Life During Wartime

By Ellie Forgotson

Summer in New York City. Year of our lives 1997. About eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Charles and I walk through our neighborhood while, around us, the tempers boil. On Clinton Street, a teenage boy slams his fist into a chain link fence and shouts at his girlfriend: “You ain’t nothing, bitch! You show me some respect!” The girlfriend cries and cowers, the fence behind her now permanently pushed in. At Thompkins Square Park, the sun sets mercifully. A lesbian couple sits in the grass near a group of bongo-playing deadheads. The drumbeats rise and swirl and echo off the buildings that surround the park. One of the lesbians sighs and says, “I just don’t think this is working out. It hasn’t been, you know, for months.” Her girlfriend stares at the fireflies, quick points of light that rise from the grass. Back at home, we hear our neighbor scream at her live-in boyfriend as we climb the stairs to our apartment. “You never think of me,” she wails. A great heave of her sobbing fills the hall. “It’s not fair! I’m always thinking of you!” Charles looks at me as he unlocks our door and says, as he has been saying all day, “What’s wrong, Sweetie? Tell me what’s wrong.”

I’ve got thick legs and an almost forty-year old butt and a sagging memory and I wear knee braces with my dresses…

I’ve got those vague, unnamed, feelings-of-disappointment blues. I feel like I’ve spent spent the entire summer — my entire life — inside a cramped, airless apartment, obsessing about the fact that I’m nowhere near being a famous artist yet, that my students probably think I’m a joke, and that if by any act of God I ever do become famous my students will tell The New York Observer what a joke of a teacher I was during the summer of ’97, how lame I was as a painter, a teacher of painting, a person. It’s a mood, a state of mind, that seems to hit me every July when the temperature rises, and I’m stuck in the city teaching Advanced Life Drawing at the Academy of Art. Stuck. My students are young, privileged, determined to get into RISD by the time they’re sixteen. They are eveything I wasn’t and still am not. Why else would they elect to take an overcrowded 1/9 train to steaming, tree-less Franklin Street every summer morning at nine?

Three weeks ago my boyfriend and I got a dog.

The East Village is full of skinny girls with pretty faces and mini-garments and I’ve got thick legs and an almost forty-year old butt and a sagging memory and I wear knee braces with my dresses and I don’t have time to be beautiful or young anymore because I’ve got a dog. A dog who needs me. A neurotic pound pup. Abused by its previous owner. Eight months old. About as friendly as my boyfriend is these days. Which is to say: not.

Saturday afternoon. Seven hundred and ninety degrees. The clouds are white and puffy, the sky a cerulean blue. All across the county, dozens of second-rate artists have set themselves up in the meadows of Westchester, the fishing villages of Long Island Sound, with their easels steady and their paintbrushes poised. And what am I doing to further my career? My boyfriend and I go to brunch in Soho with a female friend of his. Someone skinny and pretty like the EV girls mentioned above. She is younger than we are, and she looks up to us because we are artistes. I like to be around her because in her presence, I don’t have to try. She does all the trying. Today she talks to us about sexual harassment. She’s a financial analyst who makes like two-hundred thousand a year. A boss of hers whom she travels with on business has invited her to share a hotel. His logic: they could spend more of their expense money on meals. Or something like that. “Is that harassment?” she wants to know. She pronounces it the English way, emphasis on the har. I say I prefer the American emphasis on ass.

Charles jabs me with his elbow. “Let her finish the story,” he says. Since we got the dog he has been on edge. He turns his gaze back to Nellia, who is Japanese/Hawaiian, with otter-sleek hair and a smooth tan that stays year-round. Around her Charles is rapt. As if she carried all the depth and intrigue of a Kirosawa film.

I remain silent for the rest of the meal, thinking of how for my next art project I’d like to plaster the entire city with photographs of penises. One for every phallic telephone pole. One for every pair of tits The New Yorker now shows. The New Yorker! I did one illustration for them, they seemed keen for more, and then — pop! — a new editor. Time, again, to start anew.

