She Used to Be Mine

I like to think there are infinite versions of each of us out there, that our lives split every time there’s a major decision or event and create this other us, the one we never see. Cheryl Strayed calls these the ghost ships, and by that she means the lives that sailed away from us. 
A lot of things have happened in my 32 years. Some I’m proud of; some I’m not. Some were good; some were not. It’s a sticky map. Had I not joined the Christian youth band, I wouldn’t have met my future husband. Had I not married him, I would never have had a child. Had my child not died, I would not have gotten divorced; I would never have gone to college. Had I not gone to college, the events of my third year wouldn’t have happened. But on that same coin, had I not reached out to T, to D, to M, I may not have emotionally survived that year; if I weren’t in school, I’d never have known them. I would never have met N, who taught me what it really meant to be a writer, a teacher, but most importantly, a learner of things. We can do nothing, go nowhere, if we can’t learn. I get that now. I’m learning. Had I not, I’d never have gone on to move to NYC. I wouldn’t have a masters degree. I wouldn’t be a dog walker. I made choices. I survived events. I’m here now. 
When asked what the pivotal moment of my chosen ghost ship is, I struggle to put a finger on it. The first, I think, was that night in the youth coffeehouse sixteen years ago where I said yes. It put me on the path to everything afterwards. The next was losing my son. Am I happy with either of these events? No. But would I change them, knowing it would without a doubt change where I am now? I don’t have an answer to that. Of course I want my son to be alive. But was his death an answer to the question I never had the courage to ask while married?
“Am I safe here? Is this the right choice? Do I deserve more than this?”
If I hadn’t asked, where would I be now? Do we have to lose in order to gain?
I could be so many different people had I made different choices, but everything that has happened to me has gotten me here. Everything that has happened to me has built me into the me that is now, the me that is mine. Every bruise, every scar. Every hurt. Every tear. Every smile. Every hand offered, every hand taken. 
On to the next. To the next. To the next. Grateful for every next step. Good and bad. Beautiful and horrible. 
We like to think of our lives as black and white, life and death, but really, they’re just building blocks to the next plane. The next ship. We can never transfer; we are stuck with the ship we have. We need to make that count. Do we make that count? Do I? Am I mine?

It’s not what I asked for. Sometimes life just slips in through a backdoor and carves out a person who makes you believe it’s all true. And now I’ve got you.

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The Beginning, Part Two

I didn’t come to New York City to be a dog walker. I came to be a writer. In my fantasy of Manhattan life, I imagined I’d work in a book store and write in my spare time, which I did for twelve weeks, until that book store fired me and I spent two months after in the city with no job and eleven dollars in my bank account. Desperate, I turned to Craigslist and followed up on an ad for a dog walking coming; I never expected to hear back, but somehow, three weeks later, my employee trainer was placing my first leash in my hand—Delano, a six month old tan and black Shiba Inu puppy.

“You absolutely can’t go left on Wall Street,” my trainer informed me as we reached the first intersection. “Something must have happened to him there, because he freaks out and cries if we try to go that way. Oh, and he’s stubborn, because shiba, so he probably won’t walk for you.”
I took the leash, seriously doubting my skill and ability to handle the adorable little miniature fox at my side. I had always loved dogs, but to walk and train them in the middle of Manhattan was an entirely different story than playing ball in a fenced in backyard in the suburbs. Delano stuck to me like glue and trotted next to me all the way down to the Staten Island ferry and back without issue. I remember my trainer being greatly impressed and slightly jealous that he had never walked that well for her. She told me I was a natural. I decided then and there that maybe I was. You see, I understood Delano; he couldn’t go down Wall Street because he was scared. There were a lot of places that I could never go because I was scared. We were the perfect match.

Fast forward nearly a year. I stood on the corner of Union Square at the weekly adoption drive I volunteered for, the leash of rambunctious orange-y red pit bull Georgie clutched in my hand, when one of the organization board members approached me.

“I may have a client for you. I’ve been told you’re great with this one.” She pointed at the dog sitting at my feet, his eye focused on mine. She didn’t have to say it—Georgie was crazy. “Do you remember Thumbelina? Tubs?”

I remembered her vaguely, remembered how she had always been kept at the complete opposite end of the drive from Georgie and I because we keep the reactive dogs apart, remembered that she barked at ALL the dogs, remembered that I’d never actually gotten to meet her.

“I remember.”

“Her foster parents want to adopt her, but they’re worried about managing her dog aggression. They’d need a strong walker every day. Do you think you could fit her in?”

Less than a week later, I found myself on a living room floor in East Village, a black and fawn pit bull slobbering all over my face and balancing her two front paws on my crossed legs. We were instant best friends, Tubs and I. She whipped me with her red rope toy, and we played tug in the corner while everyone talked about the logistics of her adoption. And then we went for a walk. I took the leash, completely confident I could handle whatever she threw my way. We walked down the street towards Tompkins Square Park, me on the lookout for any dogs. I wanted to see what Tubs would do. The first one approached from about ten feet out, and I decided not to push my luck with three people standing, chatting, pretending not to watch. I took a piece of chicken jerky in my left hand and turned Tubs attention away from the dog.

“Tubs, sit!” I commanded. She did immediately, as her eyes followed the treat up to mine. She held my stare and paid no attention to the black and white lab mix behind us.

Everyone was quiet, until her potential mom broke the silence. “Wow,” was all she said.

