Having a roommate hadn’t made Joan feel any less alone. It seemed to Harry like she felt more alone, actually. She stays in her room most of the time, as though she isn't comfortable in the living area. Harry doesn’t understand. She may have met Jake on Craigslist, but he seems nice enough. Always going on about how much he wants to rid toxic from his community, which Harry thinks sounds like a good thing. But Joan didn’t click with him, he guessed. So she avoids him.
It makes Harry feel so sad.
And really guilty.
Joan had insisted Harry was worth the $8,000 price tag of his intestinal blockage surgery – that she would have paid twice that, a hundred times that if she’d had to – and Harry knew she meant it. But he still felt just awful that she’d not only had to max her credit card but dip into her savings to afford it. She’d told Harry she’d just gotten tired of living all alone and had been thinking of finding a roommate for ages, that the timing was just a coincidence, but Harry knew she was pretending for his benefit. She had a habit of narrating her diary aloud as she wrote it, so Harry knew the truth.
She’d had to give up their small, nice apartment because of Harry. Because he couldn’t stop himself at just one sock and one pair of underwear, he just had to have two socks and not even just two but three – three! – pairs of underwear! Couldn’t even space them out to give his poor digestive tract a chance, either. Maybe he could have passed all that cotton if he'd paced himself a little. But of course he’d gone overboard like always when it comes to his appetite.
Harry flinches at his own scolding. Joan always tells him he’s a good dog. And he always believes her. She thinks he’s the best dog in the world. And he tries to believe in himself because she always sounds so sure. But he can’t ignore how sad she is now. Can’t pretend it’s not his fault.
It’s why he’d begged God and his friends to let him be a man again every once in a while, for Joan. He’d been so proud of himself when his begging had been good enough. Joan always gives him everything he wants – even ham! – right away, no begging required. So he hadn’t been sure he was doing it right. But he must have done a good enough job because now he’s allowed to be a man twice a week, and sometimes even for longer than an hour.
It seems to make Joan happier. They talk and play games and joke around and brush each other’s hair and even sometimes dance and sing together like the first time. He doesn’t lick her face as much when he’s a man as when he’s a dog, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Harry’s pretty sure if she had a tail that it’d wag the whole time he’s a man. And that makes Harry happier too. He feels less guilty about costing them their apartment when Joan’s smiling.
But when he’s a dog, she gets sad again sometimes. Not when they’re playing together or cuddling on the couch – she always seems pretty happy then. But when Harry’s busy, off sniffing after spiders or trying to finally catch his tail or making sure he didn’t miss any special treats in the bathroom trash can (ever since moving in with Jake, there’s really interesting things in there sometimes, especially after he has friends over!), sometimes he looks over at Joan and she’s staring off in a dreamy way. And not a soft, hopeful dreamy way. She doesn’t look like how Harry feels when he’s dreaming of running through a field chasing a butterfly. She looks more like how he feels when Joan has to leave to run errands and Harry’s left to sit by the door, staring and waiting, trying not to whimper as he worries she might decide never to come back for him even though she promises every single time that she will.
When she looks like that, it makes Harry’s tail slow down almost to a full stop.
So he just does his best to be the most good boy he can be when he’s a dog, and the best boyfriend he can be when he’s a man. That part’s a little trickier because he doesn’t know exactly what a boyfriend is, but he knows she calls him a good boy right before she pets him or gives him treats, and lots of times she asks him if he wants to “watch friends” right before they sit on the couch and stare at the giant box that flashes moving blurry things for a while. She’s always excited when she calls him “good boy” and always seems happy when they look at the box to “watch friends,” so he figures as long as she laughs and smiles when he’s a man, he must be being at least a pretty good boy friend, too.
Yes, Harry tries his hardest to be a good dog and a good man. He never quite knows for sure, though. Especially because lately Joan seems a little...different...when he’s a man. Like she’s confused or wants to say something to him, but never does. Harry doesn’t understand it, and it makes him feel a tiny bit funny in a way he doesn’t think he likes when she looks at him like that. But Joan usually ends up shaking her head and making a funny sound to herself to change the look, and then scratches behind his ear after, and Harry loves that. So he guesses it’s probably ok.
But, still, that’s what makes him feel heavy as he walks to the kitchen one night while he’s still a man for a little while longer. Joan’s just fallen asleep after a lively game of Jenga wore her out, and Harry’s dying for a bowl of water without food bits floating in it and a snack from the refrigerator before it’s too late and he can’t reach either anymore tonight. Maybe Joan even bought some of that fancy extra thin and kind of slimy, stringy ham she let him try one time when Jake wasn’t looking! Harry still loves regular ham, of course, but ever since that time, eating it is kind of like going back to eating balled up tissues out of the bathroom trash can after you’ve tasted one of those shiny fabric squares Jake keeps hanging out of his chest pocket sometimes. Just not the same.