Charles puts his hand on my leg and apologizes for snapping at me. “For interrupting you.” He smiles. “For interrupting you to tell you not to interrupt Nellia.” I turn to him slowly. I’m not an impatient person and I don’t usually swear, but his hand on my leg seems wrong all of a sudden. So I say to Charles I say: fuck you. He wanted this dog as much as I did. But now that we have one he says: I only did it for you.

Nellia laughs nervously. “Do you guys want to get dessert?”

I say no thanks and smile at her. I smile and smile. If I keep smiling she will think-we will all think-that I was just kidding when I said what I just said. I turn to Charles, and he looks hurt, then miffed, then skeptical, but soon he too smiles, a smile that says, begrudgingly, we owe it to each other to forgive. Always have, always will.

After brunch, Charles says he has to stop at the lab to print some photographs. I need to do errands. Nellia watches us kiss goodbye and asks if she can come along. I say sure, and after she can come meet the dog. The errands: I have two brothers, two half-brothers, two sisters, one half-sisters, five in- and half-in-laws, two sets of parents, seven nieces and one nephew, some of whom are older than the half siblings. All of the above have birthdays and anniversaries and graduations and First Communions, etc, evenly spaced throughout the year. All of them also have my undying love. My life outside my art has consisted of buying them presents. The money is tight but I enjoy the routine. Work, shop, sleep. Work, shop, dog, sleep. It lends continuity to my life and I feel like an important member of the capitalist food chain. I buy artsy crafty presents made by prison inmates and Native Americans. When Charles asks me where all my teaching money has gone I can point to Phelan’s Pholk Art Store and say: there.

We are buying greeting cards in Alphabet City when Nellia asks me how things are with Charles. There’s something in the tone of her voice that suggests her query isn’t quite guileless. Like she is gauging our relationship to see when she can move in.

I look up from the card I am reading. Once, right after art school, I had actually considered taking a job at Hallmark. In Kansas City! Every time I pick up a card I think of that road not taken and think: Thank God. Now I’m thinking I should lie to Nellia and tell her everything is fine. But I’m not Hallmark! “We’ve been fighting a lot lately. But the apartment has us on edge. It was too small for us to begin with. Now we have this seventy-pound dog.”

“Why don’t you move?” she says.

“We’re thinking of that actually. We’re thinking of buying a place.” I pick up a glow-in-the-dark Gumby doll and twist its arms above its head, as if it is being held-up. “It’s weird, because two months ago we were talking about breaking up.”

“Yah, he told me that.”

“He did?”

“Yah, he said that’s why you got the dog.”

A self-proclaimed psychic walks into the store, handing out flyers that say: Let Me Tell You Who You Are.

“We got the dog because we wanted a dog,” I say.

Back outside, the heat presses itself into the pores of my skin, beneath my clothes. A taxi driver is in the process of taking his fare’s luggage out of the trunk and throwing it into the street. “You find another ride!” he is screaming at the woman. “I don’t need to take you!” She is shaking her fist at him, a fist which is clamped around some bills. “We are guaranteed air-conditioning, you fucking moron. It’s my right! Where’s your badge number? Show me your badge number!” Nellia walks back with me to the Lower East Side and talks about her last boyfriend, who had a big Newfoundland named Otis. “The thing is, my boyfriend before him called his penis Otis, and I made a mistake of telling Michael — the guy with the Newfoundland — that. So every time I said his dog’s name he grimaced.” Nellia grimaces herself. “It didn’t work out.”

I laugh, even though my thighs stick together as we walk. Charles and I live at the foot of the Williamsburg bridge, which is ironic, considering they’ve been rebuilding it for about eight hundred years now, and it’s nowhere near completion. Every day we see the construction men and the canteen truck; we hear the jack hammers and the cranes. At night they leave delicate sprinklers on to keep the cement wet and huge spotlights to keep the graffiti “artists” away. All these signs of optimism and promise and yet no real progress has been made.

