The Lady with the Little Dog

The Lady with the Little Dog

Photo by Alicia Gauthier on Unsplash

At Union Square the commuter amoeba oozed into the 4 train and she made herself as liquid as possible so that she wouldn’t be left behind.

“Stand clear of the closing doors, please.”

Ding-dong. Ding-dong. Ding-dong.

Get out of the door so we can leave!

Wow, she was cranky. Oh god — and the woman directly beneath her had The New Yorker opened to Stefan’s story. When her own copy had come in the mail, she put it directly into the garbage and took the garbage immediately to the trash chute. Stefan Kirby. That little sycophant. After spending the whole of grad school recycling Marvel plot lines like they went through a Phillip Roth meat grinder. And here she was between an armpit and his story in 8.7 Caslon font.

When was the last time she was on the subway at rush hour? Years, probably. Years? Possibly. Possibly years. She keeps artist hours. Not true. She was mostly unemployed was the more salient truth of it, but artist hours had a better ring. Yes! Mornings spent in the rigor of an ascetic predawn writing ritual. “It’s when I do my best work,” Stefan had said in some interview. When she knew him, he played video games in his Homer Simpson pajama pants until 4:20.

This dumb, dumb day. Not even a seat on the subway.

“The last day is upon us, and I say repent in the name of the Lord our savior.”

And a proselytizer! We have a Jesus freak, ladies and gentlemen.

Everywhere the vague warm garbage smell of midsummer. Except it was only May and already broiling.

Okay, okay. There was still time to turn this day around. It was 8 a.m. She was out in the world at 8 a.m. They were still spraying down the sidewalks. There was Central Park, and Central Park is glorious. It’s a miracle, honestly. Once, when she was fifteen, she came to New York with her best friend and their moms. She remembers gaping at the runners in the park. “They live here,”  she thought. She was on the track team then. She has never once run in Central Park.

And there was something about easily entering a doorman building in Manhattan that made her feel like she was getting away with something. Still, after so many years in the city. Like she had arrived in a Nora Ephron film and would promptly be opening a crisp bottle of Sauvignon blanc to drink with her Niçoise salad.

“Good Morning, Ms. Jones.”

“Hey, Eli.”

He was the cute one. At least there was that. The last time she was here there was the slight implication he might be down to smoke when he got off. Should she go back? She pushed the button for the 16th floor. She should probably go back. Wasn’t it a sign of depression when you didn’t care enough to make any moves at all? But the elevator was already there. Maybe she could call down for something later. Maybe she could put on some lipstick. When would he get off anyway? Four? Five? Plenty of time to decide. Plenty. Of. Time.

Fred was happy to see her. Fred was always happy. Dogs are so dumb and wonderful. Even when she had to clean up his old dog pee, he would lick her hand like an apology. “I’m sorry I have failed you. I am an old dog but, still, I offer you this kiss.” It was too much. Lately, they had tried the diapers on him, but of course he chewed them off. So first she had to check for damage. He had only been alone for a few hours, but you never know.

What was there for her to raid? Raw cashews, semi-stale. Some expired yogurt in the fridge. Two hard limes. A finger of Grey Goose in the freezer. Three unrecognizable antipasti tubs from Citronella. The dregs of the rich. She should not have expected otherwise. But the $500 was there on the counter, like always. Not bad for a weekend of lounging on Fifth Avenue. She might even get some work done. Sit in the sculpture garden at the Met. Pretend to belong.

She ate the cashews and walked through the apartment. They had good taste — the art, especially. If only there weren’t so many books by men about other men from history. The husband’s. He used to be a producer for 60 Minutes or something. She thought. She could never exactly remember. Fred shuffled along behind her in his geriatric way, like an old butler making sure she was comfortable.

“What do you want to do today, buddy?”

Head cock.

“Let me rephrase that. Love Island, UK or Australia?”

Wheezy bark.

“UK it is.”

She texted them.

Got in fine. No accidents! [message sent with confetti]

Great! Forgot to tell you the dryer is broken so Mariano might come up to look at it later. How do you make the thing with the confetti?!

Oh no. Too early for tech instruction. She liked the message about Mariano. Ignored the confetti bit.

