Unpack -- Full Text
Stuff what you can in the back seat of your Altima. Whatever doesn't fit, convince yourself that you don't need it. Sell the excess to friends for made up figures. Take note of how small your life is. A back seat and trunk space. Fill your gas tank. Check the oil, the tire pressure. Eat something. Cancel the bills, cable, internet, phone, gas. Pay off every credit card bill with money you earned selling your stuff. Sign up for Triple A because you never know what stupid, senseless, remorseless, bullshit thing might happen out there. Drive.
"So there's no way you can see yourself changing your mind about this."
She grimaced. An actual grimace. A pained not smile. A hard swallow. "No," she chokes out. Another hard swallow. "No this is real. This sticks." Mucous ripples in her throat. An ugly cry.
We are on our way home, Home, from a dinner party in Brentwood. An evening spent al fresco, seven courses prepared lovingly by polite Canadians who won't let me clean anything, despite my need for the excuse to excuse myself. The conversation was about movies and her writing. It's a typical night. We are together. We drove there together. We left together. We maintained appearances, even though everyone already knew that it was over, that we were no longer us.
Silent, uncomfortable, we roll down the woodsy side of Sunset. I think of just a few days ago, maybe a week. We were discussing our sex life, or how little of it there had been. She was going to go down on me more. "I know I haven't been that into sex so much lately. But I know we need to maintain that intimacy, so let me just take care of you." She was drying her hair in our bathroom. The door open. Her freshly shaved legs still dripping water. "Yeah, I haven't been feeling it much lately either," I lie as I think about how I want to suck her ankles dry. "Well, how about this; how about a two blow job guarantee? Two blow jobs this week or your money back!"
Sunset gets grittier as we near our neighborhood. We're talking money issues, filling the void. "So I'll pay you back the Writer's Guild dues, and you'll get back half the rent for this month, and I'm sure there's other stuff. What else do I owe you?"
I fight a smile, chuckle a little to myself. "What?" "No, it's nothing." I snort a little more. She laughs unsure, wanting to join in the fun. "C'mon! What?" "No, really. It's nothing. Just something I saw on Reddit. I can't really explain it." I'm not going to tell her that she still owes me a guaranteed blow job.
Two months ago, a shock in the middle of the night. A sudden concussive noise, and I'm up. I know she's dead. My dog. My dog is dead. She chews on cords. She just chewed on a cord and got shocked and now she's dead and I know she's dead. She's dead. "Oh my god!" I cry out loud as I jump out of bed. "Oh my god, oh my god!" She's dead and Caitlin is going to leave me. There's no way we recover from this. Not again. Not again. Not after last time. It's over. It's all over. She's dead. We're dead. My family is dead. I'm at the foot of the bed. I look at the cord I know she was chewing. Caitlin has bolted up, terrified. "What is wrong with you?" "Oh my god, oh my god! Where's Lemon?" There is no corpse next to the cord I thought I knew she was chewing on. "She's right here, Ryan." She turns on the light. I see Caitlin and Lemon in bed. They both look at me with their heads cocked to the side. I can see them. They are real and alive. My family. I crumble to the floor, crying.
Find a friend in Chicago to put you up. Convince your sister to drive with you across the country. See some friends along way. Book hotels in Phoenix, Rifle, and Omaha. Make sure they will allow a dog. Take pictures at the Grand Canyon. Stare out the window at the Perseid Meteor Shower in Utah. Worry about that grinding feeling in the accelerator through the Rockies. Speed like crazy through Nebraska. Fuck Iowa. Just fuck it. Fucking Iowa.
"They choose you, really. Not the other way around." Steve fosters rescues, a passionate hobby, saving them from the syringe, working with trainers and vets to rehabilitate them, to no one's financial benefit. We met Sagan in Steve’s backyard in some 'burb north of North Hollywood. Or more north. Sagan was Valentino then. A beefy sweet American Bull/Staffy, 75 lbs of muscle and shy. He acted scared of us, hiding behind Steve's hot Hungarian wife who I'm sure had a name. But only a few moments with us, a greeting, a hand and hind part sniff, and he relaxed. Started to play in his own confused way, excitedly watching but not quite chasing a ball. His temperament was kindly, if timid. He didn't bark. Didn't chase. "How is he with other dogs?" "Great, great," they tell us. "There was some growling early on, but we're pretty sure it was just the pain he was experiencing in his tail." They show us a picture of his emaciated frame when they rescued him. Tell us he was to be terminated the next day. "Can you imagine? This sweet fella?" His tail had an infection and had to be operated on twice, cut down to a wiggly nubbin. He would come behind you and push his head into your hand, begging for pets. He got all the pets, until we were rolling in the grass, wrestling, playing. "They know before you do. And you can tell, he knows."
