I have been saying fuck
to my children a lot lately, not out loud, not usually. But in my
mind, under my breath, I hear myself saying, Because itís too
fucking expensive, thatís why. You donít fucking talk to me
like that. Get it the fuck yourself. My children are seven,
twelve, and fourteen, all boys. I imagine soon theyíll be doing
the same to me, if theyíre not already whispering inaudible
fucks. I listen for it sometimes. I walk past my oldest, James, so
close I am aware of the scent of his oily skin and scalp, but all
that rides out on his breath is the smell of Doritos chips. Iím
not surprised. I donít really expect him to let loose that kind
of language, not even timidly, under his breath. He seems too lost
and confused, too passive to focus his anger, too depressed. Nor
do I really expect it from my middle son, Jeremy, who just seems
too happy to harbor unspoken fucks. Why do families do that, name
their children with the same letter? I guess we thought we were
uniting ourselves, gaining control of randomness, creating
children who wouldnít disappear from each other in the endless
sea of other schoolchildren. But, in fact, it only seems to
confuse people as to whoís who. And as I get older it trips up
my brain, and when trying to reprimand, I struggle to pronounce
the right name, so my anger escalates as I stutteringly yell,
"Jason!" He is the one. He matches my anger breath for
breath, unspoken words filling the air, clouding the space between
us. Heís only seven.
There are times when the
softness of an earlier ageóhis four-year-old self for exampleóshows
on his face. It might be in his eyes as they widen to some
startling revelationó"Mom, did you know the oven stays warm
even after you turn it off?" Or around his lips as he still
calls spaghetti, bagetti, or forehead, forthead. It
is in those moments that I feel not just the ache for that smaller
body that folded easily into my chest and shoulder, hanging with
just enough weight to make me feel strong and capable, but I feel
a rush of love for his now seven-year-old self. And I feel the
relief of hopefulness. We havenít gone too far. From this
distance that small boy is still visible. I reach out to touch
him, to bring him close, to smell the fresh boyness in him before
his glands take over. But he pulls away.
I want to touch my children. I
canít touch Jeremy (the middle one) because heís never home.
He spends most of his time at his best friendís house. It is
probably the secret of his happiness. At his tenth birthday his
friendís mother wrote on his birthday card, to my
"adopted" son. It didnít disturb me, in fact I
felt a sense of pride and satisfaction, as if Iíd gotten him
into a good school. He was well placed, and I took credit for it.
I am afraid to touch James (the oldest), afraid to do anything
that might somehow add to his disappointment in me or himself or
loveóthe childrenís father and I are divorcing.
My arms feel empty around my
children, and I find myself thinking more and more of getting a
dog. I imagine my hand nuzzled with reverence as I walk from room
to room picking up dirty underwear or plates with old food caked
on them. I imagine a life of order and obedience. An unwavering
schedule of sunrise walks with a dog that would heel and come
faithfully every day of his life.
In fact, from the moment I
understood what "The marriage is not working" meantóthe
euphemism initially confused me, was my husband saying it was
unplugged or broken?óthe idea of owning a large, devoted dog
helped me sleep for a few hours at night. I did not mention the
prospect of a dog to the boys then. It wasnít the right time. If
any of the boys had let me lie with them, my hands mothering their
bodies, my head bent to inhale the dizzying smells of their
varying levels of manhood, the dog fantasy might have leveled off
instead of becoming this growing desire.
I had a dog for a few months
when I was nine years old. It was a small terrier mix with shaggy
hair, a stray that walked up to me with all the implied mystical
destiny of a Hollywood movie, or so it seemed to me. My family was
not well-off, however, and a dog seemed an unnecessary luxury.
