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Short Story
2394 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Love Conquers All

by Walter B. Levis

Following his therapist’s advice, hoping to achieve intimacy through honesty, Les, previously known as Lester, decided to reveal tonight that he no longer identified as a man. He was, in fact, a woman trapped inside a square-jawed, hairy-knuckled, six-foot-three-inch, 195-pound man’s body.

Fortunately, amazingly, Les’s date, a woman named Ruby (also following therapeutic advice) had reached a similar decision—intimacy through honesty. But Ruby’s confession involved another complication. Ruby identified as neither man nor woman. She was, in fact, a thin-boned, slim-hipped, five-foot-six-inch, 120-pound dog trapped in a human body.

How to break such news?

The couple had agreed to meet for dinner and sat now in a booth near the windows at Federico’s, a moderately priced Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Outside, a cold November rain coated the streets an oily black. Inside, their shoulders hunched against the chill, Ruby and Les stared at their menus as if pasta in New York was a unique dining possibility. Awkward smiles. Neither spoke. The silence hung between them like a bad smell until, finally, a shapely, unsmiling waitress in black stretch pants approached carrying a tray—Wednesday night complimentary wine. She asked “red or white” without eye contact and set down two glasses. Ruby noted the black nail polish punctuating the waitress’s long pale fingers. The nails were chipped and scratched, graffiti-like. Angry, empty. Sad.

Les and Ruby reached for their drinks simultaneously—synchronized swimmers. They laughed at their perfect timing. The ice was broken.

A long gulp, then Les began, “We’ve had some amazing conversations, Ruby, don’t you think? Especially about the inner life, I mean. Therapy, yoga, meditation, rolfing.”

Ruby nodded. “Yes, I like to think we have that in common...soul work.”

“Exactly. And the soul...” Les took another sip. “My definition, anyway—soul is, well, I’ve been thinking about this: spontaneous access to genuine emotion. That’s soul.”

Ruby nodded. “Nice. That’s a nice definition.”

Les tried to read her eyes. Was the moment right? Was he about to ruin everything? He took a breath. “I care about you, Ruby...” His voice clotted but he continued in a low croak. “I want us—this relationship—to go forward, but—well, you need to know something about me, that—I-I-I need to tell you... I’m not a man. I have a man’s body, but inside—in my soul—I’m a woman.”

Immediately, Ruby felt her pulse quicken. Then, she couldn’t help it, her mouth opened, her tongue slipped out, and she started to pant. Oh my, oh my—she thought, feeling herself want to jump onto Les’s chest. But she told herself firmly: sit! Then said: “Oh, Les, this is so exciting! And I feel so privileged to know,” she tried to keep the high-pitched yip out of her voice, “and I love that you are telling me—so directly, so honestly. It’s sooo exciting. Transgender, as they say, is the next civil rights frontier! And it’s just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. The tip, just the tip!”

Les trembled with surprise and joy. He’d done it! He’d told Ruby the truth, and Ruby had accepted it! Ruby hadn’t laughed. Ruby hadn’t stormed out of the restaurant! Ruby had said it was the tip of the iceberg?

What the hell—what iceberg?

Glass of wine in hand, pointy teeth gleaming, Ruby threw caution to the wind and barked: “Transgender, meet trans-species.” Then a quick breath and she went on: “I’m not a man or a woman, Les. In my soul, I’m a dog!”

She squirmed excitedly, felt her head bobbing, and fought her desire to lick Les’s face. Instead, she set down her glass and scratched quickly behind one ear, then the other.

Oh, shit, Les thought, stiffening with anger. A dog? Ruby—cruel, insensitive, hypocritical Ruby—was mocking him and every other transgender person struggling to be open and honest with another human being.

“What the hell?” Les said. “Is this some kind of joke to you?”

Ruby froze, hanging her head, and Les couldn’t stop the thought which leapt to mind: puppy eyes. She looked at him with puppy eyes.

“,” Ruby said, voice rising, then falling—a falsetto cry? Les heard a whimper. “You—you are the one, Les, you are not taking me seriously.”

The reversal struck Les like a blow to the chest. He leaned back in his chair, dazed, then looked out the window. Was she right? Was he the one being narrow-minded? Outside, a yellow cab whooshed past, horn honking. Inside, disoriented by the idea that he was the intolerant one, Les heard voices murmuring, silverware scraping, glasses clinking, and the subtle sound of something sizzling in the kitchen. He took a breath, trying to center himself, trying to find an open-hearted spirit of acceptance, but he felt distracted by a sudden, overwhelmingly strong smell of garlic.

