by Charlie Clements
My dog is very coy sometimes, like a girlfriend early in a relationship. Often, just after I get into bed, she clambers up next to me like she wants to cuddle. She will turn around a few times, smelling, and then curl herself into a tight ball way on the other side of the mattress, looking at me out of the corner of her big, wet, beagle eyes like “tonight you sleep alone.” Right when I resign myself to a no-cuddling-situation, she delicately stands up on the bed and steps over to lay down next to me.
Issue #106 soundtrack: Bunny's a Swine "Labrador"
The weirdest part in her bedtime ritual is when she takes advantage of my being half-asleep to nuzzle her little, black nose around in my junk. It makes sense, I guess; the sexual parts are the ones that smell the most to animals, right? All the sweat and hormones. But it's still sometimes a little sensitive and weird, especially when she does it in public. Just before she asked me to not call her anymore, Shannon made it clear that she couldn't stand that I let my dog invade our people-only spaces like that.
I haven't named my dog because I don't think it's right to impose a name on a natural creature who doesn't even speak your language. I don't want her to forget all the wild beauty she has. I think of this story I heard about these feral children in Germany that were raised by wolves, and how they would sometimes show up in towns and didn't know how to live in human society. I don't want my dog to be like a feral German child. If she ever left me, I'd want her to be able to live as a dog.
So I try and be as “doglike” with her as I can. I roll around on the floor, and butt at her neck with my nose. I sniff behind her ears too, and once I bit her on the back, like mother dogs do. I want her to be as natural as possible, to know she's safe and protected, but there has to be some limit, I guess. When she does the nuzzling-my-groin thing, it's a little uncomfortable, especially in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. I love her and I care about the Earth and I recycle and I'm vegan, but, I shouldn't let my dog look like she's blowing me just because she thinks my nuts smell like food.
I think just the two of us alone at home is where me and my dog felt the most natural, so she really didn't like it when Shannon started to spend more time at the apartment. I met Shannon at a People for the Earth and Animals meeting in Ilford Park last spring. It was windy and Shannon's red hair had this thing that it was doing: it curved away from her head, off into the sun, and fell back towards her face in soft red corkscrews. Shannon introduced the topic of mountaintop removal in mining. The way she talked wasn't like she knew more then anybody else there, but that she had a confidence that no matter how few of the facts she knew, she cared enough in the right ways for facts to not matter. I think this is the more human way to be: lead with your heart and maybe the facts will fall into place. So what if she was basically inferring everything she knew about mountaintop removal? She still knew it.
I didn't bring my dog to the meetings because I was scared other dogs would be there. She's a pack animal with only me in her pack, so she's kind of a bitch around other creatures. I tried to bring her to dog parks for a while but she just chased other dogs so hard they ended up running off and escaping. I had to stop bringing her out because she wasn't willing to obey all these bullshit rules society imposed on wild creatures. That's what I'm saying about us being alone at the house: it's like our most wild state, without the barriers of “good behavior.”
I introduced myself to Shannon after she stepped away from the tree stump we used as a podium. I told her about how much I loved the tops of mountains, and how evil this corporation was for planning on blowing them up for coal.
“Right? It's not like we even need more coal. Who uses coal as fuel anymore? Trains? It's bullshit.” Shannon seemed really happy that I had picked up on what she was saying. “They just need to take all the money they put into finding coal and reapply it to researching solar and wind power.”
“Yeah. We're not even going to have anywhere to travel if we keep blowing up the earth to find oil and coal.”
We smiled at one another and got quiet as the next speaker stood up on the stump. I think Shannon was proud; that's the feeling I got off of her. She was very happy that she could have opinions and emotions, and it made her so beautiful. Right in the middle of this guy talking about the destruction of the North Carolina skyline and how it would affect local nematode populations, Shannon turned to me and sort of opened her eyes extra-wide, and right then, for just a second, I didn't give a crap about the environment.
She, my dog, not Shannon, does this other thing that's probably not okay, but I let her. She loves lying on her back and rolling around in other dogs' crap. I'd rather that she didn't do that, because then she gets onto the couch or bed and it smells. But it's an instinct. How can I erase an instinct from this beautiful furry thing that sometimes keeps me warm and happy at night? I spray a lot of antibacterial Febreze. It doesn't take long to get used to the smell and now, really: not a big deal. So sometimes it smells a little like dog crap in here. It's natural and my dog sleeps happily wherever she wants. She's got really short black hair, so it's not like she's much of a mess or anything, and I walk her whenever it rains so she can wash off.
Whenever I get home from taking her out on a walk, she does this other funny thing. When we walk up the stairs, she rubs her nose and back on everything. At first I thought she was trying to clean herself off, but she does it even when she hasn't been around crap. I think she's just so happy to be back home that she can't stop herself from touching every surface. She loves, almost as much as I do, to be back inside and able to rub up on everything and be herself. She's so happy when we're just left alone and she can sit with her head resting on my thigh.