The spring weather of
Poughkeepsie, New York, allowed us to let the dog hang around our
unfenced yard. I fed the dog constantly and secretly, I did my
homework on the stoop to our house, and I sneaked the dog into my
bed late at night for a few hours. I buried my face into his neck
and inhaled the warm, musky, and most soothing aroma I had ever
known. Threads of his hair touching my face wove a soft veil of
And the dog learned tricksóa
trick. He sat when I said "sit." I was the
third-youngest daughter in a family with four children, and yet
the dog sat when I said "sit." That he rarely sat for my
sisters and younger brother meant more to me than any of my better
grades in school or special compliments I may have received from
my parents. This partiality surely marked his doom. My sister,
overzealous and impatient, tried to force him to sit, and he
snapped at her. A few days later, when I came home from school, my
mother told me the dog ran off, "to find his real
family." Painful as it was, I believed her, until my fatherónever
one to credit dogs with much intelligenceótold me later that
same day that the dogís real family came and got him. My dog did
not betray me, my family did. Somehow that made more sense to me,
Quickly, too quickly, the
divorce becomes final. The many elements of change settleónot
settle, but are understoodónot understood, never understood, but
are at least semi-arranged. The boys have returned from their
first official "summer visitation" with their father
like bedraggled Confederate soldiers coming to grips with the fact
that the war is over, they lost, and there is nothing to come back
to. It is two weeks before school starts, and in this searing
Florida heat there is only the cartoon network to distract the
boys from the empty, sickly feeling of homesickness. We are all
homesick. What had been home seems to be moving further from our
reach each time the light and heat of day take us from our dreams.
I try to make plans to go to a museum or park or some advertised
event, but we always wake late and petty distractions or
disagreements hold us to the house. In truth, we are afraid to
leave the house, frightened of how adrift we feel ourselves to be,
afraid that being among other people would only deepen our
disappointment in ourselves. Our house and the cartoon network
seem like needed shelter. I am convinced a dog would only enhance
our sense of shelter.
Even as exciting an event as
going to the animal shelter to pick a puppy doesnít rally us
enough to leave the house until late in the afternoon, dangerously
close to the four oíclock closing time.
For some reason, the only animal
shelter the operator could find was the county shelter in Brandon,
a forty-minute drive from Tampa. We arriveóafter driving past it
three timesóat ten minutes to four.
After arguing about the
definition of "closing time," the woman at the front
desk, a heavyset, earnest volunteer, goes to the back offices to
find a higher authority. I suspect she is just seeking a place to
hide for ten minutes.
James sits on a padded metal
chair, his arms folded across his chest, his head hanging from his
shoulders. He sighs a couple of times and occasionally closes his
eyes for a few seconds. Jeremy contents himself with old Dog
Fancy magazines that lie on a low table in the center of the
Jason, with obvious control, is
kicking thingsóthe legs of the table, the soda machine, the
chair his brother sits on, and finally, with full intention to
miss, he kicks dangerously close to my shins.
"You lied," he says,
fed with the anger of knowing he canít actually kick me.
"You said we were going to get a dog today. You didnít even
know how to get here. You never do what you say youíre going to
do. You always mess things up for us." I know he and the
others believe I am obviously the cause of the divorce. My husband
Jonathan never apologized for anything, whereas I was always
saying Iím sorry. "Iím sorry I forgot to wash your
black jeans for today." "Iím sorry, I thought you
wanted tuna fish." "Iím sorry you didnít get picked
to be on Henryís team." Of course to them I must have been
the one to mess up the marriage. Jason kicks the table again, this
time knocking over a half-filled can of soda that someone had left
"Dammit," I say,
looking for some way to clean up the mess, finally throwing a Dog
Fancy magazine over the puddle. "You made us late, not
me. You had to watch TV after I asked you a hundred times to get
ready. You couldnít find your shoes because you never put them
away. You just do everything the way you want to, it doesnít
matter what anyone else wants." And thinking of his dad, I
add you fucking brat silently in my mind.
When the soda can had begun its
downward tilt, even as my frustration was turning to rage, there
was a quiver of a second in which I enjoyed watching Jasonís
eyes shift from a horizontal anger to a vertical "uh
oh." Now I feel only despair as I watch Jasonís eyes fill
with hate. Tears stream down his face, but there is no sadness in
his expression. He looks at me with a hard, steady glare.
His voice is low and clear and
rapid. "I was in the car before you."
I look at him and think, if you
canít be happy like Jeremy, why canít you be silent and sullen
like James, sitting on some chair, knowing things wonít work outóthat
way I could feel sorry for you or ignore you, as I choose.
