The dog runs into traffic, its tail tucked under its body, its whimpering audible even from where my wife and I stand across the road—even with all those cars slamming on their breaks to avoid hitting the animal. We’re 30 minutes southeast of Houston, on the Farm-to-Market Road where our new home—an apartment complex—is located. Living here feels like living on a highway: There’s nothing worth walking to and every drive—even just to the Target down the road—takes forever.
Seeing the dog, my wife puts her hand to her mouth and says, “Oh my God.” She has a habit of miming every emotion, as though always afraid of having her mood misconstrued by somebody who speaks no English. (I always know exactly what she’s feeling.) And then, before I can say anything, my wife takes off, chasing the dog down. Luckily, it has a retractable leash attached to its neck—the plastic handle makes a racket, skipping down the concrete sidewalk like a child—so my wife easily ends the chase by stomping on the leash and yanking the dog to a stop. I should’ve run with her—I know this. Catching the dog wound up being not a big deal, but I should’ve hustled, in case she needed help. But I didn’t want to help. I was already annoyed and anticipating how much time dealing with this animal would take up.
My wife kneels in front of the dog, petting its head, talking to it, “Where are you going, huh?” The dog is a cocker spaniel, its eyes too far apart, a tuft of hair sticking up in a cowlick. This dog looks like a rough draft of a better dog. My wife smoothes this cowlick between her thumb and index fingers, looking into its eyes. “What’s your name?” she says. “You look like a Rex. Huh? Is that a good name for you?”
This is a new habit she has developed since we moved to Texas… or did she start during the last months we lived in Boston while I wasn’t paying attention? Either way, my wife has started naming people and animals—clerks at gas stations, fellow drivers who let her merge into a lane, cats who dart from one car to another in our apartment complex’s parking lot—as soon as she sees them, as though naming them will make it easier to mourn them should the necessity arise. She prepares for dozens of tragedies each day.
When I reach my wife, she stands and looks up and down the road. “Do you see anyone coming? Is anyone chasing this little Rex?”
The dog comes to me and licks my hand, which I immediately stuff into my pocket. The thing is, I recognize this shitty guy. That cowlick is pretty unforgettable.
“He lives down South Shore Boulevard.” I point in the direction. “A brick house down past the school.”
“Are you sure?”
My wife smiles upon hearing this news, and she looks at “Rex.” “Then let’s get you home. Your mommy and daddy must be worried about you”
And I smile too, though not because little “Rex” will be reuniting with his mommy and daddy. Rather, my smile comes from relief. The dog’s predicament—and my wife’s pleasure at knowing how to solve it—has distracted her from asking how I know where the animal lives. But I come down here a lot, walking aimlessly through these neighborhoods while my wife’s at work. In our 400-sq.-ft., one-bedroom apartment, with no public transportation and nothing worth driving to in any direction for 30 miles, walking down lanes under trees and looking at the morbidly massive houses around me—doing this aimlessly, for hours each day, and then lying to her about it when she gets home to make us dinner—has become my last secret from my wife, and therefore the most important part of my life to guard.
Anyway, on those walks, I always pass the same three-story brick home, a gate alongside the front of the house, blocking off the back yard. And even though the yard is hidden, this shitty “Rex” always hears me and always comes whipping around the house, pressing his snout up against the gate, howling until I’m out of sight.
Now, he presses that snout against my leg as though searching for where my hand went. Not so wild anymore, now that he doesn’t know where he is.
The shady, affluent houses along South Shore Boulevard always baffle me: How can our budget apartment complex, stuffed alongside car dealerships and a Target and a filthy Taco Cabana, be a mile down the Farm-to-Market road?
The house where “Rex” lives has a knocker on the front door. My wife grabs hold of it and pounds it against the wood, creating heavy reverberations, almost like the sound of gunshots in the distance. We wait for a minute. “Nobody’s home,” she says.
“Rex,” as though just noticing the dog door, suddenly surges forward; my wife loses her grip on the leash as the animal disappears into the house.
“Great,” I say, “see? He’s fine. He’s inside. Let’s go.” I make a sweeping motion with my hand, indicating that I want to keep moving. Myself, I’m not such a fan of these large gesticulations—living for so long in Boston has made me more comfortable with using my words and my tone of voice to let someone know how I feel—but my wife has lost the ability to read emotion unless it’s physical, performed.