After that first meeting I asked Shannon if she wanted to pick up my dog and go for a walk. My dog ignored Shannon mostly. She rolled around in the dry leaves and I prayed that they were only leaves.
I imagined her reaction to the smell of my apartment and asked her, “Why do you think people are so worried about dogs' shit? I mean, if we were in the wild there would be lots of animal crap everywhere.” I asked her.
“You're right. I mean, it's not like they're poisoning us, or the water sources. Everything we're standing on is basically just old animal shit.” She paused to look me in the eyes and added, profoundly, “People shit, too.”
After the park we went back to my apartment to drink some of the organic maté that I buy from my Amigos De La Tierra catalogue. I was scared because of the shit-dance my dog might do, but Shannon said, “Oh it smells so fresh and natural in here! Like a pasture, not at all sterile like most apartments.” She probably understood what I was going for.
While we drank our tea my dog refused to get off of the couch, so I had to stand awkwardly above the two of them. It was like my dog was showing off that she wasn't happy and wouldn't obey me. “It's either she goes or you stand there.” After we finished our drinks Shannon stood, saying she better get back home. She lingered in the door of my apartment and I felt like I was supposed to lean in and kiss her, but I didn't want to impose, and asking her somehow seemed to take the romance right out of the moment. I put up my hand and touched her red hair in a weird way, and she just leaned in and kissed me herself.
“I hope that wasn't too forward. I just felt like we were really on to something just then.”
“No,” I stammered, “It was great. I was thinking the same thing.”
“I don't believe in any of that soulmate, psychic crap. I just think we really connect, you know? It's been a really nice afternoon.” She took a pen from her pocket and wrote a number on my hand. “Here, gimme a call if you want. My roommate is probably freaking out about where I am. He's really overprotective with me. His sister was disemboweled by the dude who sold ice cream in the park when they were kids. But we should get together again soon.”
The next time we got together I met Shannon at her house. She worked at Guardian of the Rivers during the day, because even though she hated getting wet, she still respected water's right to exist. She walked from house to house asking for donations and taking signatures. I got there a little early and sat in the kitchen with her roommate, Stem, who was fermenting something he called Fungus Elixir on top of the fridge. It looked like cloudy pee, but he told me it was really natural and healthy, so I tried some. It tasted like really cloudy pee, but usually the things that taste the worst are the most natural, so I trusted it and drank a second glass.
“So, Shannon tells me you guys met at a People for the Earth and Animals meeting? She said you're a pretty hardcore animal rights activist.”
“Yeah. I guess. I don't think I'm an activist, just an animal lover. I don't like the word activist because it makes it sound like I'm different or something. I'm just natural and try to live as naturally as I can with my dog and the other animals I meet.”
“So, like, if your dog was starving and tried to eat you, would you kill him to survive?”
“Her. My dog is a female.”
Thankfully, just then Shannon came in the front door and apologized for being late. The three of us sat watching TV for a while, but Stem kept staring at me like I was going to spit on the floor or something. His eyes had this really weird intensity in them and I was glad when Shannon offered to read my star chart in her bedroom. She got out a big purple book of astrology, but started kissing my neck before we got very far.
It was nice to make out, even though I was sort of scared that I didn't know how anymore. I was sure I was supposed to do more than just kiss her, like, pretty sure she wanted me to. I forgot all of the signals and hints that girls give. I haven't had a girlfriend since high school because things just get so confusing. At home we we have natural rituals and habits and no subtext.
Shannon kept unbuttoning my shirt and pressing herself against me in a way that felt really good, but too dirty for me. I wanted it to feel that way, I wasn't a prude, but I didn't know how to be that dirty. I've always felt more comfortable when there are clear rules for me, so I know how to respond to things like an instinct. As Shannon rubbed her pelvis on my hip I thought about how when people, or any other animal, are in touch with instincts then behavior is almost automatic. That's the best way to be, the closest to how we're built as a species, so when all of these quick feelings in my crotch and the palms of my hands happen, I freak out and get trapped in my own brain, which is the least animal kind of behavior.
While I buttoned my shirt I pretended panic at having forgotten to feed my dog. I told Shannon that if she wasn't fed at just the right times, my dog loses it a bit and wrecks the apartment. I called it her hunting instinct, but I was just running away. Shannon was obviously frustrated but seemed to understand.
“I never realized just how much work it is to try and keep an animal natural in our awful world.”
“It's a struggle, yeah, but I'd rather be annoyed at having to leave now than make her hungry and tear up my apartment, you know? I just wish I hadn't forgotten her schedule.” When I closed Shannon's front door behind me and was outside it was like my body lost some heavy, hard casing that was holding it upright. I slumped over and breathed out and moved my erection in my pants so it hurt less.
