Thanks to Georgia Clark and the Generation Women crew for inviting me to write and perform this piece at Caveat NYC.
This was just the other day in Riverside Park.
Let me just say. I don’t plan it, but I’ve noticed a lot of things I write about happen in Riverside Park, and that makes sense because I am there three times a day, walking a big dog.
Obviously, if you are a dog person, you already know: My dog is better than your dog. He just is. He is a standard poodle, weighs 95 lbs and is tall enough so that his head bumps my hip when we walk. He is smart and handsome, with brown curly hair going grey, and melty eyes. I know how it sounds. Whatever.
He – Enzo – will be ten this year. The old calculation, one dog year equals seven human years, makes him 70. I’m 62. And we live on the Upper West Side. I feel like Maira Kalman or Roz Chast needs to come on over and draw us up. Before we get the cart with wheels for the marketing. Before we shout at cars in the cross walk – oops, too late, we’re already doing that.
It’s almost comical.
He’s always had guy swagger out on the street and pulls up to full, chesty height for other big dogs passing by, and sometimes he’ll snort like a bull and do a deep woof, and then there is trash-talking on both sides with me at the other end of the leash, trying to maintain my alpha.
The first sign was shortness of breath. His, not mine.
Enzo threw down with a Rotweiler just the other day, really macho, a little silly, but the snort and woof rolled into wheezing and coughing. He had to stop and catch his breath. I stroked his neck to calm him and I blocked the Rottie’s view so he could keep his dignity. Also.
He’s not hearing the kibble hit the bowl. He’s sleeping too deeply. He seems grumpy. And judge-y. If it’s chicken instead of salmon, I get looks. If it’s stick instead of ball, I get looks. If it’s a quick walk in bad weather, if he suspects I am hurrying him, he dawdles so that I must coax and drag my old man home. When we get off the elevator he stops in his tracks and stares at me like … I don’t know. I actually, literally apologize. “I’m sorry,” I say. For what, I’m not sure. That we don’t live outside? That he has to go back into an overheated Manhattan apartment where he feels sleepy and grumpy and wheezy and old? Tell me about it! It’s not my fault! I got divorced! We sold the house! The kids grew up! We live here now! I tug the leash. I half expect to get inside and watch him struggle into a cardigan sweater and slippers.
The truth is, he never even knew my life with husband and kids under one roof, in a house. That life pre-dated Enzo. Life with just me is all he’s known. My breast cancer recurred – again – a few months before his scheduled arrival. He’s been caregiving since puppyhood. I’ve leaned on him, including physically, for ten years.
By the way, I’m fine.
So this was just the other day – nearly day, 6 a.m. Lamplights were on. Everything flickered, but my eyes are fuzzy in the morning, before coffee. We took our usual route. Enzo, who seems younger in the cold, off the leash, nudged my pocket: Throw the ball. I threw the ball. He caught it on the bounce and tossed it and chased it down.
Up ahead on the path I saw a figure in a puffy parka, hood up, a big man hunched over something. 6 a.m. He has no dog, he’s not in running clothes. What’s he doing? I clip the leash to keep Enzo, my protector, close.
I see that the man is in hunting gear: camo jacket and pants, an orange day-glo balaclava pulled up under his eyes. There are mechanical-looking parts scattered around him. I hear the slide and ram of steel. He straightens up as we approach and he looks right at me and pulls the hood off. He perfectly fits the terrorist profile: heavy-set, balding, middle-aged white guy.
I am instantly absolutely if-you-see-something-say-something sure that this terrorist is assembling an automatic weapon right here in Riverside Park. Enzo is straining in the direction of the man, wagging his tail. I have a death grip on the leash. Fear rises, throat tightens, adrenaline surges.
The man finishes the assembly and sets up a tripod. A camera bag is on the ground next to him. He’s a photographer, not a terrorist.
Lamplights go out, it’s sunrise. The sun is hot pink. The sky turns electric pink, and all the windows of the buildings on the Jersey side turn mirror pink with the light, and reflect pink on the surface of the Hudson. It is quite a sight.
We round the bend down to the narrow path below, on the way to the soccer fields and the volleyball beach. We walk along the West Side Highway, or the Henry Hudson, or the Jackie Robinson, whatever it’s called. Traffic builds as rush hour commences. The Hudson is close, the Hudson is right there.
Enzo nudges for the ball. I throw the ball. He retrieves it and tosses it back to me, old dog/old trick but it’s a good one. I bend for it and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. Something is closing in. I turn to see Enzo backing away from me in anticipation of the throw, and at the same moment a truck is coming too fast around our bend, on our narrow path, the path Enzo is backing up into.
I shout, Enzo! Come! Stay! Stupid. The truck barrels past as I make the grab. We are inches from its stainless side. This truck is really clean. So clean, I can see myself clearly in the moment we, or at least he, will be pulled under its wheels. There I am. My grey eyes underneath my grey hat. My scarf tied high and tight. My dog in my grip.
