Jude gave me a hug and ran his eyes up and down my body, the primordial scan. “Lisa, your photos don’t do you justice.”
“I only put up the bad ones.”
“Smart!” He whisked imaginary sweat off his brow and then opened the hatch of his Land Rover. “You wouldn’t believe how many women post photos from ten years ago. Or thirty pounds ago.”
Men were shallow, but that no longer made me angry. I watched him rifle through roller blades, bug repellant, and a rattling stack of vertical blinds and brackets, all of it tangled with mesh grocery bags—he was active and prepared, he did home improvement projects, he didn’t fuss over tidiness, and at the grocery, he didn’t choose plastic. His hiking clothes had seen a few tumbles in the woods and wash, so he wasn’t just posing as an outdoorsman. He was trim and wiry, shorter than I’d expected, his curly black hair longer, his chin weaker.
“Let’s take the north trail,” he said. “Then we can hike around the west side of the pond.”
I knew better than to go into the woods with a strange man. My only protection was my border collie, Casey, all forty fighting pounds of her. She could bark and raise an alarm, but if a dog barks in the Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve and no one is around to hear her, what good is she?
He shouldered a sleek backpack zigzagged with bungee cords. “I know a spot where we can spread out our blanket.”
I let the word “blanket” hang in the air. We blinked at each other.
He had a cramped smile that didn’t crinkle his eyes. It made him look sad. “It’s a picnic blanket,” he said. “No funny stuff. I promise.”
“Okay.” I bounced on the toes of my old Timberlands that were a size too big. I might have been clumsy galumphing in those boots, but I loved that I was outside at seven o’clock in the morning about to explore the Florida forest with a professional wilderness guide. As long as he wasn’t a serial killer, I might have a nice time. I might even walk out of the woods with my true love. “Can I carry something?”
“Just bring your dog,” he said.
“She’ll bring herself.” I leaned into the backseat of my Mazda, freed my border collie from her seatbelt, unclipped her leash and wondered what self-destructive curiosity compelled me to date. At best, it amused my mind and boosted my ego. At worst, it risked my life. But anything more substantial, like test-driving a mate for two or ten years, just wasted time, and I was running out of that. A widow friend of mine had been married for over fifty years. “I miss my husband every day,” she said. “But if I had to do it over again, I’d just have lovers.” That sounded good, but I’d taken time off from American mating games to study them from a distance. As far as I could tell, nothing worked. No one was safe.
I stepped away from the car to show that my dog was well trained. Casey had the wide world at her nose, but she sat with her forelegs stiff, her eyes fixed on my face. I said, “At ease.” She shot out of the car and ricocheted around the lawn, searching for a stick.
The three of us headed into the woods. The sun rose in a white sky. The mockingbirds had ended their twilight arias. Ground doves materialized on the path just in time to escape Casey by bursting into the air. Catbirds, chipping sparrows, and pileated woodpeckers busied our ears. Three buzzards and a wood stork sailed overhead, silent, soaring, and gorgeous. I had the giddy thought—give me the outdoors, and I’ll give you my heart.
“You sure love birds,” Jude said.
“No, I don’t.” I tossed Casey’s stick ahead of us on the path. Was there no chemistry with this man? Was he unattractive? Or had extended celibacy dried me up?
“We’ve been walking for two minutes, and you’ve identified seven.”
“I have a kind of Tourette’s. I see a bird, I say its name.”
He laughed and regarded me sidelong. “I have the same problem with plants.” He identified a tar flower.
I smiled. I had a thing for botanists.
He had told me on the phone that he worked on contract for the Environmental Protection Agency and as a guide for rich folks seeking wilderness adventure; I did want an active, outdoorsy, accomplished man. Maybe physical attraction would grow. Maybe it didn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter—we weren’t animals.
