Frances didn’t want a dog, but they got one. “He will keep you company,” Sam said. “You’re always saying you don’t have friends.”
It was true that lately Frances had invested more energy than she was proud of trying to attract the interest of the neighbor’s cat in the window across from hers. So far she had drawn the attention only of the neighbor, a grad student with whose rosebush tattoo and Captain Planet underpants she had grown increasingly familiar. The neighbor installed curtains.
Now she had Louis. She had him in bed when Sam left for the law school, in the bathroom while she showered, and on the sidewalk outside their building. There she cajoled him to pick a spot, get busy while avoiding the eyes and conversation of passersby. Louis barked at the neighbor kids’ light-up scooters and peed on the sweaters Sam left on the floor. Frances had tried putting Louis in his crate when she Skyped with her tutoring students, but he howled and cried until the kids looked up in bewilderment and a recognition that did not seem salutary, as though they had heard the sound of their own teenage anguish and did not know the words to respond. Now she left him loose to destroy. A six-inch Bully Stick cost $2.85 and could keep Louis busy for fifteen minutes. There was something gratifying about the quiet pleasure Louis took decimating a dried bull penis.
In a box in her sock drawer, Frances also had a diamond ring, Sam’s grandmother’s. Its pear shape was supposed to catch light in a special way. With its two side stones like ears, it looked like Louis, slender and sharp.
“My mortgage foreclosure clinic may think we’re engaged,” Sam told her. “I told them you’re my fiancée. It seemed more credible that I would have to miss the meeting on Friday for a fiancée’s family crisis than a girlfriend’s.” In fact there was no crisis, just a political fundraiser his friend was organizing in New York and a play he said he’d stay for if he could blame his absence on a family crisis.
The law students in Sam’s mortgage foreclosure clinic did think they were engaged, but no one else did. Frances and Sam themselves were not so sure. He’d half-asked, on and off, for years now, usually when they’d argued and he wanted to make up: over Skype; at her desk; on the corner of Connaught and Stafford Streets, down on one knee, surrounded by the snails that came out after rain. The September she got back from Cambridge and he started law school, he’d met her at JFK with the diamond in the armrest console beside an E-ZPass, three used up lip balms, and loose sticks of gum. “Here,” he said, handing her the black velvet ring box, “I brought this for you.” But the ring was too big for her finger, and anyway too fancy. Rings like that, he said, could not be worn. Frances kept it in the back of her sock drawer beside a pile of lacy undergarments whose impracticality outweighed their sex appeal.
Sam had always moved crablike in liminal half steps, eroding categories (“Categories are human constructs,” he explained. “Have you studied philosophy?” she asked). He had first said he loved her by explaining that there was nothing special about any given love: he loved his friends, his family, his ex-girlfriends. He loved her. People overrated the distinctions of love.
Frances was glad they hadn’t made a big thing out of the ring, because two weeks after he’d given it to her, Sam said he wasn’t sure he wanted her living with him in New Haven, after all. The first year of law school was hard enough, he said, without having to balance his social life with her. She was awkward at parties and morose when he left her at home.
“You want me to live somewhere else?” she asked.
What he meant was he wasn’t sure about her, he explained gently. They were not making each other either excellent or happy. She was always missing the forest for the trees.
But then when she cried, her face wet against the blue quilt, he remembered how dearly she felt everything; he remembered how alive she could be. He was so sorry to have forgotten. “Will you marry me?” he asked. She looked at him in disbelief, relief, and rage. “How about Monday?” he pressed, once more with love warming his face. She would not marry him on Monday, no. “How about Tuesday—or Wednesday? Tuesday’s busy.”
She would not marry him on any of those days.
Because she could not be who he told her she was: gloomy, timid, unreliably charming in social settings, a sometimes dud. If any of her demons did go by those names, hearing themselves called could only embolden them. She happened to have been a live wire in certain circles. She had made people laugh; people had wanted to talk to her. It was hard always to shine in someone else’s world, ever a plus-one. So what if there are no small parts, only small actors. Plays finish. The person Sam envisioned was not the person to whom she wanted to come home every day.
That was two years ago. They were better now. Anyway they had Louis. “Are you glad we got him?” Sam asked. She wondered if all questions, up close, were so turbid and sinking they tugged the whole world into themselves, as his always seemed to.
“If you’re asking do I love him,” she said, “yes, I love him.” Louis lay at her feet, belly up, lips parted and nose wrinkled; he sneezed and rubbed his paws along the length of his nose. He’d taken away her room of her own, her closed door, her privacy.
