The boy greets me with his usual frenzy, paws on my chest, tongue slapping at my goatee. As we dance around the apartment’s living room, I croon his favorite song, Milky Chance’s Stolen Dance, and he tries to eat my coat buttons. At last we collapse on the couch, where I can tell he’s been sleeping because the cushions are mashed and the throw pillows scattered on the floor.
When we first met I was startled out of my wits by this guy. Looking back, the whole thing seems to have begun like a screwball comedy, then warped into something far different.
It was exactly a year ago. I was standing on a deserted Center City street on New Year’s Day, gazing in the window of a closed shop and wondering if I could afford the “40% Off Post-Holiday Clearance Men’s Boots Sneakers Dress Shoes,” when in the window’s reflection a giant white head appeared next to me, waist-high, eyes glaring. Instinctively I jumped to the side and back, colliding with someone.
“Watch it!” she yelled.
Slipping on the ice-mushy sidewalk, I fell on one knee and clambered up with a wet shin, angry but trying to play it cool because the dog was as big as he looked in the window: at least a match for my 195 pounds, with a head twice the size of mine, chest like a bull’s, paws like baseball mitts—and I tried not to notice the teeth framing the baguette-sized pink tongue that was tasting the air and probably estimating the flavor of my leg.
“Control that beast!” I yelled, trying to sound like an off-duty cop. I’ve never been a cop but my father is, and I have the same bulging torso.
“He didn’t do anything,” she lectured me. “Why’d you freak yourself into falling down? He’s friendly.”
“A person your size,” I carried on in what I hoped was a severe tone, “shouldn’t have a dog that big. There’s no way you can manage it. And that thin leash could snap at any minute.” By then I’d noticed the slender figure under her creamy wool coat, which was tapered at the waist and flared at the hips. She and the creature harmonized in coat color, glowing under the streaked winter sky, but in all else they made a stark contrast. Her hair was long, dark and fine, his short and bristly. Her shape was finely nuanced while his resembled a side of beef.
“Like I said,” she said, “he’s friendly and I have no trouble controlling him. What’s the matter with you anyway?”
“Me? What’s the matter with you, bringing a monster like that downtown? What is he, some kind of mastiff?”
“A Boerboel. South African farm dog. Bred for protection against predators, which is exactly what a woman needs in a city. And I didn’t bring him here, we live here.”
“Protection from what, gorillas? A dog half that size would terrorize any sane criminal.”
“Like you, criminals aren’t necessarily sane,” she countered. “Look, I think you need to apologize. To him.”
I stared at her, bewildered. The beast now sat politely on the sidewalk, tongue lolling despite the frigid weather. He looked like nothing short of an earthquake could faze him.
“Claude,” she ordered, “say hello. Shake hands.”
“Claude?” I echoed, incredulous.
He stood, took three steps forward, sat in front of me and raised his right forepaw. Gingerly I tried to take it in mine, but his was bigger. We managed a kind of fist-bump, and she laughed.
“Okay, big boy,” I said, “glad to meet you. My name’s Leo. Don’t surprise me in a dark alley. And don’t eat any tourists on your way home.”
“He’s looking forward to croissant pudding from Ziggy’s, much sweeter than tourists.”
“This is New Year’s Day,” I pointed out; “Ziggy’s won’t be open.”
“Yeah it is, I checked. Why can’t you accept anything I say, are you perversely negative or something?”
“Just logical,” I argued. “No business for a coffee shop.” I gestured at the forlorn streets shadowed by the empty office buildings with shuttered ground-floor stores.
“What’s logical about a coffee shop? They have drinks you can make at home for a tenth of the price and goodies you shouldn’t eat.”
“True,” I admitted.
Studying the dog and me—I was scratching his head, trying to prove I wasn’t terrified—she hesitated a long moment. Now I think that pause was significant, but then I was merely astonished when she said, “Come along if you still don’t believe me.”
I trailed after them, keeping a respectful eye on Claude. At Ziggy’s I stood outside holding his leash while she fetched coffee for two and pastries for three. I offered payment that she refused, for which I was thankful, being broke. We sat on a frozen bench, sipped coffee, watched Claude gulp his sweet, talked about the banality of New Year’s celebrations and, in particular, the famous Mummers’ parade that was happening a dozen blocks away, which we both wanted to avoid because the street would be thronged with depressing drunks.