Harry really hopes there’s shiny ham. He starts to wag his hips before he remembers he doesn’t have a tail right now.
Harry’s never squeaked when he’s a man, he doesn’t think, but he’s never seen another man in the kitchen besides Jake, either. Not one without a shirt on, that’s for sure.
Definitely not this man.
“Whooo-” he clears his throat to cut off the almost-howl he’d started with and tries again. “Um, who are you?”
The man almost looks familiar, but Harry thinks he must be thinking of someone else. Maybe one of God’s friends? He doesn’t know very many people.
The other man doesn’t respond, just tilts his head a bit and brings his hand up slowly to swipe away some hair that’s fallen onto his forehead, covering his eyes. Something about the movement definitely seems familiar to Harry.
After tilting his head back the other way and furrowing his eyebrows, the man licks his lips before finally answering Harry.
“You walked in on me,” he says. His voice is raspy and quite high. It reminds Harry of something. Someone. “Think it’s only fair you tell me your name first, Curly.”
Harry’s cheeks heat up. He does love that his hair is curly when he’s a man. It’s not long or soft enough to curl when he’s a dog. Joan seems to like it both ways, but Harry definitely prefers it curly. He can’t really stop from touching it when he’s like this and he doesn’t know quite what to think about the fact that this stranger said something about it right away.
He must really think Harry’s a good boy to have said something so nice about him so soon after meeting him!
One of the man’s eyebrows lifts up and Harry realizes he hasn’t replied. His cheeks get even hotter. He hopes the man still thinks he’s good.
“Oh, um, I’m Harry.”
The man takes a step towards him and Harry has to fight very hard to stop himself from trying to wag his not-tail again. He reaches his arm to Harry’s neck, and luckily Harry is too surprised to react or else he might have sniffed or bitten his fingers, and he’s not sure which would have been worse. The man jangles the charm hanging from Harry’s collar and Harry doesn’t understand why he doesn’t pull himself away.
“Name tag says ‘Doug,’ Harry.”
“Oh,” Harry says, ducking his head, “yeah, that’s what Joan named me. She found me outside and didn’t know my name already, and–”
That’s not a normal thing for a man to say, is it?
But the other man doesn’t say anything, just lifts his eyebrow again and smiles in a way that looks like he has a secret he really wants to tell Harry but not quite yet – like they’re in the middle of playing and he knows exactly where Harry’s toy is hidden but he’s pretending not to. Like maybe he even hid it.
“And you’ve never told her she’s got your name wrong?” he asks.
“Oh, well, you know,” Harry admits, “she just seemed so happy with the name Doug, showed me this name tag all excited when she got it, I just figured what’s the harm?”
“You seem like you might be too sweet for your own good, Harold.”
“Oh, um, it’s just Harry, actually.”
“Atta boy. Getting better already.”
Harry is so glad his tail isn’t back yet. It’s hard enough to keep from wagging as it is.
“So, will you tell me your name now? Now that you know mine? Are you one of Jake’s friends?”
“I am,” the man says. His nose scrunches and his lips press together into a crooked sort of line and Harry feels a bit like when he’s about to get to go to the park. “He tried to call me by the wrong name for a while too – Lewis or some nonsense – but I batted at his face enough times that he finally learned to pronounce it right. Name’s Louis.”
It can't be! Harry thought he was the only one!
“Louis?” he practically shouts, startling even himself as Louis’ choppy haircut seems to get a bit more stand-uppy at the same time his shoulders rise. “Oh, sorry,” Harry says, much quieter now. “Just, I mean, are you Louis, like, as in, Jake’s... cat, Louis?”
Louis doesn’t answer right away, but his hair settles back down and his shoulder do too, so Harry relaxes, even as Louis... scrutinizes him? (Harry thinks that’s the right word – he and Joan do a lot of crossword puzzles together, but she’s still much better at words than he is.)
Just as Harry begins to panic that of course this isn’t Jake’s cat and this extremely human man is definitely going to call someone to come take Harry away without Joan even knowing what happened, Louis tilts his head again and he giggles. “Relax, Harry. Yes, I’m Louis the cat who lives here. Don’t fancy being called Jake’s cat, if I’m honest. But he seems to think that’s the case, so I guess I can’t blame you, really.” Louis laughs and Harry’s never seen or heard anything better.
