by Treena Thibodeau
Zenobia thinks we should get a dog.
I don’t want a dog, I say. Who’s going to take care of a dog?
We both will, she says. My whole life I wanted a dog and no one ever let me get one. Come on, Tuck, it’ll make me happy.
Magic words: a way to make Zenobia happy. Something that will turn her toward me like the tumblers of a lock. We’re on the couch, and even after I let her pick the show and make her the popcorn she likes (coconut oil, freshly grated parmesan cheese, Zenobia frowning at the mess of the pot as if someone threw it sticky and smoking through our window. She loves messy things, like cheese popcorn and dogs, and hates mess), she still is not looking at the television but rather at an empty stretch of wall. I keep checking to see if there’s something crawling there. It’s unsettling.
Are you OK?
Not really. Zenobia nibbles a single kernel of popcorn, holding it the way a hamster would, shoulders hunched.
What if we move, though, and the new place doesn’t allow dogs? What if we want to go on vacation? What if the dog gets something wrong with it, or bites someone?
It’s fine, Zenobia says. We don’t need to get a dog. She stares at the wall and I pretend to watch the show she picked out, although of course I am watching her. I haven’t been able to stop watching her since the day we met.
The animal shelter: yips, toenails scrabbling on aluminum, a woman telling a story about camping in South Dakota. I’m still hoping Zenobia will change her mind. They have other animals here. Rabbits huddle into their own neck-fat like people waiting for a bus in the rain. Resentful cats blink at us through the bars and the reek of their confinement.
We did just get some puppies, the woman who camped in South Dakota tells us. It’s clear what she thinks of people go straight for the puppies, but I’m already picturing it: a blonde pup in bed with us, the comma of its tail, its tiny teeth and claws making Zenobia laugh. Something for her to tease that’s not me. The pup will grow into Our Dog, and we’ll walk it together, and it will live for a long time. The dog will whine if Zenobia gets up from the couch before the movie is over (something she does during the most climactic parts, so that the tension of the film is braided with the tension of watching her begin the complicated series of stretches that signal her bored displeasure), and she will sit back down and put her feet in my lap.
The thought of Zenobia’s feet in my lap makes something tighten in my chest and also in my pants. None of my clothes have fit right since I met her. I hope I do not get hard at the animal shelter because I’m pretty sure that only happens if you are a serial killer and don’t realize it yet. All the dogs here are running out of time; Zenobia was clear that she wanted to go to a kill-shelter, to find a dog that really needed her to save it.
What else do you have, Zenobia asks the woman.
Well. We have a number of special needs dogs that really could use a loving home. We call them our unadoptables.
The camper woman hangs air-quotes around the word. She has hairy armpits.
There’s a shine on Zenobia’s teeth when she smiles. Yes, she says. We’d like to see your unlovable dogs, please. And she takes my hand, and I can’t help looking around to see who’s watching. Zenobia’s eyes are lion-gold and she’s tan and lean from all her work on the rooftop garden of our building. She and a woman with the unlikely name of Legend are constructing an apiary up there. Whenever I ask if they want help, they say no in a way that makes it seem like I suggested something dirty.
None of these dogs are dangerous, right? I ask. Like, you’re not showing us any dogs that have bitten people or killed other dogs in illegal dogfights or anything, right?
Tucker, Zenobia says. Stop being an asshole.
Sorry. I just want to know what we’re in for.
The unadoptables are a gallery of sad. There’s a one-eyed chihuahua with a grey muzzle, and some sort of heavily stained white dog that keeps falling over. There’s a sullen pitbull with a patchy brindled coat who keeps butting his anvil of a head against the bars, staring us down.
Ooh, Zenobia says. Look at this one, Tuck.
She sticks her fingers right through the bars and the pitbull lunges for them. I emit an unmanly shriek and the camper woman laughs.
Bubba lost all his teeth, she says once she’s done laughing, wiping her eyes.
Bubba gums my girlfriend’s fingers, dribbling urine in his ecstasy at the taste of her.
I know, I whisper to him, and I reach in to scratch the scabby velvet on the top of his head.
Bubba is covered in nubbly button tumors and hard white scaly patches. He’s like a relief map for some war-torn country, and he’s hungry all the time.
Bubba is too fat, Zenobia says. Seriously, it’s kind of gross.
I’m cooking him dinner in the kitchen, and I turn off the music when my girlfriend comes in. He has Cushings disease, I remind her. It’s not his fault. It makes him hungry all the time.
Bubba’s sticky eyes are fastened on me while I stir.
What are you going to make me for dinner, Zenobia asks. I’m hungry too.
Do you want to go out for dinner? The weather is gorgeous. We could go to one of those restaurants that lets you bring your dog so long as you sit outside.
I love to sit outside with Zenobia. When she’s in a good mood, she’ll come up with stories for the people who walk by, explaining every limp and furrowed brow. Sometimes it’s kind of mean, but then I knew Zenobia was kind of mean when I met her. I have a thing for mean women.
