“Ms. Rosenschatz! Emma!”
Arriving well into the search, Paul found Cherish enjoying the spectacle of park employees scouring the grounds on her behalf, a distinctly pleased look on her face going unchanged even when she recognized him coming up the bleachers. The aluminum rungs shook as he took them two at a time, finally solidifying as he reached the uppermost row.
“She took off again,” Cherish said hopelessly, holding a leash.
“You’re becoming more of a dog loser than a dog walker,” Paul said.
From beyond third base a megaphone amplified the silence until it seemed to pick up an atomic-level hiss, squelched finally by the voice Paul had heard straight out to Washington Boulevard on the park’s eastern perimeter.
“Ms. Rosenshatz,” said the voice. “We have your daughter.”
“Sit down,” Cherish said. “Isn’t this great?”
“We have your daughter.”
The second daughter came at them directly, the megaphone held by one of the park’s finest, its flat center cone a pupillary black, the amplified statement seeming inappropriately threatening to Paul, even crime scene-ish. Through his feet he could feel the vibrations of a basketball being dribbled against the bleachers by a figure at the diagonally opposite end of the structure. Behind the man with the megaphone stood a half-dozen park employees wearing the same dusty green jackets. They walked in a line, heading into the woods that started up at the farthest boundary of the outfield where the lawn mowers gave up and the ratty half-chewed forest began.
“Ms. Rosenscha…” The megaphone picked up some feedback—crawnwahnshalloliehawgenshawn. Brawn?—“Rosen…” There was more unintelligible noise from the park policeman’s waist-mounted walkie-talkie.
“He doesn’t even know how to use it,” Cherish said.
“It’s just his walkie-talkie cutting in.”
“I like that word, walkie-talkie. Walk-ie, talk-ie. It’s like baby-talk.” Cherish laughed.
“Tell them who Emma is,” Paul said, descending a couple of rows.
“Why? They’re helping.”
“Straighten it out. No one’s laughing but you.”
It was nearly night, but low clouds trapped a chilly light that only disappeared in the darker recesses of the park. Paul adjusted his cap, worn only because he had yet to shower this day and the cowlicks, persisting through an entirely unproductive day of videoclip-watching and reinvigorated by a late afternoon nap, made him look like a village idiot.
“But it’s hilarious,” Cherish said.
“It’s a ridiculous name for a dog.”
“…schatz. Ms. Rosen…”
“How long’s this been going on?” Paul asked, nodding to the man with the megaphone.
“An hour. Maybe two.”
“Oh no. We’ve been all over the park.”
“She’s been missing since…” he thought for a moment. “Two?”
“Okay, maybe it’s been three hours.”
Emma Rosenschatz wasn’t even his dog. She belonged to Pauline. True, he’d once wished the dog were free, or rather that he was free of it, but unless Emma park-hopped to the greenbelt and then out to the last tracts of forest and happened to resurrect some canine hunting instincts, the dog was toast. With a name like Emma Rosenschatz, going feral wasn’t so much inevitable as impossible. She’d get gang-raped by coyotes or pissed on by deer or not even get that far and instead get transfixed by an oncoming garbage truck, and this time he wouldn’t be there for her.
He’d been eating and watching a video on his laptop when Cherish called. Some stupid clip a friend had sent of newscasters nearly asphyxiated by their own laughter at a video of a squirrel caught in some backyard obstacle course for squirrels, the little guy scrambling up a greased pole, his last obstacle to the nuts above, diligently making headway, then stopping and sliding down and then the little arms and feet a blur as it ascended again. It was stupid, both the original video and the news studio clip surrounding it, but that squirrel kept Floyd away, and Floyd had been barging into the apartment more and more over the past week, which wasn’t supposed to be happening. Floyd wasn’t even supposed to know he was here.
“Let’s keep looking,” Paul said, and headed down the bleacher’s rungs.
He first met Pauline, Emma’s owner, on his return flight from Berlin. She sat just behind him on the fold-down seat used by the flight crew, there where the windows in the rear door were round, small, and cold, and, together with the myriad metal compartments and flush-set latches, gave the tail end of the plane a spacecraft-like seriousness. Paul fell for Pauline because she was surreptitious reading an issue of Dog Fancy tucked within a French edition of Elle. As most of the passengers slept over the remaining expanse of the Atlantic, he lied to her about how much he liked dogs—he liked dogs, of course, but not enough to read magazines about them—all the while sensing that Pauline, in her dark blue Lufthansa uniform and golden cravat, was his last chance to flirt with the Old World before touching down in the New. He admired the uncanny fluency of this honey-blonde German with an upright posture he felt obliged to match. Her smile was honed, but genuine. He learned that she’d grown up with a Shetland Sheepdog that walked her to her bus stop but wouldn’t carry her backpack. Pauline was built like a swimmer, while Paul had a growing beer belly to show for his semester overseas trying to complete his dissertation. He watched her at the breakfast service as she solicited answers of coffee or juice, trading sugar for creamers with the sour-faced flight attendant opposite the cart. Pauline’s hair was anachronistically heavy and reminded him of his mother’s hair. Her ass, as she bent down to fetch a new half-carton of milk, bore no resemblance to his mother’s posterior, but his mother’s continued physical superimposition forced his eyes to dock at the window, where he watched the sun’s morning stretch strike the silver flap and aileron of the plane’s right wing, both control surfaces gleaming and tucked flat high over the pink blanket of clouds rolling out below them as though to promise that even the worse air disaster would be but a cushioned fall onto delicious cotton candy.
By the time Pauline made it to the back of the plane only apple juice and decaf was left in the cart. He noticed she hadn’t eaten and proposed breakfast once they landed.
“Ja?” he asked, to be sure of her answer.
“Yes,” she said.
At O’Hare, he waited for the plane to empty, then followed Pauline and the rest of the plane’s crew down the concourse. He inadvertently missed the entrance to the moving walkway and had to double his speed to keep beside Pauline, even when she stopped walking and just drifted beside him, her estimation of him no doubt plummeting as his carry-on more than once wobbled off its tiny edge-set wheels to flop sideways on the tiles. Just when he’d rejoined her, they parted again, this time so he could retrieve his luggage from the carousel-to-be-announced downstairs. There, waiting for nothing of immediate value, just a rectangle of dirty clothes, Paul knew he should have stayed with Pauline and instead returned later in the day to pull his luggage from some set-aside crowd of orphaned suitcases. As the minutes accumulated, he knew she wouldn’t be in the lounge waiting for him, especially as his suitcase was nearly the last to stumble out from behind the curtain of reluctant rubber strips, followed immediately by the enormous crush of luggage from a Middle Eastern flight whose passengers surrounded him in large familial clumps. He didn’t have Pauline’s phone number—already he was hazy on what she looked like—and now he’d have to call Jeffrey Fitz, his old roommate, who he’d planned to call anyway but didn’t really want to, for a ride and a place to crash, and then, tomorrow, on to Dr. Beller, to whom he’d need to show the paltry improvements on his dissertation, and then, even worse, the dowdy administrative in Grants and Student Loans assigned letters G–K, the one with glossy photos of her one grandchild pinned, nearly collage-dense, on one wall of her cubicle and documenting the ages of perhaps four to twelve, and who would not reinstate his grant, again, because he hadn’t finished his dissertation in a timely and productive manner, and then worst of all, waiting patiently at the end of this week of coming misfortune would be The Great Unknown, which he’d long-since christened Floyd, a simple linguistic safety that usually protected him from T.G.U.’s vortical pull.
Pulling his suitcase through the parting glass doors of the WorldStarClass Lounge, Paul was surprised to find Pauline sitting on a svelte WorldStarClass Lounge chair, unrecognizable at first because she’d swapped her uniform for sweatpants and a T-shirt advertising a parking garage company he suspected was one of those fictitious entities found only on hipster T-shirts: ZIPPY’S PARKING GARAGE PALACE!!! written in a loopy ‘70s typeface that became legible as she stood and hung a backpack over both wide shoulders.
“You waited,” he said.
“You seem surprised.”
“I am. I thought you might be too hungry to wait.”
“I am.” She took a final slurp of coffee then led him to a parking garage. Along the way, trading Chicago stories, he discovered her only Germanic tie was the Audi before them, a fresh WBEZ sticker on the bumper and a license plate frame that said Anesthesiologists Do It Without Feeling.
“I thought you were German.”
“Do I have an accent?”
“No. It’s perfect. That’s why I thought you were German.”
“Are you disappointed?”
“Crushed,” he said, then smiled. And really, he wasn’t disappointed by her domestic appellation. She wasn’t Fitz or Beller or Ms. G–K with the granddaughter in every pose imaginable. She was a stewardess, a flight attendant—as he’d been corrected, and he was in her car headed into the late-morning, the light outside the parking structure glaring like lamplight, then dimming as the Audi drove over the metal traffic spikes, folded harmlessly away like the now ineffectual teeth of The Great Unknown just beneath them. Within a minute, he felt the seats massaging him far too intimately for an innocent drive.
Paul watched where he stepped. The ground near the ponds were illuminated by the flickering bulbs in rectilinear 1970s-era light posts and gave the outdoors an eerie indoor feel. Here, a lumpy patchwork of odd grasses and weeds were mowed down to their thick hollow stalks and a rank stew hung in the air. He could see methane bubbling up from the gray muddy bottom like beads of quicksilver. Squat leafless trees clawed at the far shore. Paul suspected an old landfill sat beneath them all, digesting. He could picture the remains of his dinner back in the kitchen, the second half of his pita still stuffed with lettuce, some spicy Indian leftovers and corn chips. The dog loved spicy Indian food, though taste probably never was a factor: she ingested food without letting it do more than cast a shadow on her tongue as it went in and away into the indifference of the dog’s digestive system.