“People aren’t like that with their dogs,” Sam said. “You don’t have to lose so much.” Louis did not take Sam from himself.
The place in her head where she’d been able to process, to make as much sense as she could—she couldn’t reach it. She had lost the way. She was starting to forget what she’d done there, whether it wasn’t a false memory for an ideal that had never been, a story she told herself.
It was September and hot still. They were late out the door to New York. “Louis and I’ll be at the car,” Sam said.
There was no one by the car. She texted, she called, no response. Then, Louis, trotting like a piglet nosing for truffles amongst the bright orange leaves. “I thought we were in a rush,” she said.
“Didn’t get your texts. I was on the phone.” Frances got in the car. Louis followed, settled into a bath on her lap. As they wobbled out of the uneven driveway, past the unwatered purple flowers and recycling bins, Sam asked, “Don’t you want to know who I was talking to?”
Frances watched Louis close his eyes as he licked his not-long-for-this-world balls. The traffic light ahead turned yellow, and Sam sped up, reaching the crosswalk just as the light flashed red.
“Who were you talking to,” she said.
“My dad. My mortgage foreclosure professor is in his yoga class. He congratulated my dad on our engagement.”
She looked up from Louis. “What did your dad say?”
“Not much. I don’t know. It was a short conversation.”
Sam turned onto the ramp to the highway, hunched forward, merged left and left again, and then they were moving, part of the current. There are no decisions to make on a boat.
Recently he had begun introducing her as his fiancée. He had urged her to do the same. “Before telling our families and friends?” she’d asked. “No way, why do that.”
“It’s how I think of you,” he’d told her. “My dad heard me call you my fiancée once. My family already knows.”
They hadn’t known, but they did now. “Was he upset?” Frances asked.
“Your mom will be upset.”
“I don’t think so. I hope not.” He shrugged but looked less comfortable. “I’ll call when we get to New York.”
Around Southport, his phone flashed a text from his sister, mom really upset about dad’s yoga conversation, and another from his grandfather congratulating him.
She felt like she should be congratulating him, too, wishing him a lifetime of happiness. He did not feel like hers; it did not seem possible she could be his. Vague jealousy swirled for the woman who was. For a moment, dispossession illuminated Sam’s features: he was kinder than she noticed, better than she often saw.
They had joked, often, that the key to her mother’s happiness lay in misremembering life as better than it was. How good or how crappy a family trip may have been bore no relation to the memory her mother kept. The time they all fought in the Yale Art Gallery and then ate pizza in silence in the cold December afternoon—that day had fermented into something beautiful, honed and polished with each reminiscence, like sea glass. It was durable in its new cast.
But her mother’s stories were agents of benevolence, narrative fairy godmothers who could make right what had not been so good the first time around; they were touchers-up, fixer-uppers; if life was a sketch, they made it better than it was.
By the time they reached New York, Sam had texts from his friends. His sister had asked them if he was engaged. Was he? they asked. Frances received no texts. Mostly that was a relief.
Later that week, Sam explained that he’d cleared things up with his friends. “I told them we’d been planning to announce it. That because of your mom’s health, we’d been toying with the idea.” It was just after five, and at six they had dinner plans with Sam’s aunt and uncle. Instead of getting ready, Frances had been reading the news. She looked up from her phone. “They would’ve been offended that I hadn’t said something sooner.”
She felt the pang burble upward, indistinguishable from pettiness. She did not think she was being petty but could not be sure. She felt like something had been taken from her—a prototypical red flag of pettiness. Did everyone else feel like they were living life with their heads under water, squinting to see through the flux, straining to hear?
“I hadn’t realized my mom’s arthritis was so critical,” Frances said, walking to the kitchen to get a glass of water. “It’s nice of you to think of her.”
She could see herself so clearly, this high-strung had-been with nothing to do but quibble about an assault on her narrative. As though she had one. She’d had one, once, she was sure of it. Once she had burned bright with sureness, if not of herself, then of her own will. Somewhere a narrative thread had frayed.
In the kitchen, there were no clean glasses. She unloaded the dishwasher. The basket that held silverware had holes in it. Forks and spoons slipped through, got stuck in the plastic grid. She remembered being sixteen, thrumming with wanting. She’d read that the brain can’t recall smells. Was that true? Was that true of thrumming? She felt a phantom quickening in her chest, tried to hold on to it. Louis bounded over to the sound of cutlery that so often heralded food. “Do you want things?” she asked him. He cocked his tawny head; his tail shimmied hopefully. Louis always wanted things. Well, she wanted things, too. Your character is dead if she neither wants nor is scared of anything—that was an adage. She could be alive. She had her own life and the lives her iterations led in Sam’s imagination. Though adding together her variants did not, actually, feel like the right operation—his iterations competed for oxygen. They subtracted something. You are a visiting character, they told her. That should be an internet list, how to tell if you are a two-dimensional character at the periphery of someone else’s narrative. Hint: you are!
