My parents started fighting when I was five. Or maybe I just became aware of it around then, began identifying the high-frequency notes of hostility in adult voices. We quickly established a vicious triangle. I would hear bickering behind what they thought was a closed door, would nudge my way into the room, and, in my own way, try to mediate. Out of frustration, one would snap at me to shut up; the other would yell not to talk to me like that. Then they’d fight even harder and I’d slink away. The door would slam shut a little later, invariably with them on opposite sides, the gunshot sound reverberating throughout the apartment.
Afterwards, as if in recompense, my father would take me on long walks through the park, but I knew it was really an excuse to escape my mother. He blabbed non-stop, an evacuation of all his resentments, telling me how stifled — that’s the word he always used — she made him feel. Sometimes he reminisced, with a kind of rueful nostalgia, about when they first got together, before Billy was born and before me. How they would go to the matinee on Sundays and sneak into a second movie after to save money. Or how they used to cook elaborate Indian dishes together in the nude, and when whatever chickpea-based stew was simmering they’d fool around in the kitchen. I mostly kept quiet on these walks.
When we got back he’d toss me a bacon-flavored Milk-Bone, my favorite in the variety pack, and scratch behind my ears, and I’d forget they were ever fighting. I think he did, too, but then my mother would scream, in shrieks that pricked the stapedius muscles behind my ears, that he was spoiling me and trying to make me play favorites, and it would start all over again.
In the most abject of times I would pull out my “I ruff you” trick, where I put my tongue back against my molars and tilt my head back and bark three times in succession, and it sort of sounds like “I love you” if you’re listening for it. Once they were fighting, though, they didn’t hear me, or they didn’t care, and I felt pathetic for even trying, because it made one thing painfully clear: my love wasn’t enough of a balm for their blistered marriage.
Not that there weren’t some good times — at one point they enjoyed each other enough to get married, after all — but the divorce the summer I turned seven was eminently foreseeable. My dad had been sleeping on the brown pull-out for the previous four months. I split my nights between them. The first few hours I dozed on my green L.L.Bean circular pillow in my mother’s room, and if it was a cold night or the A/C was on high, she’d cover my body with this little, soft, blue blanket I’d had forever that she’d knitted. She’d always stroke my back a few times over the blanket — a nice little ritual. Around three in the morning I’d get up, muzzle the bedroom door open, and curl up at the foot of his bed, on top of the scratchy military-style wool blanket from his college days he insisted on using over the puffy down one for guests. My blue blanket was a hundred times more comfortable than the wool one, but I had most of the day to make up the sleep.
They kept the wrangling over property pretty civil. She got the apartment, which they owned and paid low maintenance on thanks to the will of her rich childless uncle, and he got the car, which was only fair because he needed it most days to get to his high school in the Bronx. Other than that I don’t think there was really much to fight over; you’d be surprised by how few ambiguous possessions a couple can rack up over a decade-plus of cohabitation, which was maybe part of the problem. My mother bought as much mail-order home décor and clothing as their budget allowed, and I had a hard time remembering my dad’s ever buying anything inedible besides books and school supplies.
He found a one-bedroom on the Upper East Side, way over on York Avenue. He tried to sell me on the prospect of long walks by the East River. I’d been there before, though, and it smelled like a fish market, not in a good way. He claimed we’d still go to Central Park, but I doubted we’d make the seven-avenue excursion that often.
And then one Saturday he piled a few boxes into his gray ’92 Volvo and left, closing the door behind him so quietly, as if afraid of waking an infant, even I didn’t hear it click into place. My dad wasn’t the type to make emotional farewells, and I suppose he figured he’d see me again soon.
The plan was for me to stay at home until he got his place in order, and then they’d exchange me weekly. It took him about a month, but I understood — it was obviously a rough time for him. Meanwhile, it was strange living alone with my mother. She worked only two and a half days a week at the 92nd Street Y, teaching knitting and other arts and crafts to elementary schoolchildren, so we’d always spent a lot of time together. When she watched Lifetime movies about victimized mothers and wives and massaged my back with her fuzzy-slippered foot, nothing was technically different from how it used to be while my father wrote comments on his ninth-graders’ Greek-history-through-literature papers in the study in his meticulous handwriting. Yet it felt different, in a thousand small ways. Knowing my dad wouldn’t pass through the living room to refill his coffee mug and glance at the screen and make some crack like, “I find intellectual self-paralysis such a turn-on — I want you, now.” Or if the phone rang he wouldn’t call out, with Pavlovian predictability, “I’m not here unless it’s Steve,” the history chair. The place smelled off, less musky without his yellow-pitted undershirts, more citrus and floral notes from the scented candles my mother placed in every room and the backup supply in the linen closet.