Five weeks later I moved in with her.
At first our living together was partly for convenience, since my landlord was reclaiming my apartment and I struggled to scrape together the deposit on a new place. As an adjunct instructor, subject to university economics and the whims of administrators, I had watched nervously as the advance enrollment in upper-level Italian crept to three, four, stalled at six, and then the class vanished from the course list. The same happened with “Italian Composition and Conversation” and “Dante’s Commedia.” On August 22, therefore, I’d discovered I would not begin teaching on August 25 as scheduled and my salary for the fall term would be zero. By New Year’s I had picked up a fill-in course at the community college, as well as tutoring and translation work, and I had three classes lined up for the winter term, so I was on the road back to solvency, but this did not mean having enough to pay first and last months’ rent and security deposit without raiding the little savings account I’d opened a dozen years before with my graduate fellowship. Bottom line: I was glad to accept Dinny’s offer.
Her name is Diana but she’s gone by Dinny ever since a preschool friend called her that. Her apartment is large, airy, modern, across the street from an upscale Mexican restaurant and a flower shop, a far classier Philadelphia neighborhood than I was used to. A CPA, she’s always had a steady job.
As weeks passed I thought we were falling in love. At that point, age 34, I guess I’d never been in love, only in crush, lust or desperation, and I wasn’t sure how to distinguish those states. This seemed different, that was all, like something I’d long been missing. I appreciated things about her that I’d never cared for in anyone else. In the early weekday mornings, for instance, Claude and I watched her stumble out of bed, groggy, grouchy, gritty-eyed, swiping at the alarm and fumbling for her robe with an urgent clumsiness. Her deep brown hair splayed across her shoulders and face; her thin arms glowed like wax in the streetlight that leaked through the curtains. I enjoyed watching her, though I learned not to speak or touch her then, and I admired her stubborn determination in facing the ugly and unpleasant, namely her 9-to-5 accounting job at a construction firm. Myself, I’d lost a couple of part-time jobs in my undergraduate days because I neglected to get out of bed for them.
I also loved the winter nights when, after her second glass of Pinot, her dark eyes moistened, the angles of her cheekbones softened, and we sat hip to hip on the couch to read aloud from her collection of science fantasy novels. We’d talk about the strange characters and the stranger worlds they inhabited. Or I’d read a passage from Dante, weirder than any modern fiction, and translate it for her. One time, I remember, we marveled together over these lines from the Inferno—
In la palude va c’ha nome Stige
questo tristo ruscel, quand’è disceso
al piè de le maligne piagge grige.
E io, che di mirare stava inteso,
vidi genti fangose in quel pantano,
ignude tutte, con sembiante offeso.
—the poet’s vision of Hell’s marshy Styx with its malign gray shores and throngs of naked, muddy, raging people in the sad waters. She meditated awhile over the passage, chewing on a thumbnail, her brows knitted. Finally she mused, “I think souls really do get trapped like that. Not stuck in a swamp literally, but the same sort of thing.”
“You mean in an afterlife?”
“Maybe then, maybe now. Maybe there’s no difference.”
Claude participated in these activities by snoring intermittently with his twenty-pound head in our laps. When spring arrived, to keep him exercised, we often drove to a state park on weekends, where we hiked the back trails and let him roam illegally off leash. His excitement made Dinny’s eyes light up, and I too got almost misty. Never having had a dog of my own, I didn’t realize how much their joy transferred to people—kind of a mystical insight into how humans could be without all our psychic distortions.
One time, at the end of a hike, we sat on a damp log leaning into each other, her head on my chest, Claude’s nose bridging our legs. “I never realized it could be like this,” she whispered.
“Me too. It was never like this before.”
I kissed her ear. Claude licked my elbow.
Over time we shared limited descriptions of our families. Hers was a large Wisconsin clan involved in car dealerships and farm equipment; with two older brothers and two younger, all of them alternately picking on her or ignoring her, she had always longed to escape. Now she went home only for weddings and funerals, and joked that she preferred the latter. My family featured a Jonesboro, AR, policeman and a lingerie sales clerk as parents, and two spoiled cheerleaders as siblings. Tagged with “Leonard” at birth, I’d changed my nickname from Len to Leo when I discovered Italian literature in college, and now I went home only for cholesterol infusions.
