Fiction | December 01, 1998
To Love Big Dog
YOU ARE NOT JUST ONE of the girls. Wait until your senior year in high school, when you know about love, to fall for Mr. Brinkly like the other girls.
The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception High School is something like going to school in a dungeon. All girls. Except for Mr. Brinkly’s religion class. Mr. Brinkly calls himself “Big Dog,” never enforces the uniform code, has Ms. Cullen banging on the adjoining wall when the laughter in his classroom gets too loud. Every Christmas he displays his Disney figurine collection in glass cases on the top library shelves. He is the tallest person you have ever known. Mr. Brinkly’s in charge of the talent shows, the slide shows, the spirit rallies: all of the things the other teachers avoid organizing. Sister Heloise, the principal, adores him. Every teacher should have his energy.
Listen to Mr. Brinkly’s liberal lectures on world religions and psychology. Learn, through rumor, that he did drugs in the ’60’s that he dated an ex-student six years back. Know you have a chance. He’s a bachelor. Exactly twice your age. Remind yourself, for courage, that after this year your age difference will diminish, sort of. Prepare a strategy. Raise your hand in class and politely disagree with whatever he’s saying. Challenge him.
Begin staying after school to help Mr. Brinkly prepare Friday liturgies, but not as much as the obvious girls. Share with him the letter of resignation you’ve written your pastor, filled with observations about the corruption in rectory life as seen through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old student receptionist. He’ll laugh and slap you on the back. Three days later he will stop you in the hallway and mention he’s been thinking about the letter. “Soledad,” he’ll say, “I admire your clear sight, your fearless heart.”
Break up with your boyfriend from St. Augustine’s because he’s pressuring you to have sex and takes too much time away from ballet practice. When Mr. Brinkly takes other girls on day trips to San Francisco and Grateful Dead concerts, know he’s not some kind of pervert because he always obtains parental permission. Tell yourself he doesn’t invite you along because you’re not a drooling girl; you have a life of your own. Consult him about your religious crisis, the vague reasons you and your ex-boyfriend reached an impasse. Know, in a peripheral way, that there are few things as seductive to an older man as a young girl seeking guidance. Have him tell you that certain songs remind him of you, your youth, your earnest struggle to understand life. Love songs will surely come next.
The day he kids you in front of the entire class that the girl he marries someday will have your smile, try not to turn red. Whenever he makes self-deprecating remarks about not being able to get a date, whenever he says he’s married to the school, know he’s simply lonely. Once, he’ll call on you by the name of the ex-student he dated: Hope. Know that you know more than he. Smile.
Around Christmas, write some sad poem about a rising and setting sun that never meet on the canvas of the sky. Break down and confess the depth of your feelings to your best friend Gabby, whom you’ve known since you were six. When she tells you that if anyone has a chance it’s you, make her promise not to tell anyone. Gabby will go on to speculate about whether he’s a virgin or not: he was in the seminary three years but there must be a reason he left. Accept her opinion that he’s not and tell yourself you can understand it. Hope in your heart that he is. Cry at night because there is always the possibility that everything is an illusion. ‘Maya,” he says the Hindus call it.
Give up, mostly. In your mind think of him as Dominic, The Name By Which You’ll Never Call Him. Permit yourself to say it quietly out loud just before you fall asleep: “Dominic.” In class, sit and singe under the gaze of his blue eyes, but act indifferent when you see him in the halls. Eventually, he’ll ask what’s going on in that mind of yours these days. Discuss Jungian psychoanalytic theories for two hours after school. Let him interpret your dreams. Decide to major in psychology next fall.
On Valentine’s Day he will give you a small statue of Bambi with a butterfly on his tail. He’ll say that, like Bambi, you have been through hardship in your life but you’ve managed to retain your joy and vigor, that you remind him of a butterfly which must first endure life in the cocoon before emerging. Exactly, you think to yourself.