I steered them all intentionally towards the dog park. I wouldn’t dare go in, but I wanted to see what might happen if dogs got too close. I pushed Tubs’ challenge line, repeatedly asking for sits and looks, seeing how close I could get before she barked. The reaction was ferocious when it finally came, but easily contained when we backed off. She was scared, but she already understood even in the first hour of our relationship that I would keep her safe. Safety was priority one; we feel comfortable when we feel safe. I had so often felt unsafe in my life that I zeroed in on precisely the thing that would break through to Tubs—my open heart, my willingness to connect. These were the things that people had used to help me, and I, in turn, could use them to help Tubs. I could make myself new by making her new.

Her mom and dad signed the adoption papers when we got back to their apartment.

I didn’t come to New York City to be a dog walker. I came to be a writer. But I knew in that moment that I was taking a different path, that I was precisely where I was supposed to be.

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We March

I was in Union Square today for our weekly dog adoption drive, holding a monster pittie puppy with an affinity for nomming my hands, when one of my clients came by. 
“Oh hey! I’m surprised you aren’t marching!” She and her friend stood there in their matching pink pussycat hats and black “nasty woman” t-shirts, avoiding the adorable dog in my lap who clearly wanted a little puppy nibble of their fingers. 
“Oh, well I’m here,” I said, “which is important too.” And then my chomper dog bit my cheek. 
They laughed. None of it was funny though. Make no mistake, Trump is not my president. He may be THE president, and I can respect the office and the country without respecting him in it, but Trump is not MY president. I don’t march. There’s a lot of reasons why. 
Marches can start peaceful, but a few over the toppers can turn that tide. Passionate people can occasionally become angry people. And I’m sensitive to that. He took from me my ability to be in crowds that huge without worrying, without wondering, without watching over my shoulder. He took a lot from me. He made me a different person. But I got myself on my feet again. By myself. I wrote a book. I wrote another. I found myself, and then that self got lost for a while when Trump got elected, when an overwhelming portion of the country said violence against women is a-okay. 
News flash. It’s not. 
It’s an awful thing, to be a survivor and to be in a world that invalidates this thing that has happened to you. To realize that in order to be your own person, to carve your place and hold your ground, you will have to fight every single day. It should not be this way, but it is. The world says we are nothing, but it’s up to us to tell the world we’re not. 
I read an article tonight about the women Trump sexually assaulted banding together for the Women’s March in DC. Part of me wishes I had done that, automatically feels less than because I didn’t. I’m not though. Many of my friends marched, but I held a dog today, a dog that desperately needs a dog experienced home if anyone is interested. And to me that is just as important. It’s important to show that life goes on, that just because a despicable man accused of sexual assault can become president does not mean that the world stands still. We do not stand still. We march.

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Death

Our marriage began with a death.

Sunday night, a lot of years ago. October, maybe? I was on my way back to Wisconsin from Indiana, where I had been helping chaperone a herd of teenagers at a Christian youth event in the Thunderdome, when his mother told me he had a surprise waiting at my apartment. My apartment where he was not allowed to be.

“Did you give him my key?” I couldn’t keep the scorn out of my voice. “I don’t want him in my house.” There was a lot I didn’t say. Were there blankets on the couch. I’m pretty sure I left blankets on the couch. You know he’s going to want to do things, right? That he won’t want to hear no? You know there’s a reason I took his key away? I blinked without continuing out loud.

Her reply seemed strange at the time. “You seem ungrateful. You should be grateful. You will be.”

I arrived home to baked chicken, handmade potatoes, and cheese covered broccoli, one of the only veggies I actually enjoyed eating. He had cooked me all of my favorite things, covered my cheap gray card table in a fancy red table cloth adorned with two silver candle holders with pine green candles. We watched Amityville Horror on the couch, under the blanket of course even though the apartment was easily in the 70s, and then he proposed to me with very little fanfare. I said yes with equally little fanfare. The proposal was nothing like the movies. After he left, I went to feed my betta fish, Bob, and found him belly up in his tank. Dead.

Five years later, I was in my OBs office for my 37 week pregnancy appointment, without him, making small talk with a nervous handed nurse with hints of lemon on her breath about a mission trip I’d been on at seventeen to build houses in Jamaica. Her hands shook because of the things they wouldn’t show me on the backward facing monitors, the test results that told them my son was dead, the results that, once confirmed, I could trace back to near precisely the minute it had happened–me sitting at my desk on my last day of work as a merchandising manager, eating cheese poppers from Pizza Hut and entering theft numbers into the computer while giving zero fucks about accuracy because I knew I would never return.

Our marriage ended with a death. But had it ever been living?

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The Beginning

 

We met when I was nineteen or so. His fingers stretched over the strings of his guitar like no musician I had ever seen; his tongue glanced across his lips as he concentrated on the beat. I didn’t notice him, not at first. A bit of a diva, I was more interested in holding a microphone and singing with the church band than I was in looking for a relationship. He gave the appearance of caring more about his music than the people around him, just like his mother who played piano beside him. I’m not sure he ever looked my way. I only looked his way because his mother was our leader.

Actually, it was his sister who noticed me first. She was desperate for a best friend, and I was just lonely because I never really hung out with people. One night after rehearsal I went over to her house for dinner with her and her family. He was there, of course, with his mother and father and brother. His mother suggested that we rent a movie, and he drove us to the video store on the corner between the Shell gas station and the liquor store. I wandered the aisles as he laughed and horsed around with his siblings. They wanted me to pick something to watch, but my only real knowledge of them was that they were deeply religious. We rented something silly, something from the line of Beethoven movies with the giant St. Bernard.