For both of us, a large northeastern city like Philly offered the kind of refuge we needed. And now we were forming our own family, I thought. We didn’t discuss children—too soon for that—but with a canine who weighed as much as three ten-year-olds, who needed more?
In August we vacationed together near Siena. I hadn’t been there since my dissertation years, but by murdering my little savings account—which I’d kept untouched for exactly this kind of event—I managed to pay almost half the cost, salvaging what remained of my masculine pride. Though Italy was hot and crowded with tourists, we had a great time avoiding the major attractions and hanging out instead in little cafés, exploring old churches in the picturesque hill towns, getting drunk on the cheap wine. In our tiny third-floor rental she was relaxed, even abandoned, dribbling Chianti across her stomach and thighs and inviting me to clean it in any way I chose. Back home, she’d always been sort of modest as a lover, not prone to games or jokes, so now I imagined we’d broken through to a new level of intimacy. I made her giggle by chanting love songs in Italian with obscene English translations. Our one regret was that Claude couldn’t travel with us. We sent his dogsitter photos to share with him, mostly of our neighboring butcher shop with its garish emblem of a hog out front and huge sausages dangling from the ceiling.
In the fall I had five classes total at three institutions, plus private tutoring two nights a week—enough to afford my own place, but we were committed now. I was sharing the rent, and we pondered the wisdom of buying a condo together—was the market going up or down? Our Italian playfulness had faded in the workaday world, but that seemed normal.
Prompted by mutual complaints about bosses, we talked sometimes about our so-called professions. If scholars with Ph.D.s could get only part-time, unguaranteed adjunct jobs, she asked, why didn’t I switch careers? Global corporations must need Italian-English bilinguals. I argued that a tenure-track position might turn up at some point or other. I was actually good at teaching, and my students provided a connection to the world “out there” that I’d never find in a corporate office. Besides, I wanted to share with others my love for Italian literature. She took a cynical view of this corny idealism, but allowed that I might be sincere.
Likewise, I sometimes asked why she didn’t leave the construction firm where, she often grumbled, the male-dominated environment disrespected women. If she didn’t like hearing jokes about pussies and being hit on with offhand regularity, why not take her skills to an accounting firm or insurance office? She answered darkly that she preferred the enemy she knew. “It’d just be more subtle elsewhere,” she said.
One time when I challenged her pessimism, she added, “Don’t give me career advice. You’re bossy like my big brother. And you look just like him when you stand like that.”
“Huh? Stand how?”
“Now you’re smirking at me like he does!”
“I’m not smirking at all.”
“You crowd me with your bulk, you try to intimidate me.” She shook her head in a violent spasm.
Baffled, I backed away and pulled at my goatee, which I’d grown to avoid resembling my police-sergeant father and which should also, I thought, differentiate me from members of a typical car-dealership clan. But I’d never seen pictures of her family, so I couldn’t counter her comparison with facts.
I guess the lack of details about her childhood should have alerted me. When I regaled her and Claude with tales of Arkansas football chants, Southern fried okra and shotgun practice on stop signs, she never responded with specifics about her own younger days. I knew only the outline: high school in a small town north of La Crosse, college at Illinois State, MBA in accounting at Wharton, discovery of nine-week-old Claude at a large-breed rescue center.
Before Thanksgiving we had a record-setting snowfall, almost 30 inches in three days, and instead of melting down as usual, it froze hard as later snows piled on top. The plows cleared the streets and sidewalks but created five-foot-high ridges at intersections. Walking Claude became a chore—not that he minded crashing over icy banks; in fact, we talked of hiring him out as a snowplow—but we humans often cracked our elbows or knees. One morning, from our living-room window on the second floor, Dinny gazed out at the steel sky, the blanched sun, the cars buried under grimy mounds at the curb, and she shouted, “I hate this! It’s just like fucking Wisconsin!”
I almost said that if she couldn’t stand snow she should’ve moved to Florida instead, but I held my tongue and handled Claude’s next walk myself.