“Emma!” he shouted. Nothing. “Chips!” he tried. He was still hungry.
“Don’t worry,” Cherish said. “She’s probably just getting her kicks.”
“Thanks for the image.” He wanted to shout at the dog, at someone, for having him out in the cold, dinner only half-eaten. The dog had made him suffer enough indignities.
They stood there, listening to insects. Then Cherish pointed. “Here she comes! Like I said. Kicks.”
He saw the dog pass through one pool of light, then she was gone, then before them again in another flickering circle, mud up to her shoulders, the pond’s bank punctured as though from a herd of migrating wildebeests. She must have been here for hours, harassing ducks and other late migrators. The dog ran to them happily: not at being found, it seemed, but happy in having discovered them. She seemed to assume that Paul was too ignorant of time and place to be anything but delighted at her presence. She shook, pelting them with muck. Paul could hear the megaphone again, calling for Emma.
Paul leaned down and felt past Emma’s matted mustachioed snout and to the collar’s ring, then attached a leash, a firm leather one he’d grabbed from the hook when Cherish had called him, not the one that extended out like an endless measuring tape, portioning off a length of trust and independence.
“Let them know we found her,” he said to Cherish, then let the dog pull him, first to the pond’s bank, then, after a firm tug, aligning her back on the path that would eventually lead to the edge of the park. This was the second time this week Emma had slipped away from Cherish. When Pauline came back he’d tell her she needed to hire a new dog walker, though raising the issue of dog-walking, what with his foot fully healed now, might leave all the dog-walking responsibility up to him again. He walked around the school-kids’ garden, just shriveled vines and brown leaves now, and then along the perimeter of the park where a patrol car’s spotlight swept up moths from the bleached grass. On Washington, the President still sat in the middle of the traffic circle, mummified in toilet paper that wound down around his steed’s legs and ended in a tangle in the long-since flowered perennials that now looked slightly evil, like chard. He looked up and could see Pauline’s apartment building, five blocks away but still the highest building by a good fifteen floors, its top disappearing into low clouds. Only a few lights illuminated the two sides he could see, and from the number of neighbors he’d met inside, he was sure the dark windows looked out from empty, unsold units.
Emma Rosenschatz paused under the awning of the building and took a compact spiraling crap, as though to punctuate the end of her day. Geese honked overhead and he watched them V away and when he looked down again Cherish was walking up to him, still smiling.
Paul and Pauline ate at one of Pauline’s favorite vegan sandwich shops. The sprout-heavy, possibly-raw vegetable sandwich stumbled about in his mouth in a most unbreakfast-like way, even though the meal matched his body clock. She laughed at his observations of jet-lag, then Berliners, giving him this über-concentrated attentiveness that made him feel like he should be more than he felt himself to be. Back outside, she told him she wanted to go for a run—she liked pounding her feet on rock-hard ground, enjoyed turning corners, hopping curbs—and though he tried keeping up with her, his alveoli weren’t on the same page, and then there was gravity pulling him to the nearest sit-able surface, a tiled ledge in an open square. He watched her disappear, wondering if this was a test of his endurance, or the date from which she literally needed to run away, her body turning once, a wave goodbye, before being subsumed in a crowd. He developed a crick in his neck from looking up the street, hopeful for her return, then gave up and lay down and that’s when his hand fell into water and he noticed he was beside a fountain, one of those industrial, all-business fountains where the water didn’t so much cascade as flow silently and almost unseen down and out of sight. He closed his eyes. The fall sun, that pleasant faint heat, plunged to a chill with each obstructing cloud. He was too tired to worry if she was coming back. He was too tired, even, to worry about Floyd. He woke to rain. Pauline towered above him with a near-empty water bottle in her hand, her hair deflated and tied in a ponytail, the ZIP and !!! from ZIPPY’S PARKING GARAGE PALACE!!! drenched in armpit sweat. Her hands were wet. She flicked more water at him from the fountain.
“You got it bad,” she said.
“Ugh. Yeah. How do you deal with jet-lag?”
“You get used to it. Melatonin works for some. Running does it for me.”
“Sleep does it for me.”
“You want me to leave you here?”
“I’m up,” Paul said, lying, lying, then upright and speaking truthfully.
She said she was going to a gym to shower and handed him a grocery list for the dinner she’d make for him at her place, outside the city, if he could remain conscious. In a nearby market, he found her handwritten note difficult to read. The list was on a Berlin hotel’s stationary and was filled with arrows and underlines and crossed out items, as well as a rampantly flowering hand-drawn motif on all four margins, likely doodled in some long phone conversation, and which swung its tendrils into the list itself, making t’s of l’s and h-ing double ll’s and making a fair share of items indecipherable. Even the clear words left him scrutinizing the store’s shelves, wondering which brands she preferred. Whipped cream and strawberries were among the items at the bottom of the list, written in smeary blue ballpoint, as opposed to the fine black used for the groceries he’d already added to his cart. He didn’t know if the strawberries and cream were complementary or if the whipped cream was perhaps for a more prurient activity, and if so should he get the pressurized can of cream? But if for dessert, then the half-carton of organic cream would show his taste, crème fraiche perhaps overdoing it. Though he didn’t want her lying seductively on her bed while he impatiently waited for peaks to form within a mixing bowl, some Marvin Gaye-ish R&B drowned out by the beater’s whine.
The cream was for the strawberries. His satisfaction at choosing the carton of heavy cream—though short-lived as Pauline didn’t own a beater—was topped later that evening when they did sleep together, the sleep even better than the sex. They slept, in both senses of the word, the next morning too, after she’d checked in with Scheduling to see if she’d be on call later that day, returning to bed all smiles. And then again after lunch and the next night again, refueling with food ordered up from her favorite restaurants. He’d never slept, literally, for this many consecutive hours with a woman before: heavy, mercifully dreamless spans spent moving their bodies from Central European Time to the local Chicago clock. And then, a Monday, Scheduling needed her again and she woke him at four a.m. to say she needed to get to InFlight Services but, will you stay until I get back? Lying naked in the empty bed, he felt another warm reprieve from The Great Unknown. He kissed her goodbye at the door like a good househusband, watching her numerical descent on the screen above the elevator doors that ran down from twenty-four to the subterranean garage, where she’d climb into her Audi and zoom out into an economy which, while never having been a welcome bosom for inexperienced student architectural historians like himself, would likely now act surprised the occupation had once existed—were he to venture out himself. Instead, he placed the key she handed him by his wallet and returned to a bed he’d made simply by having seen Dog Fancy tucked within Elle and having made some comment—what was it?—about not knowing supermodels took flea baths. Her asking him to stay felt like the presence of God, for blessed was he who could glide from one ease to another when depression and toil and false sympathy from Dr. Beller—who always frowned when reading, and would offer only “keep at it,” as encouragement—would otherwise have been his companions. And Floyd. Fuck Floyd.
He spent his first days acclimating to the newness of high-rise living. He’d always lived or rented on ground floors and treated anything taller than two stories with suspicion. Before coming here, he’d had nightmares of elevators with jute support lines and quivering pulleys, staircases spiraling around the perimeter of wobbly all-glass buildings, and other similar irrational constructions for someone with only ground-floor tenancy. But even on a conscious level, where those wobbly acro/agoraphobic-inducing dream constructions could be discounted for their implausibility, living on the twenty-fourth floor felt unnatural— not only to be living so high up, but for how his relationship to the ground felt broken. The first premature snow fell and melted almost before he noticed. Even the shopping market and drug store were within the building, with its own entrance/exit to the apartments above, as though to suggest that leaving the building was not only unnecessary but unwise. And yet there was privilege in being raised above the streets, the lights, the grid of electricity, phone and cable, higher than the neighboring buildings, the highest trees, each floor of Pauline’s building spreading more of the earth’s horizon below his feet. He couldn’t remember ever having seen the sun rise and set in any place he’d ever lived—true sunrises and sunsets, too, not the dimness of the sun tangled behind trees or slipping still bright below a neighbor’s roofline. On clear mornings he could see straight to Chicago, strips of night hiding on the shadow side of the outermost skyscrapers. What he didn’t see were neighbors, though occasionally there would be the sound of the elevator summoned past his floor, moving with a whine that was neither hydraulic or electronic but almost alive, as though a giant bird-like creature lived within the shaft, pulling the elevator upward within its claws.
Pauline returned three days later carrying a worn doggy bed, a plastic tub of kibble, various bowls, hair brushes and collars and, on a leash, a schnauzer named Emma Rosenschatz. Pauline stayed an hour, then was gone. From the start, the dog seemed to distrust his presence. It paced the apartment as though he didn’t exist and spent the better part of the next week lying before the front door’s threshold, ears perking up with every passing elevator, wishing Pauline back as earnestly as Paul did. It was a fairly old dog with no puppy-whines or abandonment issues. It just seemed more interested in Pauline than Paul. Gradually, a false thaw started between them, with Emma seeming to enjoy the necessary walks which finally prompted Paul to leave the building’s footprint, at first following the map Pauline had drawn of appropriate streets, parks and pet-friendly neighborhoods, then venturing on his own—marginally by his own curiosity and almost completely by Emma’s heaving-forward momentum. Pauline called often to speak to the dog and after a few instances of obediently holding the phone to Emma’s ear, he started listening instead, pretending Pauline was speaking to him, her doggy talk surprisingly repurpose-able as sexual, until, inevitably, the illusion would be broken by a question like: did you make poopsies today, Emmy? On the days Pauline was home, the apartment’s heater ran at full blast, filling the apartment with something like a plane’s white noise. Combined with views of sky when they lay in bed, the effect was of being aloft in something monstrous, like a Zeppelin.