“Should we go for a walk, buddy?”

Weak, guttural whimper.

“I know, but just a short one. Not too far. You gotta go, probably.”

Fred sat back on his one good leg to consider it. She put a cashew down in front of him. He sniffed it and then looked up at her as if to say, “I am old, but I am not dumb. This is a cashew, lady.”

Fair enough.

Outside, there was a gaggle of private school girls from around the corner. Teenagers in identical polos and pleated plaid skirts. Absurdly short, she thought, and then felt one hundred years old. In high school her teachers went around with a ruler to make sure nothing was more than three inches above the knee. But the high-top Converse were the same. The Doc Martens. The layers of bracelets. One girl had such bad acne it was hard to look at her. Fred had a trembly piss right beside the ringleader’s backpack, casually tossed to the ground as she showed her minions some TikTok. She thought about warning her, then sort of reveled in letting it go. Some of the piss definitely made it on the bag. Fred wasn’t delicate. Not anymore.

Eli wasn’t at the desk when she went back in. The sign said, “Back in 15 minutes.” She stalled for a bit checking her phone. An email from her agent listing three upcoming workshop opportunities and asking her again about the ghostwriting column. An email from the temp agency about potential dates in July. All too depressing to face. Eli still wasn’t back. She’d call down later. She would.

Later. How much later? She took the whole edible — it was hard to say. It was raining outside. They were doing one of the catch-up episodes she usually skipped. Fred was sleeping in his shredded Fred bed. She sat up and put her foot in something wet. Oh no. On the new $15,750 rug from ABC Carpet. She knew how much it cost because she was there when it was delivered, and she had to sign for it. It was the exact amount of her credit card debt. To the dollar.

“Fred — NO. BAD Fred.”

His ears went back.

She regretted it immediately. It was only her self-loathing talking. She had wasted a perfectly good morning watching shitty reality TV and eating bodega junk, and she took it out on the dog. Nothing made her feel worse. It was human nature, but still. She hated it.

She got out the special spray, the absorbent powder, the fan from the closet. Fred retreated to the bedroom, embarrassed. She resolved to answer her agent’s email and look at least one of the applications. She could fill out her name and address and hit “save.” It would be a start.

The rain was relentless — a real spring storm. After the emails, she got lost looking at the Zillow listing for the house in Seattle her ex-husband just bought with his new wife. Melanie had told her about it, God knows why. Melanie was her "best friend" from grad school, though their communication these days consisted mostly of making and breaking plans with an infrequency that was a stone’s throw from friendship death. Melanie was married to a beautiful Nigerian man with a Wharton degree and a six-pack. They had a cherubic baby girl with an infant modeling contract. Melanie liked to fantasize about leaving the city and making her suburban real estate dreams come true. In grad school Melanie read tarot cards at parties and wore men’s vests from Goodwill that she tailored into halter tops. Why did life do this to us? Replace all our cells with new ones that didn’t bear any resemblance to the old ones and then spin us off into new galaxies, bereft of something we can’t quite put our fingers on? She closed the computer and scrolled through Melanie’s Instagram, sadly.

Fred wobbled back in from the bedroom, and she tossed her phone down as if he were the impure thoughts police.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you earlier. I know you can’t help it.”

He went stoically back to his bed and crumpled to it. Gave her a look that seemed to say, kindly, “And I know you can’t help it, either.”

The forgiveness of animals.

She considered calling Eli, but it was still too early. She’d go down in person to ask about the dryer thing. In a bit. Hulu asked if she was still watching. She was.

She was NOT.

She could do this. She stretched, walked to the kitchen. The vodka bottle had a crust of freezer burn but she emptied it anyway as she poked through their junk drawer looking for mysteries. There was only about a shot left. Well, a shot and a half. Emboldened, she called down.

“1024 Fifth”

“Hey...Eli?”

“Eli’s off, this is Marcus.”

“Ah. This is... I’m dog sitting up in 16F — they, uh. They told me the dryer wasn’t working and someone was supposed to come look at it?” She hated it when women put a question mark at the end of statements.

“Yeah, Mariano’s out today. We got it on the list for tomorrow.”

“Okay, perfect. I’ll be here.”

