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September 17, 2020 Nonfiction

Good with Dogs

Rose McMackin

Good with Dogs photo

I slept with Sam in my bed when he was still a puppy, even though this is supposed to be a bad way to train a dog. He woke me up sometimes in those early months when he was never tired and always ready to play and I laid awake at two a.m. wondering if I had made a mistake.

But all that happened before I met Jack.

On our first date, Jack leads me up a hike to a series of alpine lakes in the Cascade mountains east of Seattle. It’s a hot autumn day in the Pacific Northwest. Sam is into the water before Jack and I even crest the ridge. We watch him for a moment, breathing heavily from the climb. I observe Jack carefully in my peripheral vision. I’m already in love with him; I was from the moment we loaded our packs at the trailhead and he showed me the repurposed yogurt container he packed as a water dish for Sam.

He turns to me.

“Ready?” he asks, waving a hand towards a staircase trail continuing up.

I can’t quite bring myself to say yes. My thighs ache and I know he’ll hear it in my voice so I smile and nod. I turn back towards the lake and whistle, two fingers across my bottom lip like my father taught me. Sam rushes up the bank towards us, shaking off water droplets, each one bending the sunlight.

Jack turns back towards me then. I know the whistle looks good and so does Sam, snappy and attentive like that. I’m never sure how much credit I should take for this good behavior since it never seemed hard to get Sam to listen.

“He’s only a year old? You’ve done a good job with him.”

That’s when I know Jack likes me.

* * *

My parents met on a beach down in the Grand Canyon. My mother was a Park Ranger then, kayaking downstream to check permits.

When I was younger, I thought the way they met was important. What I know now is this context only matters because it took a certain kind of woman to be kayaking on the Grand Canyon in the 1970s and my mother was that kind of woman. And I understand now that we make certain kinds of choices when we believe we are tough. Choices about what we can endure and what we think we can live without.

* * *

In November, Jack and I camp near a hot spring in the Oregon mountains. The temperature drops while we’re soaking, and when we hike back to the tent, I can smell snow in the air. I rub Sam with a towel but he’s still damp and stinks like hot-spring sulfur. He is shivering, so I pull him into my sleeping bag, but this doesn’t help, just gets me wet, too. My three-season bag isn’t heavy enough for the weather.

In the cold, my fingers sting at the tips where I’ve chewed back the nails. I blow on my hands to warm them but I don’t complain. Instead, I take the flask that Jack holds out to me and drink without asking what it is. Bourbon hits my tongue and I breathe through my nose to get the flavor, the way a man in California taught me.

I pass the flask back. I’m shivering and it wobbles when I hold it out.

“How the hell did we end up here,” I say rather than ask and I’m laughing somehow and I can see something tight in Jack’s face — the way his eyes are fixed on me — release.

“You’re so easy to have fun with,” he says, pulling me close, zipping me into his own sleeping bag, Sam tucked between us.

* * *

I got my first dog when I was eleven. Bob was skittish with men. My father sat on the floor with him for an hour, letting him get used to us. He handed me some of the dog treats he always carries in the pocket of his Carhartt work jacket.

“When you treat them like individuals, you start to see how dogs all have their own personalities,” he said. It's a tenderness I had never heard from him.

* * *

When Jack and I have been dating for four months, we drive to the Oregon border to kayak. We meet an old friend of mine, Cal — a relic from when I was nineteen and worked as a river guide. It’s early season and the Hood River is at flood stage. Cal lives locally and knows the stretch well. Like Jack, he’s a much stronger paddler than I’m ever going to be. The daylight is already getting long when we push our boats out into the river.

It’s obvious, almost immediately, I’m in over my head. I get to the end of the third rapid upright — choking on water — just in time to watch Jack’s boat disappear over the next frothy horizon line. I’m not sure he even looked back to make sure I was okay. Cal circles up next to me then. I look up at him, trying to slow my accelerating breath, not wanting to admit I’m scared.

“Start center and shoot right,” he says. “There are big haystack waves over on that side.”

“Can I skirt them?”

