In that part of the country where I tried to live alone, the burned-out California of nobody’s dreams, I measured time in the disappearance of roadkill. A deer on the shoulder took less than a day to be removed, a raccoon at least a couple. Braking around the curves in the road where these shapes remained, I spent my idle thinking on the barking dog. Each night, the noise seemed not to echo through the redwoods around my property but to come amplified, and encircling, from them. By the time I abandoned that house, a damp place of warped decks and spectacular views, I was sleeping little more than three hours a night and living like prey under the threat of something bigger. Even now, I don’t think I could describe the sound of that dog, menacing and pitiful, though I believe I could make it—it sometimes happens that we’re afraid of a sound because we know, somewhere in our bodies, is the same one.
Can a dog make the same sounds, beaten, that it might on its own, suffering?
A county over from the house were the remains of a town a fire had erased the fall before. I drove through it only once, turning left at cinder-block foundations already white with sun. Twenty minutes in the other direction, another had flooded so badly that the stop signs, in the photos we’d all seen in the news, appeared halved. Joseph, hearing where I’d bought the house as I packed my things—I meant it as a surprise for the both of us I’d told myself the seasons before, as I skulked real estate late at night—peered at the photos and gagged. Do you hate your life, he asked, or just your money? But the property, the warming planet, did not seem to me so much bigger a risk than many I’d taken with my safety: to love a person born with the privileges he was, for instance. This was something my mother had warned me about, the spring I met him, but by then I saw her advice like something in the back of a fridge, likely past its expiry and suspect anyway for how rarely one had reached for it.
I arrived in the country still spotting—in rare cases, this can last a month—with a skillet and a tape measure and the kind of delusive optimism that only kicks in when rational attempts at peace have failed. My first week there, I baked cornbread and read poetry and purchased, from an antique store lit only by sun, a box of strangely colored tile. The rectangles were marbled green and pearl, patches of pink or blue coming through in some but not others. There were more important repairs, a faulty fixture on the kitchen sink the previous owner could only have installed on meth or horseback. But I focused first on color and light, installing those tiles above the bathroom sink and dimmer switches in the bedroom. I crouched and reached, blew and twisted, and walked at dusk to the river, where I swam against the current, an argument I always enjoyed, and always lost.
There was not a part of my body I did not use that first week. I slept very well despite the heat, which was dry and somehow red, the same color of the dust it lived in. Problems that could be solved with a screwdriver, or by money paid to some contractor, made me happy that September. When my new used car developed a strange cough, the hassle of bringing it to the mechanic didn’t bother me. He had been the closest option by far and had responded to the message I’d left on the shop’s machine with emoji-infested text messages. I’ll put your fire out, he had written, followed by a squadron of flames and blue droplets and body builders with dumbbells.
After the first time he fixed it, he let me know about surviving a shooting at a garlic festival, pulling up an article on his phone that showed him fleeing. “Zoom in,” he’d instructed me. “It just goes to show you,” he said, widening his eyes, and I averted mine, worried about what he believed this might demonstrate. I spent the next three hours at a bad diner down the road, a pleasant interruption of microwaved pie and carton milk. Though the look the mechanic gave me when I returned was too long, the alcoholic heat coming off him too pronounced, I was able to forget it the moment I drove away. “Come back soon,” he called, that day or another, which I did find an odd injunction.
Can a dog make the same sounds, beaten, that it might on its own, suffering? I woke to the noise, the first time, around five in the morning, unfortunate timing given how it coincided with sunrise, leaving me to think, as I gained consciousness, that one had somehow created the other—that the sweep of pink through the window was the face of that yowling, that the cry invented the light slipping through the trees. I’d gone to bed around midnight and decided not to sleep any longer, trying to make virtue out of deprivation.
It’s true I could have communicated better with my husband about my decision, the two pills I took—the first at the clinic, the second a day later—but I worried he would convince me otherwise, Joseph, whose mind was the first thing I loved about him and also the first I hated. My feeling for him ruled me, but a vestigial boarding-school Catholicism ruled him. It was an occasional fever that charmed me at first, as unkempt and godless as I’d always been: the way fear or faith would land on his face. Our first autumn together, he once turned on a heel, gasping at the entrance of the train on a morning we were both late, and said I should go on without him. We had forgotten to make his bed, and he could not face the idea of abandoning that sin.