My dog could be nicer, but what? Should I blame her for being a dog? Sometimes she growls at me when I push her away in the mornings. When she was a puppy I used her as a pillow and apparently this showed her that I was the alpha dog, because I was on top. I tried to get Shannon to do this while we were watching movies all on my floor one afternoon. Shannon leaned on my dog from above, acted like a conqueror. My dog cocked her head forwards like she was going to catch a thrown stick, and clamped right down on Shannon's ear. I could hear teeth clack together as they went through skin and cartilage. It took so long to calm her down. I brought her into my bedroom and let her lie down. I said, “It's okay” really softly, but her breath was ragged and the hair on her back was sticking straight up. When she finally calmed down I went back out to the living room and Shannon was gone. There was a note on the counter that said Stem had picked her up to go to the hospital.
I didn't hear from Shannon for a couple of days. She wasn't picking up her phone, and didn't call me back. But finally on Friday she called and invited me over. When I got there she was sitting with Stem in the living room drinking Fungus Elixir.
“Hi. Look,” she took a big gulp of her cloudy drink. “I'm sorry I freaked out the other day. It was just … I was bleeding and you were gone with your dog all of a sudden.” She paused and looked at me, standing on the other side of the room. “I mean, you kind of abandoned me, but...” Here, she smiled. “I thought about it, and it's pretty clear that you love so much. You love your dog so much. Part of me thinks I was just being a dumb human, just jealous that I don't get any of that attention.”
“I just didn't want her to think she did anything wrong, you know? I knew you weren't hurt, and she was just playing the way dogs play.”
“I needed seven stitches.” Shannon rubbed the bandage on her ear.
“She didn't mean to hurt you, and I was really scared she would think we were angry with her, and it would make her into some pathetic pet.”
“Yeah. 'Cause that's not how a psycho would act,” Stem said, from the corner.
“I'm just not used to people taking such good care of their dogs.” Shannon got up and hugged me, and we sat on the couch watching Animal Planet. I pointed out to Shannon and Stem how close the families of ferrets were, and how they were basically one unit that protected one another.
Stem let out a long whistle and rolled his eyes. “Real anti-domestication activist! Damn, man. That's some hardcore stuff.” He walked off to some other room in the back of the house. Shannon and I sat and started making out in the living room and David Attenborough told us about how giraffes fought. She asked me if I wanted to go to her room, but I told her no, because the light in the living room was way nicer. Shannon sighed loudly and asked me whether I'd understand her more if she barked so I started to kiss her more forcefully, but trying not to bump her wounded ear.
After a few more minutes of moving my mouth around on her neck, she sighed and said she was going to bed. She took off her shirt as she walked out of the room. I think she wanted me to follow her, but her torso curved slowly in the setting sun, and her red hair, almost brown in this light, lit up and I remembered the word corona and thought about how, just a few weeks ago, in the park standing on the tree stump talking about mountaintop removal, Shannon had seemed so happy in the sunlight with her hair blowing in the wind. I almost started crying, so I stood up and let myself out. I shouldn't have left my dog alone for so long anyway.
That morning I woke up to my dog nibbling at my fingernails. It felt sort of good so I let her keep going for a while until I noticed my fingers getting all slobbery and pulled them under the blanket. She started nuzzling at my balls through the blanket, which also felt sort of good, but I pushed her away.
I called Shannon to see if she wanted to go for a hike after the farmer's market. She sighed and seemed hesitant but told me she would meet me there in an hour. Walking there, my dog pulled on the leash until I let her off, and she ran around the forested development that we cut through because it's trails were less rough.
“So you just went home last night, huh?”
“I didn't want my dog to feel abandoned. You could'a come with me!”
“Yeah. We wouldn't want that. You know, I'm pretty sure your dog's just fine without you. It feels sort of like it's the other way around.”
Back in town and walking on the leash again, my dog once turned really suddenly and the rough strap wrapped around Shannon's legs, making her stumble. I know my dog didn't do it on purpose, but when Shannon lost her footing I was able to grab her and stop her from falling in a way that made me feel like a big hero. I think that, plus the fact that we were surrounded by people at the farmer's market, put us both in better moods.
We had been talking about trying a raw food diet for a few weeks, having heard that it was not only more healthy, but more natural, as no human technology was used to cook the goodness out of the food before it was eaten. We got some supplies at the market and that night I made a big deal out of making a raw Italian feast until I realized that that raw pasta wasn't really a thing I could do, so we just ended up eating the cold marinara I had stirred together like it was soup
After dinner, my dog quickly occupied the couch and neither Shannon nor myself felt like fighting her for it, so we sat on my bed and watched a documentary about how factory farming cattle destroys the rainforest. She put her arm around me and we snuggled like that for a bit, but when she rubbed her pelvis against my boner I felt awkward and went to pee. From the bathroom I could hear Shannon talking under her breath, but to me.
