Daphne

Fiction
Jennifer Hurley


Chihuahua Chic
Photo Credit: Jennifer Woodard Maderazo

I stood at Kim’s front door—which had once been my front door—with Daphne’s baby gate separating us. I’d stopped by to collect some leftover pieces of mail. They were just ads, Kim had kept saying on the phone, but I came anyway. I hadn’t intended to tell her about losing my job, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Kim did not ask why I’d been laid off, or whether I could pay my rent. Instead she looked thoughtful, and after a moment asked if I would be willing to visit Daphne every weekday at lunchtime. I was not surprised. I was beyond expecting Kim to show any concern for me.

“What do you want me to do with her?” I asked.

“I want you to walk her, dummy,” she said.

“Does she even know how to walk on a leash?”

“Peter, you don’t need a lesson to walk on a fucking leash. She’s four fucking pounds and you’re what—two hundred? You think you can’t control her on a leash?”

I was tempted to correct her—I only weighed one-ninety-five—but I stopped myself. Four years ago, when I started dating Kim, I was a lean one-seventy. I was a runner then. But now I had bad knees, the same ailment that had troubled my father and my grandfather. I was only thirty years old, but my knees felt ancient.

“Will you do it? Come on, I can’t afford to keep taking her to day care five days a week.”

Kim had used money we didn’t have to buy that dog a satin bed, a personalized water bowl, and a fleece-lined parka, even though the temperature in Oakland barely dipped below forty. Each time she gave the dog a bath, she wasted a dollar-fifty’s worth of quarters warming a towel in the dryer. This behavior would have been troublesome under any circumstances, but during the time when Kim was shutting me out, on her way to breaking up with me, it was almost impossible to endure.

“I’m going to get another job. Soon.” I hated the way my voice sounded, as if I were trying to justify myself.

“Of course. I’m just asking for now,” she said.

Just then Daphne appeared on the scene with a squeaky toy in her mouth. She was a tiny, trembling black-and-white Chihuahua, a ten-year-old rescue with an arthritic hip that made her look a little lopsided. She had been an impulse buy on Kim’s part, from the ASCPA booth at the gym. I had nothing against Daphne per se, but I’d grown up with a Doberman Pinscher, and I could not for the life of me understand why small dogs should even exist. They could not guard a house, hike a trail, fetch a ball in the ocean, or sit at your feet by the fire—in short, they could not do anything that made a dog a dog.

“Hi Daphne,” I said.

“Try to act like you care about her, just a little,” Kim said.

On the way back to my apartment—a studio with broken mini-blinds located above a Chinese restaurant—I cursed myself for giving in to Kim again. She’d dumped me, basically communicating that I and my ruined knees were too boring for her, and still I couldn’t say no to her. A year ago, when she wanted to move to California, I agreed even though I had a job lined up as a docent in a history museum. I drove every single one of the 2,827 miles from Maryland to California while she chose the music. In California, Kim pursued her personal trainer ambitions while I found admin work in a San Francisco office, the same office that had just laid me off.

To feel better I told myself I was walking Daphne for my own benefit, so that I’d get out of the apartment every day and not be tempted to sit around in dirty sweatpants. But it had not occurred to me what it would be like to walk a dog like Daphne on the streets of downtown Oakland, past the old man hat shop and the place called Gold Teeth Master. Several men on the street openly laughed at me. And I couldn’t blame them. Daphne was outfitted in a pink leather collar with rhinestones, obviously not of my choosing. She was small enough to fit the inside pocket of my bomber jacket—and I admit, I did that once when it was raining, because I couldn’t stand to see the pitiful little thing shiver.

It worried me passing homeless people on the street. Probably they’d been sane and freshly showered once, but something happened to them, something like losing a job, and now here they were, cold, filthy, and drugged, repelling passersby with their smell. I wondered if some of them had a humanities degree like I did, and if they’d once thought they might embark on a meaningful career. I’d given up on that idea. Instead I’d become a master of trivial office skills. I could debug networks, repair HTML errors, and generate a slick, color-coded graph using Excel. I knew how to fix the most intransigent paper jam on a touch-screen Xerox machine. I was the most competent fucking admin guy in that entire office, and it made no sense that I was the one to get laid off first.

I lugged my laptop around on walks with Daphne, intending to surf the job sites at an outdoor cafe. Instead, I found myself occupied keeping an eye on Daphne. I was worried someone in workman boots or high heels might step on her and then Kim would make my life a fucking hell. So I made sure Daphne was sitting beneath my chair, out of the way of pedestrian traffic. I’d bought her a harness in camouflage material. People still laughed, but they had way more respect for a dog in camo. Lots of women approached me wanting to meet Daphne. If they seemed kind and gentle—different from Kim, basically—I let them pet her. If not, I told them Daphne was a vicious biter. I liked to see these women draw back their hands, their smiles fading.