“Sure. Have a good night.”

“Thanks.”

Well, damn. She waited too long. Then again... If sex was off the table, she was ordering Indian.

Somewhere after the vindaloo she got a funny feeling. It was as if the particles in the air had shifted. The edible, she tried to tell herself. But it was not the edible. There was a smell that was decidedly beyond curry. Plus, Fred always snored, and Fred was not snoring. Fred was not moving at all. There was more pee seeping out from the bed. Poop too. Fred had left it all on the ABC rug. Ruined it, probably. And she did not notice. How did she not notice? She was suddenly sober as church. She called Fred’s name, but the hairs on the back of her neck told her he would not answer. She got very close to him and waited for him to move and then, when he did not, she finally touched him gently, then less gently, then shook him rather hard, honestly, but with the sort of panic that produces a force. Like when children run into the road. It did not work.

Fred was dead. She tapped her phone. 8:17 p.m. So, it was too late to call them. They were asleep in their Italian villa full of expensive wine and fresh ricotta, and she was here alone with their sweet, reliable, dead old dog.

Her hands shook as she called the number of the vet on the fridge, but of course they were closed until morning. There was an emergency line that connected her to a 24/7 place in Queens. The vet tech was all business. He explained about the fluids, the impending smell, the rigor mortis. He was no help.

She thought about who else she could call. Melanie was alone with the baby and all the way in Fort Greene. No one lived in Manhattan anymore. Except Michael and Ryan, and they were in LA. Eli was long gone. What would anyone do, anyway? This was her penance.

The spray, the powder, the fan again. She lifted him out of the bed onto a towel and cleaned the poop from his matted fur. She couldn’t stop crying. Suddenly it was all she wanted for her mom to be there rubbing her back the way she did when she was little and sick. What was she going to tell them in the morning? There was a picture on the bookshelf of the whole family on a sailboat. The kids were still young, and they were holding Fred between them, gleeful. Fred had his face to the wind, his tongue out.  She always had cats growing up, and they died mysteriously and invisibly. Just went out for the night and never came back.

The rain had cleared. Air seemed like a good idea. East on 84th. She was picking at a scab, she knew. She already felt terrible, might as well wallow. She lived with her ex-husband for a year on 84th between Second and Third. A lightless first-floor unit. The bedroom faced the street, and the sidewalk smokers from the Irish bar on the corner were a nightly chorus. A former life. A sad appendage. And tonight was, too, and she was a writer, and this was the job — stringing sad appendages together with a little pathos and levity. Sometimes she wondered if she was really having emotions or just thinking about their relative literary merit. The new wife probably didn’t have these problems. Her ex (when he was her husband) was always so depressed at how poor they were. The new wife was a legacy at Vassar. So.

She texted Melanie.

Fred is DEAD. I don’t know what to do. They’re in Italy and I’m here until Monday when their daughter comes. He’s too big for the freezer! (Also, I am absurdly sad.)

But then she backspaced all of it. Pressing the bruise. She had done this. Her negligence. She should be in it alone. No sympathy for the cruel! Or maybe she was only wallowing in her literary feelings. Swooning on the chaise lounge of her emotions. She thought about the man she wanted to have an affair with, at the end of her marriage, in grad school. She told him that part of her wanted to get a divorce just because it would mean something had happened to her. She was 27. She cringed. Fred had a good, long life. This was not a tragedy. Rwandan genocide was a tragedy. The earthquake in Turkey. Get a grip.

She slept fitfully, plagued by weed-fueled anxiety dreams she couldn’t remember. Woke to a text from them.

Did Mariano come by?

And a picture of the two of them in their sun hats. Aperol spritzes in the air.

He was off yesterday but is coming by this morning. Are you on wifi? Can you FaceTime?

They Face Timed from the hotel terrace. It was terrible. She told them, and it was terrible.

There was an old suitcase in the guest bedroom closet, they said. Wrap him in his blanket. The one with the ducks. There was a younger brother in Dover Plains. Not far from the Wassaic stop on Metro North. He had a lot of land. He loved dogs. He’d make a little plot for him. They could visit later, with the kids. They would alert him. She should go today. As soon as possible. Don’t worry about the rug, they said. They never liked it. They would Venmo her some extra money.