Sleep was quite glorious—Pauline owned a memory foam mattress—but the sex turned awful. Not because of the mattress’s lack of spring, though there was that, nor because Pauline was unabashedly, even outlandishly loud during sex—although her exuberance sometimes made Paul wish he were a woman, or carried an extant pre-circumcised penis with its full collection of nerve endings (and not just down to the current seventy, sixty, fifty percent?). Not feeling like he could be the cause of her yes’s, the imbalance in their enjoyment made sex feel like a cul-de-sac of self-pleasuring from her nerve ends to her brain stem, with Paul but a witness to her electro/chemical/hormonal flood-rush. And there was no way she was faking it, because, twice already, he’d caught her really faking it, and the illusion was disastrously obvious. He never felt lonelier than during these final moments of coupling, each operating under the assumption the one was doing it for the other, each inebriated with hormones. But if Paul’s headspace made the sex complicated, even this wasn’t the main reason sex was something he no longer looked forward to; not even Pauline’s refusal to do it in her flight attendant outfit, which she insisted keeping pressed and on a fancy hanger, even the other two sets, which, he told her, was an incredible waste of potential. The problem wasn’t even the obvious trap of their names: Paul and Pauline, even though it was wholly unsexy saying a name just a suffix longer than his own. Paul, Pauline, Paul, Pauline.
The real issue was Emma Rosenschatz.
Whenever within earshot of Pauline’s moans, the dog would rush in and nip at Paul’s legs with her tiny teeth, all the while growling in the lip-raising, bat-shit-crazy way of all diminutive dogs, making Pauline’s orders difficult to carry out through the remaining seconds of one of Pauline’s orgasms. When he tried to negotiate the under position to keep his tender calves out of the schnauzer’s jaws, the biting only moved to his upper thighs, plus the position left his testicles frighteningly vulnerable to injury, the cause of which he wouldn’t want to have to explain at any E.R. check-in. He tried to smoother Pauline’s vocal enthusiasm with his lips, but those awkward unmatched kisses stumbled off her chin or worse, resulted in enamel on enamel clatter. Throwing the duvet over the act just brought the dog up to his arms, or worse, much worse, burrowing. The first time, he managed a few well-aimed defensive kicks, but quickly learned this only ensured Emma’s next bite would sink deeper and last longer, his own cries eliciting ignorant and inappropriate come Paul, come responses from Pauline. And these bites were real, not any of those nibbling quivering play-bites. They brought blood, followed immediately by near-psychotic level shame on the dog’s part as Emma would then take to licking his wound, only to pierce him again when she heard Pauline’s next cry of pleasure. This was true intimacy. Pauline always fell asleep afterwards, while he sat in the bathroom sopping up the excess Bactine from his legs with bloody toilet paper, then reaching for the light-as-air box of anti-histamines, pressing a white pill through the stubborn foil. A part of him felt Floyd was behind this, bringing dander and teeth to what might otherwise become a perfect relationship.
Cherish clapped her mittened hands together. “Bravo,” she said, watching Emma sniff her production.
“And? How’d it go?” Paul asked.
“I told them Emma called me. They seemed disappointed. I think that guy liked his bullhorn a little too much.”
For the first time, Paul noticed how short Cherish was. She’d always been at the other side of the door, or leaned backwards at the end of a tethered dog, or sending Emma off back to him from afar. Her head only came up to the middle of his chest. She had to be under five feet.
“So, can I give Emma a bath? Make it up to you?” she said, her voice a promise.
“I’ll take a bag for that, instead,” Paul said, pointing at Emma’s sidewalk deposit.
She withdrew a black plastic bag from her back pocket and pulled it over her hand, then swiftly removed the turd from the sidewalk where it left a damp shadow, then inverted the bag, made a knot one-handed, and shot the bag toward an alley dumpster. It hit the side and fell to the broken asphalt.
“Close enough,” Paul said.
He held the leash out to her. “All right.”
“Can I give it to her upstairs?”
The lobby was deserted, as always. The only full floors were at the top, and then there was Pauline and some others who’d gotten in over the past year on cheap auctions as the building attempted to raise the occupancy saturation to where new owners could qualify for loans. He’d heard this from one of the few residents he’d interacted with, who didn’t take kindly to having paid a premium. The rest of the units were empty. Paul had once taken a walk on the tenth floor and had come across long tubes of heating duct in the hallways and overhead lights that flickered on hesitantly, as though tasting electricity for the first time. It was too The Shining for his liking and he’d gone straight back up to Pauline’s apartment. Now, as the elevator’s doors closed, he saw the little commas of mud that had dropped from the grooves of their shoes. The elevator still bore a new, chemical smell, the buttons gold and unmarred, some floor numbers still covered with clear protective film.
“Where’s Pauline?” Cherish asked.
“Greece, I think. Or flying back from Greece, or something to do with Greece.”
He wondered how it’d be to sleep with a woman this short, a thought that came to him whenever he saw couples separated by a couple feet of verticality. She always facing a chest, he looking at a headboard or a ceiling. Did it make 69 a stiff-necked challenge, maybe even impossible?
At the apartment, he unlocked the door with the keychain that held only one key. “You can use the tub in the small bathroom, to the left.”
While Cherish ran the water, Emma Rosenschatz slurped from her kitchen bowl and then made off with the remains of his pita dinner with a steep but quick floor-to-chair-to-table-back-to-chair-to-floor ascent/descent, then returned and jumped onto the leather divan. Paul emptied, then refilled her drinking bowl, then wiped down the tracks that looked like they belonged to a much larger animal, not the one now rolled on her back, her muddy teats in the air. Snoring.
“C’mon, girl,” Cherish called, and Emma snapped awake, twirling up the length of her spine until she was on the ground and away. Paul wiped down the long track of new prints until they stopped at the closed bathroom door, then went back and cleaned the leather couch. He sat and stared at the thick TV cable that sprouted from the wall where a TV could go. There were probably a thousand channels streaming to the tip of the cable this very moment, just waiting to paint the apartment with jabber and kaleidoscopes. A semester of dubbed American TV in Germany had killed his enthusiasm for the machine, and he doubted, even if Pauline had put in a TV, whether he’d even watch it. He heard the sound of the elevator, and closer, the quieter sound of foam-thick water.
He wondered where Pauline was at this very moment.
In the beginning, he’d tried to track her location by her flight numbers, but then she’d suddenly return when he thought she was in London, and she’d be gone for days when he was expecting her back at any moment. They had exchanged camera-phone snapshots for awhile until, unshaved and un-showered, he began sending photos of Emma instead, to no complaint. Pauline began sending photos of her meals, mostly airline food but occasionally a meal on china, a bit of a wine glass, silverware, tablecloth, and he’d wonder less where she was and more what she was doing, lost to him behind the mathematical shroud woven of time changes, weather delays, shift swaps, flight speed and plain distance. Unable to create a routine around Pauline’s schedule, he and Emma created their own. Mornings, they’d walk to the long greenbelt that opened up at the park, where they’d jog around the baseball diamonds, basketball courts, the playground and to the river and the terraces that were warmed by the rising sun, where a vendor sold scalding coffee from a cart. And then back again, Emma an average of two shits lighter on return. He’d then attempt work on his dissertation until noon and call it a day. That routine lasted two weeks, the length of time until Pauline’s next return.
When she was back in town, the object of Pauline’s affection palpably shifted to Emma, who was stroked affectionately as Pauline sat reading magazines in bed, or who accompanied Pauline on the long runs she took with the dog early in the morning when Paul was too sleepy to contemplate any motion above a stumble. In time, the moles on her shoulders become more noticeable, and the faint wispy hairs on her cheeks seen in a certain angular light, and the tattoo in the small of her back, a small refined tat of an earlier generation, which she said she had to get removed one day, but which he continued to see when together in bed: another man’s initials, S.E., and a tiny heart, off-center too, just to the left of where the spine dives inward. And then, the next morning, Pauline would be back to the skies and it was just Paul and Emma and the lingering sting of bite marks from the previous night’s sex, making him feel like the apartment was an unavoidable field of stinging nettle. During the next two-week jag in which Emma received more than three-quarters of the phone calls from Pauline, Paul decided he’d had enough of being a dog-sitter. He jogged in the park without leashing her. And though she strayed, she also vectored back in on his running direction, and always with that effortlessness that made his assessment of his own health seem overly kind.