Joseph and I had met on the subway, something that might seem romantic until you consider how faulty an introduction that is, with no chatter of commonality, shared friends, or culture. Any love we wanted we beat our way toward alone, laughing, not worrying enough about the distance between our native minds, the advice each of us had been given before we were old enough to qualify it. Wasn’t it funny, he of a Notting Hill childhood and starched Eton puberty, next to a girl from somewhere else completely, raised by a single mother at free clinics and public pools? I delighted in the Milton he could recite from memory, the print of his education on his thinking, and he in the questions I didn’t bother to ask: Could one disregard that sign? Decline that invitation? Swim in that body of water? This is classic you, he would say, following me into whichever forbidden passage. Once, seeing me dressed in white in October, he put an index finger to my shoulder and said, I’m no Connecticut dandy, but after Labor Day?
That’s a rule, I’d replied, for people who never have sex for any reason except “it’s nighttime.” Joseph repeated my remark into the gingkos as we left the house, squeezing my sides. Clever girl, he said often, my clever girl. When we discussed my mother, which we almost never did, he was sympathetic to my situation, if perhaps too eager to summarize it. He spoke of how I had, in his words, clawed my way up, how I was, in his terms, a real American, self-made and self-governed.
When I brought a photo of her to him in bed once, having found it in an old suitcase the night before a trip, he looked a long time: at the way she lifted me to the sun by the river, at the leotard she wore instead of a bathing suit, at the Coke in her hand and Camel in her mouth. Then he put it down without a word, as if to say: What’s to be done? The fact of my body separating from hers, thirty years before, was the only piece of information he needed. It was an expression I’d seen in the courtroom, where in our earliest love I had gone to watch him—the performed silence, the buttoning of his lip. I’d do impressions of him later, when we were naked, mocking his outsized sincerity, purposely invoking the wrong Latin, and he’d gasp in disgust and delight and beg for more.
Remarkable, he’d said that night he saw her photo, patting the bed beside him.
Her? I had asked, still standing, grinning at the suggestion.
On a run I took in the afternoon, I jogged in place by fences where I saw a dog, looking huskies and boxers and pit bulls in the eye. A bark is supposed to be distinctive, but whichever distortion—the distance the sound traveled, the pain the creature was in—had made it impossible to identify the round vowels of a hound or the emasculated yap of a terrier. Passing a wan green house where a fungus of snouts came through the chain link, I believed this ruled out all of them. Wouldn’t one dog, barking, incite another? It did not seem possible they would refuse to comment on its suffering, if only to reprove it. The sounds of the dog were worse the next night, and started at twelve-thirty, so after some hours awake I began a painting project, a shell-white to cover the antacid-pink in the second bedroom. My breathing, I noticed, was shallow, my grip on the brush uncertain. As though it were something I’d learned but forgotten, I tried to identify what I was afraid of: not really the dog, not really the house. It was not really even that part of the country, where the cursing that came through the trees, over coupons not honored, rides not offered, seemed likely to result in violence, and the things I saw on the checkout belts of the grocery store, fourteen of the same canned dinner, made what I put in my body seem excessive.
Though I managed the first coat neatly enough, finishing at three-thirty, I found the next day that I’d somehow tracked paint down the hardwood flooring of the hall. Living alone for the first time in years, it was alarming to know every mess was mine: I’d see the many cabinet doors I’d left open, the spill I’d left to clean until later, and think, That’s you, that’s who you are. As I crouched to feel the braille of the paint bumps, a text from the mechanic came in—how’s the car cupcake—and I swiped left to ignore it.
Around three that afternoon I made my way down the steep grade of the twisting road, stepping sideways toward the fence where I’d stopped the day before. The house it protected was built on stilts, as were all of them in that neighborhood. This produced the sensation of being watched from above, and also the suspicion that when those houses fell, their disaster would include me. The dogs all gathered in the area beneath a bloated patio, where a trellis supporting it seemed ready to give. Eyes of chlorinated blue, coats of rust, six of them or seven: I felt ashamed, somehow, of why I had come, and spoke to them sweetly before I mounted the stairs, before I rang the bell, one of those vertical buttons whose tinny sound feels less like a hello than a thanks-for-nothing.