She drank two Nespressos. The private school where she taught last year emailed about subbing for two weeks while the AP English teacher was out for a double mastectomy. God. “Sure,” she said. This was starting to feel like some test from the Stoics.

The suitcase was a battered Samsonite, early rolling edition. She found the duck blanket, slid Fred onto it.

“Good boy, Fred. You were such a good boy.”

She noticed for the first time the little gray hairs on his muzzle. He didn’t go easily into the bag. His legs were stiff, and she had to push more firmly than was comfortable to make his body fit. It all seemed so undignified. She left the lid open until she was ready to go. Put their CD of Mozart’s Requiem on the stereo system. A little dramatic, but so what? Fred deserved it.

At Grand Central she got another coffee and only stared at the chocolate croissant. Bought a wee sleeve of nuts for later. Punishing herself for the previous day’s junk. One of the wheels of the suitcase was busted, and she broke a sweat trying to keep it steady on the smooth marble.

Track 19 in ten minutes.

The overhead expanse of the main concourse opened before her, and she instinctively slowed to look up. To think they almost tore this down.

The train was nearly empty — reverse commute. One old man already snoring. One very thin girl (sixteen? She couldn’t tell anymore) at the end of the car, practically folded into her giant sweatshirt. Reading The Bell Jar, all knit-browed and intense. She thought back to the sidewalk clique yesterday. The same as it ever was. Teenage girlhood just stamped out on the same press, generation after generation. Sometimes she had a tinge of longing for a daughter. The world was a dumpster fire, but some part of her wanted a miniature companion for the apocalypse. Probably it was more like she wanted to live life over again but better this time. Or maybe she was jealous of what Melanie had, even as she worked so hard to judge the corners of her storybook life. She should probably bring it up with her therapist. But she doesn’t have insurance at the moment, so.

She leaned down very close to the suitcase.

“Hey, Fred, I’m going to take you to a really nice place, okay? It will be a good place to rest.”

She took out her laptop, linked to her phone. Start the application. Spend at least thirty minutes looking at job postings. Open the novel and make a first pass at the latest chapter edit. She was locked in a moving box, and she must work. Work! Didn’t Irina say something like that at the end of Three Sisters? Clickety-click.

At White Plains things started to get weird. Bell Jar girl was joined by a man. Older. Big. It looked like they knew each other, but she couldn’t be sure. Bell Jar was laughing at whatever he was whispering in her ear. Not poetry, she thought.

Three more guys came into the car. Friends of his, clearly. They all had tallboys in brown bags, but there was something stronger coursing through them, too. They practically vibrated. Couldn’t sit down. Or wouldn’t. Tigers, circling the cage. One of them started doing pull-ups on the luggage rack. The veins were practically jumping out of his neck tattoo. It wasn’t anything she wanted to be involved with. She’d had enough for one weekend. She felt guilty about leaving Bell Jar, but then how many punk concerts had she been to in high school and woken up on some loser’s mattress? She turned out okay. This, too, was teenage girlhood. Bell Jar would have to find her own way.

She gathered her stuff, nonchalantly. Just casually moving to the next car. No big deal.

“We disturbing you?” Neck tattoo called out.

She tried ignoring it, but he doubled down, louder. She gave him the coolest look she could muster.

“Nah. Do your thing. I just need to take a call.”

Now they were all calling her bluff — asking her business — big call, huh?— what’s in the suitcase? — where you going? — looking to hire any ‘associates’ [haha]?— you a hipster lawyer or some shit?

“I’m not a lawyer.”

(How was the old man sleeping through all this?!)

“What’s in the bag?”

She glanced at Bell Jar, who gave her a stoned shrug.

“A dead dog.” (She hoped the truth would set her free.)

One of them got very close to her.

“Prove it,” he dared.

An interminable pause in which she debated whether or not she would be forced to reveal Fred’s duck-blanket-wrapped corpse.

Then.

Neck tattoo sucked in his teeth.

“You’re pretty hot, actually.”

“Thanks.” She said it sarcastically but had a wave of shame that she was, in fact, mildly flattered.

“Can I take my call now?”