“Yeah, but you should try to take ‘em. It’ll be fun.”

I run four more like that, leaning on Cal to point out the correct lines.

In the fifth rapid, I flip in a short, steep wave. I bob like a cork, upside down in the green dark and dimly aware I have one chance to roll before I have to detach from my kayak. I remember a golden-haired boy in California who told me to flick my wrists like a waiter snapping a table cloth. And then I’m upright — spluttering and frozen — spinning up with so much force I nearly tip over in the opposite direction.

Cal is already next to me, ready to help if I failed to get myself back upright alone.

“Nice roll,” he says, grinning.

At the takeout, Cal pops his neoprene skirt and produces cans of beer from the depths of his kayak.

“Well done,” he says, tossing me one. I pop the tab with stiff, cold fingers and clink cans with him.

Jack doesn’t wait for Cal to toss him a beer. He steps out of his kayak and lifts it onto his shoulder with a grunt. He starts up the trail to the road, leaving the two of us bobbing in the water like ducks. I feel Cal looking at me but he doesn’t say anything.

When I catch up to Jack at the car, he’s unlocking the door and Sam is waking up in the front seat, tail thumping hard against the window.

* * *

I stay silent for most of the ride home, my head tipped against the cool glass of the passenger side window.

I’m conscious of the dwindling mile markers to Seattle. I promise myself I’ll speak before we get to Olympia but then — in what seems like no time at all — I can see the dome of the capitol building from the freeway and then I think I’ll say something before we leave Olympia and then I try to decide whether the northern suburb of Lacey counts as a different city. 

When I do speak, I choose my words cautiously, careful use of the passive voice so no one feels blamed, tone neutral. Like running a rapid, it seems, setup is important and maybe if I can put my boat in the water at the right place, I can get us through this one.

“Why was Cal the only person giving me beta on the Hood?” I ask.

He shrugs and answers quickly. “He knows that river.”

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about.” But even as the words are coming out of my mouth, I can feel my grip slipping on them, they don’t sound the way I want them to, the conversation is moving too fast.

He answers quickly. “I knew you had it.” The look on his face says, What do you want from me?

“But I didn’t have it,” I say. “I’m so out of practice. What if I’d missed that roll? What if Cal wasn’t right there?” I hear myself getting shrill and I stop.

He grunts and then gets very quiet. We don’t talk for the rest of the drive. He gets off the freeway at the exit for my house.

My heart thumps.

He pulls over on my street and steps out of the car to untie my kayak. The one-inch nylon straps make snapping sounds as he yanks them off the roof racks. He lays my kayak down on the sidewalk and turns back toward the driver’s door. I stand there watching, shoulder slumped from the weight of my gear bag. Sam rushes away from us and towards the front door.

“Aren’t you coming in?” I ask.

“I'm going home tonight,” he says, closing the car door, ending the conversation. “I’ll be in touch.”

* * *

My parents have been divorced for as long as I can remember.

After his second divorce, my father moved out to the desert. He lives in a big ranch-style house, alone except for his dog Belle.

Whenever he calls me his first question is "How is Sam?"

* * *

It’s three days before I hear from Jack. I don’t dare contact him. Anyway, I tell myself I am not the kind of woman who needs constant communication.

Eventually, he texts. “Busy tonight?”

He crawls into my bed without flipping on the lights, stirring me awake and sending Sam down to the dog bed on the floor. I turn towards him and I want to ask what it was that happened between us but I’m too relieved he has reappeared.

When I wake in the morning, I hear him in the kitchen talking to Sam like he’s talking to a child.

“First, you grind the beans like this and then you get a filter and next you pour the hot water like this,” he says. I can hear Sam’s tail thumping against the cabinets in the little galley kitchen. There’s sunlight in my bedroom and the whole house seems brighter.

* * *

For the first six months we owned him, Bob was a runner. If I unclipped his leash, he was gone. My father and I chased him through neighborhoods breathlessly, shouting and offering conciliatory treats.

Once, when we were driving through Oregon, Bob wriggled out through the side door of the minivan at a rest stop and tore off, eyes rolling back towards us, waiting to be chased.

