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Katie Gutierrez | Longreads | September 2019 | 13 minutes (3,370 words)
On the side of a busy road, I called her name: Lola! Lola! Flaxen weeds blew at my knees. Traffic a blur of painted metal. She could be anywhere. And then I saw her — a black pug parting the grass, running toward me. I took her into my arms and pressed my forehead against hers, relief stinging sweet.
I told Adrian about the dream with my eyes still closed. We had only been living together for two weeks, since he’d moved to San Antonio from Sydney to be with me. We’d known each other since we met on a cross-continental flight 10 years earlier, though we’d only been together, long-distance, for the last two years.
When he didn’t respond, I opened my eyes. He was grinning at a Craigslist photo: a black pug puppy drooping in slim-fingered hands. She looked like a child’s school project: clumsily glued googly eyes, pink felt tongue.
“We can’t,” I said, laughing, but he was already sending the email.
We drove to a neighborhood in northwest San Antonio. It was March, and the puppies looked like miniature seals, basking, all shiny black fur and skin rolls. They were big for their age, except for the only girl, the runt in the back corner. At first we passed one of the boys back and forth. Then the girl, who instantly crawled up our necks, her sharp puppy claws sticking like burrs in the collars of our shirts. She licked our chins, swiping at our ears and cheeks.
“This is her, isn’t it?” Adrian asked.
I nodded, thrilled and mystified at where we found ourselves, all because of a dream.
“What should we name her?” I asked.
“I think it has to be Lola,” he said.
By the time we took Lola home several weeks later, we were engaged.
She’d been their last puppy, so her original owners had let her sleep in bed with them. “Hope she doesn’t give you a hard time,” they said, laughing. They had called her Princess Diva.
We didn’t like the idea of locking her in a crate at night, so we set her up in a gated corner lined with disposable pee pads. We woke up to something like screams — so forlorn, so human. We took shifts soothing her, letting her fall asleep against our chests, painstakingly easing her back down only to have her start wailing again. Eventually, because I worked early and long hours and Adrian didn’t yet have his green card, he took over the night shifts and potty training. He jotted notes on his phone: 8 a.m.: little pee. 9:07: took her outside to poop — just chewed some leaves :-/ My parents laughed at us, shook their heads at our absurd parental behavior.
Adrian and I got married. Lola grew. During the day, she snored at my side as I worked. In the evenings, she slumped on the backrest of the couch, leaning on Adrian’s shoulder like a parrot and licking his head until one of us lost the unspoken game of gross-out chicken, yelling, “Pig! Stop!” When she popped her head up over the couch or bed, we joked that she was saying, “What’s a girl gotta do to get a drink around here?” or “Do you have a moment to talk about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” When she appeared over the side of the bath, she was The Bartender if I was drinking wine or The Nurse if I felt sick.
Lola waited in polite silence outside our room every morning; occasionally, she’d lean against the door, and if it hadn’t been shut properly, it would fall open, startling us all. Her favorite treat was carrots. If it rained, she refused to step on the grass. I would carry her on my hip like a baby. Princess Diva, indeed.
For as close as Lola always wanted to be to us, she shared us graciously: When she was 2, I brought home Cleo, an emaciated stray that the vet guessed was part border collie. Cleo was white with large brown patches like spilled tea, her face split in color exactly like the dog emoji on my iPhone. When Lola and Cleo were both 4, we brought home our daughter. Our priorities would shift, my parents warned us. The dogs would no longer be our babies.
They were right, of course, and we were grateful the dogs had each other — grappling in the back yard, curled around each other in bed, Cleo turning Lola’s velvet ears inside out with long, slow licks.
On our drive home from the hospital, Adrian’s eyes flicked constantly to the rear view mirror. He avoided the highway, let people pass. I gripped the car seat.
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“What are we doing in this flying death machine?” I said, and though we laughed, we were shaken. Our daughter’s presence had lifted the protective scrim from the world, revealing snarling dangers previously hidden in the mundane.