“Yeah,” he paused to smile, “do your thing.” He held out the bag, offering her a sip. She took one, hoping it might help her case. I’m cool, we’re cool, everything is cool. The beer was warm and metallic going down.

She didn’t look back as she passed through the doors into the next car, and it was only when she sat down again that she realized how much she was sweating. She sat with her arms around the Samsonite, desperate for comfort from someone else. A recently dead dog would have to do. Just then, the car door opened, and she started. It was the old man, looking grouchy. They locked eyes. Then he passed her, sat down a few rows back.

She tucked Fred in by the window. Texted Melanie.

I have had the most bizarre 24 hours. I feel like I am going insane. You free to talk?

Three dots.

Gah! Txtng w one hand Em wont go dwn call u later if i don't kill her xx

For sure! Good luck!

She didn’t really want to talk anyway. She just felt suddenly…lonely. The train stopped at Mount Kisco. No one got on. Bell Jar and her boys were still knocking around in the next car, but they seemed oblivious to the outside world. Absorbed in their own drama. The lines from Daddy came to her.

                Every woman adores a Fascist,  

                The boot in the face, the brute  

                Brute heart of a brute like you.

Sylvia Plath knew something about the blurry line between violence and attraction. In fathers, in husbands. She remembered reading Daddy for the first time in sophomore seminar and then desperately running to her dorm room to masturbate. Blood rushed to her cheeks at the memory.

She had to pee, but she was nervous to leave Fred. The old man was eating from a box of vanilla wafers and staring out the window. She asked him if he would keep an eye on her things, but he just stared at her blankly. “No English,” he finally croaked in a vaguely Slavic accent. She tried to pantomime the request — pointed to the suitcase, to the bathroom, made an absurd marching motion to indicate that she was going to walk away. He shrugged and went back to his cookies. So much for that.

But she really had to go now, so she went.

Sometimes, when she got obsessive about her weight, she’d do a little routine every time she went to the bathroom. Ten squats, ten jumping jacks, ten leg lifts on each leg. A tiny deposit against all the things she couldn’t control. She tried it now, but the jerk of the train made it too difficult, and she didn’t dare touch anything for balance. She’d do it later. And perhaps soon she could allow herself the nuts. That was something to look forward to.

The old man was sleeping again when she got back, crumbs on his chin. Useless. She retrieved her laptop from the low security concealment of her jacket before she saw the Samsonite was gone. She froze. Was she in the right row? Of course she was. Her purse and laptop were there, seemingly untouched. But Fred. Had he rolled away somehow? She moved very slowly. She felt if she moved slowly enough, she could actually go backwards, and this fresh hell would stop descending on her. She put on her jacket, even though the sweat was back. She put on her purse crossways, put her laptop in her backpack, her backpack on her back. Turtled up.

She walked slowly to Bell Jar’s car, but she already knew they would be gone. They had left the empty cans. The book was in two pieces, soaking in a beer puddle on the floor. She had been in the bathroom at the Bedford Hills stop. Doing squats.

This could not be happening. She needed this job. She needed them to call her when they got accidentally kicked out of their Netflix account and when someone was required to wait for the delivery and when they couldn’t take the dog with them (oh God would they get another dog?) and when they couldn’t figure out how to make the attachment appear in the body of the email. She needed it because it paid well and it was under the table and she was pushing 40 and didn’t have health insurance or a steady writing gig and it was the only thing standing between her and going back to living with three roommates in Bushwick and she could not do that again and why the FUCK is Stefan fucking Kirby in The fucking New Yorker and she can’t get her work in anything more impressive than the alumni magazine?

She sat down beside the soggy book and the empty cans. She ate the nuts. She ate an old granola bar she found at the bottom of her backpack. She picked up one of the cans that was rolling back and forth between her seat and the wall. There were a few inches of sour liquid left. She contemplated drinking it, but she did not. She would not sink that low. She did a five-minute meditation on her phone that did not help one bit.

Okay. Her mom always said that in every situation there were always at least three options.

So.

Okay.

She could report the theft to the conductor. The old man was a character witness. Sort of. She could get the police involved. But then, she had left her things unattended. And one of the things was a dead dog in a suitcase. And it wasn’t her dog, and it wasn’t her suitcase. Was that even legal? Questionable.