He doesn’t have a chance at stopping his hips from wagging this time. It only makes Louis laugh harder, and that makes Harry proud – that he’s done exactly the right thing, somehow – so he doesn’t even tell his hips to stop. He almost wishes he had his tail right now so he could wag even harder. He thinks it might make Louis laugh louder, too.
As Louis’ laughter gradually quiets and his steady gaze returns to Harry’s face, Harry’s hips still as well. But even the stillness and the quiet aren’t enough to prompt Harry to ask any of the questions that had previously been bouncing wildly around inside his head. Back before Louis had laughed. He finds it easier, now that it’s silent, to at least catch the questions and think them through – How can Louis be a man? Does he know God and his friends, too? Have they ever talked about Harry? Does Louis get to turn into a man more often than Harry does? Does he only hang out with Jake when he does? Does he get to stay a man longer than an hour at a time? If so, does he go on adventures outside their apartment? Is he scared of the vacuum cleaner like Harry is? – but he can’t seem to drop them from his head down to his tongue and out his mouth.
Maybe because the biggest, loudest question is one he can’t ask Louis.
Why does Louis feel so different?
He can’t ask Louis because Harry thinks he knows the answer.
Or, not completely. Not in a way he could explain. But somehow he can just tell it’s related to why he feels not-good funny when Joan looks at him in the new way she does sometimes when he’s a man and they’re playing with each other’s hair or right after Harry’s given her kisses on her cheek.
Because Harry’s realized that the way Joan looks at him at those times is just like Louis’s looking at him right now. And it’s making Harry feel funny, but in a definitely-good way. In that way he feels right before he decides he needs to special-cuddle with a pillow or one of Joan’s stuffed animals or Jake’s leg when he’s sitting on the couch with one leg crossed over the other, bouncing in a way that draws Harry to it.
But Harry doesn’t get it. Why would he feel good-funny when Louis looks at him the same way that makes him feel bad-funny when Joan does?
He doesn’t understand what’s different about them. Louis’s been nice to him tonight, but Joan is so nice to him every single day. She loves him so much. She’s gives him ham and other treats and gets him surgery to save him even when it means she has to leave her lovely small apartment and move in with a stranger. All Louis’s done is called Harry “Curly” and played with his collar and laughed near him.
Harry heard Jake tell Joan once not long after they’d moved in that he only likes men and not women. Harry hadn’t understood that at all, and he didn’t think Jake was right to say it, because it had made Joan really sad for the rest of that day.
Harry never wants to make Joan sad. But what if he’s like Jake?
Maybe he could like men in this special-cuddling way and not like women in the same way but still be nice to Joan?
He hopes so.
Because he’s pretty sure, the longer he looks at Louis. And the longer Louis looks at him, licking his lips and fixing his fringe – even licking the back of his hand once first to help him smooth his hair down in a way that makes Harry really want to special-cuddle him. Yeah. Harry thinks he’s like Jake this way.
Luckily, he thinks Louis maybe is too.
Harry doesn’t know how he didn’t know this before. Maybe it’s only when he’s a man that it matters. He’s not been around very many dogs – or any other animals really – even when he’s a dog. And even at the dog park, it’s hard to tell sometimes, but he doesn’t think he only wants to roughhouse with boy dogs. Doesn’t think he only is curious about boy dogs. He sees a butthole, he wants to sniff it, that’s all.
“You alright, there, Curly?”
Louis’ voice, all scratchy but somehow soothing, pulls Harry from his realization.
“Look like you might be having quite an epiphany over there, young Harold. Anything I can help you with?”
Harry hadn’t noticed when he turned back into a dog. He has no idea if it was before or after Louis had turned back into a cat. All he knows is that he and Louis must have gotten really good at kissing each other while they were still men if it was enough to distract him from the whoosh he usually feels when he changes back. And that he’s never enjoyed special cuddling quite so much as now. He’s not sure if it’s because Louis’ scratchy tongue hurts a little – in a good way, Harry thinks, though he doesn’t understand how that’s possible, for something to hurt and be good – or because Louis’ purring makes Harry’s whole body vibrate in a way that feels like a brush running all the way down his back but on the inside.
“Oh for Pete’s sake!”
Joan’s voice piercing through the apartment startles Harry and Louis still, but they stay gripping each other, waiting nervously for what comes next now that they’ve been caught.
“I cannot believe this!” she sighs. “Every stinkin’ time!”