Back at the apartment, I warn Nellia about the condition of the kitchen floor. I stopped mopping it about three weeks ago, because Charles complained about the way I did it. “You have to use a mop bucket, goddammit!” he always says. “Otherwise you dirty up the sink! How many times do I have to tell you? You can’t use the sink because we wash our dishes in that sink.” My counter-argument is that if you use a mop bucket you end up just spreading dirty mop water across the floor. So it never gets clean. “And what you do you know about washing dishes anyway? When is the last time you even rinsed off a spoon, huh?” Charles got so mad the last time he saw me running the mop head under the faucet he called me an idiot. At that, I opened the kitchen window and casually javelined the mop into the air shaft. We live in the kind of building where you can do things like that. Our neighbor once threw his grrrlfriend’s snare drum out the window and she shouted “You maggot! I hate you!” over and over again and we didn’t even lift our eyes from Seinfeld.

When Nellia steps inside, she says you can’t even tell the floor is dirty. “You know, there’s a sign near my apartment building from Woody Allen’s production company. They’re looking for apartments that haven’t changed since the 1940’s. Want me to get the number for you?”

I open the door to the bedroom and call for the dog. He rises from the floor and does a grim yoga stretch. “Oh my God, he’s so cute!” Nellia says, and she bends to pet him. Diggy immediately growls and snaps. He still won’t let anyone pet him on the head. All my life I wanted a dog — a happy, loving, goofy dog. We chose Diggy because of his face. He had a round patch over his eye like Petey on Little Rascals. We didn’t know enough about dogs at the time to see the warning signs of Diggy’s past abuse: lack of eye contact, hand shy, unforgiving. We just named him Modigliani after our favorite Cubist painter and took him home.

Nellia looks hurt.

“Here, you give him a treat. That will show him you’re friendly.” We give him a cold carrot, which he takes hesitantly from Nellia’s hand. He then trots off to the living room to devour it, every once in a while looking at us with mistrust.

“What kind of dog is he?” Nellia says.

“We don’t know. The Animal League told us he was an English setter, but we looked up English Setters in the dog dictionary at Barnes & Noble and he doesn’t really look like one.” I tell her how disturbing it is not to know where Diggy came from, or what his life was before he came to us. I tell her how every week we run into another dog person who insists Diggy is a Red and White Irish Setter, or a Long Haired German Pointer, or an English Field Spaniel. “And I’ll be convinced, you know, for three of four days that he is a field spaniel or whatever, until we run into some other expert who says of course he’s not.”

“What are you?” Nellia says to him in a coaxing voice. Her voice is all innocence. She will always be all innocence. “You’re such a handsome doggie,” she says. “What happened to you to make you so mean?”

The air conditioner changes gears with a loud exhausted groan. I catch a glimpse of myself in the soot-coated window, and think I might as well be asking the same thing of me.

Saturday. Sundown. The sky is the same color as the tenements, which match the pavement, all of it blending together in a post-scorcher haze. Charles and I walk the dog. But first, we must fight about who’s turn it is to take the leash. He says I should because I said fuck you. I say “you’re right,” and he loves the sound of it so much he makes me say it again. “You’re right, Charles, you’re right.” “Hold on,” he says, rushing to the closet. “I’m getting this on tape!” I gather up the restraining devices, shit bags, baseball cap and Neoprene knee braces. Then we’re off. Diggy is not familiar with leashes or the Rules of the Road, so walking him is like trying to prevent a renegade car from rolling downhill with only a short canvas leash. He surges forward blindly, his breathing strained by the tight choke collar around his neck, while we, on the other end, try desperately to control him. He doesn’t know heel; he doesn’t know sit or stay or come. All he knows is that if he uses all his strength and stubbornness he will get somewhere, or at least forward, because he doesn’t seem to know what somewhere he wants.

The other dog owners of the neighborhood sympathize with us. They ask how old he is, they give us advice. “Try a prong collar,” one will say. Another will suggest we try a Halti. A third will tell us, with an air of tired amusement, that it took her three goddamn years to leash train her Boxer, “and the little bastard still pulls. Don’t you, Nugget?” Nugget lists his legs and pees on a traffic cone.

