By Deborah Batterman
“Impossible,” says Gary. “Dogs are pals – playmates. Nobody will ever love you the way they do.” His voice crackles. Words snap and pop. Tunnel . . . lunch meeting . . . lace panties. “You’re breaking up,” I tell him. “Lace panties,” he says again. Red. Eight p.m. I shake my head, hang up the phone. Misha surfaces from beneath the bed, eager to give me her peace offering, a pair of red lace panties she is so sure will make up for the overturned trash can, merit a pat on the head, if not a biscuit. She drops the panties on a neon green Frisbee lying at the foot of the bed.
I’d been playing Frisbee in Riverside Park with Misha when I met Gary. He intercepted the Frisbee. Misha jumped two feet in the air, grabbed it, figured she’d finally found her match in tug-o’war. Fighting for the toy was far more fun than catching it. He took my phone number, called an hour after I got home. “How about some dinner?” His favorite Chinese takeout happened to be two blocks from me. “You like Moo Shoo Pork?” I told him I’m vegetarian. “Not a problem – I’ll get Moo Shoo without the pork. And a few spare ribs, for me.” I should have warned him that Misha loves spare ribs. It was the reason I stopped eating them.
* * *
I had adopted Misha at the suggestion of my former boyfriend, Timothy. “You’re fixated on a dog who died thirty-something years ago. You need to get past that.” Being a therapist himself precludes his taking me on as a client, but not from dishing out useful suggestions for my psychological well-being. I take his advice, go to the Humane Society, find myself a scruffy terrier mix. A few months later, a frigid December day, I break up with Timothy. For a man so otherwise earthy, he does not take well to Misha’s needling her nose in his crotch and yelping (on his side of the bed) whenever we make love. “Love me/love my dog?” He smirks, sees my sendoff as avoidance. I see it as progress. All of my relationships to that point dissembled in springtime, the season my mother died. For me there is no month crueler than April.
* * *
My mother places a cool washcloth on my forehead. I am burning up. She hums, How much is that doggie in the window? My father, just home from work, times his entrance into my bedroom. Arf Arf. Together they chime the waggly tail part of the song. I am sick in bed, my eighth birthday. No cake. No candles. Just a single wish, the same one ungranted at seven/six/five. I hear a squeak, open my eyes, deliriously certain that what I see in my father’s arms is a dream. Until a chocolate brown and white puppy, in my arms now, licks the salty tears from my face.
* * *
“You cannot break a dog’s tail,” says Gary. “Maybe her heart . . . but not her tail.” He thinks he is being funny. I tell him the story I have told too many times to count.
“She was the cutest dog in the world – big brown puppy-dog (duh!) eyes, and light eyelashes. We named her Leia. Anyway, this little princess picks up commands – sit, give me your paw, yada yada – so quickly, I’m convinced she can do no wrong. Until I find her chewing on my sneaker and I smack her on the rump. She yelps, her tail turns down, and I go crying through the house – I broke her tail! I broke the dog’s tail! My father gently rubs Leia’s back, and the tail slowly curls up again. Barely a month later she’s barfing all over the place, can’t keep her food down. Something wrong with her intestines, says the vet – which, if you look closely at a dog’s body, are really not that far from the tail.”
“I’d give a little more thought to a dog growling at someone eating a spare rib than a puppy who died prematurely from some intestinal disorder wholly unrelated to a tap on the rump.” He is trying hard to enjoy his spare rib. Misha keeps inching closer to him, looking for the right moment to lunge. This is no beggar. This is a stalker, ready for the kill.
* * *
“How nice to see you, Leia,” says my mother. I take it as a good sign that she is confusing me with another creature she loved. The doctor says it’s the nature of fragmented memory in a ravaged brain. I cozy up to her, thankful she is not scratching my head. Or trying to give me a treat. I’m the one with the treat, a book of poems by Emily Dickinson. She likes when I read aloud, asks for a poem about a dog. “Dogs are smart,” she says. “They can tell good people from bad ones.” I do not get very far in my reading before her eyes close. Suddenly it hits me: she needs a dog, I can save her with a dog.
My father’s mouth tenses up, his eyes tighten with their no fucking way stare when I share my brainstorm. “Do I understand you correctly?” He drops his newspaper, leans forward in his La-Z-Boy. “Your mother is in diapers and you want me to go chasing after a dog peeing and crapping all over the house.” He shakes his head – no fucking way – doesn’t say another word.
* * *
“Thatta girl,” says Gary. He has one hand stretched out in front of him, six inches from Misha’s nose. In his other hand, high above his head, is a spare rib. There’s a hint of condescension in his voice that worries me, makes me wonder if this is the way he talks to the secretaries who type his memos, xerox his press releases. One of his high-profile accounts has a new line of dog food. Knowing all about dog alimentation makes him believe he knows all about dogs. Misha sits, if not patiently, at least with some sense that it is in her best interest to do so. Authority, in its truest form, demands respect, and she is too smart to fall for this cheap imitation. As soon as Gary lets down the hand with the spare rib, she lunges. “Tomorrow is another day,” he says. Only tomorrow morning finds him missing a sock while he’s rushing out. And the following tomorrow finds his jeans marked with dog piss. “This isn’t going to work,” he finally says after three months of giving it a try. I am not sure if he is walking out on me. Or on Misha.
* * *
Jimmy and Karen, reporters at the travel magazine where I work selling ad space, invite me out for a drink. Jimmy thinks I should move over to editorial, they need people with spunk. Karen thinks he has a crush on me. Both of which are true. Karen does not stay long, she needs to pack for an early flight tomorrow, a fam trip to Thailand.
“The competition is courting me,” confides Jimmy. He is a conscientious reporter, and I am not surprised. “Won’t be the same without you.” I down a shot of tequila. He tweaks his moustache, flaxen with hints of red. “I haven’t said yes.” “What’s keeping you?” He takes a swig of beer. “Holding out for something better.” I order two more shots, slide one across the table. “Drink up.” He raises his eyebrows, takes the glass to his lips, swallows hard. I want to know about his wife, he wants to know why I’m still single.
Misha pops into my head, an alarm. “Gotta go.” We share a cab uptown, oldies streaming from the radio. Tipsy, I do just what the song says, put my head on his shoulder. “Can I kiss you?” Jimmy asks. I turn to him, our lips meet. It is the longest, sweetest, no expectations-no regrets kiss I have ever known. Jimmy sees me to my door, a reluctant good night, the sweet smell of tequila and beer lingering, until I walk into the apartment, a mess of dog piss and poop. Every which way I turn, Misha is at my heels, she will not let me be. Bad dog! bad dog! My voice is so harsh, so unfamiliar, it sends Misha scrambling under the bed. Remorse quickly gets the best of me, and I lure her out with a leash, thinking, I left her for way too long, whose fault is it really? She is quick to do her business, more interested in her missed meal than my need to find a phantom taxi. Back upstairs, I leave her to her kibble, climb into bed, immediately start crying. Misha comes bounding into the bedroom, jumps onto my bed. Licks the salty tears from my face.