When the Membrane Splits

When the Membrane Splits

In Short Story by Margo McCall

Anton and I were walking down a dark side street searching for my lost car when I spotted something weird. It was the same L.A. urbanscape as always—rows of parked cars, thick-rooted ficus, dumpy apartments and houses with yards and more parked cars in driveways—all identifiable, bathed in the sick tangerine glow of streetlights.

There was a shadowy thing on the street ahead, something unidentifiable, lurching forward in jerking spasms and seeming to hover slightly above the ground. Its sudden appearance made me reach out and grab Anton’s hand.

This odd shape was not on the list of sights I expected to see: other couples coming from dinner, groups of friends heading to a nearby bar, or maybe a gang of gangbangers, or a homeless person pushing a shopping cart piled high with plastic water bottles and black trash bags.

But I’d not been expecting dinner with Anton’s ex-girlfriend Aileen either. I’d hated the way they’d bantered back and forth and giddily ordered matching microbrews at the French place on Vermont while I sipped my watery cranberry and vodka. They hadn’t seen each other in thirty years—an absolute lifetime—and seemed to be picking up where they’d left off. And of course I wasn’t in the picture thirty years ago, so it was no big shock to find that I wasn’t in the picture now.

The uneasy triad of shifting energies had kept me alert for the unseen and the unspoken. I’d regretted coming—a more intimate reminiscence between Anton and Aileen, laughing over their lives’ strange twists, perhaps wondering whether their paths would cross again or diverge, would have been better. At least better for me.

Anton had suggested I come, saying he’d like me to meet her. But perhaps it was a shield against unwanted advances, since right before dinner, he confessed that Aileen stalked him after their breakup. I wondered what other weirdness had gone on that I had no clue about.

We’d stopped at Griffith Park Observatory first because Aileen wanted to see the Light of the Valkyries show. She apparently had a thing for the Northern Lights. We were supposed to meet her for the 4:15 p.m. show, but Anton got caught in a meeting and then we got caught in Friday traffic and then I took a wrong turn.

Aileen had left the tickets at the entry to the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, but we were so late that they’d already barred the doors and we couldn’t get in. We battled the hordes of screaming schoolchildren and tourists to get to the Cosmic Connection and Edge of Space Exhibit. One of Anton’s friends had done the lighting for the Edge of Space and he wanted to see how it was holding up. I hadn’t been to the Griffith Park Observatory in years, probably not since I’d been a new-in-town punk rocker decades ago. It was one of those places I’d been meaning to return to, but never had. It was a destination for out-of-town visitors, and all of my visitors over the years had preferred the beach or Hollywood.

Anton and I had only recently become a “we” again after two years of living apart and dating other people. We were just getting used to each other again. It was a curious mix of old and new. The past three months had been a stressful marathon—moving his stuff, moving my stuff, throwing things out, and seeing how it all fit together. The last big piece of the puzzle was me renting out my condo. I was right in the middle of finding a tenant when Anton had told me Aileen was coming to visit.

“Now who’s Aileen?” I’d asked.

“She was my girlfriend in college. We used to solve algorithms together,” said Anton. “I’m going to get together with her Friday night.”

“But weren’t we going to go to see Parallelogram Friday night?” I’d said.

“She’s only in town for a couple of days and Friday night she’s free.”

I should have objected, but I didn’t. I’d gone to sleep as usual, but had woken an hour later feeling anxious. I made myself a drink with some of Anton’s small-batch bourbon and curled up on the couch from my old place. It felt good to be lying on something that was mine instead of Anton’s. Rusty, our black lab, hopped up on the couch and rested his head on my legs. My legs fell asleep from the weight of his head, but the rest of me stayed awake worrying.

Anton and I had gotten Rusty back when our future seemed certain, and when we broke up, we’d decided that Anton should keep the dog. I’d still gotten to see Rusty on occasion when Anton traveled for work or went on a trip with his new girlfriend.

Finally just before dawn, Anton got up to pee and I confessed that the visit from the ex-girlfriend was making me nervous. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “We haven’t seen each other in years. And besides, I’m with you now.”

“It’s just that I don’t know anything about her.”

“What’s to know? We were both computer science majors. We used to study together. She went east to work for the National Science Foundation and get her PhD. I came west to work for Disney and be creative.”

I still suspected he was holding something back. “I know about all your other exes. Why didn’t you ever mention her?”

“The fact that I haven’t mentioned her all these years should tell you something, shouldn’t it? You’re such a worrier.”

I didn’t think Aileen was a serious threat. For starters, she lived in some tumbledown mansion on the coast in Virginia. Yes, she was blonde—a natural one, it appeared—with a more-or-less decent body. But her face had a tough veneer, like she was hiding something embarrassing or shameful. I wasn’t sure why she was even here, visiting an old flame from thirty years ago.

I didn’t think the thing coming toward us was a threat either. It seemed lost and amorphous, floating toward us at least a block away. But it was disturbing nonetheless.

“What do you think that is?” I asked Anton, grabbing his hand tighter.

“What do you mean?”

So he hadn’t seen it yet. Perhaps I was just sleep-deprived from lying awake worrying about Aileen’s impending visit. Thinking things were strange when they really weren’t.

“I’m talking about that thing up ahead. I can’t figure out what it is.”

Anton squeezed my hand impatiently. “It would be nice if it was your car. Are you sure you parked it on this street?”