We are getting sucked into a community of baby-talkers and expensive-leash buyers. Of people who subscribe to Dog Fancy and have very little interaction with human beings. All we have to do is tell them Diggy was a shelter dog and the sucking-in process takes its course. “A shelter dog!” one of our new-found neighbors exclaims in an over-Marlboro’d voice. “Well, God bless you and your mother too!” He has three dogs-all of them rescued-whom he calls his children. He wears marching-band jackets and colors his fingernails pink. Diggy barks at him when he sticks his hand out to say hello. “What a wonderful dog!” he says. His raspy voice makes him sound slightly mad. “My children bark at everybody and Mother of Mary I prefer it that way. I got mugged back in the seventies when this place was a festering drug pit and then I got my children and, thank the blessed Mother, that was the end of that. Your dog was definitely abused.”

“How can you tell?” I say.

“Look at him! He has no hair around his neck. It’s all worn away.”

Charles and I look at each other guiltily. “We did that,” I say. “It’s from his choke collar. He pulls so much it pulls his hair out.”

Charles points to his own head. “All of us are losing hair over this dog.”

“It took one of my children three years to figure out this leash.” The man pauses to wheeze. “Patience is all it takes. Patience and a no-pull harness. You’re good people, I can tell.” He blows a kiss to Diggy and winks at us. “Have a wonderful day and God bless you for saving this beautiful dog.” Diggy starts to bark maniacally and we pull him away.

“Maybe we should get Diggy one of those harnesses.” Charles says a few blocks later. Diggy keeps veering off toward the street and I’m trying to keep him on the sidewalk. “I agree,” I say. “I don’t like the way his hair is getting pulled out like that.”

I must look sad, because Charles offers to take the leash and says, “We are good people.”

For entertainment that night we rent “Dead Man” and I am bored within half an hour. Charles appreciates the chiaroscuro and keeps watching. “You have to understand cinematography to appreciate a film like this,” he says.

“I do appreciate cinematography,” I say. “Right now I’m just craving a little plot.” I bring out a copy of Art Forum that features the Top Ten New Artists to watch. As I’m flipping through the pages, something tells me I’ve read this issue before, yet none of the Top Ten Paintings seem all that familiar. They’re vaguely familiar, in the way that all contemporary art is, but I can’t be sure. “You did read that issue,” Charles says, putting the tape on pause. “I know you did because you went into a tizzy about that guy who sawed the cow in half.” He turned a few pages for me and sure enough, there was the cow, its two halves floating together in a giant fish tack. The look on the cow’s face was that of a stoned college student trying to remember what he just said. It was like he knew something was wrong with its body, but didn’t have the faculty to figure it out. “How could I have forgotten this?” I say. “I mean, most of these top ten artists are pretty forgettable, but this?” I hold up the magazine.

“It’s the Prozac,” Charles says. “You know it is. That shit is screwing up your brain.”

Charles is worried about how “out of it” I’ve become since I started taking this anti-depressant. I’m more concerned about what’s going to happen to my art. What if, what if, this drug starts to work so well that I become mediocre? Sure, it would be great not to want to jump off the Williamsburg Bridge all the time, but what if this drug makes me truly and totally content? Happiness breeds still lives in the art world. Still lives of flowers.

Early Sunday morning, at an hour when most of the club kids haven’t even come down from their K-highs yet, I have to drag myself out of bed to take the dog for a walk. I’d always wanted to be one of those people who got up early to walk their dog, but now that I am one of those people, I wish I were dog-less so that I could sleep. Or stay out all night at night clubs, popping X. Or paint. Charles comes along with a copy of You and Your Shelter Dog, loaned to us — or rather thrust upon us — by the marching band man. The book encourages training with food treats, but Diggy unfortunately has little interest in food. Like a far-gone anorexic, he seems to have forgotten the relationship between food and feeling good. We try to get him to heel and to come and to stay and if he even acknowledges our presence we’re supposed to praise him and hold a piece of freeze-dried liver in front of his nose. But he’ll just look above and beyond it, as if we were just two more of those annoying people handing out flyers on the street: Let Me Tell You Who You Are.