I turned on my flirtation engines—curls bounced, smiles flashed, voice played con brio, hands danced in the air. “Why does everybody assume I’m a bird-lover? I love all animals. Birds just get themselves seen more often. You watch—if we happen upon a Gila monster or a hammerhead bat, I’ll say their names too.”
I felt witty and pretty and fun. “Female boat-tailed grackle! I love those! More handsome than the males.” I bounced on my toes and threw Casey’s stick. If I charmed him, maybe I’d be charmed. “Bug!”
“Bug?” His eyes twinkled.
“Okay. I don’t love all animals enough to learn their names.” I was absolutely fetching.
The misnamed Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve provided footpaths and lavish picnic pavilions. Where was the wilderness? I hadn’t so much gone into the woods with a stranger as into a kind of arboreal mall. A fat man hauled a red cooler and trailed a squeaky cloud of pink birthday balloons. Men fired up grills, and women marched their children to and from bathrooms designed to spare all future generations of nature lovers from having to straddle a long drop.
“Don’t you worry about our future when there are airport-style bathrooms in the middle of the woods?” I said. “Digging a cat-hole is an important life skill. Maybe there’s an app for that?”
“This isn’t the middle of the woods, believe me.” He took a few silent strides. “I’ll take you there.”
Every few dozen yards stood a sign of treated plywood and glass, a display case that protected from the elements posters on commonplace native plants and animals: palmetto, armadillo, gopher tortoise. It made the wilderness preserve feel preserved, pickled and bottled in formaldehyde. We read posters about alien species: kudzu, cane toad, air potato. People “adopted” tracts of land and pulled invasive plants by hand to protect the native species.
Maybe Jude and I could connect intellectually. “These posters make me feel guilty. Shouldn’t we be pulling kudzu?”
“But isn’t the wilderness the original free market? Doesn’t that make kudzu the big winner?”
“Who’s going to weed out the humans?”
“Exactly! Aren’t we western Europeans ourselves just a wee bit invasive? Look at our footpaths, our bathrooms, look at our acres of asphalt! Kudzu’s got nothing on us.”
He said, “My grandparents were Ukrainian.”
The art of dating is the search for the one native prince in a nation of cane toads. I said, “My mother told a census-taker we’re Sasquatch. He thought that was so interesting. He’d never heard of that tribe.”
The paths were wide enough for us to walk abreast, but I kept falling behind because I played with my western European dog. Border collies come from Scotland. On hikes Casey yo-yoed out front, chasing and retrieving a stick. She’d place it on the path a few yards in front of me, back up a pace and then crouch, holding her breath and watching my feet, my face, and my hands as I approached the stick. I’d bend, sometimes with exaggerated slowness to ramp up the suspense. We’d lock eyes. I’d pick up the stick and toss it ahead.
Once, Jude bent down, picked up the stick, and tossed it behind. That’s what men always did. That and the fake throw. Casey never fell for either trick. She lifted her face and studied him, disgusted, incredulous.
He laughed. “I’m not playing right, am I?”
She blasted past with a grunt, annoyed. He was too stupid to fix his mistake.
“Okay, okay, Casey, I’m catching on.” He liked me, and he liked my dog.
I tried envisioning our future. I’d become a private wilderness guide, like him. He and I would get hired to show people Wild Florida. We’d end up with our own series on Animal Planet, and Casey would be the mascot. She set the stick on Jude’s side of the path and looked him in the eye.
Already he was picking up my mannerisms. He jumped in delight, the way I do. “It’s as if she understood me!”
“It’s as if she’s training you.” Maybe it was better that there be no chemistry between us. Chemistry would just intoxicate and confuse. Instead, we’d bond over nature, and the passion would follow. We weren’t shallow people. I had enough substance of character to like this man as much as he seemed to like me. We marched deeper into the preserve and passed fewer pavilions. The path narrowed, the vegetation thickened, and the museum signs grew portentous: Beware of alligators. Beware of poison sumac.