“The fuck is that,” hissed a voice from inside, and I took a step back as I heard the catch of a lighter’s flint.
By a year into my relationship with Joseph, I had stopped answering my mother’s calls. When the question of family came up in public, he helped me evade it, keeping the question of my past away as he pointed to the riches of our future. Have you got a big family, Claudia? some acquaintance of his might say, and Joseph would laugh and sling an arm around me: She’s certainly going to if I have anything to do with it. About the cold country that had grown between my mother and me, he was supportive, telling me we can’t help who we come from, only who we become. Later, in front of a friend of his, his closest from Oxford, he asked my permission to speak of it. She’s ghosted her mother, George, he said. Have you ever heard of something so American?
I arrived in the country still spotting—in rare cases, this can last a month—with a skillet and a tape measure and the kind of delusive optimism that only kicks in when rational attempts at peace have failed.
My distance from my mother was not a matter of comfort but necessity, I thought, an evaluation I paid a therapist three hundred dollars a week to confirm, in an office that made it obvious which language to use. The guilt I felt, the way her need punished my achievements. Sitting in that tasteful, expensive room, I cried often, recounting memories of my mother mere minutes after I’d ignored her call. Jeff the therapist nodded, smiling occasionally with his very bleached teeth, telling me I was brave, rolling closer in his chair if my sobs became deeper. Would I like a hug, he would ask, and if I agreed I spent the nights until the next session googling different versions of the same question—can your therapist hug you—changing the phrasing because sometimes I wanted the internet’s supportive yes, sometimes a resounding no. Gestalt therapy + physical touch + depression always brought a better answer than the plain, dumb question.
The woman answered the door followed by a rolling oxygen tank. I could see her husband in the background, smoking, tapping on his phone. Introducing myself, I apologized almost immediately, so that it emerged seeming like part of my surname, I’m Claudia Sorry. I told her I was a new neighbor, and she asked me where I worked.
I’m a designer, I mentioned, I work for myself, understanding immediately this was a mark against me, in her eyes, a sign I only trusted myself and was not to be trusted.
“I’ve been hearing this barking at night,” I said.
“Probably a dog,” my neighbor replied.
“It’s keeping me from sleeping,” I faltered. “I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but I thought I’d see if it might be one of yours.” Fussing with a button on her oxygen tank that deepened its hiss, she paused to look at me in the light that was changing. Sun reached that street only between two and four, and by six the place felt again like a child’s neglected terrarium, a place for frogs and moss and standing water.
“My dogs have a good life,” she said. There was the flint of a lighter again, and a male voice asked who it is was. “It’s Claudia, the new neighbor. She works for herself.” Then she started coughing and laughing, and I left as I’d arrived, apologizing.
“Come around again and I’ll do the barking, honey,” she called as I fled down the stairs. The dogs, as I passed, were silent, though the minute I’d moved out of view they all began to bark. Feeling shame infested with anger, or anger infested with shame, I took another way home, stopping near a house just painted a pleasing kind of yellow. I stood in its empty driveway. In a window that was wide and clean, a tawny mutt sat on a couch, the room around it dark. When it saw me, it put its paws on the sill.
Two weeks before I had swallowed the misoprostol, at a dinner we gave for a friend’s birthday, I heard Joseph repeat something I’d said verbatim, a remark I’d made about the early American fondness for the Greek column—a gaudy celebration of democracy that raised a finger to Britain. He delivered the line better than I had. Standing at the sink, I sifted my mind and felt similar memories falling down it, a time at a holiday party that something I’d read and summarized for his amusement came off his tongue, delighting the circle of people around him. I’d been across the bar, triangulating a grip of three cocktails, and when I returned to his side he passed one to his colleague but did not introduce me to several people I hadn’t met. On our walk home he held me in such a particular way, an arm around my waist and a hand slipped under my braided leather belt, that I could not imagine breaking the warmth there to say or ask anything in particular. My brilliant girl, he called me that night as he fucked me, praising my mind as he made himself at home in my body. We had whole conversations that way, pauses where we stopped panting to talk over some drag or gleam to the day, a tiff we’d had or a painting we’d loved. If I thought that was communion, if I thought it meant some merging of souls, if I thought there was such a God-issued thing as a soul: I did not really consider what the force of him did to the remarks I made then, whether I assented to his line of thinking because it seemed to come from inside my own body.