In a Paris Review essay published four months after my daughter’s birth, Claudia Dey referred to mothers as “makers of death.” She writes:
“No one had warned me that with a child comes death. Death slinks into your mind. It circles your growing body, and once your child has left it, death circles him too. It would be dangerous to turn your attentions away from your child — this is how the death presence makes you feel.”
When I held my daughter, I was consumed with the fact of her helplessness. The weight of her head like a baseball in my palm. Her skull soft as bruised fruit. Her limbs twitching and flailing without purpose or control. Her mouth searching empty space. The death presence pressed at the windows of my mind. It found a way in.
I was haunted by the litany of dark possibilities — the mistakes and accidents and illnesses that could take our daughter from us. She could roll on her belly, contained by her swaddle, and I could sleep through her muffled cries. Later, she could choke on one of my foam rubber earplugs that sometimes fell during the night. She could pull up on an unstable bookcase. I could look away, just for a moment, at the pool. My back turned in a department store. A second of distraction in the car. On and on, with relentless clarity.
I imagined not just the during but the after: the removal of tiny clothing left in the dryer, the self-flagellation for the infant CPR class we never took, the furniture we had yet to secure to the wall. I imagined being able to see the way each decision led to the inevitable next, concentric circles visible from heaven, but not until after the stone has been thrown, submerged, lost.
Night after night, while Josefine breathed right beside me in her bassinet, I wept.
Over time, you learn this is no place to live, in the shadow of death. It’s not, exactly, that the fear lessens — if anything, it intensifies — but you learn where to put it, how to fold it as small as it will go and hide it, so that your child doesn’t always see it in your eyes or feel it in your touch.
One morning, as she did every morning, Josefine crawled onto the dogs’ bed. She was a year old, faster and louder than she used to be. Cleo, who had taken two weeks to let me touch her, was still skittish around strangers and quick-moving children, and lately she’d been edging away from Josefine, instead of rolling over beside her as she used to. Josefine giggled as she barreled over Lola, then moved toward Cleo. Cleo retreated to the corner. I stepped closer, staring warningly into Cleo’s chestnut eyes.
“Gently, baby,” I told Josefine. Then Josefine brought an open palm down on Cleo’s hind leg. Cleo snapped, jolting up so suddenly that Josefine reared back in surprise. My child, scared of nothing, laughed. I put her in her crib, and then went back for Cleo. There was something wild in my veins, a fierce thrumming sweep of fury. I grabbed her by the collar and pulled her out the back door, saying, “You never do that again, do you hear me? Never!”
She wasn’t the same around Josefine after that. I was no longer comfortable with my back turned toward them.
Lola, on the other hand, blossomed with Jo’s increased attention. They cuddled and rolled, with Josefine cackling in delight, bringing her open mouth to Lola’s face. Lola never lost her patience, no matter how hard Josefine pulled her fur or how loudly she squealed in her ear. No one could make Jo laugh like Lola.
My parents had two dogs: sleek, gentle Sandy, and hyper, wiry-haired Penny, whom my mom had adopted on a whim outside Petco. I’d encouraged it, a dog rescue enabler. On the way home, I’d texted photos of her to my siblings: “Meet Penny.” My family has a thing with lucky pennies.
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We’d never had a problem leaving the four dogs together when we visited. But one afternoon, through the open kitchen window, Adrian heard Lola yelping. He ran onto the back porch, and Penny and Cleo shot away from Lola. Their front legs looked as though they’d stepped into a paint tray — Cleo’s bright white fur spattered in scarlet.
In the confusion, Adrian looked Cleo over first, murmuring to her. But there were no injuries. Penny was also unscathed. It was only Lola, punctured in her soft places.
Adrian raced Lola to the vet and came back with her shaved in patches, armed with pain meds and antibiotics. We set her up inside, stroking her fur and murmuring apologies. She was hobbling but managed to eat all her dinner that night. We laughed. “The pig would never miss her dinner.”
The vet, a friend of my sister and brother-in-law, told us the puncture wounds were most likely from a small dog. At first, we speculated that Cleo was protecting Lola, except why was Penny, who was much smaller than Cleo, uninjured? The vet told us this happened sometimes — pack mentality. Cleo and Lola would likely be okay on their own, since they’d lived together for so long, but we should keep her away from Penny.
