End of the Dog Days
by Karen Eileen Sikola
There is a picture in my mind, of a man with no shirt, his belly taut, his skin burnt from the sun, which reflects off his bald head. In his hand is one of those plastic wands that chucks tennis balls as far as the stream flows between our facing townhouses and Hardy Pond. At his feet is a red-nosed pit bull named Reddy, his tongue dripping in anticipation, his eyes awaiting the next throw.
There is another picture in my mind, of a man with no shirt, his belly heaving, his skin splattered with blood, which runs down from a gash on his bald head. In his hand is a kitchen knife, and at his feet, a woman who always welcomed me home, her eyes awaiting the final blow.
I cannot reconcile these two images, each of which captures the past and yet holds me captive in an enduring present.
In July 2013, I celebrated my 29th birthday with a few friends and a cake on my patio. My neighbor Jen, who lived in a nearly identical townhouse across the courtyard with her boyfriend Jared and their daughter Arianna, brought a bottle of Sweet and Sassy Moscato. She was sweet and liked sweet things. Just inside the sliding door, four-year-old Arianna danced and chased my dogs, her elated squeals drifting through the screen. Jared stood just outside the gate, a hovering bodyguard. Six weeks later, on August 15, Jen lay dead on her own patio, Jared hovering over her, Arianna wailing just inside the sliding door.
I was in my gynecologist’s office when I found myself transfixed by the words “International Migratory Bird Day” on a wall calendar page overdue to be flipped. I told myself to relax in my pink paper wrap dress, closing my eyes to envision fluttering wings. During that same visit, I was referred to a psychotherapist for a form of therapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
According to Dr. Francine Shapiro, the originator of EMDR and author of Getting Past Your Past, EMDR “targets unprocessed memories that contain negative emotions, sensations and beliefs.” Unlike procedures the characters undergo in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, memories are not erased, but rather digested.
“What is useful is learned,” Shapiro says, “what’s useless is discarded, and the memory is now stored in a way that is no longer damaging.”
I took the referral slip, but I ignored it, much like the nagging memory of a sexual violation I had yet to digest. I ignored it until another memory took its place, one that seemed to present a worse-case scenario, one that perhaps should have provided perspective but rather seemed to intensify a fear I’d carried in my loins for nearly a decade.
I ran even before that night. At the time of my birthday, I’d already registered and had just started training for my first half marathon. But after that night, the reality of what can happen when you stay is what got me out the door each morning. Always be prepared to run, I told myself. Run for her, I repeated between breaths, up hills, and around bends. Carry her with you.
That October, I waited at the starting line of the Long Island Divas Half Marathon, decked out in pink and surrounded by surviving women. I kept pace for the first eight miles, high-fiving spectators, and smiling for photos. By mile 10, I’d lost all adrenaline. Run for her, I repeated the next three miles, reminding myself to be grateful for every breath and step. At the finish, I received a tiara. Arianna would have loved it.
Years later, I rounded the corner of Hereford and Boylston, shedding the poncho that had shielded me from deafening rain for nearly five hours. In those final strides, I ran for Jen, but I ran for me, too. I ran for all of us.
In grad school, my friends and I called ourselves flight risks. Besides writing, and drinking too much, and eating too little, it was the biggest thing we had in common: a preference to reimagine new versions of ourselves, in new locales, over fighting to stay put.
When I first began writing this essay, I typed out a bracketed reminder—[August – the worst night]—a space to insert what actually happened, an event to ground the reader in details, to show not tell. Each time I returned to this essay, sometimes after months of not touching it, I’d add details elsewhere, but never here. In some ways, in many ways, it doesn’t feel like my story to tell. And yet it’s the crux of the story I’m telling.
August 15, 2013 – A Timeline 1
I arrive home from work and take my dog, Rilo, out for a walk. Along the stream, I see Jared. He seems almost startled at the sight of me. He mumbles a “How’s it goin’?” but something feels off. I don’t usually see him here. I usually see him farther up the hill, throwing balls for his dog, Reddy. But Reddy isn’t with him. And unlike my usual after-work encounters with Jared, he doesn’t have much to say. My boyfriend and I used to joke about getting “trapped” by Jared between the courtyard and our front door. Later, I will call the DA to tell her this. An evidence team will arrive and find the victim’s damaged cell phone in the stream, near the exact spot I saw him.
Just before 8 p.m.
Jess comes by to give me a free pass to Waltham Yoga and ask if I want to go to Pizzi Farm for ice cream before they close. She mentions she just saw Jen, that she gave her a yoga pass and asked her to join us but that Jen was cooking dinner. The cops will later determine their own timeline partially based on the extent the cookies in the oven are burnt.