Take a friend to Senior Ball. Become Senior Ball Queen. Wish Mr. Brinkly were your date. As a chaperone, he takes pictures of you at the dance. Surely, you think, you must remind him a little of Snow White dancing with a dwarf. When you appear in his end-of-the-year slide show more times than any other girl, Gabby will mention this to you. Squeeze her hand.
Cry at graduation, but not for the same reasons as everyone else. He’ll tell you to keep in touch, not to get carried away by all those college boys who’ll want to sweep you off your feet. Buy the Fantasia soundtrack that’s just come out and sit in your car at the mall parking lot because there’s no other place as anonymous in which to cry. After that, whenever you hear Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” remember this day. Be grateful your younger sister will enter Immaculate Conception in the fall. Go back to the mall. Buy her things.
Go to college across the causeway: far enough so that you don’t have to live at home, close enough so that Dominic is still a possibility. Room with Gabby. Compare versions of what the public school kids are like. Meet Chip and Chuck who live next door. When they find out you both come from Immaculate Conception, Chip will say to Chuck, “Catholic school girls are the best. Think of all that repression.” Then they’ll laugh. Tell them, “It’s not like we’re naive.” Gabby will nod in agreement. Wonder if you are. Get drunk. Smoke pot. Go to the best Halloween party ever.
Classes are big. Teachers don’t know your name. There’s no room in your schedule for ballet. In Religious Studies class, find out there is increasing evidence that God does not exist. At night, listen to Chip or Chuck having sex on the other side of the wall. Eat alone in the dining commons. God does not exist.
Monday mornings Gabby repeats that it is good for both of you to be attending a public university, meeting the challenge, breaking away from your safety nets. As you pass her the Kleenex she’ll say, “This was all such a mistake.” These are the best times. These are the worst times. When you phone your house, your sister will say that Mr. Brinkly asked for your address.
In November, when the steel wool sky looks like you feel, you’ll get a letter from Mr. Brinkly. Smell it, breathe it, do a little dance. The letter will include a drawing of Snow White surrounded by the Seven Dwarfs. He will have written your name above Snow White and “college boys” above the group of dwarfs. Do another little dance. Gabby will examine the handwriting on the envelope, then stare at you silently, holding her breath.
Several letters will pass back and forth, each one longer than the last, but equally uncompromising, before you phone him in April. Talk to him for twenty minutes, then break down and tell him about these feelings that have no place, that have not gone away in fourteen months. Admit that you’re embarrassed, that you never thought you’d tell him. He’ll say you’re going through a time of transition, that these feelings are natural between students and teachers, therapists and patients, that it’s okay to feel that way, that he understands because he once went out with an ex-student and it ended when it had outlived its purpose, but they had truly cared for each other, and now she’s in medical school. He’s on his way to take pictures for Junior Prom, but if you’re coming home for Easter, he’ll take you out to dinner, and you can talk about it more. Sniff, thank him, take a mental count of the days left until Easter.
When you announce your dinner plans to your mother she’ll be intuitive and say, “I always knew you had a crush on him.” Of course, she’ll ask you questions, but be as vague as you’re entitled to in this last year of your adolescence. Be glad, for once, that your mother is religious, that she’s always been platonically in love with the parish pastor.
Over dinner, Mr. Brinkly will ask you to call him Nick. (Nick. It was more than you ever hoped for.) Both of you will try to be rational: you’ll tell him you have an emotionally absent father, he’ll say his mother is a dominant woman; you both know about Freud. Then he’ll roll up his sleeve, point to a knot in his arm, and say, “This is three years of my fife! Three years of being a junkie! You don’t even know me.” Sure it surprises you a little, but he was only in high school, and the past is the past, and you know he’s just trying to scare you. He is, after all, the responsible adult, and you know you must be the initiator. Quietly say, “It doesn’t scare me, if that’s what you were trying,” He’ll grin a goofy grin and say, “Well, it was supposed to; don’t you see I’m nuts?” Of course he is, and so are you. “Sometimes,” you tell him, “I dream I can only dance in ballets with wild boars.”