Surprisingly, the woman returns.
Her pudgy face softens when she sees Jasonís tears.
"Itís all right, young
man. Mrs. Donovan said you could look around, but only for a short
We light up, as if weíve been
showered with fairy dust, the fairy dust of expectations. As we
walk through the doors that lead to the kennel, we are all
imagining ourselves playing fetchóbut with different dogs.
Despite the large selection, we
each quickly gravitate to a particular puppy, as if we recognize
old reincarnated friends that vanished from our lives over the
centuries. I imagine James (the oldest) saying to the fluffy
poodle mix, "Marcus, not since Rome. . . . But a dog? What
happened?" Or Jason (the youngest) saying to the tiny blonde
puppy that seemed to be part Chihuahua, "You were the best
The people working the kennel
area do not rush us. They want us to leave with a dog and not one
that will come back. One by one we each take our dogs to the play
area and try to convince the others why this dog is the one we all
Only I am enthusiastic about the
large black part-Rottweiler, part-shepherd male puppy that
promises to grow into a sleek, sexy, sinewy, hundred-pound dog. A
dog that would escort me as I did late night grocery shopping or
would wait non-judgmentally in the car if I ventured into bars at
Under pressure Jeremy (my middle
son) abandons a small spaniel mix, probably an ex-lover, and
petitions with James for the fluffy poodle mix.
By four-twenty, Jason and James
are still with "their" puppies. Jeremy has left James
and his poodle and has gone off to look at the kittens. I am still
sure only a large dog could quiet my heart and calm my stomach,
both of which feel as if they are being continually twisted, like
"Guys, you know, I really
was thinking, for lots of reasons, a big dog is a better
"Why?" James (the
"Because theyíre better
"You donít know
that," he counters.
"Well, even if theyíre
not, they look scarier."
"You said lots of reasons,
whatís another?" he continues.
"A big dog is more
"You donít know
that." This time it is Jason (the youngest) speaking. You
donít even know what sedate means, I think.
James knows he is no match for
my power or Jasonís passion. He wilts under my pleading, his
final words on the matter being, "Oh, fine." I donít
think about how his heart feels as he walks away from his puppyís
cage, the dogís expectant eyes steadfast on Jamesí back. I
think instead, James knows I love him and that will carry him
through all lifeís hard and disappointing moments.
Jason doesnít know I love him.
I have often promised James and Jeremy and Jason that a mother
always loves her children, even when sheís angry with them. But
in truth I havenít always loved Jason. There have been times I
have hated him. Sometimes in the dark hours after midnight, I
bruise my heart, piling stone after stone of remorse on it. Often
it is some incident with Jason that sits hardest against my heart.
Now I want to make up for those
secret nights. I want to give Jason something he could love and
that would love him. I want it to be evidence of my love.
We get Jasonís dog. Thatís
what I called the blonde Chihuahua mix, "Jasonís dog."
I had meant for us to get a "family" dog, but we have
each too strongly aligned ourselves with a particular puppy. I
thank James (my saddest) profusely for being understanding. I
promise Jeremy (my happiest) a kitten for his next birthday. And I
believe Jasonís (my angriest) promise of responsibility and
The puppy snuggles close on
Jasonís lap as we drive back home. She seems a calm puppy, and
Jason is happy. For the first time since Jonathan walked out the
door with his prized Gucci suitcase and practiced expression of
remorse, I feel a wave of comfort wash over me. If I manage not to
look in the rearview mirror, and not catch Jamesí hurt and
sullen shape bent up against the passenger window, I can hold on
to that sensation.
How is it that you wake up each
morning hoping to move forward to some more comfortable place, to
some sense of calm and accomplishment, but instead, having no clue
what direction to place your feet, you finally step into the still
indented footprint of all the other mornings? Tomorrow, you think,
I will find the map, or some event will occur that will wash my
old footprints away, and I will be forced to set off on a new
course. I tried to see the divorce as that event, but if anything
it seemed to make my old footprints deeper and muddier.