“It's like you're allergic to me or something.”
When I came back into my bedroom, pretending I couldn't hear, Shannon told me that my dog had gotten onto the bed and I thought, great! She's starting to like Shannon, but really my dog had just been sniffing Shannon's crotch. “She was really aggressive. It was kind of weird.” She paused, and then said under her breath, “At least one of you wants me.”
I got into bed with Shannon and we made out for a while. When I tried to do what I thought she wanted, to put my hand on her boob, she told me that she just wanted to go to sleep and so we did.
“If you don't know how to get it done yourself, I'm not gonna hold your hand through it.”
I worked hard overnight to not spoon her, because I didn't want to get a boner and have her think I was being rapey.
In the morning when I woke up Shannon was gone and my dog was wrapped in a ball on the end of the bed and didn't want to go out for a walk. She took a huge shit on the floor while I was in the shower. I think it was because it was raining, and not because she was trying to mess with me or anything.
After a few hours of doing nothing around the apartment my dog finally let herself be taken for a walk around the block. There were a bunch of clouds and a heavy wind that was making the clouds move really fast. They were whipping around in the sky like crazy, and it reminded me of all those old vampire movies where the moon is full for like, five days straight. While my dog rubbed her nose and hind quarters in a pile of shit I thought about the disappointing dinner I had made for Shannon, and thought she might be mad at me for it. I fingered her number into my phone. When she answered I could tell she didn't want to, on account of the way her voice seemed like it was all air.
“Hi. Listen. I need some days alone. This is really intense, and I'm not sure what the point of all this is.”
I wondered why here had to be a point, and I stood there looking up at the clouds sliding over the surface of the town. I tried to remember Shannon's kiss, if her lips were thick or thin, and if her kiss was wet or dry, how much she used her tongue. I couldn't really remember specifics. They were never the part that seemed to matter, so I just told her “Don't worry about it.”
My dog started licking my shoe now, because I spilled some tomato sauce onto it the night before when I made pasta. I looked down at my dog and told Shannon that she should just call me when she wanted to get together. I walked home and let my dog rub herself all over the wall on the way up the stairs.
Inside, I stared at my shoes, the point of my dog's nose was rubbing urgently against each of them. I put away the empty poo-bags I carried for appearances, but never filled, and watched my dog look hopefully up into my face. She was such an innocent natural thing, with such huge wet eyes. It's like we always share emotions, and here she was trying to make me happy when I needed it. I sort of threw myself down on the couch and tried to make myself cry. I said out loud, “I would have ruined everything on the planet. I would have killed every fucking species.” I made myself sound extra anguished. “I would have fucking kicked down down every tree, just so I could be alone with Shannon,” but I knew it wasn't true, and my dog looked at me, confused.
I tried and failed to feel the big questions. I tried to feel much of anything, but just felt like a feral German kid not knowing what to do. My dog nuzzled my calf, curling herself around it, wagging her tail and sort of sticking her nose into my shoe, smelling tomatoes. I stood up and her tail beat the air faster, just as I kicked my dog really hard, right in her ribs. She cried out and she slid across the six feet or so of slippery linoleum floor and hid there, sitting on her tail, pressed against the ground between the base of the fridge and the trash can, breathing shallowly and only cautiously making eye contact.
I can tell my dog knows I'm really bummed because, even thought she didn't like Shannon, she knew how I felt. She knew I could fall in love. My dog isn't coy at all tonight, and right when we get into bed she curls her little black torso extra close to me and I feel her warmth through the blanket. No matter what, I've got a fan. Nothing I do to her will scare her away, because she needs me as much as I need her. I'm her alpha, no matter what, and I've always got a buddy who's gonna take care of me, who's going to sort of irritatingly nuzzle my nuts around 6 a.m., and who will always be here.
Charlie Clements has lived as far south as Georgia and as far north as Vermont, though he currently lives in Boston, just a few miles from his high school. His short story collection Superhero Questions was published in 2014. His work has most recently been published with Queen Mob's Tea House, theNewerYork, Tin House Flash Friday, 3:AM Magazine, and Versal. More information can be found at ACrannog.com.
Mary Goldthwaite Gagne's identity as an artist is inextricably linked to her identity as a parent, teacher, partner, community organizer, and lifelong New Hampshire resident. She teaches art at ConVal High School in Peterborough, NH. In 2008 she co-founded The Glass Museum with her husband, Eric Gagne. They are now a 501c3 non-profit entity, which produces Broke: The Affordable Arts Fair and the Thing in the Spring concert series. Visit her online at marygoldthwaitegagne.com.
Bunny's a Swine is an awk-pop rock band hailing from Northampton, Mass., comprised of Emerson Stevens, Candace Clement and Dustin Cote. Hear more at bunnysaswine.bandcamp.com and follow the band on Facebook.