When it was finally time for me to switch one Sunday afternoon, my mother got out the leash and whistled. “Come on, Wally. Here, Wally,” she said in that high voice she reserved just for me. I trotted over and she leashed and ruffled me. “Good boy, Wally! What a good boy!” In the elevator, baby-voicing it up even more, she said, “We’re gonna go for a nice long walk across town, aren’t we? Yes, we are! Because Hal refuses to drive or pay for a cab! But that’s not news, is it? No, it isn’t!” I was afraid she’d bring up his refusal to buy a new crib and mattress for Billy in favor of his niece’s hand-me-down, like she sometimes did during their fights over money. (His constant rejoinder, one I could smell a mile away, was that she could’ve quit smoking well before she got pregnant. As far as I could tell from a PBS documentary I once watched with her, the pros and cons of new and used mattresses canceled each other out, and it made no difference how long before pregnancy you quit.) But she just cited a few more flaws I’d heard before — he didn’t try to relate to her friends, didn’t have any friends himself, was emotionally closed-off, fancied himself intellectually superior to her and anyone who was a bigger financial success — and I sat there silently and watched the elevator floors count down while she petted me. I wag my tail instinctively when someone pets me, but I focused and restrained myself. I doubt she noticed, though.
It was a long walk, although my mother’s in tip-top shape for her age — she rides the exercise bike half an hour a day and does bikram yoga twice a week at the Y — so I didn’t see why she considered walking outdoors on a beautiful October afternoon with me a punishment. If anyone should have been displeased, it was me. She was always so jumpy on our walks, afraid every passing car would hit me, as if my reflexes aren’t ten times quicker than hers. She’s not Jewish, but I challenge anyone to find a mother more neurotic.
Excepting her scream of “Asshole!” at a cab that committed the grievous offense of driving within ten feet of us, we arrived without major incident at my dad’s shabby, six-story apartment. She buzzed 5C, and from my angle I could just see that the directory still listed the previous tenants’ names in blocky label-maker lettering: MARLEY/WILLIAMS. It was exactly the kind of minor nuisance that bedeviled delivery men and that my dad would never correct.
He came down in a couple of minutes, breathless and wearing his typical lumberjack-meets-seventies-liberal Sunday outfit: jeans with knees pale from a decade of wear, red-and-black plaid flannel shirt, and the same green-striped Adidas he’d had years, long before they unexpectedly became popular, not that he was aware.
I thought my mother would rip into him, like she had over the phone earlier. But she just handed the leash to him, said, “Don’t feed him ‘til six,” and strolled away.
My father took me inside the building. Through the chicken wire cross-hatching of the door’s reinforced window, he watched her walk down to Eighty-sixth for the crosstown bus until she vanished. “I’ve been getting a real workout on these stairs, Wallaby,” he said as he took them two at a time. “Already lost two pounds,” he wheezed when we hit the third floor, but he looked the same to me — a little paunchier, if anything. Despite his ostensibly vanity-free appearance, I think he always felt a little insecure about his looks compared to my mother’s, and habitually mocked her obsessive exercising.
His fifth-floor apartment wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. He’d cleaned it decently so far, and he had all the basics. The walls, though, were completely bare. I hadn’t realized my mother had kept all the pictures — the framed museum exhibition posters, the old French liqueur advertisements, the Renoir prints. No photographs on the walls.
“Just like your other one, right?” he said, showing me my bed. It was a green circular pillow, though I could tell right away it wasn’t from L.L.Bean when I lay down and the material felt like nubby concrete.
But I wagged my tail and rolled onto my back so my dad could rub my belly.
As I predicted, we didn’t spend much time together that week. He’d walk me in the morning, again when he got home from school, and once more before bed, all jaunts to the corner and back. When he was home I’d lie down next to his desk while he prepared lesson plans and graded, and every twenty minutes or so he’d absentmindedly reach down with his left hand and ruffle my neck. He got a cold on Friday, so I didn’t clamor for a long walk on Saturday; I just let him do that week’s Times crosswords on his couch all day while he sipped green tea with honey. He didn’t eat too healthily or get any exercise besides our walks, but he took a dozen vitamins every morning, pink horse pills of vitality.
He drove me back home on Sunday and left me with the doorman, Ricardo, while my mother came down to fetch me. Just before he departed he fed me a bacon Milk-Bone from his pocket.
On Tuesday night my mother talked on the phone with her best friend, Shelly. “What do you think I should wear?” she asked. She poked the slightly flabby wing of her bent telephone arm and jittered her left heel near my face, making an annoying swish sound on the carpet. “I never look good in that. It’s too… it’s too something.”
