When I see a red leash hanging on a nail next to the door in our kitchen, I’m not sure what surprises me more, the leash or the nail. We don’t have a dog, so there’s no reason to have a leash. And we don’t nail things up without mutual consent. When Eric and I moved in together a few months ago, we agreed that we would check with each other before hanging anything on the walls. Eric had thought that if we changed our minds about a nail hole we could simply hide it with putty, sandpaper, and paint. But I know that no matter how expertly you patch a hole, the wall will never again be perfectly smooth.
I set my grocery bags on the kitchen table and put away the turkey sausage, fennel salad, and Cap’n Crunch. I call Eric, but he doesn’t answer. I know he is home because his truck is in the driveway. While emptying a bag of apples into a bowl on the counter, I notice the hum of water running in the bathtub upstairs. I am perplexed because we are shower people, not bath people. We hate to waste water. The average bathtub holds more than 50 gallons of water. Fifty gallons! When I explained this to Eric he said we probably use just as much water taking a shower. But he’s wrong—I did the math. Our showerhead dispenses 2.5 gallons per minute, so that’s only 7.5 gallons for a three-minute shower. We save even more water when we turn off the tap while lathering or while waiting one minute for hair conditioner to soak in. That’s what I do, although I admit I get cold counting to sixty-Mississippi. Eric leaves the water running the whole time because he says he can lather and rinse simultaneously. But it still takes him about twice as long to shower as it should. I’ve told him that many times.
Upstairs, the bathroom door is shut. We always leave the door open so the steam won’t cause the paint to peel. We also cut down on steam damage by taking lukewarm showers, although Eric is still working on that. I’d like to make it easier for him by lowering the temperature setting on the hot water heater. I’ve asked him several times to do this, but he always forgets. I would take care of it myself, but I don’t go in the basement anymore. I saw a spider down there once, and—well, the less said about that the better.
Along with the sound of running water I hear Eric’s voice. I can’t make out what he is saying because he is speaking softly. I tiptoe to the door and lean close, but all I hear is murmuring. Eric must be talking to himself. He does that sometimes. Once when he was muttering in the basement, I lay down on the floor beside the heat vent and listened to him through the ductwork. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, although I did hear him mention Las Vegas. Eric spends hours puttering in the basement. I tell him it’s a waste of time and that he should find a hobby. Personally, I enjoy making wreaths out of dried apple cores. They smell like autumn and make great gifts. Plus, it saves me the trouble of composting.
The tap squeaks and the water stops running. Eric splashes softly and continues to speak with a low, gentle voice. I edge closer to the door and listen.
When I hear the words “good girl,” I grip the doorknob.
The splashing stops.
“Is that you, Sherry?”
“Of course it’s me. Who else would it be?”
Eric mumbles something before answering. “I’ll be finished in a few minutes.”
“Finished with what? Eric, what are you doing in there? I’m coming in.”
I hear Eric sigh. “Okay. But for God’s sake, Sherry, don’t scream.”
I open the door and gasp. Eric, his sleeves rolled up above his elbows, is kneeling beside the tub holding my best loofah. Standing in the bathtub is a large golden retriever covered with white suds. When it sees me it starts to wag its tail, fanning water onto the walls and floor.
“What is that?”
“What dog? And why is it in our bathtub?”
“Her name is Sophie. We’re going to take care of her while my friend Matt ….”
Then I notice the sodden heap beside the tub.
I start to have trouble breathing.
Eric groans as he recognizes the colossal enormity of his mistake. He knows what those towels mean to me. I grew up with mismatched, sandpaper-stiff towels bought on sale at Kmart and Sears. My mother saw nothing wrong with hanging a pastel print beside a jewel-tone stripe or a clay-colored solid—as if having avocado and mustard bathroom tile wasn’t upsetting enough. I know those towels contributed to some of the unexplained difficulties I had as a teen, although my gastroenterologist and I agreed to disagree on the question of cause and effect.
When Eric and I moved in together, I surprised him with a full set of new towels. They were the most amazing towels we had ever seen—pure white, super thick, ultra fluffy, and as big as tablecloths. I knew he liked them because he was speechless when he unwrapped them. His face did turn a bit red when I finally told him how much they cost, but he seemed to calm down when I suggested that he think of them as an investment rather than a purchase. The Neiman Marcus salesman recommended that—does he know his customers, or what?
Eric obviously feels terrible about the towels. “Sorry, Sherry. You can bleach out the mud, right?”
I hadn’t even noticed the mud.
I begin to feel lightheaded and shaky. My knees buckle and I fall onto the bathroom floor, banging my head on something hard as I land.
