AN INTRODUCTION BY RICK MOODY
The best thing, really, is when your students are sort of better than you are. Often, and this can be a relief, it takes them a while to be better than you are, but when it does happen, there’s a soaring feeling that you get from it. And so: Tara Ison was my student in the low residency writing program at Bennington College, and she was in a very memorable period for me there, in which virtually every one of my students went on to publish remarkable work. Tara was then, and is now, a cool cat: not show-offy, but patient, warm, funny, and supremely gifted. She was a great pleasure to have in class because she was spot-on, but not aggressive or ungraceful about it. She used her powers for good. I think she published a novel around the time she got to Bennington, and so she was already launched and didn’t need my help much. “Ball” was actually a story I read in that workshop, but my feeling is that she has improved it since then, because while it was really great in those days, it is now astoundingly good.
“Ball,” as you are about to find out, is a truly outrageous story about contemporary relationships, sex, and dog ownership. It is about the way these things are very similar. And it is not breezy and light about sex and dog ownership, it is honest and tragicomic and astringent and provocative. There’s only one othexr literary dog vulva that is as good as the one described in the opening of “Ball,” namely in J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, and Ison’s literary dog vulva gives Ackerley a run for his money. Ison’s opening is an opening, as it were, and nothing could be more satisfying. The rest is great, too, after the opening, the grim unromantic coupling of adults who long for love, but are not necessarily prepared for its demands, unless, perhaps, the love comes from a dog instead. Read on! Tara Ison, for all her modesty and stealth, is a real voice for our times, and what she has to say is, e.g., that nothing is sacred, and desperation doesn’t have to be melodramatic, and that le mot juste is still the only acceptable approach. You will not forget having read this one.
Author of Hotels of North America
by Tara Ison, recommended by Rick Moody
My sweet little dog, Tess, is what they call “apricot.” She has tiny blue eyes, almond-shaped and set close together like Barbra Streisand’s, and the prettiest little dog vagina. I spent twenty minutes examining and marveling at it once with my best friend, Dayna, before she had a boyfriend and we spent a lot of our time together appreciating Tess. Dayna is a biologist, which gave the experience a legitimizingly clinical spirit. It’s a tidy, quarter-inch slit in a pinky-tip protuberance of skin, delicate and irrelevant and veiled with fine, apricot hair. Tess rolled over and spread out happily, trustingly, for us; she lives almost pathetically for love, for attention, like a quivering heroine from some fifties romance novel. She also lives for food and naps, but mostly for Ball. Tennis balls, squishy rubber ones with bells inside, any spherical object to love will do. I’ve learned hard
rubber balls are the best — the last time she had a flimsy plastic one she worked it down to bits, chewed it with such passion there was almost nothing left.
She came with a ball. I’d been living alone in my big new house with a fireplace for six days, came home on a Thursday evening to the still-lingering smell of paint and spackle and fresh-sliced carpet fibers and realized I can have a dog here. Apartment living hadn’t allowed for that, but now I had my own house with a fireplace and a small fiberglass jacuzzi in a small chlorine-scented backyard, all to myself. I was only twenty-five and very proud of having my own house. I walked around and around, and my heels clacked resoundingly on the hardwood floors. Dayna had mentioned maybe coming over, but we’d hung out together the last five nights out of six, she was in a needy, boyfriend-less phase, and her presence was becoming a cloying and oppressive force. She hated sleeping alone — she’s always scared of an earthquake, a fire combusting out of nowhere, a serial-killer-rapist-burglar breaking in — but I wanted my big, new house all to myself, and a dog, and a fire in the fireplace. I went right back out and bought a newspaper and called the first ad for a cockapoo: eleven mos, shots, fxd, hsbrkn, plyful. A cockapoo, to me, meant the large dark eyes of a baby harp seal and a silky spaniel coat, a body thick-limbed but compact and floppy. The true, Platonic image of a cockapoo. I drove to an apartment complex in Northridge. The dog was hideous, at first sight, more blurred, cross-bred terrier and toy poodle than anything else, with skinny, crooked legs that needed to be broken and reset, and those creepy blue eyes. A brown nose, faded like over-creamed coffee. And she was covered with fleas, little dark leaping specks visible through her beige fur. I made polite chat with the owner, a heavy sixtyish black woman named Gloria — That isn’t beige, dear, they call that color “apricot” on a poodle — who couldn’t be bothered with the dog anymore, and then told her that Yes, I knew the ad said she’d be eleven months, but I really did want a puppy. The dog dropped a soiled, shreddy, lime-colored tennis ball in front of me and looked up, her tiny eyes squinting with hope and expectation: You want to play with my ball? Here, look, here’s a ball! You want to play? Please, please! When I ignored her she pounced on the ball with her skinny front legs, her paws shoving it toward me — Ball! Ball! Ball! — until I gave in and threw it for her. But when I got up to leave, I suddenly realized that if I didn’t take her, it meant I would have to keep interviewing dogs. This seemed like an exhausting prospect: continuing to call deceptive ads, inquire about worms, meet imperfect dogs, choose. Also, it meant that I would be going home that night to my big house alone. I told Gloria I would take the dog, figuring that if it didn’t work out I would just get rid of it somehow. I wrote Gloria a check for seventy-five dollars — the cost of getting the dog fixed at five months, and the shots — and she gave me a leash, a quarter of a bag of Puppy Chow, and the dog. At the last moment, Gloria put the soiled tennis ball in the Puppy Chow bag, like a parting gift. The dog’s gotta have that ball, she said, or any kind of ball, you’ll see. I stopped at the drugstore on the way home with the dog, to buy flea shampoo and dog treats, and I dumped the dirty, lime-hairy ball in a dumpster. Through the window of the car the dog watched me do this, anxious, her squinty little eyes made wide and round by alarm.