On this particular run back, Paul maneuvered around a group of seniors clotting up the sidewalk, squeezing himself between parked cars and parking meters, while Emma, still unleashed, decided to make her route in the street, skirting along the opposite side of the parked cars, now visible in the troughs between car hoods and car trunks, then not. He heard, then saw the line of garbage trucks coming down fast behind them, their baby-blue color doing nothing to hide the military-grade front bumpers. He stepped across the nearly joined bumpers of two parallel parked cars and then down onto the street, scooping up Emma not so much to prevent her from being hit but out of a self-conscious failure to have kept her leashed. And then the doppler horn of the trash truck and the pain in his foot only when he looked down at it, run over by a dump trunk, one running shoe pitted and gray, hiding the excruciating pain that increased on the taxi ride to the hospital. There, holding still for the x-ray, he could already picture the cast, the hobbling around on crutches, the impossible showers, all his fault. But they released him with nothing but a large blue boot. And then Emma wasn’t where he’d left her, tied to the thick newel of an apartment handrail, just feet from where she’d run into the street. Of all indignities, he had to call three shelters and then trudge down, in his obscene boot that was as heavy as it appeared, to two of the shelters that had dogs matching Emma’s description, the dander inside like precipitation and dealing his timid foil-protected antihistamines a serious ass fuck, and then he had to hobble all the way back to the apartment with Emma because the ATM wouldn’t dispense any more cash for a ride, his balance at zero after having paid to get Emma out. The foot swelled, and two hospital visits later, the foot drained once, it became apparent that leaving the dog in the apartment wasn’t an option, schnauzer shit doing about what you’d expect it to do to carpet, no matter how tightly woven. Pauline, on the phone, thought he was exaggerating about his injury until her next day off. And then, as Pauline left the following morning, Cherish appeared at their door, a leash in hand and black plastic bags hanging from her back pocket.
“I got you a dog walker,” Pauline said, and kissed him goodbye.
Cherish’s presence made Paul feel both indignant and complicit. Indignant because—though the relationship seemed mostly for occasional sex and round-the-clock dog watching—he thought he could at least handle those tasks, and complicit, because really, he was fine with the unspoken obviousness of the relationship’s construction. And fine with not having to walk the dog anymore.
“Say hello to Ms. Rosenschatz,” Cherish said, as Emma emerged from beneath a towel, the dog’s newly washed hair a weave of black and silver and smelling of Pauline’s fruity shampoo. Cherish was watching him, so he reached down and scratched the damp ringlets behind Emma’s ears.
“Thanks for cleaning her up,” he said. “I can’t get her into the tub.”
“It’s the least.”
He didn’t tell her that he’d occasionally spray her with some of Pauline’s perfume, just to keep the dog-stink away, and because dog sneezes amused him. Not much fun, huh? he’d ask the dog between spritzes.
“You want to take a shower?” he offered, seeing the flecks of mud on Cherish’s shirt, face and hair.
“I’m okay,” Cherish said.
“All right. I think I will, though. You can hang around if you want.”
He grabbed a change of clothes and showered quickly. The drain was clogged with dog hair and he had to hold it aside with his toe for the water to drain. He dried, dressed, and crept slowly out of the bathroom, trained by the dog who would otherwise bark at any opened or closed door. He saw Cherish in the bedroom, pulling out the velvet-lined drawers of Pauline’s jewelry box. She pushed one back, pulled out another. She held a necklace in the air, fingered the stones and looked at herself in the mirror before pocketing the jewelry. She did the same with two sets of earrings. Paul was surprised at her craftiness, her helpfulness a front. It turned him on, a bit. He watched her move into the spare bedroom—his office. There was nothing there but his laptop and papers. He pictured himself seated before Professor Beller, blaming the dissertation’s absence on theft. It was a considerably attractive thought. Cherish emerged quickly and moved into the living room and beyond his view. He wanted to catch her before she snuck out. He found her seated on the couch, a towel over her lap and Emma on top, tail wagging as she nibbled at Cherish’s fingers.
“So,” he said. “A Friday night.”
“You have anything to drink?”
“Sure. What’ll you take?”
He made a couple of gin and tonics in the kitchen. He wondered if she was even of drinking age. She seemed like a college-age girl who never attended college.
“Your place is so empty,” she said. “Is this the whole place?”
“There’s the wine cellar.”
“I’m kidding. This is all,” he said, handing her a glass. “I call this place The Waiting Room.”
“That’s about right.”
“None of the stuff is mine,” he said, waving his arm over what little there was. “Pauline’s only here a few days a month so I think it’s going to take her some time to, you know, decorate it the way she wants.”
“You must get lonely here.”
It was a good explanation for why he was spending the evening with a kleptomaniac. “I imagine dog-walking isn’t all that social, either.”
“I have a life outside of that,” she said.
“Like stealing from clients?”
Cherish put her drink on the table. “I saw you watching me.”
“Sure,” Paul said. “I’d sick the dog on you, but she’s ahead of me.”
“Whatever,” Cherish said, as though the items in her pocket were of little interest to her, a burdensome haul.
“Yeah,” Paul said. “Whatever. Look, it’s not my stuff. I don’t care, much. Just put it back before you leave.”
“You want me to go?”
“Stay, if you want.”
“Then I’d like to take a shower,” she said, her fingers picking at the dried mud in her hair.
He inventoried the bathroom in his head. “Fair enough.”
While she showered, he went onto the balcony and checked his phone messages, the only spot with decent reception. There was an email from his sister-in-law with photos of his nephews carving a pumpkin, their hands holding stringy mounds of pumpkin guts. There was nothing from Pauline. It was cold outside, and he could see snow falling from the street lamps below, but not in the darkness directly in front of him. Somewhere up above was Pauline. Perhaps.
He heard Cherish in the kitchen when he reentered the apartment. At his entrance, Emma barked from her oval bed, there in the space a dining room table might one day occupy. He wanted to see Cherish come around the corner and into the living room dressed in Pauline’s F.A. clothes: the tight jacket, the ridiculous dog-bowl-like hat, stockings on her short legs sliding into black pumps. He was relieved to see she’d done nothing but take one of Pauline’s T-shirts. She was bent over, rubbing the flecks of dirt from her jeans with a wet paper towel.
“Dogs are a mess,” he said.
“I’m used to it,” she said, straightening and revealing ZIPPY’S PARKING GARAGE PALACE!!!
“So, had a chance to look through everything?”
“I thought you were cool about that.”
“I am.” He sat down. “I’m interested in a professional’s perspective. I’ve gone through the place and can’t find anything more personal than jewelry. No photos, books, bills—there’s nothing.” He didn’t like the way saying this out loud made him sound suspicious of Pauline, or petty, or lacking in the most basic understanding of her rights to privacy. But it unnerved him not knowing, really knowing, the people closest to him. He knew what Pauline wanted him to know, but he wanted to figure her out, maybe to unlock their relationship, maybe to figure himself out. He didn’t think it unnerved most people to live without curiosity. Most people probably went through life undisturbed by their own ignorance, perhaps not even aware of how many teeth they held in their mouths.
Cherish sat beside him. She wore a toe ring, one piece of jewelry he was sure she hadn’t taken from Pauline. She handed him his gin and tonic, now watered down and iceless.
“She lives closer to Chicago,” he said, the first time he’d shared this information. “I went through her purse once while she was showering.” It wasn’t just the one time, either, though he kept this to himself. “Found her driver’s license. And cigarettes.” That was just one more thing he didn’t know about her.
“Could be an old address.”
“New license. Same address that’s on the car insurance paperwork in the glove compartment of her car.”
“This is where I should tell you it’s not nice to snoop.”
“Have you gone there?”
“No. Well, only on the computer. You know, flying over the ground from here to there. It’s a house with a yard. Something round and black in the back.”
“Trampoline. That means kids. You’ve got a sugar mamma.”
“Doesn’t feel that way.” He took their highballs into the kitchen and made another set.
“You have to put out a lot, I bet,” Cherish said. “You must be good in bed, though you don’t look like you would be. Are you?”
“You’re better at stealing than complimenting, you know.”
“I say what I see. Is she, like, a dominatrix?”
“I think I’m here mostly to watch the dog.”
“That’s my job.”
He handed her the fresh drink and sat down on the other side of the couch. Emma sat between them now, staring at the door with those eyes so black and unreadable, eyes that seemed either solid or empty—he hadn’t decided which.
“So,” he said. “This how you usually spend a Friday night?”
“Always. I like talking to kept men.”
“Funny.” Paul stood up and walked into the office and returned with two ream’s worth of paper. He put them in front of her on the coffee table. “Here’s how I spend my time.”
She paged through it, passing all-too-soon the pages of endnotes and reaching the white emptiness that made up ninety-five percent of the stack. “It’s blank.”
“No it isn’t. Flip the corners.”
In one corner he’d drawn frames showing an anvil falling onto a jogger, splitting him in two, the two halves falling to the ground and burning into ash, consumed by a giant worm that rose from the paper ground. In another corner, the flip animation showed a ball bouncing, then breaking into a dozen balls, each blooming into a flower.
“You have some serious free time.”
Cherish turned to the corner where he’d drawn Emma Rosenschatz taking a nine-hundred and fifty-page shit.
“Nice. This corner’s blank.”
“There’s always tonight.”
“You need to get out.”
“True, but here’s the thing. Let’s say I lived with you, hypothetically I mean, and I was working on my dissertation. You’d take a peek, right?”
“I might. I dunno. Aren’t they boring?”
“Yes, but you’d still look, is my point.”
“Not all women are interested in dissertations.”
“You can be real cruel.” He finished his drink. “I find it weird she hasn’t even called me on the doodles. A little interest on her part wouldn’t hurt.”
“Poor boy. Starved for attention?”
“I dreamt, once, I was a steward. Me and Pauline flying together to overseas capitals.”