When I open my eyes, I am lying on the bed. Eric is standing beside me. I try to sit up, but he tells me not to, in case I have a concussion. He knows how I feel about head injuries.
At first, I can’t remember what happened. Then I notice the smell of wet dog and the golden retriever standing next to Eric, dripping suds on the floor and flinging droplets of water everywhere with her tail.
“Why is there a dog in our house?”
Eric turns toward her and her tail wags faster. She unfurls her tongue and licks Eric’s hand. Then she shakes her entire body and sprays water all over the room.
“We’re taking care of her while Matt looks for a new apartment,” Eric says, smiling at the dog.
“Long story. Gotta go clean up.” He hurries out of the room. The dog scrambles after him, her claws scratching the oak floor. After they leave, I try that new belly-breathing technique our counselor recommended.
Eric grew up with dogs. He and his five brothers lived in a chaotic house where strays received warm welcomes, litters of puppies appeared as if by spontaneous generation on closet floors, and neighborhood dogs routinely pushed open the back door to raid the kibble bowls. A similar pattern existed with a series of stepfathers and boyfriends who, like the dogs, saw in Eric’s mother a soft spot for friendly opportunists.
When Eric and I met, he wanted stability, and I needed to escape. We fell in love, or something close to it. We knew we were as unlike as Martha and Rachael, but we saw in each other qualities we admired and quirks we believed we could ignore. We defined our differences as complementary strengths rather than opposing weaknesses, his yin to my yang. When we moved in together, we painted the walls grey to represent the spirit of compromise.
After some ibuprofen and a glass of filtered water, my head feels much better. Eric does a great job disinfecting the bathroom while I bundle up the towels for dry cleaning. Then he takes Sophie outside to play in the yard.
I sit on the porch and watch them. Eric throws a Frisbee, and Sophie jumps high in the air to catch it in her mouth. She starts to run, and Eric chases her. She dives behind a stand of bushes and begins to dig with her front paws. I am alarmed to see dirt spray in all directions behind her, but when I realize the bushes are just a bunch of straggly forsythia I plan to replace next spring, I simply take a deep breath, count to three, and say nothing. Eric notices, and looks relieved.
As Eric and Sophie romp, I stop to consider whether I could endure having a dog. I never saw the point of them, but I know Eric would like one. He doesn’t think about things like fur-covered furniture, puddles of drool, fleas, Lyme ticks, muddy carpets, or animal-to-human E. coli transmission. I wonder if, with a bit of well-honed cognitive restructuring, I could learn to worry less about those things. Maybe a dog would be something we could compromise on.
Sophie darts around the yard some more, and then jumps up on Eric, her front paws on his shoulders. Laughing, he takes her paws and leads her in a little dance. She pulls away and barks at him, then zooms in circles around him. He chases after her and dives onto the ground to catch her, but she is too quick. She runs triumphantly around the yard, barking and leaping, daring him to chase her again. He pulls himself up, brushes mud off his pants, and takes off after her.
It’s nice to see Eric so happy.
Maybe in a few years we could think about getting a dog. A small dog. It could live in a basket, or we could train it to stay in the back hallway. My friend Emily has a Chihuahua named Bean Bag and he’s not so bad. He’s so tiny he can fit in Emily’s purse, although naturally she doesn’t put him in there for sanitary reasons. Eric always makes fun of Beanie, but that’s probably because he thinks canine outerwear is a fashion indulgence rather than a recommendation from a credentialed veterinary pulmonologist. He also thinks naturopaths aren’t real doctors, but don’t get me started on that.
Eric and Sophie continue to play. They dash behind the shed and around two maples, tear through the neighbor’s pachysandra, and race down the driveway and back. This continues until Sophie stops abruptly near the fence and starts to sniff around. Eric stands a few feet away, panting slightly, hands on his hips.
Sophie noses around a bit more, and then squats.
I grip the armrests of my lawn chair.
Straining slightly, Sophie pushes a giant brown log onto the ground. Then she squeezes out another one. As she works on number three, a slight breeze carries the odor of it to where I am sitting about 15 feet away. I hold my breath and close my eyes.
When I open them, I see that Eric is watching me. His eyes linger on my face for a moment.
Then he turns back to the dog.
When Sophie finishes, she leaps up and sprints away, knowing that Eric will follow her wherever she runs.
Alice Lesch Kelly is a freelance journalist, book collaborator, and content provider specializing in health. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University, and currently teaches undergraduate Creative Nonfiction workshops at Emerson College in Boston.