Meanwhile, he noticed Ruby’s posture shift. Head erect, eyes narrow, it looked as if she’d just heard—or smelled (or both?)—a sound far beyond the range of his dull senses. He stiffened with fear; it couldn’t be helped: she looked ready to lunge. And bite?

But she spoke in a surprisingly pleasant, low rumble, a soft growl that sounded anything but angry: “You want to be who you really are, Les. Free from society’s artificial rules and conventions. That’s all I want, too. To be who I am. Playful, affectionate, and fiercely loyal...much more loyal than any human could ever understand. You know what Kipling wrote about dogs—called us ‘The First Friend.’ And Freud? He got it right when he explained: ‘Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate.’ Of course, I don’t want to overstate it: we dogs do have our misunderstandings—but it’s usually some human’s fault. Somebody yanking the leash unnecessarily.”

Her shoulders were relaxed now, and her head slung forward, and Les found himself reaching across the table to scratch the top of her head. She wriggled and moved her mouth to the side of his hand and licked his fingers, then said, “If I felt totally free to be myself right now, I’d sniff your crotch. And it’s not what you might think. It’s not really about sex. The little glands in the butt of a dog give up all kinds of useful information. Health status, temperament, diet, which says a lot about a dog’s socio-economic status. That’s why we sniff back there. I like to say: the nose knows. I had sinusitis once and when my ENT took a look, he said, ‘Wow, your nasal cavities are amazing.’”


Tight-lipped, glassy-eyed, head cocked at an I-don’t-give-a-shit angle, the waitress brought bread. Ruby asked Les if he’d mind “tossing” her a piece, and she sat up in her chair, lifting her front paws, mouth open. Les figured, what the hell, who’s it hurting? He tore a piece and tossed it, then another, and another. It was fun.

“You know what I love?” Ruby said, still chewing. “When people say dogs can’t do math, I tell them to take out three biscuits but give your dog only two.”

She smiled, and Les realized how little he’d ever looked at the world from a dog’s point of view.

“The books help,” Ruby continued. “The growing body of literature—my favorite is John Fisher’s Guide to Canine Psychology. And the medical world is starting to change—I finally found a vet willing to see me, though we had to create some kind of false ID in order for my insurance to pay. Bureaucracies, ucchhh!” A snort came from somewhere deep in her chest. “The healing arts are more enlightened—acupressure, chiropractic; I know tons of dogs getting trigger point therapy.”

Their pasta arrived, zombie-waitress setting the plates down with a wordless thud. Ruby leaned forward and whispered, “Must be a cat-person.” Then she pointed to her plate and said, “Would you mind if...?”

Les knew without her saying more. He saw in a flash: Ruby lowering her face, eating directly from the bowl. She wanted his permission, and how could he say no? What, in fact, was really wrong with it? Who was he to deny her the freedom...?


After dinner the rain stopped, so Les suggested they go for a walk in Central Park. Ruby’s eyes lit up. “How did you know how badly I need a walk?”

“Ummm, well—”

“No, no, no,” Ruby said, realizing that Les misunderstood. She motioned for him to lean over so she could whisper in his ear. “I’m not going to ask you to pick up my poop,” she began. “Humans don’t really need to do that. Dogs can use the toilet, but we just think it’s hysterical the way humans pick up after us, so...” She gave his ear a quick lick, then excused herself to use the ladies’ room.

As they walked into Central Park at 72nd Street, scarves wrapped around their necks, gloved hands clasped, they talked about the current transgender movement, how it made the cover of Time magazine, and how that high-profile article did a decent job explaining sex and gender as two separate concepts, with sex biologically determined by anatomy, while gender is cultural, a social construction—learned behavior. And sexual preference? They agreed that’s something else altogether. After five weeks of dating, they’d done nothing more than kiss and snuggle in cabs and lobbies, but—maybe it was all that therapy?—they had no trouble talking bluntly. A penis does not automatically seek a vagina, they agreed. And vice versa. Also, they agreed that surgical “reassignment” is a highly personal decision that can’t really be judged without knowing the details of an individual’s situation. Les, for example, intended to work with a voice coach to lift his deep baritone into the alto range; if coaching didn’t help, medical intervention might be an option.