On this morning, every fantastically beautiful young woman who isn’t still out clubbing is here at East River Park, rollerblading past us in sports bras and tiny shorts. Diggy won’t take my treats and Charles has his eyes on the bike path, waiting for the next goddess to glide by. She comes from the direction of the sunrise, in a pink tube top and satin shorts. She’s even wearing a knee-brace, but it’s more high tech than mine. A custom made one. I bought mine at Rite-Aid. I pull my t-shirt away from my body so that is doesn’t cling. I used to be a great beauty. I used to sunbathe topless and jog on strong, bouncy knees. Now I must live vicariously through an animal, a dog who doesn’t seem to care that I exist. Charles turns to me dreamily and says, “we should get Roller blades, don’t you think,?” I yank on Diggy’s leash and shout: Sit!

Sunday afternoon Charles and I go to Williamsburg to look at apartments. As we leave, Diggy throws himself against the door and howls. “I don’t get it,” Charles says. “If he can’t live with us then how come he can’t live without us, either?”

In his eyes is the same worry and pain I’m feeling these days so I hug him and say, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s the heat.”

Charles puts his hand on the door and says, “What have we done? We’re crazy, getting a dog. Are we adults now? I don’t even know. Are we? What’s an adult?” We stand in the hall and stare at each other with dumb smiles on our faces, like two people who have just taking mushrooms, waiting for the jubilation to arrive.

Outside the building, our one normal neighbor Tom is screaming at the top of his lungs at the super, a Chinese man named Suki. Apparently Suki has dumped a bucket of dirty water onto the roots of our street’s one tree — a tree that Tom had spent months petitioning the city for. The tree came in May and Tom has tended to it daily, watering it, pruning, building a handsome wooden fence at its base. Now he is threatening to kill Suki. “I could just put my hands around your scrawny little neck right now and squeeze,” he is saying, “and nobody would stop me. Fucking tree-killer! How could you be so stupid? You pour bleach on a tree? How could you be so fucking stupid?”

Suki just stands there with a mop in his hand and dumbly smiles.

“Stop smiling, you jackass, or I’ll wring your neck.”

Tom is an English teacher at P.S. 121. His favorite poet is Tennyson and his wife brings us soup. Up until now, I have never actually witnessed a neighbor losing it. All this inter-apartmental screaming has been like an elaborate parlor game, with a lot of mystery and no end. It’s like, we greet one another at the mailbox every day and we all wonder who was responsible for last night’s “Fuck Yoooooooouuuuu!” but attaching a scream to a face is awful. Worse than owning an Edvard Munch.

“Did you see what Suki had in his hand?” Charles says on the subway.

“Yes, I saw.”

“At least someone is mopping his floor.”

The lights flicker off for a moment as the train goes underground. “At least someone is free to mop his floor without someone else telling him he’s doing it wrong,” I say. I look out the window just in time to see a giant penis spray-painted on the tunnel wall.

We get to Brooklyn around noon. Charles insists we lie to the realtor about having a dog. “We’ll tell her we don’t have a dog but that we’re thinking of getting one soon.”

“That’s dishonest,” I say as we follow the realtor down Lorimer Street.

“Trust me,” Charles says. “This is the way to do it. Find the apartment first, get to know the super, then spring the dog on them. This is what Nellia did with her cats.”

It’s a long walk to our destination. We pass rows of houses with aluminum siding and Madonna statues. Their tiny yards are Astroturf. Most of the residents sit on the sidewalks in lawn chairs, listening to the Yankees game and fanning themselves. I tap Charles on the shoulder and whisper, “Look. It’s like they just sit and watch time pass by.” I tell him I don’t think I want to live near such poverty and inertia. “We’re hovering so close to that ourselves.”

“What do you mean? We already live in a poor neighborhood now.”

“Yes, but now the Lower East side is young poor, artist poor, college student poor. We haven’t resigned ourselves to being forever poor the way those people have.”

“Our Mother of Mary friend would like it here,” Charles says.

Our realtor shows us an apartment across from McCarren Park that she said was 600 square feet. What we see is three small rooms, empty except for a litter box, which is quite full.

