Rachel came home for her summer break with a dog, a standard poodle. I had just put down my dog. She was sixteen, my sweet Posey, also a standard poodle. It was her time.
I needed to get a new dog. I didn’t function properly without a dog, but this was too soon. Somehow, losing Posey was hitting me worse than Rachel’s father, who was not dead. He had left me for a younger woman. He was living with her in the girlfriend’s apartment in Tribeca. I would have preferred if he had died. My feelings would be less complicated.
I wanted my dog back.
“Whose dog is this?” I said. “And don’t say a present for me, because I will kill you.”
Sometimes, I thought there was something wrong with my daughter. There was a flatness to her that I found unnerving. It was like she had a switch, an on-off mode. Even when she was a girl. She would want to sleep in my bed, hug me like there was no one else, and then gleefully go to another girl’s house for a sleepover, and like that, I did not exist. On-off.
I knew, intellectually, that my nineteen-year-old daughter was not a sociopath. She was the way that she was, but I never knew which daughter would wake up in the morning. I had been planning to pick Rachel up later that day from the train station, but instead she arrived four hours early, sweaty, pulling her suitcase and this dog on a leash. It was a beautiful dog. Long legs, apricot-colored fur. An expensive dog.
“Rachel,” I said. “Whose dog is this?”
“My writing professor’s,” she said. My daughter had been excited about taking his class. She had been required to submit a story to get in and was over the moon when she was accepted. “He had to leave for the summer because of a family emergency. I told him I would take care of Amira until he gets back. I know you miss Posey. I miss her, too.”
Rachel was aware of me staring suspiciously at the dog, tears welling in my eyes. At least she wasn’t an idiot. She also did not mention her father.
“Isn’t he from Pakistan? Your professor?”
“You remember that?”
I wondered why I remembered that.
“He was striking. His author photo. Dark eyes.”
“That’s an inappropriate way to talk about a writer,” Rachel said.
“Is it?” I asked. “Isn’t that the point of an author photo?”
Rachel looked at me with that blank expression.
“You talked about him, a lot, in the beginning of the semester,” I said. “I read his book.”
“Did you like it?”
“It was long,” I said. “I wanted to like it. Even the sentences were long.”
“I know. It’s supposed to be a masterpiece. I read review after review and no one complained about the sentences. I think there is something wrong with both of us.”
This often happened to us. We did not stay mad at each other for long. I wanted to chew my daughter out about this dog and instead I was talking about her professor’s overwritten novel.
“No,” I said. “We appreciate short sentences. His book might just not be for us.”
The poodle was panting. It was a hot day. Ninety degrees in June, too hot for June. Global warming was here. Life went on. As humans, would we learn to adapt? Here I was, adapting. I wonder how Rachel felt about her father leaving. She had said she was no longer a child, that her feelings on the subject were inconsequential. Whereas my feelings had been hurt. Our perfect family had come apart and my daughter did not care. She was just like Pierre from that Maurice Sendak book. I would have fed to her to a hungry lion if I could. I knelt down and pet the beautiful dog she brought home. I scratched the poodle under her chin. It was ridiculous. Could I fall in love with a dog that quickly?
“It is going to be fine, Mom,” my daughter said. “I’m going to walk her. I will feed her. It’s a big house.”
I heard echoes of my seven-year-old girl, begging me for a bunny. Telling me that she would feed her, that she would clean her cage. The same little girl who quickly lost interest in that same bunny, who became my responsibility, another household chore, until the bunny escaped from her cage and was cornered by Posey. The poor little bunny died of a heart attack.
“My professor was leaving and I offered to take care of her. He was going to let his subletter take care of her. A stranger who works twelve hour days.”
I sighed. It didn’t matter that I was not ready to have another dog in the house. I wouldn’t want her inside, alone in an apartment all day. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted my daughter home, but she here she was.
“Bring her inside,” I said. “Let me get her some water. She must be thirsty.”
“Why don’t you ask me if I am thirsty? If I am hungry?”
“You’re a big girl,” I said. “You can take care of yourself.”
“I can’t,” Rachel said. “I am desperately unhappy.”