She could get off at the next stop. She could take the next train back to Bedford Hills, and she could track those dog-nappers down and show them what she learned in that self-defense class in the early 2000s, and they would all run off scared and crying. But as she played that one out, she realized they probably opened the suitcase as soon as they got far enough away from the train, saw Fred, freaked out, and left him in some undignified side of the road heap and — well, that was too terrible to imagine so she couldn’t face that option even though she felt cowardly and small knowing that she was leaving him to such a disgraceful end. The exact opposite of a sunny grave in the countryside. She was not a praying person, but she said a small prayer for Fred and reminded herself that he was not his dead, starting-to-smell, quickly stiffening, old dog body. He was already gone.

The train stopped at Katonah. And Goldens Bridge. And Purdy’s and Croton Falls and Brewster and Southeast and a third solution did not appear. She tried calling her mom, but it went to voicemail. So, this penance of aloneness must continue. This was her Odyssey. She was Vasilisa fetching coal for Baba Yaga in the dark, dark wood. This was the third solution, then. Completing the errand. With or without the object. She had Fred’s collar in her bag. She had taken it off him, thinking they might want to do something with it later. Dip it in bronze or something. At least she had the collar.

There were only a few cars in the lot at Wassaic. They had said the brother was in his mid-fifties, tall. Drove a Subaru (of course he did). She spotted him leaning against it. It was not a new model. And he was not what she expected. They were Upper East Siders who wintered in Montecito. The brother was all Carhardt and beard and drove a twenty-year-old Subaru with plenty of dents and a roof rack.

He seemed to know who she was without asking.

“I didn’t think he would fit in there.” Meaning the backpack.

“He wouldn’t. He’s not.”

“Ah.” Then, very simply, “What happened?”

She looked around. Why did she trust this guy? Maybe it was just the fact that she needed desperately to let someone carry a piece of this for a moment.

“Is there a place nearby where we can get something to eat? Or like a handle of whiskey?”

He smiled.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think I can sort you out.” He pointed to her backpack. “Want to throw that in the car? We could drive, but it’s nicer to walk. It’s not far.”

She did want to walk. She wanted desperately to walk. There was a rail trail that abutted the station, lined with wildflowers, humid with the previous day’s rain. He didn’t ask her any questions. He pointed out the public art installed in the meadow, explained about the artists’ collective, the little community. But he seemed to know she had nothing to offer in return.

They reached a little clearing, and he led her across the street to an old building, newly restored.

“It looks closed.”

“It is,” he said. “But I know someone.”

He took out a ring of keys on a carabiner and unlocked the door.

The whiskey was from the Hudson valley. It came in a small bottle with a wax seal. It was his restaurant. He opened it during the pandemic, after a nasty divorce. He had been at Roberta’s in Brooklyn. He wanted a place that was similar but less...pretentious. (But that still served the fancy small-batch whiskey.) “There are less people,” he shrugged. “It’s quieter. Maybe not less pretentious. But less obviously so.”

The whiskey was very good. As was the previous day’s pizza, warmed in the oven. Usually saved for family meal. Fruit on pizza was blasphemous, but the figs were phenomenal. From his own tree. Jesus.

“What will you do tonight?” she asked. “For family meal?”

“Dunno. Improvise,” he said.

He had to be back at the restaurant at four. He walked her back to the car, drove her silently to his house. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but the inside was pristine — all mid-century with restored vintage finishes. Modern kitchen. The very expensive pottery dishes she had been lusting after for years. He made her an herbal tea and set her up in the guest room. He seemed to understand she needed to sleep for a long, long time. She remembered the Nora Ephron feeling from the previous day and added this to it. Now it was a sort of Noah Baumbach epilogue. The Shins would be playing in the background. Lost, lonely-ish city girl meets country man with surprisingly gentle touch.

She hadn’t brought anything with her. She hadn’t intended to stay, obviously. She had intended to bring the dead corpse of a beloved family dog, hand it off to a stranger at the station and make her way back to the city. Melanie had even texted back to ask if she was free to get a drink tonight — her husband would watch Em (the last chance to save their friendship, maybe). But here she was in a king-sized iron bed. The sheets were cool. The country air was making the country noises. The brother left through the front door, and when she heard his car pull away, she took all of her clothes off except her underwear. The feeling of her skin against the cool cotton sheets felt almost holy. She fell asleep.