“But then what about Emma?”
“And you’d make a lousy steward, anyway.”
“I can be very steward-ly.”
“You haven’t offered me anything to eat, and I’ve been here, like, an hour at least, and even washed stuff I’m not sure was even mud off of your dog.”
“You’re hungry, too?”
Outside, Emma strained at her leash, trotting ahead of them on the thin bed-sheet of snow that still showed the stained sidewalk beneath. Cherish led them to a hotdog place he’d never noticed in daylight, its windows bright yellow and opaque with condensation. Standing under the awning, he and Cherish enjoyed the kitchen heat flowing from the window as they ate. Paul was getting off cheap, paying with one of the twenties Pauline left for Emma’s food. His hotdog was plain with ketchup. Hers: onions, ketchup, mustard and bacon bits. She had bright yellow mustard on her knitted gloves.
Emma sniffed at the black warts of old gum on the sidewalk.
“So you, now,” Paul said. “What do you do when you’re not walking dogs, or losing them, or swiping jewelry?”
“I eat hotdogs with kept men.”
“And you’re unkept?”
“Right. And married.”
“Everybody’s married, Paul.”
“What’s your husband do?”
She motioned for patience as she chewed. “He works…” She swallowed. “In a pharmacy. There,” she said, pointing to a 24-hour RiteAid across the street. “Come. I’ll introduce you.”
“Nah. And we’ve got Emma.”
“C’mon. You think I’m bluffing? You’re out of conditioner anyway, and you don’t want Pauline to come home and find you’ve used it all up. Women need their conditioner.”
She led him inside and through the bleach-white store, past the battery aisle, the rack of cheap faux-fur hats, earmuffs with built in music players, and Snap’n’Shake heat packs. One aisle was selling Thanksgiving. Another, Christmas. Emma’s nails clicked on the buffed floors like they were dropping a trail of tacks behind them.
The approach of a man with a STORE MANAGER name tag pained him, the manager’s smile especially, the authority that was going to send him, a grown man, outside with his forbidden dog. He pulled up on Emma’s leash.
“Hey Cherish,” the manager said, the smile fixed. “What’s up?”
“Hey Franco. Nothing.” Cherish didn’t stop walking.
“Yeah. This is Ms. Emma Rosenschatz.”
“Whoa. Getting fancy now. Who gives their dog a last name?”
“Him,” Cherish said, pointing at Paul.
“Well, actually…” Paul began, quickening his step to catch up to them.
“Can I help you with something Cherish?”
“Maybe some other time?”
“I don’t think so Franco.”
“Okay, Cherish. Okay. You know where I am.”
And then it was just Emma and Paul following Cherish, first past the aisles of vitamins and drugs and finally to the pharmacy in back, a single man behind the counter surveying one-hundred and eighty degrees of aggregate cures.
“Cherish,” the pharmacist said.
She leaned over the counter and air kissed him. He was a short man with a thin mustache, older than Cherish by fifteen-twenty years, maybe. His name tag said Filip.
“What do you have for…for what?” she asked, swiveling around and scrutinizing Paul. “What’s your condition?”
“I don’t know. My condition?”
“What ails you. Blank pages, etcetera.”
“No, not it. What do you have for suspicion and curiosity, F?”
“He have a prescription?” Filip asked.
“Nope. Strictly over the counter. I figure we help him out, he helps us out.”
Her husband let out a long, low musing groan from the other side of the counter as he looked Paul up and down. Paul could hear the plastic button of Filip’s pen rattle each time he tapped it against his temple.
“Okay. He’s okay?”
“He’s okay. He’s writing a dissertation,” Cherish said, mockingly.
“I’ll bring something home,” Filip said.
“He’ll bring something home,” Cherish said and smiled up at Paul. “Now go get your shampoo.”
“You need more shampoo, too.”
Paul carried the plastic RiteAid bag. He hadn’t been to someone else’s home in months and the strong social craving to see how others lived rose in him as he followed Cherish up two flights. The apartment was dim, even when fully illuminated. The light seemed to disappear into the abundance of worn furniture, most draped in throws. In one corner sat a basket of yarn as well as knitting needles embedded in some work-in-progress, the ends of the needles capped by skulls. It looked like someone had been sleeping on the couch. The room’s walls were mostly thin avenues of gray between a dozen framed pieces of needlepoint. A smell of spice and smoke hung under the stamped tin ceiling that sagged in the middle, low enough that Paul could touch it with all ten fingers. The home seemed the kind meant to be visited only be the closest of friends. He sat on the couch. Cherish made tea, then came out of the kitchen to give Emma an enormous bone-shaped biscuit. She picked up a wide book from the fruit crate-cum-coffee table and pressed it onto Paul’s lap, tapping the title, Filip and Cherish Do Montreal, while saying, “Just got it. Tell me if we look like a loving couple.”
He turned pages, looking disinterestedly at photos of architectural details, some with Cherish posing next to plaques or mail slots or whimsical doorknobs.
“Filip gets off any minute,” she said.
He sipped his tea. The tannins made his mouth parched and squeaky. The ease with which Emma curled into the corner of the room by the knitting basket, gnawing hungrily at the bone, made Paul suspect she’d been here before and that perhaps not all of Cherish’s dog-walking duties had been carried out to their implied fullness. Pauline had hired Cherish from an ad in the lobby, her number the only portion of the phone number skirt that had ever been detached. But if the situation was copacetic to Emma, he could relax. Maybe they’d watch a movie—though he didn’t see a TV—or even worse, play cards. But he suspected it would be something more. Drugs perhaps. With a pharmacist for a husband, it had to be drugs. It would have to be something really good. He still had plenty of Vicodin from his broken foot, at home. A model of a molecule sat on a bookshelf, the same kind he remembered from school. He’d have to pass, if it was drugs. He didn’t like to have his defenses down. He had to stay sharp against Floyd.
“Filip loves anything Canadian,” Cherish said, pointing to a photo of herself posing next to a Mountie.
“Too bad you’re not Canadian.”
“I am, though!”
At that moment Filip came through the door. Emma didn’t bark at all. She wagged her tail a few times, though her jaws took no break from her bone.
“What took so long?” Cherish asked.
“What did I say? You need to start calling that woman a half hour—no, an hour before you get off.”
“Call her every fifteen minutes, then. You can’t keep covering her.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Do. And shower, please. You smell. We’re not going to do this if you smell like that.”
“Did. At Paul’s place,” she said.
Paul didn’t appreciate the tease being tested out in his presence.
“Emma got away at the park. She got muddy, we got muddy. I was a mess. Now move,” she said, pushing him down the hallway.
Paul leafed slowly through the photos from Montreal. He sipped his tea. Toward the end of the book there were pictures of Cherish and Filip at a rooftop party with flash-bleached potted plants and hanging strings of light. Everyone in the photograph was nude, though painted. In one photo, Filip, striped black and white, was painting a woman’s forehead with green paint. In another, Filip and Cherish stood together, wine glasses in hand, Cherish also painted in stripes. Together—in a photo that made him close the album quickly—they formed a zebra. He looked up. He and Emma were alone.
“Paul?” Cherish called.
Emma looked up, then went back to her bone.
“Yeah?” Paul said.
“Time to give us a hand.”
He realized he still held the leash. He let go and walked down the long dim hallway. And there it was.
Cherish straddled her husband on a bed in the last room, a maple leaf tattoo on her right buttock. He wasn’t sure if there was anything on the port side. Pauline’s necklace hung down in the space over Filip’s chest.
“Have a seat,” Filip said.
There was a round rattan chair covered with a knit blanket that depicted, quite impressively, a very O’Keeffian motif.
“Sit,” Cherish said.
He picked up the video camera lying there to make room, then sat.
“Cherish explain everything?” Filip asked.
“Not. No exactly. Not.” He noticed a tube and several small bottles atop a flattened RiteAid bag on the bedside table.
“Well.” Filip looked up at Cherish for a moment, then pointed to the camera. “That’ll record a full hour, so you don’t need to ever press pause. Ever. And don’t touch the zoom or it’ll blur. Make sure you get us kissing.”
“And when he puts it in me,” Cherish said.
“Definitely,” Filip said.
“C’mon Paul,” Cherish said, beginning to grind against her husband.
Paul looked at the video camera.
“That’s it,” she said encouragingly as he swung wide the small viewing screen on the camera.
The strap was for a hand much smaller than his own. He flipped the video camera on and looked down at the screen. He could see Filip’s hand over the maple leaf, his large thumb rubbing Cherish’s tattoo as though there was something there he could feel, or remove. Paul focused on the array of icons around the border of the screen. There was a sun, a cloud, a silhouette of a person and an icon of someone sprinting. He wondered if this qualified as portrait or sports photography. He wondered, mostly, how this evening ended up here. Was he completely misjudged, or, more creepily, completely understood—even though he himself was still in the dark about whether he liked this. Filip spanked Cherish’s ass cheeks and Cherish sighed loudly in a surprisingly low, bowel associative way.
“Did you get that?” she asked.
“Hit record already.”
“Wait. I don’t know if I’m into, you know,” Paul said.
“You can have her after,” Filip said. “She likes you.”
“Ugh. I’m not a whore,” Cherish said, slapping Filip’s chest.
“I’m making a joke,” Filip said.
“Um,” Paul said, uneasily. “This is all a bit too…”
“You didn’t tell him?” Filip asked, looking first at Cherish, then back to Paul. “Look. Filip doesn’t get his jollies being watched.”