“I thought you said this was 600 square feet,” Charles says. “With a yard.”

“There’s a basement,” the realtor says.

“A private basement?” I say with a glimmer of hope. I’m thinking giant canvases.

“No, it’s not private. But you do have access to it. I’m not sure you’d ever want to go down there, though.”

“And where’s the yard?” Charles says testily.

“Out here.” She shows us a cement courtyard about six feet long. There’s another full litter box out there as well, baking in the shade. “You could put plants out here,” the realtor says cheerfully, “and some wicker chairs. It could be lovely. You’re creative sorts, right?”

I try to imagine this space as lovely, but even the thought seems like too much effort. My whole life, suddenly, seems filled with things that need a little TLC, and I’m not sure I have enough to go around.

“I thought Williamsburg was supposed to be the new Soho,” I say on the way back to the subway. “Where are all the artists and the hip cafes?

“I think this is Greenpoint, not Williamsburg. That realtor just said it was Williamsburg to lure us out here and waste our time. What a fucking liar!”

“We lied, too,” I say. The sun is so directly above us we have no shadows.

For Diggy’s next walk we take him to a fenced-in playground to see if maybe he’ll play ball. We want so badly to have a fun-loving dog. The playground is littered with needles and broken glass. Two adolescent boys are “training” their pitbull by whipping it with a belt. “How much you pay for that thing?” they say as we lead Diggy inside.

“How much did we pay?” I say. “For this thing?”

Charles pulls me toward the other end of the playground and produces a ball. A brand new fuzzy yellow tennis ball, one of the three we bought last year for all that tennis we said we’d play when we found the time. Charles now takes the ball and holds it out to Diggy, who backs away. “Look, it’s a ball,” Charles says, bouncing it. I say, “Yes, it’s a ball! Diggy, do you want to play with this ball?” We both talk in sing-song voices. The dog seems curious about the way the ball bounces. Or maybe he likes the noise. That country-club thwock that sounds the same at the clay courts at Longwood or the concrete jungle of East River Park. Our shelter told us they rescued Diggy from a pound in Connecticut. “Let go of the leash for a second,” Charles says with excitement. “I want to see if he chases it.” He bounces the ball a few more times and then throws it a good distance toward the fence. “Go get it, Diggy!” he shouts, and Diggy does! Our dog trots toward the ball, and I think I can see his tail wag, and for a moment I am filled with a feeling of hope, pure hot hope that spreads toward my fingertips. But that hope turns to alarm as Diggy veers off to the left and heads toward a hole in the fence we hadn’t seen. “Goddammit, why did you let him go?” Charles yells. “Shit!” He starts to run after the dog.

“You told me to let him go,” I shout after him.

He turns. “I didn’t mean like that. You weren’t watching him.”

“Neither were you, you asshole!”

Diggy gallops now, his leash trailing behind him, and as he dives under the fence I imagine a car coming out of nowhere on the other side, plowing him down. And for a second I feel a form of relief at this, as in: we tried, we failed, and now the dog is gone. Next?

At that instant the dog’s leash snags on part of the fence, and he is yanked back so fiercely I’m afraid his neck has snapped. Charles is there now, looking both panicked and relieved. He tries to embrace the dog but Diggy growls at him, so Charles must be content with kneeling there on the pavement, holding the leash. When I get there I kneel next to him, and try to touch his shoulder, but he recoils. He won’t look at me, and I guess that he’s blaming me: for letting go, for getting a dog, for luring him into all this domesticity in the first place.

On the walk back we don’t speak to each other. The sidewalks are littered with chicken bones and broken glass. I try to steer around the dog all this but my back is sore, my knees feel unglued. The other day, we saw a full used diaper sitting open on the sidewalk, like something for sale. I never really noticed these things until the dog came along.

Back at base camp, Charles and I lie on the bed in a state of paralysis. The bed has become a sort of floating island oasis, the only clean surface in the apartment. “I thought he was a goner.” Charles stares at the ceiling with his hands folded across his ribs. I’m thinking he looks look like a corpse. A corpse who’s about to cry. “Oh, honey, what is it?” I say and place my hand over his.

