Ashley’s true love was a rabbit named Judy. We were midway through our coffees at the Java House when I mentioned I had never met the rabbit she so often talked about, and Ashley immediately bussed our mugs and hurried us to her apartment.
She’d moved to town four months ago and still hadn’t unpacked. Cardboard boxes lined the walls of her apartment, as if making way for the large cage in the center. “It’s Judy!” Ashley said, flinging her arms in the cage’s direction.
I wasn’t sure how to greet a rabbit. “Hiya, Judy,” I said in my dog voice. I waved.
Judy did not seem impressed. She raised her ears from a head that remained at rest atop two rolls of dewlap and twitched her nose as if to swipe me aside.
Layered in her own surfeit of furs, Judy carried herself like a czar in minks. Ashley opened the cage, and Judy allowed me, as if paying obeisance, to touch her spotted coat. “Am I not the softest thing in the world?” she seemed to ask.
I expected things to warm between Judy and me, but I didn’t know how to court a rabbit. I rabbit-sat for Ashley (just as a friend) a couple of times over the next months when she was out of town. This entailed providing Judy with kibble, romaine and twice daily hay. I would read on Ashley’s couch while Judy hopped around, greasing the legs of the coffee table with her chin, marking her territory against me.
Ashley had told me I would be able to wrangle Judy back into her cage if I made a bloop sound, so I waddled after her bloop-blooping and shooshing the air with my hands, but Judy would not let herself be harried by bloops like mine.
The first day I made the mistake of picking her up, as I had seen Ashley do many times. (Judy allowed herself to be carried like a baby, feet up, in Ashley’s arms.) But unworldly thigh strength hid beneath Judy’s soft pelt, and she immediately bounded off, leaving deep purple scratches on my wrists.
Judy eyed me the whole chaste year I spent hanging out at Ashley’s apartment, as if questioning what I thought I was doing there.
A few days after Ashley and I finally kissed, she called me in tears. Judy’s cage was soaked with blood.
We rushed her to the vet, where they cut her open, removed several afflicted organs and sewed her up again. While we waited, the vet said that rabbits often did not wake from surgery.
Rabbits don’t like pain, the vet said. Too much stress and they tend to quit.
I found myself feeling envious of rabbits as the vet explained Judy’s fragile physiology. Natural selection hadn’t equipped me with a way to grant myself an easy death. But rabbits, apparently, were adept at having quick heart attacks when under mortal threat. I wondered how Judy would decide: Tough it out or fold?
It was spring. The nights I had imagined with Ashley were not set at Bright Eyes & Bushy Tails Veterinary Hospital, but when Judy finally woke, Ashley’s joy was all-embracing.
The vet, though, did not seem relieved. Judy wasn’t eating and drinking, and until she did, we had to fear a condition called gastrointestinal stasis, in which a rabbit’s digestive system shuts down and the animal slowly bloats to death. I watched Ashley’s face go ashen again and wondered if she really wanted me here for this. Something in me said: “Back away.”
Good relationships, it seemed to me, were based on mutual niceness, a gentle zone where friends and partners lived out their affections. The rabbit had not been especially nice to me, not compared with golden retrievers I had known, and I didn’t feel like being that nice to her, not since she chewed through my MacBook cord. Now the vet was handing me several IV rehydration bags and a mix of mealy food paste we were supposed to force-feed to a rabbit that I doubted even wanted me in her life.
But it was a two-person task to administer her critical-care rabbit food, a powdered blend of timothy grass and soybean hulls to be mixed with warm water and syringed thrice daily past Judy’s unfriendly teeth. Listening to the vet’s instructions, I understood I was conscripted.
Judy’s mealtimes were small sagas. Ashley would lie on the floor and press her forehead against Judy’s to calm her. Judy would then let herself be picked up and swaddled in a bath towel. Ashley would tenderly elevate the bundled rabbit to the couch, where I would hold Judy against the cushion like a football while Ashley tried to get a syringe nib past her lip.
At the first whisker grazing, Judy would hunch powerfully backward, hiding her face in the towel. If the syringe neared again, she would buck and bolt from the couch altogether.
It was infuriating to be angry at a rabbit. Couldn’t she understand I was trying to save her life? I could, of course, muscle her down against the couch cushion if I had to, but she fought me so fiercely that I worried she would pull her stitches out.
Ashley and I screamed at each other as we took turns trying to pry up Judy’s lip and slip in the pasty nutrients: “You’re going to hurt her!” “She’ll die if she doesn’t eat!” And in the middle of it all, we would start fighting about why it had taken me a year to kiss her.
As I cleaned the spilled rabbit food from the couch cushions, I thought about the couches of my life, all the times I had been wedged between parents to be told about a death or divorce. I could remember the couches more clearly than the talks. On this couch, Ashley and I were already having fights grievous enough to ensure I would remember this fabric forever, no matter how short our romance proved to be.
I watched Ashley rolling her forehead against Judy’s or barely smoothing the fur between her eyes. Judy didn’t hop away or hunch back or even blink. She didn’t look comfortable, but she seemed to know she was loved. That didn’t mean she had to pretend to enjoy every minute or love the meal paste we were forcing her to eat.
“O.K., it’s time,” I said after a while, because food had to be followed by drink. Ashley picked Judy back up and pet her while I hung an IV bag from the lamp. The needles were fearsome, wide as cocktail straws. When Judy was ready, Ashley squeezed my hand and nodded. Neither of us could watch as I pinched a tent of skin from Judy’s back and jabbed the needle in.
Judy flinched but stayed. We opened our eyes and looked at each other. Then we switched on the drip.
A rehydrated rabbit is a funny thing. We joke about Judy’s dromedary days still, how she would drag her fluid-filled lump across the living-room floor, taking uncertain, lopsided hops that audibly sloshed.
Two months ago we got married, and in thinking about the forever thing, I have been remembering the vet’s talk: how, beyond some threshold of pain and stress, rabbits tend to quit. I suppose it remains to be seen whether Judy is invincible. Probably she isn’t. But possessed of the ability to stop her heart at any time, she consistently chooses to stick around.
Judy outlived that couch, which got torn up in a move, and another couch too, which we left behind in Denver when we moved to France, where Ashley has work.
Judy (and Roberta too, our second rabbit) live in Paris now. The apartment we rented came with a bright red couch, and quite possibly we will have to swaddle Judy and pin her against it to dose her with something she doesn’t like. Ashley or I may have to spend an angry solo night on the red couch from time to time. But we like it — for fights or, you know, making up. For watching the rabbits hop around the floor.
To get here, Judy and the rest of us had to drive to Chicago, the closest city where a rabbit-friendly airline flies direct to Paris. We had to clutch Judy and Roberta to our chests and walk through the T.S.A. scanner. We had to coo at them to keep their fragile hearts calm during takeoff and landing.
Our friends and family advised us that international travel with rabbits sounds like an avoidable torment, and of course they are correct. But so what? Love entails plenty of those. Opt out too often and you opt out of the thing itself.
Not us. Our love is a tough little monster. Also the softest thing in the world.
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