I follow her trajectory in blood. A smear on the wall, on the closet door, another around the corner. Using a paper towel and the Windex left in the apartment when we moved in, I wipe shades of red off the radiator, an outlet, the back of the new nightstand. Behind me, I hear her clicking around on the hardwood floors, and I know she is pacing in a manic circle, tongue lolling out of her mouth, rear leg giving out and sliding every other step. Next, I wet a washcloth and try to soak the corner of the comforter where it’s bright red like it was paintbrushed on. I give up and use the same washcloth to wipe black tears from my cheeks.
I am killing my dog. Or she is killing herself. Either way, neither of us is happy.
I realize it’s oddly quiet and stand up to see across the room, where she has wandered off the carpet and slid into her Bambi pose, all four limbs splayed helplessly out. It’s what happens when she breaks out of the barricade we have built out of our unpacked boxes and the few sticks of furniture left by the previous tenant. A black vinyl easy chair, a matching ottoman. Nat’s rolling wine bags he used for work until he got this job working nights at a wine shop — nights that mean I have to race home from Newark, transferring from train to subway to another subway and then walking fast the seven blocks home to make sure the dog hasn’t escaped her ramshackle citadel and rammed her head bloody, possessed by some unrelenting, insane motor no one — not her vet, not other dog owners, not the internet — can explain.
Tonight I hobbled those seven blocks painfully, having broken my little toe while tripping over Chloe’s makeshift walls; running late because I’d had a panic attack on the train out of Newark and was still woozy by the time I got to Penn Station, and took the uptown A instead of the downtown one. A black and turquoise bruise rages between my toes, which now throbs from racing home, hobbling upstairs, finding the dog warbling her “gotta pee” woes (and blissfully unaware that she is bleeding from the head), snatching her up and harnessing her, hobbling back downstairs and trying to balance her 29 pounds in one arm while opening first one heavy door and then the second, dropping her on the concrete in time for her to relieve herself magnificently, and then picking her up to carry her back inside. Then chasing after her with a wet wad of tissues, trying to tie a bandana around her forehead, thinking how very funny this would all be in a film or told as a story, many years from now, and not by me.
When she stepped on my broken toe — twice — I cried out and the second time I swatted her in anger, on her bottom. And that was when I sat on the floor and let her pace around in circles, panting while I choked and gasped, holding her bloody tissues to my face.
So now she’s sprawled on the floor like a sad Bambi, her eyes half shut and her mouth pulled into a grimace. Miserable. Tortured. And absolutely imprisoned.
When we told people we were moving to New York, they all wondered the same thing: What about Chloe?
Well, what about her? we replied. She’s coming with. She’s 17 — all she does is sleep and wander up and down the block twice a day.
Moving is stressful for dogs, they said.
Yes, but those are dogs that are aware of their surroundings. Chloe is senile, mostly deaf, and half blind. She doesn’t play, doesn’t run, and can barely even walk. She can do that in Brooklyn as well as she can in Austin.
Still, we worried. We stayed up nights reassuring each other that if this move turned out badly for us — if I got depressed or if my long-latent panic attacks came back, if we were fighting and unhappy, if the dog wasn’t doing well — we’d abort and come back. Work vacation, we called it. And we said it every time we started to get really down about things.
Work vacation. And, holy shit. The things we had to get down about.
The person who sublet us this apartment turned out to be a certifiable psychopath whose six-month decline into madness had been witnessed by his neighbors and the bartenders and shopkeepers in the area. We showed up at 9:00 at night, exhausted from a three-day drive (during which we had to drug Chloe because she was pitching herself around the backseat like a hysteric), and desperate to get ourselves and the dog comfortable as soon as possible. He hadn’t removed so much as a toothbrush, and while we were expecting the place to be furnished, we didn’t expect the used Q-Tips and condom wrappers on the bedroom floor, nor the enormous rubber butt plug in the closet. Nor the putrified scallions reeking in the fridge under a puddle of hardening fish sauce. Nor the roaches. Nor the mouse turds and what I later guessed was dried mouse pee around the edges of the stove and sink.
We were too tired to demand our security deposit back and go to a hotel. And I am too handy with a mop. Over the next month, as money flew out of our hands and we ravenously chewed through a new credit card, I woke up each morning and sent out my resume and wrote cover letters, and then cleaned. I scrubbed the kitchen floors and the grease-coated backsplash and I bleached the tub and toilet.
Clean that house yourself, a friend told me, and you’ll know exactly how clean it is.
