Ariane de Gennaro
FOX: I’m trying to tell you the truth about myself.
MRS. FOX: I don’t care about the truth about yourself.
— Wes Anderson, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009
Candy-colored creatures hang on horizontal racks. Teardrop-shaped torsos bobble in a clammy indoor-outdoor breeze. Nothing Boutique is tucked in the southeast end of the Oxford Covered Market, beside various cafés and market stalls. I used to walk past this place to peruse the stuffed animals on my way to choir, twice a week during the 2020-21 school year. In the grand scheme of the pandemic, that’s often. Rituals of frequency were few.
This time, Jonty, my partner, slouches beside me. I spend half an hour agonizing over the right choice. Which stuffed animal represents Jonty best? Which will erase the suffering of this year abroad? I’m shopping for something to hold, to hurt, when it’s time to go long-distance. He says he doesn’t see the point. So I make him wait while I pay twenty pounds at the till.
Jonty Fox isn’t much larger than a Nalgene water bottle. His scythe-shaped arms are stitched to his neck. He has a black felted nose and black glass eyes. He’s yam-colored, with white fluff around his jaw, inside his ears, and at the tip of his tail. He’s soft, but slept-on and salted with a year’s worth of tears.
Jonty [Man] is six-foot-five, spectacled, and shaggy-haired. He’s been wearing the same graphic tees since he was twelve years old. At home, he grows chili peppers on his windowsill and brews beer in his closet. At university, he’s a chemist and a rower. He has a goofy smile and a wide, loud voice. Right now, he lives on the other end of Whatsapp video call. The blue glow of his phone display lances off his glasses, obscuring his black-brown eyes. When I met him in November 2020, he was in the process of dropping out of Oxford.
Foxes have long been a thing in my life. I grew up in Fox Point, Wisconsin, watched Fantastic Mr. Fox compulsively, and sketched on fox-themed stationary. I’ve never seen a fox in Fox Point.
At home, there were lots of toys. I remember my mother sneakily weaning my sisters off their pacifiers, leaving a chain of dolls and blankets in her wake. My younger sisters still have those. They call them “bumpies” (translation: pudding-stained rags). Transitional objects offer security to a child during periods of change.
I had a tendency to enact violence on toys. I would unlatch my crib and crawl backwards down the stairs. In the playroom, I used craft scissors to cut hair to the scalp, pop out eyeballs, create dermal lesions. I harmed them because they were gifts I didn’t want. I harmed them because they didn’t live up to my expectations. I harmed them because I loved them so much.
Jonty Fox is unmarred, a testament to growing up.
I’ve seen a fox in Oxford.
After a two-week quarantine and triple-masked flight, I arrived on the evening of October 3rd, 2020. I didn’t have a SIM card yet. I was profoundly alone. At the Broad Street roundabout, rickety townhouses hunched over the cobblestones. Small pockets of freshers huddled around phone flashlights and vodka bottles on the steps of the library, determined to make friends in spite of pandemic bans.
There, beneath the sickly moon, in the middle of the carless street, was a fox. It stared at me, then trotted between the bars of a wrought iron gate and vanished.
I was hollowly lonely in Oxford. My bed was a bench built out of the wall, too skinny to sleep two (by design, courtesy of grinchlike architect Arne Jacobson). When COVID spiked again, British students were sent home. Tinder dates felt, and were, illegal. My window looked out over a soccer pitch. No one ever played soccer there. In October, the sun ran its arc from east to west. In December, the arc had diminished to a rim that touched the tree tips at all times.
January: six months from going home. The seams on Jonty F feel like the veins on Jonty M’s wrists. It started out as something unserious. Filling the endless gray slush of covid time. But, of course, I eventually became too serious. I went on every distanced walk with my pajamas in my backpack, hoping he’d invite me over for dinner. A flurry of miscommunications, sleepless nights, and vegan curries in a frozen flat he dubbed “the ice cave.” I moved in.
February: five months from going home. Jonty F fits in the hollow space between my collarbone and my jaw. That’s where Jonty M’s head went when he coiled his lanky frame to sleep by my side on a twin XL mattress. That month, the sky was watery, blue on green on gray. We walked through meadows together, kicking mud and spitting about tutors. Hand-to-wrist and head-to-head: we walked that way, slept that way, barely working as far as I can remember. He had these endless email chains with tutors, itemizing the many reasons he needed to leave Oxford. His typing slowly dwindled. Then, it stopped. We came up with a slow, safe way of living, and he stuck around.