She didn’t eat much of her Waldorf salad that night, and the next day she skipped her cottage cheese-and-cantaloupe breakfast and munched on celery sticks with peanut butter for lunch. At night she spent about an hour in the bathroom after her workout, and when she came out she shut the bedroom door to dress, which she doesn’t normally do.
Finally she came out, in heels and a black dress that showed off her arms and calves. My mother never wears dresses, though she does frequently dress in black, because it’s slimming. She doesn’t wear other colors too often. I once heard her tell her old therapist over the phone that she could never even look at the color cyan, because the term for a deoxygenated baby is cyanotic.
Before leaving she opened the hallway closet door and scrutinized herself in its full-length mirror. Rotating to profile, she sucked in and smoothed down some ruffles in the material around her stomach. A very flat stomach for a woman her age. She had a shelf full of videotapes whose titles all promised ferric abdominals in workouts lasting between three and eight minutes, and often watched TV or talked on the phone while sitting on a silver exercise ball.
“Well?” she said, and bent down to adjust her heel.
I padded over, my claws pattering the hardwood floor, and licked her right arm, my tongue fine sandpaper on her skin, just the way she likes it.
“Oh, shit!” she said, and recoiled. She looked at the thin ghostly trail of slime above her elbow, sighed loudly, and went into the kitchen. I heard the sink run and the vicious unraveling and severance of paper towels.
When she approached me she put out her palm like a crossing guard and said, “No… stay!” and swung the front door quickly behind her.
I scampered over to the love seat, my favorite perch when home alone, and surveyed Central Park in the darkness. I come from a strong breeding line and my myopia isn’t terrible, and my night vision is superb. (Of course, I do have red-green color-blindness, but I’m pretty good at picking up on verbal cues to know, say, that my pillow’s green, or the hallway carpet is checkered red.) A roan horse hauled a hansom cab down Central Park West, and a couple in their early thirties huddled under a heavy blanket in the back. It was a nice scene, especially with the whitish nimbus around the streetlamps like in an Impressionist painting, but when they stalled at the light, I didn’t feel like watching them anymore.
I bounded over when she opened the door three hours later, expecting her to hug me like she usually did when she got home. But she went straight to the cordless and dialed. She waited a little, I heard a beep, and then she said, “Shells, I didn’t have my cell on me. But… very promising. Details tomorrow.”
I pieced together the story and stats the next day. Name: Trevor Jenkman; age: 47; vocation: bankruptcy lawyer; marital status: divorced; kids: no; hair: yes; height: six feet; alma mater: Amherst; neighborhood: Gramercy Park; plays squash: twice a week. Her co-worker Amy at the Y had set them up. He paid for dinner at Balthazar and gave her a twenty for cab fare home against her objections. They hugged and kissed on the cheek, and he made sure the driver looked trustworthy before gallantly closing the door for her. Their next date wasn’t until Monday; Trevor had a very busy schedule.
Monday night I watched my dad read the Times Op-Ed page over his carton of Kung Pao chicken (he didn’t have time to read it in the mornings when he drove to school). “I can’t believe Safire gets away with this horseshit,” he muttered. He was talking to himself more these days. My mother never responded to those kinds of comments, anyway, but at least someone human was listening.
He dropped a piece of chicken on the floor without noticing. I snatched it up and licked the saucy residue; he’d never get around to cleaning it, and after a while it would get so sticky even I couldn’t mop it up. The apartment had a minefield of problems — the front door scraped the floor wretchedly whenever it closed, the living room window let in a draft, our octogenarian neighbor’s incontinence suffused the hallway with an odor more pungent than cat urine — and he still hadn’t called the super.
I looked at the microwave clock. My mother and Trevor were an hour into their date. I wondered what they were talking about. Billy? Probably not — she wouldn’t want to scare him off on their second date. Their exes? Same thing, I’d guess, although it’s probably a subject divorced daters laid out on the table right away: their most obvious thing in common. But it would be hard to talk about their divorce without discussing Billy. His name didn’t surface in every argument — he hardly came up at all, really, because what can you argue about, other than the crib and smoking—but he was always there, behind every invective, every recrimination, every silence, whether they knew it or not. I recalled something she told Shelly a few years ago: “Hal has never tried to understand what it was like for me to lose a child.” At the time I thought she wasn’t giving him enough credit, but maybe she was right. Every time they watched a movie with a child’s death (a plot device more common than you’d think, when you’re attuned to it), she would turn into a waterfall by the credits, and he’d just rewind the tape and bring her toilet paper to blow her nose with.