“It’s for Immigration,” Cherish said. “Green card stuff.”
“To prove we’re married,” Filip said.
“But you are. You said…” Paul began.
“We’re married,” Cherish said, using air quotes, “but they can deny residency if they think, you know, that it’s just arranged.”
“Which it isn’t?” Paul asked.
Filip let out a grunt. “You think Filip can get a woman like this?”
“But your English is great,” Paul said. “You must have lived here…”
“I’m Canadian, remember,” Cherish said.
“I’m not sure why I’m here,” Paul said.
“Get all the angles, the mushy bits. Let Immigration see the passion and the love.”
“And get my dick going into her,” Filip said.
“Ah,” Paul said. “I don’t think you can just send a tape to Immigration to prove you’re a real couple.”
Filip pointed at him. “Wrong. It’s exactly what you can do so she can stay here with Filip.”
“Ugh,” Cherish said, reaching down for Filip’s penis. “Let’s get this over with.”
Paul definitely wasn’t into this. Filip spanked Cherish again and then Paul heard Emma bark. The dog trotted into the bedroom. Paul looked down at the camera and quickly pressed the record button. He stopped breathing. He felt every muscle tighten as he waited for Emma to jump up on the bed—jump, jump now Emma, jump—and sink her teeth into one of Filip’s calves. If it was true that Immigration case workers got sent sex tapes, then they’d surely never received one like this one, with sex and violence. Paul wanted to see the look on Filip’s face, eyes squeezed cramp-tight, nearly disappearing in pain. Not because Filip deserved a serious interruption—he was helping Cherish, after all—but so Paul could have a hint at what he himself looked like when he was at the receiving end of Emma’s fury/jealousy/insanity. But Emma remained at Paul’s side like a suddenly well-trained beast and looked up at him. He nudged her forward with one leg, but she held firm, rebelling in the adamant way of dogs. He placed the camera on the carpet and picked up his end of the leash. If Filip were tall maybe then he’d stay awhile, just to see how the mechanics of the vertically challenged aligned. No. Not even for that. The hallway was longer than he remembered.
“What do you need?” Cherish called after him. “I’m just about to put it in.”
“Go ahead,” Filip said. “Filip can edit this later.”
Paul didn’t answer, but stood in the living room.
He grabbed his coat and looked around to see if he’d left anything, his wallet or cell phone, or perhaps keys slipped from his pockets, something that would necessitate an undesired return. He quietly unlocked the door, or, perhaps locked it. He tried again, this time with the top lock, the door easing, then catching on the deadbolt.
“C’mon. Stay,” Cherish said, emerging from the hallway.
She was bare in a way he’d never seen a woman unclothed before: not nude, but immodestly naked.
“I thought you were into me,” she said. “You know? We’ll do this, then I’ll send Filip on a walk.”
“I’m not, you know, a prude, I’ve, you know, I think it’s fine, but…”
“Come back, Paul,” she said.
“It’s not all about you, babe,” she said, and took his hand and pulled it down to the hair between her legs, which, looking for just a moment, he was pretty sure was somehow braided, or rather, knit.
“Do Cherish a big favor, she’ll do you one.”
There was far too much talking in the third person for Paul’s taste. The video camera dinged from the bedroom.
“Dammit, C,” Filip called. “Only ten minutes left on the battery. Have you been using the camera?”
“I gotta go,” Paul said, the deadbolt this time scraping clear from the jamb.
“No. You don’t. Stay.”
“Now only nine minutes!” Filip shouted. “No way that’s a minute.”
“I gotta go.”
“I recommend a tripod,” Paul said, then followed Emma down the hallway, holding his hand up in the air without turning around, as though he were tossing Cherish a casual goodbye. Every necessary step felt dream-difficult—“Paul?! Paul!”—but once down one flight of stairs his steps were lighter, easier, and once he was down and outside again, back in the cold, away from Cherish and Filip and the obscene stupidity of their plan to document a consummated marriage, away from the apartment building completely, well, each foot stepped light and loose and God Almighty! God Jesus JESUS! did it feel good to be walking away, then jogging away, then running free, down through the long depression cutting through the park’s forested hillock—an abandoned rail line, perhaps—where the light posts stood at odd angles like something huge had just blown through ahead of him.
He paused to unclip the leash from Emma and the two of them sprinted from one pool of light into the next. He ran for longer than he could ever remember having run. She stayed with him throughout, too, maybe because she didn’t know where they were going, but maybe also because she liked running alongside him late and alone. Emma didn’t stray, she didn’t pause. Not once, not even to the splayed beams of flashlight off to the left and the distant shouts of her name.
Back in Pauline’s apartment, Paul stowed the drinks from earlier in the evening in the dishwasher, dropped his dissertation in his office and sat down at the desk, an old kitchen table actually, with a little-used drop-leaf three shades darker than the rest of the nicked wood. He turned his dissertation over to a fresh side, picked up a pencil and began writing down everything he hadn’t told Pauline, as though he were writing to an arbiter of their own relationship, being honest to the Authorities. He told her the most he’d ever weighed, the girlfriends he’d hurt—emotionally-only, but that was enough, the loss of one brother to a heart attack at only thirty-six (a year more than their father’s cardiac arrest at thirty-five), the lack of nice things he felt he’d done for strangers, and an itemized list of everything he’d ever stolen, with emphasis on the immaterial. He switched to a pen and continued, now listing his phobias: from heights—wuthering or stock-still, to his horror at Floyd, although he didn’t call it Floyd, or even The Great Unknown, but rather a fear of what will come, though that sounded too diluted and weak, and then he did write to Pauline about Floyd because he was pouring it all out now, everything, the deep and the mundane, the panic attacks, the fear of meeting Floyd in a dream and not being able to save himself, temporarily, with a conscious distraction. It wasn’t all dark. He listed—on two pages—the qualities he liked most about her, discovering these qualities, to his surprise, as he wrote them down, including the way she pulled at her lovely lower lip when she was thinking, and her akimbo stance when she wiped her feet, like she was doing some threshold dance. He confessed, too, that he’d snooped through her things and found her other address, and was listing all this now because he hoped there was something more to their relationship than he being who she saw and she more than a recent divorcee with an apartment and a dog in need of sitting. Even if this thing he wanted was just the truth. Not that she’d been lying to him—he wanted to stress that point. He even set down the evening’s events, Emma first being lost, then found, all the way up to Cherish atop her husband, Paul looking down into that camera, the run, the search still on, all the way to this moment, now. Then he put down his pen and slept, waking once with a cramp in his wrist.
Pauline came in during the night, her bundle of keys splaying on the kitchen counter and waking him. In bed, she smelled like the color brown—hazelnuts, wood, warmth. A surge of testosterone from the evening’s strange events refused to metabolize into less insistent molecules. But he tucked his erection between his thighs so he could feel the entire length of her body against his body as she slept, listening to her breathing, his diminished but still present belly fitting perfectly in the small of her back.
When he woke again it was day. He heard the shower running and the wheeze of Pauline’s shampoo or conditioner bottle being squeezed for remnants. The night’s events washed back over him, but rested on the sensation of having put down the RiteAid bag on the floor of Cherish’s apartment, there to the side of the couch, beside the basket of yarn.
Paul placed the pages he’d written the night before on his pillow, then placed a few blank pages on Pauline’s pillow, along with a pen. Emma sat at the foot of the bed, her teeth caging a narrow tongue that curled through the length of a yawn. He put on his running shoes then grabbed the leash and gave Emma’s head a good tussle.
“C’mon, girl,” he said. “I’m told women need their conditioner.”
Her stubby tail wagged like a mechanical switch. They reached the door and he shut it quietly behind them. He would pick up something from the bakery, too, on his way back, he told himself, but he felt his pocket and it was empty except for the tinfoil-wrapped tablet of aspirin, always there, just in case it was his turn to feel chest pains. In every direction beyond the lobby’s scalloped awning lay a new half-inch of unplowed powder. The awning above sagged like the underside of a hammock. He and Emma ran, Emma snapping at the drifts until the bottom of her muzzle hung with snow. He understood why people loved dogs, not just for the companionship, but because of the purity of their body language. There were no surprises, nothing hidden, just the dog wanting to be with him, in motion, forever—no, not even forever, not even the idea of forever, not even the idea of limits—just now, in this moment, without a single worry, wanting to be with him, running. He found that he loved Ms. Emma Rosenschatz, and wished that this was enough, that what he really wanted wasn’t a woman with whom to share a balcony over life’s stage, but a dog to run with, this animal he had until recently wished away. And as they turned and ran uphill to the plateau of Fourteenth Street, knowing they’d both grow tired soon, he thought of places where the two of them could stay warm for the amount of time it would take Pauline to tell a story she hadn’t yet told.
Pauline was waiting in the bedroom when they returned. His pages were spread on the bed. Her pen was untouched.
“Oh Paul,” she said.
Paul reached down and unleashed Emma. He rubbed the top of her small skull to distance himself from those two words, Oh Paul, for the way they made him feel pitiable. He had to stop eventually, and then Emma retreated to the kitchen, the metal name tag on her collar clinking against her water bowl as she lapped.
“Okay,” she said. “Ready for my happy life?”