“My father once told me when my sister and I were one and two he almost had a nervous breakdown, because he realized at that point he really didn’t want kids.”

I look at our hands all entwined and think for some reason of rosary beads and the hands-in-prayer statue my grandmother kept next to her clock. “Do you think we should take the dog back?”

“It would be awful. And I’d never forgive myself, but I don’t know. I think we should. I don’t think we can handle this right now.”

“I feel like such a failure,” I say. “And such a New Yorker. Waiter, this dog isn’t good enough. Please send it back.” There was a joke in my speech somewhere, but in the delivery it got lost.

“Let’s give him a month, okay? And if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just have to take him back.”

Monday I take the dog out alone and try to teach him to come, sit, stay, heel. At school I try to teach my students to draw, see, think, feel. I circle the room and look from their drawings to the bored nude model perched in the center on a chair. I offer my students suggestions and praise, saying things like, “Pay attention to the negative space around the figure. Contrast the density of her muscles with the lightness of the air around her.” As I’m talking, I see one of my female students roll her eyes at the hollowness of my words. I am filled with that pang again and think how much easier it would be to hand out liver treats and an enthusiastic, Good Boy! Why couldn’t I be one of the few, the proud, the rich who spent her summer on the Hamptons, selling my paintings to all those neighbors with so much money and so little taste? Why couldn’t I be more like that model up there, unclothed and silent, with her eyes contently closed?

After class I meet with Dr. Lunig and convince her to administer some Wexler Memory Tests. She recites series of numbers and I repeat them back to her in the same order. Then I repeat them in reverse order. Then she shows me drawings of geometric shapes for five seconds, then hides them and I have to draw them back for her. Then I have to look at pictures that are paired with certain colors and next, when Dr. Lunig shows me the pictures alone, I have to name the colors for her. We do word associations, story memorization, and — the most complicated — a test in which she points to a series of dots on a page and then I have to point at those same dots in the reverse order.

I score in the 99th percentile. “There’s nothing wrong with your memory,” Dr. Lunig says.

“Then why is it that I can take a book out of a library twice with no recollection that I’ve read it the first time? Why is it that I can introduce a topic in class and my students will raise their hands and say ‘we talked about this last week’? You know, the other day, I stretched out four new canvases, only to open my closet and discover I had already stretched four the week before. Now I have eight canvases, all just sitting there doing nothing.”

“It could be something other than memory.” Dr. Lunig said. “Maybe your concentration is weak?”

“Charles always says it’s because we live in New York. I grew up in the marshlands. I wasn’t conditioned to take in so much data at once.”

Dr. Lunig says: “It could be that you used to have a really good memory. And now you’re just normal.”

Normal? That’s what I am? Normal? To be normal in New York is to be unremarkable. I leave the office feeling as dejected and ill-fated as if she told me I was terminally ill.

Charles has invited Nellia to dinner. She’s normal. She’s normal with an income. Normal with a hot bod. Charles lights candles and pours goblets of red wine. We have food delivered to the apartment because we don’t want to leave the dog. Dallas BBQ. Rotisserie chicken and corn bread with cole slaw and baked beans. Nellia gets Diggy to lick some sauce off her fingertips. Charles says, “I called the pound today. I asked them what exactly happened to Diggy, but they wouldn’t say.”

“You called the pound?”

“Why won’t they tell you?” Nellia says.

I suck the wine down and study her face, wondering if innocence could ever be an acquired skill.

“I don’t know,” Charles says. “I think they think the less you know the more apt you are to adopt the pet. But I think they owe it to let us know what happened to Diggy. How can we help him if we don’t know exactly what’s wrong?”

“The poor baby,” Nellia says. She purses her lips, now colored a lush burgandy.

“Let’s go to the dog run,” I say. “Maybe what Diggy needs is some friends.”