At ten he took me downstairs for my walk. Just outside, by the curb, a wiry woman in a hooded jacket stood with her Jack Russell terrier as he pissed a marking with minor lamb notes on the street. “Nice terrier,” my dad said.
“Thanks.” The streetlight glinted off her thick glasses. “English cocker?”
My dad scratched behind my ears. “Yeah, not many are tri-colored.” I’ve got tan eyebrows. Big deal.
“I meant yours,” she laughed. He was wearing the sheepskin coat he’d had forever and wore only when he walked me in cold weather. “It’s got character.”
“Oh,” he said. “Thank you.”
I was about to remark to the Jack Russell on the clumsy flirtations of our parents, but he decided that was the appropriate moment to squat. His mother smiled sheepishly, unballed a crinkly Food Emporium shopping bag with the receipt still inside from her jacket pocket, and scooped it up. I had to go badly, but held it in once they started talking out of deference to my dad. Some dogs have no sensitivity to humans’ issues with feces.
“I haven’t seen you around before,” she said, knotting the top.
“I just moved in.”
“Well,” she said, dropping the bag in one of the garbage cans by the entrance and smiling again, “take care.”
“Take care,” he repeated as she and her dog slipped inside the building.
My dad took me for a longer walk than usual that night, all the way around the block and over to East End, and he whistled “Take Good Care of My Baby” to himself. When we got upstairs he tossed me a Milk-Bone, even though I’m not supposed to have any past dinner.
* * *
My dad deposited me with Ricardo on Sunday night, and my mother waited a few minutes to make sure he was gone. As we went up the elevator she bent down to pet me, then sniffed. “Did he just give you a Milk-Bone before he left?” she said. “I can’t believe that man.”
The next day she got me a new chew toy to replace my tattered one. It was a little stuffed porcupine that squeaked when you squeezed it. “Where’s your new baby?” she said, hiding it behind her back, then flashing it for a second. “Where’s your baby? Where is he?” She tossed it up to me. “Here’s your baby!”
I let it drop to the ground, then walked away. I know when I’m being bought.
She invited Trevor over to dinner on Friday. He’d come straight over from work and was still in a dark suit and a tie with wavy diagonal stripes. (I could already picture the GQ sidebar he’d swiped the idea from: “You Are Your Tie: Eight New Patterns for Winter.” Wavy diagonal stripes meant, surely, that you were “master of your destiny” but weren’t afraid to “go with the flow.”) I sat by the love seat and pretended to be asleep as she gave him a tour of the apartment. Even from across the room I could tell he used way too much Eternity for Men.
“And this is Wally,” she said. “Looks like he’s—”
“Hiya, boy,” Trevor said, and battered my ears with his hairy fingers. He immediately struck me as possessing inept fine motor skills. He would never value my mother’s craftwork, although I suppose my dad really only appreciated the fact that she could mend his clothing for free. “What is he?”
“English cocker spaniel,” my mother said.
I growled, low and sustained.
“Whoa!” Trevor withdrew his hand. “Does he bite?”
“Never,” she said, smoothing my back. “He’s a good boy.”
Trevor backed up a few inches and clasped his hands behind his back. I could practically taste the fear pheromones exuding from his cowardly pores.
My dad started dating Karen, the Jack Russell’s mother. They watched foreign films at the Angelika and dined at hole-in-the-walls in the outer boroughs, satisfying my dad’s twin loves of multiculturalism and thriftiness. I think she was slightly allergic to me, because whenever she was around her eyes were rheumy, though she never mentioned anything. Her armpits sweated a lot and she used a men’s sports antiperspirant to cover it up. She seemed like a good match for him, insofar as he had a good match.
The Jack Russell, however, I couldn’t stomach, and unfortunately Karen wasn’t allergic to him. His name was Tommy, and he was a spoiled little shit if I ever saw one. They forced us into long walks and dog runs together, and he was constantly boasting to me and other dogs we encountered about the gourmet biscuits his mother fed him from some boutique in California called Dog-Eat-Dog-Eat World. I wasn’t quite sure how Karen, who worked at the Met in some administrative capacity, afforded them, but when she walked ahead of me I noticed her sad, cheap shoes that smelled like mushrooms. Even well-intentioned mothers can produce brats. A lot of it’s out of their hands.
One interminable Saturday together along the putrid East River, Tommy finally mustered the curiosity to ask me about myself, sort of. “What kind of treats does your daddy get you?”
“Milk-Bones,” I said. I considered mentioning it was the variety pack, but knew it would smack of overcompensation.
“Sucks to be you,” he said, lifting his left hind leg so the urine pooled around his front paws.