Here is my house, a duplex in suburban Glendale. Yellow siding. White windows. Flowers blooming out front. A grill in the back.
Here is my girlfriend:.Glasses and hips, librarian chic. A writer by trade, a cook by nature, a nurse when the need arises, and it does.
Here is my dog, an American Staffordshire, American Bulldog mix. He is mostly white, brown in places, fawn they call it, most solidly on the top of his head covering his eyes, like the pokey little puppy, but huge. 80 pounds. All muscle. A hard head he could use to smash through doors, walls, but is used more commonly to weigh down exposed calves and nudge idle hands urging a pet.
He was found at The Devore Animal Shelter in San Bernadino, a high kill shelter, a shelter that houses dogs and cats and whatever and exterminates quickly. Because hard decisions have to be made sometimes. He was starved, 30 pounds underweight, his tail infected, a mess, a disaster, three years old, never loved, never knowing affection, only pain, his short life consumed by it.
Here is his house. Here are his people. Here is his bowl from which he eats without breathing. Here is his favorite spot to poop enormous poops. Here is his couch. Here is his bed. Here are the toys he doesn't understand. Here is his life.
You didn't know how to climb stairs. No. It wasn't a lack of knowledge. You were scared to climb upstairs. That first night, well, you were scared of everything. You wouldn't leave the kitchen. We sat in the living room with a movie on bu focused on you, listening to your nails click on the tile, away from the walkway toward the back door, sniffing, to the oven, sniffing more, returning to the walkway to poke your head around the corner and peek at us. "C'mon, buddy. C'mere. It's ok, Sagan, it's ok. Come get on the couch. It's warm and safe up here." But the stairs. We had to finally drag you up. She pulled your collar, I pushed your rear, and you put your tail between your legs and dug in with your nails. Because what did you know? About us. About this place.
They told us you were a bait dog, your foster family. That was their theory. That you had been used to tease the real fighting dogs. Was that it?
No. Not one so big and strong as you. Before the foster family, before the shelter, you weren’t a bait dog. Were you fought, Sagan? Did they keep you in a pen with a heavy chain around your neck that forced you always to strain just to stand or move or even lift your head? Is that how you built that muscle mass in your neck and shoulders? Did they drag you up a similar flight of stairs and at the top was there a short-walled ring where you found an opponent you had never seen and were forced to attack? Did you lose? Did they leave you somewhere to die? Why didn't you? Why didn't you just die, Sagan? Why even live? For what purpose? If this was all you knew, what motivated you to survive with that bloody, infected tail, that empty belly, those memories? Why didn't you just die?
When you reached the top of the stairs, you hid in our bedroom closet. Ducked your head low, eyes looking at us from under your worried brow, looked like you had just been dragged to certain... certain what? What the fuck was it, Sagan? What happened to you?
But we let you be. We closed the bedroom door. We showed you to your bed, which you didn't trust either. We let you sniff the closet, the dresser, the bedside tables, her shoes, my hoodies, the dirty clothes, all of it, suspect until confirmed – not a threat. We turned off the lights and listened to you pace. To the closet, to your bed along the opposite wall, to the dresser, to the closet again, until you settled, rolled into a ball on your bed. And slept. With us there. All of us sharing the same air, the same room, sleeping together like a pack. Your pack.
Get to Chicago. Sleep on a mattress on the floor. Watch your dog backslide in her potty training. She's distressed. This is different. And she hates it. Wash dog pee off your friend's borrowed sheets every night, but don't say anything. Search frantically for a new apartment, a new home, a place to settle, to settle her, to settle yourself. Have a beer. Have another beer.
It ended with a stranger's dog on a different walking path. It ended with a broken collar and four stitches sewing her hand back together. It ended in the flashing of barred teeth buried indiscriminately into flesh, dog and human, piercing whines and feral growls, wild animals, out of control. It ended, and I wasn't even there to see it. But we carried on like there was more we could do.
"He can't stay here." Caitlin gestures at Sagan with her bandaged hand. "I can't stay here. Not with him. He can't stay here, Ryan. He can't. I can't sleep with him in my house. I just can't... not another ni-" Mucous catches in her throat. I don't rush to hold her. I'm so mad.
"We can't just be rid of him. He's ours. Our responsibility."
"Not another right. He has to go."
"I need more time. You know what it means to get rid of him now. We have to find him a home. Somewhere they can rehabilitate him."
"It's been four days."
"We just need a few more."
"Ryan. You heard them. He's a "red line" dog. What about him lunging at children? What if you take him out tonight and he gets away from you? He's so big, Ryan."
