Fiction | September 01, 2008

Featured as an Editor’s Pick, May 20, 2009

In one hand she held a Dr. Pepper, in the other my-. Or perhaps that isn’t exactly how it was. Perhaps it was another soft drink she held as I watched her walk along, the bottle softly swinging back and forth along with her shoulders and hips, whose beauty of shape and proportion was rivaled only by the grace of her motion. I was out with Charles on his afternoon walk when she first grabbed my . . . let’s just call it “attention.” We were in agreement that day, Charles and I: I hated him, and he me.

This was nothing new, our animosity being something I had to live with, like arthritis. Four years ago, I’d chosen to share life and a home with Rebecca, and having Charles, her mastiff, as part of the family was a condition, a fact, an inescapable clause in the deal. What I hadn’t realized those four years earlier was that walking him and feeding him and indulging his every whim were one day also going to be part of the deal. I guess I should have read the fine print, the kind that comes creeping and unspoken when people agree to share their lives. But the fact of the matter was that Charles was about to “go” in the living room again, Rebecca was out teaching an extra yoga class to help us make ends meet until I found a job, and until that happened, I was the full-time, stay-at-home daddy.

Perhaps I could have adapted to this role. Maybe I could have gotten used to having a 155-pound baby on my hands. But Charles did something that I hadn’t done in months: he worked. Charles was a model. His gigs were sporadic, and he didn’t make a fortune, but his likeness had been published a lot more than my writing had, and there were times when I sat at the kitchen table eating, a forkful of something hovering before my open mouth, and the look he gave me made all too clear who had put that food on the table. I wasn’t taking care of Charles; he was taking care of me. He was my employer.

Prior to my abandoning my rare and precious rent-stabilized studio apartment in Manhattan and moving into Rebecca’s one-bedroom place in Brooklyn, she and I were a textbook example of a perfect couple: we made each other laugh, have orgasms and think. Really, what more could be asked for in a relationship? We all have our shortcomings, our Achilles heels that make those we share our lives with ache. I wasn’t Jesus Christ, I admit: I smoked too much; I yelled at the television (and thanks to the Surround Sound system I bought when things were still flush, it yelled back); I loved to eat and was no stranger to the world of Entenmann’s-I needed to lose a few pounds. Rebecca, on the other hand, did and was none of the above, and this was what I respected about her. She was so different than me. So even. So PBS and green tea. But when it came to Charles . . .  Frankly, she was nuts.

“Don’t blame Baby,” she would say as I’d rummage through the apartment trying to find the television remote that he’d hidden somewhere or while I held up a job application he’d “marked” before I had a chance to fill it out. “Maybe it’s you,” she’d say. “Maybe he’s trying to tell you something. Don’t forget, he’s a very gifted dog.”

That’s what she was once told by a psychic, after she had called a 900 number to help parse our days, trying to trace back (or forward; it was a psychic after all,) just what had happened to us, what might happen still.. We weren’t fighting a lot; there were no raised voices, no tears, but instead we were often engaged in an unconventional type of warfare, where silences were lobbed back and forth between indirect comments, each of us accusing the other of thinking things about ourselves. Ultimately, it always came back to Charles. “He’s a very gifted dog, my dear,” the psychic had said. “There’s a lot you can learn from him.” Maybe she was right.

One of these gifts that I knew like an identifying scar was his ability to get attention whenever he wanted something. His most potent tool to this end was his whining. My God! Those arias of his! Tuned to the exact pitch and timbre that would make my skin crawl. He knew how I loathed it, and like a virtuoso he was able to effortlessly whine all the notes of his repertoire in greater and more elaborate sequences and degrees of volume, until at last I would finally give in. His timing was always impeccable.

“Enough!” I’d shout at him, and as I went to get his leash, his big, sad brown eyes, all Bing Crosby, effortlessly dropped the facade of chagrin for being hollered at and no doubt tightened into an unseen “Heh, heh, heh” of triumph. Perhaps he rubbed his paws together. Tweaked his whiskers. God knows he had one of his enormous red erections (“You’re just jealous” Rebecca would tease at my disgust or thinly disguised envy-I never really knew which) as he sat for me to leash him up.

“Good boy!” I’d silently proclaimed as the timing and triangulation of our exiting the building coincided with my first spotting the Dr. Pepper Girl, a dozen yards ahead of us. Right away, the Charles-cloud of frustration and obligation that had hung over me just a moment before vanished, and the air around me seemed scented and charged with vitality and light.

I don’t know if it was the jangle of his tags or perhaps something beyond my perception, however, that caused Part Two of the equation: Would I have noticed her so keenly if she hadn’t noticed me, too? For while she didn’t stop walking, she had turned around for a split second as soon as we hit the sidewalk behind her. And yes, she was beautiful.

Granted, I gave Charles full rein, let him pull us along in the direction she was heading, but I would swear that she, too, had slowed her gait slightly. Was it her hair, pin-straight and cut at an angle that revealed the nape of her neck, or her shoulders, soft and bare in a camisole tank top, or her walk, that gliding syncopation, that so captivated me? It was part fantasy and part examination, my staring at her there, ahead, moving along, getting closer as we began to catch up with her.

And if she stopped and turned and smiled, what would I say? “Hello. I live with someone, but I want to have sex with you.” That was frank, but so, too, was “Who are you?”

These thoughts disturbed me, not so much because it seemed possible I might actually say them, but more from my inviting them into my head in the first place. How would I feel if some guy thought these things about Rebecca? Worse, how would I feel about Rebecca thinking these things about some guy? And so a wave of something not quite gratitude but maybe relief swept across me as Charles stopped, yanked us over to a tree, took aim and fired.

For Charles, there was no such thing as urination, micturition, going pee-pee, wee-wee or tinkling. For Charles, it was pissing. There was exultancy in the act-perhaps the same as that God-affirming feeling we receive when we blessedly get to a rest stop on the highway-coupled with the exhilaration of pure canine expression. Writer’s block was not a problem for Charles, and in his world, every last golden drop told a story. “Take your time, Charlie,” I thought. “Get it all out. Think Thomas Wolfe.”

When it comes to dog urine, I am completely illiterate, yet somehow I sensed  that Charles had written To Be Continued;  then suddenly he’d bolted on, and between his enormousness and my capitulation, we were once again closing in on the neck, the shoulders, the legs, all moving in synchronized perfection, moving in a way that was surely a form of communication unto itself.

And then I was a parachutist approaching the ground, approaching the ground, approaching the ground, everything coming into focus clearer-neck, shoulders, sharper-legs, behind-and I pulled and pulled, but the ripcord was not-

All at once the leash went slack as Charles turned, zigzagged and stopped a few feet beyond the DPG to sniff at a fleck of mesmerizing sidewalk invisibility.

Without missing a stride she sidestepped us, and, gliding by, she turned her head, smiled and said, “Who’s walking who?”

And she spoke just like she walked.

And while it was a statement she’d made, it was also a question, and a question is an invitation with R.S.V.P., and I could have said . . . anything. I could have said words that would have knocked over the first domino of questions and responses, beliefs and desires, mysteries and frustrations, dreams.

I could have said that I was terrified by a thousand different things anymore but at the moment they all seemed remote compared to her and the feeling she stirred in me because the sediment of time and unforgotten passions was clouding my mind. I could have told her how I yearned to laugh because it seemed I’d forgotten how, and of lusts that came from urges born In The Beginning, of urges born of the moment-snap!-just like that. “Was this wrong?” I could have asked, “or natural?” Our entire nascent history, still bloody-fresh from my mind’s womb, was flashing into existence. We could have babies together, she and I, real, human babies, or we could go out for a drink and never see each other again.

“Who’s walking who?” she had asked.

And I replied, smiley faced, “That’s always the question!”

So civil of me. A wee bit of self-deprecating humor. Aw, shucks. What a nice guy. Him (her spouse): “How was your walk?” Her: “Fine. I met the nicest dog.” He folds the pages of the Wall Street Journal, takes another sip of Cabernet Something-or-other and they make dinner together, using those nice greens she got at the farmer’s market that morning, tossing them in a crystal salad bowl. Simultaneously, I walk along wondering, “What if?” Still out with Charles, miles from home, I toss a plastic bag weighted with his shit into a trash can.

But even before the 1974 Have-A-Nice-Day smile faded from my face, even as somewhere inside I was slapping God a high-five for my nice-guy inanity-because I am a nice guy, I’ve always been a nice guy-Charles, his ears up and fashioned into a pair of horns, gave me a look that said, You are so fucking stupid, shifted into Drive, and brought us alongside her again.

“What’s your name?” she said to Charles as we came to an intersection.

The light turned red, a burnt-orange figure warned Don’t Walk, a car screeched to a halt. Giant invisible monkeys sat eating my brain, blowing to cool the stuff, everything turning cold. You see, just the night before, my best friend had told me that when he takes his baby daughter to the playground, if he wants to talk to another parent, he breaks the ice by talking first to their child.

“Hitler,” I said.

Her soda fizzed over as everything stopped, and when she laughed it was like tasting a flavor from a lost recipe, a favorite that I used to cook all the time but had forgotten. And then I was laughing, too. It felt like breathing again after holding your breath, and the smile that was blooming from deep inside my cheeks was infused with happy blood full of wholesome nutrients.

“Charles,” I said. “Charles is his name.”

“I’m Felicity.”

Of course her name was Felicity. She smelled like being hugged by a cloud, a mist, a pit-pat of sexualized baby powder on the soft bottom of my libido’s spirit. She didn’t offer her hand, and I sure as hell didn’t offer mine or even my name. I just smiled. In Charles’s lexicon a baring of the teeth meant one thing, but in ours, there are many definitions for it.

Charles, meanwhile, was being a doll, an angel. He actually sat at the corner and watched the traffic whiz by, a thing I had tried to train him to do and given up on since moments of suicidal abandon began possessing him, shortly after I became Mr. Mom. “It’s like walking with a canine Dorothy Parker,” I once said (I thought rather humorously and hopefully disarmingly), when broaching the subject of obedience training to Rebecca. “Who knows?” she’d said. “He’s pretty fast. Maybe he’s just trying to kill you.” She thought she was being funny, too.

I could have just left it at that. Stopped at a corner, light turns green, we go, good-bye. But there was an empty second after the light turned, and it was impossible to tell if Felicity was waiting for me or I for her or us for Charles. It didn’t matter, though, because the only real thing in that moment was the bond that held us within this field of each other.

I could have used that moment. Maybe I did? Maybe I relished the living hell out of it? But I could have used it judiciously. Perhaps in that moment, I could have seen truly where Rebecca and I stood, where my love for her was. I don’t know.

“Shall we?” I said, all Cary Grant, albeit not directly to her and with a simultaneous tug on Charles’ leash.

We crossed the street and had walked along in silence for several yards when Felicity turned to me and said, “Listen. Would it be okay if I asked you a question?”

Here it was. My Rubicon: “Are you married?” “No.” (Technically, not a lie.) “Would you like to have a cup of coffee?” Either “I’m sorry; I’ve got to get home. These days my girlfriend worries if we’re out too long” and then catch the relationship, even as it fell. Or just say, “Sure!” and let the die be cast.

She smiled, perhaps even blushed a little, looked down at her feet, then over to mine and brought her eyes up along the length of my body until they reached my face. Her smile broadened, and she said, “Do you want to lose weight?”

My face rearranged some muscles, all on its own, and my voice said, “Sure!”

Her spiel continued as we walked along: something statistical and scientific-sounding about why diets don’t really work, how she was once “in pretty much the same shape as you are,” and how she had become the top sales person in her division of this dietary supplement company simply by finding people who really needed her help. Charles, being Charles, seemed to pick up on her speech as effectively a commercial and took the opportunity to go to the bathroom. She finished by handing me her business card, which I held in one hand as I was cleaning up Charles’s creation with the other.

With a little wave of the soda bottle, she was gone. All that was left was a whiff of her perfume mixed with Charles’s still-airborne shit molecules.

Before tying the knot on the bag and tossing it, I took a glance at Felicity’s card. On it, there was a cartoon figure of a fat person, and in block letters were the words The Real You Is in There. Maybe. But I let the card fall from my fingers anyway-let it drop to the bottom of the bag.

I looked up and stared in the direction Felicity was heading. By then, though, she looked very small for the distance. Meanwhile, another figure grew closer and was waving. Rebecca.

I saw from the corner of my eye Charles giving me a look from the corner of his, and I wanted to grab him by the chin and say, “What? What? What, Mr. Boss Man? You tell me. You’re the one with the answers.”

And then his mouth parted, but he didn’t say a thing.

All he did was yawn.

If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.