O! Small-bany! Part 2: Winter

Notes from an awful winter.

Elisa Albert | Longreads | August 2018 | 24 minutes (5,940 words)

 

Her name was Sally. Sally-bo-bally. The Salster. Sometimes we called her Butt-Wiggle, for the way she shook it when she saw us. Or butt-wig, for short. You know how it is with nicknames, the language of love. We found her on a rescue organization’s website. Sally! She was bright-eyed and smiling. Hi! Someone had tied a bandana around her neck. I adored her on sight. She was up for adoption the following Saturday in a parking lot behind a warehouse in Schenectady.

I’d never had a dog. My mother said it was dirty to have animals in the house.

We resolved to keep open minds and meet all the dogs, let the right one find us, not force anything, but it was always going to be Sal. She stood on her hind legs and wagged her whole ass at us. She was practically dancing. Sally-Sal! Jet black, with a short, shiny coat. Pit/lab mix? Pit/lab/hound? Pit/whippet/lab? Who knew. Who cared. The chemistry was perfect. Love at first lick. Not like poor little Buddy, over in the corner with a bad case of worms, or pretty retriever Julius, who wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. It was always going to be Sal. Four months old, spayed and vaccinated. No one else showed the slightest interest in her. She was ours. We filled out the paperwork and took her home.

***

Her eyes! The way she looked at you, and didn’t look away. So present and soulful, a real lover. She was like a person, if we’re talking about the most honest loving open deep good authentic funny sort of person, and how many of those have you ever met? She’d curl herself up next to you, close as she could get. She wanted to crawl under the sheets next to you. She wasn’t satisfied unless she had her body in the sweetest possible proximity to yours. She was like one of those rare massage therapists whose touch feels psychic: exactly where you want it, exactly how you want it. Magic.

I was never into dog memoirs or whatever, never understood that mad devotion to pets. Seemed weird to be that into an animal. It seemed fairly sad to be that into an animal. Like, why don’t you find yourself some more people to love? I didn’t get it. Now I got it. People are way overrated.

How creepy it is when people talk of “completing” their families, as though a family is a construction project or a vocational course, a finite thing, a theoretical ideal. How moronic and hubristic I find that attitude. It’s like the ugliest kind of nationalism, on a microcosmic scale. And yet. And yet. Sally gave us something new to love, and in so doing gave our family a new dimension, this whole new love to share between us. I felt a weird, delicious sense of… completeness. I was past having babies, but Sal was my sweet darling beloved lil’ boo. We were in love with her and in love with each other and in love with the way she loved us back and generally high off our own abundance of love and good fortune. There was this warmth in my chest. We redrew our goofy family crest to include her. We sang ridiculous songs to and with and about her. We spoke to her in a silly dialect. Dare I say it? We were happy.

***

A new puppy (like a new baby) is a full time job. This part I had not anticipated. Life gets very narrow. You have to keep them from eating things that might kill them, clean up their puke and shit and piss, and make sure they play and rest in equal measure so they don’t lose their minds. I didn’t have the heart to crate-train her, just as years earlier I hadn’t had the heart to sleep-train the baby.

The dog park became our haunt. We made lots of new friends. Never quite up to snuff on the human companion names, but the dogs were indelible. Odie, Cinnamon, Abel, Sidney. When the weather was still nice you could sit on a bench and read or veg out on your phone while they frolicked. The hour before sunset there were often 10, 20 dogs running in packs. Lucy, Luna, Paddy, Poppyseed, Gigi. With the humans you might discuss the weather, or the origins and social dynamics and ages and temperaments and breeds and habits of the dogs. Once in a great while you might discuss what you did for work, where you lived relative to the park, or how you felt about local politics. Never national or global politics, however, noooooo. You didn’t have to discuss anything with the dogs. You just had to keep your knees loose while you stood around, lest they come up running up behind you and knock you over. One time, I saw an old lady go down in such a way, which wasn’t funny. And a young lady, another time, in the snow, which was funny. As it got colder and colder still and even colder and then even colder and colder than that, only the die-hards remained. Moose. Gunther. Yogi. Harper. The human small talk became ever more distilled. We wore coats over our coats and stood around meditating on interspecies love.