At home she suffered submissively, mournfully, through the kitchen-sink flea bath and a towel-drying in front of a fire in the fireplace, then curled up tight as a snail shell at the foot of my bed, looking orphaned and weepy. She wouldn’t touch the doggy rag tug thing I’d bought, nor the faux-bone treats, nor the plastic squeaky toy shaped like a garish hamburger with the works. I went to bed wondering how to unload an ugly and sentient animal. Several hours later I heard a light thud sound, then a thump-roll, thump-roll, and I looked across my room to see the little dog trotting happily toward the bed with a Granny Smith apple in her mouth. She jumped up on the bed with it, dropped it, peered up squintily with hope and expectation, and shoved it toward me with her crooked apricot paws. I knew I’d bought apples during the week, but how she’d found one I had no idea — some desperate, biologically driven search for Ball. I threw the apple across the room for her for a while, and each time she brought it back to me, thrilled, suffused with intimate joy at our connection. She finally tired, snail-curled on the empty pillow next to me, and went to sleep. When I awoke in the morning her brown nose was breathing in my face and her almond-shaped blue eyes blinked at me with drowsy adoration, and I was abruptly slapped swollen with love. I went out first thing and bought her a real ball, periwinkle blue, hard rubber, just the right size and with a solid, stable bounce.
Now it isn’t just my echoing footsteps in the house, it’s her happy, scratchy nail-scrambles, the thud and roll of a ball that I hear.
I loved her so much it was numbing, and sometimes, to jab a feeling at myself, I fantasized about her dying. Getting hit by a car, drinking from a contaminated puddle of water when we went on walks (how my accountant Sue’s dog died), or succumbing to an attack of bloat (some disease my friend Lesley’s dog almost died of, when the intestines bunch up out of nowhere). Or I would whet the fantasy by imagining that I had to sacrifice her for some reason. Put her out of some misery. I’d have her dying of encroaching cancers, where I forced myself to give her a mercifully quick and lethal shot of morphine because keeping her alive and in pain would only fulfill my own selfish needs. This usually made me cry, and once, picturing that and crying, I called Dayna and made her promise me if Tess ever did get sick she’d get drugs and a syringe from the lab, and we’d take care of it so Tess would never suffer. Or I’d think about an epic disaster, a nuclear bomb or a 9-point earthquake that somehow destroyed all the food and left me with nothing but Tess, and would I be willing to starve to death instead of eat her. How bad something would have to get to force me to do such a thing. I wondered what Tess would taste like. I imagined her flesh was tender and sweet. Her paw pads were the color of cracked, grayish charcoal and smelled of burned popcorn. When she yawned I poked my nose into the gap of her jaw and inhaled. I ran my hands over the wiry pubic-like hairs at the base of her spine, the fine, clumped curls at her throat. She let her head fall all the way back when I did this, so trusting, her throat stretched to a soft, defenseless, apricot sweep. I just wanted to crawl inside of her sometimes, or have her crawl inside of me, keep her safe there forever.