The walk to Washington Square Park takes twenty minutes. Charles brings the video camera because it’s Diggy’s first-and maybe last-time. All the cafes near NYU filled to capacity with thin, good-looking students. They smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Their clothes are so conscious, so deliberately thrown together. Some of them even have dogs — lazy, well-behaved dogs that lie underneath the tables, content with their bowls of water and an occasionally pet. As we get closer to the park, I see that all the “normal” looking people-the ones wearing the Teva’s and the not necessarily flattering shorts — are headed for the dog run. We talk to them once we are inside. We talk dogs, mostly. Exclusively. I think of all my fertile girlfriends and the playgroups they take their children to. “No one ever calls me by my name,” my friend Sue always says. “They know me as Maggie’s mom.” I meet a nice bland girl with undyed hair and model-long legs. Lives in Inwood. Goes hiking and climbing on weekends. She doesn’t seem to want much. Likes to hang out with her dogs. Hers are two of the friendliest dogs in the arena. Two plump chocolate labs who trot side by side with a plastic water bottle in their mouths, playing a benign tug of war.

“Which dog is yours?” she says. We are sitting on a bench next to one another. Nellia is off playing with a Pug.

I point toward a solitary Diggy, who paces along the north fence as if looking for an escape route. Charles is following him with the video camera, saying, “Come on, Diggy. Go play!” He nudges Diggy with his free hand and Diggy snaps. “What kind of dog is he?” she says.

Her voice is pure kindness, pure pain-free. I bet she doesn’t get all worked up because she her name hasn’t appeared in Art Forum, I bet she can walk through a museum without feeling like her entire life has been a ruse. She just is and it shows in her face. No line, no worries. I decide Diggy must be an English Setter and say this out loud.

“He is? We grew up with English setters. I’ve never seen one that looks like him.”

I slink down on the bench. “Well, that’s what they said he was at the pound.”

Her dogs run up to Diggy with their tails wagging. The one with the bottle puts it down and nudges it toward Diggy with his snout. Diggy sniffs it hesitantly, then he takes the bottle and runs. He runs and dodges and turns and the other dogs chase him. With the bottle in his mouth, he looks like he’s actually smiling. I clap my hands. “Charles, look!” Charles turns, keeping his hands steady on the camera. I think of the first time I met him at my best friend Sue’s wedding. His first words to me were: “Hold it, steady, right there, okay now, smile. Good!” And he snapped my picture. It was and still remains the single best photograph ever taken of me and it is the reason I fell in love with Charles. He saw me not as other people saw me, but as I wanted to see myself: an undiscovered beauty, full of promise and love.

Charles moves closer to Diggy now, his camera trained on the dog like some sort of tracking device. Diggy drops the bottle and charges at Charles and I see before it happens that the force of the dog will knock Charles over. I wonder how this will look in his viewfinder — a pair of approaching, airborne fangs. I decide I really should have mopped the floor. There was no need to drag that out so long. But then Mr. Diggy slows down and wags his tail and actually licks the camera. Charles puts the camera down and laughs. He looks for me among the other dog people. “Did you see that?” he says when he catches my eye. “He kissed my lens!”

I run up to the two of them — Charles, Diggy — and give Charles a hug. He lifts me off my feet. I explain to the nearby owner of a Rottweiler that it’s our dog’s first kiss, his first sign of affection and, Mother of Mary, he seems to understand. In my voice is jubilance, I can actually feel it in my heart. Nellia comes over and says “What happened?” and Charles tells her about the kiss. He keeps his arm around me and gives my shoulders a squeeze. “Oh, I missed it,” she says with a pout. “Shoot.”

“Oh, there will be other times,” I say. I see that the sun is setting and the lights have been turned on at the Arc de Triomphe. There’s a breeze, too, a warm breeze that rustles through the leaves. A man leans against the base of the arc and blows into his saxophone the slow, lush notes of: Summertime, and the living is easy. The music rises and swirls above us; the kind of music that makes you believe.

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About Ellie Forgotson

Ellie Forgotson has lived in Amherst, Boston, Utah, California, France, Wisconsin and New York City. This is her first published story under her new married name. Previous to her marriage, she won the Playboy College Fiction Contest, and The Raymond Carver Award.

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