A Dog, Instead
“It occurs to me that I might die. I will die far from where I was born, and I will die like a woman dies, with child.”
Josephine sleeps cocooned in our comforter. She’d climbed into bed again. Some time after the late-shift neighbors arrived home, and before the crickets stopped chirping, Jo stretched between Tony and me, elbowing our backs. It’s difficult to sleep well with her, but harder to say no.
Five in the morning on Tuesday, and I’m the first awake. I unwrap myself from the tangle of white bed sheets. Tony and Josephine still snore loudly, father and daughter, one on, one off, like a pair on Looney Tunes. I pad to the kitchen, linoleum smooth against my bare feet, and switch on the coffee pot. Water hisses as it warms inside its reservoir.
I need to pee, so I walk down the hallway to the bathroom. I love the morning, being up first. I read the news. The birds sing hello day. The house is purple with light and quiet. I have some time before Jo returns to her room and closes the door. First thing in the morning, she chatters with her brood of plush animals. She loves Marshall best, her “pussy dog.” She’s so devoted to the bulldog wearing a black fireman’s hat, it’s a word I can’t correct, as long as it’s not uttered in public.
I place my hand on the bathroom’s doorknob. As I twist, a lightning shot of pain travels from my arm straight to the gut. I grab hold of my middle. I fall forward. Help, I say, or think I do, and then I lose consciousness.
I come to with a view: the blur of the white-tiled, ceramic bathroom floor. Josephine stands over me. She’d pulled a kiddie flashlight out of her trunk of dress-up clothes. In that trunk she has outfits for fairies, princesses, and brides. One for a construction worker. That costume came fitted with a tool belt and a flashlight. Jo had shined her light through the dark house, walked from room to room, looking.
“Mommy, you’re sleeping in the bathroom?” I turn my head and attempt something like a smile. Here we are, finally, in the moment I can’t direct.
I come from a long line of fix-it-yourself women. My mother can repair anything. But she can’t change the picture of my father kicking her down the basement stairs. I was three then. Dad had a tightly-wound giant black Doberman with a long pointed nose.
Josephine flicks her light on, a circle of yellow against my forehead. “You’re all right.” She kneels down, close. Her breath is candied and milk-sour.
I moan, ask for Daddy.
“There are grown-up doctors for this problem,” Jo assures. She drops her little light. The plastic bounces dryly against the floor.
“I need a hug and kiss.” Jo sits. She tucks herself into my arms. My belly has a crushing pulse, a drum beat. The pain is familiar. It is the pain of birth.
Jo pulls down the front of my nightgown. She places her cheek against my bare breast. “Fine, Mommy. Fine.” I can see below. Blood pools beneath my skin; my belly is black.
The weekend before, we’d made our way over the tide pools at Shaw’s Cove on Laguna Beach. Snorkels poked like reeds through the surface of the water.
“Where are the fishes hiding?” Josephine gripped a fist-sized reef-rock and hocked it so hard it bounced, broke apart, and plunked into the ocean.
At three Josephine has already seen the Mediterranean, Pacific, and Gulf. I grew up on a North Carolina military base near the steel-blue Atlantic. Mom waitressed the dinner shift. Sometimes, during lunch, she drove me and my twin sister Cara to Emerald Isle.
But once we were there, Mom always fell asleep on a blanket lain over the sand. Mom slept like the dead. No. Mom slept like a two-job holding waitress who’d married a Marine who didn’t have impulse control. While Mom slept, Cara and I spied long-legged sandpipers, clear rubbery jellyfish, and tiny pearl-shelled clams that fought the tide by digging underground. Once I swear to God we found a human bone, a sun-bleached spine buried deep in a dune. I desired the exotic: sea cucumbers, starfish, Yellow Tangs. I wanted a mother awake enough to show me. My twin sister was all I had.
Josephine and I turned our backs on the Pacific and waved to Daddy. My backless 1970’s dress with a swirling-yellow paisley print refused to clasp that morning; so I trapped it closed below the hook with a safety pin that poked my back. With my arm up, my hand numbed. My pinkie and index finger tingled until there was no sensation. I gripped Jo’s hand with my good one. She leaned too close to the water, her nose nearly touching it. Her eyes moved back and forth, tracking a school of silver-bodied fish.
“Stay close,” I yelled, though she hadn’t stepped away. “Not without me.”
“What’s this?” A sea anemone drew Jo’s pink nail-polished finger in. “Mommy?”
“Gentle.” I guided her finger and instructed her to barely touch it, so the anemone won’t contract.
