Posted Monday, June 28th, 2004
Ginger is dying. She's old for her size and breed, half German Shepherd, half Wolfhound. All her gingery highlights have gone gray, and her beard has thinned out so much it's no more than a little goatee.
"Is that your Fu Manchu Ginj," Natalie whispers. She strokes the dog's big paws. Sasquach paws.
"That dog is in so much pain it doesn't even know who you are anymore," Natalie's roommate Jon says.
Ginger farts, then looks up at Natalie with tragic brown eyes. She's going under for good in a few days. Her organs are failing her. The medicine Natalie's been giving her for arthritis is hard on her liver and kidneys.
Natalie's had Ginger since she was fourteen. When she left home, she took Ginj with her and nothing else. At first, life away was muffled and gentle. But soon, she found trouble, just like her mother told her she would.
At night, she's hollowed-out, gutted. She can't sleep. In the early mornings, when her slumber is shallow, she can feel something dense, choking her. Like a soggy sock pushed to the back of her throat.
Sex for Nat feels as if it should be a secret. It's a secret she wants to keep, even from the men. She doesn't like the idea of her breasts floating around in anyone's head. She'd rather wake up to Ginger's breath in the mornings.
On hangover mornings, Ginger is there, sniffing the stale alcohol in Natalie's breath and hair, nuzzling her after she vomits. Ginger's her warm cushion and the cold porcelain toilet seat is her compress. Ginger is always there. When Natalie is sick, she won't ask to go out.
Natalie's been reading self help books. She's ashamed, really, she tells her co-workers all self help gurus are charlatans. As assistant manager at the Barnes and Noble, she does the inventory for self help, and she should read these things anyway.
She also reads about how to deal with trauma, with rape. Reading about it makes it seem more than it was, in some ways. Less than it was, in other ways. She isn't sure. She'd rather not read the true life stories of rape survivors. She'd rather read Tender is the Night. She'd rather read the Arabian Nights. She reads the stories out loud to Ginger until she's too sleepy to focus on the words. She'd like to be Scheherezade.
She's been trying an exercise one of the motivational writers recommends. This particular self help guru is long and lanky, with soulful eyes that remind Natalie of Ginger's, or Abraham Lincoln's. Natalie is secretly convinced of the woman's sincerity. Every night she rubs Ginger's spine, gently, and whispers, "it's your time old girl." She says it prayerfully. She's preparing herself and Ginger for the end. The guru would say it's the cycle of life, that it's wonderful we can watch dogs go from puppyhood to old age in the span of a decade.
Natalie also promises herself that the next time she has sex, it will matter. She'll make eye contact after. She will try to have at the very least, a healthy friendship with her next lover, sex partner, whatever. It's been two years since she's slept with anyone.
Last week Natalie went out with the cute coffee shop boy she'd been flirting with for months. She promised herself she would not reject him. He's the color of light toast, even his almond eyes are soft and golden. He's small boned but his muscles are hard and wirey. He's in a band. His music seems nostalgic to her. For the life of her she can't remember the name of his band - Matchstick something? Deluxe? It doesn't matter. They took Ginger on a walk around the springs and then made out under one of the artificial moonlight towers in the park. They walked home holding hands and Natalie sang songs her grandfather used to sing to her - Shine on Harvest Moon, I dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair. They had to walk slowly because Ginger's bones were creaking.
Natalie had the feeling something was about to change. She didn't flinch, didn't feel that ice pick chipping away inside her this time. They walked home. Jon was gone for the weekend, they had the house to themselves. The boy, Jimmy, gave her lots of butterfly kisses on the back of her neck. Natalie shivered. Ginger followed them into the bedroom. It was the best kind of feeling, to notice her clothes were off and not even remember throwing them on the floor. They were matched in size; when Natalie pressed her hands against his, their fingers met together.
But then Ginger started to bark. She pulled herself onto the mattress and stood over them, then leaned over Natalie and sniffed her hair. Jimmy jumped off and pulled on his boxers. Ginger covered Natalie with her long body, pressed her snout against Natalie's breastbone. Her old body shook.
"Off, Ginger," Natalie said but the dog just trembled. When Jimmy drew closer Ginger warned him off with a low growl.
Natalie told Jimmy he should probably just go home. He left a Post-It for her on the fridge. Nat, it said, you know where to find me.
"Poor old stinky girl. I can smell her from here," Jon calls from outside.
Ginger does smell, but Natalie doesn't find it repulsive. Under the flatulence and sweet stench of illness is the old-dog smell, deep and satisfying, like wet earth. Natalie gives her dry baths, she doesn't want her to catch a chill now that autumn is settling in.
"You really want me to give one to her?" Jon calls from the back. He's grilling swordfish steaks for his friends, they'll be here soon. Natalie gave him enough money for two steaks, one for Ginger, on for herself.
"Yup," Natalie calls.
Once the steaks are done they'll eat them in their room. It'll be Ginger's last steak. The vet says Ginj has outlived her lifespan. She's willing to come to the house to give her the shot, so the old girl won't be too scared when it happens. Natalie has it all planned out. She'll lay down beside her giant and spoon her when she gets the shot. On her last day Natalie will give her a nice meaty bone from the butcher, and a lambskin toy that squeaks.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Gail Siegel on Tuesday, June 29th, 2004 at 2:44 PM
This is full of so much beauty and longing that I can't point out a single line. It would be like retyping the story. Gorgeous and sad.