She’s ghosted her mother, George, he said. Have you ever heard of something so American?
When I took the test that confirmed what I suspected, Joseph had sat opposite me, against the bathroom wall, his feet pressed against mine. Baby, he said, looking at me with the kind of pride reserved for great achievements, and there was not a question between us of what we ought to do. I had not seen that expression on his face before—on the occasion of a prize I’d won for a hotel I’d redesigned, silk curtains dyed naturally by the area’s rain, or a grant I’d received for my study of organic iridescence. Later that week, we attended a third birthday party for his colleague’s twin daughters, Lucy who insisted on a lilac tutu and a veil, Naomi who straddled a rocking horse and asked boisterous questions.
I was rude to anyone who spoke to me that afternoon, so intent was I on watching Joseph with those girls, newly three and loudly alive. From the deck I craned my head, turning back to watch him through the sliding glass doors. Lucy, who held a wand in one hand and a face-paint grease stick in the other, stood on the dining table where he must have lifted her, the tulle pushed back from her face. He sat in the chair, his eyes closed to her transformation of him, and she was silent and gentle, rendering him in silver and blue. I was moved by his happy calm, a phenomenon from which the whole future issued, certain and mine. It brought to mind a memory of him, the summer I’d sprained an ankle in Italy, carrying me piggyback as he called Fate Largo through the twists of Venice, allowing me to dictate left or right by a pull on the corresponding hank of his hair. I returned to the conversation around me for a moment, and when I looked back again, I saw Naomi at his foot. She wore a sheriff’s star and giggled as she tucked something in the cuff of his pants, then sat on his suede oxford. Asking Lucy to pause a moment, he reached down, picked up Naomi, and placed her a few feet away, displacing her cowboy hat. It was brusque but not quite violent, cold but not quite vicious. I was the only one to see what had made her cry, and also that he ignored her tears.
When I reached the house I sat in my car immediately and drove to a drugstore, where I bought earplugs and the kind of antihistamine that warns the user about operating heavy machinery. As I paid the cashier, he asked how I was spending my day, and I told him I had some projects at home. He nodded, and I returned the question, practicing a generosity with strangers I had spent ten urban years eliminating. He told me that every Sunday he and a friend went to a movie, which he would that night.
“You know what we call it?” he asked. I shook my head. “Movie club,” he said, and we each smiled, though not exactly toward each other. I returned to my parking space, and as I put on the news I saw a text I’d missed. Nevermind don’t bother replying just saw you driving you look very happy, wrote the mechanic.
But a son, I pointed out, would have watched you with me.
I had no plans to respond to his message, but as I started back, I heard it—the cough again, a squelching when I turned the key in the ignition. Though I’d delighted in the prospect of car ownership after so long in the city and had not even tried to bargain with the man whose ad had read “or best offer,” the liability of it came with an element of fear. It was like taking responsibility for a whole other body, any problem that cropped up likely indicative of five others, and I had dreams about it most nights, an indication on the dash I hadn’t heeded. It occurred to me the mechanic had enacted some kind of quick fix designed to prompt my return, and I heard Joseph’s laugh in my head. Lovely as you are, he would have said, do you really think the man has enough mental pennies saved up to focus on you? He’s not planning past the next Pornhub search term, darling, and even that’s not terribly original. In the last hour of daylight I spread newspaper on the deck and began sanding a chair I hoped to refinish, which was not the most practical, given that the wiring out there was faulty and the light wouldn’t work. I rubbed down the last leg in the dark, trying to tell myself I would know the change was enough just by the feel of it. It had been a season since I’d left him, and there seemed little point to it, given how clearly I could hear his thinking, and how easily I could push it into mine.