“Get in the car,” said my father. I held up Bob’s red leash, but he shook his head.

He shifted the car into first and let it roll down the hill. Before we reached the edge of the parking lot, Bob had caught up to the car, eager to be let back into our family. He flopped into the back seat and never ran away again. The power dynamic was shifted and settled. For years, this was my father’s favorite story.

* * *

On a Sunday night, after Jack’s been away kayaking all weekend, he wraps his arms around me and pulls me across the bed towards him.

“I wish you would come out and paddle more,” he says, breathing into my hair.

The next weekend, I ask if he wants to run something modest. There’s still snow melting in the mountains and water levels are good.

He runs his fingers through his hair and exhales heavily.

“Look,” he says, “I’m happy you’re paddling but I don’t want to have to do all my kayaking with you.”

* * *

One year, after Thanksgiving, my father dropped me off at the airport to fly back to my mother’s house in California. I had been flying alone since I was nine.

When I landed safely and got back to the bedroom in my mother’s house — with its blue walls and horse quilt — I sent him an email.

“Made it back safely,” I wrote.

He responded the next day: “Great, I’ll let Bob know.”

* * *

It’s Jack’s idea to move in with me. We’re out backpacking and stop to pick salmonberries. The season is early and the berries are hardly ripe, still tough and chewy, not sweet enough.

He has to move in two months, he says. His landlord is tearing down his rental house to build condos. I don’t look at him. I feel my breath get shallow like I’m afraid I might miss something, might not hear him over my own inhalations and exhalations.

He asks if I’ve thought about living together. I lie and say no, though of course, I’ve thought about it.

“Is that what you want?” I ask, coolly, still not looking at him. My chest is a wasp nest.

“Sure,” he says. “It makes sense. Things seem good, don’t they? I mean, things are easy. We never really fight.”

I look up then, smiling. I feel like I’ve won.

* * *

Whenever I visit my father as an adult, I clear stacks of textbooks off the table so we can eat in the dining room. After we’ve finished dinner, he leans back in his chair. I talk too much to fill the silences and watch him take out a pocket knife to trim the ends off the chicken bones. He passes the bits of gristle to Sam underneath the table.

Sam takes each bite tenderly. He tries to sit still but scuttles forward. It’s like he’s saying, “Do you see me? Do you see how I’m sitting?”

* * *

“I wish you would stop biting your fingernails,” Jack says when he walks in my front door. I’m stretched across the couch, deep in a thrift store copy of Lonesome Dove. I look up at him and blink a couple of times. I look down at my hand like I’m just seeing it for the first time — small and tan, fingernails ragged.

Jack spent the morning mountain biking and now he’s peeling out of his damp t-shirt. He’s carrying a six pack of beer and he walks into the kitchen to put it in the fridge.

The comment stings but I want to be someone who gets him. I’m sure I can love him.

* * *

The year I was eighteen, I went to Barnes & Noble with my father and helped him pick out Christmas gifts, including my own. I wrapped the presents for him in neatly folded paper, and handed them back for him to label. He wrote each recipient's name in spidery handwriting, and below each name: “From Bob.”

* * *

When Jack moves in, most of his belongings go into a storage unit. What he does bring to my place fits into a single carload. I help him carry the boxes into the living room.

“You sure you don’t want more of your stuff here?” I ask. “I can clear half the closest.”

“No need.”

* * *

When I was nineteen, home from college for a weekend and complaining about a break-up, my mother said, offhandedly, “You know, your father threatened to call our wedding off the week before it happened.”

“You never told me that.”

She shrugs. I watch her try to remember what it felt like to be the woman she was then. She is remarried, to a gentle man who brings her fresh sunflowers in the summer.

I wait while she thinks.

“I thought I was supposed to make it work,” she says, finally. “I wish I’d said, ‘You’re right, go ahead. Cancel it.’”

* * *

That winter, Jack walks Sam to the park in the mornings and throws a tennis ball.