After dinner, in his car, before he takes you home, he will give you a small box containing a porcelain figurine of a girl with butterfly wings hugging a rose as big as she. His fingers will absently stroke your hair before he himself realizes it, and as you stare into each other’s eyes, you’ll thank him, and he’ll say, “Don’t you understand, Soledad? You’re the gift. What am I supposed to do with you?”
When he drops you off that night he’ll look off into the distance and say, “Promise me that in December we’ll be sitting in this car, on my street, watching the Christmas lights on the houses.” Before he drives away he’ll get out to look around under his car, and when you ask him what he’s doing he’ll say he always checks to make sure there aren’t any cats underneath. He is more sweet and considerate than you ever imagined.
After you begin dating him, you will lose some of your old friends. Find out who your real ones are: you have two and a half left. Gabby, your half-friend, manages to ask you about him with a tight smile on her face. She never quite believed you had it in you. Know the rest of the girls are simply jealous.
Some mornings Nick calls and wakes you up, howling over the phone, “BIG DOG THINKS LOVE IS GREAT!” You laugh, still half asleep, while Gabby groans from under her pillow. Congratulate yourself on your honesty with each other, on your awareness; you’ve both told your families. For the first time, your mother has seen the will in your eyes.
Nick has great taste in music. He plays the Kinks’ “Paranoia” and the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” You love old songs. You always knew you were born too late. Go with him on trips to Berkeley, to San Francisco, to Grateful Dead concerts. Stand on the end of Pier 39 and look down at a half-submerged starfish, clinging to the side of a wooden pole, as he laughs and says, “See, Soledad. Most people look at the stars in the sky, but we watch the ones in the sea.”
Nick quotes Heidegger: “All things are sent.” Enter the world of didactic literature and conversation. Impress your friends and professors with your insights. They’ve always thought of you as mature. Hold each other in moments of angst. Kiss. Know the girls in high school never had this much fun.
One night, when you press against him fully clothed and feel breathless, you will know that even if you were never to marry him, he is the one you want to be with, that you have met The Right Person and it will soon be The Right Time. He will warn you that projection is a powerful thing and pull away from you as if he were angry or frightened and ask, “How can you give yourself so easily?” Think of how wonderfully intense it all is with him, how much larger than life. Everything is magical. You are the luckiest girl.
Of course, people in restaurants will sometimes stare at you when they see you holding hands. People from high school will say untrue things, that he is using you for sex, but you’ll know it can’t be true because you haven’t had sex. Your mother will see the dull hurt in your eyes. She’ll tell you, “Jesus said feed the hungry. So if they talk about you, think of it as feeding the hungry. There are many kinds of hunger.” Your sister will get questions and comments at school, and when you call home she’ll scream, “You are ruining the best years of my life!” Be patient with her because she’s too young to know what she’s talking about.
During the summer, when you move back home, your mother’s friend will tell you she always dated older boys because they knew what they wanted. Consider this: she is married to a cardiologist fifteen years her senior. Your mother will tell you she married him for the money, that he is always on call. Point out that you’re not dating Mr. Brinkly for his money because he doesn’t have any, that you pay for half of almost everything, that if you were dating someone your own age you’d be contributing, too. Your mother will insist you shouldn’t be paying.
Another one of your mother’s friends will ask her, “Don’t you worry about the age difference?” Know that her daughter’s boyfriend snorts cocaine. Tell your mother this. Have her see your point.
Meet Nick’s cousin, Bill, who calls him “The Kid,” confirming your idea that you wouldn’t go out with just any older man. Be comforted by the knowledge that now there is another teacher from your high school dating an ex-student. You can’t be sure what it is they see in each other but you know better than to judge now. Enjoy being the center of a scandal. Think of your well roundedness. Revel in your compassion. By the end of the season you will have outlived the other couple. Tell each other you are made of stronger stuff.
When you return to school in the fall, Nick will give you a small figurine of Mowgli sitting on Baloo’s stomach, “just because.” Nick says he’ll never end things, that someday you’ll outgrow him, just like Mowgli outgrew the jungle, just like Hope outgrew Nick. Reassure him that you won’t. Tell him that this year you have your own room, and your summer curfew is over and now he can spend the night whenever he wants. He’ll smile and nod absentmindedly, and you’ll think how it really is a good thing that he doesn’t just jump into things, how good it is that he can be strong when your hormones take over. That’s what Sister Magdalene used to say, anyway.
