By Karen D’Apice
I carried her in, thinking “this is the last time.” Her fur was old; now it always clumped between my fingers and stuck to the skin on my hands. I wrapped one arm around her chest and the other underneath her tail. It was the only way I knew how to carry a big dog, like a television. My two older sisters walked slightly ahead. As they opened the doors in front of me I could read the white lettering backwards through the glass, Valley Cottage Animal Hospital. And all I kept thinking was, “this is the last time.”
I remember my first crush on a girl. Second grade. Straight red hair, buckteeth, and a laugh kind of like Goofy’s, a “uh-huyac!” kind of sound. I came home from school and sat outside my bedroom door. You sat across from me, a puppy wriggling and confused at having to sit. I told you everything and made you promise not to tell anyone, no matter what. Not mom or dad or anyone. Not even other dogs. And I made you give me paw to promise you wouldn’t tell. And you did. You gave me paw. You were the only one who knew for so long.
I don’t know what it smelled like, but it didn’t smell like a hospital. I carried her through the waiting area, wondering what the other dogs were thinking, if they knew. We were let into a room and I hoisted her up onto the blue padded examination table. I was hesitant to look around, conflicted. I wanted to remember and I wanted to forget what the room looked like. A mirror, a chair, a counter, a sink, three cabinets, and two jars – one full of gauze, one full of Milkbones.
You were like keeping a journal; something to hold my secrets while I figured out what they were. For years I would stare at my naked reflection with only a towel around my waist. Trying to commit that body to memory, before breasts and hips gave me away. And at night there were dreams; dreams of girls and sex and confusion. I never knew if I talked in my sleep. Sometimes you were awake, watching from the doorway. Sometimes you’d be asleep there. But it was your presence, absorbing all of my secrets before they could slip out of the room. You were my gatekeeper.
We had left you home once for a vacation. Our neighbor Larry fed and walked you, but for the most part you were in that empty house alone. We’d locked all the doors, and put the lights on timers for 8:37 to catch any burglars off guard. When we came home, the three of us stayed downstairs and watched movies with you all night. At 8:37 the light in the corner went on and you darted up the stairs with your tail between your legs, peeing everywhere uncontrollably on your way. We never explained that to you.
The triggers in her eyes kept misfiring, and she couldn’t focus them in one place. They’d been darting around frantically for hours. That was hard, knowing she couldn’t see us. Hoping she could recognize our voices, that she would recognize the hands touching her. There was a certain way I’d come to always pet her face, drawing a line with my finger up her snout, and spreading my hands over the top of her head, scratching behind the ears, and then scruffing her under the chin. I wanted her to remember it, to recognize something.
I’d grown accustomed to our goodbyes from every time I’d walked out the front door and pulled it shut behind me. You were always the last one I saw, making eye contact from the downstairs. That look, like you didn’t know if I’d ever come back. I never knew how to close the door when you were still looking. Sometimes I’d throw you half a biscuit as a distraction. That was easier in high school. Before shutting the door meant driving back up to college, and abandoning you for months. We’d had each