Joe woke to find that the girl he’d brought home the night before was a cow. This wasn’t a term he used to describe her plainness, it was a statement of fact. Last night, at the French department’s wine and cheese function, this girl had been a very pretty human being on whom Joe had had his eye for quite some time. As another matter of fact, the cow now curled up beside him on the thin mattress was a very pretty cow. John couldn’t help noticing how unusually good-looking this cow was — how pleasant its expression, how fine its bone structure, how delicate its coloring — before a sensation of intense anxiety flooded his body and brought him to his feet.
The girl’s name was Iris. They’d met in conversational French class, the one where the topic of discussion was feminist issues. It was the only conversational French class that fit Joe’s schedule and was taught by this graduate student named June. Joe had slept with June a couple of times last year, and she seemed to recall those times fondly. Although Joe felt very out of place as the only male in a class of thirty, June had practically assured him an A, as long as he remembered to keep his mouth mostly shut.
Iris was quiet in class, and Joe had had to work hard to draw her out. He’d had to ply her with endless cups of herbal tea in the student cafeteria before she’d revealed herself to him. It seemed to him that the discussion of feminist issues in the French class was causing a sort of identity crisis within her. She didn’t say much, but when she did it was usually a pronouncement about the kind of woman she did not wish to be. One of the first things she said to him was, “I do not wish to be the kind of woman who has something to hide, but I do not wish to be the kind of woman who has nothing to hide, either.” He watched her lips move as she said this and he yearned to touch them with his fingers. As she spoke, Joe nodded, though he didn’t know what she was talking about. Iris stopped talking and looked at Joe, waiting for him to respond.
Finally, after a considerable pause, Joe said, “You’re very beautiful, Iris.”
Iris said, “I do not wish to be the kind of woman who is too beautiful. And I certainly do not wish to be the kind of woman who is not beautiful enough. I do not wish to be the kind of woman who is sexy, and yet I also do not wish to be the kind of woman who is not sexy. I do not wish to be the kind of woman that men pay too much attention to. But I do not wish to be the kind of woman men pay no attention to. I do not wish to be the kind of woman who needs a man. I do not wish to be the kind of woman who doesn’t need a man. I do not wish to be the kind of woman to whom men matter, either too much or too little. I do not wish to be the kind of woman who likes other women, the kind who prefer them sexually, or in just a companionable way. Yet I do not wish to be the kind of woman who doesn’t like other women at all, either.”
Joe stared at the pretty little cow sleeping on his mattress and wondered if he was projecting this cow-ness onto poor Iris. He had learned things about men in that French class, even if he didn’t understand the language all the time all that well. One day June had held up a picture of Madonna, the pop star, in one hand and a picture of the Virgin Mary in the other. Joe gathered they were discussing the Virgin/Whore complex. He couldn’t remember the French words and couldn’t anyway understand them at the time, but he did get the general idea.
Joe wondered if he woke Iris up, if he led her outside his dorm room and into the hall, would others also see her as a cow? Would Iris see herself as a cow? And, if others did not see Iris as a cow, and if Iris did not see it, if, in short, Iris appeared as a cow only to him, would she realize what he was seeing? Would something in his expression give him away? Joe prided himself on being unfailingly polite and respectful to women he slept with. He always thought of his widowed mother and his two younger sisters still at home and asked himself how he want men to treat them, if they were sleeping with men.
Joe placed his hand on Iris’ velvety cow nose and shook it. He watched Iris’ eyes open and the sleep fall from her face. She looked well-rested and content, until she opened her mouth and a moo came out. Terror filled her eyes at the sound, and she struggled, her four spindly legs twisting in the sheets, to stand. Joe could tell she was very distressed. Joe could tell these things. Iris clip-clopped over to look at the mirror on his wall, mooing all the while. Her eyes, already wide, widened further when she saw herself reflected in it. Iris continued to moo. She turned away from the mirror and staggered around the room, not sure how to work her legs.
Someone knocked on the door. “Hey, keep it down in there,” the someone said. That someone was named Bernard, Joe’s next-door neighbor. Iris mooed, as if in response. “Some of us have to study,” Bernard said.
Iris mooed still louder, and Bernard opened the door and peeked in. His jaw dropped when he saw Iris standing next to the bed. Joe dove at Bernard and pushed him out into the hall. He gripped Bernard by the throat with one hand, and pulled the door shut behind him with the other.
“Man,” said Bernard, “that girl is beautiful.”
Joe raised his fist to punch Bernard then dropped his hand to his side. He paused. “You mean, she looks like a girl to you?” he asked.
Bernard laughed. “Are you kidding me?” he said.
Joe said he wasn’t kidding him.
Bernard said, “She’s gorgeous, Joe.”
Joe was stunned. Bernard pried his fingers off his neck, clapped him on the back, and headed back into his own room. “She’s the best-looking girl I’ve ever seen and she’s standing naked in the middle of your room, practically screaming your name,” he said. “Just tell her to keep it the fuck down. That’s all I’m asking.”
Joe went back into his room. Iris looked at him plaintively. He rested his hand on her soft right flank. “Iris,” he said. “Iris, it’s just you and me, I think. I think it’s just you and me who see you this way.”
Iris mooed. She mooed loud and long. Joe imagined Iris was trying to tell him something about the kind of woman she did not wish to be. He patted her flank and said he understood exactly what she meant, though, of course, he could not. As he wrapped her bra around her chest, pulled her underwear up over her hind legs, and tugged the elegant black dress she’d worn to the wine and cheese over her head, he spoke reassuringly to her.
Before they went out into the hall, they hesitated. Joe held his hand on the back of Iris’s neck and stroked her face with the other. Then he walked her down the hall, down the stairs, and out the front door of the dormitory without incident. They passed a number of people, but no one gave them a second look. On the path in front of the building, Joe stopped and turned to face Iris. He kissed the tip of her velvety nose and tried to look meaningfully into her wide eyes, although it was difficult because they were so far apart. He settled for looking meaningfully into the one on his right.
“I’ll leave you now, Iris,” he said.
“Thank you for last night,” Joe said. “It was so beautiful.”
Iris mooed in agreement.
Joe willed himself to stand there, to keep looking at Iris’s big eye, as she mooed softly at him.
“See you in class?” Joe asked.
Joe guessed Iris was trying to tell him something about the kind of woman she did not wish to be. Or perhaps she was trying to tell him she would rather not see him again. Whatever it was that Iris was trying to say, Joe simply couldn’t understand it. Joe wanted to be the kind of man who wanted to love; he wanted to be the kind of man who tried hard; he wanted to be the kind of man who meant nothing but good. For these reasons and others, it made Joe sad to stand there and look at Iris and hear her just moo and moo and moo.