Joseph had come home from work the day after the party with a bouquet of peonies, asking what I’d thought of some article he’d emailed. Come, now, he said, when I was silent, we both know you’re going to have something smart to say about this. Is it . . . he asked, placing a hand on my abdomen, then after what I needed, a seltzer, a bath, a foot rub. When I mentioned what I’d seen of him with the girls, careful to keep any thought of what it meant from escaping, he anticipated my worry and laughed, a kindness coming into his eyes. Darling, he said, you’re worried I only want a little princess? Don’t be foolish. How could that be true, given that I’ve chosen you? I wouldn’t put it past you to skin a cat and eat it if we were desperate. It’s part of why we’re together. His laugh was like the British sound of the word, fuller than my laugh had ever been, more credible. Joseph took me in his lap, and I pressed further, asking about the weeping he’d ignored, but he put a hand on my forehead and asked if it wasn’t true that Naomi had stopped with her fit soon after, likely as a result of the fact that he hadn’t fussed over it. Not every feeling, he had said, is deserving of a seminar.
The antihistamine I took that night put me to rest if not to sleep. I felt as I sometimes had in sex with Joseph, that my body existed for the sake of something acting upon it, that it was happiest with direction. When I heard the dog through the drug, I believed I deserved it, that I had changed my life and these were the terms. In the sediment of the next morning, I found the website for animal services, then the section in which I could Report an Issue. Under issues, there was Barking Dog.
Type the address of the barking dog, it said, to which I typed “uncertain,” then “many,” then “not applicable.” Finally, I called the number, saying to the man who answered that the corridor of trees both obscured and amplified the sound, making its source unknowable, that I believed there were either several dogs or a dog in such distress the sounds it made changed, and that I heard these noises only at night. When I was done speaking, he paused.
“And what’s the address of the barking dog?” he said.
“The dog has no address,” I snapped. “I only know its position as relative to mine.”
“We aren’t dog detectives,” he explained. “Don’t really have the time to be lurking on streets at night, waiting to catch a clue.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, though I very much was not.
“Don’t be sorry, just be certain,” said the man, and I went out to the deck. I could tell that the work I’d done, in the compromise of what I could see, was uneven. What I needed was to be somewhere else, so I got in the car, but the coughing, this time, would not stop, and the car would not start. I tried to call the mechanic at the shop, but there was no answer, so I sent a text.
In the fallout of our conversation about those little girls, Joseph had been tender and quiet for most of two days, asking about the looks that passed across my face, taking a handkerchief from his pocket on the summer evening when something in the weather made me cry. It had been a stiff August, a month for which my body always kept some fragile anxiety—a transmission from grade school summers when I would fall asleep rearranging the off-brand pencils and folders on my twin bed again, imagining the performance I would give, unforgettable to the teachers I worshipped. We were passing down East Houston, headed toward a movie. I felt a sudden fear about a life without them: movies, matinees, hours that could shape me without my shaping them. Hadn’t it closed too quickly, the window of freedom? I had been a girl in a classroom, alive to the questions of other people, then a young woman in a bar, budgeting another drink and a walk home or spending it all on a cab right then—and after that, only briefly, had I been just a person. For about five years, I’d possessed enough money and confidence that most bad turns of luck or circumstance could be made or unmade with the correct remark or payment. For about three of those five, I had worried neither about the theater of my girlhood, the shoddy rope swing in my front yard whose arc I furiously repeated, or the decades in front of me, years which I’d never really bothered to imagine beyond a general change in posture: the way I would bend toward the need of a child. Touching my face on the street, Joseph laughed, not without love. I don’t know about you, darling, but I still plan on getting to the cinema quite a bit. In your imagination, what’s happened to the sitters? He found the place in my back where he knew I’d been sore, and he pressed his fingers along it. Soon we were walking again, soon we were at concessions, and he bought us popcorn and bonbons and sparkling water. Kiss my nose, he said as we stood in a line that was beginning to move, I won’t budge if you don’t. Absurdity like this was his way of erasing everything around us, reminding me of my belonging. I rolled my eyes, but he tapped his right nostril with a slapstick solemnity, and by the time we were seated I was laughing into his shoulder.
Hadn’t it closed too quickly, the window of freedom?