“No.” She shakes her head. “He’ll just get out again.”
“Come on,” I say, “let’s go,” even though we don’t have anywhere else to be. When my wife asked me to take a walk with her, it sounded like she had something to talk about. And maybe she did at first, but we didn’t say a word to each other until the dog entered the road. Anyway, it makes me nervous, standing on a stranger’s granite steps. I feel tacky—nowhere near expensive enough for this place.
In Boston, private property seems to mean something different. Everyone’s so crammed together that sometimes the lines between what’s yours and what’s somebody else’s blurs. Sometimes I’d go outside in the morning find see neighborhood kids playing in the yard—or in the evening to find college kids leaning against the railings of our porch steps, smoking cigarettes. (I’d tell them to get lost, sure, but it wasn’t a big deal.) Then, there were the times our friends would come over and sit on the porch and comfort us, and strangers would stop by too, find out what the sadness was, and then drop beer and food off for us next time they were in the neighborhood. Often we’d let these strangers into the house (if they expressed interest) to check out the baby’s stuff. That was how we got rid of the clothes, the crib, the stuffed animals, the monitor—and, eventually, our furniture and the house itself. But that happened later, after my wife made the sudden decision to take this university library job in Texas—after we went, in just a few months, from being homeowners and expectant parents, to being a partially-employed married couple living in a one-bedroom rental in the middle of nowhere.
My point is: People have an image of Boston being some place where everyone threatens each other all the time. And while the city does have its share of hostility, what I remember is warmth. But here, standing outside this house in this private neighborhood, I feel like my wife and I are in danger of getting the cops called on us.
And that’s what makes the next thing she does so… wrong. She looks at the dog door, then puts her hands on her small hips. Her head cocks as she does the math. And before I can say anything to stop her, she falls to her knees and squeezes through the dog door.
I look around to see if anyone saw. And, Jesus, here comes a minivan, approaching slowly, somebody who lives in the neighborhood, maybe even the owners of this house returning from wherever they have gone. What will I do when this vehicle pulls into the driveway? How I will I stop them from discovering my wife inside? But the minivan crawls over the speed bump (in my paranoia, I hadn’t noticed the speed bump before), and then accelerates.
At 1:30pm on a Tuesday, nobody’s paying attention. Is it true what they say about most burglaries happening in daylight, when people see strangers fussing around outside a neighbor’s house and assume they must have permission to be there?
But this is no burglary. Just my wife trying to help. This thought must flash in her mind like a message on a skyscraper: It’s all about the dog. The owners would want this. Then the lock clicks from within, and my wife opens a stranger’s door, smiling in a way I can’t remember her smiling for a while. “It’s not like we’re gonna mess with anything,” she says.
At 32 years old, I’m about to commit the first criminal act of my adult life.
“It’s possible,” I tell her, “that the dog’s allowed to roam the house.”
“Then why does he have his leash on? They tie him up somewhere. See? Look.” She points ahead to the back screen door, the bottom corner of which is torn.
We go into the backyard. Whoever lives here keeps a garden out back, which, in mid-September, looks colorful and leafy. Some of the stuff I recognize: hostas, tomatoes, arranged herbs with each in its own small pot. Then, “Rex” wiggles past me and starts sniffing around in the grass. Taking a few steps forward, I see a pile of fresh-looking shit—then, I see a metal pole, maybe three feet tall, lying on its side, and a hole where it looks like the pole was standing previously. Around the hole, the grass looks trampled in a circle with a radius of 10 feet. (It shocks me to remember this term, radius.) I pick up the pole and reinsert it into the ground. Then, I take the leash’s handle from my wife and slide it down around the pole.
I tell her my best guess about what happened: The owners must have left the dog out here, his leash around the pole. He must’ve been running around, yanked the pole over, clawed through the screen door (or more likely, maybe, that was there before, caused by a hidden cat), and high-tailed it out of here.
“What a horrible way to leave him,” my wife says. “Assholes.”
“Well,” I say, “he’s fine now.”
My wife grabs the pole and wiggles it to demonstrate how loosely it fits into the ground. “We can’t leave him like this.”
Most other times, I would feel frustrated by my wife’s insistence on perfection in a matter that does not concern her (and is, in this particular instance, illegal). But I don’t feel any frustration with her in this moment. Instead, I feel strangely proud to have figured all this out—like maybe there’s a way to parlay breaking into strangers’ houses and finding solutions to their dog related problems into some kind of permanent employment.