During your six-month anniversary dinner at Spenger’s Fish Grotto he will reach for your hand and ask, “The question is, how long will I have to wait to ask you to marry me?” You’ll smile mysteriously and try not to look too hopeful, wondering if he can hear the rustling of butterflies in your stomach and if he is serious as he laughs and says, “Of course, you’d keep your own last name because I believe in women’s rights.” Although you think you might like to take his. He’ll fold his napkin carefully and make one of your earrings disappear, then reappear in it. As he hands it back, he’ll tell you how lucky you are because he doesn’t easily give away his heart. On the way home he’ll hum Rickie Lee Jones’ “Last Chance Texaco.”
Gabby will eventually ask you, “So are you Serious?” and you’ll know she’s trying to figure out if you’ve had sex with him. “Yeah, kind of,” you’ll say in a vague way, wondering whether you are or not. Nick tells you he never slept with Hope because she “wasn’t like that.” When he asks what you tell your friends about him, explain that they don’t really understand. He’ll say, “Okay, Sol. You don’t have to tell me. I know how girls talk.” Prove him wrong. Don’t talk. Realize that a mature relationship should be kept between the two of you.
As the leaves begin to turn, Nick lets you know that he’ll be especially busy in the upcoming weeks because there are the dance-a-thon, the senior retreat, and the crab festival to plan. Tell him, “Yeah, well that’s okay because I have a midterm and a paper and a group project due.” Nick will remind you that he doesn’t want to take you away from your friends. Wish that he would do things with your friends. Go to frat parties. Keep up your social life. Stop going to frat parties so you can see him more often.
The dinner conversation at his parents’ house will never interest you, but part of a relationship is doing things you don’t always feel like doing. His sister will give you a kind but pitying smile. “Nick’s just being Nick,” she says with the same smile on her face when Nick sings in a loud voice, making her baby cry. His cousin Bill will take you aside and ask, “Does he still crawl down under his car looking for cats, and all that weird stuff, even when it’s zero degrees outside?” Laugh politely, not sure what he means by it.
Begin to notice that every couple of months Nick dyes his hair, but don’t call attention to it. You would be implying that he is growing old, and he is, after all, trying to look young for you. Say his hair looks nice. Ask him if he got a haircut.
Often when you make out at your apartment, he’ll get a sudden cramp in his leg, get up and walk around the room, embarrassed, saying that sometimes this happens to him. He’s a little theatrical about the whole thing, but try not to mind in order to spare his feelings, his male ego. He’ll tell you that he doesn’t want you to end up taking care of him in his old age, and you’ll tell him that you wouldn’t mind. When he whispers, “You are so exotic,” know he meant to say, “You are so erotic.”
When you take Abnormal Psych and study obsessive-compulsive behavior, Nick will get defensive and warn you about the stigma that goes along with labeling, the theory of self-fulfilling prophecies. When he takes you to see Beauty and the Beast, he’ll pound his chest and laugh saying, “I’m the beast!” He’ll quote Jung and tell you that you are his “worthy opponent.”
Refuse to go to a high school friend’s Christmas party when you find out she has invited everyone and their boyfriend except Nick. Nick will say you give up too much for him, that he is undeserving of your love. The night of the party you will sit in his car in front of his house and watch the Christmas lights together, just like he said you would. He’ll say it’s sickening that he’s nearly forty and still collecting Disney figurines, that after this Christmas he really will sell his Disney collection. On Christmas Eve his cousin Bin will tease, “So how much is the collection going for this year?”
In January, go with Nick to Napa. When he feels guilty that you drank wine, tell yourself he is considerate, a man with a conscience–although you don’t feel guilty, although at the frat parties you always drank plenty of beer.