“At least I still have my testicles,” I said, unable to bite my tongue. It was true; my mother had always wanted to breed me so we could have puppies, but my dad said one dog was enough, so the compromise, I guess, was that I got to keep my balls, just in case.
“What’re testicles?” Tommy asked. It’s surprisingly hard to insult someone whose collar carries more ballast than his brain.
Trevor started sleeping over on weekends. I growled whenever he neared me, and he soon learned to keep his distance. When he was there they moved my bed to the living room. I could still scent his piss when he went in the middle of the night — always reeking of the scallion cream cheese he slathered on his bagels in the mornings.
My mother was showering before they went out one Tuesday night to Lincoln Center. Trevor was a classical buff and loved lecturing my mother on the subject, who feigned enthusiasm for it. “Listen to this movement,” I once heard him say to her, his eyes clenched in ecstasy. “Poetry.” My dad would occasionally listen to jazz on a low-watt station for background music, but he wasn’t a music lover. I suppose it was something she liked about Trevor, or at least could brag to her friends about — “Oh, Trevor just adores Schubert, too.”
Trevor was watching the Knicks game while sipping Chardonnay. I was lying on the rug pretending to be asleep.
The Knicks called a timeout after yielding a string of unanswered points. “Who’s in charge of this stupid team?” he said to the TV. “Never shoulda let Riley go. Downhill ever since.”
He looked away in disgust and down at me. “All right, dog,” he said. “Let’s make nice.” The Chardonnay bottle was half-empty. My mother takes a long time in the shower.
He got down on all fours in the beige chinos he stored at the apartment, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, and tentatively patted my back. I sprang up, turned, and with a violent bark snapped my jaws right near his hand. I could’ve bitten him if I’d wanted.
“Jesus Christ!” Trevor said, pulling back and examining his spared fingers. “Dumb goddamn beast.”
I maintained dominant eye contact to let him know I didn’t give a fuck what he called me. When my mother came out of the bathroom he ran to her immediately. “Wally tried to bite me,” he said, closer in tone to a whiny child than he probably would’ve liked.
“Oh, my God!” She cinched the towel under her armpits. “Really? Did he get you?”
“I think he nicked me a little.” It took all my restraint not to lunge at his deceiving throat.
“Poor baby,” my mother clucked. “Where’d he get you?”
“My arm,” he said. His forearms were like black shag rugs; you couldn’t have seen the teeth marks of a wolverine.
She jutted out her bottom lip and made an excessive frown. “Would your boo-boo wike a wittle kiss?” she said, her voice rising several registers.
“My boo-boo would wuv a wittle kiss.” If they’d fed me dinner yet, I’m sure I would’ve vomited.
She kissed his arm a few times in various spots, then pulled him into the bedroom. In a few seconds I heard violins from NPR on full blast, and the light in the space under the door went out like a snuffed candle.
* * *
She called my dad that week and told him I’d started growling at people. I sat on the sofa so I could hear his voice.
“He never growls at people on the street with me,” he said.
“Well, he growls at friends of mine in the house.”
“Shelly, for one.”
“I don’t remember him growling at her before.” He was silent for a few seconds and cleared his throat unnecessarily. “Maybe he’s being territorial.”
“Whatever the reason, I want him to get some obedience training. The Y has a three-hour session Thursday night.”
“Absolutely not. Those programs thrive on cruelty.”
“This one isn’t like that, and I’ll be there the whole time. I can’t have him terrorizing guests.” I badly wanted to interrupt, to somehow signal that she was being dishonest, but if I so much as yelped it would be further proof of my insubordination.
“And how much does the privilege of canine Nazification cost?”
“I’ll pay for it.” Which meant Trevor would pay for it.
“I can pay for half,” he offered, and I almost fell off the couch. My dad isn’t one to pass up freebies.
“No.” Using her metallic reflection on the back of the remote control, she yanked a strand of gray hair her hairstylist had failed to dye blond. “This is clearly a problem only with me.”
He acquiesced without much of a fight. A year ago he never would have let her do this to me.
* * *
Chuck “C-Squared” Conti, a few inches above five feet in thick-soled shoes (he’s not fooling anybody, least of all those of us near the ground), an open-collar shirt exposing a silver necklace buried in a thicket of chest hair that crawls up his neck like ivy, in his perpetually constipated voice, on discipline:
“You gotta show the canine who’s boss. Masters, you gotta! Or else you know what that canine’s gonna do? He’s gonna show you who’s boss. That’s the C-Squared equation for discipline, masters.”
