Lisa awakens to the sound of air sucked vigorously through a bulldog's fat palate. It's similar in tone and pitch to a long release of flatulence, which, in fact, sometimes accompanies the snores, making the bedroom a kind of hell of the senses—noxious fumes, cacophonous sounds, a hot squishy dog belly pushing at her.
Light slips through the Venetian blinds, thin lines of swirling motes dance before her. Lisa is so sick of dust motes. Lorenzo is already downstairs, cussing in Spanish. Obviously she has overslept. Someone cusses again. Lisa does not speak Spanish but she knows "fuck you" when she hears it. An electric saw starts up. What the hell is Lorenzo doing that requires a saw? The saw stops. Lorenzo mumbles. Sadie, the bulldog, continues to snore.
Lisa grabs Sadie's paws and pulls her body, as soft and malleable as a sack of oil, up higher on the pillow, then gets out of bed. She puts on her dog walking outfit—baggy sweats, baggy shirt, baggy sweat shirt, baggy baseball hat—and, after brushing her teeth quickly, sits at her desk, pulling out her letter, like she has done every morning for three months.
it's not that I don't love you, I do of course. I just don't think I am I think we need a change? This is making our life complex, well, what I mean is that I am making our life more complex. Our life is complex Larson makes mistakes and that bothers you. And someone will have to be here more than on just weekends. Not that you aren't here for him. It's not your fault he did this. I was out when he turned the tub on then left the house. Me. See, I blame myself. So don't go thinking I am leaving you two because we think it's your fault. Please don't try to find me. I don't know why I am doing this. Misery. Not that we are miserable. I don't think that. It may be best for Larson too. Please don't try to find Sadie and me.
Lisa puts the paper down and listens to Lorenzo, now yelling. He stops and she is left once again with the sound of air rumbling through the fat bulldog. She tears up the letter and shoves the pieces deep into her wicker trash basket lined with a small plastic bag because Sadie has chewed three holes in it.
Sadie's snore suddenly stops. Her large, pink belly is motionless, and her mouth slacks open, out of commission. "Come on, Sadie, breathe," Lisa says. But nothing. Lisa rushes over and shoves Sadie hard on her shoulder. "Breathe, Sadie." Nothing. Lisa pushes at the mushy stomach, then takes her thumb and index finger and pinches the black nose, still wet and warm. Sadie opens her eyes, lifts her head, gulps the air, and plops back down, her cheeks billowing out a long exhale, like an annoyed sigh.
At the desk again, Lisa starts another letter, this time writing fast, thinking the words will come from a good place if the pen moves quickly.
So okay we have a dog with sleep apnea and I need to take care of her, which, okay, means you have to sleep elsewhere for a few nights, so that is a problem I know it, but really, if you can't deal with that, then maybe I can't and this not dealing with my fat dog is burdening our boy who gets into the tub and leaves the faucet running, because he is too stoned to think correctly, or maybe he simply thinks nothing is serious anymore, or maybe he is sick of our fighting, and maybe Sadie can't breath because you complain so much, or maybe you don't and maybe I do, but I need a break and this is not . . . oh, whatever. I am gone.
Lisa says shit under her breath and starts to edit.
So OK we have a dog with sleep apnea and I need to take care of her, which, ok, means you have to sleep elsewhere for a few nights, so that is a problem I know it, but really, if f you can't deal with that, then maybe I can't and this not dealing with my fat dog is I am sorry about my fat bulldog oOur boy who gets into the tub and leaves the faucet running, because he is too stoned to think correctly, or maybe he simply thinks nothing is serious anymore, or maybe he is sick of our fighting , and maybe Sadie can't breath because you complain so much, or maybe you don't and maybe I do, but Not that the fighting is all you, it's me, too. I know . I need a break and this is not . . l l oh, whatever I am gone.
"Ms. Lisa. You up?"
Lorenzo's voice is muffled, as if from a far away cave in the house.
"I'll be right down, Lorenzo. I thought I told you to wait till I was awake?"
"Yes, but we can only wait so long. I ring the doorbell five times. I got your key from the nail box. I see you put it there when you take the bulldog for walk. Maybe you wise to change hiding places?"
Lisa folds her letter and places it back in the drawer.