Daddy sat in a nylon chair, hundreds of feet away, hiding from the sun beneath a beach umbrella. Tony is prone to sunburn, and probably to melanoma. He will die first, we often joke. His moles have jagged edges. He scarfs pork ribs, gulps beer, and eats ice cream straight from the container. I’ll bury him at sea, or in the ground, in a simple canvas body bag, in Arlington National. He’ll spend forever with his brothers-in-arms. (Yes, I married a Marine, too.)
I’ll survive to see the apocalypse: I’m too thin. I eat kale. I take vitamins. I’m so stubborn and Sicilian I’m unkillable.
“Are they cold? The fish?”
“They’re far below. They’re warm enough.”
“Is Dorothy down below?” Jo talks with her hands, big, round movements. Her hair is long, blondish, curly, and snarled.
Dorothy, our neighbor in Santa Monica, had recently disappeared. She’d wandered over to our garage in the alley, where Tony writes. We keep an avalanche of Jo's hand-me-downs in the corner opposite his desk, beside the bicycles. We’re always adding to the pile: Downy-sweet receiving blankets, rubber teethers, and books with one word per page. The pile has grown so tall it’s tipping.
“What in God’s hell is that?” Dorothy had pointed at our mound. She wore a kilt and comfortable wedged shoes ruined at the toes from dragging them. Her nude knee stockings rolled down to her ankles. “Quitters,” Cara would have called them.
“Who are you?” She’d searched Tony’s face for familiar features; a nose, a toothy smile, the disappointed frown that said she’d loved him poorly. “I need to get to my sister’s place in Glasgow. It’s just around the corner.”
“Is Dorothy with the fish?” Jo said.
“Maybe.” As far as I know, Dorothy could be anywhere.
Vanishing is common in California. People go broke and pack up in the dark of night. They haven’t sold their screenplays. They’re gone before sunrise, before the bill collectors. Our neighbors go on in their yoga gear, as if the house across the street isn’t empty, as if Tony and I aren’t standing in our yard, worrying that we’ll be next.
Jo submerged her hand in a tide pool. She closed her eyes, felt around for fish. She smiled, grabbing hold of one that slipped beyond her grasp.
“I think we should get a pet. A real pet.” Her stuffed dogs don’t cut it. “Did you know that some mommies grow new babies?” Jo told me for the tenth time that week.
“Some,” I said.
“The new baby can live in your office,” Jo said.
A purple starfish stretched over algae-covered driftwood. “Do you think she has a sister?” Jo said.
“Starfish want to be alone,” I said. But I don’t know what a starfish wants.
A tiny shell skittered by.
Jo picked up the hermit crab. She flipped it over. Its legs scurried against air. “They live in their shells?”
“Cheap rent.” I have Mom’s sense of humor. She pulls no punches. Right after Cara and I were born, Mom had her tubes tied, right on the cesarean birthing table. At twenty-three, and after years of Dad hitting her, two was enough. Two was the punch line.
When we were just older than Jo, Cara and I played a game. It was called: Off With the Dingoes. First, the dingoes ate all the boys. Next, they’d come for us. We had fun pretending the other had vanished. “It must have been the wild dogs,” Cara would say, jabbing me in the side with her elbow, pretending she no longer had me.
I pulled Jo close to my hip. She rested her head against it. Pain shot down my arm, an electric sting I’d felt all week. I’d had trouble turning the doorknob, pushing the pram, and writing checks for bills. Stupid writer’s carpel tunnel; I thought I knew. Waves crashed the reef with the sound of radio static. I lifted her by one arm, a move she likes. She swerved out legs first, my daredevil, her laugh a howl. I’ve been told that this maneuver can tear muscle from bone, but Jo likes it, so I do it, knowing the risk, knowing well that pleasure can also be dangerous.
From my place on the bathroom floor, I bleed out, my girl tucked into my arms.
“Daddy?” I urge Jo up. “Go.”
The two talk in our bedroom; Jo’s fearful small-sounding rasp. Tony’s surprised, sleepy panic.
Tony lifts me into his arms and carries me to the car. Josephine quickly dressed. She wears a pink gown and tiara, and buckles herself into her car seat. Tony and Jo calmly make small talk as I vomit onto our car’s floor mat.
I gather the strength to run from the car into the hospital. “Labor,” I tell the admitting nurse. “It hurts like that.” I’m yelling. “But it’s not that.” I show her my flat stomach.
In the ER, my bed is there, behind a pleated, pale-blue curtain. I can’t find Jo; there’s no strength to ask for her. I’m back in Tony’s arms. My head dangles over his elbow. His heart drums against my side. That beating. Five years of hearing his heart go: after we make love and immediately fall asleep, or fight so shamelessly about the bills or our former lovers that our neighbors close their windows.