In the dark of the theater, feeling warm in his gestures of comfort, I tried to remember when he’d last allowed me to provide him any comfort. In London two Christmases before, I had caught him frozen at the doorframe of the front room where his father sat playing Rachmaninoff. Through the windows came a crystalline glow from the square across the way, the last hour before his mother would walk through the house, switching on the lamps with her fine fingers. Thinking Joseph had been moved, I took his elbow and murmured something admiring, how his father’s left hand flirted down the lower octaves, convincing them. But he flinched my touch away and marched down the hall, saying there was something off in how his father played, a hesitation there hadn’t been in Joseph’s childhood.
He had spent the two weeks there taking sudden turns into unused rooms of the house, moving a chair back to the way he remembered it, cursing quietly about any deviation from his boyhood that seemed permanent. These changes he consulted his mother about at dinner—a certain painting new to a room, chinoiserie vanished without his consent. When I asked what was on his mind, on a walk we took after brandy by the fire, he made a dismissive wave. My questions had seemed to Joseph invasions of privacy, and I hung back to watch him move ahead through Hyde Park, passing into snow where dogs flew silent, the only interruptions to fields of white.
Toward the end of that trip I had called my mother, something I did not tell Joseph. It’s . . . my . . . Peaches! she said, like a game show host. You caught me right after I’d stopped betting on it, but I knew it’d be you eventually. There followed a few tentative conversations, over the next two months, in which I had skirted the details of my life—where we’d bought, how we’d spent Christmas—and asked as few questions as I’d answered. Then I had offered to buy her health care, a thousand a month with dental included, and she had stated plainly that she’d rather have the money, told me about the bills she was not able to manage.
When I made my airy argument about the resources replenished by a healthy life, about there being different kinds of wealth, she said I was as far from understanding her as the sea was the shore. Tell me what that even means, I yelped, thinking then was not the time for her barstool poesy. You’re bigger and you make me smaller, she said, and hung up the phone. The calls I placed after that went unreturned.
Maybe half an hour after I’d left the mechanic the message, a tow truck I hadn’t called came, arriving at the same moment as a text from him—tow en route no charge let me know ur safe—and I watched as the man mounted my car on his bed and took it slowly away.
I looked up at the house, then, from the empty driveway beneath it, and saw it differently than I had when it was a structure I might easily speed away from. I could replace the cheap windows with thick old glass, I could rip out the deck and put in fresh cedar: it would still be a place built on stilts, under a lacework of thousand-year-old shadows, where the question of disaster fell under when, not if. And then, in answer to the question he had asked a season before, I wrote to Joseph, breaking the silence.
Maybe I hate my life too, but you’re the only person I know who doesn’t hate his money, I wrote.
Practice makes perfect, he responded instantly, and I was sure he knew it made me laugh.
I left for the day right then, deciding I’d walk the three miles to town, and from the slim shoulder I called my mother, an activity that had become passive and almost soothing in the year since she’d answered. Her outgoing message was a recording of her boyfriend, on an untuned piano, making up a song about her name. He was a musician she’d known when she was much younger, and she’d moved into his cheap rental on the outskirts of Sacramento. The once I visited, just before meeting Joseph, I’d watched him drink eight beers over the course of two hours, forgetting what he’d said the minute before but never to light her cigarette. You should have seen your mother, he said, when she was in the bathroom, a thought on which he did not elaborate, an obligation to the past I had no way of fulfilling.
Rather than reaching some finality of expression in the way that she aged, my mother looked like an unfinished version of herself, thin in strange places, the colors of her face only half filled in. She could think of little to ask me, except for money, and I could think of little to ask her, except a vague forgiveness, for what my mind changed every day. College and graduate school, pleats and watches, the Ubers I called from, all the parts of my life that said something about the way she and I had lived together. Bedrooms we had shared in scanter years, just-bought secondhand shoes already half-dead when we slipped them on with stagey exclamations in the car. She’d cheered my progress from the sidelines until a certain point, likely until the moment she understood there was no finish line, that the sprint went farther than even I could see.
Watching me pack for a semester abroad, she had stood by, grinning. I’m so excited, I feel like I’m going, she had said. We stayed up until two, in the motel room by the airport she had splurged on, smoking the cigarettes I had not yet quit, giving each other pedicures, talking out the arguments with our boyfriends of the moment. Then we kissed good night on the mouth and linked pinkies as we slept, the last night it was true that any place known to one was known to the other. I did not send a postcard, that trip or the next, telling myself a beveled lie about it—that the risk of envy, when I told those stories and described those places, would be better mitigated by a squeeze of my hand, the foreign element naturalized, as I spoke of it, by the familiar story of my face.
