It’s funny how different people react to other people’s misfortune. When I told Jack my dad was in the hospital again down in North Carolina—the doctors said eight months at the most—he hugged me and said everything would be okay and then we watched a PBS documentary about Hiroshima. When he called two weeks later and told me between breathy sobs that his family’s Boxer had cancer in her face, I skipped my last class of the day and rushed to his parents’ house where we all sat for two hours weeping and talking about how special she was even though she was still alive and watching us happily from her large down bed in the corner.
One evening, about a month after the news came about the dog, I was sitting in Jack’s cluttered room in the townhouse he shared with three other people, sipping on fake neon-colored limoncello and applying minimal effort to various written responsibilities. I decided I didn’t want to go to the bar anymore, I was tired. He said I never wanted to do anything anymore and wondered why I couldn’t just suck it up and go to the bar with him, like it was the least I could do. I got belligerently agitated and yelled something about how much time I’d spent with his “goddamned dying dog” in the past month and in response he stormed down the stained, carpeted stairs, yelling something over his shoulder about low blows. I instantly panicked over his dramatic exit and ran to top of the steps where I met his glare for a second before he swung the front door open. The door was closing behind him when I threw myself onto my knees in desperation and slammed my hands on the floor.
“Jack. JACK. I’M SORRY, REALLY. PLEASE COME BACK. JAACK.”
He didn’t answer and I became terrified, so I stumbled down the stairs and out the door with no shoes on. Cockroaches moved out of the way as I ran towards the slumped figure silhouetted by street lights and rush hour traffic—he was walking towards the bar two blocks down. A man in a beat-up green Suburban honked his horn at me and yelled something that I couldn’t hear and didn’t want to. When I caught up to Jack I had cigarette butts and little pieces of gravel stuck into the calluses on the bottom of my feet. I explained to him that what I’d said was stupid, I was drunk and will he please forgive me? He returned my high-pitched pleas with a look of contempt, so I said I’d go to the bar with him, anything to make that crinkled-nose look of disgust go away. He softened then.
“It’s okay, E. Things come out wrong sometimes.” He waited on the sidewalk as I ran back into the house to grab my purse and find my shoes.
A couple of weeks later, I asked if he’d drive to North Carolina with me before the day comes when my father is no longer a strange, distant part of my life but instead just gone. Jack paused for a moment. He looked up from a Facebook photo album of someone’s ski trip and looked blankly at me like he’d only realized I was speaking to him when my tone turned up into a question. Then he sighed and pushed out a noncommittal “Sure, why not?” and returned to scrolling through the public lives of people he didn’t know anymore.
It had been two months since I told him about my dad, six weeks since his dog was diagnosed, and two weeks since I begged for his forgiveness in a fit of drunken desperation on the street. The dog was still alive, Jack’s parents had paid for a procedure to scrape out some of the cancer in her nose so she could breathe and live a little longer until it grew back again. He hadn’t asked about my dad since I told him about it. I thought about reasons why he hadn’t said anything.
Jack’s an only child, dislikes conflict of any kind and his solution when it comes up is always something calming he can ingest. He’s talented but he’s paralyzed by wrongly perceived unattainable expectations.
Like Jack, I find limitations for myself. I think it started when I was a kid—I was the youngest of three girls and quickly realized I could lie to my parents whenever it worked. I’d lie about things like big projects in school because I knew I was smart enough to get a B at the last minute and my parents stopped checking homework once the second daughter got to high school.
I don’t remember my father not being sick nor do I remember a time in my life when I saw him as my father and not a worthless leech stuck to our family. My sisters remember when my parents were deeply in love but my memory starts with crayon scribbles on white hospital room walls and needles stuck into his very blue veins. After that he never really recovered. His hair grew back wispy and white and he shriveled into someone my mom swears she didn’t marry.
