The night of our seventh anniversary, in the middle of a brushfire outbreak, I busted Annie out of the clinic.
We huddled in an alley for a bus, sucking at the hollows of our necks to curb the funk of jet fuel and hot chaparral stinking the late November air. In that regard, she got the better end of the deal. The methadone still leached through her sweat in off-putting wafts of cherry Lifesaver and rancid weed, and if that wasn’t enough, she kept slurring metaphysical nonsense about the number seven into my ear, because once on a train, Annie rode it till the rails melted.
Seven years. The time it takes burning live oaks to grow as tall as a man.
By the time the bus finally crept onto Van Ness, she’d recovered some of her old lucidity.
“I assume the reason for this breakout…is forthcoming,” she said in her straight schoolmarm lilt.
“It’s a surprise, Annie,” I said, and all ninety pounds left of her tensed against me. She hated her name. Thought it belonged to a toy or a pornstar, and not an educated being highly attuned to irony and ridicule.
“How long till you split like Max,” she said. It was always a declaration. All our years together, she declared it at least once a week, regardless of who decked who first.
We got off on Artesia near Western to a sky in full riot mode. Fire choppers slung loads of retardant while ghetto birds knifed their lights into the city’s gut. To the northeast, where the sun had begun to heave up indigos, the Griffith Park and Altadena burns spewed columns of coiled smoke into the sky like charmed cobras.
Annie watched it all through heavy lids and a borrowed smile, and I wondered if she wondered if she was already dead.
We walked three blocks to another alley behind a strip-mall that serviced an animal shelter. I used to janitor there before getting fired for boosting needles, and we made our way to the side entrance in the sooty brick with the shallow deadbolt where I used to score. The Korean manager expressed his disgust for my weakness. We always butted heads over his fascist, administrative airs, but he also respected argument and debate, and when he caught me dealing smack in the alley he didn’t press charges so long as I swore to stay away for all time. He died last year of a stroke. The obituary painted him as a kind soul who wrote poetry and kept pigeons. To this day I’ll still find myself tearing up at parks whenever they flock around old men on benches pitching bread.
The side door had never been changed. A solid jerk-and-nudge with a credit card, and the bolt whined across past the strike-plate.
Muffled yelps and barks answered our ruckus. I looked at Annie with her rawboned arms and drawn cheeks, and marveled at how blood could still seep its way through so much arterial gridlock to infuse a glow. She used to be beautiful and insecure until she’d turned spiteful and insecure, and only in the moments when I was straight and she was in withdrawal did I figure she must’ve thought the exact same of me whenever the roles were flipped.
We climbed a long, straight run of stairs, taking it slow, her energy on a tidal frequency of ebbs and flows, though her eyes had regained their verve—resilient, probing, globules brimming with acetylene and defiance.
“We’re gonna get caught,” she said.
I shook my head.
“Thanksgiving weekend, lady-girl. Skeleton crew’s working the shelter half. Clinic side should hardly see a soul till Monday. We’ll be long gone by then.”
“Yeah, but how long till you split like Max,” she said.
I squeezed her shoulder and kept us moving.
Down a short hallway to another door which I held open for her, and her eyes narrowed with refueled skepticism.
Floor-to-ceiling windows made up one wall of a large, open space floored by rubber mats in a herringbone pattern. In the center, a single chair sat which I motioned for her to take. More side-eyes from Annie before she finally complied. Of all our hurdles, trust remained a slippery one. She once blurted out to a full bar during a weekend bender that our love was as reliable as the stages of grief, with bargaining appearing twice at the cost of acceptance.
Seven years. Enough time for cells to renew and old beefs to harden.
I stepped around a corner to a wash station, and filled the metal basin I’d readied earlier with about four inches of warm water before squeezing in a good amount of liquid bath soap—“forest rain” scented—that I’d found in one of the employee lockers. The worn brakes of her breathing crept around the wall as I worked, a sound that at night evoked the slow-seeped air from a balloon. Sometimes when a distant car alarm or dog howl kept me up, I’d become convinced that I could blow those lungs full again if I could just find the damn nozzle—if she would let me. That I could still love a woman in perpetual need of love who simultaneously defied such love was as much repellant as enticement—a formula for any number of maddening dichotomies that kept us in the bounds of holy conflict.