For the first week of puppy
ownership, we are all enthralled. Her accidents are mere dribbles
and easily cleaned (by me). Her teeth are tiny and harmless. She
sleeps often, sweetly cuddled into one of the children. Our
spirits lighten. James adopts the puppy as if it had been his
first choice. But even more important, Jason hugs me many times
that week. His arms tight around my waist, he draws me toward him.
When he was four, he and I
sometimes played hide and seek while the others were at school.
Usually I hid in the same two or three obvious places behind a
door or under a table. Once, thinking he would like the challenge
of a longer search, I hid behind the undrawn velvet curtains in
the living room. It is hard to judge time from a childís
perspective. I could hear his voice, thin as an echo, calling,
"Mom?" Still I waited. Then I heard nothing. The house,
fairly large with two stories and four bedrooms, felt eerily
empty. Standing behind those drapes, I felt disengaged from
everything I knew. I felt like a child playing hooky from school,
imagining the other children somehow continuing my life, walking
around my desk, working on projects I had helped make, but without
me. I felt a power in being so dangerously alone. I did not want
to step out from my hiding place. Then Jasonís voice was close
again, high-pitched and quivering, "Mom . . . Mommy . .
." Something in me thrilled at his fear. Finally I pushed
back the heavy fabric of the curtain and said, "You found
me." He drew me close to him as he buried his face in my
stomach. I bent my head down beside his and kissed him by his ear.
His bones trembled. We held on to each other, relieved to have
been returned to one another, back from some more dangerous place.
I whispered to him, "Donít ever worry if you canít find
me, I will always find you." It was the right thing to say. I
donít know if he could believe me.
I make a puppy feeding chart for
Jason and he feels proud of himselfófor the first week, maybe
two weeks. Too soon the puppy gets less and less fascinating to
everyone but myself. Feeding him becomes harder and harder for
Jason to rememberó"In a minute . . ." "After this
cartoon . . ." "You always yell at me . . ." I donít
want this to become another issue between us. I just take over the
care of the puppy, happily. It is my dog.
Surprisingly, if the dog really
is part Chihuahua, it was a distant relative that was Chihuahua.
In reality, I think it must have been a very young puppy, possibly
six, not eight, weeks old when we got her. She grows. By the time
she is six months old she weighs nearly forty pounds. Her coat, a
tawny wheat color, is short and coarse, and her teeth are no
Over the months as the boys
watch television, I am often in the background sprawled on the
floor, my arms around the dog, my face buried into her neck. Iím
sure it is a disconcerting sight, a forty-two-year-old woman on
the floor cooing and sniffing into a dogís fur, trying to find
again the comfort of that musky aroma. When the boys do glance
over, my sheepish grin confirms the awkwardness of the scene.
Jasonís indifferenceóand the othersí as wellóturns to
resentment. The dog, named Jedi by Jason, is now seen as another
sibling, someone else I favor over him. He is constantly telling
on Jedi. "She tracked mud on the rug." "She ate my
X-Men comic book." "She chewed my bike tire."
The dog does extensive damage
throughout the house. If those sunrise walks are late, she pees on
the Oriental rug. If glasses of milk are left on the coffee table,
the dog spills and breaks them. The picture window in the den is
scratched deeply. The leg of the mahogany dining room table is
scarred with teeth marks. Pillows are eaten. Often I blame the
boys, usually James, because he is the oldest and because he gives
me the least resistance. Why werenít you watching? You know
not to leave food out. Couldnít you see the dog needed to pee?,
etc. . . . The sense of chaos seems endemic. I feel anxious
and angry and addicted to sniffing the dog as she sleeps.
Finally in a rage, I announce,
"I wasnít the one who wanted a dog in the first place. We
got the dog you wanted, Jason, and you donít do anything to take
care of it. Iím taking the dog to obedience school, and youíre
going with her." He doesnít protest. I think I hear a vague
suction sound, as if a shoe were being lifted out of mud.
The obedience school is held at
a local Y, in a room that is also used for toddler gymnastics.
Plastic climbing structures and rubber mats are pushed to the
corners of the room, large yellow and red beanbags line the side
walls. Along the back wall are metal folding chairs, open and
waiting. Jason and I are the first to arrive. The trainer, a man
about thirty-five, muscled, with shaggy blonde hair, greets us
with a quick "Hello, Iím Bob King." Then he goes down
to his knees and rubs Jediís ears. His face lights up. "Who
have we got here? Yes, you are a handsome dog, arenít you?"