On nights when he says he’s had a long day and that he’s too tired to make out, tell yourself that you are, too. Even though you’re not. He’ll feel you turn away from him. and then he’ll say he knows that it’s not fair, that any young, red-blooded American guy wouldn’t be able to get enough of you. Tell him you don’t want anyone else. Tell him that you even turned down Gabby’s friend, Todd, when he asked you to his frat formal last fall. “Todd,” Nick’ll muse. “That’s nice: Todd. I know how it is, Soledad. I know how things start.” Argue that it’s not like that, that it’s not like that at all. He’s Gabby’s boyfriend now. Tonight, when you searched for your earrings in her jewelry box, you found condoms instead.
When your mother asks if you are having sex with Nick, you will tell her that you’re not. When she says it’s not you she trusts, but him, look away, ashamed that she is right.
“Why do you refuse to do things with my friends? Why don’t you take me to faculty functions?” you’ll ask. He’ll remind you that family’s what’s important. When he checks under his car for cats, ask him what he’s doing, as if you’d forgotten. “I’m checking for cats!” he’ll snap.
Take a dance class winter quarter. Find room in your schedule no matter what. Your first ballet teacher once told you that ballerinas develop their muscles even more than football players, although they are less defined. Remember that the trick of grace is to make things look effortless.
When you yank out your old pair of leg warmers from a box, you will see the small figurine of the girl hugging the rose fall out from them and smash on the wooden floor before you can catch it. As you try to glue it back together, you’ll want to kick yourself for having forgotten you’d wrapped it in them during the last move. Wish you knew less about symbolism.
Dance, dance. Feel the way the rosin grounds you, the way the fluidity and line of your body is beginning to change. Think of making an audience breathless someday.
Stay over at his house one night and in the morning, wake up alone. Nick will say the single bed was too cramped for both of you. He will take a shower and then you will take a shower, although you wish he’d agreed to take one together. When you’re done, he’ll clean the bathroom with a lot of bleach. You’ll remember how the night before, he pulled away from you, saying, “You like sex don’t you?” as if it were amusing, as if you were pressuring him to have sex, as if you had brought a base element into a divine relationship all by yourself. You had been pulling him close to you, and in the dark, in all the warmth and wetness, he saw that you were willing. Now, while holding the Sunday paper high in front of you, not reading the lines of print, your vision blurred by a toast crumb in your eye, you’ll think to yourself, “Hope must’ve been a prude.”
“Funny how much bleach I use,” Nick says and laughs, unable to look at you. You won’t get rid of the smell in your mind for days.
During Spring Break, Nick will take you, your sister and your cousin to Disneyland. Just as you get up to the ticket counter, he’ll abruptly switch lines, pulling all of you along before you know what’s happened. You’ll have to wait at the end of a line all over again, and your sister and cousin will look at him, and he’ll get defensive and say, “Didn’t you see the clerk? He had blood all over his hand!” But you know the clerk didn’t, and that it’s just Nick being Nick, and your sister is thinking he’s weird and rolling her eyes at your cousin, and neither you nor Nick will bring it up for weeks but a seed will have planted itself in your mind.
When you ask him if he’s ever seen someone professionally, he’ll say that he did for several years starting in college, right about your age, and that there’s only so much you can analyze, only a certain level of awareness you can reach, after which you have to go on with your life because you can’t psychobabble endlessly. “And see,” he’ll add, “You really will leave me in the end, and I’ll be okay because I never really expected more.” Can’t you see I’m nuts?
Even when you’re late for movies he’ll insist on checking underneath his car before driving away. “Hurry up!” you’ll want to yell, but won’t, as you wait for him to get in the car and turn on the heater. He has done well for himself: the safety of a small girls’ school, a principal who wouldn’t know what to do without him. He’s intelligent in a way you never imagined. I know how girls talk. Prove him wrong. There is no one to talk to.
Find out Jungian theory is somewhat of a crock in the view of modern psychologists, but influential in the arts and humanities. Read Skinner and learn that the more erratic the reward, the longer the behavior will continue.