Chuck on housebreaking:
“Masters, how do you stop a canine from going pee-pee and poo-poo in your house? You don’t housebreak; you will-break. To clarify, because it confuses people: meaning you break the canine’s will, not that you, the master, will yourself break.”
Chuck on barking:
“Canines should be seen and not heard. The C-Squared motto? ‘The more they bark, the more you ignore.’ It doesn’t rhyme, but you’ll remember it. I get masters telling me, ‘Oh, oh, I just can’t ignore him when he’s barking.’ You know what I tell them? ‘Hey, master, do you want a canine, or do you want a dog?’ Because a dog barks; a canine obeys.”
I’ll never get those twenty-one dog-hours of my life back.
During a coffee break, as our mothers chatted, I talked to a hyperactive bulldog named Johnny, who had some kind of bumpy rash on his chest, like an archipelago of superfluous nipples.
“You don’t want that motherfucker having kids with her, do you?” he said after I told him about Trevor. “Here’s what you do. Tonight, while he sleeps, you’re gonna pull away the blanket with your teeth, ever so slowly, and sic ‘im in the balls!”
“They keep the door closed,” I said. It was a dumb idea — my mother had threatened me with a muzzle if I ever tried to bite him again — and I also didn’t want to reveal to Johnny that I wasn’t a biter by nature. Rescued from a pound, he mistakenly assumed I was a ruffian like him and unlike the other coddled Upper West Siders, many of whom were leashed to Hispanic nannies. I kind of enjoyed the association.
“Okay, okay, how ‘bout this,” he said, twirling in circles to help himself think. “You hide in the shower, right? You wait ‘til he comes in to do his thing. Then, just when his pants are down—”
“I sic ‘im in the balls?” I said.
“Tear those fuckers off!” he shouted in a high pitch, leaping and pawing his petite mother’s thighs.
“Down! Down, Johnny!” she screeched.
Johnny was insane, but he had a point. I needed to do something.
Trevor came over Friday night for Vietnamese. He chewed up beef tips and greasy spring rolls without putting his napkin on his lap, passed gas silently without my mother’s noticing, howled at his own jokes, and when she said something amusing, stone-facedly responded, “That’s so funny.” She picked at her steamed vegetables, no rice. She had once considered being a chef.
Before dinner I obeyed my mother’s new commands — heel, roll over, give me your paw — like a sycophantic show dog, and was even nice to Trevor. I waited until they were in the middle of dinner, walked under the dining room table, and humped his bent knee with everything I had.
“Ugh!” Trevor said, trying to shake me off, but I hung on like Odysseus to his mast. “Get him off me!” he yelled at my mother.
She tried to prise me off his leg, but I had a mission: I was going to come all over Trevor’s Yves Saint Laurent pants.
He stood up and managed to kick me free just before I was ready. My head knocked against a table leg, and I couldn’t suppress a whimper that came out as pathetically as the squeak from my porcupine.
“Bad dog!” my mother said, shaking her finger and collaring me. “Bad, bad dog!”
Stooped over, she led me to the bedroom, left, and closed the door. I heard a tone of apology to Trevor and what sounded like angry words from him. He repeated the word “tomorrow” a few times, but the rest was muffled.
He left right after dinner. She yelled at me after he left, but whatever: mission accomplished.
That night, as I lay on the bathmat next to the belching radiator, she cried in the shower. She hadn’t done that in there since my dad had moved out, when she did it every Monday morning after he left for school. I watched her weep through the strawberry candlelight. (I don’t have a problem seeing my parents nude; they see me naked all the time, and sleeping in their bedroom for years desensitizes you pretty quickly.) The showerhead sprayed right in her eyes, so I couldn’t see the tears, but her sobs were loud and spastic. I couldn’t believe Trevor could inspire this, of all people. After a few minutes I left for my love seat in disgust.
The next day my mother retrieved my cage from the closet and locked me inside after my midday walk. She called down for Ricardo, who helped her carry me out to a cab. “Seventy-ninth, between Amsterdam and Broadway,” she told the Haitian driver.
The vet. I’d had my checkup recently and was in excellent health. There was only one reason to go there.
My cage was facing the taxi door, away from my mother. I turned around and frantically clawed the heavy-duty plastic wall, as if buried alive in a coffin. I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear her shift in her seat and her perfume’s jasmine base weakened, and I knew she had turned to look out the window. I yapped and growled the whole way over, and when the driver asked her to keep me quiet, she just whispered, “Sorry.”
* * *
I was back at my dad’s. Buried in work, he still hadn’t noticed, despite my sluggishness and lack of appetite the first few days, and I wasn’t really eager for him to see; it was humiliating. I never realized how much I felt them — their mere presence, that is; I wasn’t a self-licker — until they were gone, two plucked cherries.