I decided to take a risk. “We should have our own wilderness show on Animal Planet. Each episode’ll culminate in one unexpectedly dangerous moment. Picture this: My trusting nature and infectious enthusiasm for wildlife get me too close to a deadly needle-shooting cactus or a rabid manatee. Then you save me.”
“I can handle that.” He puffed his chest, walked a few manly strides, and added, “Thank you.”
“For painting that incredibly sexist scenario. It’s hard to tell how you’re doing on a first date. Women call the shots.”
“If women have all the power, why do they need mace?”
“Men have to pretend it doesn’t matter which way it’s going to go, but sometimes it really matters.”
“Like today?” I’d overdone it. I dialed down my flirtation to “idle.”
“Today matters. Yes. And we men have to pretend we don’t want to be cast in chauvinist roles like the one you just described, but the truth is we do. Anyway, I like it.”
We passed a sign: Rattlesnakes are common in the Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve. Do not molest.
“I told you I was married once.” Jude explained that he’d graduated from MIT at age nineteen and turned down an offer from NASA. Instead, he eloped with his sweetheart, Iris. She had contracted a mysterious, fatal illness, so they had no time to waste. Iris died within the year. After her funeral, he hiked alone into the Appalachian Mountains. “I was a widower at twenty. And I was done with life.”
He turned off the main path, leading us away from the shouts of children. Casey had blown ahead and missed the turn. She grabbed her stick and caught up, clipping Jude on the side of his leg as she passed, almost toppling him.
“Sorry,” I said. “You learn to walk cautiously around border collies. Especially on stairs.”
He recovered his balance. “It was late spring,” he said. He slowed to walk beside me, stopping whenever I stopped for Casey’s stick, but he spoke as if to someone floating backwards on the path ahead of us.
In the branches overhead, woodpeckers chattered like something Jurassic. A flight of ibises flashed white above the canopy, but I could see the Appalachian Mountains he described. I’d lived in Pennsylvania for twenty-one years and spent hours in those forests on foot, horseback, and mountain bike. I didn’t see palm fronds, Spanish moss, bromeliads, and mistletoe, but hemlocks, cool shadows, stony paths, and wet tree trunks fallen across brooks.
“At the top of a rise, the path opened on a field of grass as high as my hips,” he said. “It was so . . . bright. I could see forever. With Iris gone, I just didn’t want to live anymore. I waded into the middle of the field, took off my pack, and lay down, knowing I could die there if I wanted to, and no one would find me. Not for a long while.”
We walked without speaking. He’s telling me he’s sensitive and romantic. He’s telling me he knows grief, as if that proved he would never cause me grief. Our boots chuffed and thumped, red-winged blackbirds chirred,and Casey’s paws scuffled. A nine-banded armadillo smashed out of the underbrush and marched its scaly self across our path, looking for all the world like something not of it, something that had scrabbled out of a meteorite. Casey sized it up and dismissed it, not because she had daily armadillo doings, but because she instantly understood that this animal was of no use to her.
As we broached the open expanse of the pond, I thought I ought to reel Casey in. Alligators sometimes kill dogs. I pulled the leash from my belt loop and put my thumb on the clasp, but I didn’t call her. I didn’t want to interrupt Jude.
“My whole life, all that hurry to make it through school faster than anybody else, to be smarter, to be more driven,” he said. “I thought it was all meaningless if someone like Iris could die.” He scooped up Casey’s stick and threw it. “I just lay there, watching the tips of the grass toss back and forth against the blue sky. The grasshoppers were buzzing. I fell asleep.”
We reached the pond, Jude walked along the bank, and I followed. The grass had been mown, and the cattails and reeds had been cleared on one side. I scanned the surface of the pond for gator eyes. Casey dropped the stick in my path. I tossed it.
“When I woke up,” Jude said. “I was surrounded by deer. They were crowded around, all looking down at me.”
I imagined his vantage: blades of grass towering like green skyscrapers around my face and the faces of deer peering down. I could see their tender, whiskered mouths.