In hindsight, Gloria’s ad was accurate; Tess was indeed fxd — you could still feel the barbed wire of subcutaneous stitches in her belly, another thing Dayna and I always marveled at, or used to, before Dayna met her boyfriend, back when hanging out meant admiring and playing Ball with Tess for hours at a time — and hsbrkn, and I was spared all the yipping, newspaper-thwacking, stick-her-nose-in-it hassles of a puppy. The idea of disciplining her horrified me, and I was glad I didn’t have to. Her one unfortunate habit was her way of hurtling herself at people to greet them when they came in the door, invariably impacting at ovarian- or testicular-crushing height. Dayna encouraged this, finding the hurtling a consistent and unconditional show of love; she’d catch Tess in mid-leap, grab her at each side’s delicate, curving haunch, and swoop her around the living room or the backyard like a clumsy, older puppy-sister. Tess’s exuberance, her insistence on playing Ball, worked as sort of a litmus test for other people — how much grace they mustered up told me a lot about who they were. But most people adored her. Some friends perfected a knee-dip-and-swivel, so that Tess landed smack against a fleshy mid-thigh. Eric showed a congenial grace about it the first time he came over to my house, but after that it became his means to set the evening’s tone; if he was feeling generous he petted her, threw the ball for her, and we had a stressless, fun, prurient kind of time together, but if he wasn’t in the mood or thought I was paying too much attention to her, he got nasty. Sometimes there was a faintly sinister quality to it, especially when she wanted to play Ball and he didn’t. Sometimes it became an enraging, bitter thing. He’d hide the ball, laughing as she searched the house in a growing panic. Or he’d pretend to throw it but then hide it behind his back and smirk at her bewilderment. If she shoved the ball at him once too often — and she could be relentless, needy, You want to play with my ball? Here, look, here’s a ball! You want to play? Please, please! — his annoyance built to the point where I got very nervous and protective, almost scared he was going to explode and hurt her. I’d try to distract him with food or sex. Sometimes I think he hated her, but then he’d be so sweet and loving I’d figure it would all be okay. He liked coming to my place because of the fireplace and the jacuzzi, but it still usually felt safer to me if I just went alone to his.
I met Eric two years ago, when Dayna had a big party to celebrate getting a promotion at her lab, something that involved a bonus and increased time with rabbits. She told me she’d invited a couple of young guys who’d moved in across the street; one of them had a girlfriend but the other was exactly my type, and also the type who probably wouldn’t go for her, anyway. Dayna is very beautiful, she just has a way of thrusting herself at men, emotionally stripping for them on a first date. She assumes men prefer me because I’m smaller — she’s six feet tall, stunning, but six feet tall — while I think it’s just because she tries too hard, opens up too massively. She drowns you with all of herself, with a flood of vulnerability, trust, need, and I know that the success of sex depends on contrivance, in holding yourself back. It’s the tease, not the strip. You offer up your soul for a taste; it’s like an invitation to feed.
Eric turned out to be twenty-three, six years younger than Dayna and me, and striking, a wonderfully alpine six feet four, which was certainly tall enough for Dayna, but I saw what she meant by my type — tall and bold men always make me feel sexual, nymphetish — and also what she meant by he probably wouldn’t go for her, anyway. He didn’t want a drowning torrent of intimacy; he wanted to get laid. We sat on the floor of Dayna’s apartment for an hour at the party’s wane, drinking beer and making suggestive, clever comments to each other while he played Ball with Tess. He petted her and scratched her tummy, not realizing that being sweet to my sweet little dog was a litmus test of sexual acceptability, a wildly effective and endearing form of foreplay. She adored him, draped herself trustingly across his lap, her little almond eyes slanted closed in bliss. But that wasn’t why I wanted him, badly, really; it was the adamant and unabashed sex look of him, his way of dirty, lustful regard. His look said Sex, said Fuck, suck me, I’m hard, said It’s specifically, singularly, because of you. I suddenly realized I hadn’t been fully looked at that way in a while, maybe a long while. It used to happen all the time, but not so often anymore. Eric looked at me that way, and I wanted to get his cock inside me, fast, to hold on to that look. His hands stroking Tess’s tummy — I wanted them on me, working me, shoving my thighs apart, pressing me face down by my shoulders or the back of my neck into a pillow, raising my hips high from behind, guiding my head. I wanted to leave with him that second, but I knew Dayna would be upset. So I waited another half hour to suggest he show me his new place across the street, and in answer he circled me hard around the waist, leaned over, and kissed me — more gently than I’d expected, but still his arm was firm, ruling — and then we left. I took Tess with me, and her latest in the series of hard rubber periwinkle blue balls; Dayna had wanted us to sleep over, but hey, she was the one who’d tossed me this guy in the first place.