The bedroom door opens to a floor covered with brown paper runners, torn at the edges, soiled down the center. There is dust everywhere. Down the stairs in the foyer, a man in loose jeans bends over, his white jockey underwear barely covering the crevice between butt cheeks dying to be seen. The dining room has plastic over the door, but the masking tape is loose and there are several openings where saw dust escapes. Two men pass by in the hall and smile at Lisa as she descends the stairs. She can make out one opaque form holding a saw behind the plastic.
"Lorenzo? Is that you in the dining room with the saw?"
"Good morning, Ms. Lisa!" Lorenzo rips open the plastic, releasing yet another puff of dust into the air.
"Be careful. Sadie has breathing problems as I told you, and Mark is allergic to mold."
Lorenzo, who has a body similar to Sadie's—rounded belly, fat neck and short, thick nose—turns and tapes the plastic back. A large hole where he ripped it still sags open. Lisa leans over and peeks inside the hole. The ceiling and two walls are now wood and pink insulation, wires dangling here and there, many frayed due to rodents. Apparently, according to Lorenzo, mice eat wires. The sight of her once lovely dining room now stripped down to its bare essentials alarms her. All the years she spent on furniture—paintings, candelabra, Persian rug—amounted to festooning what was essentially nothing but wood, pink foam, and bitten up wires. And uninvited mice.
It's amazing what one stoned night can do to a life. Two months ago, Larson, home from boarding school, flipped on the bathtub faucet, thinking he'd take a long hot bath, something Lisa noticed he enjoyed when stoned. Lisa knew all the hiding places for his pot. Unfortunately, before he could fill the tub, a friend called and invited him to a movie—a change of plans, something that is difficult for Larson after one or two joints. Since the movie theater was far away, Larson could not hear water running over the top of the bathtub, through cracks in the bathroom floor, down the dining room walls directly beneath it. So, he never turned the faucet off.
Lisa takes the masking tape from Lorenzo and tapes up the hole, then tapes the mended plastic to the doorway.
Lorenzo runs his forefinger down the masking tape, pushing it in. "You good at this taping. I hire you."
"How much will you pay me?"
"Ahhh. Ms. Lisa, as you know, I barely make ends meet." His laugh sounds like the beginning of a song.
There is a heavy thump and then the sound of paws scratching floor. Lisa starts back up the stairs.
"Hey, Ms. Lisa, wait one second. We might want to contact your insurance company again. We have slight problem with third wall. You may want more time off your job." Lisa has taken a leave of absence from her job at an advertising agency in order to manage the house repair.
"OK, Lorenzo, I'm ready for all kinds of bad news today. But let me get Sadie down and out the door, away from this dust. I didn't see any water in the third wall, but what the hell, let's just blast the whole room away."
Sadie's waddle to the top of the stairs is desultory. She sits and waits for Lisa to retrieve her. Sadie always makes Lisa work for everything, even movement down the stairs and out the door. As Lisa clips the leash to Sadie's collar, she is not thinking about Lorenzo or Sadie but how the third wall's destruction will combine with the other demolition activities to create a house of horror. She contemplates this as she walks Sadie down the stairs.
"Ms. Lisa? Are you with me? It just take one minute to show you the damage. I think we will have to fix it. There may be more dust, yes. Like I said, dust is going to happen. We can't completely lock it out of the house. These plastic sheets—" he waves his hands. "—are not going to keep everything out."
Lisa pulls Sadie to the front door, opens it and lets her out, dropping the leash; it drags behind her, like a snake kissing her neck. "Go do your stuff. Mom will be out soon, sweet pea." Sadie waddles, squats to pee, then sits, craning her neck around her shoulder to regard Lisa. "We'll be leaving for the park soon, sweetie. Don't get mad at me. Give me one second." Lisa looks one last time at Sadie's dolorous eyes and closes the door.
"You can see the stains, and put your hand here." Lorenzo has untapped the plastic again and is standing in the dining room, waiting for Lisa. He has his finger on the part of the wall that is a darker shade of eggshell than the rest.
Lisa puts her hand near Lorenzo's, noting a small tattoo by his pinky—a miniature kitty's face.
"Push and you see," he says and pushes.
Lisa pushes and feels the wall give slightly.
