Hotbed

by HRM on March 7, 2012

by Julia Grummitt

dog


In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

I am waiting in the parking lot that faces the highway and it is snowing. A streak of cars flares past, heading west and into the night. Orange and red, then flurries into oncoming headlights. The cars move fast. Overhead, planes gesture towards the ground, the airport. I’m nervous.

I’ve been listening to the best of Van Morrison while I sip from my cup of still-warmish Tim Hortons. I watch as strangers trudge into the lit-up coffee shop, and then back across the empty rows. It’s getting late. The stereo’s too loud, there’s cream and sugar in my coffee. That’s a secret: I always take milk, no sugar. It feels like I’ve been here for hours.

The car I’m waiting for – a dark blue Ford Explorer – pulls into the lot, slows down and drives up when I flash my lights. It’s very cloak-and-dagger, except that the middle-aged woman who gets out is wearing broken sneakers and a reindeer-patterned polar-fleece. We chat for a few minutes. Then she puts the dog in my arms and leaves.

It’s a moment of such newness that I just stand there, waiting. The animal wriggles in my arms like a child. Still waiting, under the winter stars and airplanes, while she drives away.

This is how the New Year begins: just me and the dog. Soon, the highway is erasing itself as I drive us back towards the small Ontario town where I’ve been living. Not permanently, and that’s important. We go north and the blizzard intensifies. I’ve tied the dog’s leash to the seatbelt, and I am hoping it will not come undone. She bounces from the window to the dashboard and back, her small paws scrabbling against the plastic. Previous owners have given her an absurdly human name and she’s too old for it to change now. So mostly, I just call her ‘dog.’

In the half-light, I can see that her eyes are starting to turn wild. Officially, she’s mine-but-not-mine, and will be living with me only until the rescue organization can find her a permanent home. I’m confused by this unknown creature, a homeless thing baring her teeth at me in the grimace of a smile. I’ve never had a dog before. On the telephone, the woman from the shelter tells me that my options are: a) to fall in love and adopt her, or b) to not get attached.

I’m in my mid-twenties and lately, it puzzles me how permanence seems like the only thing I still cannot afford. My current apartment is full of hardcover books, mementos and the bric-a-brac that a quarter century of living brings. Much of the time, I feel vague. Unsettled. And it scares me, the way this feeling isn’t lessening with time. I live surrounded by family heirlooms and vintage suitcases. Now there’s this dog and I wish that I could keep her, but I can’t.

I think what I’m trying to say is I’m the sort of person who would end up with a dog who’s not my dog. And also, that this forced temporariness allowed for a fondness I might not otherwise have felt. We matched, that dog and I.

I haven’t loved small-town Ontario as much as I’d expected. I moved here to attend graduate school and while it’s not a bad place, it has been hard to be away from anything that feels like the past or some possible version of my future. There are endless flower shops, diners with checked-floors and three different costume shops with synchronous window displays. There always seem to be people on street corners waiting for the lights to change. Mothers pushing strollers, lanky-haired boys in workmen’s socks and hoodies. Professors. Undergraduates. Couples. For me, this is a dot on a map – a specific moment in a chronology of times. And here I have too much time to dwell in the sharp tangles of memory that surround you.

Anyway, the dog seems oblivious to all of this and we quickly fall into familiar routines. She shudders and scuffles at the top of the stairs whenever I come in the front door. Her tail wags. She crouches low and sticks her head forward, grinning like a deranged person in a way I find both pathetic and endearing. She always seems hungry or worried, and she will not let me out of her sight. At night, she pushes herself under the covers and sleeps with her paws pressed against my stomach, or curled up at my feet. Her body twitches with the small rabbits of her dreams. Sometimes, in the early hours of the morning, I reach out and place my hand on the undercarriage of her ribs, feeling for the whir and echo of her heart.

Friends, family and an ex-lover have come to visit me here, but I have spent all my nights in this apartment alone. When I wake in the mornings, the dog emerges from the covers like an Old Testament prophet, sky-blue sheets draped fiercely about her face. First thing every day, the dog just watches me for a while. She stands with her front paws on my chest while she does this, staring down at me with wise, blank eyes. I can feel the weight of her pushing my body into the mattress, back into earth. When she does this, I think she is trying to mend sorrows she senses but cannot understand. She licks my face, starting with my ears, ending at the tip of my nose and her breath smells like dog. We go for walks.

In the evenings, I light candles and scatter fleur-de-sel into the pasta water. I bake bread. I drink black rosehip tea. The dog eats multi-coloured treats shaped like summer vegetables. We look out the window together while endless snow swirls and blankets our street. The dog sits in my lap, her head resting on my forearm while I awkwardly type essays around the cave of her body. I am finding peace in this snow-globe of a place.

The dog and I rustle together through parts of town where I’ve never been before: mostly rows and rows of identical houses. Did you know there’s a whole neighbourhood of churches at the heart of this small city?

I get a call at the end of January with good news. The very next day, I carefully fold blankets matted with dog-hair (white, and fine as my eyelashes), placing them with veterinary records, chew toys and an almost-full bag of kibble back into her basket of things. We wait in the living room, the dog and I. She is curled in my arms, warm and alive, staring up at me. My feet trace hardwood circles on the floor. I tell her it’s going to be okay.

There’s a knock at the door and I go downstairs to meet the family that’s come to take my dog away. But that’s not right – they are here to take their dog home. I sense the story shifting; I become peripheral. There’s a man, a woman and their little girl, bundled up in puffy winter jackets. The dog bounces all over them, licking their faces. She follows the girl through the quiet rooms of my apartment and I try not to feel betrayed.
They seem nice.
“Thank you for taking care of our dog,” they say.
In the brief melee of putting on their boots and going outside, when nobody’s watching, I say goodbye to the dog. It’s quick. She doesn’t seem to notice. And then they are gone.

I lock the door and walk up the stairs, slowly. I am thinking about the dog. What she knew of me, and the limitations of our attachment too. I feel such profound loss, but the deepest truth is that part of me is pleased to see her go. To feel the freedom of that. It isn’t love, not really; that’s something too complicated and tangled up with patience, with time. For both of us, it has been a lesson in necessity; finding ways to survive this moment and the next. Belonging.

At the top of the stairs, camouflaged against the border of a rug from Ecuador, I find the tennis ball. It’s the dog’s favourite. We’d been playing fetch in the hallway all afternoon; the dog, a resilient streak against soft grey walls and me, standing in the doorway of the kitchen, waiting for her return. Later, I showed the little girl how to play, trying to keep them occupied while we filled out layers of paperwork.

I pick up the ball and run downstairs, outside. I don’t put on any shoes but still, I’m moments too late. I stand in the middle of the icy street, just wearing my socks. One foot, then the other. I can see the minivan’s red brake lights in the distance, already turning left. Now they’re out of sight. It’s cold and I wrap my sweater tighter around my body. I look up and there are stars.

Do you remember the last night we spent together? Cold. Star-scattered. An ending already seemed inevitable and you told me that someday, I would write about us. It would be a story about memory and loss. You said this as if you were bestowing a rich and bitter gift and in that moment, I believed you.

But this is the deepest truth: our lives are like palimpsests. Love is complicated. Right now, I am standing in an empty street, holding a red tennis ball.
I am here.

This is the story.

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