BY CINTHIA RITCHIE
Once a month, my ex-husband calls to talk to the dog. I hold the receiver to her ear and listen in on the extension, the long cord weaving around my legs like a sin. I cover my mouth with my fist, and my stomach churns and grumbles until I have to lean over and press my knees to my waist.
"How's my gal," his voice shouts. "How's my best little girlie?"
After he hangs up, the dog, an aging retriever with a white dot over her forehead, races back and forth and pees on the floor. All night she is confused, sniffing at the door and prowling around the empty side of the closet before finally collapsing in a sad, mumbling heap on the bed.
"Some things," she seems to be saying, "are just too sad to know."
* * * *
This is what I know. That my husband of seven years ran off to Hawaii with a woman who is old enough to be his mother. That they live in a small cabin without running water or electricity and this woman, whose name is Mildred, sews all his shirts by hand, her small, neat stitches marching like tiny soldiers across his collars and cuffs. He had been seeing her for over a year. I didn't know a thing about it; I didn't have a clue. I used to snicker when I heard women say that on talk shows.
"Oh, please," I would nod at the dog as I watered plants or worked out a new sketch. "Get your head out of the sand."
But he didn't grow a mustache or get his teeth cleaned or buy new clothes. That's what scares me, how he could have been the same yet so different, how his face could have been a mask, hiding something else. Often I stare into the mirror and run my hands over my own face, wondering if I would run off to Jamaica or Cuba with a dark-skinned man old enough to be my father.
Even in my fantasies, I take the dog.
* * * *
The dog's name is Merry Me, a joke from when my husband and I were dating, a long, confusing story I've stopped telling people because of how they sit and nod, not listening.
* * * *
Sometimes my husband writes me letters. I know I shouldn't read them, but I do. I'm the type of person you will read the back of the toilet paper package, and when I ride an elevator, I make sure I have a book, just in case it gets stuck.
In his letters, my husband tells me about the color of the ocean, how white the beaches are, how the fish move around his legs as he swims. He says that he feels as if he's in a dream, that the colors don't seem real, that every morning when he wakes, he stares in amazement at his own dark arms. He doesn't miss the winter, he tells me.
"I was born to live here," he wrote last week, and reading his small, cramped handwriting, I wondered just what he meant: that he was born to live in Hawaii or in a slanted-roof cabin without running water.
Sometimes, in these letters, he forgets to mention the dog.
* * * *
Merry has developed a nervous habit and burps whenever she meets another dog. She lifts her head, opens her mouth, and out comes a long, grunting burp that seems to shame her. She nods her head, half-closes her eyes.
"Oops," she seems to say. "Couldn't help it."
I can't help the nights, the way they press down on me, how I sometimes wake in a panic, not sure if it's morning or night. In the dark, how can you be sure? I end up working on my quilts. I'm behind on my orders, and if I don't hurry this one, I'll have to knock down the price as compensation. I can't afford to do this, but the pattern bothers me, the way the colors slide together so carelessly, how the blues pick up glints of yellow and pink without a second thought. I want to hold my hand up, warn those silly triangles, those teasing half-circles.
"Watch out," I want to say, "it's not at all what you think."
* * * *
My husband forgot to call this month, and the dog, as if waiting for his voice, chewed up my new sandals and the pocket on my purse. Then she threw up all over the couch and I spent the evening drying the cushions with the hair dryer. Now she lies in the closet, on my husband's side, her eyes drooping. When I bring up her food dish, she licks my hand twice before turning her head away.
* * * *
On Wednesday, I call in sick at the fabric store and take the dog to the vet. The receptionist, a short man with green glasses, asks me the dog's name.
"Merry Me," I say, and he leans forward, his hands flat on the counter.
"Excuse me?" he sneers.
"Look," I tug on the leash. "I've heard all the jokes. That's the dog's name. Merry Me. With an 'e.' Like in Christmas.
The dog sits with her shoulders sagging, her toenails slipping over the tiled floor. When a poodle struts past, she lowers her chest to the floor and burps, low and soft, a sissy burp. The receptionists lifts his head, his glasses glinting. By the time the doctor meets us in the exam room, I am sweating. Merry sits up straight and bored, like a child at school assembly.
I tell the doctor about my husband's leaving, how he used to call. I mention the burping, and how the dog won't eat and has been peeing on the carpet and chewing up my things.
"Regressing. Wants to be a pup again." The doctor is young and optimistic; I want to slap him. He examines Merry's mouth, presses his fingers around her stomach and stares into her eyes with a small light.
"Looks healthy to me. Wouldn't worry, shouldn't last much longer. Just needs to adjust."
When he leaves, he forgets his flashlight and I stuff it quickly inside my sock, I don't know why. But the feel of that cool metal against my ankle is reassuring. It reminds me of how my husband used to fold his hand around my ankle, marveling at the small, fragile bones.
"The bottom of your leg," he would whisper, "is smaller than a can of Pepsi."
* * * *
I don't open my husband's next letter, or the one after that. I set them on the windowsill, where they become soggy and lumpy from the plant run-off. The ink smears and the corners dangle helplessly. I like how forlorn they look, as if nothing in the world would mean so much as my reading them.
The dog sits on the floor beside me as I stare at these letters, her head pressed in the tender skin beneath my knee.
"See," she seems to be saying, "see what happens when you depend upon words."
* * * *
In my Thursday quilting class, just as I am about to explain how to pull the backing over the batting, the woman who wears cat sweaters bursts into tears. My voice stops, my hands pause in front of my chest. I'm afraid I might join in, lean my head against hers and wail like those women in Anthropology films. Finally she wipes her face on a scrap of muslin and tells me she has to get rid of her cats, that her little boy is allergic.
"He breaks out in hives," she jabs her cutting wheel against the table. "His ears swell up and he can't hear.
I ask how many cats she has.
"Four," she tells me, sucking at a small cut on her thumb. "But I've found homes for all but one. He's kind of, well, difficult."
I don't know how it happens, but I hear my voice offer to take this cat, this ornery, moody cat. Why not, he will fit right in, weaving his neurotic habits around ours. I imagine us all awake in the middle of the night, sitting on the sofa and staring at the blank television screen as if waiting for something to happen.
* * * *
I'm cleaning a hairball off the carpet when my husband finally calls. I won't let him talk to the dog, I stand with my feet apart, bracing myself.
"No," I tell him. "You can't just call whenever you please and leave me to pick up the pieces.
"I don't care," I interrupt. "You were the one who couldn't wait to get away. You didn't even think about the dog, did you?" The dog raises her head, the cat peers from behind the African violet.
"Well I'm sorry, but that wouldn't work. She's mine now, you can't have her.
"Half-custody?" I scream, and the dog crouches. "Oh, please, what am I going to do, put her on a plane to Hawaii twice a year?"
I stand in the middle of the kitchen, the dog and cat warm around my feet. In the silence, I can hear my husband's breath, so familiar that I begin to breathe along with him. His breath is tight and awful and I realize that she's left him, that he's all alone in that small, dark cabin and soon it will be the rainy season.