He was on Christmas break, but was grading at his desk. The phone rang. He didn’t have a cell.
He checked the caller ID and picked up. “Hello,” he said. I couldn’t hear the other line, so I moved closer. “That’s tonight? I thought it was tomorrow…Look, I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can be ready for a black-tie Christmas party in five min — I was going to rent it tomorrow… Karen, calm down and just listen—”
He got an earful for a minute; I still couldn’t parse the words, but I knew what that pitch meant, and he began secreting a sour, anxious odor. “Wait, I’m coming down,” he said. He put on his slippers and left the apartment.
He returned two hours later looking a decade older. I recognized that expression from his fights with my mother. He slumped in his desk chair and intertwined his hands atop his balding head.
I went over and put a paw on his leg. He ran his elegant fingers through my white chest tufts. I slept atop his bed that night.
* * *
The next day was warm for December and he took me to Central Park, one of the first times since he’d moved. Though it was a Saturday, a semi-grassy spot next to Sheep Meadow was all ours, and he threw a grubby tennis ball every which way for me to chase down. We intermittently played the game where we face each other and make a lot of lateral moves to deke the other out. I’m not sure who’s trying to catch whom, but you really work up a sweat. He can’t do it for as long now as he used to, though.
We kept going until the sun went down, the airborne ball half-illuminated in revolution like a tiny planet. When it finally got too cold, he whistled and clapped his hands on his pants. I scampered over and burst into his arms.
He pretended to be bowled over and we wrestled on the ground. “Arghh!” he roared. “Acquiesce to my Herculean show of strength!” He still has a decent sense of humor.
Then he stopped.
“What the hell?” he said, as I lay on my back. He inspected my shorn groin. “How could she do this without asking me?”
He quickly leashed me and we marched out of the Meadow, west.
* * *
“Hello, Mr. Alterman,” Ricardo said as he opened the front door for us. “I thought you leave Wally here on Sundays?”
“I’m going upstairs,” he said. He was usually much nicer to Ricardo.
He was silent in the elevator but he tapped his foot. The elevator dinged at the eighth floor and we got out. It must have been strange for him to tread on the red-and-black hallway carpet again.
He banged his fist against the door several times. No one answered, so he banged even harder and rang the bell a few times. Finally we heard footsteps and the turning of several locks.
Trevor opened the door in his pajamas. Even my dad could sniff out the sex from his crotch.
“Oh,” he said. “Hello.”
Seeing Trevor punctured my dad’s anger, and when he recovered his voice was flat. “Is Pamela home?”
“She’s in the shower. You want to wait?” I hadn’t realized how much bigger he was than my dad — a real athlete’s frame. His day’s worth of stubble also seemed manlier, somehow, than my dad’s cropped beard.
My dad tried to peer past Trevor, not for my mother, I think, but just to see the apartment he’d lived in for seven and a half years. “I’ll email her,” he said, the words shrinking into his throat.
He turned, but the elevator had already gone down, so we had to wait there a full minute while Trevor stood in the threshold, not yielding any ground, the sound of the shower audible to us all through the open bathroom door.
My dad’s eyes were riveted on the floor-number lights as they changed haltingly. I wished I could have said something, told him that Trevor was an asshole, that mom was only with him for the security and out of fear of being a lonely divorcée, that I bet she’d take him back if he promised to be good and make things work.
Yet even I knew the last part wasn’t true, and all I could do was thump my stubby tail on the carpet like an up-tempo metronome.
That night my dad flipped aimlessly through the network channels, something he never does. The TV’s usually just stuck on PBS. We happened upon a news entertainment show. A woman’s pleasant voice said, “Celebrating birthdays on December twenty-second are Ralph Fiennes, who turns thirty-six today; Diane Sawyer, fifty-three; and the Bee Gees’ twin brothers Maurice and Robin Gibb, both ‘stayin’ alive’ at forty-nine.”
Suddenly my dad bolted from the couch, leaving the TV on (something else he never does), and went to his room. I gave him his space, but through the doorframe I saw him open the closet and go inside. He stayed in there while two more sitcoms played, then got ready for bed.
Once I heard his apnea kick in, I got up from my bed and crept over to the closet door. It was still open an inch or two. I wedged my nose in the crack and pushed it open until the automatic light inside turned on.
It was a rare walk-in Manhattan closet, and the cedary scent of his clothing around me was like him cradling me in his arms. I looked around, unsure what had kept him in here for so long.
Then I spotted, hidden underneath a row of hanging pants, a warped Adidas shoebox, its top slightly askew.