It was dark when she woke up, and the only sound was the cicadas through the open window. She found the lamp switch on the bedside table, turned it on. Her phone was dead, but she had zero desire to dig for her charger. There was a bookshelf by the bed full of vintage paperbacks. She retrieved a copy of Chekhov’s short stories. Funny, she thought. Since she had been thinking about Three Sisters earlier. She hadn’t taken this guy for a Chekhov fan. Maybe some designer came in and did the whole place, and he just paid them with his Roberta’s money and didn’t pick out a thing himself. Who knows. He was a stranger.

She opened the book to The Lady with the Little Dog.

“The talk was that a new face had appeared on the embankment: a lady with a little dog.”

She remembered loving this story in grad school. And now she realized (how had she forgotten) it was just the same story as all of them. A married man, infatuated with a younger woman. Ready to leave his wife for her. She was married, too, but childless. They torture themselves. For what, a feeling? A string of furtive nights in a hotel room, increasingly desperate and emotional. She almost threw the book across the room. But then she didn’t. She read until the very end, and just as she was finishing, she heard the key in the door.

The floorboards creaked a little as he moved through the house, clearly conscious of waking her. She heard him in the kitchen. Opening a beer. She was wide awake from the extended nap, slightly unsettled from something in the story. The way she had misremembered it. She put her clothes back on and went out to the kitchen. He was leaning against the counter, scrolling through his phone with one hand and holding a beer with the other.

“Oh hey,” he said. “Did I wake you?”

He was handsome, she realized. She hadn’t looked closely before. There had been too much adrenaline coursing through her to notice. She noticed now, but she also saw the way he was keeping himself a few layers back. It made sense, she thought. He just left a weird lady alone in his house for eight hours.

“Not at all,” she said. “I woke up about half an hour ago. The bed sleeps amazing, thank you. I was just reading — uh. The short stories beside the bed?”

Another question mark. Shameful.

“Chekhov.”

So, he had picked it out.

“Yeah. The Lady with the Little Dog. I remember loving it once upon a time, but something about it depressed me tonight.”

He went into the fridge for another beer for her, handed it to her wordlessly. It was cold and perfect.

He said, “I feel like the thing about Chekhov that Americans never get right is that the struggle —” He paused to consider. “—the struggle is what it’s about. That life can be funny in moments, tragic, whatever — but the struggle is actually the stitching of it all. Struggle is what any good life is built on.

He sipped his beer and winced a little before he said, “I love the last sentence of that one.”

She didn’t remember the last sentence. She had rushed it because she heard him coming home. She’d have to look at it again.

In the absence of any concurring wisdom she said, “I agree. Americans always fight against struggle. We’re too greedy for all the things we feel cheated of.”

He asked if she wanted to sit on the porch. He had just redone it. The planks were pristine, all reclaimed wood leftover from the restaurant reno. They drank their beers in slightly uncomfortable silence while the cicadas and tree frogs sang their arias. He pulled a weed pen from his pocket and took a hit.

“From the Berkshires,” he offered it to her.

“Yes, please.” She took it gladly, a deep pull. It made her cough. “Wow.”

“It’s good stuff,” he said.

“Mm.” It was. She felt almost immediately that the soundscape got louder, moved closer. Her body sort of floated into the darkness and the cooling late spring air. She thought about the contrast to last night, in the apartment with Fred. She thought again about Fred’s poor, discarded body in the streets of Bedford Hills.

As if he read her mind, he said, “I’ll dig a fake grave, make a little headstone. We can give them the collar. I think the rest is okay to leave out.”

“Bless you,” she said.

He laughed. It was a good laugh. Sort of sad, but open.

“Are you close with them?” she asked.

“Harry and my sister, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

He considered. “Yes and no. We used to be. She basically raised me. But I think... The past few years have been tough. I didn’t exactly make it easy for people to be there for me, and I regret that.”

“You mean the divorce?” she asked.

He took a sip of beer.