I slip backward, into a place that is quiet and dark. I’ve lost so much blood. I live far within, like a whisper in a loud room. Nurses rush around the bed. I curl up against the exam table’s paper sheet. “Ectopic,” I hear. “Ten weeks.” I’m administered four units of blood. “Rupture.” A nurse pricks each of my hands with a needle, inserts IV ports.
Morphine pushes in. It enters my veins cold. I hadn’t missed a period; I’d bled for two weeks the month before.
I drift and drift from drug. I’m dancing over memories.
I’m back in college, twenty years old, and sitting before an astrologer. He tells me the next decade of my life will be about children. “What about books?”
“None that I see.” He pointed at the moon in my bowl-shaped house.
Three months later, I was accidentally pregnant. My mother knew what to do. She forced me into a clinic.
I wanted that baby, though I wanted the life I have now more. Maybe that’s still true, for this one.
On the hospital bed, I lash at myself for my good choice at twenty, again, as I have so many times, in secret. Each month of the last two years that we haven’t conceived I know that I’m cursed. I think: God is punishing me. But I’m an atheist. It’s not God who is punishing me. I have done this to myself. I have broken my body. It can’t be a harbor.
A doctor asks me to scoot down. He places my feet in the stirrups, opens my legs. He pushes his gloved fingers inside of me. He kneads my belly like dough. I clench my teeth and squeeze hold of the bed’s rails.
He finishes his exam and pulls a recorder from his pocket, taking notes for my file. “The patient was unaware,” he accesses.
Suddenly, I’m furious. I blame California. This is a problem of geography. I hadn’t noticed a baby growing in the wrong place because Los Angeles, with its stupid, perfect ocean, has dimmed me. If only I’d paid attention—I could have had an injection to wither the seed.
A year ago, we moved from Brooklyn; there was hope for a good life here. God-light shone over Los Angeles. The musky smell of eucalyptus everywhere. At the farmers' markets, strawberries fragrant as perfume, dirt-covered garlic fresh from the ground, blueberries black enough to eat.
But soon, I stopped noticing, a thing Californians do. They take fair weather for granted. California has a gloss; it poses perfection; yet it has no memory, no consequences. Women refuse to age. Greenery is too green—it’s hard to know what to do with a garden that never dies—it rained once this year.
I pull my legs to my chest and heave. The clothes I wore to the hospital are no longer on my body. I am dressed in a white cotton gown tied in the front. A nurse injects my IV line with more morphine.
It occurs to me that I might die. And I’m going to die in Santa Monica, like Marilyn Monroe died in Brentwood, or River Phoenix died in front of the Viper Room, but without the poetry. I will die far from where I was born, and I will die like a woman dies, with child.
I pray beneath the heat of the hospital’s hot lights: Dear God, please let me see Jo rebel. If I die, I’ll never see her read Plath. If I die, she’ll discover The Bell Jar alone. Dear God listen: don’t you dare do this now.
What I am not thinking: who will pay our rent? Who will water the star jasmine? What will my mother do when both of her daughters are dead?
Cara died nine years ago on our mother’s bathroom floor.
Should I tell the doctor? Her death nearly devoured me: I’d been hospitalized. I’d cut. I’d pilled. I’d nearly died then, too. How can it be that now, in the fight for my life, Cara’s death is medically meaningless? I want to tell the doctor about each of her complications: her steadfast belief in the Crowley deck; how she’d loved her dog; how she’d fist-fought the boys who’d bullied me in school. We’d sleep in the same bed sometimes, even in our twenties. We promised if one of us ever went missing we’d never stop looking.
Part of the beauty of life is the eventual irrelevance of its finer details. Yet the question of Cara hovers over me like a surgical lamp. I’m tired of thinking of my sister, of her dark, drug-addled death. I long for her, but I don’t want her in this room.
But she is always in the room. She is there as Jo imagines her own sister, as she plays alone with that ghost in her sandbox. I’ve failed to bring my daughter a sister. I have failed her as Cara failed me when she died.
Maybe I used to think that because a few terrible things had happened in my life, I was immune to more things; I was an aristocrat of suffering. On the tray beside the bed there is a hook, a needle, and vial of morphine. I ask for more. I gather my resources.
Tony waits with Josephine in an adjacent hallway. I call out for him to come.
He carries Jo on his hip. Her sippy cup has leaked milk over his trousers. Tony’s hair is a swirl on his head, a mess. Tubes and wires connect me to machines that beep loudly.
“What if I die? Who will take care of Jo?”
“You’ll be fine,” Tony says, though I can tell he’s not sure. He’s doing that thing he does with his eyes when he worries; he looks to the right and nervously licks his lips.
