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The fair is crowded. The fair is noisy. My anxiety level is skyrocketing. We wade with linked arms through farm animal stink, sweaty hicks eating chili dogs at picnic tables, kids banging squeaky inflatable hammers, a bluegrass band. I remind myself over and over – You’re touching. You’re touching. The only thing separating Carin’s skin from my skin is my polyester sleeve. I hold my breath.
“The animals are back there, I think,” Carin says, leading me forth. “Oh, God, is that lemonade? I could go for a lemonade. After we see Christian, you want to stop there?”
I nod, but she isn’t looking. A fat, greasy, smelly man gnawing on a turkey leg walks within an inch of me and I feel that entire side of my body scrunch up involuntarily until he is past – an effort at implosion, maybe.
“Oh, and we can swing by the tent with the bamboo plants.” Carin has eight lucky bamboo plants already, all from past county fairs. She inhales deeply. “You smell the funnel cakes?” I nod, but I don’t know what she’s talking about, because every time I let myself breathe I get a lungful of farm animal. Either Carin is capable of feigning enjoyment in a way I’ve never known how to do – I’m bad enough expressing enjoyment when I do feel it – or else she really is happy to be here. And either I am better at feigning enjoyment than I think, or else she’s ignoring my unease. And if she’s ignoring my unease, I’m not sure if it’s a kindness or not. It might be. If this is a date, I want her to enjoy herself. You’re touching.
She leads me past a kiddie coaster – a giant segmented crocodile – towards the animal sector, and the farm smell kicks into overdrive. Past the cows, past the sheep – we pause before a stall with a llama – an alpaca – something long-necked. A blond boy stands inside beside the creature: Christian. He’s maybe twenty-three, the same age as Carin and me, tall and rugged, with a Bible verse tattooed across his right biceps. He’s stroking the llama’s back and talking to it. Not in a baby voice, the way people do with animals, just a regular voice. I wonder what he’s doing with his life when he isn’t showing farm animals at the county fair.
“But it doesn’t matter,” he’s saying as we come nearer, “because everybody knows you’re new, so there’s no pressure – oh hi. I was just talking to Lemma.”
“Oh yeah?” Carin says. She steps up onto the bottom rung of the stall gate and leans over the top rung and crosses her arms over it. “What were you saying?”
“Telling her she doesn’t have to worry about winnin’ any prizes. She’s still fresh meat.”
“How’d Pigga do?” Carin asks.
“First place again. Fourth year in a row.” A fly is buzzing around his head. He notices me. “Hi, sorry, I don’t think I know you.”
“This is Frank,” Carin says.
“Well hello, Frank. I didn’t know you were bringing anyone, Carin.” He seems sulky.
“It was sort of spontaneous,” I mumble.
“I’ll bet: you’re wearing a button-down. You just come from the office?”
“I don’t work in an office—”
“Frank always dresses nice,” Carin says. “It’s one of his defining characteristics. Who’s Frank? The fellow who’s always dressed to the nines.” She smiles. I don’t know if she’s teasing me or not.
“Is Pigga a pig?” I say, but at the same moment Christian says, “You guys want to pet Lemma?” so nobody hears.
“Absolutely,” Carin says. She stretches her upper body forward over the gate.
“Come on over.”
Carin hops over the gate.
“I think I’ll pass,” I say.
Lemma stares at me. She has a crooked underbite.
“Aw, how come?” Carin says. She looks confused.
I shrug. “Dressed to the nines.”
“I said, dressed to the nines.”
“Oh, oh.” She’s not really paying attention anymore though. She’s turned from me, towards Lemma and Christian.
Carin sits across from me smoking her pipe, her bare feet buried in her dog Samuel’s fur. “I’ve got an affinity for things that are very ugly,” she says. She studies the painting above my head. It’s George Washington crossing the Delaware, and it’s crooked, but she won’t fix it. “Like this sweater. Isn’t it just about the ugliest thing you ever saw?”
“I think it’s nice.”
“You’re a liar.” She smirks.
I’m perched on the edge of the tattered wingback that Carin found on the side of the road. I’m not sure she properly cleaned it, but I try not to think about it. Used furniture makes me uncomfortable. I can never help thinking about what all happened on it. People getting sick, people having sex, dog pee on it, bugs infesting it. But this has become my chair. Carin even calls it that – “Frank, I didn’t know you were coming,” answering the door, pipe in fist, “Samuel’s in your chair, but I’ll kick him off.”
Carin was my older sister Jody’s college roommate. Jody said that if Carin and I met, we would repel one another.
No, she didn’t. She said that if Carin and I became friends, we would cancel each other out, a negative meeting a positive, and neither one of us would exist anymore. (I am pretty sure I was the negative in the analogy.) Then she said she was surprised I was interested. “You’re never interested in anyone, Frank.” “Can I just have her number?” “I don’t know if I feel comfortable doing that. She’d have to say it was OK. Can I ask her?” “No – just forget it.” “Frank! Frank, come back.” “Augh.” “Don’t be a baby.” “I said don’t worry about it.” “I can’t just give out people’s private phone numbers, can I? What if I gave out your number to someone you barely knew?” “I wouldn’t care.” “You of all people would freak the fuck out.” “That’s not true.” “Don’t pout, Frank. Why can’t I tell her you’re interested?” “Because then she would know I was interested.” “So what?” “Jody.”