I looked at my daughter. I didn’t know if she was telling the truth. I didn’t know if I was supposed to hug her. If that was what she wanted. I could, of course, go ahead and hug her, but there was the chance that she would just stand there, stiff as a board, and I wasn’t up for that kind of rejection so early in the day. She did not look desperately unhappy.
But what if it was true? Was I supposed to take care of her all summer? She had told me last week that she was thinking about not coming home, that she would stay in her college town and find a job there and I told her that would be fine. I had sort of liked the idea.
Rachel already had a job at the day camp, her third summer in a row. I saw the director at the farmers market and she told me that she couldn’t wait for the summer season to start, that my daughter was such a good counselor. The kids always loved her. I loved her. Fuck, I was glad that she was home.
“Let’s get you both something to drink,” I said.
I opened the back door and she followed me inside, bringing the dog with her. “What is her name again?” I asked Rachel.
It didn’t suit this dog, who followed me into the house, seemingly unconcerned about her change of scenery. I got out the water bowl and the food bowl and I filled it with dry food because I hadn’t thrown away Posey’s last twenty-five pound bag, still half full. I sat at my kitchen table and I watched Amira eat and I wondered what I would call her instead. She was just a summer dog, after all.
I wondered about the famous writer who would leave this beautiful dog with strangers. I remembered the trip to Paris I had canceled just this spring, unwilling to leave Posey. She could barely walk up the stairs. Jonathan wanted to go anyway. He wanted to leave Posey at the kennel.
Jonathan had been looking forward to Paris, a trip he had painstakingly planned for us. He accused me of loving the dog more than him. “Do you know how wrong that is?” he said.
I was unable to deny it.
And that was when he told me about Mandy. He had gone to Paris with Mandy.
“That is a ridiculous name,” I told him.
It was the best I had. I was never good at winning arguments. I didn’t go on our romantic trip, which was a victory of sorts, to stay home with my dying dog.
And now Rachel was home, opening the refrigerator, searching for food. She took out the farmer’s market strawberries, a container of plain yogurt, a bottle of seltzer. She took all of these things like she was entitled to them, and of course, she was. I was glad that she had come home. I told myself that again, as if I needed convincing.
What was I going to do otherwise?
Summers off were supposedly one of the good things about being a teacher and yet. I wished I had made actual plans. I had not counted on my dog dying. Or my husband leaving me. He didn’t even come home to open the swimming pool. I missed the pool, swimming laps. I missed walking my dog. I missed my dog. Rachel had brought me a dog.
I took two bowls from the cabinets and scooped out the yogurt. It occurred to me that I wanted some more coffee.
“Coffee?” I asked Rachel and she nodded her head, yes. I wasn’t used to her drinking coffee. I did not know what she did at college and I liked it that way. I had trouble accepting her as a grown-up. She wasn’t a grown-up. Nineteen. She was borderline. She wasn’t a child. Her t-shirt, I noticed, was on inside out, and I found that reassuring.
“Do you know how long do we have her for?”
“Six weeks, I think,” Rachel said. “I’m not sure. My professor was going home to see his dying grandmother. He didn’t know when he was coming back. I guess when you go visit dying people how do you know if they will actually die.”
I couldn’t help myself. I laughed.
“His dying grandmother.”
“Do you think he is lying?”
“Yes,” I said, still laughing.
Why did this story strike me as a load of shit? Maybe because of all of the lies Jonathan told me before he finally came clean about Mandy. One of them was that his mother was sick. Barbara, my mother-in-law, was perfectly fine. She called on the night he supposedly left to see her, clearly not part of his poorly executed lie.
My husband’s girlfriend worked for an airline but she was not an airline attendant like I first assumed. She was an actual pilot. I supposed that made it better.
“It sounds like a lie, sweetheart. His dying grandmother. Why not pull on the heart strings a little harder?”
“He wouldn’t lie,” Rachel said.
That was the line that made me worry. Who was this professor, taking advantage of my daughter? I was glad that I had not bought his book. It was a library book. I had to renew it twice. But I read the novel to the end and felt proud of myself for having done so.
“How was the class?” I asked her.
“I didn’t turn in my final story,” she said.
