By Amber Stevens
My mother called today to tell me her dog died. She spoke in halting, measured tones; she expected me to be devastated. I should have been. After all, I had loved that dog and had chosen her myself from a motley litter of neglected pups shivering in a hole in some asshole’s backyard, a piece of plywood thrown over the top for shelter.
“Twenty bucks for her,” he’d said, then spit a stream of tobacco by my shoe. “Hell, take two. Ain’t got room for ’em pups. Second goddamn litter this year.”
I glared at him. I was fifteen, fearless. These puppies were no more than four weeks old; I could see that. The one I chose would probably be the only survivor. I scooped her out, a trembling golden pup with liquid brown eyes, a gift for my mother, although I was really the one who wanted a dog. Her belly, pink and soft, thrummed against my palm; she mewed like a kitten. I shoved money at the man, muttered thanks, and walked home with that tiny, trembling body tucked in my coat. I loved her already, of course. Her uncomplicated love would fill a void for both my mother and me: for me, she would provide affection and acceptance, and for my mother, she would be the perfectly yielding and submissive creature she’d longed to raise.
When I left home nine years ago, fleeing cool mountain air for desert sky, my only regret was seeing that cocked head poised at the front bay window, watching me drive away. I couldn’t explain to her that I wouldn’t be back that night, or the next, or maybe ever. She had slept piled on my feet for four years, but she was technically my mother’s dog. I’d driven away and left her there and, after a few days, stopped imagining her sitting at the window waiting for my return. It’s a talent I have. Out of sight, out of mind. But I did know this, from conversations I had with my mother over the phone, when conversation with her was still possible: the puppy I’d once rescued from a hole in the ground had grown old, couldn’t run anymore, couldn’t climb stairs, had gone blind in one eye, and suffered from bad hips. So maybe that’s why I didn’t cry. I knew it was just her time to go.
With my mother, it wasn’t so easy. I pictured her on the other end of the line, frowning, broken heart warring with bruised ego, waiting for me to offer her some form of compassion, or break down in tears, or anything to flood the dam between us. I could hear her questions in the silence. What happened? What did I do? I was grateful for her pride, which I knew would protect us both from the answers. She would never ask out loud.
“Molly died,” I told my husband after dinner. Greg was at the kitchen sink, scraping leftover mashed potatoes and corn into a large coffee can. We’d recently begun composting, determined to transform our nutrient-depleted soil into something that could nurture a garden. That had been my idea. I had visions of sprawling zucchini, tomato plants with plump red fruit, flowering broccoli and crisp lettuce, thriving under the fierce desert sun. A garden against all odds. I soaked the hard ground and split it open, battling dry, unyielding earth with shovel, sweat, and stubborn will. I spread bags of musky fertilizer, breaking soft clumps against my gloves and sifting them through my fingers. I picked out stray bits of gravel and turned the soil until it was like silk, shaping perfect, even rows for sowing seeds.
The whole family planted together. My seven-year-old daughter methodically placed each seed according to the measurements on the packages, gently pressing a fresh layer of dirt on top. My son, who was two, dumped his seeds in a pile and brushed them roughly across his row, brow furrowed in concentration. Greg sprayed a fine mist of water across the plot, and we smiled at each other, hopeful. We watched the water sink in the ground, watched the ground deepen into rich, fertile black. The wet earth released pungent waves on the evening breeze, and the kids groaned, giggled, and pinched their noses.
Greg peered over the stove. “Who died?”
“Molly. My mother’s dog.”
“Awww. That’s too bad.”
He came back into the dining room, where I sat shoving food around my plate. The kids had already bolted to the backyard, Anne scattering bubbles across the lawn for the benefit of her little brother, who chased them maniacally, collapsing in laughter as they popped in his chubby hands. Greg leaned against the patio door and watched, grinning. “Look at those two. A ninety-nine cent bottle of detergent and they’re happy as clams. We could have wrapped some bottles for Christmas and saved a few hundred bucks.”
He turned to me. “What’s wrong?”
“I told you. Molly died.”
“She was pretty sick, wasn’t she?”
“Sure. But still.” I pushed my plate away. “She was kind of my dog, you know, before I left home.” It was an accusation.
