Here’s a peek into my rough novel-in-progress. – Kim Brittingham
Dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs. Since birth, I’ve been intensely allergic to any animal with hair or fur. When I was little I couldn’t even go to the circus because the minute they trotted out the tigers, I’d have to be rushed out of the tent in a sneezing fit. Even from thirty rows above the floor. My mother was so impressed, she told everyone she knew.
“I’m not kiddin’. The minute those tigers entered the ring, she started!”
Whenever our family was invited to someone’s house for the first time, a routine inquiry had to be made.
“Say Louise, do you and Dan have a dog? Any cats?”
I guess my mother asked so she’d know what to expect. It wasn’t like she ever turned down an invitation because of the presence of animals (unless, of course, she needed a convenient excuse).
I really can’t blame my parents here. After all, ours is a nation of house pets. If you avoided every house with an animal in it, you’d have no social life whatsoever. Which is probably what my parents were thinking, if in fact they were thinking, when they took me to the allergen-infested houses of their acquaintances and friends.
During our visits, the poor animals would end up barricaded into too-small powder rooms or left to howl mournfully for hours from the bottom of basement stairs, begging to know what they’d done wrong to be outcast so. It pained me to hear them scratching from the other side of a tightly-latched door, or to see wet sniffing noses or darting paws under the crack of a door, desperate for recognition and rescue.
I can thank my allergies for making me a murderess. I killed a skunk. Indirectly, but still, dead is dead. Rolly was the cherished pet of The Larkens, a tame, friendly skunk whose stinker had been removed. Moe Larken worked with my dad. Reenie was his wife. They had a house full of clamorous but kind children who, to my shy bewilderment, rushed me at the door with a groupies’ welcome. They swept up my shrinking figure in a cloud of elbow eczema dust and Kool-Aid breath, and carried me off deep into the bowels of the basement family room.
One Saturday evening, following an afternoon of shopping for patio chairs and “Huskies” jeans at Sears, we went to the Larkens’ for pot roast. In an effort to lessen my allergies, Reenie annexed Rolly to an oversized pantry and left the light on for him. After dinner but before dessert, one of the kids peeked in to check on Rolly and found him laying lifeless on the floor, brained beneath a fallen broomstick. Later in the car my parents snickered over it. I felt haunted and sick. And responsible.
What’s often not understood about allergies like mine is that getting rid of the animal doesn’t get rid of my symptoms. The poison is in their fur, it’s in their skin, in their urine and the very breath they exhale. It’s a ruthless, stubborn toxin, lingering long after its carrier is gone.
Throughout my childhood, the most generous, well-meaning or just plain gung-ho of hostesses were always quick to let us know they vacuumed before we came over. Everywhere, even under the sofa. They even used the little vacuum attachments they didn’t normally use to clean under the sofa cushions and around the baseboards. They wanted us to know they cared. Sadly, it was never enough.
I’d be sent outside to “get some air” at regular intervals, in all kinds of weather. I have one tenacious memory of shivering on a set of cold cement steps in an unfamiliar neighborhood, watching long-haired boys playing basketball in ski jackets in a driveway across the street.
Sometimes my mother remembered to bring my “medicine”. This impotent, ugly treacle, prescribed for me several hundred years ago by a pediatrician I probably never saw a second time, filled a clunky amber bottle. I don’t remember a time when the label wasn’t brittle and yellow and peeling up at the edges, making a crinkly sound when my mother pulled the vessel from her pocketbook. The stuff looked like a joke. It was a thick, gloppy syrup in an unearthly phosphorescent yellow-green. Maybe that’s why it never worked — because my body just couldn’t take it seriously for looking like that.
When I was ten or eleven, a new toy appeared on the shelves at K-mart. My brother and I begged for it, but my mother refused to buy it on the principle that it was just too disgusting. It came in a little plastic bucket and was called “Slime”. It looked like a giant mass of phlegm from a hacking, Jabba the Hut-like alien in a state of semi-deterioration and lung failure. Come to think of it, the makers of Slime later introduced “Slime – with Worms!”. It was fun to squish between your fingers and throw at walls and watch it splat. (We had neighbors who were lucky enough to score some.) “Slime” (original “Slime”, sans worms,) looked uncannily like my allergy medicine, only slightly more aqueous and thus easier to swallow.
I’ve come to know my allergies intimately well. They’re an old friend, easily distinguishable from the common cold and flu. The less dramatic symptoms include itchy crimson hives blotched across my face, neck and chest; a burning and tightening sensation at the inner corners of my eyes, as the whites turn bloody red. The flesh around my eyes puffs up like marshmallow until my lids are swollen completely shut. Then there’s the lengthy chain-sneezing without pause, sometimes up to twenty-something sneezes in a row, causing my taxed nasal membranes to seep blood. However, the most charming symptom, hands-down, is the complete inability to breathe.