I hate fucking men who get moony or coy about it, who act as if there’s an element of accident that you’re here, doing this, as if you both tripped and wound up landing naked in bed. Eric was brusque and unsheepish, as fearless of sex as a porn star. He had the hard, tapered male torso I like, skin so fluid and seamless your hand slides, slides. My own skin is starting to dry, slightly — I shouldn’t go in the jacuzzi too often — I’ve noticed fine, thin wrinkles when I twist the loosening flesh of my upper arms, I’ve grown a little self-conscious of my babyish pout of belly. But the sex was an endlessly wet, vehement, pounded smooth kind of sex that wiped out doubt.
During the first surge of it, on Eric’s living room sofa — a velour playpen-style couch still smelling faintly of frat house joints and beer — Tess had stretched out drowsily at the far end, behind Eric’s hunching, jarring back, out of his view. We reeled to his bed afterward, while he was still solid and driven and I could still jolt at a slightest touch of his tongue, to start all over. She picked up her ball and padded after us, climbed upon a bolster we’d thrown on the floor, and went back to sleep. I’d had Tess for a little over four years by then but had never fucked anyone with her in the room before; I typically went to the guy’s house and left afterward, because, after all, Tess would be home, waiting for me, needing to go out. I liked my bed all to ourselves. After the second time, I got up, awkwardly — my legs felt permanently locked apart at the hips, hinged wide — and fumbled for clothing, but Eric grabbed an ankle and pulled me back onto the quilted bedspread. Mock-wrestle, mock-struggle, and Tess jumped up on the bed with us to play, her mouth full of periwinkle ball. He had me pinned on my side, was fumbling with himself, aiming, when Tess dropped and shoved her ball at him — Get out of here, dog, go on, he said — wedging it under his thigh — You want to play with my ball? Here, look, here’s a ball! You want to play? Please, please! — and kept shoving, desperate for his attention, his affirming and engaged throw of the ball. I tried squirming upward, trying to glide, grasp him inside me, distract him, but one more ball-shove from Tess — Would you get her the fuck out of here? he snapped at me — and he jerked out a leg, catching her just at her midsection’s arching curve, and hurled her off the bed. She yelped, I saw in the streetlamp’s light through the window an apricot blur, and heard her smack the wall, heard her flurry slide to the ground.
I was up and to her in a second — Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that, okay? — and she was fine, just bewildered. She poked her damp pink tongue in my ear and hiccupped like a little human baby, and I cradled her, rubbing her tummy. She was fine, but I wanted to cry. Eric kept apologizing, coaxing me back, and when I looked at him in disgust he finally said I was overreacting, just being neurotic, I shouldn’t indulge her so much, I was probably going to wind up some weird old lady living alone with forty-seven poodles. I carried her out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind us. Then I didn’t know what to do. It was almost three, I knew Dayna was asleep, and I didn’t want to go wake her up, explain what had happened. She’d be furious; worse, she’d be smug. And Tess’s ball was still in the bedroom with Eric; I wasn’t leaving without it. I wasn’t going to leave her without a ball.
I carried her into Eric’s roommate’s bedroom — he was staying at his girlfriend’s, Eric had told me — and crawled with her into the unmade bed, into unwashed sheets with that odor of careless, straight, young bachelor guys. She dozed on the greasy pillow next to me, in her spine-defying, shell-curled way, her nose in my face. I tried to go to sleep. My jaw ached; I scratched away some flakes of dried semen on my cheek, craved a drink of water, but didn’t want to get up. My insides still felt stretched open, rooted out. My hips kept twitching in the rhythm I’d found sent him over. I’d already gotten to know the thick vein in bas-relief on the left side of his cock, and the exact, utmost length within me his fingers could go, and I wanted all of that back. I wanted that obliterating lust, heated and direct and unrefracted as rays of light through a magnifying glass, focused to burn you down to death. I heard Tess yawn, and I craned to face her, needing the comforting, starfish scent of her breath.
I waited until she was asleep, then got up, stealthily closed the roommate’s door behind me, and crept back into Eric’s room. He’d thrown half the bedspread over himself and lay sleeping, sprawled out and mammoth and lustrous. I molded myself small up against the length of him and felt a flutter of pulse down his arm; I crawled on top of him and slid myself around until he grew big and hard and I could grip at that vivid, affirming burn one more time.