I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t want to say it. “I’m pretty sure it’s just up the street. When we get close enough, I can hit the remote and hopefully we can hear it chirp.”

We moved closer to the thing on the street and it grew closer to us. Dark and blobby and striped with shadows, I still couldn’t tell what it was.

“It’s a woman walking a child dressed up as a clown,” I suggested to Anton.

“Maybe just an old homeless guy pulling his stuff,” he said reassuringly.

The thing moving toward us emerged from the shadows. I was startled to see that it was not a thing, but a girl pushing a wagon. And still more surprised to see what was in the wagon—a big golden dog. With its head resting against the edge of the wagon, it looked like it was dead.

I looked up at Anton, but in the shadows, I couldn’t read the expression on his face. He released my hand and reached out to touch the animal. “Nice dog,” he said. “Is it all right?”

The girl was young, but her face was etched with worry. “Actually, she hasn’t been able to walk since February. I take her for walks in the wagon. It’s about her only pleasure.”

“How old is she?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve had her for ten years. We’ve been through a lot together.”

I thought back to the dog Anton and I used to have—Lola. She lived to be fifteen. It was like having an old person in the house at the end. She was deaf and could barely walk. Finally her kidneys failed. Even then I didn’t want to let go. The thing I remember most is that we didn’t realize how sick she was for a long time.

“I know,” said Anton. “Dogs have such big hearts. We had an old dog too a few years back.”

“I don’t know what to do,” the girl said. “I carry her up and down the stairs so she can go out and pee. But she hasn’t peed in a couple of days now.”

“Kidneys probably,” I said. “We had a dog that had kidney failure. That’s what gets a lot of dogs at the end.”

Now the girl was crying. “I just can’t face the idea of life without her. I don’t know what to do.” Her face was scrunched in anguish.

“Sometimes you just have to let go,” Anton said, stroking the dog’s head gently. “It’s hard for dogs. A lot of times they hold on just for us.”

As I looked at the girl and the near-dead dog, I had a feeling that there was a reason we met up on a dark street at night. I remembered when our dog Lulu died and before I knew it, I was telling this girl we’d just met all about it.

“When our dog Lulu’s time came, we had an at-home euthanasia. We made her last day as nice as we could. Took her for a final walk at her favorite park, even though she could only take a few steps. Let her roll around in the grass. Took pictures. Made her a final meal, even though she threw it up later.”

The girl nodded and wiped away a tear.

By the time the vet tech arrived with her plastic carrying case full of drugs, we were ready. Or as ready as we would ever be. We laid Lulu down on a pink blanket. The tech administered a sedative to let us get used to the fact that she was no longer moving. And then the second shot that stopped her breathing. After we buried her, we cried. It was the only time I’d seen Anton cry.

I didn’t tell the girl we’d just met about that, or about how sad she would feel for the next days and weeks. That horrible emptiness that nothing could fill.

“You’re lucky you had someone to help share the experience with,” the girl said.

“Yes,” Anton said. “It was a very tough thing to go through, but we couldn’t let Lulu suffer any longer. Her time with us was over.”

I remember feeling very close to Anton on that day, like we were going through something hard together. We went through other hard things together, eventually got Rusty, then broke up and got back together. I wondered what other tough things we’d have to go through.

After we said goodbye to the girl and her dog and found my car, parked down the street just like I thought, I had the feeling that our meeting the girl had been fortuitous in some way. “Did that seem weird to you?” I asked Anton.

“It seemed really weird,” he said.

“I wonder if the universe offered us up so we could tell her that it was okay to let go.”

“That’s what I was thinking too,” said Anton.

We got into the car and before I started it up and before we drove back to our messy, in-progress life with two sets of everything—thirty sets of sheets and too many towels to fit in the linen closet—and still much uncertainty, we hugged. It was a very sweet and tender hug and I felt how very much I loved this gentle man I’d shared a good deal of my life with.

I felt good that we’d been able to help the girl on her journey of letting go. I thought that the universe was a very kind place, offering us inhabitants just what we needed when we needed it.

Then two weeks later, Anton was playing with Rusty—who had become just an important part of our lives as Lulu had been—if not more so, because we’d gotten him together. Rusty was playing with his favorite blue ball. I was down at my condo, meeting with another potential renter. For some reason, I called Anton at the exact time when Rusty began breathing funny.

“I’m on my way,” I said. I didn’t ask any questions, just started driving up the 605 as fast as I could.

Halfway there, my phone rang. It was Anton. “I have some bad news,” he said. “Rusty didn’t make it.”

I hadn’t thought much about the girl since we’d met her on that dark street. But as I poured Anton a glass of the small-batch bourbon later that night, I thought of her again. I’d thought we were helping her. But now I saw that she was telling us about something that was about to happen. As something that had slipped from a rip in the membrane, a portent with news of the future.

We buried Rusty in the yard. This time Anton didn’t cry. I tried to comfort him, but he didn’t want my comfort. He drew further inside himself, drifting away. When my tenant’s lease expired, I packed my things and moved back into my condo.

About the Author

Margo McCall

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Margo McCall is a graduate of the M.A. Creative Writing program at California State University Northridge. Her short stories have been featured in Pacific Review, Heliotrope, In*tense, Wazee Journal, Sidewalks, Rockhurst Review, Sunspinner, Toasted Cheese, Writers’ Tribe, and other journals. Her nonfiction has appeared in Herizons, Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir, Pilgrimage and a variety of newspapers and other publications.