Jody did give me Carin’s phone number. The next day.
I suspect she asked Carin for permission behind my back. I tried not to feel embarrassed about it, because Carin clearly said yes, which means she didn’t mind my wanting her number, and possibly even wanted me to have it.
That was two weeks ago. We’ve been hanging out regularly since then. I took her to the museum, and Carin said it looked like her dog had made most of the modern art. And last week I took her to a teashop. She doesn’t like tea, it turns out, but she said she had fun anyway.
We also spend time at her place.
I know why Jody thinks Carin and I don’t go together. Carin is messy. She says she’s “cluttered.” She’s messy. But she’s fun. She’s interesting. She has a tattoo of Gregory Peck on her forearm, she wears purple lipstick, she plays the marimba. And she’s brave. She told the owner of the teashop that their products were outrageously expensive, and even though she doesn’t like tea, she made a show of drinking as many free samples as she could before they asked her to leave. It was principle, she said.
Yeah, there’s a dog in my chair whenever I’m not. There’s crooked George Washington on the wall. And, below the window, a row of empty pop bottles – arranged neatly, but they clearly haven’t been washed out; some of them still have a centimeter of brown liquid in them. Some of them have bugs in them. But Carin is fun. I’ve never been with anyone fun before. I’ve never been fun before. She said she means to use the pop bottles as vases.
“Is there anything you want to do?” she asks me now. She holds out her pipe to me. “Care to try?”
From where I sit, I can see a ring of purple lipstick around the mouthpiece of the pipe. “No, thanks,” I say kindly.
There’s a silence, during which I feel embarrassed once again at coming by unannounced. Is it OK to come by a girl’s house unannounced? I can never tell. I’ve never been spontaneous. But she told me to come inside.
“Well,” she says now, “Christian asked if I would come see him at the fair today – you know Christian?”
I shake my head.
“Oh, you’ll love him. Everyone loves Christian. He’s so much fun. And he has all these animals – and he’s just, you know, a really interesting person. And he plays the guitar. We’re thinking of starting a band, with him on guitar and me on marimba.” She laughed.
I weigh my desire to spend time with Carin against my desire not to go anywhere near the county fair. “Sure, OK, yeah. Let’s go to the fair.”
Carin bought her own lemonade. I don’t know what that means. She came here to see Christian, and she would have done that whether I was here or not. This isn’t a date.
Now she’s chewing on her straw and sitting cross-legged on the ground behind a skeeball booth. She looks up at me and holds out her hand. “Do you want some lemonade?”
I’m parched, but I consider my bathroom options, and decline. (A thump – a skeeball falling into a hole. Above the general chatter and music of the fair, the player hisses, “Yessss.”)
“Oh!” Carin says now, mind already on a different path. “We can see the bunnies.”
I haven’t felt this tired in a long time. “There are bunnies?”
“Have you never been to the fair, Frank?”
“It’s … been a while.”
“C’mon, let’s go pet some bunnies.” She reaches her hand out to me – not to offer lemonade, but to ask for help up. It quickly passes through my mind, I’ll admit, that she’s just had that hand on the ground, and before she had it on the ground she had it on her lemonade cup, and before she had it on the lemonade cup the man at the lemonade stand had his hand on the lemonade cup, right after he touched the cash that Carin handed him. Not to mention she was petting a llama an hour ago. She used hand sanitizer, but still.
I grip her palm in mine and pull. Her hand is soft.
The bunnies are in a tent. It’s a big, pale, billowy tent, sixty feet tall, and there are open entrances all around, letting in air – but it’s still a tent. There are bunny cages as far as the eye can see. People are talking loudly, laughing, children swarming the cages, sticking their fingers through the holes, sticking baby carrots through the holes, the sound of the bluegrass band is filtering in from the entrance on the other end of the tent. And always, eternally, animal stench. I think the bunnies might smell worse than Lemma did. But Carin hasn’t let go of my hand since I helped her up, and I think that means this is a date.
“Look at the size of that rabbit,” she says. “Kinda freaks me out a little.”
“Yeah… I’d hate to sit on its lap for Easter.”
She doesn’t respond – just lets go of my hand and moves towards a cage of baby bunnies – and I can’t tell if she didn’t hear or just didn’t think it was funny. I make a mental note not to use that hand to handle food or touch my face.
She turns back to me, still shoulder-deep in the bunny cage. “You want to pet the bunnies?”
I try to smile. “Ah, no, not really.”
She stares at me, just like Lemma stared at me, except without the underbite. “Why not?”
“I just … don’t.”
“You don’t like animals, do you?” she says. It’s teasing, I think. But maybe some underlying frustration.
“I … do, I just—”
“Frank, it’s OK! I’m just poking fun. I’m not serious.” She smiles and turns back to the bunnies.
Christian’s an animal guy.
This isn’t a date. Or if it is, it soon won’t be.