I am beaming with pride, thinking this man of experience sees in
Jedi the potential of a Lassie.
"Her name is Jedi. Sheís
my sonís dog." I add that information so that I will not be
held accountable for the dogís present behavior. But Bob Kingís
attention is already on another arriving dog. "Take a
seat," he says and repeats his greeting exactly to the next
dog. The role of ownership now occurs to Jason, and he wants to be
the one holding the dogís leash. Iím not sure he can control
the dog in this situation, but I feel obligated to hand the leash
over to him.
The next ten minutes are a whirl
of straining, choking dogs, jumping on each other and whoever
walks close to them. I sit in one of the chairs against the wall
and watch Jason partake in the chaos. He follows Jedi around the
room as the dog ecstatically greets her long-lost cousins,
thinking we have arranged a fabulous doggie surprise party for
her. Jason is caught up in the excitement as well, petting
anything that will hold still long enough to be touched. Jediís
eyes take on a sharklike quality, as if there is no one home in
her brain. The corners of her mouth extend to her floppy ears in a
humanlike grin. Bob King insists everyone get control of their
dogs and sit down. Jason, with all his strength, pulls Jedi across
the linoleum floor. As her rump slides along the floor, Jedi
Most of the dogs have settled
down in the time it takes Jason to drag Jedi to our seats. Bob
King begins talking. Jason sits and tells me heís bored, then
lets the leash drop. Jedi races down the line of dogs, stopping at
a spindly, all-legs Irish setter puppy. The setter bounces like a
basketball. I apologize to the owner, the most together-looking
man in this varied group. He is very gracious. When I return to my
spot Jason is stretched out across both seats, and I imagine Bob
King is putting us in the "should-never-own-a-dog"
"Dogs are very social
animals," Bob King continues, "but their society has a
strict code of hierarchy. It is made up of alpha and sub-alpha and
then beta and sub-beta dogs. These traits are inborn, and dogs
know their place." I am wondering if a beta dog is ever
envious of the power of an alpha dog, or if it just hangs out with
sub-beta dogs in order to feel good about itself. As Bob King goes
on, it is clear that the beta dogs in fact seek out the alpha
dogs; they look for leadership. I think of my marriage. I look at
Jason, his young seven-year-old face serious and attentive. I donít
know how much of this he takes in, but I am sure he is feeling the
loss of his fatherís presence.
"To your pet, you are all
the alpha dog, and they long for you to take control. It is my job
to help you do that." And Bob King smiles. I am attracted to
him, because he likes dogs, because he is not an unattractive man,
and because at least in this situation, he is clearly the alpha
dog. I realize how deep my betaism runs.
The class goes quickly; we
practice "sit," "down," and "stay."
Any successful command thrills me, making me feel I have a power
that transcends species. Jason remains on the chairs, saying he is
too tired, but he is watching the class with interest. There are
seven dogs in the class, and the range of ability to pay attention
varies greatly, the Irish setter being the most distracted of all
the dogs. His owner is patient and calm, making the rest of us
seem humorless and self-serious.
It is a cold Tampa evening when
the class is over. The trees are blowing and it feels as if rain
is coming, though itís hard for me to tell because the sky is
already dark at this hour. I like rainy nights. Nobody leaves you
on a rainy night. Jason and I see a bolt of lightning. I imagine a
seam in the universe is ripped, revealing a hidden sky of blinding
white energy that we glimpse only for a second. I say to Jason,
"Did you know that Tampa has more lightning than any other
place in America?"
"You told me a hundred
"I guess I think itís
kind of exciting. So what did you think of obedience school?"
He shrugs his shoulders.
"How do you think Jedi
did?" I ask.
"I donít think Jedi
thinks you can control her." A surprisingly soft roll of
thunder follows his remark.
"I thought we did pretty
well. What about that setter? That puppy seemed pretty out of
"What dog? They all
"The red long-haired dog,
itís called an Irish setter."