The wheezing starts small, like a squeaky little man at the bottom of my throat calling for help. “Hellllp…” on the rising note of the inhale, and “meeeee….” on the falling note of the exhale. No lusty, satisfying, Rocky-Mountain-High deep breaths here. It feels like water rising in my lungs. I actually have to think about breathing. I can almost picture a water line drawn across my lungs and with each passing minute, the line is erased and re-drawn a little higher as my breath becomes alarmingly abbreviated. Hm-ah. Hm-ah. Hm-ah.
This is what happened the day my parents brought a dog home from the pound. I was fifteen years old.
Maybe they’d been discussing it for a while. I suppose there could have been a little chit-chat here, a bit of “Maaaaa, can’t we get a dog?” there. But if so, I’d picked up on none of it.
On the other hand, maybe there was no deliberation whatsoever. I never did see a lot of advanced planning going on in our house. No drawing up of pro-and-con lists, no rolling out of blueprints or hovering over calculators and copies of the Wall Street Journal; no family meetings or parental pow-wows. My parents tended to live without that kind of fuss.
And so it happened, one sunny Saturday morning. My parents lit a couple of cigarettes and piled into the car with my brother and sister and motored on over to the Port Washington Animal Shelter, where they fell in love with a clumsy white mutt dappled with patches of brown and black, with big brown eyes and dopey oversized paws. They brought him home and called him “Patches”, a name which at the time I found painfully prosaic.
I had awoken that morning to a sighing, empty house – an unexpected treat! Where had everybody gone? Didn’t know, didn’t care. They often left me out of their plans, as I’d so solidly established my complete disinterest in whatever they did “as a family”. But all too soon, I heard the family car roll into the gravel driveway, and next, someone called up the stairs:
“Kim! Quick! Come and see what weeee got!”
Poor pup. He had no way of knowing he would end up wandering around for weeks at a time with crusty spots of spaghetti sauce on his head, or that he’d take to eating soap out of the bathtub and pissing all over himself because The Sunshine Family would eventually forget about him.
When my parents brought home a dog, I didn’t ask any questions. I didn’t throw a fit, didn’t go into a red-faced teenage tangent. You didn’t do things like that if you were me. If you were me, you had a strong sense of self-preservation. You knew better. You didn’t question your parents’ actions. You didn’t dare raise your voice in protest when your father could be doing something as benign as laying carpet in your bedroom, and you might utter something that would hit a nerve, and he’d snap, always with the jarring swiftness of the cobra pouncing on the guileless field mouse. If you were me, you understood that feeling of the status quo being shattered in a blink. And you knew what it felt like to be lifted off the ground by the bunched-up shoulders of your t-shirt and your back slammed against a wall. You knew what it was to tremble uncontrollably and hear your heart pulsing in your ears, not from terror but from being so violently startled. Even when you might see his fist drawing back in slow motion, like Popeye’s fist at the end of a bloated animated arm, poised to missile forward into your face, you weren’t scared. No. The thing that brought that torrent of black dread drumming down inside the cavity of your torso was the shrill tone in your mother’s voice as she shreiked your father’s name from the doorway. This is what frightened you. This. Because of the height of its urgency, like nothing you’d ever heard from your mother’s mouth. It seemed a signal that things were as nasty as they would ever get, an eerie pitch suggestive in its very stridency that perhaps this shriek would be the last thing you’d ever hear.
So all the needling and smart-mouthing and belligerent adolescent challenges – those, I saved for my mother. For weekday afternoons when Dad was still at work and I could catch her, vulnerable and preoccupied, sitting at her craft table, peering over her drugstore eyeglasses and painting a wooden Santa Claus figure. For her, I reserved my heavy sighs of disgust, all the rolling eyes and defensive postures and dismissive snorts and pursed lips of disapproval. But even these things I unleashed only when I couldn’t contain them anymore. Most of the time, I kept my rage to myself.
The same day Patches joined the family, my Aunt Mae came to visit. She lived three states away. She was my mother’s oldest sister and a reasonable woman. I believe my Aunt Mae’s opinion mattered to my mother. I missed the inevitable exchange between them when my aunt asked why in the name of God they adopted a dog when everyone knew how allergic I was. I’m sure my mother lied. But she would have believed her own lie. She’d have said something like:
“Oh, it’s gonna be fine. Kim’s allergies aren’t as bad as they used to be. They’ve calmed down a lot as she’s gotten older.”
A fairy tale. Cooked up out of thin air. But my mother always fell for herself, hook, line and sinker.
I would later hear her say the same thing to other people. In fact, she’d say it to me, as if to convince us both. There never was, and never would be, any evidence to support my mother’s hopeful little theory that my allergies had magically disappeared.