***

Early on, she was rolling and wrestling joyfully with a little fluffy brown dog when the brown dog’s mistress stomped over: “If you don’t get your dog away from my dog I am going to fucking kick the shit out of it.”

I was speechless. There must have been a dozen dogs running around, happily wrestling.

“This is a dog park,” I finally managed. “They’re playing. They’re dogs. This is how dogs play. If you have a problem you shouldn’t be here.”

“Get your fucking dog away from my dog,” the woman hollered. A small boy stood by her side, staring at the ground.

“These are dogs,” I said again, very slowly. “This is a dog park.” The small boy sneaked an incredulous glance at me. He was not used to anyone standing up to his psycho mom.

“Get the fuck away from me,” the woman yelled.

“I’m sorry, buddy,” I said to the little boy. “You deserve better.”

“Don’t fucking talk to him,” the lady screamed. But then she backed away.

Sometimes there are crazies at the dog park, someone shrugged after she left. I never saw that lady again, but I think of her boy whenever I listen to Neko Case sing “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”.

***

Sal was a shitty leash-walker. You’d get welts on your hands trying to keep her in heel. One time I made the mistake of trying to carry a fresh latte-to-go while walking her, and of course I wound up wearing that latte. You fucking cunt, I hissed at her, dripping in latte. Off-leash at the park she was mostly okay but inconsistent. She was obsessed with squirrels. Occasionally she’d run off after one, go on a little joy ride. This was a little scary and a huge pain in the ass. We’d chase after her, swearing and sweating: Get back here, you little bitch. Once she ran off an hour before a friend’s wedding (at which we were all set to perform honorary duties), and we narrowly avoided missing the ceremony altogether.

I was never into dog memoirs or whatever, never understood that mad devotion to pets. Seemed weird to be that into an animal. It seemed fairly sad to be that into an animal. Like, why don’t you find yourself some more people to love?

There are a few traffic roads in the park, and the dog area, though enormous, isn’t fenced, and local drivers are notorious for ignoring the speed limit and pedestrian right of way and being totally assaholic in general (much like… drivers everywhere), so we invested in a training collar, which is a euphemism for shock collar. But Sal’s joyrides were infrequent, and we were in and out of the park three, four, five times a day. Usually if there were other dogs around to play with she wouldn’t dream of running off. And usually if we had treats she was responsive, obedient. So it seemed absurd to go through the whole rigmarole of the “training collar” every time. Sally was a good girl. Sally was a great girl! It felt awful to strap her into that collar. She plainly despised it. Anyway, what kind of person wants to shock a dog into complacency and obedience? We were reluctant. This is called foreshadowing.

Our badass dog trainer recommended the documentary Buck, which is about horse training. But the principles of animal communication are the same: fellowship and energy exchange in action. We watched Buck several times. We got way into Buck. On a deeper level it’s about how to deal with anger. How to discipline and communicate fairly, humanely, decently, and intelligently. How to be honest with oneself about the destructive tendencies one carries from one’s forebears. It’s about parenthood, really. It’s about every kind of relationship, really. It’s about the soul, really. You gotta watch Buck.

***

After Thanksgiving, the park was transformed by its annual display of elaborate Christmas lights. The Police Athletic League puts them up, with sponsors such as Key Bank and The Times-Union. Everyone loves or hates or loves and hates those lights. They charge cars $5 admission to drive though the park after dark. Lines of cars snake through the park all throughout December. People can’t be expected to walk through a park looking at Christmas lights, now can they? This is America.

In her first snow, Sally leapt and bounded, astounded and ecstatic. The calendar year wound down and a new one took its place. January was a hangover of ice and ice and snow and ice and ice. I had a hard bleed with the by now dreaded accompanying hormonal migraine. And then there was the problem of the dentist. Namely, I needed to go to one. I’d been putting it off for ages. A bunch of old fillings were breaking down, there was some new decay, blah blah etc. I’d kept putting it off because I wasn’t in pain, and because I was too damn busy. Also I have a bit of a trust problem with doctors, by which I mean that I trust none of them. But I kept hearing my father’s voice: “Don’t make the same mistake I did.” He’d ignored his teeth for years and wound up completely screwed, to use a technical dental term.