“Mommy?” Josephine stares at the tiny bed, my body covered in warming blankets. She looks at me for the reassurance I can’t give. I lift my head, motion for them to leave. I can’t have her remembering this.
A pair of nurses lift me onto a gurney. They wheel me for what feels like miles down a windowed white hall. I imagine my husband taking lovers, well-meaning young women who will pretend to love Jo, but who will secretly wish to burn her like Gretel.
Where the bed is parked, a surgeon stands waiting. “Stay with us,” he says. A yellow paper mask covers his mouth. “You’re here.”
Two weeks later, Tony and I go to the same surgeon so he can remove my stitches and observe my healing wound. In the last fourteen days, I have survived on a steady diet of painkillers, and have barely gotten out of bed.
“And who is this?” The surgeon ushers Tony and me into the blood-draw room. “A new mommy-to-be?”
The doctor doesn’t recognize me. Last week, I’d made it out onto Montana Avenue, the shopping district in walking distance from our house. There it seemed every woman on the block was full-bellied with baby, smugly stroking their bumps, so I retreated into a salon, and asked the stylist to cut my waist length hair into a pixie-like bob.
The new style gave me the feeling that I possessed the power of a man. As a man, I had better things to do than grieve a baby who’d been no larger than a kidney bean.
In the lab, I wait my turn for the nurse’s needle stick. The walls are covered with images of newborns—my surgeon handles celebrities—there he is in a 4x6 with Matthew McConaughey, holding his bundled baby so fresh it’s red. The baby wears a blue hat, its eyes shined with Vaseline-like goop. There are Thank you cards with babies stuffed in peapod blankets, and babies who wear ridiculous sunflower headdresses. There is Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas, and what seems to me to be the whole fertile LA Lakers.
I weep, and it’s humiliating, but the postpartum hormones have me. Tony isn’t moved to tears; the pictures don’t slice him. I’m just a woman with a mannish hairstyle.
I lay on the table naked from the waist down. When the surgeon comes back in he leaves the exam room’s door wide open. There is another couple in the hall; they’re getting a tour of the fertility clinic. They poke their heads in to see the room.
“Close the door,” I say, a little too loudly. A word I hate is cunt. It has a sharp, stabbing sound. But on the doctor’s table, that’s what I feel I have, a body reduced to slurs.
“Looking good,” the doctor says, “We’re all set.”
Yet he’d forgotten to snip the last stitch, the black thread closing my belly button. “Finish.” I point at the forgotten suture.
“What on earth is wrong, my dear?”
He pats my leg like you’d pat a good dog.
When you’re weighing the pros and cons of whether to have a second child, people often tell you to go ahead and just get a dog.
We come home from the appointment, and Jo is waiting with her babysitter on the porch. We pay the girl and she leaves. Tony and Jo and I sit close together on the patio’s little navy cotton sofa, a two-seater.
A man heads down the sidewalk, connected by a red leash to a huge black lab. The man stares at his iPhone, the world of important people living inside the device. His lab has a goofy look, as if it’s never thought to do anything but smile.
After the first year of not getting pregnant, I’d scoured the internet looking for the right pup for Jo. But there was no right pup. Pets don’t last. Mom had had her two girls. Mom had had a house full of pets. Mom has outlived all of them but me and Cara’s dog, and I’d just lived by the skin of my teeth.
Cara’s high-strung miniature pinscher has cataracted eyes: wide and black and clouded. The dog is what Mom talks about. When she’s pooped. If she’s restless. What and how much she’s eaten. There isn’t a person in Mom’s life who doesn’t worry over the dog; when the dog dies, the last of Cara goes.
What would the sight of sisters in my house do to Mom? Would it break her like the idea breaks me? But I can’t spend my whole life avoiding sisters. I can’t give Josephine a dog, when what she rightfully needs is what I had and lost, a confidante.
We pass desire down.
Jo darts across the porch to pet the lab, so fast that she’s way ahead of Tony, who chases after her. She stops within hand-smelling distance of the giant dog. She tilts her head, places her hands on her hips, and cocks them provocatively.
“Aw, pussy dog.” Josephine tells the man what he has. “Your pussy dog is so cute.”
I’m high on the hospital’s last hit of morphine. Hummingbirds buzz our porch like fighter planes. The snapdragons are up: purple, yellow, and magenta. Josephine isn’t afraid of the dog that greatly outweighs her. The man is aghast, but I’m pleased.
Real men, even in California, want real dogs, real big dogs. But Jo knows the truth. Josephine knows all our truths.
More in this series
“I found myself dwelling on these parts of Korean culture as a way to reconnect with my identity and also the memory of my mom.”