When Joseph had left for a bachelor weekend, at seven on a Thursday, I was eight weeks pregnant, and when he returned Monday evening, I was a shape on the mattress. That I did it in private seemed important to me, proof I had chased an outcome on my own recommendation. The pain was not so much more than I felt in other months, though the mess was surreal, a study in color that changed each time I looked at the towel underneath me. You could have told me, Joseph said, standing wilted at the foot of the bed, a statement to which I did not reply because one point of my many was that I had not drawn a curtain often enough between us, that there was nowhere—in my past or my future, my love or my anger—I had not allowed him. The Vicodin was a benefit, something that helped me through that talk. I was able to tell him about the hate on my mind without resenting the creature it had made me. His face buckled when I told him how he felt about women, and then he sat on the floor.
I had never been able to resist his hair, chin-length with a shine to it, the only part of him that was free, but as it moved around his face I looked instead at the city out the window, thinking about the world I had kept her from, my daughter, the streets of buildings all designed by men, the achievements of stone and glass in which she would not see herself reflected. We couldn’t know yet it was a girl, he reminded me, and I nodded, softening a minute as he crawled onto the bed. But a son, I pointed out, would have watched you with me.
It was a perfect apology, dreamed up by corporate method, the self at the helm and the past beside the point.
Joseph’s mouth was wet as he held my hand, saying please, begging for what I didn’t know, just to be let back into the time before I believed these things about him. Baby, he said. I remembered the first time a man had called me that, a musician with a tender, studied curl of a bottom lip, and how after I’d told a girlfriend, holding her hand as we passed from a train station up into the street. We were twenty-one, still using makeup to hide how recently we’d been girls, and we said it over and over again to each other, what he’d said inside me, Little baby, little baby, cackling. Our certainty—that we would never want that comparison, that love when it came would arrive with respect—was big and round, a force circumscribing us. I don’t know when it changed, just that after it seemed the most minor of concessions. If I had to endure the interrupting colleague, the doctor whose hand stayed on my back too long, then maybe to be named that, by the men I had chosen, was a correction for the rest: being called something less so I’d be given something more. I lost track of that friend, though I had seen online she met a man and took his name, a fact no one could blame her for, for the one she’d been born with was slight, if not ugly.
In town I walked to the shore of the public beach, a place where a Labrador had died the previous summer from neurotoxic algae, a result of the water’s higher temperature. It was the sort of place that had a beauty if you looked up and out, but not down and around. Nearby a couple argued by the half-inflated raft they’d arrived in, she stomping a tattooed ankle that read I Just Can’t Seem to Drink You Off My Mind, he waving a twenty-two-ounce can of beer that he finally crushed between his hands in emphasis.
I was on that beach, I told myself, I was alone in that town because I’d made a choice—to give up my daughter—or because there was a choice I refused to make: to protect her, over and over, from threats as they became more complicated. A text from the mechanic came in, and I squinted in the sun to read it. Where are u beautiful, it said. I’ll bring the car 2 u. Watching a hawk that circled above the trees, I tried to forget the strangers, their argument, but then I was caught even on my classification of them as such. It was an odd idea, that anyone familiar was worthy of more trust. “This is just like you,” he was saying, as though that were the ultimate insult, and I saw she was walking toward the path with her hands raised, like someone indicating she had no weapon.
Please don’t call me that, I typed. It makes me severely uncomfortable. I lay back rigid in the sand, trying to disarm the sides of my vision, sensing that if I turned at all toward the man whose girlfriend had left he would have a word for me about it.
K, texted the mechanic. Maybe u wanna call the guy u bought the fucking car from bitch at him about your car trouble not the guy who helped u out of pocket with a tow when u buy a car u know nothing about. The phone died as I typed and deleted.