Break up for a month. Run into him at the mall and have him say, “Oh, Soledad, don’t you see this is for life?” When you get back together with him, he’ll see you’d taken down the pictures of him in your room, and he’ll mutter, “Boy, you sure had little faith,” as he pops small yellow pills and confesses he’s been having trouble sleeping since you left. He’ll suggest you try some, and when you watch his face to see if he is serious, he’ll laugh and say he got your goat, but it will feel cruel somehow.
Take a break from ballet and enroll in a Latin dance class. Learn salsa, merengue, cumbia, the lambada. Nick’ll laugh and say, “So now you’re dancing the forbidden dances.” When your teacher says you have quite a bit of talent, consider believing him. “Girls, ladies, women: I’m not trying to be chauvinistic,” he’ll say when he explains that a man must ask another man’s permission in order to dance with his date, “But you’ve got to know the rules if you’re going to go to a club.”
On your one-year anniversary, Nick will cancel dinner at the last minute saying “Something’s come up at school,” though you persuaded Gabby to leave your apartment for a few hours, though he canceled plans last week, too. You’re left with dinner and what Gabby calls a generous heart when she returns home and finds you hidden in your room, trying to blow your nose noiselessly. You are the luckiest girl.
Break up. “I think you’re right,” he’ll say. “I don’t want to hold you back. I’ll be okay; this happened before with Hope.” Go back. Break up. “Little pup needs you,” he’ll say. Go back. He’ll never end things.
It will be the first night that feels like summer when you finally leave him. The heat will have eased up off the pavement and he’ll say, “Wendy’s grown up.” He always liked to put things in illusory terms, to have the last word. He’ll say this as you lie beside each other in his backyard on top of his trampoline, watching the meteor showers.
Friends will begin to grow slowly like new skin. In the fall, join a small student dance company and meet an older woman named Alma who’ll tell you she not only dated her high school gym teacher, she ended up marrying him for three years. She’ll laugh and say you got off lucky. Be unsure whether to hate Nick or feel sorry for him. Hate him. Feel sorry for him.
Buy a new pair of toe shoes. Begin seeing Brian, the guy with the nose ring that makes him look a little like a bull, but in a cute sort of way. He’s in a band and he writes you songs, and he says he’s named after a leprechaun king. Find out what it’s like to be loved by a young, red-blooded American guy who can’t get enough of you; the fluidity a give and take between hips, the pleasure of nothing in between. Feel guilty for not feeling guilty.
For a while you’ll participate in all the dance company’s performances presenting themes dealing with rape, incest, and betrayal. Eventually the visiting choreographer from New York, Lucas, will ask, “Wouldn’t you like to try something new, perhaps a little cheerier?” as if he believes you might. He’ll say he was hoping you’d audition for the lead in a modem version of Swan Lake planned for the upcoming spring. He’ll say this as he bounces his little two-year-old son on his knee.
On opening night, music will fill the auditorium with the sacred unintelligible words that resonate like the blood-river in the heart. Your movements are the cries of birth, the first and the last cries, the never-not-uttered cries. Around you is the fury of wings, tendon and bone, blocking, unblocking the light. Yet, not yet, yet, not yet. Now. Here. Then footsteps alone, and Alma comes up to grip your wrists, welcoming you to a place. A feeling will rise in your chest as you meet Alma’s eyes, and you will emerge from the thickness of a forest.
Things you picked up from Nick will stay with you for a while: a year after you’ve graduated from college and moved to New York City to work as a dance therapist, you’ll run into Lucas, the choreographer who encouraged you to take your first lead. You’ll tell him that in a way he was Dumbo’s feather to you, the one you needed so much in order to find out you could fly without it. You’ll realize you sound somewhat silly and that he thinks so, too, but he’ll smile and congratulate you on your moderate success.
Whenever your mother teases you about Dominic, that neurotic teacher you used to date, defend him. Remember the time he took you on the tour of Alcatraz, how he put his jacket around you to protect you from the wind and said, “Imagine what it was like to be a prisoner, to see the city across the bay, the lights, the life, shimmering just outside your reach.”
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