"I know," he answers
quickly. Then adds quietly, "You said Ďsitter.í "
"Well, I meant to say Ďsetter.í
He was pretty wild."
"Maybe it was a girl."
"Maybe. Do you remember its
"Thatís right, very good.
I forgot. Thatís a fun name. It was a happy dog, wasnít
"Thatís ícause it didnít
get yelled at all the time, like Jedi."
I cross my eyes and furrow my
brow in a lighthearted expression of incredulity. Large, slow
drops of rain plunk against the windshield. "What do you
mean? I didnít yell at Jedi."
"Yes, you did."
"I donít think I was
yelling at Jedi."
"Yes, you were."
"I mean, sometimes maybe I
said things in a strong voice, but she has to understand Iím in
charge, and itís not time to play around. I wasnít
yelling." Give me a fucking break.
We fade into ourselves and watch
the rain gain force, pounding the windshield.
The next Saturday as I lie in my
half-empty bed, awake for hours, after taking the dog on her
sunrise walk, trying to breathe my pounding heart into a less
painful rhythm, my husband, my ex-husband, calls. He has an
emergency at the hospital, heís an internist, and wonít be
able to take the boys until this evening. The conversation is
quick and emphatic. I want him to ask, "Is that okay for
you?" I want him to say, "How have you been? Are you all
right?" I want to hear his voice just a few seconds longer.
After he hangs up my body feels
loose and shaky. I think about the fact that I am made up of
spinning, bumping atoms, that there is nothing solid in me. I am
wishing it were raining.
I tell the boys. James (my
hound) just shrugs his shoulders and nods. Jeremy (my spaniel)
asks if he can play at his friendís house, and Jason (the
terrier) slams the door to his room.
Later, as I am clearing the
breakfast plates, I try to think of something I might be able to
do with James and Jason that afternoon. I look out the kitchen
window and see Jason trying to teach Jedi to stay. I am pleased
and self-congratulatory. But soon I hear the anger and
frustration. "No. No. Stay. Stay. No. I said to stay. Stay.
No. Stay, you fucking dog." I look out again and see that
Jason is about to hit Jedi. "Je-J-J-Jason," I shout.
"Stop it!" He sees me staring out at him. He starts
running towards the gate, strands of his blonde hair waving
good-bye to me. I put Jedi in the house and run after him.
He is halfway down the block by
the time I reach him. I am about to yell at him, "Donít you
ever. . ." but as I turn his body to face mine, I donít
recognize him. His face is twisted in sadness and rage. He looks
like a little old man, Rumpelstiltskin, the moment he has to give
up the child. As if Jason is aware that his face is revealing more
than he intends to, he raises his hands to cover it.
"Letís go home," I
say gently. I put my arm around his shoulder. He keeps his hands
on his face, and we start to walk back. We get only a few feet
before he just sinks from my fingers and is lying on the sidewalk.
Little sobs float from his body. "Come on Jason, get
up." His sobs grow deeper and start to come so fast I think
he canít breathe. His body shakes. I go down to him and cradle
him in my arms. We rock, a simple motion of forgotten comfort. He
turns his body in my arms, hugging my neck, nestling his face on
my chest. His tears are a strange flow of warm then cold on my
skin. His sobs gradually slow, and he moans a continual "I
canít. I canít. . . . I canít. . . ."
"You canít what,
sweetheart?" He just repeats "I canít . . . I canít."
I know. I know, my sweet baby.
Like the seam of the sky opening, in these few moments I believe I
see inside Jason.
I donít know what to say to
him. What part of this universe can he control, not who he was
born, not the family he was born to, not the thoughts that scare
him at night, not the emotions that spring full-blown and
uninvited, not the dreams that tear him from sleep, not the
strange moments of sheer fate that rush at anyone. But I tell him,
"You know, a lot of children your age think that they are
all-powerful, that they can make things happen, they can cause
good things and bad things, but you know better, you know a secret
that it takes most people a long time to figure out. You are very
strong and solid and brave to know this secret, to not be afraid
of things you canít control. And you will learn whatís
important and what thoughts and feelings to ignore. You will learn
how to choose the things you want to do."
It is the right thing to say.