March: four months from going home. Jonty M took me to Rutland to visit his family.
Rutland calls itself “the county of good taste.” Jonty grew up feral, searching for lost socks beneath bridges and pushing his sister down hills on a bike trailer. His family was kind, the food was great, and the hikes were sweet and new after treading and re-treading the Oxford ones. I was glad to be with Jonty, even gladder to be in a family again. The sky began to lighten. It suddenly felt warm..
Jonty’s mother, Jane, runs a league of elderly river swimmers. They dip in the River Nene twice a week, every week. The river wiggles through Rutland like a slug, not a snake. It doesn’t cut, it doesn’t race. It sits. It sinks. I heard rumors about kingfishers, turquoise birds that graze the river’s surface with rusty bellies, but never saw one.
The pageantry of submersion: like geese, we waddled to the crumbly edge of the slab at the base of the bridge. It was frigid, thirty-eight degrees Fahrenheit in-water. The elders, matching orange floaters dangling between their legs, plunged fearlessly onto slippery rocks. This was when the honking began. Three ladies of the party, the ones with close-cropped hair, derived a masochistic glee from the cold. Their cries were shrill and crisp, like the blue March sky.
The water was cold enough to blur vision and squeeze lungs. And it was fast, God, it was faster than I thought. I swam with all the strength my icy muscles could muster, and I was at a standstill. Jonty M waited for me. He was always out of reach, around the barge, beyond the pier. Eventually, I was numb, a blessing. I felt that I could stay in forever, even when he wanted to turn back.
Apparently, the body’s temperature continues to drop after exposure to cold. I stayed in the water five minutes too long. I shook so hard, I couldn’t put my clothes back on. Jonty dressed me like a porcelain doll, all frozen. Then, suddenly, I stopped shaking. By the time I got into the car, I was hypothermic, feeling sleepy sleepy sleeeepy with my head in Jonty’s arms. Jane gave directives: rub her, cover her, keep her awake, don’t let her sleep, don’t let her sleep. He snapped in my ear and poured scalding coffee on my mouth.
And I knew, lying there, what to call Jonty. A lifesaver. In more ways than one. And perhaps we’ve formed a trauma bond, but we help each other survive. We use each other to this end.
July: I’m going home. Flying away from him, all I can hear is the whine of a string about to snap. I’ve had problems with my ears since birth, prone to swimmer’s ear and airplane pressure aches. This is something different, something loud. Thankfully, I have Jonty Fox. I squeeze him like flesh, but that doesn’t help.
The fox sits in the passenger seat of my car when I drive to the coffee shop before sunrise. He waits in the perilous heat of July, windows cracked. He sits between my legs on my birthday when I am criss-cross applesauce on the floor on a voice call with Jonty M. He gets squished down the side of the bed.
There’s something good about a distance cry. The ferocity of the hurt can bring the person you miss back into the room. I remember his touch, and I can feel it. I remember his breath, and I can smell it. Jonty F becomes a portal, activated by pain.
Over daily calls, Jonty M and I talk through many things we avoided when we were both in the room. Jobs, marriage, and politics. I tell him how I want Jonty F to have an act two as a plaything for our children. I want to bring him to the hospital and shove him into my infant’s soggy hands. I want to sew his arms back on when she rips them off, pull his eyes out of her mouth when she tries to swallow them, and when she inevitably loses him, I want to buy a new fox and pretend I never did.
I tried sniffing Jonty F for this essay, and that was a mistake. He doesn’t smell anything like I thought he would. I thought he would smell like insect repellant, or Lynx body spray, or English mold, or soil. But he smells like me.
Two months ago, Jonty M was visiting me in New Haven—two years (twelve fox years—for foxes, ages) into our courtship. I was starting courses. During my 8:00 a.m. European Epics seminar, I puked so violently that it spewed over the edge of my mask, a chunk landing on my open notebook. I spent two weeks trying to get an abortion. After meeting with a floating head in a telehealth window-box, I stuffed four cottony pills in the pouches of my cheeks to instigate contractions. We started watching The Fantastic Mr. Fox—still my favorite film. “I Get Around” by The Beach Boys ricocheted off the bathroom’s subway-tiled walls. Jonty F hid in the corner, buried under the guts of Jonty M’s disemboweled suitcase, waiting to become useful again.