Was any of that true, or was it just a petty story she was telling at her pity party and that she would probably not refrain from telling Sam? Ever rebuking—that was her; how Sam would recognize this. How he would dispute it, too. You don’t get how I see you, he was always telling her. You have it in you to be the greatest thing.
She sat on the floor with Louis. Bits of Parmesan they had grated onto his kibble mixed with the dust on the floor. This is gross, this is not something I have ever sat in, she heard herself think. Louis licked his penis, eyes closed. His back foot waggled as he preened. She opened the article she’d been reading before. By the time she finished, they were late to dinner. Frances did not want to go. Louis still did not do well on his own.
“You feel too much,” Sam said. “You’re too protective a mama. What will you be like with our kids?”
They put Louis in his pen with a rubber toy filled with cheese and a deer antler to chew. Sam set Chopin’s nocturnes to play on his computer. “He likes it,” he said. “It calms him.” Sam agreed that they would come home after two hours.
The restaurant was hot and crowded. A mariachi band was setting up in the corner. Groups of undergrads and grad students jostled for tables and flagged down the waiters for more chips, more chairs, more pitchers of sangria. Frances and Sam edged through to Sam’s family. Frances tried not to hang back, tried to be all the words she taught her tutoring students—amiable, affable, genial, congenial, cordial, not aloof, not reserved, not abominable or atypical, not awkward or morose—and felt her dispositional shortcomings hot on her face and neck, unmissable. Other people aren’t like you, Sam always told her. What are they like? she always wanted to know. He could never explain.
Frances greeted Sam’s aunt, uncle, and two younger cousins, and she introduced herself to the friend one of the cousins had brought, a young woman in what looked like a trench coat but seemed actually to be a dress designed to look like a trench coat. Frances ordered a beer. She smiled and nodded; she tried to ask questions. How did people see through all the fog between each other? Little cat feet—maybe on the bridge, maybe on large architectural wonders; here the fog’s feet were large, taloned, not catlike at all.
Frances asked Sam’s cousin’s friend what she was studying. “Business,” the friend said, already looking past Frances.
“I go to Wharton,” the friend said.
In a different story, Sam’s cousin’s friend would have swept Frances off her feet. Here she would have been, coasting with Sam, when boom: this friend would charge into her life, mysterious and troubled, electric. They would see something in each other. Circumstance would contrive for them to be alone. They would run each other off the tracks of their lives.
That did not seem likely at present. It wasn’t just that Sam’s cousin’s friend was a girl—that wouldn’t have bothered Frances—but that this friend did not seem to see much in her at all. The Wharton student had turned sideways in her seat to tell Sam’s other cousin about her plans for winter break. Her grandparents were taking her on safari. “Apparently the animals don’t like when you wear white,” she said, “but that’s what you see everyone wearing in pictures: white, beige, or khaki.” On Frances’s other side, Sam was showing his uncle something on his phone. Frances felt embarrassed that she had no one to talk to. She supposed that was what made her so awkward at parties, the way she was always listening to other people’s conversations without finding a way in.
There was no way Louis was still chewing his cheese toy. His heart would be racing; he would be straining for them; he would not understand. After two hours Frances looked meaningfully from her watch to Sam. He didn’t notice. Only after another hour and a half did Sam make his goodbyes.
Sam and Frances walked home along Lawrence Street. “I don’t hear him,” Sam said when they reached their building. “That’s good.” By the third floor, they could hear his cries and his nails scraping the front door. Inside, a brown liquid streaked the hall. Pee soaked his bed. A wine glass, abandoned on the table just before they had left, stood intact but empty beside a pool of vomited merlot.
Frances took Louis outside while Sam scrubbed the floor. The shawarma shop across the street had closed for the night; its neon lights lay dark. Streetlamps cast thin shadows from abandoned snack bags. Cold misted the air. Somewhere a dog barked, and Louis froze. “Get busy, get busy,” Frances crooned. What if the person was right but the story wasn’t? Surely you couldn’t sacrifice a person for a story?
At night, they lay in bed, and Sam cradled Louis. “I will never, ever leave you,” he said.