They also talked about their professional lives—Les, an actuary; Ruby, certified public accountant. Co-workers who couldn’t understand were troubling, but numbers, ah, numbers...where binary thinking can be so thoroughly transcended. Sacred math, they discovered, was another passion they shared—pi, phi, e—a hidden world of sublime unity both deeply rational and utterly mysterious. The music of math; the math of many merely human distinctions faded away in the beauty of math.

Now, with the conversation growing even more philosophical, Ruby pulled at Les’s scarf and nuzzled her nose under his chin. He heard the phfff-pfhh sound of her quick sniffs, and wondered if he only imagined that the tip of her nose felt moist and cool. She said, “I feel so happy, Les. You know, like that song: because I’m, la-la-la, like a room without a roof!” She hit the last word with a loud, full-throated bark that made Les jump. Then she went on: “All is one, right? I mean, everything is connected, all of life...and being alive to what is...if you can truly be whatever you feel you are, then...the possibilities are so vast: we just need to open up people’s minds so that humans stop thinking of themselves as...”

She stopped because she felt herself hungering for Les’s affection. She also spotted a squirrel and had to fight the impulse to chase it. Growling, she took off her gloves and put her bare hands on Les’s chest, almost knocking him over as she licked his cheeks. The whiskers on his face felt gravelly against her tongue. “Oh, Les, I’ve never been so happy, and I can’t wait for you to meet my friends. The guys who identify as girls and girls who identify as guys and whites who identify as black and blacks who identify as Asian—everyone so open and free! And I have these two very special friends, my best friends in the whole world, one’s an artichoke, and the other’s an avocado.” She paused, gave the tip of his nose another quick lick. “They are soooo different. The avocado, you know, he’s a sort of pear-shaped fruit and has this yellowish-green flesh, and he has this core at his center—fixed, hard. The artichoke, by contrast, she’s put together completely differently. Spiny, flower-like, she always wears layers of clothing that can be peeled off one after another, and, metaphorically, you know, when the last layer is removed—well, the heart of the artichoke is really just the base of the flower. There is no seed. You can’t plant an artichoke and get another artichoke. She’s really nothing but her layers, and she likes it that way. It’s adorable. Oh, Les—I just feel so happy! Will you take me home with you, tonight? Right now?”

The way Ruby looked at him—her head tilted down, eyes up, the tip of her tongue slipped between her lips. Such innocence, such purity! Les flashed on the children’s book Goodnight Moon. A fragment came to mind: Goodnight stars/Goodnight air/Goodnight noises everywhere... Central Park, he realized, was practically empty. The quiet of a rainy night in November. They’d walked into the center of Sheep Meadow—how deliciously ironic, he thought. The fifteen-acre preserve, with its venerable history as a gathering place for large-scale demonstrations and political movements, earned its name because real live sheep grazed the meadow until 1934, when city officials feared that starving victims of the Great Depression would turn the sheep into lunch. To protect the animals, Robert Moses moved the sheep to the safety of the Catskills.

As they stood there in the moonlit field, gazing into each other’s eyes, Les took a deep breath, inhaling the grassy night air mixed with the city smell of steel and concrete. What a night, he thought, and suddenly came a fierce and frightening feeling that everything could disappear—man, woman, animal, vegetable, the trees, the grass, the city. Gone. All of it. Nothing left but sub-atomic particles, waves of energy, paradoxes of algorithmic complexity. No, he thought, no.

Impulsively he scooped Ruby into his arms, cradling her like a baby—or was he a groom carrying a bride over the threshold? Regardless, Ruby laughed, and Les felt her squirming and wriggling like an excited puppy, until he twirled her to the ground—and their lips met in a passionate kiss.


SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Walter B. Levis

was nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize and is author of the novel Moments of Doubt (2003). His literary fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of publications, including North Dakota Quarterly, The Amherst Review, The Cimarron Review, Connecticut Review, Forge, New Plains Review, North Atlantic Review, Permafrost, Storyglossia, and Willow Review, among many others. His nonfiction has appeared in The National Law Journal, The Chicago Reporter, The New Republic, Show Business Magazine, and The New Yorker.

Complete publication and biographical information is at:

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury