He bought her a dog. It was one of those small, wiry ones that never stops shaking. It was an ugly dog, and it often woke her up at two in the morning only to go outside and howl. And every time she heard the howling, she would run outside to figure out what all the fuss was about, and that dog would just be standing in the middle of the yard, barking at nothing at all.
It was an apology dog. It was a, “I’m sorry for leaving you” dog. And she did not want a dog.
She named it Whitney Houston. Because to her, the howling sounded like the “You-oo-ooo” in the real Whitney Houston’s song, “I Will Always Love You.” He told her this name for a dog was ridiculous.
“Couldn’t you have named it something else like Toto? It looks a bit like Toto from The Wizard of Oz,” he said.
And she said, “I should have named it Shaky.”
She had often thought that she loved him. In the cold early hours of his bedroom while she lay awake listening to the sound of his snoring like a spoon caught in the garbage disposal. She thought to herself, Yes, this is it. This is love. I will sit here listening to his sound and that will be enough.
And even when he left her, returning to his wife and two daughters, she had still thought that she loved him. He told her, “I need to finish this relationship before beginning another.”
Relationship. She said the word over and over to herself. It echoed in her mind like a prayer. She said it quietly in indistinct places. She yelled it out her car window on the morning commute to work. She said it slowly, annunciating it precisely. Re-la-tion-ship. She swirled the word around in her mouth, tasting each syllable with her tongue.
He came back to her only days later, clutching Whitney Houston under his right arm, to tell her he was definitely ready for a relationship with her and her only, and the word rang in her earls like the sole answer to her prayers.
She had often thought that he loved her too. She felt it when he left for work early in the morning and kissed her cheek softly, always twice, and then made his way to teach English at the school in town. But when he left, she felt nothing but the silence in his apartment melding with the silence inside of her, closing in on her like an early grave.
There was a hamster named Arnold in his apartment. It was his youngest daughter’s. His wife didn’t allow pets in the house, so when he moved out he permitted his daughter to have one. He seemed to give living things as apologies in an attempt to keep the relationships in his life alive.
Arnold squeaked throughout the night, creating soft melodies with the snoring. But in the morning, while she lay in bed listening to the echoes of her own loneliness, even Arnold entered into a respectful silence.
In bed, they talked about things like love and divorce. Does he miss his wife? His children? Will their separation be final? How does someone erase the memories, the years, the time spent together? He spoke little, listening to her questions and becoming quiet when they spoke of these subjects. Occasionally, he would speak like a prophet, with a new found hope for love and his own life.
Their relationship held a sort of lacking quality to it. It was one of the most cherished qualities of their relationship to her. She searched for the lack. Was there anything to do about it? Where could it be hiding? Certainly not in a dog.
She had once asked him if he loved her. It was something she immediately regretted. He was very still for a moment and then began to give her the definition of the word love. She stared at him while he defined the word in every possible way. Often when she would stare at him, she would find that he in turn was staring at nothing at all, maybe the bookcase, or the bed, or out the window. In fact, he had a hard time meeting her gaze, but sill her eyes clung to him. She felt that she stuck to him. Their relationship had a sticky consistency; she clung to him so as not to consider anything else.
He told her the origin of the word love: Old English lufu, of Germanic origin, or from the Latin words lubere or libere, meaning “to please.” He said it slowly, annunciating it precisely. Love. He swirled the word around in his mouth, tasting it with his tongue. “L-o-v-e,” he said. “What is it good for?”
Over coffee and blueberry muffins, while the heavy snow barreled down outside, her friend Lisa told her she was behaving as if she were a “naive woman.” Lisa removed only the top off her blueberry muffin and ate it in small pieces like a bird picking at seeds on the ground. “Surely you must see it,” Lisa said.
She felt like she was wasting. Wasting time, wasting away, wasting her good skin and boobs. God! Those boobs! They would never again stand so as they did right now and she was wasting them on him. He would lay face down on top of her, his head nestled between her boobs, and she would think, Is this what they have gone to use for? She scratched the back of his head like a dog, the way she scratched behind Whitney’s ears, counting his gray hairs like lost moments of her life.
Sometimes they met at restaurants. She ordered and ate small, simple salads of spinach, cucumbers, craisins. He ordered large meals: ribs with fries or steak with vegetables and potatoes. He was hungry all the time, eating meals no matter the hour of the day as if he could not get enough. He would joke at her plate of “leaves,” he called them, though she rarely felt hungry when she was with him. They could spend hours, days together and she felt she did not need to eat. The thought of eating a tenderloin or a chicken breast was unimaginable.
He had been in an excruciatingly good mood lately and it made her nervous. He had a normal, miserable air about him that seemed to be gone, and she was struck with a sudden fear that he would leave her.
At the end of their time together, he always said, “It was good seeing you,” as if it would be the last time, which she often thought it was. She would prepare herself for his leaving, for the loneliness, perhaps for another dog. She examined everything: his words, the quick, short movements of his body, her spinach.
And when she didn’t hear from him for some time, she would begin to burrow deep down into herself like a sand crab, devoting her life to nothing but the flow of the tide in order to remain shallowly buried in the wash of the waves. But when he called once again, she seemed to dig herself out of the deceiving refuge of the sand and float away with him.
She had met his youngest daughter once. His daughter had his eyes and hair. It was startling to see another version of him. His daughter ate chicken tenders and threw her fries across the table at her father. He grew angry. When he was angry, his right eyebrow scrunched up, giving him a quizzical look as if he could not believe what was happening.
Was this love? To examine someone so, to spend so much time on one look, one expression. She stared back at his quizzical look, back at that eyebrow. He was never-changing. And maybe this is what led to her loneliness, her inability to reach him, to find what it was that grounded him to his world when for her, it had always been him.
The last time he kissed her cheek twice in the morning, she imagined he told her that he loved her. She pretended he said this with a tone of undeniable truth and she smiled violently. He whispered to her that he would not be able to see her for some time, that he would be very busy with work and his children. She nodded, eyes still closed, basking in the words he never said.
Weeks passed and she did not see or hear from him. She drank coffee and ate muffins with Lisa to discuss his disappearance nearly every day. “What if something happened to him?” she asked. “There is no way for me to know.” Lisa shook her head and finished the top of her muffin.
She was out walking Whitney in town when she saw him crossing the street with his wife and daughters. He looked at her indistinctly for only a moment as if she were someone he faintly recognized from his past but could no longer place. His youngest daughter was crying and holding his wife’s hand. She thought of calling out to him, screaming like a mad woman would. She imagined the expression on his wife’s face, the recognition of another lover, someone else in her husband’s life. She watched as he crossed the street to his car, buckled his children into the backseat, and drove away from her.
Two months passed. He wasn’t answering his phone and she wasn’t getting her period. Lisa told her she should schedule an appointment. In the doctor’s office, Lisa held her hand while the doctor told her she was pregnant. Lisa cried. The ultrasound was nothing more than a tiny shadow and it reminded her of Arnold, all balled up and calm in the early hours of the morning. “You don’t have to make a decision right away,” said the doctor.
More weeks passed. Too many weeks passed. The decision was made for her. He still wasn’t answering his phone. The thought of leaving the news on his voicemail made her entire body ache. She did not tell him. She went back to the doctor. The ultrasound no longer looked like a hamster now but like something else entirely. Could this be it? she wondered. Lisa was holding her hand. The doctor told her she was having a girl. She thought of him then for only a moment and of the loneliness inside her that she now struggled to find. She thought of the uncertainty that had once made her feel most alive and how she had come to hate it. She felt something else now within her. A new source of strength, rising from inside, bursting through her skin like a hopeful energy. Now this, she thought, this is something I can love.
Danielle Epting is finishing up her M.A. at the University at Albany. More of her work can be found at danielleepting.com.
Image: “Salvation” by Bobbi Le’ Rae Valentin