The fourth or fifth time I came to pick Daphne up, Kim had left me a note: Peter, please don’t try to comfort Daphne when she is whining. Cesar Millan says that’s just rewarding the unwanted behavior. I noticed that she is whining at the door a lot since you have been walking her. —Thanks, Kim. I laughed out loud, and then I felt annoyed. Here I was, walking her pipsqueak dog out of the goodness of my heart—picking up her dog’s shit, for god’s sake—while Kim was searching for reasons to criticize me. I looked down at Daphne, who was leaping up my pant legs, trying to get my attention.

“You don’t ever whine around me,” I said to her.

Daphne wagged her tail as if to say, “Who cares, let’s walk!”

Several weeks went by and I still had not sent out my resume—I was touching it up, and it never seemed finished. When I thought of myself sitting in a cubicle again, smelling air-conditioning and printer ink, it was as if a belt were being cinched around my chest. The walks with Daphne made me feel a little less anxious. Each morning I showered, iced my knees, and grabbed a cup of coffee and a donut before walking the twelve blocks to Kim’s apartment. Using the key felt different, the way it feels to use a key in a stranger’s home. I was relieved when Daphne came running to the door, breaking the silence with her squeaky barks. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say she was thrilled to see me. Kim was always bustling about, so busy that she probably didn’t bother to look the poor dog in the eye. And Daphne made great eye contact; she had big, brown, soulful eyes, probably her best feature.

I could tell that Daphne’s hip stiffened up in the cold, just as my knees did. So once, on a particularly cold day, I took her over to my apartment, drew the broken blinds, and we watched movies for the afternoon. Daphne curled up in my lap, a furry ball of warmth, and I felt so relaxed that I fell asleep, waking with a start when my cell phone rang. It was Kim’s angry voice, demanding to know where Daphne was. I had slept until six o’clock—and so had Daphne, who was now on my carpet doing her sleepy yoga stretch. I carried Daphne back to Kim’s in the dark, upbraiding myself the whole time for allowing myself to sleep like that. I had promised myself I would not do that—I would not become an unemployed person who slept at odd hours. When I got back to my apartment, I immediately went online and started emailing out résumés. It was crazy that I’d waited so long; my unemployment benefits were already starting to run out.

Between phone calls and emails, I walked Daphne. I didn’t get any more notes from Kim, but one time she left me an envelope of photos she’d taken of Daphne at Halloween, outfitted in a ludicrous bumblebee costume. I stretched out on Kim’s bed as I flipped through the photos, careful not to touch the covers with my boots. This was her new bed—I had taken the old crummy one—but it smelled the same as I remembered. She still had the same yellow sheets with tiny bluebirds on them and the battered headboard that had once been her grandmother’s. She’d insisted on paying movers to move that poor old headboard all the way from Maryland. Once I gashed my forehead on it when we were play-wrestling on the bed. Kim drove me to the emergency room, but when the woman at the counter said the wait would be at least two hours, Kim would not hear of it. She took me right back home and stitched me up herself with a needle and thread, five perfect, painful stitches that had not left even the faintest scar.

I should never have lain down on Kim’s bed; I should’ve known it would make me sad. Plus, while I was reminiscing away, Daphne was busy chewing up a pen in the other room. Thankfully I caught her before she swallowed anything dangerous. I hid the ruined pen in my laptop case to throw out later. When I left Kim’s apartment that day, I lingered in the hall a few minutes to see if I could hear Daphne whining for me, but she was quiet.

A few days later I got an interview for an administrative assistant position at an office supply company in San Francisco. The commute by public transit was atrocious and the pay was mediocre, but when I was offered the job, I took it immediately. Riding back to Oakland at rush hour on BART, I felt like I was part of things again. I had somewhere to be, and someone who cared if I showed up. I had a reason to shave and to iron my clothes.

I hadn’t thought about what would happen with Daphne when I went back to work. When I called to tell Kim about the new job, she thanked me for taking care of Daphne and said she’d mail me a $20 gift card to Starbucks that she wasn’t using because she’d quit coffee. I wanted to ask her whether I could stop by the apartment to say goodbye to Daphne, but I knew Kim would think I was inventing an excuse to see her.

“OK, then,” I said. “Say hi to Daphne for me.”

“She’s a dog, Peter. She can’t understand English.”

“Well, maybe I’ll see you around then. Or I could pet sit when you go visit your parents.”

Kim sighed. “Oh, Peter,” she said. “I feel so strange about telling you, but I started seeing someone, not serious or anything, but he thinks it’s weird, having you come to my apartment all the time, and I guess it is kind of weird. I was going to say something, but then you called and said you had a job, so— anyway, you probably shouldn’t come by anymore.”