"Once this is wet? It never goes back. I can knock out the wall today, no problem. Or anytime you tell me. You tell me when to knock out this wall."
Lisa thinks about this wall never drying, ruined eternally once wet. This will be the next letter.
Lisa drops her hand. "Sure, fill out the forms for insurance but give me a few days." She heads upstairs to retrieve her car keys, but stops at her desk first.
So, it looks like, Mark, the third wall will have to be demolished, and our room that I spent years on will be reduced to what was always there beneath it, it's true form, wood, pink insulation and a bunch of wires that look bitten by rodents. Once a wall is wet, that is it, Mark. There is no turning back. Wet and dead. That's us, Mark. We are wet and dead.
Lisa shoves the paper in her pocket and heads out to take Sadie to the dog park. Sadie needs no cajoling, but heads to the car briskly, now panting.
After Lisa parks the car, Sadie jumps at the window, eager to see her friends. In the distance a few dogs bark, a woman, tall and thin, waves. Lisa pulls her notepad from her pocketbook. "Just a sec, Sadie. Give me one second. Then we're off. K?"
So, it looks like, Mark, the third wall will have to be demolished, and our room that I spent years on,Our third wall is wet will be reduced to what was always there beneath it, it's true form, wood and pink insulation and a bunch ofThe wires were bitten by rodents, by the way. wires that looked to be bitten into by rodentsOnce a wall is wet, that is it. There is no turning back. Wet and dead. That's us, Mark. We are wet and dead.Well, we have to do it, I suppose. So I think it best for Sadie and I to leave. Her breathing, you know.
They are all here today, huddled in the far corner, gloved hands, heads topped with hats—little knitted bulbs bobbing over parkas. It's not that cold, but the crowd always overdresses. Lisa speaks to the dogs first. There's Pogo, the rail thin ridgeback; Lenny, the hyperactive wheaton; and Ben, the corgi who takes one sniff of Sadie's butt and wanders off, as if the mere scent signals this bulldog is a bore. Lily, the dying bearded collie, lies in her usual place near the fence by a bucket of water. Most all the dogs ignore her. Lily had so many tumors in her bladder, the vet had to remove it, leaving her with a tube that drains the urine directly from the kidneys to a pouch attached to her belly. Lily's owner—a short round woman who laughs nervously—changes the pouch daily, insisting that it works, that Lily is as good as new. But all the dogs know better. It's simply a matter of time. Only Sadie joins the collie in her corner, sometimes lying up against her back for warmth. Lisa used to think Sadie simply enjoyed the company of another lazy dog, but lately she wonders if Sadie commiserates. Which is why she has become more diligent about monitoring her sleep apnea.
The women are in their sixties, or look somewhere in their sixties, so they think Lisa, who is forty-five years old, is young. Lisa likes them better than the women her age, who all migrated from Wall Street to motherhood with no transitional training, which makes them all behave like her husband—stressed out and unhappy. Thus, the decision to send her only child to boarding school. Goodbye PTA!
Lisa only knows Eileen and always forgets the others' names. Someone is Barbara, someone Ann, another Erin, and maybe someone is Kathy. She knows that. But distributing the names to their rightful owner is problematic. She tells herself it's the dust, the stress of raising an adolescent boy, the lack of sex.
As usual, Eileen grabs Sadie and starts walking the park's circumference, her dog, Pogo, trotting nearby. Sadie waddles over to the dying collie. Eileen starts a story she has already told Lisa three times, about how Pogo got a stick stuck down his throat, how Eileen saved his life, actually stuck her hand down the throat and pulled it out. Lisa likes Pogo but is not certain, given his growls, she'd do the same for him.
"He looked at me, mouth open. Just like this." Eileen imitates his large mouth open, tongue out, like she's done three times before, although the last time she told this story she didn't let her tongue lull out slightly.
Lisa listens as if she is hearing the story for the first time. She imagines Eileen there alone, in her home, bandages wrapped around her breastless chest, her bald head cold, her dog standing before her with a stick wedged in its throat. Eileen probably was frantic that her dog would choke and leave her with cancer and no dog.
As Eileen rambles on, Lisa's mind wonders off to her letters. Maybe she should simply say, Sadie and I are leaving due to dust. She will write dust in caps so that it screams metaphorically. Of course, Mark is about as creative as plywood.