There’s a snowstorm in the city at the end of February. I get home from work and shake silver dollar snowflakes out of my hair. Jack is restless. I stand in the doorway unwinding my scarf and he watches me from across the living room.

Sam greets me, snapping back and forth at my feet, barking until I pet him. I kneel down and he rolls into my lap. Even though we do this every night when I get home, Jack says, “Christ, Sam, you saw her this morning.”

I look up.

“I walk that dog more than you do,” he says. The whole distance of the living room is still between us. “You should walk your dog more.”

My throat tightens. I want to tell him how Sam and I got along fine before we knew him — how Sam’s never torn up a rug or killed a chicken the way smart dogs sometimes do when they’re cooped up — but I’m afraid I’ll want to take it back as soon as I’ve said it.

Jack walks out of the room.

* * *

"People have a hard time forgiving the people who help them," my mother said once when I was still little and Lance Armstrong left his wife in the middle of his comeback tour.

Before I was born, my mother left the river and moved to Pennsylvania with my father where she read drafts of his thesis in the evenings. Many years later, when he was a professor of geology at a West Coast college, he married one of his graduate students. When he tells the story, he says that he and my mother were already separated when he met his second wife.

* * *

Jack rolls away from me in bed more nights than not.

“Come over here,” I say one night, trying to keep my voice level, to sound fun.

“Don’t talk to me like you talk to Sam,” says Jack. “What do you want from me? I’m not a dog.”

Lonely and awake at night, listening to Jack's breath as he sleeps, I let Sam climb into bed beside me. I curl around his body, rest my head on his side.

* * *

I call my father to tell him my relationship is splitting apart and I can’t figure out how to put it back together.

“Try not to dwell on it,” he says. “Take Sam for a walk.”

* * *

Jack suggests a backpacking trip to the east side of the Cascades. I sing Stevie Nicks songs while I pack and trust this is a sign things are on the mend.

In the car, he’s tapping the heels of his palms on the steering wheel and skipping every other song that comes on the stereo. It’s 80 degrees on the Eastside and when we drive through the little town of Cle Elum there’s a line of cars at the burger drive-in. I know then that it’s summer and there’s a sort of rising optimism in my chest I haven’t felt in months.

“Stop chewing your fingernails,” Jack says suddenly. Sam pops up in the backseat, recognizing the tone. It’s the voice we use to stop him from chasing the neighbor’s cat into traffic. That’s when I know Jack doesn’t like me.

I don’t say anything. I wonder when I became the kind of woman whose boyfriend yells at her. I chew my lip and think about asking him to pull over so I can get out of the car but I know that I won’t. Like I know I won’t break up with him, no matter how bad things get between us.

* * *

I call my mother to tell her about Jack and how much we’re fighting.

“Once they start to slip away, they don’t come back,” she says.

I begin to understand what I have inherited.

* * *

Two years after he leaves, Jack asks me out for a beer. I tell myself I’m over him enough to see him. Still, I buy a box of nude-colored press-on nails at the drugstore and glue them on one at a time in the dim light of my living room.

At the bar, he tells me how hard things got after he left. I listen but don’t look at him. I stare past him, across the bar. I stack the saltless bar pretzels into little towers. I wonder if he’s changed. I try to decide which possibility makes me sadder — that he has changed too late or that he never will.

I think about telling him how hard it was for me, too, but I don’t know how. It’s too late, there is too much, the story goes back too far. Instead, I say I am well, and it’s mostly true. Outside the bar, we stand on the sidewalk in silence. I wonder what to say. Everything I can come up with sounds so final.

I wave a hand in the direction of my truck down the block.

"Do you want to see Sam?" I offer but I know it will break my heart because Sam will be happy to see him. His joy will be uncomplicated.

Jack shakes his head and spins away from me. When he turns around again, in the light from the streetlamp, I realize he is crying. It happens so quickly it’s almost not worth mentioning. He exhales then.

"Another time," he says.

I nod and walk down the block to my truck.

Inside the cab, Sam is smiling and fogging the windows — his tail beating against the dash, steady as a heartbeat.

 

image: Rose McMackin


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