Even though I cloistered myself in my room for most of that first Day of The Dog, a person needs to stray into the common areas of the house from time to time. You’ve gotta pee, you’ve gotta eat. And dammit, I wanted to see my Aunt Mae, not just know she was there by the familiar high notes of her voice that made their way through the ceiling and to my bedroom. I loved my aunt. I wanted to hug her and kiss her and sit near her awhile. Meanwhile, the puppy, who’d been frolicking about the house all morning, had already laid his little allergens everywhere. My symptoms were clear and present.
“Do you have an antihistamine you can take, honey?” my Aunt Mae asked, running a hand across my hives and clucking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Ada,” turning to my mother, “Don’t you have any Benadryl or anything?”
My mother sucked deeply on her cigarette. “Mm. Maybe,” blowing smoke from the side of her mouth. “Kim, check inside the medicine cabinet in my bathroom.”
My aunt looked worried.
I found a bottle of over-the-counter hay fever medicine and took a swig before trudging back upstairs.
Back in my bedroom, the wheezing was getting worse. The water line on my lungs was rising, and quickly. I propped myself up in bed against three pillows, trying to position my body so my chest felt completely open, availing myself to maximum oxygen with minimal effort. I set my book aside. I needed to concentrate. I focused on getting each breath in and down into my lungs, past the phlegmy mess in there.
Each inhaled breath had a dozen doors to open on its way down, and someone standing across the room could’ve heard each and every one creaking laboriously open. The wheezing was loud and oddly musical.
Finally, I realized this wouldn’t do. Each breath was a quick, tiny, unsatisfying struggle. There was nowhere else to go from here.
I tried not to exert myself as I pulled on some jeans and stepped into a pair of sneakers. I slid down the stairs on my ass because walking down would have required too much breath. I was scared.
I made my way haltingly to the kitchen. My mother and my aunt heard me coming.
“Take me,” wheeze, “to the,” wheeze, “hospital” wheeze.
My aunt’s hand came around to my back.
“Oh honey, I can hear you! Ada…” she turned to my mother.
My mother waved a hand dismissively. “God, this kid can be so friggin’ dramatic.”
I looked my aunt directly in the eyes, trying to convey urgency.
My mother reached for a fresh cigarette.
“Why don’t you take another Benadryl if you’re feeling so bad?”
“Ada,” my Aunt said sternly, “Either you take this kid to the hospital, or you give me your car keys and I’m gonna take her.”
On some level my mother had to realize I never, ever would have asked to be taken to the hospital, especially not to be treated myself, unless something was really, truly wrong. Not with my aversion to needles, to people in white coats and to the cold, angular buildings with painfully dated architecture they inhabited. There was no way.
My mother drove and my aunt rode shotgun. I slumped in the backseat with my head craned out the open window, letting the night air whip against my face and hoping to get some of it into my chest incidentally.
At the hospital they poured a liquid drug into a machine that turned it into a breathable mist. I sucked it in, holding the mask to my face with a trembling hand for ten minutes, until I’d inhaled it all. Then they tested my lung capacity, making me blow into another machine until they were satisfied I would walk out alive. They wrote a prescription for a decongestant and a referral for me to see a physician on Monday, gave them to my mother to fold into her pocketbook, and sent us home.
The upshot to all of this is, I finally got my mom off my back about holing up in my room all the time. Because the dog stayed. My parents just chose to annex me to my room all official-like. I guess they figured I’d been hiding away voluntarily for so long, what difference did it make now if it became a medical necessity?
An air purifier was installed in my bedroom to help filter out any stray dog allergens that might make their way in on my shoes or clothes after passing through the rest of the house. My mattress and pillowcases were encased in vinyl that crinkled whenever I moved on it. The doctor we saw Monday morning prescribed these things.
In retrospect, I can’t believe the doctor didn’t tell my mother to get rid of the dog. Or maybe he did and she chose to ignore him. Unfortunately, if he did, my mother didn’t have the common sense to follow through. I didn’t see an allergist until I was in my twenties, living and working in New York City and with my own health insurance to pay for it.
Given the chance, I think my mother would argue that I didn’t want to go to the allergist, and that’s why she never took me.
“You were afraid! You would never sit still for all those needles and tests. Who are you kidding? And like you’d ever let them give you allergy shots in the arm once a week. No way would you have let me sign you up for that!“
We weren’t much of a dentist-going family either, for similar reasons:
“You were scared to death of the dentist! When you had to go, you were a nervous wreck for a week before the appointment! You would never have let me take you for check-ups every six months. Are you kiddin’?”
It’s all true. I was afraid of health professionals. I was afraid of shiny, pointy instruments designed for insertion into the human body. The smell of rubbing alcohol and disinfectants made me queasy. Even tongue depressors were threatening. Most kids fear doctors, don’t they? Don’t most kids scream when they see their first syringe? There’s a reason dentists buy display ads in the yellow pages with impish, grinning molars boasting that they “cater to children and cowards!” Isn’t there? And don’t most children of American middle class families go to the dentist anyway, and walk away without developing multiple personalities or tics?