It was more fun to hang out at his house than mine; I was renting a small room from a coworker at that point with a closet and a computer desk and a murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day. It was so much fun, in fact, that when his sister invited me to move in with them while we saved to get our own apartment together, I said yes. I don’t remember how it happened, whether it was before or after I moved in, but he asked his sister for permission to take me out on a date. It was very important, he told me later, to ask for her permission, because she had claimed me first. I remember thinking that was an odd choice of phrase–“Claimed me”–but it made sense. She and I were friends before he even knew me, and if things didn’t work out between us, she would lose a friend. I remember that she was like me. Different. A little off the beaten path. A little lacking in friends. But at the time when he asked me to dinner just the two of us, she didn’t matter. I said yes. I wanted more than anything to be a part of their idyllic Christian family.

Our after dinner first date activity was going to see “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” He didn’t tell me then, but he had never read the books or seen the previous movies and picked it for our date because he knew I would like it. I, who had never had a real dating relationship or any kind, automatically assumed that meant he loved me. One more dinner and a movie, and I agreed to go steady. At nineteen, I’m not sure I knew what that meant, the level of commitment I was making. I was certain no other boy would ever love me, and I knew that I was supposed to get married, so I made a commitment for the first boy who asked.

No normal boy my age had ever looked at me. The only date I ever went on was during high school, to the junior prom, and it was the worst night I’d ever had in school. When he looked at me at dinner that night, long strands of spaghetti twirling around his fork and a smudge of marinara sauce on his right cheek, it was like I was being seen, really, seen, for the first time. His gaze was flooded with the possibility of a future that as a young child I had never imagined I would have–a boyfriend, marriage, babies, true love. It is hard now to remember the good times, much easier to remember the bad; the bad is what sticks the most, what hurts the most. I think I thought that because he paid attention to me and wanted to spend time with me that he loved me. I must have believed he was the only one who would ever want to be with me; I must have stayed because I was certain there was no other man who would love me.

His sister got engaged and married shortly after, so it was natural for us to get married too. It all seemed so ordinary, a natural progression of events. At J.C. Penney’s, where we had our wedding registry, there were scanner guns for couples to tour the store and capture the barcodes of merchandise for their lists. He wanted expensive things–the best couch, the biggest television, the softest bed. I was more interested in the smaller things–a matching set of dishes, a blender, towels for the bathroom. Big, loud, and perfect, versus small, quiet, and necessary were our personalities in a nutshell. We were nothing alike.

He was not quite six feet tall, the perfect height for my five and a half foot self to rest my head on his shoulder. He didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, and his lanky body was capped off with a spiky head of hair two shades lighter than mine in its natural state. He was always a pretty boy; he spent more time in the bathroom each day getting ready than I spent in front of the mirror all week and was always encouraging me to do more for my looks–curl my hair, put on makeup. I did what he wanted because I wanted him to love me back as much as I thought I loved him.

The thing is, I never knew what love was.

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“Me” vs. Me

Three weeks ago, I was given the assignment to write two essays by Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving rapidly approaches—what are we, two weeks out now?—and if you think I’ve written essays, or even started essays, I’m going to laugh in your face. No, really. Open the window. You’ll hear me.

I’ve been in a weird head space. Call it the blahs, call it writers block, call it massive life regret; call it what you will. But I’m not writing. Someone important to me told me I was throwing a tantrum, that I needed to get out and try to publish the way I did when I was in undergrad, the way I stopped doing when I hit grad school. Did my uber expensive masters degree break me of doing the thing I love?

I started evaluating how I got here, to this place, to this weird balance of writer and dog trainer and New Yorker. I opened up my undergrad paper files, to the very first paper I ever wrote. It was an introduction for an English Lit class. I didn’t know how to write papers back then, not really, but I definitely knew how to write about myself. I knew what I wanted then:

“In all honesty, what I want is to become a writer. I like words. I am one of the few who can use a semi-colon properly; I have been writing practically since I knew how to form words. I participate in NaNoWriMo every year, the exercise of writing a 50,000 plus word novel in 30 days, just for fun. the last three years that I’ve done this, I’ve done it while working a 50 hour work week. Between writing an average of 2700 words a day and carrying my regular work load, there wasn’t a lot of time left for sleeping! I am very particular about every word that comes out of me, whether it be an ordinary conversation paper or the next great novel. there’s a small part of me that is uncertain whether the words i write are any good. However, there is a larger part of me that is beginning to realize that I actually do have a talent for this.”

It’s ironic that now, what, six years later, I have less confidence in my work than I did before I embarked on this journey. I see my friends and acquaintances with equally expensive degrees not using them more than they are, and I find myself wondering once again what the damn point was. To be clear, because I don’t want to sound like I’m taking a giant piss on my life, I am very happy where I am. I have some great relationships here, with people and dogs. I have a job I adore. I just … don’t write things. I have a super expensive degree that I paid *insert unspecified ridiculously embarrassing amount of debt here* for and it feels silly. I didn’t even do NaNoWriMo this year, and when I realized that, I promised myself I’d write in my journal every day, at least for November. Then I promptly left my apartment for a week and forgot my journal on my headboard shelf. So much for that idea.