So my New Year’s Resolution was to go to the dentist, be a grownup, take care of my teeth. Did you know that dental health is closely linked to general health? I read up. Our mouths, these obsessive gateways, are harbingers of disease. I asked the oracle of the neighborhood parents Facebook group for recs, and liked the look of a guy right over on Dove Street. I liked the idea of not having to get in my godforsaken car to go to the dentist. Very Mayberry.

He was a kindly, soft-spoken Chinese gentleman from the Bronx with a degree from NYU Dental. His wife was his receptionist. There was classical music playing in their dinky little office. Okie-dokie. First order of business: replacing an old filling on a molar. Dr. Soft-Spoken said we should do a crown, because it was a rather large filling to begin with. I was so pleased with myself for “being a grownup.” I was so pleased to live in a neighborhood with a kindly soft-spoken dentist just around the corner! He removed the old filling, drilled the shit out of the remaining tooth, took measurements for a permanent crown, and fitted a temporary. The epinephrine in the novocaine made me super nauseous. He promised to make a note of that and use a different kind next time. I was to return in two weeks. The temporary crown hurt like a motherfucker, but I was assured this would subside. I trudged home in knee-high snow and took some Advil. Sal curled up with me on the bed and licked my face and tucked her head gently into the place between my shoulder and jaw.

***

I had booked myself a New Year week in an Airbnb in my favorite woodsy town an hour away. Beats application fees for writers’ residencies, plus simple travel and access to home/family, plus no other writers sizing each other up over dinner. I smooched my peeps and hit the road. My Airbnb hosts were a mom, dad, and two kids whose ruckus provided the soundtrack to my lonesome days and nights in the private studio attached to the back of their house. On my second-to-last day, the mom was apologetic about the noise. I assured her that I didn’t mind.

“Do you have kids?” she wanted to know.

“I do,” I said, smiling the beatific smile of a woman who has spent her reproductive years doing it all. “So I get it.”

“How many?”

“Three,” I lied, egged on by my own beatific smile. I even believed myself, for a second there! Three kids: However did I manage? Oh, you know, you do the best you can. It’s like a backpack full of diamonds: heavy but precious. I inhabited the persona of the beleaguered but glorious religious icon, a biblical matriarch, the real deal. The more children a woman has, the more of a woman she is, after all.

“Wow,” my hostess said, slightly lowering her head in deference to my higher station. Then she got a look I’ve seen on women with no children, one child, two children, three children, four children: Have I Done Enough? I watched it slowly but surely shadow her eyes. “I would love to have a third,” she said, “but I…” She shrugged and rolled her eyes and sighed. “Maybe in a few more years.”

“It’s a lot,” I said vaguely, from my fake lofty maternal station. My heart pounded. I did not have three children. Why had I lied to the nice mother-of-two? This was a small town; we probably had mutual friends. What the hell was the matter with me? Who does shit like that?

How often have I been made to feel terrible about “only” having had one child? How often have I been subjected to lectures about how “sad” only children are, how a family isn’t really a family until there are multiple children underfoot, how #siblings are #whateverthefuck, how the more kids a family contains the happier a family it is, how a family isn’t really a family unless it looks like a fucking Norman Rockwell painting?

Oh, do you just have one? Oh, do you only have one? You must be a cold, selfish woman to deny your child a sibling, huh? You must have really loathed childbearing to fail to reenact it, huh? What’s the matter, don’t like being a mother? Don’t love your kid? Why else would you only have one? Don’t you find childbearing to be supremely worthy of your time and energy? Guess not, if you just have one.