In the morning we glanced disdainfully at each other and rolled quickly out of opposite sides of the bed. I retrieved Tess’s ball and hurried to free her from the other room; she kissed me wildly, whimpering, as though she’d feared something had happened to me in the night, that I’d left her forever. He watched me nuzzle her for a moment — I guess that’s the deal breaker, huh? he said — then shrugged and went back into his room. Dayna looked at me like a resigned, just slightly reproachful good loser when I came in, then shrieked a greeting to Tess, whipped her up to a leaping, hurtling frenzy, and swooped around the room with her. We spent the rest of the morning cleaning up the party’s dismal mess and playing Ball. Eric called me at home the next day, and I invited him over for the following Saturday night; he came bearing a single iris for me and a bag of pricey lamb-and-rice treats for Tess. He let her climb onto his lap, and she spread herself out happily for him, unguarded, unself-conscious, arching her head and exposing her throat to his fondling, stroking hand. He threw the ball for her that night, again and again. But after that I usually insisted on going to his place and leaving Tess with Dayna, where it was safe.
I was careful never to sleep with him again, even after a year. I didn’t want to get slack, or too accessible, and actually sleeping together was hardly the point. The only time I did fall asleep, after that first grotesque night and morning, was just an accident, a slip. Tess was across the street with Dayna, and the plan, as always, was the requisite dinner with Eric while we watched a movie or a rerun of The Simpsons, then sex, and then I would leave. I just wanted pizza or Chinese delivered, something quick, because the dinner was not the point either, just a feature he liked to insist on, but I got to his apartment and smelled onions cooking, mushrooms, the acrid snap of garlic. He was making dinner. His roommate was out, and he was making an evening, trying to, out of a Lyle Lovett CD and a head of romaine lettuce and a jar of Ragú sauce spiffed up with fresh onions and mushrooms — Hey, come on, I really like to cook, my mom told me to add all these veggies, he said, nodding — and a gleaming bottle of red zinfandel. A boiling pot of spaghetti fogged the kitchen with starch; the table was set with melamine plates and paper towel napkins folded in big squares. Fine, okay. I started on the wine, had half the bottle down by the end of salad, and listened to him talk about some old college girlfriend, some Shannon or Nicole, whom he’d been with for a couple of years and really cared about but just was never ready to commit to and how he’d heard the other day she was getting married and he really did hope she was happy but it still really hurt, you know, and it was probably time he started really thinking about what he was going to do with his life, about what he wanted in life, and what did I think about all that? And what I was thinking was that it was getting late and we’d never had sex yet on his kitchen table and can we get going? And that Tess was waiting for me over at Dayna’s and I’ve finished my spaghetti and can we get going? I tipped the last of the wine into my mouth, got up, slid off my underwear from under my skirt, and he shut up. I sat on his lap, straddling him, pushed his hand down in the crotch of space between us, used my hand against the buttons on his jeans, and his breathing quickened. I traced the rim of his ear with my tongue, worked myself against his fingers, everything I knew would do it, and it did, his cock jutting out from his split-open fly and the table edge gouging my spine when he lunged forward at me. I leaned back with my elbows on the table, skirt raised and legs open, for him to get me up and onto it, but instead he picked me up — Uh uh, not here, he mumbled — clutching and carrying me like a sack of fragile groceries, kissing me before we even got to his room. He fell with me on the bed, fell onto me with a great, weighted crush, but when I squirmed to get up on my hands and knees for him he gently pushed me flat again, face down, nudging my legs apart, Good, I like that, I said, do that, and then twisted my shoulders around so that while he thrust into me from behind, lying on me, he had my face against his, or his face in my neck, still kissing me. That kind of twist was a strain, everything went taut and seized up until it hurt so I couldn’t stand it anymore; I finally had to pull back away from him, turn away. I pressed my face down into the pillow but he wouldn’t let me do that, wanted my arm around his shoulders or his neck, holding on, wanted me facing him, and twisted me back. It took a long time. He kept slowing down and every time I was about to come he wouldn’t let me, he’d just stop, still looking at me, and when we both finally came in the middle of a kiss that was like breathing straight into each other’s lungs we stayed like that, still, all twisted up around each other. When my spine and the rest of me finally relaxed, went aimless, all of my muscles eased into place and I strayed off to sleep. Eric still on top of me, holding me. A branch hitting the window lurched me awake well after midnight, and my first aware thought was a glad one, Thank God that woke me up so I can get out of here.