“Just like that, I wanted to live.” Jude turned around, gripping the straps of his backpack. He walked bouncing backwards on the path ahead of me. “After they decided I wasn’t a threat, they went on grazing. They stayed with me in that field for—it felt like hours. Ever since then, I’ve been living for moments like that. As many as possible.”
“That is truly charming.” We’d fill our Animal Planet series with charming animal encounters—we’d cure bats of white-nose syndrome and set them free, we’d romp with panther cubs, we’d parasail with pelicans.
He stopped underneath a live oak so massive that its branches had to brace against the ground to steady themselves. One root bent like a giant’s knee, and he stepped onto it and lowered his pack. Standing above me, he turned to survey the site. In one direction, the lawn spread out green; in the other, the wide pond glittered. I wanted to want him. My eyes scanned his long fingers, the cords of muscle in his forearms, the way the placket of buttons on the front of his shirt dropped straight down behind his belt buckle.
He gazed through me. “The whole world seemed to fan out from under my back. I could feel the earth carrying the deer and the mountain as it turned. Have you ever felt that?”
“Sometimes. Lying on the beach beside the Atlantic Ocean. Walking with Casey.” I reminded myself not to let down my guard, so I welcomed Casey when she dropped her stick between us. I checked for other hikers, but we were alone. A woman couldn’t be too cautious; I considered asking to eat at the picnic pavilion. Shoulders lower than rump, one forepaw raised, Casey looked from me to Jude and back, waiting—no, inviting—no, commanding us to toss the stick for her.
He bestowed upon her a paternal smile. I waited for him to say something more, but he just stood there, comfortable in the silence, as if he felt safe having trusted me with his story.
Casey yapped at me to toss the stick, and I did. The moment the stick left my hand, I saw the cottonmouth.
Casey whirled as she always did, and galloped as she always did, looking forward as she ran and glancing backward to track the flight of the stick. My body levitated. The stick hit the ground on the far side of the snake and cartwheeled to a stop. I’m a thirty-minute run from the car. Her four white paws struck the ground, again, and again, each in turn. The rhythm of her stride contained a beat when all four paws were in the air. I’m a forty-five-minute drive from the nearest veterinarian, and I am in my car screaming. In one beat, all paws airborne, Casey sailed over the cottonmouth.
Thicker than my arm, muscular and blunt, the snake lay curled in a loop like an empty speech balloon. Casey skidded to a stop on the stick, clattered with it, picked it up, and found my eyes with her own, as she always did.
I floated, frozen and unbreathing. I have no way to tell you, “Run away, don’t come to me” so you’ll live to come to me.
She paused, puzzled to see me turned into a floating stone. The cottonmouth lay between us and did not move. Casey’s tail swished side-to-side as she picked her way over it and came to me.
I hit the ground, grabbed her collar, and, even though we were a safe distance away, I hauled her another ten feet backwards. Casey wrestled with me, trying to put the stick in my hand. I managed to clip the leash to her collar.
“Something’s wrong with it,” I said. Casey struggled in my arms. I let loose a small sob of relief. “It’s dead.”
“No.” Jude stood upon the root of the old oak and frowned across the garden in the direction of our Biblical enemy. Crouched on the ground with Casey in my arms, I tried to imagine him as my quintessentially capable man, master of all things civilized and wild.
“Are you going to investigate?”
I shortened Casey’s lead and, with herpetological purpose, strode toward the cottonmouth. I stopped well out of reach, but close enough to see the subtle banding in its scales. It didn’t move. I grabbed a pinecone and tossed, ready to leap backward and haul Casey with me. The pinecone bounced off its back.
“Don’t go any closer,” Jude called.
I stepped closer.