He did try at first. I was seven when the Leukemia went into remission after the bone marrow transplant from Aunt Jean. He started back as a construction manager like before he got sick but he found it just wasn’t the same job anymore. He was 60, but the treatment had aged him into an impatient and frustrated elderly man; he took on a sense of entitlement that was born from the self-pity he had settled into.
After a month back at home, his body started to fight the bone marrow he’d received and I think that’s when he really gave up. His immune system was failing him. He lost his job because he yelled at a secretary who asked if the three girls in the picture on his desk were his granddaughters when they were his daughters. He worked as a cashier at a grocery store for a few years but got fired for being too slow and having a short temper with the baggers. He started to sit in my mother’s house and play solitaire on his 1998 Dell desktop for several hours at a time. My mother would ask him if he was looking for jobs and he’d call her a bitch. He kicked the dog when she barked, screamed at the cats for affectionately rubbing against his frail legs. He wallowed in his weakness, surrendered to the illness that had transformed his body and warped his mindset.
His hospital bills loomed over every vacation until the vacations stopped altogether and my mom divorced herself from his debt. The bills would’ve been fine if he’d found a way to recover but he’d forgotten what it meant to be a father or a husband. He moved to North Carolina two years ago, after the divorce, and the cancer returned. I read his treatment journal on one of my visits to his dank basement apartment and found an overwhelming heartbreak in the entries. He asked God why his daughters had left him for dead, why his wife cast him aside. I cried because he didn’t get it. He didn’t understand what he’d done.
I sat on Jack’s bed and thought about these somewhat surface-level differences between him and me, wondered if they might be the reason for his loud indifference to my father’s coming death. I decided they might be even though I had never found the time to tell Jack any real details about my dad’s presence growing up. I figured I would get around to it soon enough and told Jack I’d let him know what weekend I was planning on driving to North Carolina. He nodded and swallowed an oxy dry without looking up from the computer screen.
The day my dad died, I left five Cheerios in the bowl of leftover milk and let it sit at my bedside all day. I looked each time I returned to my room as the little brown circles soaked up more and more milk. By the time my eldest sister called that evening, the orbs that began as my breakfast were no longer solid at all but instead just faint brown spots in the white. When I got off the phone with Molly I stared for a long time at the milky soup sitting, spoiling on the nightstand and I wondered if that’s where we're all headed. If one day my pores will reach some kind of numbing saturation and I’ll become a barely recognizable dot in an otherwise vague, milky sadness. I believed that was how my dad felt when he died just three months into the eight months he was given.
None of us had made it down to see him—he’d been dying alone in North Carolina while I played fetch with a six-year-old diseased Boxer named Muffin.
Every day for the month between my father’s funeral and the day we put the dog out of her misery, I drove by a memorial on the side of Jack’s parents’ street for a biker who was killed by a drunken bishop.
Sometimes I wondered how long it would take for me to get killed if I started riding a bike everywhere and sold my car to help with the cost of dad’s coffin. I wondered how angular my calves would get before a teen-texter slipped into the bike lane and sent my skull into the ground. I wondered how great my ass would look by the time some man smoking a cigarette and yelling into his Bluetooth got distracted by a set of bronzed tits popping out of a skirt suit and ran me down at a red light. I wondered how beautiful my body would look splayed on the ground, encased in bloody spandex and my bike wrapped around me. Would people look at me in my own coffin, powdered and freshened, and remark on how fit I had become in the months before my death?
A week ago we decided to kill the dog on a Sunday. A poster of a Labrador's muscle system adorned the stainless steel, saliva-covered room where we were left to watch as she died. It was strange.
I stared at the cancer-infested corpse in front of us, wanting to open her eyes again with my own fingers but all I could see was the intricate flesh-colored system of ligaments and cartilage and muscle just like the stripped-down Labrador on the poster. I thought about how the whole system would start to freeze soon, I thought about when they burn the body. Would the muscles be frozen in place by then? Or do they do it right away? Do all vets have an incinerator in their offices?