I’m tired, Zenobia says. Legend and I spent the whole day hauling lumber up to the roof. Those tomato beds really need reinforcing.
I’d be happy to help you, I say. Why don’t you ever let me help you?
You can help me by making dinner. I’m going to take a bath.
Lately, she’s been locking the door when she goes in to take a bath. I picture her in there with her feet propped on either side of the tub, positioning herself so the pounding water from the tap will give her an orgasm. I can hear things falling in there.
I am jealous of fucking water.
Just please make something quick, Zenobia says. Seriously, I need to get fed before the dog for once.
She turns, and Bubba is in the way, and she stumbles against his flank.
This dog keeps trying to kill me, she says.
He just wants your attention, I say.
Bubba! Go lay your fat ass down. Go to your crate.
Zenobia brought the cage home this week. It looks smaller than the one he had at the shelter, and it’s depressing no matter how many blankets and toys I fill it with. She’s not wrong; Bubba does piss all over the apartment if we don’t crate him. But still. It makes me feel helpless and scooped out to see him in there with his head on his paws.
Go lay the fuck down, Zenobia hisses.
I don’t think he can hear you, I say uneasily. I think maybe he’s going deaf? I’m going to take him back to the vet next week.
This dog sucks. We should have gotten a puppy. This one is broken.
He’s got special needs, I say, and try to get in between Zenobia and the dog so she won’t shove him with her foot again. There’s mud on her shins, and Bubba won’t stop trying to lick them.
Gross, she says. Stop him from doing that.
I get down on his level, and he butts me with his forehead. His tongue lolls. I can see the empty sockets where his teeth used to be
Who’s a good boy? I ask. I try not to use this voice with the dog, because I know it irritates Zenobia, and yet I can not help myself.
I am! Bubba would say if he could. Me!
Zenobia gives me a long, cold appraisal. She turns this look on Bubba next. You love that dog more than you love me, she says finally, and I know, with a queasy roll in my stomach, that it’s over. She’s telling me I have to get rid of the dog in a way that will let her say afterwards, I never told you to get rid of the dog or even I can’t believe you gave away our dog. And I hate myself in the specific way that only the truly weak can hate themselves, a self-loathing that stands ready to leach through my best arguments for why I am doing the right thing.
It’s the video I make of Bubba that gets him a new home. I spend weeks shooting and editing it, and Zenobia comes home and looks at the dog like he’s a dirty undergarment I left on the couch, like he’s a guest that won’t leave.
How much longer, she whispers in bed. At the sound of her voice, Bubba whines from inside his crate. His flanks knock against the bars. She’s under the blanket but on top of the sheet; we never end up on the same layer of bedding. Sometimes I wake up and there are all these pillows in the space between us, and Zenobia insists that I put them there. She claims that I curse in my sleep, that I kick her.
If I take my pillow and go out to the couch, I can sleep next to Bubba’s crate. He snores the way someone who is shamming sleep snores. I know I won’t get any rest out there, and also Zenobia will ask why I abandoned her in the middle of the night.
I wonder what it must feel like, she says, after I show her the video of Bubba. It shows him tearing ass at the dog park, spraying wood chips when he pulls up short in front of someone’s Frenchie.
What what feels like?
To have someone be this into you.
There’s something wrong with you, I say. The words feel like breaking dishes. Bubba growls from his cage. Why are you like this? Who did this to you?
The people who adopt Bubba have a yard. I can see it in the photos they send me. They still email me every week; it was part of the agreement.
I don’t see his lambchop, I write back. That’s his favorite toy. Do you need me to send another? I’ve already mailed two; I think he’s burying them in his new yard, like landmines that squeak when you step on them.
Zenobia leaves, and it’s like the ending to a movie I’ve already seen. She says it might be temporary, she’s not sure. Someone needs to watch the bee colony in Poughkeepsie while Legend is out on tour.
Months pass, and I see pictures of them together on Instagram. In every picture, their arms are around each other, and then they are cradling a blonde puppy, and then the photos are mostly the puppy. Their dog is perfect for social media– in every photo, it looks like it’s smiling. Sometimes it wears a bow-tie. Sometimes Zenobia poses it next to a book she is reading, or beside an inferior dog at the park.
Sometimes I go on dates, and the women I am buying dinner always ask if I have pets. I think it’s supposed to say something about you, if you have a pet. I show them pictures of Bubba.
I know, I say. He doesn’t look that great.
So far, everyone every woman I’ve met has lied to me about it. They hand over bullshit reassurances about how he’s cute. How he has character. How good I am, for rescuing him. But I keep trying. Someday, someone will say, yeah that dog is a mess. And she will have a photo ready, an unlovable mess of her own.
Treena Thibodeau‘s fiction has appeared in The Rumpus, Newtown Literary, and Constellations. She holds an MFA from Columbia, and her work has received generous support from the Vermont Studio Center and the Tin House Summer Conference. The founder of the weekly virtual reading series TGI, she can be found on Twitter @TreenaThibs.