Late November brought another kind of storm, a case of sexual assault at the university where I taught two of my classes. It involved one of my best students, a junior, who’d met a freshman female at a party and gotten drunk with her; then they returned to his dorm room, crawled under the covers and made out awhile. According to her, she fell asleep, and when she woke in the morning realized they’d had sex, which she’d never intended. When she reported the incident to the university, a campus-wide brouhaha erupted. The guy said he’d been so wasted he didn’t know what had happened but was sure everything was consensual. Opinions among students and faculty broke sharply, with no middle ground.
When the case turned up on the TV news, I could see it bothered Dinny. I mentioned that I knew the young man, and she walked straight out of the room without comment. For a few weeks, as the university’s administrative gears churned, I said no more about the matter, but in mid-December I worried aloud that a potential star in Romance languages could have his career ruined by one night of recklessness. He’s a nice kid, too, I told her.
“Don’t waste sympathy on the rapist,” she blurted.
I sat up straighter on the couch, where Claude snoozed beside me, and tried to describe the situation’s complexities. Dinny would have none of it.
“It’s simple,” she countered. “He got her drunk and then raped her.” She stalked to the frost-pocked window and stared outside.
I said that, according to the guy, they’d been equally, consensually plastered, and both said they’d willingly gotten in bed together.
“That’s a totally idiotic statement. Doesn’t matter where they are. If the woman doesn’t agree to sex, it’s rape, that’s all there is to it.”
I carried on, oblivious to all the warning signs, saying that I wondered if the young woman could have been reasoning clearly about what she was or was not agreeing to.
“You don’t understand anything at all, do you?” Dinny charged.
“I don’t think anyone understands it very well, that’s the problem.”
She turned to face me, and I had the impression that her glare, rather than her tone, woke Claude, who stood up suddenly and rocked the couch.
“What if,” she demanded, “I told you the same sort of thing happened to me?”
The dog and I gaped at her. “Rape?” I said. “You were raped?”
“Molested. Over and over.”
“Jesus!” I gasped. “That’s awful. Oh god, Dinny, how terrible.”
She spun back to the window and looked out again. “I cannot tolerate this weather,” she muttered, then slammed off to the bedroom.
I followed and Claude trailed after me. We found her sitting on the edge of the mattress, knees together, hands in her lap. I sat beside her. Claude wedged his head into her lap underneath her hands, forcing her to calm herself by scratching his ears.
When I laid a hand on her shoulder, she shook it off. “Do you want to tell me about it?” I whispered.
“Okay. Okay then. If it hurts too much to talk.”
“Who said it hurts?”
She aimed at me a clenched look that radiated pain, but I didn’t contradict her.
“Do you want me to stay or go away?”
She wouldn’t answer that, but in a couple of minutes, as she bent her head to concentrate on the hidden itches in Claude’s ear folds, she revealed a bit of the matter, and then gradually more, until I could piece the story together.
Her oldest brother, Gabe, big, silent and five years her senior, loved to wrestle, often initiating impromptu matches with any or all of his siblings. As little kids they had massive pileups on the floor. By the time she was 11, Gabe liked to take on one at a time, her especially, in a way she found bullying, especially when he started to let his fingers linger on her chest or butt. If she slapped his hands, he laughed and threw her to the floor. Sometimes he flung himself on top of her and ground his pelvis against her, chuckling at her inept resistance. If she complained, her mother said, “Don’t wrestle with the boys if you don’t like it. Just walk away. They can’t bother you if you don’t let them.” This advice didn’t help when Gabe hid behind a door and jumped her.
The year she turned 12, the family spent Thanksgiving with relatives in the country. A huge early snowfall had been plowed into tall hummocks along the driveway and paths. After the holiday meal her uncle built a fire in the hearth and asked Dinny to fetch more wood from the shed. “I’ll help,” said Gabe, “she’s too scrawny to carry much,” and followed her out back and down a brush-lined path where icy branches whipped their cheeks. Before they reached the shed, Gabe grabbed her shoulders and heaved her on her back into a snowbank, and when she tried to get up he caught her between the legs and lifted so that her head and shoulders dug into the slope. He kept one hand in her crotch, massaging hard and grinning. Snow in her mouth, she screamed and flailed at him, broke free and stumbled to the shed, where she wrenched open the door and tried to get behind it. He yanked the door out of her grasp; she fell and smacked her head on the stack of firewood. It was dark in there, unfamiliar territory, and he was laughing at her, acting stupider than ever before. Scared and furious, she reached around for anything to help herself, and her hands found a spade leaning against the shed wall. She pulled it to her and then, from her position on the woodpile below him, jabbed it upward. It caught him below the belt. He let out a blood-curdling scream and toppled.