Around 9 p.m.
Jess and I are finishing our ice cream and watching Lovelace, a Lifetime movie about the famed porn actress and her abusive husband. We initially think the screams we hear are from the film. And then we recognize that they are coming from another neighbor, who is outside Jen’s patio and on the phone with 911. As I approach the patio to see what’s going on, I see my boyfriend pulling Rilo by the collar, guiding her away from Jen’s patio and toward our own. He then sees me and grabs my arm, pulling me toward Rilo, telling us both to go inside. I run upstairs to look out our guest bedroom window. I see Jared take off his shirt and throw it down. I’m later told he did this after finishing the job. I’m told he threw it over Jen’s face.
Later that night, after calls to our parents, my boyfriend finally falls asleep and slips into a nightmare that occurs again and again over the remaining years we sleep in the same bed. It’s a dream he never talks about, but one I can imagine from the noises that escape his mouth, from the sweat at the base of his back when I hold him and pray for it to pass. That was the summer I realized there was no girl left in me, that I had—in fact—become a mother of sorts, though not in the way I once imagined. How does one remain a girl when the young mother across from her home lay slain, when the dogs are barking and the rookie cop’s face has gone pale, when the girl by definition is all alone, waiting for a female officer to arrive on scene to bathe her and take her somewhere safe? “There’s a baby inside,” I remember frantically calling out. A baby just shy of her fifth birthday.
There is a memory in my mind of Arianna, four years old, her bare knees sunk into glimmering brown earth, the sand just kissed by the tide and puckered dry where her joints hit. She was not my child, but I watched her with full heart wondering how much stronger those feelings would be if she were my own. Perhaps too much to bear. A month later, her bare knees sink into red-brown carpet, once taupe but now sticky with pools where her mother’s wounds leaked, no one able to stop them.
In our shared courtyard, we were never short of occasions to celebrate. A snow day warranted a bottle of Riesling while our dogs dug tunnels through the feet of white in the space connecting our patios. A long day of work called for tasting my boyfriend’s latest homebrew. A Sunday—any Sunday—called for champagne. We traded turns hosting and then eventually all we traded were patios as we gathered and potlucked. Jared rarely came inside. He liked watching the dogs, he said, and it seemed a thoughtful gesture to keep them occupied while we ate and drank, free from begging eyes.
I remember one such gathering during which we all brought something to grill—corn and portabellas, steak tips and chicken thighs, a piece of swordfish—and Jared carried a hot dog in his hand as he threw a ball with the other. As one dog chased the ball toward the creek, Rilo took the opportunity to jump up for the bigger prize, snatching the hot dog and swallowing it whole. And in that moment—for perhaps the first time—I remember being fearful that he would hurt her. But instead, he only laughed. And I remember thinking of that moment later and wishing I had let that initial instinct fester, as if maybe knowing what he was capable of could have possibly made a difference. For what’ll we drink to now?
In September, I make my first appointment with a psychiatrist. I wait weeks. And when I finally sit down on her couch and relay why I’m there, she writes me a prescription for Klonopin and suggests I try yoga (yoger, she pronounces it). For weeks, I thumb the Waltham Yoga pass in my purse pocket, and in November, I see an article on my newsfeed.
“A pit bull named Chako is recovering at home after being stabbed 12 times,” it says. “He sacrificed himself and saved the life of his mom, who was being attacked by her abusive partner.”
I see the dog’s face and I think of Reddy, locked up in the upstairs bedroom. I remember the broken blinds. I envision his paws scratching at the pane. I hear his wails, his failed attempts at rescue sending him into a craze.
I also see the faces of the other neighbors in our courtyard, the ones in windows, the ones who stood behind their own patio walls, watching.
By February the following year, I’m ready to try therapy again. I realize I need more than Klonopin to help me sleep at night. I realize I need more than yoga to steady my breathing. I also realize there’s more to talk about than the violence inflicted on Jen. I realize I’m ready to talk about the violence inflicted on me. And when I first meet Barbara, an older Jewish mother type with sincere eyes and no prescription pad, I know she is the woman to talk to about both, to figure out how they got knotted together, to help me unravel it. I tell her that intimacy is a wall I’ve built to protect the girl behind it.
“How old is that girl?” she asks. “And what would you say to her?”
Nearly a year after my first therapy session, my boyfriend and I go to The Cheesecake Factory, a place neither of us would choose were it not for a gift card we received for Christmas. As we approach the hostess stand, a sense of familiarity flickers in my memory. The hostess hands us a pager and though it doesn’t immediately register, I finally make the connection and mention to him when our drinks arrive, “She looks so much like Jen.” And though I say, “she,” and not “the hostess,” he immediately confirms with a hushed, “I know, right?”