“You never told me that. I’m sorry, hon.” Greg tipped his head and smiled gently. “I’m sure it was for the best.”
I looked away from his sympathy, hating it. It felt better to chastise him instead of myself, for feeling nothing. I was a wonderful person. I stared past him, at our children playing. Anne stood like a gazelle, her legs long and graceful. When she had slid into the world, slick and purple and showered in blood, my heart had swallowed her whole. How exquisite, the relief that swept through me as I clutched her tiny body to mine, gasping at the final expulsion of my pregnancy and all its secret fears. You can love a daughter, I’d thought. You can be a good mother. There is nothing wrong with your heart.
After Anne was born, we flew north to the little town nestled in the mountains where I’d grown up. Anne was my mother’s first grandchild; I wanted to give her every chance to form the bond with her granddaughter that had somehow eluded her with me. Perhaps the baby will even bring us closer, I thought on the plane. I imagined the hard lines of my mother softening as she watched me stroke my daughter’s smooth round cheek, sponge her tiny body clean, and swaddle her in soft towels; I imagined my mother gracefully relinquishing control and accepting her role as a grandmother.
The visit had been hell. She swooped in like a bat, folding Anne into her black embrace that was always more possession than affection. She pinned the baby against her shoulder while she stormed through the house collecting laundry; she clucked disapprovingly at Anne’s outfits, bundling her in blankets and whispering loudly to her husband, Tom, “The poor thing must be freezing!”
Tom would wink at me and shrug his shoulders. My anger at her dissolved into pity, for him. How could he stand it? But of course, he loved her. They had met and married shortly after I’d left home, eloping in Vegas in a move that shocked everyone. This woman who had never tolerated anyone. Tom was a good provider and she was able to quit working as a housekeeper; she took a part time job at a bookstore, spending her days quilting and working on her home. I was grateful that she had found someone she could live with; it relieved my burden of imagining how I would ever care for her later. It’s difficult to say who would be more miserable.
One morning on my way to the coffee pot, I glanced out the window and saw my mother feeding Anne a bottle of breast milk. She had spread a blanket on the grass and sat with the baby cradled in her arms, pressed against her bare chest where her button-down shirt fell open. Skin to skin contact. So Anne would know her smell. My stomach turned and bile burned my throat. You had your chance, I thought. I wanted to run out there, snatch my daughter away, and never return. Instead, I went back to bed, flinging myself down on the mattress she’d fitted with sheets from my childhood. I should never have come back here, I thought, and I began to cry, feeling all the ground I’d gained since leaving home shift underneath me, knocking me down.
She’d come to visit us several times since then, alone; Tom hated to travel. The pattern was always the same. We began cautiously hopeful, skirting the landmines of each other’s egos. She lavished praise on my housekeeping, my children, my career. I stayed up longer than I wanted to, listening to her plans for the garage shelves, the arguments with her neighbors, the peace she finds in her rose garden. How badly I wanted to love her. In those first days, we even shared secrets. She once confided her recent lab results, and how she woke the next day facing her own mortality. I once admitted to feeling like an inadequate wife, never completely at ease with an ironing board or a skillet. We smiled at each other, tentative.
By the third day, our smiles had worn thin, and all efforts to reach each other receded in mutual irritation. Her compliments would grow louder, thinning and tapering into sharp points that punctured the air, her sincerity popping like a balloon.
“It’s so smart that you let Matthew eat whatever he wants! They’re only little once, so what if they’re chubby? It’s so cute at that age!”
“Anne certainly has her own mind, doesn’t she? My goodness, what a feisty thing! I guess the less you discipline your children, the better off they are, right? So they’re strong, independent. Yes, things are different now, and I’m sure it’s for the best.”
Only I understood her. My husband was oblivious, and my children didn’t recognize sarcasm. I remembered the secrets I’d shared with her, and I felt embarrassed and angry for giving her more ammunition. Soon I was slamming cupboards and taking long walks at night, carrying on imaginary conversations where I politely told her to go to hell. I didn’t have to say anything; she knew. When it was finally time for her to go, she would ask Greg to take her to the airport, and we’d stiffly nod our goodbyes on the porch.
