map Dogsitting

by Rachel Howard

Published in Issue No. 168 ~ May, 2011

I was married once, in my thirties. We didn’t have kids, so there’s no reason for anyone to know about it now. I hadn’t hit it, yet, back then, with any of my businesses, and I was involved with a roller coaster of one when my wife and I tied the knot. I knew marrying an entrepreneur wasn’t for everyone, but this business looked like a sure winner, and Julie swore belief in for better or for worse. The business started going south pretty much right after we walked down the aisle, but Julie and I limped along for three years of matrimony, and we had some good times. Then I found an email she had left up on a computer screen. Dear Dianne, I am planning to leave my husband.

The day after I saw that email, I was scheduled to fly up to Seattle for business meetings. I didn’t know what to do about the marriage. A friend who had just gone through his own split had been trying to talk me into a trip to Colombia, walks on white sand beaches, dancing in the streets with the locals and forget about the women back home. So I called him and said, sign me up. We’d jet to Cartajena the day after I got back from Seattle.

I don’t know how I thought the day between the trips, back home in San Francisco, would play out—I guess I assumed I’d sleep on the sofa, or Julie would spend the night at a girlfriend’s. But every day that I was in Seattle, Julie called me. Every night she said I love you, and I said I love you back. She picked me up at the airport, with her long hair down and her face made up. We kissed, just a peck, and then we didn’t talk until we got back to the city. Suddenly Julie said, “I told Marianne I’d sleep at her place tonight to take care of her dog.” We pulled up in front of our apartment and Julie kept the car running. “Do you want to come?” I was always a sucker for my wife. Just like a helpless sucker I ran into the house and grabbed clean clothes, and we were off.

The girlfriend Julie was dogsitting for lived with her fiancé in the Presidio, the old Army base right next to the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a weird sort-of ghost town: the old mess hall is a grocery store, the old officers’ houses are rented out to ordinary people, people like Julie’s friend. The friend’s place was a townhouse surrounded by eucalyptus trees, just on the other side of the freeway from the water. When we walked up to the backdoor the dog was in a frenzy, howling and clawing at the glass panes. It was a Jack Russell Terrier. Those dogs are crazy, high-strung, a pain in the ass.

I knew this because Julie had told me so. She adored dogs. I guess all younger women do, and when Julie and I first met she was twenty-two and I was thirty, and that night between Seattle and Colombia she was twenty-nine and I was thirty-eight. She volunteered her lunch hour walking dogs at a shelter since dogs weren’t allowed in our apartment. She had a book of breeds that she would pore over, comparing the Greyhounds and Great Pyrenees, Borzois and Newfoundlands. Before we got married, we talked about what we’d name our children, but once the company started tanking, we talked about dogs. We’d have a French Bulldog named Pig Butt, and a Border Terrier named Pot Scrubber. Pig Butt and Little Scrub, such a good ring to it. Sometimes when we talked like that I thought Julie really did believe we’d have dogs with stupid names someday.

“Star!” she shouted. That was this dog’s name. “Get down!” She had the tone right from volunteering at the shelter. “Jack Russell Terriers,” she said, and rolled her eyes.

I wished I hadn’t come. There were pictures of the happy engaged couple all over the refrigerator, congratulation cards on the bulletin board. On the kitchen table Julie’s friend had left a long letter of instructions, three cans of doggie treats, two huge bones, a bag of newly purchased stuffed animal toys. “No accounting for love,” Julie said. “Now sit, Star!” she said, and gave the dog a treat. That worked for five seconds and then the dog was yapping.

I took our things upstairs and put them in the extra bedroom. I could hear the dog clattering on the wood floors below. The house was cute like a catalogue, but I didn’t like being there. The Presidio has a haunted feeling, the old buildings, the wind knocking eucalyptus branches against the windows. In the spare bedroom, the computer had an “I love you!” Post-It stuck to the screen. When I came back down, Julie had the dog on a leash. She said, “I thought we’d walk to the beach.” She looked sweet standing with the dog, all ready to go.

The dog was afraid of storm drains. It would skitter away, shaking with fear as though it would get sucked in, and Julie would have to drag it past. We had a good laugh at this.

We walked down the hill and beneath the freeway. At the bottom of the hill were flat grasses all the way to the ocean. It was windy, but the sun was just starting to go down and the sky was really something, salmon pink against the blue of the water and the hills and the glowing red of the bridge. People were out, jogging, walking their dogs. Star trotted. “She’s not so rotten once she’s got all that energy out of her system, are you, puppy?” Julie said. She ran back and forth with the dog to wear it out, smiling at me, saying hi to strangers and their dogs and letting Star sniff hello.

When we got to the water, Julie took my hand. “Isn’t Colombia dangerous?” she said. “Drug overlords, that kind of thing? You’re not going to get abducted by some guerrilla faction, are you?”

I told her I planned to bring back premium blow. She laughed uneasily. Besides the joking, I wasn’t talking much. It was beautiful down at the beach, like I thought it might be. Julie was always saying she wanted us to make it, always coming up with some new marriage counselor or a book on “intimacy.” And I always thought going along might make a difference.