In my prior writer years, when I was really on the ball and doing the writerly things I was supposed to do, I used to hassle my friend N about not making time in her life to write. I’ve since apologized, at least five times. I haven’t submitted an essay for publication in at least a year. I haven’t made the required edits that will make my thesis a book. I reached this great point in my writing where I had learned how to really articulate myself and my story and do it well, and I just STOPPED.

Why.

I wonder if, perhaps, I am afraid of what it means to go further. If I have broken every barrier I was comfortable breaking (and some I wasn’t) and that now I can go no further because I can never associate my story with myself in a greater public sense, with the people who were in it. If, for, as much as I tote around that I can speak, I can do these things, I can be this person who these things happened to and be more than her at the same time, that I really can’t—because to be more here means to be more back there. No more pen name; no more bottom shelf paperback. No more cloak of invisibility.

No more “me.” Just … me.

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You Can’t Sit With Us (Rough Draft)

When I was in seventh grade, the big project of the final quarter was to create a magazine. We’re not talking crayon doodles on construction paper bound with yarn here; we’re talking an actual magazine. The project stretched across all subjects. In English/Language Arts, we learned about writing articles and essays. In math, we were given Monopoly money to use for purchasing articles from authors, designing the layout, printing, advertising, etc. In social studies, we practiced analyzing current events that we could write about, and in art, we practiced drawing, both on paper and on the computer, as well as worked with layout. They wanted us to be well rounded, educated, individuals. The idea was that we would help each other; we would use the fake currency to buy articles, art, and other things for our magazine.

I don’t remember a lot of specifics about the project. I think the magazine layout board I turned in on the last day, when we all presented our projects, was neon pink? It may have been green. But at any rate, it was done. The articles on it? They were all mine. The art? That was mine too. When it had come time to buy things for my magazine, no one would sell to me. No one would buy from me.

I can’t say I was surprised.

*

A few weeks ago, I read about a dog named Hank. Hank was happily living with his family in Ireland, enjoying snuggles, squeaky toys, and long joyful walks, when the government seized him because he “looked like a pitbull.” They cited their local “dangerous animals law,” coining Hank as dangerous simply because of his looks. A simple Google search makes it obvious that Hank is anything but dangerous (unless you’re a stuffed toy!). Hank was a victim of his breed, his label. He’s not even listed as a pitbull—on paper, he is a lab mix.

Hank’s story has a happy ending. His owners went to bat with him, and after several weeks apart while Hank was quarantined in a shelter, he was reunited with his owners and they’re a family again.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story for many dogs.

*

Middle school was pretty much the worst. Things went along fine, and I did pretty well socially, all things considered, until about fourth grade or so. Fourth grade was the year that practically the entire school got head lice, myself included. Rumors circulated that I had started the head lice epidemic (I had not), and I tried to discourage those rumors by saying that I hadn’t had lice at all (I had), and that my itchy head had been from an allergic reaction to shampoo. After that, not only was I the head lice queen, I was also a liar—the entire school was at lunch the day the school nurse marched me out of the building to meet mother to get my lice treatment. Everybody knew.

The cafeteria each day was a nightmare. I would take my tray on the days I got hot lunch, or my little brown bag on the days I carried something from home, and stand on the outskirts of everything, staring. Wondering where to sit. Dreading going to my so called friends’ table and finally hearing “You can’t sit with us.” I was constantly waiting for the day when they would see me the same way that everybody else did, for the day when there would be no more chair for me at the table. I elected to lunch in my English teacher’s room each day so that I could read rather than negotiate middle school politics and try to be something I wasn’t.

*

BSL, or breed specific legislation, is a set of laws that restrict and/or ban certain dogs because of their appearance, or because they’re commonly thought to be a “dangerous” breed. Breed restrictions can require owners to muzzle their dog in public, spay or neuter, contain them in a kennel, keep a leash of specific length or material, maintain liability insurance, and post vicious dog tags and signs on both their property and the dog itself. Breed bans are even worse. A breed ban will mandate that all dogs of the specified breed have to be removed from the area. After the “by-when” date on the ban, any dog not removed can be killed by animal control.

These laws simply look at the dog as they are on the outside, without consideration for things like the way they were raised, trained, and handled by their owner. These laws do not look at the actual behavior of the dog in question, rather, they look at what they imagine that dog to be, the worst case scenario.

BSL has a lot of issues. For one, it’s prejudice. There is no such thing as a bad dog. Bad owners? Yes. A dog is the result of how it is raised. Dogs want nothing more than they want to please their people. BSL does nothing to improve safety; it punishes people who are responsible dog owners and does nothing to hold irresponsible owners responsible. It requires that each and every dog have a label, a breed, something is pretty much impossible to do accurately. Dogs that are targeted become more desirable to irresponsible people simply because of the bullseye on their back. Dogs of any breed can be great dogs. Dogs of any breed can be dangerous dogs. BSL is the worst. I don’t understand it.

And yet, I do.

*

High school was better for me. There were still people who dropped the usual insults—“Her cats pee on stuff,” “She smells like fish,” “Her clothes come from Walmart,” but I was old enough to better know how to deal with it. My haircuts when I got them weren’t cutting edge. My sneakers actually came from Kmart. I didn’t do brand names. I didn’t mind. I liked who I was, but the world told me not to.

I was in an acapella group with (I think) seven other people. They never wanted me to be part of the circle, and I struggled to stick up for myself even though I was just as good a singer as the rest of them. It was such a little thing, but so telling. I let them circle by the piano; I let them whisper about me. I always stayed slightly behind.