When I arrived home, sunburned and emptied, the car was waiting for me in my driveway, the mutt I’d seen in a window days before pacing above on my deck. The keys weren’t in the ignition, I saw, then passed up the swollen stairs. Sniffing at the swollen wood, its paws bloated and knees white with age, the dog had the air of a substitute teacher, doing something so that it could not be accused of doing nothing. When it saw me, there was hardly an acknowledgment. I followed it around, trying to get its attention, and when my greeting became exclamatory, when I yelled, “HEY,” it finally turned its head. In that state of little sleep my thoughts had largely changed from interpretation to narration, and as I followed it, I thought, You’re following this dog around your deck. You’re following this silent dog. You’re not going inside. Why aren’t you going inside? And when the answer came, I knew it was correct, and I knew the way I was starting to live was not. You’re trying to get this dog to bark at you, it said, and I saw that was true. The keys were not in the mailbox where I hoped they might be. I left the dog on the porch.
Inside I plugged in my phone and turned on the shower. I wanted to remember nothing, as I imagined sometimes Joseph must have—that he would step into warm water and see only into the future. When I emerged there was a text from the mechanic. Hi cupcake I didn’t mean to snap just a stressful day long hours heavy tools I’m here to help not to hurt accidentally run off with your keys tell me when I should come by anything u need just let me know. I did not respond, just crawled into the unmade bed with the towel still around me.
When the knock came, an hour later, I was asleep at the bottom of the world, and I pulled on stained jeans and a T-shirt from the floor, the first things I could find.
I knew who it must be. That the mechanic had come seemed inevitable to me, and I grabbed my pocketknife from the top of the dresser where the clutter of my life had begun to accrue, thinking I would hold it in my fist as I demanded my keys and his silence. The blade was clean and lucent, leading me by the kitchen where I saw cups I’d left unwashed, through the foyer where a debris of greenish pennies lined the sill. But the face through the screen was another man’s, kind, open, though bent to something behind it: the dog, which he held by its collar. I set the knife on the windowsill, I tried to forget how it had felt. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I saw your husband bring your car in an hour ago, so I figured you were home. This guy’s been wandering a lot since we moved in, and he seems to like your deck. He’s half-blind and half-deaf, but it’s made him more adventurous, not less!”
His laugh invited mine to join him as the dog licked his fingers, and though I knew there were polite questions I’d been trained to ask, I could not even hiss how that wasn’t my husband, so transformed was I still by the feeling in my body—remanded to violence, ready to jump.
“I promise to be more respectful of your privacy in the future,” he said, retreating from the door as I stared him away.
It was a perfect apology, dreamed up by corporate method, the self at the helm and the past beside the point. I began to pack that evening, all my things dirty.
Joseph always sleeps well, no matter the circumstance. Now, on the nights I cannot, I pass through the black of our house, getting to know the things I belong to just by their feel. I can sense a wall without touching it, meet the last stair on the way down with no surprise. It was not a shock to him that I returned home, he said later, when I mentioned it was to me, perhaps hoping to communicate that my inner life still tendered some threats. I had not called him until after I’d booked the last-minute ticket and taken the cab ride, thinking of many men in that backseat. There was the tall college boyfriend who fetched me from work in his immaculate Mercedes, taking me back to his front porch, where I drank on his lap until he carried me inside. The reporter whose stormy moods I worshipped, arriving the moment he met a deadline at the restaurant he specified, staying as still as he asked in the dim light of his bedroom. As for the checks I never reached toward, the doors pulled open before me, anyone would have guessed I enjoyed that, the way I had shone and pressed myself, after, to lapels in thanks.
The fall I returned to him, Joseph took the C to JFK and met me at baggage claim, where my luggage came quickly, and he placed it on a rolling cart. In the dark of the car, the driver a part of the silence, I summarized my position: we could return to what we were, I could love him as I always had, so long as we agreed against children. As we passed down the remote avenues of Queens past advertisements that did not apply to us, for discount furniture and payday loans, he was quiet a long time. Then our neighborhood filled the windows, the balustrades that curled elegant as clefs, and he took my hand and kissed it, telling me he could always hope I’d change my mind. This was something my mother had often said, sweetly, in the face of a circumstance she couldn’t fix and that made me unhappy. A pluck to her posture, a camp to her smile, her brown back teeth not yet crumbled and pulled. Give it five hot minutes, and you might change your mind.