I pulled away from Eric and called Dayna — Yeah, Tess was okay, she was right there on the pillow next to her. I told Dayna I was coming over, I’d be there soon. Proof I was a good friend, always there for her, this guy doesn’t mean anything to me, see, and she wasn’t just a babysitter. Eric tugged on the phone in my hand, No, come on, don’t leave, she’s fine, but I shook my head at him until he let go. He was angry, I could see in the light from the streetlamp through the window, and that pleased me. I could imagine him thinking there was something wrong with me that I’d leave him to go running off to my dog. He rolled over to the other side of the bed, a big, spoiled baby, Fine, go, his back to me; I got up and straightened out my clothes and left without saying good-bye. He needed to learn, I thought, that he can’t have everything he wants. That he was only there to fuck, I’d never be lulled, and in the end, if he ever pushed me, I would always choose my sweet little dog.
When I went to Sausalito, Tess stayed with my mother. An artist friend asked me to house-sit for six weeks while he went to Eastern Europe to study iconography; I decided leaving town would wave a giant Fuck You flag at Eric, a banner of my insusceptibility. I decided it was time for a more sporadic arrangement, that it would keep everything fervent and honed. I told my artist friend I’d love to get out of town for a while. The only problem: no dogs. He was wildly allergic. I insisted to him that poodles don’t shed, and that Tess was mostly poodle, I thought, but he wasn’t about to come home to dander and tracked-in spores. He was apologetic, but that was the deal. I decided it was worth it, that Eric needed to be reminded what this was, and I reminded myself that contrivance works. It does, I’m telling you. Dayna was hurt and upset, as if I were abandoning her. She was also upset she couldn’t take Tess — her hours at the lab made it impossible. So I packed up Tess’s food and water dishes, her special high-quality food the vet had recommended, her leash, her blue rubber ball, and drove her over to my mom’s. I started crying when I hugged Tess good-bye — Don’t worry, honey, she’s my grandchild, isn’t she? I’ll take very, very good care of her — and she burrowed her face in the crook of my neck. I was a terrible mother, to do this to her, and for what, for him? I pushed my nose into her charcoal-colored paw pads to breathe in the salty, furry, puppy-sweat smell, then forced myself to leave. I cried for a few hours afterward, choked with guilt, still seeing her forlorn, confused face as I drove off without her.
Not waking up to Tess was awful. I walked through Sausalito two or three times a day — gift shop, gallery, gift shop, gallery, driftwood seagulls everywhere — and when I found people with dogs, I would befriend them. Guys with dogs thought I was coming on to them, but I just wanted the dogs. One Sunday I met a retired policeman from Oakland, walking a docile, regal borzoi. This was an odd dog for a policeman to have, a guy with a movie cop’s burly swagger and black kangaroo-leather shoes. Long before Tess, I’d thought of having a borzoi one day; they’re hugely magnificent Art Deco dogs with dear, shy temperaments, but they’re also congenitally stupid. This one was skittish, too, and pulled nervously from my greeting — the guy told me she’d been part of a case he’d investigated, that she’d been abused and abandoned by some volatile, coked-up perp, and afterward he’d adopted her. Cynthia. He said abused dogs broke his heart, even more than abused kids, because dogs are even more vulnerable and trusting, their lives are in our hands and they know it. And they are like kids; they even love the people who abuse them, you know? There’s that innate instinct to adapt, adjust. He’d like to see animal abuse laws toughened up. Cynthia was his baby now, Yeah, my precious little girl, Daddy’s always gonna take good, fine care of you, uh huh. She bumped her long muzzle into his stomach, leaned against him so fully and hard he almost lost his balance. She trusted me to pet her for a while then, and I ran my fingers through her long, sheening white coat, wishing for Tess. The guy looked like he maybe wanted to keep talking, or go for coffee, but I just wanted to pet Cynthia. Yeah, I told him, because animals had purer souls than human beings — everybody has his own agenda and wants something from you, even friends, even lovers, even your mother, and you can’t let your guard down, ever, that’s when they get you, hurt you — and so animals were more honest, more deserving of love and care. I told him I had a little apricot cockapoo I just loved to death, who was everything pure and innocent and sweet in the world,
whom I’d do anything for, and the idea of actually getting married and having actual children was revolting to me, because you couldn’t fully ever trust a human being, a friend, a parent, a lover, they love you, they hurt you, you can’t even trust yourself, whereas a dog like Tess would be there for you, always. I told him I shouldn’t even be away from her here in Sausalito, I should hurry home, because I was just wasting six weeks of her life — she wasn’t a puppy anymore, she was a grown-up dog, and I’d sacrificed six precious weeks of her life away from her, just to be here alone, a big, gaping crater of a person with nothing to hold inside. I told him I felt I could never get close enough to her, keep her safe enough from harm, because I wasn’t really worthy of her, and because the world and everyone in it was so profoundly fucked. I asked him if he wanted to go get coffee or a drink or something, but he tugged a little on Cynthia’s leash, and said it was nice meeting me, but they had to get going.