The dog had transformed into a perfect little saint with those teddy bear eyes, that epileptic stump of a tail. It would be a monster again when we got back, I knew, but for now it was hard to resist. My wife pressed against me. I wrapped my arms around her waist, but she felt hollow. I thought about how the next day I would be in Colombia and she would be—what?—telling her mother I’d ruined her life. But I didn’t let go. She said, “This feels like old times. We should have done this a long time ago.”

We walked back and crossed the road toward a grove of pine trees. It’s funny, how much I still remember. There was an egret standing in the taller grasses and the dog chased it off. Beneath the trees, there was a white picket fence we hadn’t noticed before. It was short, kid-sized, and it fenced in a big square. The ground was covered in brown pine needles. There were concrete slabs in uneven rows, pitching forwards or sideways, and there were peeling white crosses. “Oh wow,” Julie said. “Wow, Jim. It’s a pet cemetery.”

Julie had a thing for cemeteries. Her father died when she was a girl, in a sudden and god-awful way, which had always explained a lot about her. A few months earlier she had discovered a pet cemetery in another part of the city, a park with a day care center, and she’d brought back photos of her favorite inscription, scrawled in crayon: “Sorry that you died, Froggy.” She was giddy over that one, swooning with Great Meaning. I’ve never met a girl who could be happier that everything has to die.

She hurried into this cemetery and I followed. The headstones at the back were oldest with dates from the 1940’s—dignifed carved-stone affairs. The newer plaques had faded photos under Plexiglass: a basset hound, a poodle, a guinea pig, a girl nuzzling a rat. There were rotted fake flowers, faded tinsel. Julie started calling out inscriptions. “Dear Milly, Somewhere you’re still coughing up hairballs.” She looked at Milly’s picture as though she, too, had known that cat. Then she said, “Beloved Daisy, hey that’s a sweet name for a dog. We never thought about what we’d name a girl dog. Pig Butt and Daisy, that has a ring.” She leaned close so that my arm fell around her hip as we walked, and I didn’t move away.

But when we got closer to the front of the cemetery, the dates were recent. On one of the graves the dirt was fresh. I thought of Colombia. The pines and eucalyptus rustled above and it was cold with the sun going down. I told Julie we should head back.

The dog skittered to avoid getting sucked down the storm drains again, but we didn’t laugh. When we got back, Julie fed the dog and rummaged in the cupboards. The dog was being obnoxious, barking for treats. I went into the living room and turned on the TV. I was trying to think of how to tell Julie I wanted to go home.

She came into the living room with a bowl of soup for her, and one for me. She gave the dog a stuffed hedgehog, and the dog sat on the loveseat and stared at us suspiciously while she gnawed. Julie sat next to me and we ate while watching “Hollywood Insider.” It was the only thing I could find. Then I set my bowl on the coffee table and Julie set down hers. As I was flipping through the channels she curled her legs on the sofa and nuzzled under my arm. I kept my eyes on the TV and she nudged onto my lap.

I should explain that Julie and I hadn’t exactly enjoyed a triple-X sex life. I don’t know when things started to go wrong. Julie was an attractive woman—lots of people thought so—and at first we’d kept each other satisfied, nothing extraordinary in our repertoire, but she seemed happy. It’s true that right after the engagement we had an unfortunate confluence of circumstances—I’d been taking a new medication, it had side effects—and then came the stress of trying to turn the company around, late nights of work and not being in the mood. I told Julie it would pass, but she wanted doctor’s visits, lab work. I got the blue pills, I tried candles and music. I guess it was too late. Her skin crawled when I touched her that way. I was a good lover before, and I’ve pleased plenty of women since. But have you ever tried to satisfy a woman whose skin crawls when you touch her?

Something was different that night, though. That night as I tried to focus on the TV and the dog chewed away, Julie brought her lips to mine. I could feel her weight sinking into me, her warm breath. I thought that any minute she would stop, but she didn’t. I tried to focus on the television, but the sounds felt far away.

Finally Julie moved off me. “You have to get up early for your flight tomorrow,” she said.

I turned off the television and the downstairs lights. We brushed our teeth and put on pajamas. We got into bed with our books. Julie kept a hand on my thigh as we read.

Julie said, “I guess we should go to sleep,” and turned out the light.

She was lying inside my arm. I wondered how long we would stay that way. Then I felt Julie’s lips on my chest, my stomach, her head sliding beneath the covers.

It felt like forever but it could not have taken long. When it was over and Julie slid back up from under the covers I could make out her face in the dark. She looked dozy and peaceful. She said, “Did you like that?”

I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m telling all this. I haven’t thought about that night in a long time. But I thought about it when I was in Colombia, thought about the eucalyptus branches scratching at the window and the wind whistling through the cracks. I thought about the way Julie pressed against me when I said yes, I liked that. And even though part of me felt like I had just lied, I actually considered—I know this is crazy—I considered calling off Colombia and giving things another try.

Then I heard footsteps on the stairs, sneaky little clacks against the hardwood floor. That dog. It jumped onto the bed, rooted around, and threw its body down next to me with a grunt.

I thought of the fresh grave in the cemetery, the dirt piled like coffee grounds. I thought of the smile on Julie’s face as she read off the names on the graves.

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Rachel Howard is the author of the memoir "The Lost Night," about the emotional aftermath of her father's unsolved murder. She is about to move to Swannanoa, North Carolina, where she will serve as the 2011-2012 Beebe Teaching Fellow at Warren Wilson College. She is currently finishing a novel.