When I stepped back out, it was to a face knotted by confusion and mockery, what with me playing the part of Amish carriage washer with my old-school metal tub, sponges, and towels.
“What’s this about?” she asked, squirming anew, compacting herself into the chair like Saran-wrapped ground beef.
I placed the basin at her feet and gestured for her to raise them. After grudgingly giving in, I pushed the tub forward and eased her tootsies into the water.
Annie hated her feet. She thought them malformed—the lotus-hooves of a Chinese concubine. But I adored them. They were cute and tiny, and with just a slightly deeper arch than most. Her left pinky toe sported a rusty birthmark on the knuckle in the shape of an amoeba.
She huffed more reluctance when I cupped a heel in my palm, and with my other hand lathered up the sponge and began wiping gently around her ankle. Eventually she relented, though she wouldn’t look down at either myself or her feet. Instead, she stared out the window at the crowning dawn and the light parade over LAX, forehead lines daring to snap in the middle and burrow into her skull, glancing back inside only when a dog yipped or whimpered from nearby rooms.
Her moments of neglect no longer fazed me. Having ripped apart our veins and exposed our watery blood to one another, we had little left to hide.
I moved to the top of her feet, scrubbing first across the ridges of metatarsals, then along them until reaching her toes, at which point she tensed up again. A low moan wiggled out of her before she turned her teeth loose on her fingernails.
With a fresh dip of the sponge and some coaxing from my hands—hands I marveled were neither shaking or choking my thumbs inside tight fists—I was at last allowed access to the thickened webbing between her toes. It was an area I’d become the most intimate with over the later years, as her to mine. I knew the mole between her right middle toes, as she knew the windings of the thickets around my groin, as we each knew every rise and depression along the crooks of both our arms.
In the end, as I pat-dried her feet, I understood all too well the tension in her eyes and the quiver of her cheeks. Recovery periods became the excuse to whip ourselves into another blinded race of rekindled love, only we’d never shoot the busted nag when it failed, but mounted it again with the hope it would gallop just a bit further down the track.
“How long till you split like Max?”
It came out of her at the tail end of a sigh, as if dismissing a bothersome child. Such a delivery had propagated our first physical spat many years back, yielding a swollen cheek for her and bruised ribs for me. She’d thrown first—with a cast-iron skillet—and I replied without hesitation, and we learned that day that neither of us was going anywhere.
“There’s more,” I told her before taking back the washbasin and jogging to the door at the opposite end of the room. I grabbed the handle and said, “Are you ready?”
Despite her hands trying to twist off the armrests, she nodded.
I pulled the door into myself and six wrinkled, squealing bloodhound puppies bounded out at once, slipping on the linoleum, tripping over their own ears and each other.
As soon as one spotted Annie, they all darted in unison straight for her, bunching at her ankles in a brown snowbank.
Annie could only gawk at first, fingers laced tight against her chest. But the puppies worked their magic and gradually she loosened up, dabbing tentative hands on their heads before rubbing a belly or two, then picking one up onto her lap where it stretched up to lick away the tears and giggles she wasn’t tough enough to corral.
Seven years. The average age “experts” agreed for a child to have their first dog.
Annie didn’t know dogs. Had rarely been around them.
Leaving her to delight in private, I got busy setting up the foldaway table next to the window. Over it I draped a paper tablecloth of cornucopia and fall leaves, then began to spread out our meal: tuna sandwiches, macaroni salad, Pringles.
Pink snowballs for desert. Her favorite.
In the center I placed a mason jar of nasturtium I’d pinched from the roundabout planter at the ER drop-off.
Against it, I leaned a red envelope.
Once done, I hung back to watch her some more. Watched the pups pry back old, creaky defenses I could never budge, revealing the bright, cocksure sponsor I’d fallen for at AA so many summers back. The bug gnawing her to the marrow was still years away then—a revelation she’d ultimately thumb her nose at with wicked zeal. She’d been a doctor once-upon-a-time, so nothing scared her. No sight of blood. No snarl or fist.