My mother always apologized on the phone that she couldn’t possibly give Tess the kind of attention I gave her — she just couldn’t play Ball all the time, it was too much. It was like having a child in the house again, Like when you were little, honey, she’d say, Always wanting attention, so needy, a person could go nuts from it, from the constant demand, a person can’t help losing her patience. A person can’t help losing it, now and then. Sometimes something just snaps, she would say, her voice a remembered echo, a long-lost refrain. And you can’t give in to giving them love all the time, the real world’s not like that, and they have to learn. If you do, it just spoils a child, they learn how to be manipulative, and Tess, well, she is a little spoiled, honey, she could use some discipline. And she was acting maybe a little depressed.
I assured my mother that Tess loved being at her house and I knew she was taking very good care of her, doing the best she could, but part of me felt a little nervous and protective. I drove home a week early; I sort of expected to find Tess ragged and thin and hungry, like the orphans at the beginning of Oliver, and my mother snapping, clutching the hairbrush, a spatula, a coiled fistful of telephone cord. But Tess was fine, hurtling herself at me in joy, whimpering when I clutched her, quivering with unrestrained love. On the way home in the car she lay down with a happy exhalation and put her head in my lap.
Her ball, however, was on its last gasp. Somehow the hard rubber ball I’d left her when I went to Sausalito had gotten lost, and my mother had bought her a flimsy yellow plastic one with fake, porcupiney spikes. I’d been so clear with my mother about this, very specific about what Tess needed in a ball, but of course she hadn’t listened, my mother. I should never have trusted her. The plastic had split under Tess’s vehement play, and only an inch or so of its circumference seam held the ball together — it wasn’t even really a ball anymore, it was an asymmetrical yellow plastic flap. But for some reason, Tess was madly in love with it. When we got home and I gave it to her, she ran around and around with it, the chewed yellow plastic flapping from either side of her mouth.
I checked my voicemail messages, something I’d airily refrained from doing the entire time I was away. One, from Dayna, of course, welcoming me home. I hadn’t called Eric to tell him I was leaving, but Dayna had mentioned to him where I was. I assumed he’d learn I was back, or when I was coming back, in the same way. I’d assumed he’d call, want us to get together. Maybe he’d call later. Call me, call me, call me, I chanted to the phone. I dialed his number. His roommate’s voice answered, and I hung up. Tess perked her ears and hopefully dropped the plastic flap in front of me, expecting it to roll like a ball. When it wouldn’t, she just made do, picked it up again, dropped it closer so I could reach, and shoved it my way. But my spine was petrified from the long drive home, and I decided to go in the jacuzzi; that way, when Eric called, I wouldn’t be just sitting there, waiting for him.
The hot water sent up pungent steam; I’d poured in way too much chlorine before leaving for Sausalito, and it was now like boiling myself in disinfectant. It felt good; I let the jets pound on my back. Tess trotted up, dropped the yellow ball-flap at the jacuzzi’s lip — No, honey, not now, I said — and then shoved it into the bubbling water; it swirled around then flapped closed, trapping in the water’s weight, and sank slowly to the bottom. I ignored it, but Tess went wild, whining desperately to have it back. I had to dive under to retrieve it, the heat and the chlorine searing my eyes, then tossed it back to her with a firm admonition — That’s it, Tess, no more Ball, not now — but she did it again, then again, in that relentless, needy Ball! Ball! Ball! way, just when I needed something, to relax — Stop it, just stop it! I snapped — then again, just to get me, I knew it, until finally I came up with it, burning, just in time to hear a phone ring’s trill. Or, I thought, listening for it. The jets were loud and I wasn’t sure I heard a ring, but then I was sure I did, but then Tess barked at me, crying for the ball I still held, and so then I wasn’t sure. But then there was nothing. She began to whine and whine — All right, you want it, you want the fucking ball? — and I threw it as far as I could over the backyard fence, probably into a neighbor’s yard or garage space. Go get it, go! She whimpered pitifully, and I hated her, suddenly, wanted to punish her for all the obsessive, manipulative Ball bullshit, her pathetic, obvious need for love that I’d always given in to and had made me such an idiot, had cost me so much. I shoved her hard away from the edge of the jacuzzi, ready to snap her spine, ready to make it all stop. She just looked at me, bewildered and wounded, and meekly rolled over on her back on the jacuzzi-splashed concrete, her crooked little paws raised in supplication.