I yank with deranged mom-strength – I have practice – and we fall back together as the truck – which hasn’t even seen us – zooms past. I read the lettering: Call-A-Head. He’s almost been flattened by a porta-potty waste pick-up truck in Riverside Park.
By the way, he was fine.
You might have noticed that at the beginning of this story, I said “I’ve noticed” about seeing things in my own writing that magically appear, that I didn’t plan on. I’ve come to writing late in life, so it’s a lovely little kick in the ass from the universe to learn that writing is, well, not so much in my control. Writing is full of surprises. I think I am writing one thing and something else turns up. Something uplanned. Something I have to process.
I wish I’d started sooner. I might have gotten a head start on processing a divorce or two, twenty years of breast cancer, great grief, and some other unlovely kicks in the ass. I might have processed sooner how loss leaves a hole, but, at the same time, opens up space. Inside. Mine to fill. With writing, for example. Or a dog.
We climb the grand steps up from the park. Enzo is out of energy. He breathes hard. He lags behind. He drops the ball. We watch it bounce all the way back down the steps, across four lanes of Riverside Drive. He looks at me: The ball. I shake my head. We have half a dozen more dried-saliva-encrusted tennis balls at home. I’m impatient, jittery from the photographer, the truck, everything unplanned. It’s time to go home.
We go back for the ball. Why not? The trees in the park are etched against the winter sky, starting to frill for spring. A cardinal shoots out from nowhere. It startles us both. That red! We cross the highway, up the steps again. I tug the leash, I coax him home. He sleeps and snores. I write.
I’m at word count so. Time’s up.
But. Another ending presented itself.
One dog year, seven human years, the old calculation. It’s a cruel one. A few days later, routine visit, bad news, inconclusive, could be cancer in the bones, his this time, not mine.
We leave the vet and walk through Riverside Park. Enzo bumps my hip. We pass a dead-eyed Doberman. Enzo snorts and woofs, chesty and tall. I tug the leash, I coax him home. He sleeps. I write.
By the way, we’re fine.
It’s a photograph no one else but me could have taken.
My mother didn’t take it, that’s for sure. She was great in front of the camera, her rightful place, and pretended — feminine wiles, how quaint — not to understand how to depress the shutter button on a point-and-shoot. My ex-husband was a distracted photographer with an artsy eye that didn’t translate to family photos. Twenty-five years later, no, Philip, I don’t remember whose earlobe that is.
But Philip didn’t take it.
I’ll describe the image. My daughter, Sophia, is three. Her hair is summer blonde and flows. She is wearing a yellow dress that is now packed in a bin marked “Girls,” in the basement of my building. My father, Tom, is 67. He is tanned and grey and rugged, with a big dad head, square and block-sturdy, the kind of dad head you don’t see much anymore, who knows why, something to do with the internet? Craniums diminish to accommodate next level evolution? I don’t know. Anyway, my father with his big dad head reminds me — in the best way, it’s high praise — of Carl the Rottweiler in Good Dog, Carl, a book I presented like prayer at bedtime to my girls when they were little.
I read an article about how couplehood and the attendant touching, not necessarily sexy, increases good health and longevity. I’m single and on the dark side of 60. I’m fine living alone, it’s fine, but when Trump got elected, for example, I had no one to gather me up and curl around me to protect me from everything incoming, nukes included. In a less grim example, I’m on a regular schedule of imaging tests for cancer, and I have friends, I have daughters, but reaching out every three months to express my scanxiety and beg for hugs seems overly needy. If I had a partner, in my case, a man, in the next room, I could complain at moments of peak terror and get held and hold on. Maybe live longer in better health. After reading the article, I wanted to know how much human touch I was receiving over the course of a week. Like, data-gathering.
A friend as your mortgage holder? It seemed like one of those things you should never, ever do.
Let me tell you about my coat. It is a distinctive color, somewhere between lilac and lavender and gray. The cashmere is so light and soft it feels like a kitten, and other women stroke it instinctively. It is chic in a Paris-boutique-whose-name-I-forget way, my coat, with a hood, and toggle closures and French seams. I wear it only when conditions are perfect: clear skies, temperature ranging from forty-eight to sixty degrees.
I’m frequently asked where I got it, and sometimes I say, “Paris,” because that’s what the label says, but I shouldn’t really say “Paris,” because the coat is a hand-me-down, from the back of a friend’s closet. It’s a garment I could never afford to buy.
It’s not the only expensive gift my friend has given me. I did her a favor once and got a pricey handbag as thanks. She planned a wedding for me in her home, which got cancelled—another story, another time—and she sent me all the champagne she’d ordered, with a shrug. When, over the course of a couple of years, I had ticked off six or seven of the top life stressors on the Holmes and Rahe Scale and was in a terribly low place, this friend handed me a check big enough to pay off urgent medical bills and move my family from the beloved house I could no longer afford to a more manageable apartment.