Once a dog is attacked by another dog, he said, it will most likely happen again.
In the month or so after the attack, Lola didn’t act any differently toward Cleo. She continued using her as a backrest and a pillow. She baited her in the back yard, chest low to the ground, hindquarters high. Cleo cleaned Lola’s face as she always had. Recently, Cleo had come into the nursery while I read to Josefine, lying against my thigh while Josefine patted her head.
Though we’d only just returned from visiting my family, I told Adrian I’d like to spend Mother’s Day with my mom and sister, so we went back. While Adrian unloaded the car, Josefine squirmed on my hip, cranky and needing a diaper change. Cleo and Lola were nosing the back door, their tails frantic. I didn’t even think. I let them out.
After Josefine was in bed, Adrian and I picked a movie, and I poured a glass of wine. I had just gotten up to refill it when Adrian noticed the dogs weren’t at the door. When he called for Lola, only the other three came.
When I was 16, my brother and I were in a car accident. I had just turned right into the driveway for Quizno’s when we heard a boom like thunder, too close for skies that blue. We looked at each other, baffled. That moment: the future was the present was the past. Before we even understood that the sound was connected to us, that we’d already been hit, my Explorer was tilting on two wheels, the roll-over unstoppable.
I felt that way as we arced weak flashes of light around the backyard — we were living in the sound, the thunder; we just hadn’t yet felt the impact.
Adrian was barefoot, his jeans rolled up at the ankles. The pool glowed, dappled with shadows. The other three dogs were running around us, panting. Cleo was all wet, and I thought instantly of how she’d cleaned herself in the pool last time, sitting afterwards by herself in the sun.
“Lola!” I yelled. “Lola!”
Then: Adrian lifting her under the armpits, the way I used to when she was a puppy and sleeping and all I wanted to do was look at her. I hope you don’t do that to our baby one day, Adrian used to joke. Only now her eyes were like gold coins in my phone’s light, wide and dazed, and instead of her soft white puppy belly, her stomach was black and shiny as an oil slick.
A guttural groan scraped from Adrian’s throat. “It fucking happened again!”
The vet was tall, graying hair clasped low at her neck, no makeup, blue eyes, and a high, sweet voice that told us she thought Lola was going to die.
It had been 36 hours since the attack. My brother-in-law’s friend, the vet who had told us exactly what not to do, had opened his clinic for Lola on Mother’s Day. She’d stayed overnight, treated with IVs for hypervolemic shock and possible infection. But she was worse in the morning. Her best chance was 24-hour critical care back in San Antonio.
On the two-and-a-half-hour drive, I steadied her IV bag with one hand and stroked her head with the other. She was unblinking, her eyes dry and glassy. A sweet, rotting smell rose from beneath the blanket keeping her warm. But as we approached San Antonio, she nudged the blanket away and craned her neck backwards to look at me, in that familiar Lola way. Her eyes glowed amber, her stare soft and endless. Hope. Hope was what I felt.
But Lola was in septic shock, her organs failing. No one knew why it was happening so quickly. She had a less than 10 percent chance of surviving the night. “Humane euthanasia would be a reasonable choice,” the vet said.
She left us to discuss it, in a small room with a photo of a dachshund thanking the vet for taking such good care of him. Someone else came in with an astronomical estimate for the first 48 hours, if Lola made it that far. We cried, made phone calls, transferred money. She’d come this far on her own, we decided. We owed her that chance.
All I had wanted for Mother’s Day, in my most honest heart, was to lie in bed and do nothing. Now here I was. Lying in bed, doing nothing. We had left Josefine with my parents, without her overnight for the first time. Why had this — emptiness, silence — ever seemed better than the alternative?
I kept seeing my hand turning the lock on the back door. I heard myself saying, Do it! to my mom outside Petco. I remembered the two weeks of feeding Cleo before she let me touch her.