*

We have to talk about Lennox. Hearing his story was the first time I really became aware of BSL. It was 2010, I believe. Lennox, a lab/bulldog mix was five years old and happily living with a family in Belfast. (The same area where Hank is from…hmmm….). Lennox did nothing wrong; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time with a head that made him look like a “pitbull type.” The government went so far as to measure the size of his snout in order to declare him a pitbull, and then they seized him and sentenced him to die. His family fought for two years to get him back, to save him, or even to send him to America where dogs who look like pitbulls are allowed. But when all of their appeals expired, Lennox was put to sleep.

Lennox, the bulldog/lab mix, was put to sleep because he LOOKED like something else. Lennox, the family dog, a child’s pet. A good boy. Dead.

*

I walk a dog now named Tubs. I see almost every day. She’s grown a lot since I first started walking her. In the beginning, we couldn’t even walk in the direction of the dog park without Tubs displaying crazy aggressive antics. Tubs was never socialized with other dogs, so they were a terrifying prospect. Now though, after over a year of training and love and many, many walks, Tubs can walk by a dog on the path in the park and not care. That dog will never come over to her. She will never be friends with it. But the dog can exist and not be scary.

Tubs is a pocket pitbull. She is the sweetest pitbull with humans and wants nothing more than to sit in your lap and cover your face in slobbery kisses. But when we’re walking on the street, people move out of the way as we come close. They cross the street. They avoid her, just because of her breed. Because of what she looks like. And if she barks at another dog, it’s all over. “Look at the pitbull,” they say. “She’s so mean.” No. She’s not.

I’m convinced that, like Tubs, the world set me up to be in the place I ended up. Christianity told me that I had to be married. My social education told me that I would never be married because no one would love me because of how I looked and who I wanted to love. I learned to shut up, be quiet, do what I was told.

I ended up in a adult relationship that clearly didn’t fit me. I came away more demolished than I came in. But I don’t think I would change it. Trying to fit the mold made me realize that the mold isn’t real, that it’s a cat eternally chasing a tail it will never catch. I had to be in the mold to break the mold, and I wonder if that’s not my job here as a writer—to break the mold. To show there is no normal. To dismantle our own human forms of BSL.

I was bullied as a kid, and I let that define a lot of who I was for a long time. I’m a lot of things, but I’m more than what you see when you look. I still don’t wear brand names, but that doesn’t make me bad. I like it this way. I don’t always brush my hair, but I walk dogs all day and there’s really no point. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have enough to live and have a little fun. I don’t talk a lot, but I want to make what I say matter. I’ve been hurt, but it doesn’t last forever. I’ve been raped, but I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor. The world says I should look a certain way, that I should be broken. I say differently.

As I try to find more ways to write about my life, I’m realizing that I am more than my surface appearance. And so is Tubs. And so is Hank. And so was Lennox.

So let’s end all BSL, okay? Both the human and the dog forms.

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There is No Normal

I’m not a huge believer in attending social functions. People frequently get annoyed with me because I don’t go out when there are large groups; often I SAY I will go and then find a reason to back out at the last minute. Large groups make me focus on all of the ways that I’m different rather than the ways I fit in or the things I have in common with the people around me. I don’t know how to be a person when I don’t have a predesignated topic of conversation. As a shining example, any time I do anything that has to do with dogs, I am confident. I know dogs. I know their behaviors and their motivations. I’m learning their fears. I know how to discuss them in a way that people can understand, though, quite frankly, I would rather spend time just me and the dog. I can also play well as a teacher, a manager, a friend. But groups are hard. I don’t know how to be a person sometimes; it’s a skill that was taken from me that I’ve never quite gotten back, the ability to not be judged. There’s this wall between me and the world that I’m not sure how to negotiate in a crowd; I don’t think I can be more than one thing at once. I don’t think I can let go. Not completely.

*

Pedro is such a handsome boy. He’s gorgeous—tall and black with little specks of white—but spends most of his time with his tail tucked, his majestic head stiff and his eyes alert. Watching. Pedro is one of the few dogs I’m not completely comfortable walking. Not because I can’t control him; I can. More because I understand too well what other people refer to as his unpredictable nature. I don’t find him to be unpredictable at all. Pedro just doesn’t know he’s a dog. To Pedro, dogs on the street are all big and scary, while, to most other dogs, dogs on the street are all potential friends. Each week, Pedro finds a new things to be scared of. Man in a white van? RUN!!! Woman with a rolling grocery cart? BARK!!! A LOT!!! Tiny chihuahua off leash? BE FEROCIOUS WITH ALL SIXTY POUNDS OF MIGHT!!! Pedro’s mission is to scare the world away before it can scare him.

*

The first time I went out, after, and I went to a bar with some friends. Two friends? Manageable. All of the other people in the bar who wanted to touch and talk to me? Less so. I wanted to be the little woman hiding in a box as we came in. She had a reason to be there, a cash box in her lap, a special hand stamp in one hand and a light in the other. I identified more with her than the friends I was with in that moment. I wanted nothing more than to hide in that little black room. Give me the cash box, give me a job, give me anything but having to be the person that I was. Anything to keep from thinking those words. Instead I kept quiet, observed the room around me. The people dancing in gray metal cages, the multicolored lights that crisscrossed the stage and bled up the curtains. If it hadn’t happened, I thought, that could be me out there. Taking shots. Dancing. I leaned against the counter. But it happened. He raped me. He took everything. I spent the night holding up the counter.