I pull up the pole with ease and push it into the grass several inches to the left. “Can try to find a hammer inside?” I ask my wife, as if I just can’t remember where I put it last time. And she comes back a minute later holding one. Who knows how she found it so quickly. Maybe my wife has a sixth sense about where people keep things.
I hammer the pole into the ground. “Solid enough?”
She wiggles it and nods. “Solid.”
We drop the handle of the leash around the pole, securing the dog, and knock dirt into the old hole with my foot, filling it up. They’ll never know anyone was here.
“Teamwork.” My wife presents the palm of her hand. We high-five and laugh.
Going back inside the house—into the kitchen specifically, where I see an open cabinet under the sink from which my wife probably retrieved the hammer—is really the moment when I should start to feel weird about everything, or at least feel terrified that the owners will come home. But for a moment, it feels nice to stand here with my wife, shoulder to shoulder, looking around at everything—especially since nothing inside this house looks that fancy. The appliances have the dull metallic sheen not of extravagance, but of upper-middle-class homogeny. From the kitchen, I can see into the living room, whose big screen TV and leather couch and towering stereo system make the space look no more specific than the electronics department at Best Buy. I look at my wife and wonder whether she’s thinking the same thing I am: that suddenly, it feels nice to live in our one-room apartment, despite the coffee-stained seat covers on the dining room chairs, despite the corner of our couch that’s all torn up from our Maine Coon named Bandit, despite the faded orange patches on the carpet from where that very cat has coughed up hairballs. At least that stuff is definitely, defiantly ours. You couldn’t put it just anywhere.
“They need to change something in here,” my wife says, pointing at the walls like an interior decorator. “Look at the color. Mauve, I think they call that. You wanna live in a color that sounds like a noise somebody makes when they’re having a stroke?”
“God,” I say, “this place looks like the inside of Mitt Romney’s brain.”
“Plus,” my wife says, “they keep the hammer under the sink. Like, with the bleach and stuff. Who does that?” She puts the hammer away and shuts the offending cabinet.
I don’t ask why it occurred to her to check under the sink in the first place.
“Isn’t this so weird to be here?” she says.
“Totally,” I say.
“We could rip these people off so bad.”
“Think I should become a robber? I’d be, like, so much more macho and sexy that way.”
“Oh, yeah, big time.” She nods, making a serious face. “And I bet that would make your dick grow seven feet longer too.”
We poke around a little bit more, not touching or disturbing anything. We avoid the staircase (looks like it only leads to a loft area anyway) and keep to the downstairs, glancing inside the rooms off the main hallway—the bathroom, a study, and then the main bedroom of whatever couple lives here.
“Do you remember that story we read in 101?” my wife asks me. (She means English 101, the freshman composition course where we first met each other.) “The story about those creeps who go into that other apartment and, like, wear the people’s clothes and stuff?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“We’re those people,” she says, moving away from the bedroom, and pushing farther down the hall, toward the last open door on the left.
“Think I should go into the bedroom and try on some dresses?” I ask.
My wife doesn’t laugh. Doesn’t even look at me. Instead, something holds her in the last doorway. She stares inside the room, her face nothing like the pleasant face joking with me out in the kitchen. Her face had hardened again, reverted to the mask she put on after we lost the baby—the mask she hadn’t taken off around me until today, however briefly.
I feel like myself again, which startles me—mostly because I hadn’t quite realized how much I felt like somebody else a moment before. And the fear of standing in this stranger’s house rises around my body like a flash flood. So I wade toward my wife, trying to grab her, trying to pull her to safety. But I don’t make it. My wife falls into this last room, leaving me, for a moment, alone in the hallway, the water—the fear—up to my neck now.
The room at the end of the hall clearly belongs to a very young girl. There is a crib in the corner. The walls are painted pink. There’s a half-built structure—a dollhouse, looks like—in the middle of the floor, its additional pieces scattered haphazardly. There are other clues to this room’s function, too, but I focus on my wife, who stands in the middle of the room, slouched, and I see what she holds—the item that must’ve stolen her attention in the first place.