“Yes,” he said, taking a seat at the edge of the bed. He coughed to correct the arrhythmia in his chest. Pauline sat cross-legged across the room from him, her back resting against the floor-to-ceiling glass wall. There was no balcony here, just a gray sky. She pulled at her lower lip, but her eyes were from a face he hadn’t seen before. “I’m divorced, as you know. Widowed now, actually. Ex-widowed.”
He hadn’t known about the widowed part. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“He died a few months before you and I met. His new wife—older than me, how’s that for unusual?—she didn’t want Emma after he died, and frankly, Emma’s the only part of my marriage I’m still fond of, though I went a little soft on him there, after he died. For a few days, anyway. Back in rosier days we’d taken in Emma from a neighbor that was being moved to an old folks home. Our neighbor had named the dog after his late wife. So. That’s where the Rosenschatz comes in.”
“But now with Emma back, the kids’ allergies make it impossible for me to have her. Well, for Nathan, anyway. Barry is allergic to walnuts and cinnamon. Nathan is allergic to dogs, cats, birds, soy and wheat,” she said, touching each fingertip.
This explained the trampoline. “How old are they?” he asked.
“And corn,” she said, squeezing the thumb of her opposite hand. “That’s the worst.” She looked up at him. “Eleven. Eleven and fourteen, I think. Do you have a will?”
He shook his head.
“Well, there’s a part where you ask someone to be your kids’ guardian if something crazy happens to you and your spouse at the same time. Like you’re driving to a weekend getaway for your fifteenth wedding anniversary and a head-sized rock comes down a mountain side, this one rock the perfect size to shatter right through the sunroof of a moving car, and then a boulder follows—this one’s big, like car-big—and sends your car off the road and down into a river. And…”
“You drown. You drown clutching that rock like a football. It was lodged where his stomach had been.”
He had expected lighter fare. “I’m sorry,” Paul said, but he meant that’s enough.
She sat silently. A large-winged bird, almost like a seagull, hung motionless in the air behind her, then flapped twice and fell out of sight. Emma entered the room, jumped up on the bed for a quick survey, then jumped down to where Pauline sat. Emma let herself be stroked.
“And then my brother, who I hadn’t spent more than a week’s consecutive time with since he went off to Brandeis, is gone for good and my sister-in-law, too, who my mother thinks was being cheated on but now she’ll never know, both my mother and my sister-in-law, that is. Not that it matters. And then this apartment…” Her hands held the floor. “It’s been sitting empty since I moved in with the boys last summer. Me, who doesn’t know a thing about raising kids, and no time to learn. But you have to learn, you fake it long enough until it’s real, and it’s hard. Harder for them, I’m sure—imagine, both parents. But still, it’s hard Paul. And then my ex-husband dies and I have Emma, and she and Nathan get along great except for the allergy part and he’s sick three weeks straight, hives and everything, and I couldn’t, I just couldn’t put Emma in a pound when no one would have her. And then you came along. You know that part. You, clever and fresh and ambitious and liking dogs.”
He didn’t feel fresh, nor ambitious, but Paul supposed the judgement was relative.
“And with you I get to spend time here again. All this, with you. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enormous while it lasts, for the weekend, or even just a day stolen from the kids. I pay Magrita, their old babysitter, to watch them when I’m on schedule and sometimes even when I’m actually free, so I can come here and be in my neighborhood, in my apartment, with a man. Sleeping, eating without complaints, without death and sadness and everyone else’s grief hanging on me, too. Because there’s no getting away from it there. There’s no getting away from living in someone else’s house.” She paused. “It’s so hard to do the right thing without a little bit of selfishness to look forward to. That’s you.”
The bird was back, floating on a current Paul couldn’t see. No, not the same bird. This one had a deep orange beak. And then the previous bird rose into view and there were two of them floating there, neither flapping, two completely different species. The birds went past the edge of the wall and he leaned to the side to glimpse the tips of their wings, and then they were gone, entirely.
“I’m going to lose you, too,” Pauline continued.
“No. You’re not. Why?”
“I have to try and sell this place. My brother’s money was all in real estate, Paul, and I mean real estate is worth fucking less than zero. And life insurance? Yeah, right. College funds, though? Yeah, fifty-grand there, fifty untouchable grand. And I can’t sell their house. The kids have to have that house. And I can’t keep going away every couple weeks. It’s harder and harder each time. When I leave here, do you know what I do, Paul?”
He shook his head, because even a rhetorical question seemed, now, to need acknowledgement.
“I sit in my car down in the garage and cry for a good hour every time. Every. Fucking. Time. The lights down there switch off after ten minutes when there’s been no motion or sound. I open my car door and slam it again to kick the overhead lights back on, because without some light I get swallowed whole. Like, I really fucking lose it. and when I’m cried out I drive to Nathan and Barry. And even if I had the money to keep this place, those kids need me. They need me all the time. I have to stop flying. I need to work counters at the airport or in administration if I can get moved around, or else something completely different and I don’t know anything different, Paul. Everything I know is what I’ve done, and not what I might have to do.”
Paul looked at the blank pages on her pillow and wondered, if he hadn’t put down his story, if he hadn’t asked for hers, what would they being doing right now? Out for breakfast, maybe. Thinking of the day ahead. Perhaps they’d catch a movie. Then stay in this night, get drunk, get her laughing so hard she’d snort.
“You’re the right man for me, right now,” she said. “But it’s not about me. You’re the wrong man for what’s best. I need somebody with money. Someone who likes a woman with debts, you know? Who loves kids, adores teenagers.” She was angry now. “You know guys like that?”
“No,” Paul said.
“Well, if you run into any, tell them where to find me. And poor Ms. Rosenschatz,” she said, instantly softening. “What’s going to happen to you?”
They didn’t go out for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. He didn’t make her laugh, she didn’t mix a set of drinks in the kitchen, all-too-careful to get the proportions precise. They didn’t sit on the couch and tell each other of their past week; she, the cities she’d flown to, the unruly Bodies, the celebrity up in first that failed to impress; he, his progress on his dissertation, some new park he’d found for Emma; nor reached out for the other, an inadvertent-seeming brush, or a handclasp while descending the elevator. Instead, they sat in Pauline’s Audi, the seats uncomfortably hot, aqua pillars on the radio’s display collapsing and rebuilding frantically, but the volume turned down to zero, as it had been from the drive from the apartment to her nephews’ house; except, even at zero and with the engine turned off, he could hear a faint mechanical tension that was the highest registers of an indecipherable beat. No melody. In the trunk sat his suitcase and Emma’s bowls and bed and dozen chew toys. Emma lay between his feet, sleepy in the still-warm air flowing from the floor vents. Pauline had been on the way to drop him off at Jeff Fitz’s apartment, but he’d talked her down to a week, no, just a weekend to see how the boys took to him, and how he took to the house. And, she’d said, how he took to her, there.
“C’mon,” he said, taking off his seatbelt. “Don’t change your mind. Because I think it can work out. I really do.”
He thought he could see a smile on her face.
“The world would be a great place if you were always right,” she said.
“Yeah, wouldn’t it?” he said.
He wanted to fold her up and hold her in his hands and just stop her from saying these kinds of things, for her to be light enough to be a woman running from him for fun only, hopping puddles for pleasure. To be the woman he’d thought she was, months ago at the false safety of thirty-five thousand feet.
Paul had not yet opened the car door. She had not yet killed the ignition. Outside, most of the leaves had fallen from the elm in the front yard, a tree that looked as though its roots had been shaken of dirt, then replanted upside down in ground that had yet to see snow. Through the limbs, Paul could make out the upstairs bedrooms. He could see the spinning shadow of an unbalanced ceiling fan and the shadow of someone moving from one room—Nathan? Barry?—into the other. A yellow, blue and red flag hung in the second window of the second room. Downstairs, a woman watched TV. Magrita, undoubtedly, and ignorant of the two of them parked at the curb, the silent music still painting stacks of rising and falling pillars on the car radio’s display. It didn’t look too bad, a life here. It was a bigger house than he’d imagined, a much nicer neighborhood. Most importantly, he didn’t sense Floyd’s presence here. The dome light came on as he opened the door. He could see Pauline pulling at her lip.
“Wait,” Pauline said, reaching down to put the car in gear, the Audi moving before he had his door closed again, his pull not latching it correctly, the dome light still on. “Not yet.”
Pauline sped down the unlit street, the headlights boring at the night air that seemed to be rushing to put a few inches of the street ahead of the light’s throw. Any faster, it seemed, and they’d see nothing. He fumbled for the door latch and pushed the door open a few inches, heavy now against the rushing air. Shutting it again sounded immensely solid. Just before the dome light faded completely, he saw her smiling.
“Not yet,” she said. “Not just yet.”
At a motel, Pauline took the water and food bowls out of Paul’s hands and put them back in the Audi.
“Emma can stay in the car awhile,” she said, and took him to hunt for their room.
She took a long shower while he sat and disassembled and reassembled the motel room’s ballpoint pen: the two barrels, the metal ring between them, the loose-fitting button, the stoppered plastic ink tube pinched wide near the tip to compress against the narrower spring. He could do it with his eyes shut. He thought about tomorrow. He’d never really pictured himself having kids, babies that is, but he could sense the possibility of entering undeniable adulthood this way, with Pauline’s nephews already versed in life’s real shit, with nothing to protect them from, no obligation to lie, he just being there for them. He could vault over The Great Unknown and arrive at their house tomorrow fully-formed, a way to live that might push off T.G.U.’s until his later years. He wouldn’t, couldn’t be a replacement for their father, but he might shape a new role just as necessary to the boys and to Pauline. They could run together in the evenings, all four of them, down these very streets, and the boys could ask him for advice and he could tell them the truth, that he had none to give but maybe they could find some together. And Emma Rosenschatz would be running ahead of them all. Pauline had shown him photos of the boys on her phone. They were good-looking kids, brown-haired, both of them hanging from a tree limb by thin arms. Their front teeth looked enormous in their mouths. One was freckled. One was not.