Nothing, except for dying in a hospital, adrift in administrative coldness and the burn of ammonia.
She wanted to go surrounded by trees.
“Because they were alive,” she would say, “and something with halos for hearts that marked the course of centuries must surely have other ways of bearing witness.”
Seven years. Depending on current CD4 count and viral load, the average time between HIV infection and full-blown AIDS.
Annie beat that by half—her ultimate gut-punch to me. We’d shared just about every damn needle, and I never caught so much as a cough.
I lit a potpourri candle that recalled the burnt-marshmallow stench of crack. Charred smells just seemed to rule our anniversaries the way silence did funerals, and through dueling puppy tongues Annie arched her brow as if in rebuke for unleashing another fire-related pong into our lives. I’d only done it out of a want of normalcy. Because it’s what I’d heard people with dining tables and mortgages did. Because I assumed that in every person there resided a tapable romanticism towards domesticity, never mind our own failed stabs at it. We even tried the pregnancy thing once until the night in the shelter three months in when she woke me up to point out the snub jotted down in the form of bloody sheets. In a sea of snoring cots and spicy stench, we squinted at each other through the fog of our breaths, knowing without words or doctors that that had been our one chance.
Seven years. The average stretch of a marriage before dissolution.
Last thing I did on last night’s reconnoiter was to scour the shelter for Ketamine. It might smooth over our trip, though I hadn’t spiked anything in over six months—coincidentally, the last time I left her high-and-dry, then for nearly a month before crawling back a groveling, sopping heap of withdrawal and guilt.
As it turned out, they’d secured all their ampules in the refrigerated safe, so I rooted through all the desks for a substitute until I happened upon a stash of powdered Special-K stuffed in the back of a drawer.
Somebody on staff, fond of tripping afterhours.
I could’ve then too, believe me. I wanted to. It would’ve been so easy. One hit, and I could’ve been on a Greyhound to TJ. Even now the urge burned hot as ever, and I wondered for how long Annie would sit there playing with those pups until she realized I’d hightailed it again to parts unknown. Would she still be surprised? Would I come back? And would she still be around if I did?
Checking that she was still engaged to my six little yelpers, I slipped through the door and into the room where the pups’ mother waited. The large bloodhound paced in agitated circles, teats full and pendulous. As soon as I approached her she whipped her tail and licked stray slobber from her chops. Without thinking, I knelt before her and cupped her moist muzzle, and soon found my crown unconsciously planting against hers.
“Think I can do it?” I asked, and she tried to lick my words out of the air. “Like when they take your babies? Bounce back fast just to do it all over again? Is there a secret to it?”
The bitch just groaned ambivalence.
The night following our failure, we buried Annie’s bloody jeans in McArthur Park before cobbling together enough gleaned scripture for a prayer. We settled on Max for a name—a name that would become our ghostly bludgeon for fault.
Last week, when she informed me all-too-casually to only having three months left, I prompted her with equal indifference and without hesitation how long till she split like Max before walking behind a dumpster to cry myself sore.
Through the open door I could see my duffel by the washbasin where I’d stuffed the packet of Special-K. I can cut it later with the credit card my sister had lent me, and which I’d maxed out this morning on two bus tickets. Sausalito instead of TJ. They were in the red envelope, along with a card—a seventh birthday card, because it might make for a good eye roll.
Maybe we could take one of the pups and find a patch of soft peat between thousand-year-old-redwoods to call home. Maybe she’ll live another year, or two, and we won’t punch each other or stick ourselves to forget we’d punched each other. Maybe we’ll stop mourning who we wanted to be, and rejoice in the steadiness of trees.
I left the mother-hound and returned to the doorway to watch Annie playing with the puppies. My eyes kept drifting to where my duffel sat out of her view, and I wondered of the power of dependency, and of dogs as unifying forces, and of the unlikelihood of redwoods in Tijuana.
When not scribbling twisted musings into spiral notebooks, photographing the odd puddle or junk pile, or building classy furniture, Dino Parenti earns a little scratch drawing buildings. His work can be found in several anthologies as well as Pantheon Magazine, Cease-Cows, Revolt Daily, and the Lascaux Review, where he won the first annual flash fiction contest.