*

I’m a fan of redirection commands for dogs over negative reinforcement. Pedro is not the type of dog who will ever find the world to be not scary. However, he can learn to associate the scary with food. “Pedro, look!” TREAT! “Pedro, let’s walk!” MORE TREATS!!! Dog walks down the sidewalk? ALL THE TREATS EVER!!! The scary things are still scary, but there are good things that come with them that make the scary easier to deal with.

*

I let my friends get my drinks for me so I wouldn’t have to converse with the bartender. I didn’t want to answer any questions about myself. I wanted to be anonymous. People were dancing, flamboyantly waving their arms in the air as they shoved themselves against each other, an act which had never been my thing. I was never free enough to dance before. I was certainly not free enough after. Two men circled the edges of the crowd, and I named them Green Shirt and Gray Shirt. Green Shirt was a grinder; he kept coming up behind women and rubbing himself against them, but none of them seemed to mind. Gray Shirt was different. He hopped over the counter and wandered behind me, towards the DJ booth. My friends were off, dancing, as his hand found my back and slid down, down, down…I elbowed him and fled to the bathroom, far away. My friends didn’t notice I had left. I sat in the stall and I wondered if I had imagined him, if he had touched me at all, or if I was remembering the hands of someone else. Of Him.

*

If I could be inside Pedro’s head, I imagine it would be something like this: “Another day. More time spent in the shelter. At least I have my bed. Oh, wait. I hear something. Keys?!? It’s my friend! My friend is here! She’ll play with me. Oh, wait…I have to go outside. I don’t want to go outside. Don’t make me go outside. But, wait…I have to go to the bathroom. I have to go outside. I can do it! Here we go! IS THAT A DOG?!? Wait, she said look! I should look at her! I’m looking at her! I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m doing it! Dog? What dog? My friend is smiling. I’m doing this right! I’m gonna do it again!” And he does. His new training program is working amazingly well. Two minute walks became ten minute walks became thirty minute walks. Storming the shelter window barking when a dog walks by is now grabbing a squeaky toy and running to get in bed. Baby steps for Pedro. Small doses. Being in the world to learn how to be in the world.

*

I don’t often admit the real reason why more than one on one or two on one is hard for me. It’s that I don’t know who I am yet, that I might never know, that I don’t always know how not to be afraid. How many people are there? Can I see the exit? Can I get to it? Do I need to? Who is that person behind me? Has he had too much to drink? Have I?

Does it matter?

Sometimes, I’m lost. More often than not lately, though, I’m not lost at all. I’ve been going out more, in small doses. One on ones. Two on ones. Building relationships for group situations. Giving myself “rewards” for milestones. Working up to staying 45 minutes. An hour. Two. Being in the world to learn about being in the world. I may never be “normal,” but there is no normal, really. And if I don’t work with what I have, I will never have anything more. It’s not enough to simply survive, to say “I survived,” if I’m not any better for it. 

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An Exposition of Death (Revised)

His name is Graham, and he smells of death. Not the “rotting in the ground” type of death, but rather the “impending cloak of doom” type of death. What happened wasn’t his fault. You can tell he doesn’t understand as he stares off into the yard through his sealed doggy door with a slap-happy smile on his face, a single stream of drool leaking from the corner of his mouth. The eyes that stare at you only project love: love for people, and love for you specifically.  This is why you love dogs; the way they look at you as if they see only you and nothing else.

His tail swishes back and forth almost silently behind him. He desires to be a part of the real world again.

You know that won’t happen, because this is it for him.

Death row–there is no going back.

*

“People think that pitbulls are bad. And they’re really not. It’s all in how they’re raised. A lot of people just make awful assumptions.” Laurie fingers the silver wire of one of the many dog cages lining the animal shelter hallway, her hands traversing up and down the triangles but not really seeming to feel anything. I watch while looking down, unsure of where my eyes should actually be. On him? On her? On nothing at all? Her gaze shifts sideways, drifts over the beige red nosed beauty of a pitbull within the cage before focusing on something over my shoulder. “You don’t hear about all of the good dogs, the good pits, that are out there,” she tells the wall, not looking at me. “You only hear about the bad ones, the ones that fight, the ones that get into trouble. Pits are such devoted dogs. And they’re so smart. They’ll do anything for you, if you just ask. But they need to be trained right. I wish the shelter could find people to do that.”

I nod quietly, unsure of what to say.

“So, you know the Great Lakes Pet Expo? We brought some dogs there last weekend.”

I’m not sure that I do. But I quickly realize that she’s going to take me there.

*

You look around the room. The Great Lakes Pet Expo is busy; lots of people, lots of pets. You realize this shouldn’t surprise you. It’s a pet expo, so it’s expected that pets will be there.

Graham is ready. Sitting. His tail swishes back and forth almost silently behind him, sweeping the ground and showing that he is ready to spring to action at a moment’s notice. The first person who comes to them will be greeted and licked into happy oblivion.

The dog next to him is ready too, but in a different way. You remember Nosey, from previous outings. He strains against his leash, stretching his handler’s arm out like that character from The Fantastic Four movies. Where Graham is waiting for people to come to him, Nosey is out and about in everybody’s business.

Graham hates this, you can tell. He wants attention, and he’s trying to be patient. His people say be good, so Graham is good. He just wants to make people happy, but no one will come close to him because they don’t want to come by Nosey. Patience is not Nosey’s strong suit; he’s too pushy. They will never find a forever home this way.

Nosey is ruining everything.