He was still snoring, and the light from the closet was barely penetrating the room. I nosed the shoebox top a little, and it slid off.
There was a stack of pictures inside, but I could only see the top one. It was a Polaroid of my smiling mother, younger and prettier than I could ever remember, leaning over a table, about to blow out a candle planted in a cupcake like a watchtower. Snow crusted the panes of a backgrounded kitchen window I didn’t recognize. In the frame’s center, my dad’s sheepskin coat hung on the back of a high chair, haloing like a lion’s mane the downy reddish-brownish-blond pate of a drooling infant. Swaddling his body was a blue blanket — my blue blanket.
I couldn’t see any more pictures beneath that one, and I didn’t want to. I got out and closed the door with my paws. The bedroom darkened suddenly. I lay down on my bed and smelled the Kung Pao leftovers my dad exhaled through his mouth.
* * *
My mother ran around greeting guests and checking in with the caterers at her New Year’s Eve party. After I’d fruitlessly humped Trevor a second time earlier in the week, she caged me for a full day, with just one walk. Since then I’d left him alone — I had to, he’d practically moved in by now — and my reward was free rein of the apartment during the party, except her bedroom, which she kept closed to store the guests’ coats. I hid under the dining room table through most of it. I didn’t want a bunch of drunken idiots manhandling me.
She introduced all her friends to Trevor. His broad shoulders filled out his tux, and she’d been riding the exercise bike an hour daily the last two weeks to fit into her new black Donna Karan dress. She was wearing this incredible vanilla perfume for special occasions. My dad, I knew, would be watching “The Honeymooners” marathon on Channel 11, like he did every New Year’s unless my mother forced him to attend a party.
After a while the adults gathered around the TV and counted down like children playing tag. My mother and Trevor and all the other couples kissed as noisemakers assaulted my ears. He whispered in her ear, and she nodded and smiled, a full teeth-baring I hadn’t seen from her in a long time.
When the buzz subsided, my mother tinkled her flute of champagne with a fork in the center of the room. “Everyone, I have an announcement.” She transferred her glass and fork to one hand, then slid the other onto Trevor’s lower back and rubbed his black coat. I had a bad feeling in my stomach, and my nose suddenly went warm. “The New Year seems the appropriate time for this.” She looked around expectantly, proudly. “All of our dear friends here are invited to my and Trevor’s wedding on the first day of spring.” Everyone applauded, and my mother kissed Trevor again. Shelly and the other women hugged her, and all the men shook his hand.
I walked up next to my mother, who continued fielding well-wishers on the Oriental rug, and, unnoticed by the adults towering over me, evacuated everything I’d eaten and drunk that day.
Only when the last few droplets of urine were dribbling out did the stench hit her. She inhaled sharply, as if punched in the stomach. “No!” she said, ignoring her coworker Amy. “Oh, you bad dog! You bad, bad dog!”
She yanked me by the collar past the guests into the bedroom, calling me a bad dog the whole way, and closed the door behind us.
One hand still on my collar, she turned on her bedside radio and cranked up the volume. An unidentifiable classic rock guitar solo screamed out and yielded to a DJ’s obnoxious baritone. If I was going to be locked up with the radio on to muffle my potential barking, at least she could have tuned it to NPR. I dug my claws into the carpet.
“You may be miserable living here,” she said as she finally forced me into the cage, “but get used to it — you’re as much mine as his.”
I turned around as the vertical spring-lock pins on the door shot into place with a rifle’s blast. Through its steel bars I watched her stalk to the door in her high heels. I wasn’t going to let her have the last word.
Baring my teeth, I growled gutturally to warm up, summoned my inner Johnny, and unleashed from within my bowels the loudest, sharpest, angriest bark of my life.
And what came out were three perfectly enunciated words:
I hate you.
I don’t know how it happened. It was a normal male human’s voice, of indeterminate age, but it issued from my lungs. My mother’s hand froze on the doorknob. I could tell she was trying to convince herself it was the DJ, even though he’d already put on “Piano Man,” a song I detest, mawkish tripe my dad would never subject me to. I bet she didn’t even think about the singer’s name.
The first verse ended as he sang the lines, “But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete / When I wore a younger man’s clothes,” and I thought, as she stood by the door in her black dress and I scented the evaporating trail of vanilla, All you need to do is open up my cage. Open it up, smother me in your arms, kiss me like you used to, and all will be forgiven, even Trevor. I’m here. I’m still here.
I opened my mouth. Out came a wailing bark. Her ears winced, and I knew that was it. She turned the knob and strode out, her heels clacking on the wood like a horse’s hooves, and then I heard only the sound of the door slamming shut.