The guilt set in instantly, a churning in my belly, a fist around my heart. I pictured her at the terminal, sitting stoic, jaw set, wiping away angry tears. I cursed my weaknesses. What would it cost to indulge her? Why couldn’t I take the higher road? In another six months, I promised myself, I’ll try again. I’ll invite her down, and we’ll watch Anne of Green Gables and The Sound of Music and go out for huge, dripping hot fudge sundaes and swap our best salsa recipes.
And so I would invite her, and she would accept, and the goddamned trip would be just the same. Until the last time when everything changed.
When my mother called to tell me about her dog, I hadn’t seen her in two years. My husband had stopped asking, but of course, Anne persisted, fueled by the lovely, blind innocence of children. “Why doesn’t Grandma come anymore? When can we see Grandma?” I kept telling her, “soon,” hoping the knowledge would one day sink in and leave me blameless, like the truth about Santa Claus.
I stood to clear the table, glancing one more time at my son, chasing rainbows spun in soap bubbles that burst on the grass. I saw the breeze shift, saw the bubbles suddenly change course and drift toward the garden.
The dishes clattered back to the table; I threw the patio door open just in time to watch Matthew crash through the freshly cultivated plot, crushing onion stalks beneath his knees as he tripped. His arms flung out, his fingers driving through the dirt and ripping out several newly-sprouted carrots. He stared at their exposed, spidery roots, then looked up at us, uncertain.
“Bubba,” he explained.
“Oh, honey.” I stepped gingerly between the rows, scooped him out, and brushed the dirt from his clothes.
“It’s not his fault,” I said to no one in particular. “I meant to get a little fence up.” Matthew twisted away and raced back to the yard. I knelt at the edge of the garden to survey the damage, careful to avoid my husband’s gaze. Warm tears were slipping down my cheeks and I dabbed at them with my sleeve, feeling ridiculous. Here were my baby carrot plants, torn from their cool, dark shelter, where their roots had already begun to spread hungrily. I picked one up and gently placed it back in the ground, securing it with a fresh mound of earth, hoping it might survive. Greg knelt beside me and began to do the same.
We worked quietly together as the sun began its slow descent and cast honey-colored shafts of light across the patio. I felt his gaze pass over me like a shadow. He had learned not to ask. After several years together, I still didn’t know what you could and couldn’t share with a husband. No one can hear the whole truth of a person, and not walk away.
Later we made love in the dark, and after, the tears came again. I sat up and pulled my knees to my chest, wrapped my body in the blanket. I told myself it was time. In the dark, I wouldn’t have to see his face.
I told him about the last time she came, right after Matthew was born, when Tom came with her. I told him how one day, when I turned the water off in the shower, I heard Matthew screaming from the bed. I told him how I rushed into the room, laid next to my baby and nursed him, dripping water on his cheek. How I jerked the sheet over my naked body when someone knocked on the bedroom door, and then entered. How Tom paused at the bathroom door, then turned back and asked if he could watch. “I’ve never seen a woman nurse a baby before,” he’d said, and I thought it was all right, he’ll just look for a minute, and I was covered up, the baby latched on.
I told my husband how I wasn’t prepared when Tom sat on the bed and found the baby’s leg under the sheet, how I was too shocked to protest when he began stroking Matthew’s leg, rubbing my thigh in the process. I told him how my throat locked, and it seemed like it went on forever but it was probably only a minute and then the baby let go and my breast was exposed, wet with milk, and Tom gasped and then he stood and walked stiffly to the bathroom without saying a word.
Greg was silent. And then he said, “But are you sure he—”
“Don’t,” I hissed. “Don’t you dare question me. That’s why women don’t tell. But I’m telling you. A woman knows.”
Later, Greg held me under the bright lights of our kitchen. He stroked my hair. He asked me what I wanted him to do.
And I told him. Nothing. Because she needs him more than she needs me. Because their marriage is worth more than our fractured relationship. Because it’s too late for her to start over. Because I think the best gift I can give her is to let her go.
AMBER STEVENS is a pseudonym, for obvious reasons.