“Oh, honey. Why not?”
Rachel had always wanted to be a writer. She wrote her first short story in the second grade, eleven pages about an African elephant in the zoo who wanted a friend.
Neither of us talked while I ground the beans for the coffee and Rachel sliced the strawberries. Of course, it would be nice to have her home. Last summer, we had fallen into a nice rhythm. I had the day to myself when she was at camp. Her father was almost never home, long days at work and business trips, too. Now, I suspected he was already with Mandy, but it had been nice anyway, just me and Rachel. I missed her when she left for college. She went off and forgot about me, returned with a suitcase full of dirty laundry.
“Why didn’t you turn in a story?” I asked.
“I actually wrote it,” Rachel said. “But I was afraid he wouldn’t like it.”
“Isn’t this worse? Will you pass the class?”
“He said he would pass me in exchange for taking care of his dog.”
“Huh,” I said. “That doesn’t sound like an ethical exchange.”
“It doesn’t to me either,” Rachel said. “But it’s cool. It’s like we have an understanding.”
“Rachel,” I said.
“Mom,” Rachel said. “His contract ended and he isn’t coming back to the college, so I guess he doesn’t give a shit. It’s better than getting an incomplete.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“Mom,” Rachel repeated. She stopped cutting strawberries. She was holding the big kitchen knife. I found it unnerving. “Don’t you dare contact the school.”
I hadn’t said a word about contacting the school. The idea had not occurred to me, but suddenly it was beginning to make sense. Something had gone on between them. My impressionable daughter and her writing professor. You did not leave your poodle with just anybody.
“I don’t want to get him in trouble. I was being kind, Mom, offering to take care of his dog. I thought you might like it. I was thinking of you.”
“You weren’t thinking of me,” I said.
I wished it was true.
It wasn’t true.
My daughter, the girl who had perfected the skill of perfect flatness, looked upset. I felt relieved. She was still in there, somewhere. I thought she might even want to tell me something. But then, I saw that cloud fall over her face. Already I had blown it.
“You shouldn’t pass a class if you haven’t turned in the assignments,” I said.
“I will let you read my story if that will make you feel better,” Rachel said. “I did the work. I deserve to pass.”
I still had a moral responsibility to this girl, my child, to be a model, to comment on the things she did, to shape who she would become. I could also tell her that her t-shirt was inside out, but it seemed better not to mention it.
“It’s not like you want me to fail,” Rachel said. “I mean that would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it, failing creative writing? You can my read my story if you want to. It’s a good story. I know my opinion doesn’t count, but I actually think it’s really good.”
“I want to read it,” I said. “Why do you think he wouldn’t have liked it?”
“I don’t know. He liked everyone else’s stories. He liked all of these terrible, terrible stories, which made me think he couldn’t like mine, because it isn’t terrible. I have it printed out,” Rachel said. “I’ll let you read it.”
I poured our coffee and we drank it. We sat at the kitchen table and ate our berries and our yogurt. It felt like there was nothing left to say. I did not want to say one more wrong thing.
The dog had finished eating. She came over, putting her long snout in my lap and I pet her soft poodle fur. A temporary dog was a terrible idea. I would not want to give her back.
“I am glad you are home, sweet pie,” I said to my daughter.
And she then came to me. Rachel gently pushed Amira aside and sat on my lap, still my little girl.
Later that night, I read my daughter’s short story. It was about an airline attendant. Her name was Amanda. I had to laugh out loud. There was not a side to take, that was what Jonathan and I had told her, but clearly Rachel had taken mine.
In the story, Amanda contracts a venereal disease, one she is not aware of. She meets a new man in every town. She takes him back to her hotel and has sex with him. One of her lovers has a job in finance. He has a wife who is a teacher at the elementary school. The man comes home from his trip to Paris, guilty, and wants to make love to his wife, but she is tired. She turns him away.
At the end of the story, Amanda, the flight attendant, discovers her condition. She thinks about all of the men she had fucked, one in every town.
“What can you do?” she says to herself, downing her penicillin with a slug of vodka. “Life is a bitch.”
It was a mean story. She was a good writer, my daughter, and I wished that she had turned it in.