"I just can't, Caitlin. He's ours. We're his. We can't do this to him. We're all he's ever had."
We're both crying, but apart. She on the stairs, me in the leather chair. Sagan watching us from the couch, his new favorite place in the world.
After a time, I tell her: "I need more time. What if you stayed the night with Patrick and Brooke?"
"Just a night or maybe two. Just until I can find him a home."
I watch the anger rise in her, watch it crawl up her straightening back, watch it settle in the pursing of her lips. "You want me to leave?"
"No, Caitlin, I mean. I'm just trying to be accommodating to both of you. You're right. You shouldn't have to stay another night with him. But we have to do right by him. I'm trying to do right by both of you."
"Really? Because that's not what it sounds like. It sounds to me like you're choosing your dog over me."
"I'm not! I'm choosing both of you. I'm choosing you both! Caitlin, we adopted him. We have certain responsb –"
"I can't believe this." She turned to climb the stairs.
"Where are you going?"
"To pack a bag, Jackass!"
I slumped onto the couch next to Sagan. He put his head on my leg. I opened my laptop and continued the search.
Two days; a sickly green liquid; a needle; two hard, scared, jagged breaths; a long sigh; and a lot of crying later, we knew it was over. I threw his bed into the big green dumpster behind our condo. She put his tags in her purse.
We would talk every night in bed, the AC cranked so high we'd strain to talk over it. So many State of the Union Addresses delivered at a horizontal dais. While the threats facing our union are many and the solutions few, we assure the American people that the state of our union is strong.
“She likes you more than me.” Caitlin says, nodding at our 4 month old English Bulldog puppy, Lemon. She’s sitting in the light of the open window, panting, her tongue hanging, too big for her mouth. Caitlin and I sit at the kitchen table. “No she doesn’t. I’m just around her more.”
“She doesn’t come when I call her. I mean, she does eventually, but not right away.”
“That’s just because she’s a stupid puppy.”
“No. She likes you more. It’s ok. I’m over it. I just... I wanted her to be my dog, you know? Like... It’s ok.” She reaches into her purse. I hear what sounds like coins rubbing together.
When it happened, I was still in my pajama pants. I was in my pajama pants a lot, actually, around that time. I worked from home, so showering was an option for me. One I often declined. It was our anniversary and we hadn’t planned anything. I hadn’t planned anything. It just sort of creeped up on us and was there. Bam. Oh yeah. 3 years. We should do something. Well I’m pretty busy that week. Yeah, me too. We should go to dinner. Make a night of it. Maybe. Let’s make a plan after work. And then, the dishes. That morning. I got on her about the dishes. I was always on her about some domestic chore, as if I was any better, as if I was more responsible, as if I were “house dad” and had to be on her back to fulfill her domestic duties. And then she came home, and I was still in the same dirty t-shirt and ripped pajama pants I was wearing the day before, sitting in my office playing chess online. There could’ve been flowers. There could’ve been champagne. There could’ve been dinner in a pot and a clean, pressed and shaved boyfriend to kiss without worrying that he still had morning breath.
Settle into a new apartment. Start a routine. Up at 7:30 to walk the dog. Work at 8am from home in your underwear. Pet her as she sleeps under your desk. Go for a run in the afternoon. Take her for a long walk in the early evening. Setlle in. This is your life. The two of you. Make a special breakfast on weekends. Give her an egg -- it's good for her coat. Be completely unaware that she has an egg allergy. Watch her face swell later that night, redhotandpainful. Watch her scratch at it and cry. Give her Brandryl. Watch nothing improve. Call the vet. Closed. Call the emergency vet. They tell you towatch her, and if she throws up, bring her in. Check her gums. Still pink. Deep breath. She's still scratching. Keep vigil throughout the night. She wants off the bed. She wants up. She wants off the bed. She wants up. She wants off the bed.
Rush to the emergency vet. Check in. The nurse asks you to wait. It's 2am on a Sunday morning. The waiting room is a narrow strip of chairs against a wall of windows. It's a cold October night. There is a family, Mom, Dad, Son, maybe 10 years old. They are not talking. They are called back to a room, all of them together. Lemon throws up again. Her face seems more puffy. Tell the nurse. "Ma'am, she seems to be getting worse. Also, she threw up again. How soon?" She tells you, "Soon." Sit down. Someone cleans up the vomit but you're not watching. You're watching your dog struggle to breathe. A door opens and the family emerges. The dad is holding a box. They are still not talking. The son is crying. They leave. Pick up your dog. Check her gums again. They are still pink. No. Are they whiter? Bluer? No. You can't tell. You can't tell.