We got there at 2:45 p.m., and they did it around three. There were four of us, sitting in the room with the poster of the skinless Labrador. Jack and I stood next to each other, his hand holding tightly to mine as sweat dripped from his dark hairline and landed in the rough stubble growing on his cheeks. We looked anxiously at each other and then to his parents standing similarly across from us. No one had anything to say.
When we’d arrived at the vet’s office, the cancer-ridden dog had jumped up on the vet techs and excitedly sneezed globs of white snot all over them. I watched as the vet’s eyebrows dipped towards each other in confusion, observing the dog’s prevailing excitement despite the tumor in her face that had audibly sealed off her fucked-up, purebred nasal cavity. Once the cancer had taken over her nose, it had spread to her left eye socket—leaving the alien eyeball to sit atop the growing mass and bulge maniacally out of her head.
I wondered if the vet felt guilty—this dog greeting him like an old friend, so readily loving her killer. I did. I felt like something was pulling my heart towards the ground, down to where the dog stood staring up at us all with happiness strewn all over her deformed face. How do you make a decision to kill another living thing that loves you so much? When I’d asked Jack this question the previous night, he turned to me with droopy eyes and a voice dragged down by the opiates finding their way into his bloodstream.
“Well, she can’t breathe and the fuckin’ thing can’t figure out how to sleep with her mouth open so that’s how make the decision. I mean shit, E, really?” The pills allowed him this lazy acceptance but I could tell it wasn’t as clear anymore in the sobriety of the vet’s room.
When it was over we all sat around, stroking her quickly cooling body. As I moved my hand over her ribcage, I felt the flesh move slightly under the weight of my hand, each pink rope of muscle shifting with the next. I felt the bulky strength in her back legs, squeezed her jaw, and kissed her paw. The vet had put a blanket on the cold, sterilized silver table to feign some sort of comfort in her last seconds. I guess it made sense.
We eventually left the room and went out to the front desk. The techs had awkward eyes and half smiles, doing their best to be sympathetic. I wanted to yell at them, tell them they shouldn’t have let us do it. I wanted to smell the dog again, I wanted to go back into the room and hold her dead body. I imagined her bounding towards me as I walked up the path of their house, the calming greeting I remember from the first few nervous months of dating. In my head she was still skinless like the poster Labrador though, a moving mass of blood and flesh, bending in half with enthusiasm. I wondered who would move her body from that room that smelled like dog treats and ammonium—would they look at the poster of the Labrador and note which parts of her body were starting to stiffen? Did they feel for the dead dog they never knew?
We finally left the vet. We got into two cars and a boy’s choir sang a funeral song in Latin through the speakers of Jack’s black SUV—he wanted to dwell. I cried until I fell asleep with my face pressed against the window. I dreamt I was being skinned alive on a stainless steel table. There was a work light angled directly at my face from the concrete floor so all I could see was the overflowing lake of blood I was lying in atop the table and a man sitting just inside the circle of light on a metal fold-out chair, hunched over and sketching on a large pad of paper. I caught his glare that shifted from empty eye sockets, immediately recognizing the skin draped thinly over bone. My father tilted the pad slightly and continued a meticulous sketch of each of my muscles, ligaments, and the cartilage that connected it all. He laughed like a rabid fox until he signed the sketch with a flick of his bony wrist and left the room where I was laying, bleeding, dying.
I woke up and we were back at their house, everything the same except that the dog wasn’t there. We looked at pictures of her in various places—the backyard, the alley, the vet that time she swallowed a wine cork. At the end of the night, Jack and I decided to sleep apart for the first time in weeks. He dropped me at my apartment and I watched as he drove down the street and turned left towards his house. My heart sank with our wordless goodbye and I knew I’d never see him again.
I prayed for the first time since elementary school. I pictured the dog’s face with no skin on it again, the tumor severely displacing her alien eye and standing stark white against the red of her flesh. I told her I was sorry but was still not completely sure what for.
I wondered if my father would be offended.