*

“We send a lot of these dogs to foster homes for whatever reason. Like, if we want them get more social with people or dogs, or just get some love or whatever.” Laurie sticks her fingers through the holes of the cage, despite the big red sign that says she shouldn’t. I watch as Graham’s tail action increases, swishing back and forth behind him. I can almost hear the words coming out of his mouth: Love, love, love, love, LOVE!

“We do a lot of handling on the Pit Crew. I’ve worked a lot with this dog a lot. Sweetest dog ever.” She points into the cage. “This one handler named Tim took another dog, Nosey, home with him. They had this dog for a while, but nobody checked on exactly what they were doing with the dog. He had a lot of problems.”

*

You watch as the man on the other end of the leash yanks Nosey back on his prong collar. You should never choke a dog that way; it only makes them pull more as they try to escape the pain on their throat that they don’t understand. You want to free Nosey, but you don’t. You stay back. Graham’s handler takes him a few steps away and makes him sit again. Graham follows every command like a champ, and his tail swishes back and forth in anticipation of what’s to come. The more Graham’s handler smiles, the happier Graham becomes.

Nosey growls at a passing dog. Someone yells at the man to take him home, he doesn’t belong there. Not when he’s aggressing towards other dogs. You imagine that Graham is laughing. If Nosey goes away, Graham will be adopted—of this, you are sure. The man says no, he can handle it, he can handle it. You watch. You aren’t sure that he can handle it.

It looks bad on the shelter, someone tells him once no one is watching. Nosey obviously doesn’t want to be here. You agree. But your two cents don’t belong in this situation, so you remain silent. The handler insists on staying, insists the dog is fine.

Both dogs stare into the crowd of people, or, rather, the sea of legs and knees and scary shoes that come a little too close. No one stops; no one bends down to introduce themselves. Everyone moves very quickly past Nosey’s growls, so quickly that Graham worries he might be kicked. He stands up on all fours, as still and majestic as the lion statue you passed in the entryway; the white stripe in the middle of his beige back prickles with static as his nerves overtake him. Graham tries to keep a smile on his face, his big, fat, red tongue dangling out as he looks for a human to match his smile. But there are no faces at all. Only legs. Graham shifts backwards, his butt slowly lowering to the ground and his mouth closing, the orange pattern above his eyes that passes for human eyebrows knitting together in concentration.

Graham eyes Nosey as he strains again against the handler. You can see the wheels turning in Graham’s head. Why can’t Nosey just sit down already? Why can’t he be nice? Didn’t his mother ever tell him that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar? Doesn’t he want to be petted? ‘Cause Graham wants to be petted. Very much.

His tail swishes back and forth, back and forth.

He waits.

You wait.

*

“Nosey had a lot of problems. Like, he would act aggressively towards other dogs. Not biting aggressively. But aggressive. Growling. Personal space. Very reactive.” Laurie looks at Graham. He waits for her to open the cage door, to come inside, but she can’t. It’s apparent that he doesn’t understand this as he shoves his snout into the wire again and again, his tail swishing back and forth behind him as her fingers graze his nose.

“Nosey jumps up, and gets over aggressive and just….not good with people or dogs. But he was getting better….”

Laurie loves Graham, and Graham loves her. I can tell.

*

Nosey’s bark is booming, and echoes over the sounds and excitement of the Expo Center. You watch and you see the moment when Graham can’t take it anymore. He’s still sitting, his tail is still going back and forth, but he lets out one single bark.

As you watch, Nosey turns and hauls his handler right back over to Graham. Nosey is barking. Graham barks again and turns his head to the side as Nosey comes too close, a clear cut off to Nosey that he should stop. Nosey doesn’t listen. Graham’s ears press so low to his head that the blush inside is no longer visible; he’s mad; he doesn’t understand Nosey, and he wants no part of him. This is as plain to you as day. You wonder why the handler doesn’t see it.

Nosey barks. Repeatedly.

Graham barks.

And suddenly Nosey latches on to Graham and they are rolling back and forth on the floor of the expo center. They are latched on each other, growling and snapping and biting. The sound of jaws snapping and spittle flying fills the air. You can see that Nosey has Graham by the neck and that he has absolutely no intention of letting him go. You are frozen, but other people are scrambling. What to do, what to do? When a pitbull locks its jaw, it doesn’t let go until it wants to let go. There is nothing TO do. The handler sticks his hand right in between the dogs. You want to smack your forehead with your hand; you know to never stick your hand in the middle of two fighting dogs. It’s all completely asinine. Everything freezes.

*

“Tim, in his infinite wisdom, decided to stick his hand in between the dogs to try and break them up. What kind of moron sticks their hand in between two fighting dogs?”

I would really like to know the answer to that question, but I say nothing.

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth as I reach out and pet his nose, even though I’m not supposed to either. It seems that he would like to know the answer to this question too.

*

Unfreeze. The handler is missing his thumb. From the tip to the first knuckle. It’s just….gone. You watch in horror as the blood seems to go everywhere. The dogs are separated. Nosey is in a cage, Graham is in a cage. How did they get there?

Panic.

The handler is bleeding.

God. That’s a lot of blood.

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth, back and forth, but it’s different now. His head is down; his eyes aren’t looking out. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he’s afraid. You can see he wants reassurance. He wants someone to pet him. To love him.

Nobody but you is paying him any attention.

The handler screams, over and over. He’s sitting on the floor, holding his hand. People are swarming everywhere like bees on a hive. Someone wraps his hand in a towel.

God. That’s a lot of blood.