Just! Only! Just! Only! I fucking get it, okay? I get it. My family, no matter how loving and solid and decent and strong, is not enough. I am not a full/true/real mother. I’m a dilettante mother, a sort-of mother, a half-assed mother. I am not as mother as all you other mothers, I get it, children are trophies, the woman with the most is champ, any fewer than the standard basic two is a straight-up communist revolt, a perversion of nature, a blow striking at the heart of everything sacred in society and life itself. I get it I get it I fucking get it, okay?

I had experimented with spontaneous lies before. A few years back someone was holding forth about my duty to “give” my son a sibling, and something in me snapped. Oh, I couldn’t agree more, I said with basset-hound eyes, it’s just that all my other babies died. It was a great pleasure to watch her face crumple in on itself, and an even greater pleasure to be avoided by her thereafter.

Or how about the jocular elbow to the side from the woman who proudly hated childrearing and mistakes me for her comrade: One and DONE, amirite?


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My own mother had three children. Three beautiful gifted healthy children, a ridiculous bounty. But it didn’t make her happy or proud. Quite the contrary. The last time we’d spoken, months and months earlier, she’d informed me that no matter what I ever accomplished in life or love or work, I would always be a failure. So there’s that.

I took a long, shame-soaked walk in the woods as the light faded to a deep blue, and then it was time, mercifully, for bed. Sex is cool, but have you ever called it a day when the sun sets in the late afternoon in the dead of winter? I ate some soup, watched a stunning Mike White film about a flawed dad taking his son on a college tour, slept until the sun came up again, packed up my stuff, and went home.

***

The day came for the permanent crown. The temporary hadn’t ever felt right, and I’d been living on baby food for two weeks, but I was being such a wonderfully stoic grownup about it, have I mentioned? I tiptoed down Chestnut Street on sheets of ice. After the Doc numbed me up with the epinephrine novocaine (“Oops,” he said, “Forgot.”), he yanked the temporary off with some plier-like apparatus and fumbled around to fit the permanent. After about twenty minutes of fumbling, he apologized: it didn’t fit. The lab had made a mistake and would have to redo it. He would re-measure, put on a second temporary crown, and I’d return in another two weeks for a permanent.

I continued to play the role of stoic grownup, grownup stoic: mature and uncomplaining. This was “life”. Things could always be worse. Soon enough all of it would be behind me. Like wintertime in New England: you had to simply live it out, survive it, deal with it, trust that it would pass. I tiptoed back home up Jay Street on sheets of ice, mainlined some Tylenol, and introduced my son to Steve Martin as the sadistic dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. Sal never left my side. I had the obvious dream about all my teeth falling out.

Two weeks later, same scene at Dr. Fuckup’s, only this time, after the pliers and twenty minutes of fumbling with the permanent and the apologies and the suggestion that the lab redo it again and I return in another two weeks, I totally freaked, got out of the chair, demanded my money back, and called a fancy dentist up in Saratoga, begging him to see me right now, today.

“I am very sorry,” Dr. Fuckup kept whispering. “I am very sorry.”

The fancy Saratoga dentist re-measured for a permanent, put on a third temp, and told me, judging from the x-rays, that a crown hadn’t really even been necessary in the first place. Oh! And that the root of the tooth might be so traumatized by all this excitement that we’d best keep our eye on it for a root canal. “Things could be worse” was my mantra.

***

I woke up the next morning with my head, neck and shoulders frozen in excruciating pain. Impossible to move, talk, sit up, lie down, breathe, be awake, or be asleep. I canceled my day and made every kind of wellness appointment, feeling very sorry for myself, indeed.

Acupuncture helped a little. To the massage therapist I said: “Please touch me like I’m an injured premature newborn.” In between appointments Sal lay with her head on my belly, a protective paw on my arm. I could do nothing but stare out the window at the barren trees and occasionally shuffle off to seek treatment.

I had to get Sal out for a walk before I left for physical therapy. She did her business on the sidewalk and I started back toward the house, but she went on strike.

Nope, she said, I’m gonna sit down right here and you’re gonna take me to the dog park, over thatta way. Have you forgotten the dog park? We need to go to the dog park. She was insistent, the stubborn little bitch. C’mon, she said. Please?