To their parents and relatives, when she ran back to the house, she claimed he’d stepped on a shovel handle and the blade end flew up. He must never have contradicted that lie because it remained the official story even after emergency surgery on his testicles.
After easing this story out of her, I said I understood how awful it must have been. “No, you don’t know the half of it,” she said. The family attitude toward her changed, she explained. Her brothers and male cousins avoided her, and her parents acted like she’d disappointed them. It was like they all knew what had really happened, though they pretended not to, and they blamed her for Gabe’s injury. Four years later, when Gabe married a big, broad girl with a sense of humor as coarse as his, Dinny was the only family member not in the wedding party. She couldn’t wait to win a college scholarship and get out of that town.
I murmured and gently rubbed her back. She shook me off again and I left the bedroom, figuring Claude was more comfort right then than I could be. Amazed and overwhelmed, I supposed I was the only person ever to hear the full story, and I resolved to deserve the confidence she’d shown in me. With the incident now in the open, I’d help her conquer the lingering trauma. Another new level of intimacy lay ahead of us, I thought.
But over the next week she hardly spoke to me. If she had a message to deliver, she addressed it to the dog, often rudely. “Claude, tell him to stop at the market and not forget the fucking orange juice again.” At night she went to bed early and lay with her bony spine toward me.
“Dinny, what’s the matter?” I asked a few nights before Christmas while we silently picked at a dinner of Thai takeout. “Since you told me about your, uh, problems with Gabe, you’ve closed me out. I want to help but you’re not letting me.”
“So it’s my fault you’re wasting half your dinner.”
“Huh? No, I’m just not hungry. If I rinse off the spices Claude can have it.”
“What you mean is, if I were nicer to you you’d eat. You want to guilt me into being sweet and comfy.”
“I’m just not hungry. You’re not eating either.”
“Gabe’s never had children, you know.”
“Yeah? So what? Neither have you.”
“So maybe he can’t. Because of me.”
I hesitated, but then said, “Just as well. He’d be ‘wrestling’ with his daughters. That guy deserves whatever—” I bit my tongue because I was going too far.
“But it’s always the woman’s fault. Like what you said about the rape in the dorm room.”
“No, in that case, the woman’s getting counseling and it looks like the guy will be expelled.”
“You don’t think he deserves it.”
“I don’t know what anyone deserves. But this cold shoulder you’re giving me, when I’m so sympathetic to your trauma—”
“There’s no fucking trauma. I didn’t ask for sympathy.” She threw her napkin into the coconut curry sauce on her plate and stalked off toward the bedroom. When I went after her, she turned and spat into my face, “And don’t follow me. Always following like Gabe! The day we met, you followed me home and I shoulda known better!”
I got annoyed at that. “I did not follow you home,” I corrected. “I went with you and Claude to Ziggy’s, at your invitation. And you gave me your phone number. And I waited three days to call.”
“I think you should leave,” she said coolly, turning away. “Get out of my face. Out of my apartment.”
“Go away, Leo.… You’re really a Len, you know, pretending to be a Leo. It’s disgusting.”
“Dinny, can we see a counselor? This is too, I mean—this is crazy.”
“You can see anybody you like, by yourself. After you get out.”
She slammed the bedroom door. Made of hollow composite wood, it gave a brittle echo.
Seventy-two hours of acrimony followed. She came up with more wild charges against me—the worst being that in Italy I’d gotten her drunk so I could fuck her while she was unconscious, like that kid at the university.
“You love that,” she spat. “You and all the others.”
I couldn’t believe this madness. I tried to reason with her. But when she kept casting me as some kind of Neanderthal redneck—which I’ve tried so hard all my life not to be—I lost my temper. I fought back, calling her a paranoid bitch, among other things.
Claude hid in the bedroom.
