By, Cathy Warner
Sam sprawls atop my comforter, head on the ruffled sham, paws flopped over the mattress, looking as if he’s been my dog for ten years instead of ten hours. A dog was my daughter’s idea. She insisted that since I’d moved a hundred miles away, the least I could do was humor her.
After the adoption, I took Sam for a walk along the beach. It hadn’t dawned on me that a retriever would want something to retrieve, or that he’d chase it into the water and shake off all over me afterward. He seemed content with an empty Aquafina bottle I found. I envy his adaptability.
Some mornings I wake up ready to pack and head for home until I realize this rented house is my home. Gretchen calls every day, afraid I’ll revert to the early days of widowhood when I watched the Home Shopping Network all day. It got so I didn’t want to leave the house. The averted eyes, the whispers at the senior center. “She doted on him. She loved him so much. Poor thing.” I’d read his name on our prescription card and fall apart. I hated the way the pharmacy clerk straightened the bills in her cash drawer while I composed myself.
With Raymond gone it’s like one of my lungs has been removed. I feel his absence every time I breathe. I moved here to find out who I am apart from Raymond’s wife. Raymond’s widow.
Gretchen wanted me to get a puppy. She didn’t say it was because she wanted the dog to outlive me. But white muzzled Sam looked at me from behind bars and I knew he was the one.
I’m propped against my pillows thumbing through the community college schedule. I had half a semester of college, fifty-two years ago. Should I start with something I know about, like cooking, or something completely new, like astronomy? I circle the number for the re-entry counselor and place the catalog on the bedside table along with my reading glasses.
I turn off the light and nudge Sam with my foot, his cue to sleep in his own bed at the foot of mine. He doesn’t move. I wonder, am I too old to be starting everything new?
I flip the light on and roll toward Sam. His dark eyes focus on me. He was there two weeks before I adopted him. I wonder how he managed. I pat his head and he presses his nose to my palm. I scratch under his chin. He must’ve belonged to someone. How can he understand that they’re never coming for him, that I’m all he has now?
Some mornings when I come to semi-consciousness I see Raymond leaning over to kiss me goodbye on his way to work. I feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder, his damp lips on my forehead, the whispered I love you in my ear. “I love you, too,” I answer, waking myself up to see nothing but dawn’s shadow.
Before Raymond died, I’d only spent eleven nights alone: three when he entered an amateur bowling tournament in Reno; the rest were hospital visits. Maybe they shouldn’t count.
“Have you ever felt like you’ll just shrivel into nothing if you’re not attached to someone?” I ask my new dog.
All I ever wanted to be was married. I remember the last day of high school, when my chemistry teacher gave his renowned lecture on life for us graduates and made pronouncements about our future as we left the classroom. “Charlotte,” he said, “You’re going to be a wonderful wife and mother.” I was thrilled. My best friend was furious. “Is that it?” she said. “Can’t he see a bigger future for you?”
Sam’s mouth is open. His teeth are yellowed. I make a mental note to ask the vet about a cleaning.
“You must be worn out from all that exercise today.” I rub his back.
I met Raymond my first day at college. We got married after dating six weeks.
“What I miss most is this. Talking before we drifted off to sleep,” I say. “It might be crazy, talking to a dog, but you don’t mind, do you?”
Of course he doesn’t answer.
“I’ll tell you something even Gretchen doesn’t know,” I confide. “I tracked down my high school sweetheart after Raymond died.”
I got his address from my friend on the reunion committee, sent a letter, and he invited me to visit. Driving there, I imagined that we’d be just like the couples on talk shows who reunite after fifty years to live happily ever after. We went to our high school and sat on the bleachers in the new stadium. Bruce held my hand, and I noticed the black line of grease under his fingernails. He told me about his two ex-wives and six kids who hardly speak to him until they bring their cars to the garage for service.
“I should’ve married you, Charlotte,” he said, then kissed me, tongue fishing around in my mouth, and I almost gagged.
“We were two desperate people about to make a desperate mistake because we were scared to death of being alone,” I tell Sam.
He flicks his wet tongue across my cheek.
I wipe the wet spot with the back of my hand.
“Things will work out if you follow a few rules,” I say. “The first is no tongues.”
I pull up the covers and snap off the light again. If it were up to me, I’d let Sam sleep right here, but Gretchen and the literature she gave me prohibit it, so I push all seventy pounds of Sam with my feet through the comforter, grunting with the effort until I feel him slip off the mattress and thud to the floor.
I’ve just settled into place when Sam jumps back on the mattress and flops down warm and solid against the length of my back.