I couldn’t resist. She was so smart and funny and good. Fine, I said. Five minutes. We’d already been to the park for an hour in the morning. She had frolicked with Cinnamon. We were going to go back at sunset, like every day. This dog did not want for park time. But fine, fine. Five minutes. The sun was out and the sky was a perfect blue. When had the sun last come out? It was a Friday. The dog park was empty, except for us. Late January. The sun felt so good.

They were dismantling and removing those elaborate Police Athletic League Christmas lights. There was a squirrel across the pedestrian road and swear, she was smiling as she ran, her ears flattened back against her head and her tongue flopping hilariously out the side of her mouth. She was in her glory, bolting after that squirrel.

Along came a truck. White and unmarked, barreling up the pedestrian road. The pedestrian road. The truck neither slowed nor stopped. I watched Sally running running running after that squirrel, and then I watched the truck pass, whoosh. I was just over the crest of a small hill. My breath caught, but I thought: she probably made it to the other side, right? She was fast as hell. But I didn’t see her on the other side. Why wasn’t she on the other side?

I knew. My breath knew, caught in my chest. I crested the hill and saw her: a heap in the road. I stopped by a tree ten feet away. The truck sailed on and out of the park.

A young man in a bright red down coat was walking up the (pedestrian!) road. I was holding on to a low branch of the tree, screaming a horrible shallow impotent high-pitched unfamiliar scream.

Is she dead? Oh my god, is she dead? Is she dead oh my god is she dead is she dead?

The young man in the red coat approached. I couldn’t move. I thought maybe she might still be alive and I should go to her, touch her, talk to her, hold her, tell her something. Tell her I loved her, and…what? That it would be okay?

But I couldn’t move. My screams were terrifically shrill. I didn’t recognize my own voice. This was a cliché I had heard before, and here I was, embodying it, shrieking my fucking head off. I should go to her, hold her, tell her it was okay, tell her I loved her. Maybe she was still a tiny bit alive. Maybe she could still receive a bit of comfort and love.

Why couldn’t I move!? I just stood there keening, despairing of my inability to move, despising myself for my inability to move. Was I afraid to get blood on my clothes? Is that how totally fucked up and stunted and useless a creature I am!? What if she was still even the tiniest bit alive? What if she was even the teeniest tiniest bit alive, and I didn’t go to her, touch her, hold her, talk to her? My lover girl. Sally oh my god Sally oh my god Sally. It wasn’t even my voice. Whose voice was it? Some pathetic lady whose beloved puppy is lying dead in the road while a big heedless truck full of Christmas lights disappears up Henry Johnson toward Highway 90. Such stupid repetitive shit, I screamed. Is she dead oh my god is she dead oh my god is she dead oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god oh my god Sally oh my god Sally is she dead is she dead is she dead Sally Sally Sally. I screamed until my throat closed up, and then I screamed some more.

The young man in the red coat bent down to examine at her. He was very calm. It wasn’t his dog. Perhaps he had grown up on a farm, where animals die all the time. He nodded: Yes, she was dead. I couldn’t get anywhere near her and I couldn’t stop screaming. Sally. The screams came from someplace I’d never been before. Sudden violence, deep and irrevocable cruelty, mortality asserting itself unexpectedly. Shock. Grief. Bam. Dead. Sal.

An intense young man all in black with lots of piercings and a big backpack came walking by. And, from another direction, a young woman with big green eyes, on her lunch break. These two were suddenly next to me on the grass by the tree. The guy in the red coat kept his distance.

Look at me, said the young man all in black, putting his face very close to mine. She will always be with you. She’s with you, she is in you, you have her in your heart forever no matter what, there is no death.

It was something. I took it. I held on to those two strangers and wept. I said my baby, my baby.

I know she was just a dog. Only a dog. Just. Only. Just. I know.

***

My husband came running with an old wool blanket. He wrapped her up and carried her back to the house and laid her under the wind chime in the garden. It was time to pick up our son from school. We went in together, holding hands, our faces raw. What’s the matter, he said the second he saw us.