The only message on the machine was the old one from Dayna. I hurriedly got dressed, got Tess back in the car — she crept into the backseat this time, burrowed herself down behind my seat like she’d done a horrible, inexcusable thing — and drove over to Dayna’s. Eric’s car was parked in front of his place, but if he saw me, hey, I was just there to see my friend Dayna. But she had someone over, a guy, some short, rabbity fellow biologist from the lab, who smiled and poured me a glass of wine but kept gazing at her with a moony, indulgent expression. She didn’t even marvel at Tess, just let her jump up once or twice, then told her nicely to get down. I waited an hour to ask her if she’d seen or talked to Eric recently, and she mentioned something about their going to the grocery store together a few times, a jog in the park. He’d taken a weekend trip to La Jolla with some buddies, but that was a few weeks ago; he’d told her the trip was great, they’d all gotten laid. And she’d seen him a few times since with some really cute girl, coming or going from his building. She looked at me, smugly, I thought, maybe sort of challengingly. As if I’d tell her anything. As if I’d tell her I pictured him fucking some moist-skinned twenty-two-year-old, spreading her legs and eating her on the velour playpen couch or the kitchen table, telling her Fuck me, his look saying Suck me, I’m hard, and It’s specifically, singularly, because of you, and how it made me want to drive nails into both of them, all of them. It was pretty late, and obvious Dayna and her biologist wanted to be alone, so I picked up Tess and we left. I was glad Dayna had found someone, but it seemed just a little sad to me, pathetic, that she’d grabbed at the first guy not smashed flat by the plunging, falling safe of her need.
Outside Tess started pulling on her leash. As if to get away from me. I apologized, I bent over and tried to rub her tummy, It was my fault, I told her, I was the one who took away your ball, I’m sorry, I just lost it for a minute, but she wouldn’t even look at me. Even if she did, I suddenly knew I’d see hate in her little blue eyes, betrayal, distrust, disgust, and that made me want to bawl, crumple up, just die. Pound her into loving me again. She seemed to want to cross the street, or I thought she did, so I let out the leash a few feet and let her go. She trotted directly across to where the streetlight was in front of Eric’s apartment house, the one that always shone through the tree branches into his bedroom window. She sniffed around the grass, squatted and peed, but then still tugged me, really, she did, across the patch of landscaping, toward the dark window at the side of the building. And I looked through the window, knowing what I was going to see, the heat and the wet, the feral rocking, a thing to draw blood, flaming and lethal as love. But all I could see, I thought, was a still, dull gleam of torso, and then a curve, maybe, of breast, a rumple of long dark hair, a girl sleeping curled up inside his arms, the quilted bedspread half thrown over both of them, all of it, both of them, still. I looked over at Tess; she gazed at me with innocence, the light from the streetlamp making a nimbus of her fine apricot fur.
She would have been seven on her next birthday, and that’s starting to get old, sort of, for a dog. She would have gotten arthritis, or canine diabetes, and I couldn’t do that to her. I wouldn’t be able to bear seeing her in any pain, or seeing her hurt, and I bet Dayna would be just too busy with her drooly boyfriend when the time came to help. I got a fire going in the fireplace, and I brought her onto my lap and held her for a while. I felt the tiny staple-stitches inside her belly where she’d been fxd, and admired her trim, unused vulva that always kept her sort of a puppy, and inhaled her furry, spongy tartar smell. I rubbed her tummy until she relaxed and went limp and trusting the way she used to, with me, her little almond-shaped eyes closing in warm, sleepy peace, and I knew she loved me again and she knew how much I loved her. She let her head drop back, and the soft, clumped curls along her throat weren’t any problem at all, because I’d been very, very careful to sharpen the blade.
I’d bought a new ball to put in with her, but afterward I realized the rubber wouldn’t burn, it would just melt to a smoky, periwinkle-blue lump in the fireplace. And the aroma of her was so good, like rich, roasting, crackling kernels of popcorn. So I just buried the ball in the backyard. Sometimes now I awake alone in the middle of the night, thinking I hear its thump-roll, or feel her shove it under my thigh: You want to play with my ball? Here, look, here’s a ball! You want to play? Please, please! Please, please, love me love me love me. Sometimes I hear her nail-scrambles on the floor.
I just wish I’d tasted her before she burned all away. I’m sure she would have tasted so sweet. Like apricots.
For more, read Electric Literature’s interview with Tara Ison.