A fucking Build-a-Bear. Christ. Of all the generic garbage these people have in their house, the Build-a-Bear is the worst. My wife and I used to go to the mall and pass the Build-a-Bear store and, upon hearing the shrill jargon of all those little kids, we put our hands over our ears in an exaggerated way.
“Do you want to get a pretzel?” she’d say in that mock-yell, whispery sort of way.
“I can’t hear you,” I’d say.
“What?” she’d say, hands still over her ears.
But then, years later, there were the Millers, who lived in Framingham—friends of my wife’s parents—and came to visit us one afternoon after my wife had started to show (it must have been the third or fourth month) to deliver a present. We unwrapped it and tried not to act too crazy when we saw what it was: a Build-a-Bear! We laughed, though for impolite reasons. “My niece loves those,” Mrs. Miller said, “so we couldn’t resist. And look. See this tag?” It hung from the bear’s wrist like handcuffs waiting to join a second hand; the print said, Hi, my name is _____! “A lot of the kids name the bears after themselves,” Mrs. Miller said. “That’s what my niece does. She writes her own name on all the tags. Isn’t it cute?”
“It’s so fucking ugly,” my wife said later, after the Millers had gone home. “And seriously, what middle-aged couple goes into Build-a-Bear together without a kid? Isn’t building the bear kinda the point for a kid… not just getting a bear somebody else built?”
But it’s funny how important the stupidest objects can become—how the meaning of things can transform, changing almost as though like seasons. My wife and I stared at the tag on the bear’s wrist during the next weeks, its fill-in-the-blank becoming something of a problem. We hadn’t decided on a name yet. My wife joked about it, slow dancing with the bear in the living room, singing, “Please name me, my sweet unnamable you.” I’m certain neither of us wanted very badly to give our daughter this bear, yet the stuffed animal seemed to stare back at us. It felt like our daughter was struggling to introduce herself to us: My name is… what is my name? What is my name?
We never did name her. And after the miscarriage, as we were ridding ourselves of all the items we had accumulated for our daughter, my wife kept lingering over the bear. It was the thing she couldn’t part with. She stared at the tag, shaking her head. Hi, my name is _____! “I feel like we haven’t finished her yet,” my wife said. “I feel like we aren’t done.”
One afternoon when my wife went for a run (the doctor suggested staying active), I boarded the T, took the green line across Boston with the bear on my lap, and buried it in a trashcan outside in Government Center station. No doubt my wife noticed the bear’s absence as soon as she got home—it was probably the first thing she noticed—but she didn’t seem angry, like I’d feared. Actually, she said nothing to me about it. And at first I was relieved. But then the silence extended. The silence stuck itself like a claw into our marriage, slowly tearing its way down the center of us. Hard to know when the stuffing with which we’d built our life together would fall out.
Now, my wife stands in the room of a little girl—in a stranger’s house—clenching this bear. With the tag turned upward, I can see that somebody filled in the blank. My wife stares at the name written there in sharpie. “June,” she says, so quietly at first that I can’t hear her. Then, my wife looks at me. “Her name is June.”
I know what I’m supposed to do, and—in my defense—I do it, going to the center of the room, bowing my head, my hands atop my wife’s hands atop the bear’s hideous face. I do this dutifully, and I try to feel something. Believe me, I really try to feel something. But I can’t feel anything. Moreover, I have no idea what my wife wants me to feel—what she herself is feeling. Am I supposed to be moved over finding this bear? Am I supposed to think, for just a moment, that we’re holding our child—or that we’ve at least finished our child with the meaningless word June? I’m sure, but I know I feel none of it. I only feel afraid of standing here much longer. No telling when the family will return. We have broken into a house. We need to leave.
I need to leave.
Because this is the moment when I realize that I won’t last much longer at the apartment complex on the Farm-to-Market road, or in Texas, or with my wife—and soon we’ll be separated, and I’ll move back to Boston, and when I can’t find any work as an adjunct in the colleges there, I’ll move up to the Manchester area, where at least it’s cheaper and where my uncle can give me a job hauling crates at his brewery. I’ll live somewhere outside the city, probably off some New Hampshire state highway that winds its way into the vast nowhere of strip malls and parking lots and forests. I’ll drink too much. My wife and I won’t finalize our divorce until years later. It will be a long, painful process, and we will justify it by telling ourselves that we’re still trying to work out our problems—still trying to build a bridge across the chasm that grief’s earthquake left in us. But neither of us will really be trying. At least I won’t be trying.