Back at home we all knelt down and put our hands on her and had a good cry. Then we took her to the vet to be cremated. They gave us a room to be in with her for as long as we needed. I’ll be praying for you, said a kind woman at the reception desk.

I was one of those people, not long ago, who didn’t see what the big deal was when a pet died. I mean: it wasn’t a person, right? I mean: sorry your cat/dog/bird/bunny died, but I mean, yeah, that’s life, right? Anyway, go get yourself some more goddamn people to love, for shit’s sake.

Later, I texted the strangers in the park. I didn’t know how to thank them for being there and staying with me through that. I don’t know how to thank you guys, I told them.

I slept with Sal’s favorite toy. It smelled like her. I held it to my face and sobbed in my sleep. I hoped she would show up in my dreams. What else can the dead do for us but that one merciful favor? I woke from dreams in which she did not appear and sobbed some more. I kept seeing it happen, kept reliving it, kept replaying the whole afternoon, tormenting myself. Why had I acquiesced to the park? I didn’t have time for the fucking park. We had already been to the park. We would go again later to the goddamn park. For a week, I didn’t change out of my jammies. I watched Fun Mom Dinner twice. I couldn’t bring myself to empty Sal’s water bowl. I considered drinking what water was left in it.

***

At the spot where she died we drew a huge tribute with chalk. Hearts and rainbows and spirals and stars and hearts and more hearts. Beloved puppy girl, it said. Sally. Adopted 9/17, killed by PAL truck 1/18. We love you, baby. Miss you. Bestie girl. Sally-Sal. Butt-wigs. I returned to refresh it every day, and left discount day-old roses from the flower shop on Lark. I’m sorry, I added one day. Thank you for being part of our lives, I added another day. It was cold, but I sat there every morning, relishing the cold, wanting to suffer.

***

Inexplicably, we went back to the rescue place right away. Too soon.

“Sally would want us to go rescue one of her friends,” our son insisted.

“Let’s just go look,” we agreed. Let’s just go see who’s there.”

Fine, so we’d get another puppy. Who cared. We’d get two. Four. Six. Ten. The more the merrier.

There were a dozen up for adoption, but they were all just dogs. There was no Sally. When my husband and son picked up a sweet, terrified 10-week-old shepherd hound mutt who’d escaped a kill shelter in Tennessee, I felt nothing.

“Whatever you guys want,” I shrugged. Her name was Cara.

She was just a dog. She was okay, for a dog. I took good care of her, but I made no promises to love her. For weeks, I kept accidentally calling her “Sally.”

Why did we get another dog so soon? Was I trying to short-circuit grief? Should I have continued to focus exclusively on the grief? Doesn’t life force enough of that?

A woman who’d had a stillbirth told me about how, the day they buried her baby’s body, she asked her caregiver when she could get pregnant again. She could think only of getting pregnant again as soon as possible. The caregiver gently tried to reminded her that she would never be able to get this baby back. She might have another someday, but this baby, the one she had wanted, this baby was not coming back, and getting pregnant again would not change that fact. The woman had refused to participate in this discussion. Just tell me how soon I can get pregnant again, she’d insisted.

***

At the park with Cara I faced a steady stream of “Where’s Sally?” I had to relay the sad tale over and over and over again. Everyone was duly appalled. Was I going to call the City? Had I informed the police? Who was responsible for that truck!? It could easily have been someone’s child!

I knew it wouldn’t help to go seeking justice from some civic official or bureaucrat. I wanted to track down and systematically bludgeon all those even tangentially responsible, a la John Wick. And it wouldn’t bring her back. But after a couple months I did place a pseudo-casual call to the Police Athletic League. I requested Sgt. Whoeverthehell, and left a polite message with his secretary.

“May I ask what this is regarding?” she asked.

“Oh, the Holiday Lights,” I replied airily. No return call, so a couple weeks later I called again and left a less-polite message. This time Sgt. Whoeverthehell called back. I put on my best fake authoritative/objective journalist voice and began to ask some questions about the Christmas lights cleanup process.

