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Ann Bronston

Obedience School

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 comfort.

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, even then.

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 waiting area.

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 there.

"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 time."

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 mom."

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 should want.

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 night.

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 wrung rags.

"Guys, you know, I really was thinking, for lots of reasons, a big dog is a better choice."

"Why?" James (the oldest) says.

"Because theyíre better watchdogs."

"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 sedate."

"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 vision oAppiness.

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 longer harmless.

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 continues grinning.

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" category.

"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 times, Mom."

"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 control."

"What dog? They all sat."

"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 name?"

"Happy."

"Thatís right, very good. I forgot. Thatís a fun name. It was a happy dog, wasnít it?"

"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.

 

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