*

Laurie is an excellent storyteller. I shake my head, trying to clear the images out of my mind.

“When a dog bites someone, it gets placed in this sort of quarantine.” Laurie trails her hand along the big red sign that hangs from the cage, the sign that states the bite quarantine restrictions. She still doesn’t seem to really see it. “It gets a permanent black mark on its doggy record. Now it’s an animal that bites. Nosey had bit before, but Graham had never bit anyone. He was so sweet.” 

I am struck by her use of the past tense as I watch her, at a loss again as to what to say. “What happens to them?”

“Well, they could get put down. It depends on whether they have bitten before, how reactive they are in the quarantine area, if there’s any available no-dog homes for them to go to. ‘Cause once they’ve bitten, they can’t really be adopted to a home with other dogs in good conscience. You know what I mean?”

Graham’s tail swishes back and forth as he sits otherwise perfectly still in the middle of the cage. His nose grazes the bars and his head tilts to the side as he studies us, still not understanding why we don’t open the door. I wish that I could explain it to him.

“Graham bit back. So now he has the black mark. They both might end up being put to sleep. And it’s hard to see. It makes me really sad. I hate to think about a good dog being put down just because it got in a bad situation.”

After a moment of silence, she turns to go. Graham stands up, his tail cutting the air as it swishes side to side. I can almost hear his voice: You’re leaving? You didn’t come in! You didn’t play! Come onnnnnn, I wanna play!”

“Thanks for letting me vent.”

As she walks away, I stay for a moment and watch. Graham sinks to the floor of the cage and lies with his head between his two front paws. He desires to be a part of the real world again, but maybe he is beginning to realize that this probably won’t happen for him.

He thinks she doesn’t love him anymore. There’s no way to explain it to him. He didn’t do anything wrong, but he’s probably going to die. And he has no idea why.

I wish it wouldn’t happen, but I accept that it probably will. I wish that I could just let him out, just let him run away. But I can’t.

This is it for him.

Death row.

There is no going back.

His tail stops wagging back and forth.

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On Memory

I remember A, remember hanging out at school and sleeping over at her house on the weekends. She and her twin lived down the street from me, and I remember being one of the only people who could tell them apart. I didn’t think it was that hard; they didn’t look alike at all to me. I remember that A was involved in the first real lie I ever told; I said I was going to park by myself when I was really going to the park with A; I don’t remember why, but I wasn’t supposed to play with her. I remember being grounded for two weeks and thinking it was the worst thing ever, that I was going to die. I didn’t die, but it certainly felt like torture.

I remember when A died, though, for real. She was barely 21 and fell asleep behind the wheel driving home from a music concert. I remember thinking of A’s sister and how terrible it must feel to lose a twin. I didn’t reach out to her because I was too afraid. I don’t remember the last time we all spoke; I don’t remember seeing them after seventh or eighth grade, even though they still, to my knowledge, lived in the peach house down the street. I remember wanting to go to the funeral but intentionally not going; death scared me, and I didn’t want to see my childhood best friend that way.

I remember the first funeral I ever went to, for my grandfather. I remember that the coffin was closed and I couldn’t see him, so my little kid brain didn’t think he was really gone; why would he be sleeping in a big wooden box in the dark? When my goldfish died, we flushed him down the toilet. I remember wondering if dead people also got flushed down the toilet. I remember saying that out loud and getting shushed repeatedly by the embarrassed adults around me.

I remember the next funeral I went to. I was a youth leader at the time, and it was for a student who had been killed in a drunk driving accident. I was sixteen years old; she wasn’t much younger than I was. I remember that the body was pale and glassy white like wax, and I remember bursting into tears and fleeing the funeral home as quickly as I could, hiding inside my mother’s red Camaro before collecting myself and going back inside.

I remember that, when my son died, I discovered that dead babies get kept in the fridge of the hospital because the morgue drawers are too big; when he died and the nurse took him from me, she suggested I spend as much time as I could with him while he was still warm. I remember understanding why everyone shushed me at my grandfather’s funeral when I asked if dead people got flushed down the toilet, suddenly embarrassed for my little kid self after years of forgetting.

I remember my son’s “funeral,” in the basement of my in-law’s house. It was dark down there. I remember thinking my son was in the dark too, just like I was, as I set up rows of tan metal folding chairs and stuck a box of Kleenex at the end of each row. I remember that people were late, and I thought that if he was alive, they might be on time; I remember wanting to start without everyone there and then shutting myself in the bathroom until those invited all finally appeared.

I remember that everyone at my son’s funeral cried but me. I remember feeling like I should cry, a good, ugly, ridiculous cry, to just hash it out, but I didn’t, because i don’t. I have never been a crier.

I remember my grandmother’s husband coming up to me after the funeral and telling me that my son was in heaven, but that it was okay because he was going to die soon and would be there to take care of my son. He swore up and down that he would be the first member of the family to be reunited with my son, and he was right. I remember I was teaching a piano lesson when they called to tell me he had died at home in the condo he shared with my grandmother. I remember my fingers freezing on the suddenly cold piano keys, my student staring up at me as I sank into guilt over not visiting him. I remember that I didn’t visit him because his dementia made him forget everything, forget my son was dead, and it hurt too much to re-explain that every time I saw him.

I remember that memory is funny, that thinking of one thing can lead to another to another to another, and I wonder how my grandmother’s husband’s memory went the way that it did, and if mine will go that way someday too. I remember, and I write everything down.

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