When Pauline came out of the bathroom she was dressed in her flight attendant outfit, her hair wet and uncombed.
“You get called?” he asked, setting aside the pen.
She went around turning off the lights at their brass bases, then stood next to Paul where he sat in the half-circle leatherette. She pushed her thigh against him and put his hand on her skirt, lifting his fingers up to her waist, where he nudged aside the seam’s partial overlap and felt for the tiny zipper clasp, extracted it, and pulled it stiffly down, the tiny nib barely holding between his fingernails. The pressed skirt parted to reveal the still-damp skin beneath: hot, pale and finely haired—but that was from memory; the room was dark except for the halo of light around all four sides of the heavy window drapes. He kissed her skin.
He could hear Emma’s barks over Pauline’s sighs, over the knocking headboard, the squeaking coils, the neighbor’s pounding, over her breathing in his ear afterwards as she fell asleep, and it was almost worse not feeling Emma’s bites. Pauline slept in her flight attendant blouse, her jacket catching on his feet as he dressed and headed to the door in the dark. At the car, Emma was frantically happy to see him, her off-white paws drumming on the window jamb on the driver’s side. The night was thickly bright with the slow fall of snow. He snuck her upstairs and into the room, her fur blissfully cold for the briefest minute. She burrowed under the covers and fell asleep.
He woke late the next day, or it felt late, the curtained front window an eclipse on the day to come.
“Pauline? Emma?” He checked the bathroom, then downstairs. Snow lay across the parking lot and on the roof of the competing motel on the opposite side of the street, and on the corner gas station where it added an obtuse peak to the giant upright propane tank already wearing long dribbles of ice. Where Pauline’s car had been there was just a rectangle of snowless gravel. His suitcase sat on the parking chock, still wearing the paper-like luggage tag attached months ago. BER—CHI. He opened it, but there was no note inside, either.
He found the house later that morning, but there was no Pauline, no boys. He had to use his rusty Spanish to talk to the half-dozen Ecuadorians living there. They were nice enough to let him look in the backyard, as though, for all they knew, he might just find Pauline and Emma there instead of a snow-covered volleyball court. Pauline’s number went straight to voicemail, his texts and emails were one-way messages asking her to just to see him, to simply call. He knocked on every door on both sides of the street, canvassing, and he even came back again that night and stood for the longest time in front of the house with the Ecuadorians, watching the wobble in the ceiling fan to make sure he wasn’t mistaken, watching for so long that he felt watched himself, and ran to shake off the sensation. He couldn’t remember the address he’d found on Pauline’s driver’s license—the number he remembered, but not the street name, and at Jeff Fitz’s he tried finding the house by the black circular trampoline in the backyard of the satellite photo, but there were hundreds of trampolines on the South Side; and on the North Side the satellite photos had been replaced with higher resolution images, but of winter, a million long shadows of a million bare trees across a million empty lawns.
He tried animal shelters, wishing she’d at least left him Emma, portioning him some of the work to be done. Instead, he found himself at week’s end in a new apartment that allowed pets, making him feel post-guilty. What-ifs formed the mortar to what would become an entire semester of regret and inertia. Dr. Beller found his thesis much improved, though all he’d done was append an opening quote and print it on the vellum that happened to be in Jeff’s printer. He sat out graduation ceremonies, worked in a hotel. Late-evening realizations that he hadn’t thought of Pauline for the entire day threw him into spells of retrograde sadness which only another day of forgetting could, unenjoyably, relieve. He wished he could feel when he wasn’t sad, without knowing why.
He no longer pretended to be picking up a friend when he travelled to the airport on his days off to try to glimpse her. He imagined Pauline pulling her carry-on suitcase in the company of the rest of a jocular flight crew. That would be enough, to see her happy.
He couldn’t help but wonder if she’d fabricated the whole sob story. He traveled out to her apartment that first week after she’d left, and then again, months later, where a Cathy Sloke and her mother now lived. They had televisions and cable TV, an unmade adjustable bed in the bedroom for Cathy’s mother, and potted plants on the balcony they took in at night. The building had been converted into apartments, all the plush lobby furniture replaced with stackable plastic chairs. Soda machines hummed in the recessed alcoves where palms had once hung their fronds like umbrellas. The elevator was noisier, worn, and it smelled like something had died in the shaft.
Every online search brought up the world’s other Pauline Wendts, predominately teenage girls, their profile photos cropped from party scenes, thin fingers holding ridged red cups with icy-white interiors. Their friends looked much the same, puckered kisses and frozen moments of happiness he was certain he’d never felt. Or else his searches pulled up Paulines from far-flung states. Idaho. Kentucky. Every Pauline but the one he searched for wanted him to be her friend.
Silence. Ten years later, after he’d moved to San Francisco, Seattle, then back to Chicago, did he see Pauline again, there at a public concert in Grant Park on Independence Day. She was maybe fifty feet away, sitting with what might have been one of her nephews and the nephew’s girlfriend or wife. Pauline had cut her hair short. There was an older man there, too, with a thick graying beard and a flat cap pulled tightly over his bare head. Two small American flags were planted in the far front corners of their picnic blanket. During a break in the Sousa, the man leaned toward Pauline and said something that made her laugh, a different laugh, more relaxed than Paul remembered. He hoped the man was her husband, that she’d found some assistance after all and had come through what she hadn’t allowed him to share. Paul, too, was happy. He was dead tired, but he was happy. He was married, his wife asleep beside him on the blanket, no orchestration capable of waking her. Paul kneeled as he rocked the stroller that held their infant daughter, trying to extend this bonus hour of outdoor sleep. He loved his wife and daughter both, though what he felt now, running a deficit of sleep, was more like duty.
Even though Pauline looked happy—ten years having probably swept most darkness from her life—he, on the other hand, felt the old helplessness returning. It surprised him that such a short relationship as theirs could have consumed so much of his life, his search for her lasting far longer than their time together, and the afterimage trailing him for years. Had he seen her smile like this years ago, he could have let those emotions disengage, instead of finding them returning now, stubbornly loitering even though there was no place for them to play themselves out. It grew darker. His wife and child still slept. He’d just say hello and come right back.
He stood and walked. It wasn’t far. A first firework spiraled into the air behind the orchestra, up, up, up, then the boom, the quick-then-slow expanding sphere he’d known was coming, but which caught him off guard anyway. And then he was there. Here.
“Hey you,” he said.
The older man looked up at him first. No, not at him but at the sudden fireworks, and Pauline, too, everyone’s faces turned up like a thousand lanterns in the dusky light. But there was something wrong with Pauline. With her face. The smile was too broad, the eyebrows too thick, the chin smooth where there had been a hint of a cleft. And, he realized, she was far too young.
He fled. His wife was awake now and his daughter, too, the baby shrieking with the newfound lungs of a four-month-old. He followed his wife’s lead and folded the other beach chair and the large green blanket, damp on its underside. He felt an overwhelming need to escape and wanted nothing more than to run. God, he wanted to run, but there was no clear path, everyone still enjoying the last measures of the finale, keeping Paul standing there, waiting, his back to the orchestra. And after the final mortar exploded, after the final climactic note swelled and broke, the air was suddenly heavy with silence. A baby cried from far away, but it was his baby, in front of him. As the applause trailed off he pushed the stroller past his wife, feeling out open passages as the audience began to gather their belongings and depart. Just a bit of light came off the northwest, illuminating the dull nebulae of firework smoke. All around he could see glowing torches and luminescent necklaces and an occasional flashlight cutting across the concert goers and across those that still sat and socialized and over the expanding rooms of empty lawn through which he pushed the stroller, faster now, as fast as he could walk. He was spooked. Not because he’d been mistaken in seeing Pauline, but because, once again, he didn’t know what had become of her. It felt like day one of that ignorance again, lifting his suitcase off the parking chock, staring out at the snow, trembling from the cold. Only one other could catch him off-guard like this. Floyd. And Floyd was in the crowd. Paul sensed him approach from under the darkness of the trees. Floyd would take his fears and thrust far worse ones at him from which the crowd could offer no protection. There was no safety in numbers, only numbers around which he began to run, the stroller tracing the bumps in the ground the grass masked. Faster, faster, feeling the name Floyd trampled by THE GREAT UNKNOWN that would now attack fully with all its obliterating force, and was already there, at his nape. Emma cried in her stroller. An arm of smoke fell against the ground as though to block him, the air fumed with sulfur as he ran through it, unsure he’d ever break free. He coughed as he ran, moving his hands to the far edges of the stroller’s handle to keep it upright, its wheels trampling the corner of one blanket, then another. He heard nothing but coughing.
Where was Pauline! Where was she!
Far, far behind him he could hear a woman’s voice shrieking his name. “Paul! Paul!”
When his wife caught up to them at the perimeter of the park, he was holding Emma close against his chest, trying to soothe her cries, her cold toes cradled in his hand, and he could see in his wife’s face that she, too, was afraid. ◆