Blood was rushing to my face and for a moment I couldn’t speak. “Oh,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” Kim said. “I’m sorry about so many things.”

I could hear now that she was crying. I didn’t know what to say. “It’s OK. Everything will be OK,” I told her.

“Are you OK?” she said.

There was a catch in my voice, too, and I didn’t even care if she heard it. “I’m doing all right,” I said. “I’m about to be a functioning member of society again.”

She laughed, and then covered the mouthpiece to muffle the sound of her blowing her nose.

After we hung up the phone, I was surprised to find that I felt fine. I was getting over Kim, I thought to myself, and I wanted to tell someone. But I hadn’t returned any calls from friends or family for at least a month, and I wasn’t up to making the introductory small talk a phone call would require. It was silly, but what I really wanted to do was talk to Daphne, just to speak my thoughts aloud to her unassuming, uncomprehending presence.

When the weekend came, I decided I would try a slow jog around Lake Merritt, something that once would’ve been a warm-up. Kim and I used to run multiple laps around that lake. That was back when we still had fun together, before my knees gave out, before Kim made a slew of new friends that were never friends of mine. We would take our runs at sunset, watching the light on the lake turn pink and orange, and then we’d go home and make huge plates of spaghetti. Because of our runs, we were eating all the time. These days, I ate plenty but I never felt hungry.

I put on my running clothes and sneakers and went out at dawn, thinking I might bump into Kim and Daphne on their pre-breakfast powerwalk. The lake was slate blue in the morning light. I started jogging. It was terrible—with every step, my knees felt like they being stabbed with invisible knives. But I pressed on, concentrating on the cool air pushing through my lungs. The thing I hated most about office jobs was the stale, overheated air. It stank of chemicals and a mix of bad perfumes. If only I could open a window, I could work a job like that, no problem. But in the office where I had worked previously, and in the one where I’d begin work on Monday, the windows were sealed shut against the elements. You could look outside, but you could only look.

I ran around the entire lake, and when I was done, I collapsed on the grass. I sat there for a long time, rubbing my knees, trying to ignore the homeless man in a sleeping bag nearby, shouting in his sleep. There was no sign of Kim and Daphne. I sat there until it began to rain, scared that I wouldn’t be able to walk the half-mile back to my apartment. Somehow I managed to limp back. I was less mobile than the old woman who rolled her cart through Safeway, her back so hunched it hurt my heart to look at her.

I woke up on Monday morning aching all over and feeling jittery about the new job. I put on my work clothes—khakis, a white button-down, and a tie—gave myself a good shave, and even flossed my teeth. I took five Advil to combat the searing pain in my knees. But before I even got outside, I knew I wasn’t going to that office building in San Francisco, despite the fact that my checking account held less than eighty dollars.

It was a perfectly crisp late-autumn day, and I inhaled the cold air as I walked, my hands trembling as they had when I was almost hit by a car a few months before. At Kim’s apartment, I let myself inside with the key that she had forgotten to ask me to return. Daphne barked and wiggled and licked my face. I scooped her up and held her in one arm while I dug around in Kim’s foyer cabinet for the camouflage harness and leash. We went to the lake. We walked the three point four miles slowly, our bodies aching, stopping frequently just to look at things: the geese squalking, babies being pushed in strollers, people with good knees taking a run. At the end of the walk, we sat on a grassy bank by the side of the lake, a place where no one sat, not even the homeless, due to the abundant goose poop. Daphne, of course, didn’t care and in fact seemed to enjoy sniffing each individual pellet of poop. I lay on my back, studying the sky, which was a bird’s egg blue with puffy white clouds. I had not previously noticed how the clouds seemed to come together, then push apart, as if they were breathing.

My cell phone rang. It had to be my almost-boss wondering where I was, or Kim in a panic looking for Daphne. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. In fact, the ringing of the phone sent a flash of anger through my body, which I could feel in my knees. I felt like I hated everyone, like the whole endeavor of being around people was not suited for me. I took my cell phone out, and without looking to see who had called, covered it with a pile of leaves. Then I called Daphne to me. She rushed to jump into my lap and curled into a ball, looking up at me as if to say, “Let’s nap!” It was really too cold to sleep outside, but with Daphne next to me emitting her waves of little-dog heat, I could almost bear it.

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Jennifer Hurley’s fiction has appeared in Front Porch, The Arroyo Literary Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Slow Trains, and The Mississippi Review, among others. An alum of Boston University’s graduate creative writing program, she currently works as an Associate Professor of English at Ohlone College in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lives in the island town of Alameda with her husband, four cats, puppy, and innumerable books. Email: jenhurley[at]alum.bu.edu

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