I’m the reason Dad let you get a puppy, I don’t know if you know that. It was the winter of the year Mom left for the second time, before Dad started dating Sheryl. Dad was worried about you because you were having a hard time at school; he was worried because you spent a lot of time by yourself.
It troubled him that you talked to your stuffed animals. You’d move around your room in your old bathrobe, a section of the lace hemline dragging behind you like tattered ribbon, your hair sticking out in knots because you wouldn’t let me help you with it anymore, and you’d put all your animals on the bed in size order by family groups, remember? Bunnies with bunnies, dogs with dogs, bears with bears. From outside our room I could hear you take attendance. Then you’d teach them math, laugh at their jokes, and on Saturdays organize triage clinics for their missing parts. You glued on new paper noses when theirs had been loved off, picked through beads you’d found for replacement eyes. When you realized the glue wasn’t strong enough you asked me if I could sew the eyes on for you. I said I’d do it later but never did.
Your imaginary games didn’t worry me like they did Dad. I figured playing with stuffed animals was probably fine for an almost eleven-year old, but I was in middle school. I wasn’t paying much attention to you anymore.
One night Dad called me into his home office for a family meeting after you’d gone to sleep. I was used to him asking my opinion; he’d been confiding in me for a long time, at least since he’d moved us out to Queens five years earlier. I perched on his pressed-wood desk, my legs dangling, worried about finishing my math homework but ready to listen to him. He lit his pipe and sat back in his rolling chair and said, “I’ve been thinking of getting a dog for your sister.”
I could hardly believe I had heard him right. A dog was something you and I had only dreamed about. We had an apartment instead of a house and Mom was nowhere in sight but a dog was something regular families had. The kind I wished we were.
When you and I watched Brady Bunch reruns after school I remember feeling my longing for a different life appear in my throat almost like thirst. A set of wide, carpeted stairs leading up to my clean, organized bedroom, me in cozy pajamas and matching slippers, a mom downstairs waiting to help me no matter what I needed. Everything happening the way it was supposed to, every day.
I didn’t know what to do with that kind of desire. I had nowhere to put it. Short of getting older, growing up and getting out of there, Dad getting married, or Mom coming back, I couldn’t see how our life was going to change. A dog would at least make what we had better.
“But,” Dad said. He paused to pull on his pipe, his eyes serious now to make sure I understood what he was about to tell me, a signal that I was a child again who had to listen. He told me the new puppy was to be yours. I was not to spend too much time with it. I had a way with animals, he said, and it would be easy for the puppy to become attached to me. If I walked by the puppy in his pen in the hallway, I had to ignore it. In order for him to get this dog, I had to promise not to let it love me too much.
I felt my heart bob and sink. I knew how difficult a deal I was making but I nodded in agreement. I needed to get the dog in the house.
The puppy came home, a silky brown nine-week old Shepherd-mix with a black muzzle and worried eyes. The shelter had scheduled him to be destroyed twice; the date of euthanasia had been crossed off, rewritten, and then extended once more by a sympathetic attendant. On his last afternoon Dad had found him in a nearly empty room and collected him from his metal cage. Dad bundled the small bony body close against his wool coat. It was winter in New York.
The puppy skidded on our floors, tried to find purchase on the bare wood of the dining room, pocked with deep grooves from so many tenants before us. You picked him up and he squirmed in your arms, darted around your embrace to lick your cheek and your nose, unable to contain his body, unable to contain his joy. He almost slipped from your arms and I suggested you move him to your lap.
You sat on the stained living room carpet with him by Dad’s special high-backed recliner, the swivel one we were never allowed in, remember? Every night after work Dad sat there sipping his one glass of Scotch on the rocks watching over his kingdom. Everything in that room was beige and brown except all the drawings we had made for him. Crayon and marker pictures of girls, trees, houses, and suns that Dad framed and hung across the whole length of the room.
On the opposite wall above our scratchy tweed couch were the framed photographs of us, our own faces from babyhood on, none of Mom, smiling across the room at our drawings and smiling at us, making the place appear as if it were teaming with people.