"Come on, Pogo, keep up," Eileen says, abruptly halting her anecdote. "Pogo, go get Sadie up. Make her play. I don't know why Sadie lies around with Lily. She's kind, I think." She turns to Lisa. "You're bulldog's kind, Lisa."
Lisa smiles at Eileen, her long, lean, friend, always well-dressed, her hair neat, face made-up. Even when she lost her hair, she looked good. She covered her head with a Viola silk scarf, and little pearl drop earrings fell from either side. That was two years ago when everyone thought the breast cancer was going to kill her. But it didn't.
Eileen laughs and pulls at Lisa's hand to move her forward.
"So, we had great sex again last night. That makes three times this week. You'd think at our age it would slow down, and with no breasts!" Eileen looks at Lisa's eyes, as if studying their color. "Ron has said for a year that it was better without the breasts because they get in the way." Her laugh is uninhibited.
The voices of the other women float behind them, a puff of murmurs and laughter. Lisa picks up their pace. When at the park with Lisa, Eileen always talks about something risqué—her loss of breasts ("Like I had anything to lose? It was like removing pimples."), graphic details of her sex life ("I told Ron, oral sex was OK, but hold off till I remove you. It probably causes mouth cancer, and I can live without breasts but not without my mouth.") Eileen weaves her arm through Lisa's, squeezes, and pulls her close. Lisa turns to make sure Sadie is still with Lily. Sadie's head leans against Lily now and the two seem to be basking in the cold sun.
"I haven't thought of myself like a real woman in years," Eileen starts up again, now slowly. "Way before the tits were sawed off. I'm just a human being, having human being sex. It helps me sleep."
Lisa laughs, wondering where this talk is heading, but deciding to simply enjoy the moment until they get there. Eileen's offbeat humor has always been something Lisa could count on, like a top forty song on the radio. It makes her forget her life, her boy, her house, her husband. Her letters.
"Eileen, slow down, we want to talk," a voice behind them shouts. Lisa thinks it comes from the woman named Ann.
"Lisa is telling me a secret," Eileen shouts back, and they move on, ignoring the women.
Pogo dances before Lisa and Eileen now, barking at Ben, the corgi. Lisa stops to pick up a stick and toss it so Pogo will leave poor Ben alone. Ben looks up, his eyes happy with appreciation, and trots back to the women.
"Well, the cancer is in my lymph nodes now. That's the new news." Eileen says this fast to the air in front of her. "I'm telling no one, of course."
"Oh, shit. This is horrible! Shit!" Lisa shuts her mouth, squeezes her eyes together as soon as her words come out. She wants to take a pen and strike through the air, erase the alarm she has placed there. But there is no pen and her stupid words linger before them.
"Oh, Lisa, I'm sorry to burden you. I should keep it to myself."
Lisa feels her face drain, her fingers tingle.
"Like you need a friend loading crap on you. Do I do that? Load crap on you? I'm sorry."
Lisa says no and nothing else because she is concentrating on stopping the burn behind her eyes.
Two years back, Eileen's breast cancer days were filled with grief, not Eileen's grief but everyone else's. The women at the park became distant and quiet around her, as if respecting her right to die. But when Lisa dropped by to walk Pogo, Eileen showed up at the door, her hair shaved in a Mohawk, and asked her to stay. "Pogo can get fat. Forget the walk." She pointed to her Mohawk after Lisa sat in on the couch. "I'm going to shave it all off soon, but not until I find someone to paint my head. I'll cover it at the dog park, but I can't sit here with a white head. I want it magenta." Lisa came back a few days later to shave and paint Eileen's head, then returned daily with Sadie, who loped around Eileen's yard, tolerating Pogo's bullying while Lisa sat with Eileen and her magenta head. "Where do you think they put my tits?" Eileen said. "Have you wondered what they do with the tits? Do they save them? Put them on ice?" Cancer separated Eileen from the others, but it brought Lisa and Eileen together.