As I stand with my head lowered, my arm around my wife (I’m too afraid to open my eyes and check whether she’s crying, though I doubt it), I’m not thinking about our unnamed little girl or anything like that. I’m thinking only of the future before me—only of the fact I now understand with clairvoyant urgency: This life of ours will not last.
I don’t know what my wife is thinking about exactly, but neither of us hears anything in the house. Neither of us is listening.
“It’s okay,” I hear my wife whisper—and for a second, I think she’s talking to me. But when she repeats it—“It’s okay”—I get a bad feeling, so I open my eyes.
The little girl—June, I guess—stands in the doorway of her room, staring at the strangers within, clutching the bear she maybe cares about but maybe doesn’t. She’s probably five years old. Her eyes are wide. Maybe she thinks we’re a surprise. Something wonderful.
“I’m sorry,” my wife whispers, but the little girl isn’t the one my wife should be apologizing too.
Because, see, something occurs to me: Maybe my wife heard the car in the driveway, heard the dog barking as the front door unlocked, heard the family kick off shoes and hang up jackets, heard June walking down the hall toward her room. Maybe my wife heard all of this and kept us here because she wanted to get caught, because getting caught meant she would see the little girl. Maybe my wife—for some reason I cannot understand—wanted, needed to see June. What other explanation is there? How could my wife have not heard the sound of this family returning? Of course she heard them. She heard them and decided to do nothing. There’s no way she was so absent, holding that bear, thinking about her child—no way was my wife so absent from her own body that she couldn’t access her basic senses and hear a family returning home.
But what did it mean that I hadn’t heard anything myself?
The Kennedys were nice enough under the circumstances, and didn’t want to press charges, which means we didn’t have to talk to the police for long. But June stayed shut in her room. They didn’t want us anywhere near June. And the whole time, I worried that my wife was going to fuck everything up by complaining to the police about the way the Kennedys treated their dog, whose name, we learned, wasn’t Rex, but was Chandler.
(But June was, in fact, June.)
At home now, the walls seeming to constrict around us, my wife and I practically standing on each other’s feet in the kitchen, the A/C busted again and the sunlight heating the rooms—rooms no bigger than the rooms of that unfinished dollhouse on June’s floor—we stand in this apartment, our own unfinished dollhouse, our own unfinished life, my forehead slicked with sweat, and my wife looks at me and shakes her head, and I want to talk about the heat, and how to fix it, and whom to complain to—or I want to talk about nothing at all—but she’s still trying to explain something to me, and I’m waiting for her to get to the point.
“It was the strangest thing,” my wife says with excitement, “but when that little girl walked in, I felt this overwhelming urge to comfort her. I mean, I knew I was—we were—the reason she was scared. And she would’ve been even more scared if I’d approached her. I knew that, like, intellectually. But, I dunno, I just wanted to comfort her. I wanted to hold her. I almost did it too. I had to hold myself back. Does that make sense? Did you feel that at all?”
I say, “It was stupid, going into that house. You never should’ve done that.”
My wife stares at me. There’s no use trying to describe her expression. No words can explain it. It’s the kind of expression that says, I understand everything now. My wife takes a long look at me. And then she snorts, laughing to herself about something.
This is the moment my wife understands what I understood back in the little girl’s room, holding the bear. This is the moment when she gets to see it, her future laid out in front of her. I almost want to guide her through this moment. I almost want to explain that what she’s seeing isn’t something that’ll pass, but something that’s here forever. I want to tell her, This is a genuine moment of vision. Isn’t it wonderful, to finally see what’s to become of us?
But then, once again, I don’t know what she sees. Is it her future, or is it something more than that? I’m afraid right now. More afraid than I ever was in the Kennedys’ home. In June’s room. In this instant, can my wife see the whole truth of me? Can she see just how long ago I was lost to her—how long I’ve been faking it?
“Natalie,” I say. That’s my wife’s name.
Benjamin Rybeck is the author of THE SADNESS, a novel forthcoming in June 2016 from Unnamed Press. His fiction has received honorable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and his writing appears in Electric Literature, Houston Chronicle, Kirkus Reviews, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere. A former creative writing instructor at the University of Arizona, he currently lives in Houston, where he’s marketing director at Brazos Bookstore.