There was peace in that, and control, and since no one was contacting me about a job — 10 places applied to, 15, 20 — I cleaned.
And we tried to be optimistic, and we had wine with the neighbors, who told us all the stories, and we said, “At least we got great neighbors!”
But because the crazy person hadn’t asked his landlord if he could sublet, and because he hadn’t paid the rent in two months, nor reimbursed them for the door he gloriously karate-chopped to splinters (one of the neighbors’ more dramatically rendered incidents), he was evicted and we had our own conversation with the owners. They agreed to rent to us once he’d moved out, which was supposed to be September 30. But wacky New York renter’s laws being what they are (for better or worse, they do protect a tenant well, I’ll give them that), he could choose to fight the eviction and squat, neither paying rent nor budging, for another several months.
This risk would have been too much for us, but 1) we have crazy faith that things will work out for us (or we’re too lazy to be alarmed), 2) we loved the neighbors and neighborhood too much, 3) the rent if we stayed was going to be way less than anything else we’d get of this size and location, and 4) we were utterly out of money. No money to start over someplace else. Just enough to pay next month’s rent to the landlords. If the guy left.
About now, most of you reading this are saying, What are you nuts? Get the hell out of Dodge! This is way too much insanity for self-respecting adults to contend with. But one of the things that bonded my husband and I from the start was our familiarity with insanity and tribulation, and our lack of fear of either. The worst things had already happened to us, hadn’t they? Things that would take other people down? All other trials we deem acceptable, and even appreciate them for their character-giving aspects. Or we did. Right about now, fuck trial and fuck tribulation. After a time, they’re just bad for the heart.
Eventually, there was a long and terrible episode that crescendoed with the guy screaming, naked but for an apron, in the kitchen, breaking glasses and punching the wall, accusing us of being “not good people” and “going back on every gentleman’s agreement we’d made”, of having poor character and rich families (that one threw us until we remembered he’s a narcissist, one of those people who reflects himself on the surfaces of other people, and that it was his own parents who flew up here from Florida to pay his rent). And the cops came and went, and for a taut two hours, I breathlessly text messaged with my husband from the upstairs neighbor’s apartment, while he hid in the bedroom of the sublet with Chloe, not allowed to “engage” at all with the crazy guy but also afraid to leave and get locked out.
When all was done and we knew he’d left the building, the tenants of the three units all came out and rejoiced. We drank and told stories and laughed and shook. I went to bed still shaking and had dreams he was standing over us with a knife, telling us we were not good people.
Shortly after he was gone and we signed a lease and put the last of our cash into these good people’s hands, I was hired at a good rate and at a reputable company of some size. Things were looking up, and we let ourselves celebrate on the credit card, buying ourselves a bed and a few necessities, going to a fancy dinner for my birthday and then his, seeing a friend on Broadway. We began to enjoy this city. But as soon as we started to relax, Chloe’s anxious pacing and self-harming escalated radically, and we would come home from dinner to find her escaped and stuck under the bed, having shit herself and, one time, even having ripped out her hind dew claws. We became reluctant to make plans in the evening, which meant getting cut off from much-needed socializing, and which made me very depressed. Plus, the new job was a long commute away and it further depressed me that it was not in New York, the city I’d moved to out of an urgent need to be a part of it. And then my husband got a job working nights and weekends in a wine shop, which he much preferred, and we agreed that anything that made either of us happier was an automatic “Yes,” but it meant that I had to race home after work in order to catch Chloe before she created disaster. So no happy hours with coworkers, no meeting friends in the city for a drink. Instead, I’d come home and rescue and chase and clean up blood and cry.
Chloe’s doctors have been telling me for 9 years that she has a heart murmur of some severity. They tell me eventually it will fill her lungs with fluid and she will need surgery or medication. So far, it hasn’t, but I can feel the murmur when I lay her long, light body on mine and hug her firmly under her front legs, like Temple Grandin taught. I’m all cried out and the wad of bloody tissues is beside us on the floor. I hold her against me and breathe slowly, feeling her head gradually relax and flop into my neck, my shoulder cold then warm where her nose breathes against it. Thump thump thipthipthip thump-thip thipthipthip. The valve seems confused, panicked. It opens and shuts without rhythm, as haphazard as the boxes we stack each night, exhausted and desperate to engineer new ways to keep us all safe and happy. Thump thipthipthip thump thipthip thump.
How long can a heartbeat like this sustain?