When I finally rushed out on Christmas Eve, I took nothing except my coat, phone and laptop. I occupied the couch of one adjunct colleague, then another. After I calmed down, I kept hoping Dinny would come to her right mind and call. I left three voice messages, sent eight texts, apologizing for what I had said. No response, and I had the awful sense that, though she threw me out, I was the one abandoning her. I knew she needed support.
Saying I look like Gabe—plus her isolation from her family, adoption of a giant dog for “protection,” loyalty to a dull job where people abuse her, and then her off-the-wall accusations—doesn’t it all point to fear, shame and guilt twisted together with her rage? And is it pretentious of me to think I could help her work through that shit?
But what can I do if she pushes me away?
Now it’s New Year’s Day again, our one-year anniversary, and I’ve come back for my stuff. After my dance with Claude I rest on the couch before locating my suitcases. In the same closet I see the Christmas presents I wrapped for her, unopened. One is an edition of The Inferno with Gustave Doré’s vivid and enigmatic illustrations. Compared to us, the warped figures in Dante seem easier to comprehend.
I guessed she’d be out for a few hours because a friend of hers—the one other woman in her office—is having a party across town in an apartment overlooking the route of the New Year’s parade. We were both invited to watch the floats and bands, but I knew Dinny wouldn’t want me there.
Luckily I don’t own enough to make packing difficult. Claude takes one sniff of what I’m doing and retreats to his couch; he understands what suitcases mean. The whole job takes less than 45 minutes. I don’t want the odd pieces of furniture I contributed to this place, and as for books, I’m leaving them till I have a new apartment.
On this overcast day, the light from the windows feels as bleak as my mood. I can’t yet fathom why she turned against me. Did she always think I resembled her hated brother? Was she drawn to me because of that? Does she actually hate him or is there something more complicated going on? If she saw a therapist, could any of this be straightened out?
Jealously I think of her enjoying the parade that, last year, on the day we found each other, we both claimed to find depressing.
I lug two bags to my car, barely noticing the freezing rain that has started. When I return for the last case, Claude hasn’t budged from the couch. I go over to rub his back, and a plan comes to me: I’ll leave a simple note to explain why my clothes have disappeared—a gentle goodbye, inviting a call if she ever feels she has something to say. It’ll be so kind and understanding she’ll have to be swayed by it.
From the kitchen I fetch a pad and pen and sit down next to Claude to write.
But as I struggle for words with Claude ignoring me, I realize something: Dogs don’t say goodbye, do they? In greeting, they practically murder you with affection. When they understand you’re leaving, they just follow you with mournful eyes. Or else they hardly look at you, as Claude is doing now, his thick nose wedged between his paws, lids three-quarters closed. When we packed for Italy, he pretended we were invisible.
I’ve said goodbye a number of times, and this is already the worst by far. It also seems the most unfair—why am I being punished instead of that asshole Gabe?
Bitterly I decide Claude has the right approach. Avoid displays. Minimize emotion. Once the suitcases are out, it’s going to happen regardless.
Hurling the pen across the room, I pry the apartment key off my keyring, drop it on the coffee table, grab my bag. As I give Claude one last rub on the skull, his lack of expression perfectly expresses his disappointment in me.
I yank the door closed, test it to make sure. Yes, I’m locked out.
As I tramp to the car, with the icy rain pummeling my face, my anger deserts me. I picture Claude miserably alone in the apartment, and there’s a sucking black hole where my stomach ought to be.
I drive off as fast as I can, but in a few blocks realize I’ve gone a stupid way, too near the parade route. Throngs of spectators, discouraged by the storm, are scurrying back to their cars. Parents with little kids. Gaggles of raucous teenagers underdressed for the weather, discarding sandwich wrappers and coffee cups. Drunks weaving along with beer bottles. There’s one refugee who must’ve been a parade marcher—a bearded guy in a fake grass hula skirt, a flowered bustier and a huge feathered headdress who staggers down the middle of the street, drenched and totally stoned.
Stopped at an intersection, strangling the steering wheel, I curse the hula guy and all the other revelers, and then I have the weirdest vision. Through the smeared windshield the wet street turns into Dante’s muddy Styx, and we’re all floundering through it, a watery parade of the damned. This is where I deserve to be, I suppose. For eternity.
For an instant I think I make out Dinny in the distance, scuttling along with the other lost souls. Then I blink and she’s gone.