“She looks happy,” I say, and he responds by taking a sip of his beer.
One of the couples who once neighbored us moved just outside of Chicago, at first together, and then separately. There was an initial attempt to keep in touch, but after too many missed phone calls and my absence at Jared’s hearing, all further Facebook posts went without like or comment. My boyfriend and I remained close with Jess and her husband until they bought their first home in Eastie, only to separate a few months later. We said hi to our new neighbors in passing, but we didn’t know them by name. We didn’t use our pool passes. And then we broke up, too.
I was watching a DVR’d episode of Scandal. I had just finished eating my “hole in one” breakfast. Some people call it “egg in a basket” or “toad in a hole.” It doesn’t matter. Egg and bread. Rilo was curled up in my lap.
My boyfriend came downstairs. He seemed groggy. I offered, “there’s coffee,” and went back to watching my show.
And then he screamed.
“Ah! Ah!” in bursts as he watched the skin bubble up on his hand, as I shot up to tell him to run it under cold water. I had reacted promptly and calmly. I was actually proud of myself, of my care and redirection. And then he slammed his free hand on top of the suspect carafe and it bottomed out. Glass and coffee everywhere. Steam rising. It was like a bomb went off.
“Why would you do that? Why would you do that?”
I was shouting now, and crying, and repeating. The shock overcame me. “Why would you do that?”
I did not like myself, then. And I did not like him then, either.
I turned and made my way up the stairs. He followed, but I was already putting on jeans and telling him I was leaving.
“Why do you want to leave?” he asked.
“I don’t like who I am when I’m with you,” I said.
“Why?” he asked. “What do I do?”
He was so calm. It made it harder to answer. It makes it harder even now.
They say everything’s supposed to be done in pairs. We moved in together. We adopted another dog to keep the number even. But such tragedies are inherently singular, inherently odd numbered. They inherently break pairs into separates, outsiders, onlookers.
We were a community, then, four couples in homes that both circled and faced each other, as if to bear witness to our intended directions. But when ant colonies lose their leaders, even straight pathways are hard to navigate. At first, you bump into each other, and then eventually, you just go your own way, or turn back to where you came.
When we first moved into our apartment, we bought two dining room chairs. At the time, it seemed enough for just us. And then we befriended the couples in our proximity and I remember feeling overjoyed the day I spotted a matching pair of dining room chairs outside the dumpster. The white paint was slightly chipped but gave them an almost nautical weathered look. My two arms carried them in and strategically placed them in between our original pairing to make the mismatch seem intentional, a choice as opposed to a settling of what was merely available.
I have always done this. When I’m cold, I bump up the thermostat by two degrees. When I can’t hear clearly, I bump up the volume by two ticks. When a glass breaks, I discard another. A set of four becomes two.
I never felt truly at home in Massachusetts. Since leaving for college, it’s the place I’ve stayed the longest, but even at my most comfortable in Waltham, it felt like an in-between. I still fantasized about an eventual return to California. I still considered myself a flight risk. And after that night, the worst night, the desire to flee grew stronger, as if I’d never feel safe again until my feet were back in the Pacific. But not long after leaving Waltham, I found myself in Hull, a Coast Guard peninsula town that felt like home immediately.
My first visit to Hull was in the middle of February 2016. The wind chill was -20. The waves slushed, and where the sun shone, they seemed to steam. And in that steam, I finally saw the benefit of fighting for a sense of home and the roots I’ve earned.
A few months after discovering Hull, I discovered it was also home to Lindsey Cyr, Whitey Bulger’s ex-girlfriend, with whom he had an only son, a son who died. The article in which I read that fact also mentioned that Cyr refused to comment for the story. And I remember feeling connected to her in some way, silently applauding her own desire to keep Hull hers, to keep her South Shore home a sanctuary from violent men, to keep her toes buried privately in the sand.
The day of my birth is said to be the start of the Dog Days, the sultry days of summer. And because we’ve all heard that Florence and the Machine song, I don’t have to tell you that those days are over, that they’re gone.
1. This is a rough timeline based solely on what I recall, because I still cannot bring myself to read the reports and listen to the released 911 calls, the ones published in The Boston Globe for no other reason than the family name of the guilty is news in Red Sox nation.
Karen Eileen Sikola received her M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from California State University, Fresno. She now lives on Boston’s south shore, where she’s an editor by day and a writing instructor by night. Her own writing has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Specter Magazine, Used Furniture Review, and elsewhere.