I stand behind her, not wanting to join her but not wanting to do anything else, either. Jody says hovering is one of my pastimes.
I take a step forward – but there’s poop pellets in the cage, and the bunnies are stepping in the poop pellets and getting it stuck in their fur, and I feel my skin crawling.
“Do you maybe want to go soon?” I ask. A few feet away, some baby is screaming about something or other. Loud noises make me anxious. I clench my fists tight.
She looks at me. “But – we just got here.”
“I just thought – we saw Christian, now maybe we can – I don’t know, go do something.”
She smiles. “We are doing something. I didn’t come here just to see Christian, you know.”
This is a date.
To my right, a little girl is screaming. She’s just fallen down and gotten her dress covered in mud. “Stop crying,” her mother says. “Dirt won’t hurt.” “Duht won’t … huht,” the girl recites between sobs. “Dirt won’t hurt,” the mother says.
“Frank, look!” I whip back around, and Carin is pressing a baby rabbit into my hands. It’s nestled in my palms, leaning against my chest, looking up at me and making gnawing noises. It’s pressing its nose against my skin through my polyester shirt.
I freak the fuck out. I unscoop my hands without thinking and hold them up above my head, contaminated objects: The bunny tumbles from its perch. The muddy girl shrieks. Carin lunges forward, one hand extended, the other covering her mouth.
The bunny lands on the dirt floor with a soft pat and then doesn’t move. A small crowd has gathered, murmuring with concern. My heart’s pounding with anxiety and embarrassment. A hefty woman in red flannel – she’s working the bunny tent, I guess – pushes me aside and scoops the bunny up. “Oh my God, you killed it!” she yells at me. “What did you do to it?” The murmur of the crowd gets louder; I hear gasps.
“She put it on my shoulder,” I say. I think I’m going to have a panic attack. I don’t do well being yelled at. “Why the hell’d you put it on my shoulder?” I say to Carin. I can feel my voice rising in volume; it cracks when I say “shoulder.”
“I didn’t know you were going to freak out like that!”
“I SAID I DIDN’T WANT TO PET THE BUNNIES.”
“You’re going to pay for this rabbit,” the woman says.
“Why do you give strangers access to the rabbits in the first place?” I say desperately. But she looks like she’s about to retort, and I don’t want to get in an argument, not in front of a crowd, not in front of Carin, not at all. I reach into my wallet and pull out a receipt – it’s from the teashop the other day – and write my contact information on the back. “Here,” I say. “Email me about the rabbit. I’m so sorry.”
She snatches the receipt from me. “Now get the hell out of here.”
I turn to Carin but she’s already walking away. I weave through people to catch up to her. As I pass the muddy girl, she says to me, “You’re bad,” which almost – almost – feels worse than killing a baby bunny. “Are you OK?” I say to Carin.
She looks at me – she’s crying. “I can’t believe we killed a baby bunny!”
I don’t say anything.
“Why the hell did you freak out like that?” she says.
“Animals … are…” I don’t know how I’m ending this sentence until I end it: “dirty.”
She stares at me.
This is not a date.
I don’t see Carin for a few days. The woman from the fair has emailed me, told me I owe something like sixty bucks because the rabbit was really expensive.
I spend most of the rest of my time in the shower, thinking. Showers are my safe zones. It may have taken only several washes to feel like I’d cleansed myself of the dirt and sweat and animal filth of that day, but, of course, the blood of a baby rabbit will take longer to wash off.
I don’t tell Jody what happened. She asks, says she’s noticed my hair is always wet when she comes over and postulates that I’m taking more showers than usual, wants to know the reason, but I don’t tell her. I say, “Do you think Carin wanted to date me?”
She says, “Yeah, but I don’t know why. You’re way too germophobic. And she’s, well, very much not.”
“She’s nice, though.”
I take a walk. I’ve got new shoes – I had to buy new shoes, after the fair.
I walk towards Carin’s apartment, linger in front of the building. I debate going in. I probably shouldn’t – a spontaneous visit didn’t work well the first time I did it, and that was back when Carin still presumably liked me.
I go home.
The next day, I sit outside for a few hours, on the patio. The neighbor’s cat joins me. I’m sitting in a chair; it’s perched on the edge of the patio, eyeing me with its yellow eyes. Its long black fur is sticking out all over the place. It’s an outdoor cat. Last night, it left a dead mouse at my doorstep. This cat has had a mouse – this cat has had a dead mouse – in its mouth. And now it’s staring at me. Carin would say that Samuel liked me because I never touched him; apparently, not paying him enough attention made him crave my attention all the more.
The neighbor cat comes closer.
I hold my breath, and lower my hand towards the ground.
The cat comes closer.
The cat licks my hand. The cat licks my hand with its dead-mouse-licking tongue.
My body tenses and I feel like I’m going to implode. The cat slinks away.
I go inside and take a shower.
Then I go and buy flowers for Carin, to put in her pop bottles.
Dev Murphy is a writer and visual artist. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Pinch, Passages North, ANMLY, Big Other, Queen Mob's Tea House, The Rupture, and elsewhere. She works at an art gallery and bookstore in Pittsburgh.