Three hours later, the vet’s voice was gentler over the phone. She said words like amputation and skin grafts — if Lola survived the septic shock, still unlikely — and oxygen chamber and probable cardiac arrest.
“Lola is in an all-or-nothing situation,” the vet said. “We either throw everything we have at this, or we stop.”
We looked at each other. Adrian’s dark eyes wide, his mouth open. He asked what I thought. I said, “A little longer. Please.”
We hung up. Looked at each other again. “Do we have to let her go?” I asked.
His voice broke. “I think so.”
I nodded. He said he’d call the vet back. I said I’d get dressed.
Then I pressed my face into the mattress and screamed.
Lola was wheeled into the room. The metal table had been covered in a red and black plaid fleece blanket. Her eyes were glassed over again. She showed no signs of recognition, even though the vet told us that she could hear us and smell us. Her whole body was wrapped in a tight compression bandage. Only her neck and face were free. Incongruously, it reminded me of Josefine’s old swaddles.
We told her ridiculous things. That she was about to take the best nap of her life. That no one would wake her up because of her snoring. That where she was going, she’d be able to eat as many carrots as she wanted.
“Wait for us,” Adrian whispered.
Humans are pattern seekers. Meaning makers. It’s how babies learn, and how adults survive life’s many indifferent cruelties. But how do you make meaning of your own mistakes, when those mistakes led to a death? A death that, this time, was of the puppy who’d once slept on your neck, the dog you’d lost in a dream and found in real life — but next time might be the baby, or the husband, or yourself?
I tell myself, sometimes, that maybe if it weren’t this, it would be worse — it would be Josefine, bitten by Cleo. Maybe we needed to re-home Cleo, and this was the only thing that could have made us do it.
Maybe it was a reminder — not to tuck the death presence away so completely, not to forget that safety is, for most of us, only a necessary illusion. Not to take for granted, not to look away.
Or maybe it was none of these things. Maybe, awfully, it just was.
The first time we met, Adrian told me about the time he drowned. On his belly in the shallow water among sharp coral and tiny jeweled fish. Breath echoing in his snorkeling mask, sun like a warm hand on his back, pushing, pushing.
His camera floated away.
We were sitting beside each other on a dimly lit plane, strangers when we boarded, something else now. Whatever you become when you pass secrets back and forth like fruit to be peeled and tasted and swallowed. I was half in love with him already, with the shadows collecting beneath his dark eyes, in the hollows of his cheekbones; with the rakish gleam of his teeth when he smiled.
He drowned in Hawaii, halfway between our two continents, when he was 17 years old. After a sleepless week, he’d had a quiet seizure in the water.
It was the camera that saved him. Otherwise, motionless and adrift, he’d have looked like any other snorkeler.
He remembers a little. Hands upon his chest, flashes of light, then disappearing again into the darkness.
We were quiet. The air conditioner hummed. He told me about friends he’d lost, too many for how old he was, only 26. “Why me?” he asked. “Why me and not them?”
I didn’t pretend to know the answer.
Recently, we returned to Hanauma Bay, the spot where he drowned. He snorkeled, and I watched while Josefine, then nine months old, dragged great fistfuls of sand to her mouth. The water was iridescent, dotted with dozens of floating bodies. How could you tell if one of them stopped breathing?
Adrian came back and offered me the mask. “It’s beautiful,” he said, breathless and grinning.
On this day, Lola is still alive. Adrian waits at the shoreline, holding Josefine. Lola waits for us to come home.
The water is cold, and all I can hear is my breath, shallow and loud. It feels unnatural; I can’t find a rhythm. I imagine my husband at 17, the sweeping sense of life unfurling, that this moment will never end, it can never end.
I try to relax into the gentle lapping, let my eyes focus on the coral. It looks like a bed of rocks lining the ocean floor, jagged and impenetrable. Actually, we were told, coral is deceptively fragile, a collection of living entities comprised of the remaining skeletons of tiny animals. It is a living thing — an ecosystem, a home — made up of the dead.
Finally, I take one deep breath. And then another.
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Editor: Sari Botton