“I’m sorry — that’s absolutely none of my business,” she said.

“No, it’s okay.” He laughed the good, sad laugh again. Scratched his head, looked her in the eye. “I, uh. I had a daughter. She was born really early, and she had all these problems with her heart. They said she wouldn’t make it past a few days, she’d never breathe on her own, she’d never — never anything, really. But she did. She just kept doing all the things they said she’d never do. And she was never well, she was always — it was always precarious. But at some point, we got used to her beating the odds. So, when she died, I think we were all — I was very ill-equipped for it. I pushed a lot of people away. To put it mildly.”

The chasm between what she wanted to say and what she had words for was infinite. “How old was she?” she managed, after what seemed like an eon.

“A week shy of eighteen.”

“Oh God.”

“Yeah. It was royally fucked up.”

“I– I can’t imagine. I’m so sorry.”

“Me too.” A long pause and then, “She had just gone to prom. She had this surgery, a few months before she died. It was really risky and experimental. They told us there was a 50/50 chance she’d survive it, but if she did survive it, there was a 99% chance she’d live well into adulthood. And she survived it, so we thought we were out of the woods.”

“Of course you did,” she said. Then, “What was she like?”

He seemed to go very far away then. She knew she was high, but she felt like she could feel him considering whether he was willing to pay what it cost to answer that question, truly.

“She was like the Russians,” he said. “She understood that the struggle was the point. She was happy to be here.”

She inhaled sharply and sort of instinctively put her hand on his arm. He looked at it and very gently picked it up and returned it to her.

“No.” It wasn’t mean. He had just closed the door again and gone the few layers back.

But still she felt she had violated something. Oh, why was everything she did wrong, always?

“It’s only that I’m still finding it hard to be comforted,” he said. “It’s not you.”

But it was. It was always her. She was always herself.

They finished their beers. He told her she was welcome to stay outside, but he was turning in. She thanked him again for everything, felt heavy with the ache that comes from unexpected kindness and from the powerlessness to lift someone else’s grief. She took a long shower, wrapped herself in his giant towel, washed the crotch of her underwear in the sink and left it to dry on the doorknob. Somehow, she slept immediately, despite the nap.

He drove her to the train in the morning. They talked about nothing — the weather, climate change, the fact that his Subaru still had a tape deck. Safety subjects, last night’s magic sealed back up nice and tight.

On the train she finally plugged her phone in. She was reluctant to return to reality, having spent a few hours outside of it. She had relished feeling responsible to no one, for nothing. But there it was — life, in the palm of her hand. Seven missed calls from Melanie and a bevy of increasingly pissed off texts. Her mom had called back. The private school wanted to know if she could take the rest of the AP English semester, actually. Starting Wednesday. There was a rejection notice from a writer’s retreat she had applied to in Palm Springs. A reminder that her ConEd bill was past due. They had texted from Italy, too, wondering how it had all gone, asking about the broken dryer. Her calendar reminded her to pay her credit card bill and make a decision about the ghostwriting column. She felt a slight twinge and understood immediately that she had started her period. It was too much. She stared out the window at the green, green landscape.

She looked again at her phone. Went to her Libby app, pulled up Chekov’s short stories from the library, found the translation that matched the bedside edition. Scrolled to the end.

And it seemed that, just a little more–and the solution would be found, and then a new, beautiful life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.

From Stories of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Modern Library, 2000)

About the Author

Janie Brookshire

Janie Brookshire is an actor and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. As an actor she has performed on Broadway at Roundabout Theatre, off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, Signature Theatre, Mint Theatre Company, Irish Repertory Theatre, New World Stages, and Pearl Theatre Company. Selected regional theaters include The Old Globe, Folger Shakespeare Theatre, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Dorset Theatre Festival, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, and PlayMakers Rep. Her onscreen credits include “Fallout”, “Blue Bloods”, “Forever”, “Louie”, “The Good Wife”, and the multi-laureled independent films A Shot Through the Wall and So Good To See You (Sundance Film Festival, opposite Sienna Miller). She is the co-creator, co-producer, and co-host of the podcast art.fully.grounded. She earned her MFA from UNC Chapel Hill’s Professional Actor Training Program.

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