I pet the puppy’s floppy velvet ears, clasped his paw, the paw pads still smooth and soft. I looked into his eyes. He rolled on his back, his paw resting on my wrist. He gazed at me as I pet his neck and face. You could see how gentle, how good he was. Then, remembering my promise to Dad, I retreated.
The puppy, round and stubby, lengthened out fast. Like a miniature fawn, his tan legs grew long and agile. Remember how we wanted his ears to stay floppy even as they began to straighten?
When you fed him mornings and nights I had to remind myself not to interfere though you took so long and it was hard for him to wait, he was so hungry. He watched you, tracked your every movement as you bent down to pick up his dish, took it to the sink, washed it, and then dried it. Shifting his weight, he sniffed the air as you put the dish down again and walked over to the cabinet, hoisted the food bin up, carried it over, and measured kibble into the dish. I wanted to step in and help, like a nosy stranger watching a mother mishandle their kid, knowing the kid would be so much luckier if they had you as a mom instead. Leave her to take care of him, I reminded myself. But you couldn’t pick him up the way I could. You couldn’t train him like I could. I thought: I’m the one with the gift.
I had grown up around all kinds of animals when we still lived on the kibbutz in Israel before you were born. From babyhood, Dad had taught me how to approach them, how to make them feel safe, that we were responsible for them. I never had to ask about an animal: Does it like me? Can it tell I won’t hurt it? I took it upon myself to be the one who looked out for them.
Do you know how hard it is to not love something? To not reach out for warmth? How is a person supposed to stay away, to not connect? I was older than you, but not old enough that I didn’t need that too.
When I woke up that early morning to get ready for a school trip it was not light out yet. You and Dad were still sleeping. I pulled out some clothes from my dresser and warmed them by the apartment radiator clinking in the corner and sending up its steamy old building smell. I huddled near the heat and then in the light from my one purple lamp I got dressed, trying not to wake you. Without making noise I stepped out of the bedroom holding my shoes and walked into the dim hallway where the puppy lay.
I hadn’t intended to go to him but he raised his head when he heard me, his legs outstretched like a pony resting on its side. His tail thumped once, twice, and stopped, his eyes a question.
I crouched down to him. Warm from sleep and smelling of his bed of newspaper, he lay his paw on my shoulder. I talked to him in a low voice, petting his ears and his muzzle. He tucked his plush head under my arm.
I’d be doing a favor, getting the dog walked for Dad, for you. That’s what I told myself when I flicked on the hallway light and he scrambled to his feet. I picked up his leash without a jangle and whispered, “Come on!” He bowed and pranced over to me, his paws barely touching the floor.
Outside the air was icy, the quiet around us interrupted only by bursts of exhaust from the occasional Metro bus, the groaning of brakes. Except for several businessmen headed toward the subway, the streets were ours.
It would be another year until Dad met Sheryl and got married, only eight years after that before he got divorced again. Six months before you and I would get to see Mom. Weeks before I started wearing only black. A month before I stopped talking to Dad and shrunk further into myself, not caring how that would leave you more alone too.
I’m sorry I didn’t give you more. I’m sorry I took what little you had away.
But that morning the puppy—your puppy—and I left before dawn. When we made it to the sidewalk, he looked up at me with his glittering eyes and I looked down at him. It was like we were escaping. I felt how we were together; I felt how he could be mine. I walked him farther, the sensation that I was doing something wrong moving away from me.
At the crosswalk he stopped and looked up at me again, his eyes alert, watchful. I leaned down to him. I ran my hands through the fur on his neck to reassure him. We were okay, I told him, everything was going to be okay. As if I could promise something like that.
RONIT FEINGLASS PLANK‘s essays and fiction have appeared in The American Literary Review, Salon, Best New Writing 2015, and The Iowa Review (runner up, The 2013 Iowa Review Award for Fiction), among others. Her story “Gibbous” won the Eric Hoffer Award for Short Prose and her story “The Plan” is forthcoming Sequestrum’s summer 2017 issue. Ronit earned her MFA at Pacific University and is currently working on a coming-of-age memoir.