"I'm trying to think of ways to tell Ron," Eileen continues. "Every time I try, I can't get it out. I have to get it out, of course. I have to do chemo again, and there's no way to hide that. The hair and everything, you know. Remember my scarves and magenta head? But I can't quite tell Ron, not yet. It's like saying goodbye. Well, it is saying good bye." She pulls Lisa into her again and squeezes her arm, a quick pinch that says she knows she is saying good bye to Lisa, too. They pick up the pace again to avoid the women, now laughing about some anecdote—probably another grandchild story that, due to memory loss, evolves into boring confabulation.
"You've got to tell him," Lisa says.
"I'll lose my voice."
"Write a letter."
"A letter? And do what? Put it under his pillow?"
"Maybe you just write it, edit it, until you get it right. Then memorize it."
"But with this, each day will require a new edit. This kind of cancer moves fast."
"Then write it out and bring it to me," Lisa says. "I'll edit it. I'm a good editor. Then we'll mail it to him. Together."
"So, do you write letters, Lisa?"
Lisa says nothing.
"Is something up with you, Lisa? I always wondered if something was up with you. You miss working? It must be hard taking this much time off your job to deal with such a mess."
"The house refurbishing is tough. The water damage is more extensive than we thought."
"You should sue the plumber for not catching that pipe problem earlier."
Lisa feels guilt creep up her throat into her head, settling behind her eyes, a tingling, cold sensation. Hearing her lies repeated by another voice is similar to looking at a picture taken early in the morning, before makeup. There it is, the wrinkles, the strained eyes, the truth of your lies right there in the picture. Lisa wants to say it—there was no pipe burst, my boy left the tub on and went out; my husband is never around; Sadie may die of sleep apnea; I want to leave and live in New Mexico. But she looks over her shoulder at the women now slowly walking towards Lily and Sadie. Lily raises her head, Sadie stands and shakes off leaves. Lily's owner clips on the leash then checks the pouch on her belly.
"I'm so sorry, Eileen. We'll talk about this later, away from all of them. I've got to get Sadie, OK?"
You are such a good person
so honest, so true to Ron. I'm not honest, nor true to anyone. I've lied to you and you tell me the truth. Your friendship has meant the world to me. I just wanted you to know that. So, for once, here is the truth. Mark and I are complicated. He works seventy hours a week, as you know. Sometimes when he is here, everything is fine. But then I feel differently. My thoughts change. I am trying to get them all straightened out. I may have to leave. But that is not why I am writing you. I am writing you to tell you what a great friend you have been and how very sorry I am about all of this. You 've left a wonderful place in me will fight this and win. You can do it. You have it in you . . .
Lisa puts down her pen and stares at her note—a blurry image of lines squashing letters that scurry across the page. She pushes the paper away and rubs her eyes. The house is finally quiet; the air, at least in her bedroom, is almost free of dust. Lorenzo and his crew took off at 7p.m., after knocking down the third wall. The space where the wall had been now allows full view of the kitchen with its bright yellow walls and hanging baskets filled with ivy.
Lisa is once again alone at night with her dog. Mark is staying in New York, a relief of sorts. Lisa made the decision about the third wall without consulting him. "Take a hammer and knock it all down. We'll deal with the insurance company later," she said to Lorenzo as soon as she stepped into the house.
Lisa rips up the letter to Eileen, then takes out a few more notes intended for Mark and tears them up, too. She places the pieces in her wicker basket and climbs into bed, waking Sadie and pulling her towards the pillows. She places her hand on the Sadie's forehead. She thinks the touch of her hand helps Sadie breathe better.
"So, Sadie, it's time for a talk." Lisa starts quietly even though Sadie ignores her and rests her head on the pillow. "Lily is dying, Sadie. Dying. She will probably go to the vet who will beg that woman to put her to sleep. I think the owner's name is Erin. Does that sound right? Anyway, Erin will do it and that will be that. I think this is something you have to know."
Sadie yawns and rolls on her back, a sign she wants a tummy rub. Lisa gives her one.
"But you just keep breathing, Sadie. That's what you do, sweet pea."
Sadie's head is still as Lisa rubs; her jowls flop back, revealing their pink undersides; her teeth jut over her upper lip, giving her an appearance of a feral, primitive, perhaps ferocious, animal. She begins to snore.
Leaving her hand upon Sadie's head, Lisa turns off the lamp. The night slips in and covers the room. Pieces of the crescent moon reach through the corner window, a dull assurance that behind it is tomorrow's light.