I watched Sally running running running after that squirrel, and then I watched the truck pass, whoosh. I was just over the crest of a small hill.

“I’m wondering who specifically was driving the truck on January 26th of this year.”

“Is this about the dog?”

“Why, yes. Yes, it is about the dog. Yes indeed. The dog. So you’re aware of the dog.”

“Yeah,” he said, “that was a terrible thing. The driver was all the way up in Amsterdam by the time we got in touch with him, and he had no idea he’d run over a dog. He’s a huge dog lover, got four of ‘em, so he was very upset when he heard.”

“How odd,” I said, “that he wouldn’t then reach out in any way to the young family whose dog he’d murdered. Being such a dog lover and all. You do realize he was driving on the pedestrian road, too fast to even realize he had run over a dog? You do realize we’re talking about a park where human beings of all ages and shapes and sizes come to walk around and play and hang out. You do realize that it could easily have been a child.”

Sgt. Whoeverthehell grew increasingly quiet and inarticulate. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, that’s too bad that happened.”

“Yeah,” I said, mocking his dipshit tone. “Yeah, it is too bad that happened.”

What kind of recourse was I looking for from this guy? Who was I looking to punish? Nothing was going to bring Sally back. I let the useless schmuck get off the phone.

***

I was away on a trip, sleeping in a big bed all by myself, when Sal finally came to visit. Awake before dawn, I was halfway unconscious when I was filled with her presence. Felt her with me, next to me, alongside me, her body right there, the way she used to burrow under the covers and curl herself up against my belly so I could feel her heartbeat. So intense and absolute. Here she was. At last. Next to me again, with me. Sally. Just saying her name brings me pain, which is one way of explaining how much I loved her. Sal-Sal. Girlfriend. Bestie Girl. Beauty Girl. Butt-Wiggle. Butt-wigs. Pee-Pee Paws. You should have seen her running after that squirrel. She died happy, I tell myself.

***

Spring was a long damn time coming. Late April, we were still wearing our heaviest coats. What a beautiful February night this would be, we joked on a frigid walk to hear Salman Rushdie speak at Paige Hall.

I saw red coat guy several times around the neighborhood and in the park. I waved to him at first, but he wouldn’t meet my eye, didn’t acknowledge my wave, walked right on by. I thought it was a fluke, a misunderstanding, but there was no acknowledgment or eye contact the second or third time either, so by the fourth time I stopped trying. Then the winter finally receded and everyone stopped wearing coats at long last, so I don’t even know if I’d even recognize him anymore.

“Rebirth is just a sentimental rumor imported from the vegetable kingdom,” says a hilariously awful character from Edward St. Aubyn’s fifth and last Patrick Melrose novel. “We’re all impressed with the resurgence of spring, but the tree never died.”

I ran into the Airbnb lady at the cute bi-annual craft market at the lake house soon after the weather turned. There she was, manning a stall from which she sold whimsical hand-printed baby and children’s clothing. I was with my son. She greeted me warmly.

“Is this your eldest?” she asked with a friendly smile.

“Yes,” I said. (And my middle and my youngest!) My funny boy looked at me quizzically as I hustled us on out of there.

“I did something really strange and stupid,” I told him. “Have you ever wanted to pretend life is totally different and see how it feels?”

I’m sorry I lied to you, lady. Sometimes we just want to slip into a parallel reality, is all. I just really wanted to be that woman with three children for a minute. I didn’t mean any harm. I guess you could say I wanted my mother’s precise opportunities and blessings, only I wanted the chance to live out said opportunities and blessings differently, that’s all. Only trying to right a wee cosmic wrong! Just the simple task of transforming the past/present/future for a brief moment, you know? Only that.

I strap Cara into Sal’s old training collar every single time we go to the park, without fail. She learned quickly to avoid chasing squirrels. And of course I grew to love her. The heart’s a muscle.

* * *

Previously:
O! Small-bany! Part 1 — A bygone spring: notes from an adopted hometown.

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Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night is Different. She is at work on short stories and a new novel.

Editor: Sari Botton