The cottonmouth turned its head toward me. Its tongue flickered. Jude called to me again, but I stayed put. I’d birthed a baby girl and coddled her safely through her teens, raised and trained four dogs and a horse, and guided thousands of students through their semesters. I’d traveled in foreign nations alone, hiked mountains and braved the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans and the Red, the Alboran, and the Tyrrhenian Seas. I’d survived four decades without Jude shouting at me from a tree root; I could damn well throw a pinecone at a cottonmouth without getting my dog or myself killed.
“It’s alive,” I reported from the scene. There was a blackened hole in its tail, as if someone had stabbed it with a pencil. “It’s got a bad a puncture wound.”
“Come back. Let’s have our picnic.”
The cottonmouth turned away. Holding Casey close, I took a long, respectful step backward. I watched it drift toward the woods as if pulled on an invisible rope, fat and heavy and coal-black, the grass behind flattened by its heft. Maybe, since the snake was hurt, it had been too afraid to attack Casey. It disappeared in the understory. I walked over to Jude. He had opened his backpack.
“Cottonmouths have a bad rap,” he said, as if I’d been the frightened one. “They don’t want any trouble. We’re okay here.” He put his hand on my shoulder.
I ducked to ruffle Casey’s fur and kiss her nose. I managed to stifle another sob. Somehow, the blanket had appeared on the ground, and I was sitting on it crosslegged, Casey in my lap. My body was knotted up; the whole world was a menace. Under the blank sun, the pond lay still, flat, and dusty with pollen, as if there were no one to take care of it. How long had my daughter, my dog, and I lived with no one to watch over us? At night, by day, at home, in parking lots, on city streets, I kept constant vigilance—are we aware of our surroundings? Are the doors and windows locked? Who would ring the bell at this hour? Is there enough charge on the cell to call 9-1-1? A little blue heron walked the bank, stabbing frogs. A flock of ibises pierced the earth with long, curved bills. I knew that, hidden under the murky water, wide tail, and broad thighs, sunken in the mud on the bottom, front claws and coffin jaws suspended as if in amber, an alligator waited.
All life is a danger to all life. I had a sip of wine; I had Casey safe. The fear that pinched my shoulders loosened, but I wished other hikers would come around. “Weren’t you going to tell me something?”
“Was I? I don’t know.” On his knees like a monk at prayer, Jude presented two small metal bowls and a thermos of onion soup. “Well, here’s something: I was born with two sets of adult teeth.”
He laid out roasted Portobello mushrooms stuffed with savory mashed potatoes and cheese, fresh crepes with Brie and asparagus tips, and Kalamata olives, grapes, and a baguette. I praised each offering, and Jude was pleased. He lifted a fork to his lips. My gaze followed. The mouth that opened did not contain the customary central incisors, lateral incisors, canines, and so on. It held two rows of uniformly narrow, conical, pointed teeth. Teeth like long, polished pine nuts. Alien teeth.
The mouth swallowed, licked itself clean, and opened wide to display the teeth. The rows of narrow teeth created a mouth within a mouth. “The second set evolved,” the mouth explained, “to replace teeth lost in adulthood.”
“Ah, so we should all have them!” I willed the topic to move on. It would be rude to show any alarm, and I’d hate myself if I let some insignificant genetic aberration invade the landscape of a wholesome relationship. I valued depth of character, none of this superficial business about how many pounds or years or teeth a person had.
Jude thanked me by grinning wide for the first time. “Walking with you and Casey reminds me of the time I went hiking with two politicians and a goat.”
“I remind you of two politicians?”
“No, Casey reminds me of the goat.” He told me how the goat named Melvin stood on his hind legs and offered his hoof for you to shake. “He sure was pretty, black and sleek. When the trail opened up at Gem Lake, he ran ahead and leapt in the air. Happiest sight I ever saw. There was some snow powder on the ground. Remember how when the wind blows the snow, the sunshine makes it sparkle?”
I remembered. That was the life I wanted, hikes in the Rockies with politicians and pretty goats and a grateful man who made it all happen, a man who relished this life as much as I did, the same way I did. Yet all I could think was the last time I saw a mouth like that, Sigourney Weaver shot it with a grappling gun.
