around."
"In broad daylight."
"Yes. You get a lot of kids wanting their picture taken with you. It's harmless and fun."
I asked him if he'd brought his dolphin suit with him. He shook his head. "It doesn't travel well." He looked at my clock. "I need to get going soon. They lock the doors at two o'clock."
"Who's 'they'?" I asked, and saw him pause, weighing honesty's worth, before answering.
"I'm staying in a furry house nearby."
My eyes grew wide. "A furry house—you are not—you are not staying in a furry house!" I gasped, and slapped at his arm. "What is a furry house?! Is it in a tree? Is it just, like, a grassy knoll with a door in it?"
"It's an apartment," he replied. "A four-bedroom apartment. I can't tell you where it is, but it's in your neighborhood."
You guys: four furries live there—one's a DJ, one's a painter; one's gay, two are straight, the fourth is "other"; they take in traveling furries, everybody sleeps on bunk beds—I know what you're thinking: somebody throw TV money at this. He said it was okay with them that he hadn't brought his dolphin suit. "They have a trunk of things you can wear while you're there."
"And do they have sex in the costumes?" I asked, now just taking notes for pitch meetings.
"That's not the point," he said. "It's about being fucking quiet together and being soft and being fucking close to one another, without all the talking, all the games, all the human bullshit. Do bears fuck all the time? No, they just hold each other for an entire season."
"That does sound nice," I found myself saying. I didn't really know what else to say—certainly not anything about the other things bears do. My mind raced. "So your ex was a fox?"
"Actually, my last three boyfriends have been foxes."
"Agile hunters," I offered.
"Fuck you," he replied.
I ran a hand down his body and asked, "So do you feel like you're slumming it with me? I'm no fox."
"No—it's nice, it's refreshing. But it's frowned upon; I can't really tell other furries about you."
That's too bad, I wanted to say as I watched him dress, because I'm going to tell everybody about you. He turned back to me, almost as if he'd heard me say it, and as he did I tried to imagine a smiling, hairy-chested bottlenose buttoning his shirt at the foot of my bed. What I saw instead was someone remarkably self-possessed, someone who knew exactly who he was, fully aware that it might get him asked to leave. I admired that; I've begun to have trouble even admitting what I'm looking for to a salesperson in a store. I was aroused anew, and I asked him to stay.
"Can't," he said. "But the next time I can get on a flight to New York, I'm yours."
He kissed me and then his lover, my belly button, good-bye. I thought it'd be appropriately swoony and cinematic for him to let himself out, but he had trouble with the door and I had to go help him—it really is a bad knob.
It's been a while since I swam with the Dolphin, since my night in the Cove, but I continue to think about him. I mean, people have forged lives together despite weirder kinks. I'd much rather my husband be squirting water out of his blowhole in the pool than jerking off with a belt around his neck in the garage. My therapist assures me that I'm not a latent furry, but I don't know, if being a furry means cuddling and being fucking quiet together, I can get on board, at least on birthdays and harvest moons. I wouldn't be a dolphin, and I wouldn't be a fox; I would without question be one of those squawking birds that are always freaking out in a tree.
I was out to dinner with two friends who are a couple, and I asked them what animals they would be. One, who later revealed he thinks of himself as a wolf, turned to the other and said, "What animal do you think I'd be?" and his boyfriend replied, "Oh, I think you'd be just the cutest little piggy." A chill hit the table, and I'm pretty sure they fought when they got home.
I'm imagining our wedding, the Dolphin's and mine: half old New York, half Noah's Ark. Big dinners with all of our friends, some around the table, others at the trough, bottles of wine and buckets of chum always within arm's reach.
I'd still want to raise the children human, though. For holidays.
Copyright © 2015 by Isaac Oliver. From the book INTIMACY IDIOT by Isaac Oliver published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
Isaac Oliver is an award-winning playwright, author, and performer. His debut collection of essays, Intimacy Idiot, was published by Scribner in June 2015. His stories have been featured in The How I Learned Series, The Soundtrack Series, Showgasm, Dead Darlings, Real Characters, On This Island, and Naked Radio. He lives in New York City.
To learn more about Intimacy Idiot, click here.