Jude produced two ramekins of crème brûlée, a stoppered vial of whiskey, and a lighter. He served dessert aflame. Pleased with his confection, he cracked the caramelized crust in his ramekin and spooned custard into the mouth. Casey dozed beside me, and he scratched her head. He let her lick the ramekins clean. Her tongue and lips, pink and black, slid against her glistening teeth, long and white and stiff as daggers. Earthling teeth. A light wind rippled the surface of the pond. It was one of those opposite days in Florida, the ones that got colder as the sun got higher. I shifted on the blanket, which turned my gaze to the woods where the cottonmouth hid itself, curled around its wound. A shiver blew through me—leftover adrenaline, I told myself, from having seen Casey step over a cottonmouth, the biological equivalent of a live grenade with the pin pulled. I rested my hand on her back. It rode up and down as she panted. Her tongue pulsed obscenely between her ragged teeth.
“We should go to Tampa Theatre,” he said. “There’s a new release Wednesday.”
“Yeah?” I wanted a man who loved Tampa Theatre. I listened while he shared irreproachable things about his work with the EPA, charming things about his wilderness tours, and a bonus detail: He’d made a fortune inventing an inhaler that imparted life-saving cardiac medication directly into the bloodstream through the lungs. I refused to think about teeth. Then, when a fish plunked through the surface of the pond, I sensed the monstrous alligator shadow below. I pointed in the opposite direction. “If we go that way, we can cut back to the car without walking along the pond, right?”
“Sure. We can do that.” He was disappointed that I’d thought about leaving. Plus, I’d suggested a much shorter route.
“Not right now,” I added. “I mean, when we leave.” But it was done. I’d heralded the end of our first date.
He returned his picnic gear to his fancy backpack. As we walked toward the parking lot, he said, “In a few weeks I’m going to the Rockies with Stuart from MIT, his wife, and his brother Greg and his family.” He assumed I’d come along. “Hey, maybe we can film an episode for Animal Planet.”
I smiled. We reached our cars.
“Have you ever been to Bern’s Steakhouse?” Jude asked as he tossed his backpack into the Land Rover. He turned, hanging his slight frame on the door with the ease of a man who thinks himself liked by the woman he likes. “Oh, that’s a stupid question to ask a vegetarian.”
“I used to live three blocks away from Bern’s.” I tried to picture sitting at a table with him. He’d have a fork in his hand. He would lift it. “I never ate there, not because I’m a vegetarian, but because it was right there. You know how you take some things for granted?” I felt strangely depressed and angry.
Casey dropped her stick, left it behind, and pointed her nose at the car door. I opened it. “Casey, hop up.” I buckled her into her seatbelt and stroked her glossy little head. Whenever I blinked, there was the snake. “My hero!” I whirled and hugged Jude. “You saved us from the cottonmouth!”
“I did no such thing! You’re the brave one.” He laughed, loud and happy. “But I’ll take it. Your imagination really works for me.”
“Sorry. I don’t feel well—it’s not the meal. That was great,” I stammered. I was injured, punctured, sick. I would drag myself into hiding. I ducked into my car, confused.
“I’ll give you a call. Drive safe.”
“You too.” I waved. He kept waving and watched me drive off, which made me furious. When I turned onto the highway to Tampa and gunned the engine, exhilarated and cruel, I thought, I will never kiss that mouth.
Elisabeth Lanser-Rose is the author of the memoir For the Love of a Dog (Random House, 2001). Her novel, Body Sharers (Rutgers University Press), was a finalist for the 1993 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Best First Novel, the AWP Intro Award, and The Washington Prize for Fiction. Her work has appeared in Sugar Mule Literary Magazine: Women Writing Nature, Ascent Literary Journal, The North Carolina Literary Review, Art Mag, Kestrel: a Journal of Literature and Art, and Feminist Studies. elisabethlanserrose.com