I can’t help wishing someone could have been the soothing, reassuring parent; the wise, responsible adult who gets you the care you need despite your own fears and protests, and knows the right things to say to make you feel reasonably comfortable about what lies ahead.
But my mother didn’t take herself to the dentist, either – so what was her excuse?
On Patches’ very first night in our house, my parents made a bed for him in a cardboard box and penned him in the laundry room with a baby gate. After everyone went to bed, he began to whimper. He was just a baby, after all, suddenly in an unfamiliar little room that was dark and devoid of life. No other puppies to curl up against, no fellow doggie yawns or doggie smells from nearby cages. His first night in our house was understandably desolate. He bayed so mournfully, and it could be heard throughout the house.
Quietly, I pulled open my bedroom door. Opposite, the door to the room my younger brother and sister shared was snugly closed, my Aunt Mae presumably sleeping soundly behind it. My siblings were camping out on the floor of my parents’ room for the night, which was on the first floor, just off the kitchen.
I crept halfway down the stairs, huffing and still lightly wheezing, and a little woozy from the prescription decongestant they’d prescribed in the ER. I thought I heard a low, rumbling voice corresponding with the puppy’s cries. I sat on a step and listened.
“Quiet!” my father ordered sternly. The puppy whimpered pleadingly, please don’t leave me by myself in the dark.
“What did I just say?” He punctuated “just” and “say” with two quick strikes of what sounded like a rolled-up newspaper against…I didn’t know what.
Little Patches was quieter, but I could hear a high-pitched, heart-tugging sound, like the softest tea pot whistle, persisting from his tiny throat.
“Are you gonna shut up or do I have to shut you up? Huh? Huh? Huh?” There was a loud rattle, a thud and a fluttering of papers and the unmistakable sound of an animal yelping in pain.
My face was suddenly awash with flames. I clenched my fists, digging my nails into my palms, and gritted my teeth so tight my gums throbbed. I wanted to stand up and go thudding down those stairs, striking fear in my father’s heart. I imagined the bastard standing at the baby gate with a magazine in his hand, turning and seeing me, his face blanching, the contortions of wickedness dripping away like a mask of melting wax, leaving behind a universal look of “oh, shit…”.
I imagined lifting my hand to his head and yanking at his close-cropped, wavy hair, maneuvering his head by the scalp.
“What do you think you’re doing to this animal? Huh? Huh? Huh?”
In my mind’s eye I saw him locking a hand around my throat. I responded by bringing my knee up hard into his groin. He released my neck and groaned in agony, but I pulled harder at his scalp, forcing him to look up at me.
“That’s not enough for you, you sick bastard! Oh, no. That’s not nearly enough.”
My arm had superhuman strength and was fantastically long. I was a girl Stretch Armstrong. I lifted my father by the hair and dangled him on high like some primitive jointed doll, and shook him with the force of a Great White before laying him out prostrate across the linoleum.
My foot, conveniently outfitted in a spiked-heel boot, hovered over the fly of his jeans.
“Oh God, no. No! Kim, please. Don’t do this. I’m so sorry! You can call the police, you can have me arrested for animal abuse and child abuse and anything else you want – I’ll tell them the truth about everything. Just don’t kill me. Please!”
In my mind and in reality, my lips spread into a wide, lusty smile.
I twisted my heel into the gelatinous sack of his balls: stomp, trample, gnash, crush, repeat. He screamed and his jeans darkened with blood.
Sugary saliva cascaded through my mouth at the thought.
Against the wall of the stairwell, the yellow light of the kitchen abruptly disappeared. My father’s footsteps fell heavily and haughtily back towards his bedroom and I heard the door close. The puppy’s whimpers were timid and faint.
I tip-toed down the rest of the staircase and crossed quietly into the kitchen. I clicked on a low light over the sink and approached the laundry room. The puppy was curled up in a far corner, his nose buried under his tail. I whispered,
“Don’t be afraid, Patches. It’s only me.”
He lifted his head and in the shadows his eyes shone with hope. He wept a tad louder.
“Shhh!” I warned. As I blew the breath through my teeth, my lungs made a noise that weirdly echoed the dog himself. “Quiet little puppy, quiet! You don’t want to do that. You be quiet now and I’ll come and visit you in the morning. OK?”
I opened the refrigerator and loosened two cans of Coke from the plastic rings of a six-pack and tucked them in the bend of my arm. From the cabinet above the fridge I grabbed two packages of chocolate Swiss roll snack cakes, snapped off the light, and retreated to the filtered safety of my room.
I meant to eat my Swiss rolls in the usual ceremonial way: peel the rubbery chocolate icing away in rectangular bits and eat them first. Then, carefully and neatly unroll the chocolate cake into a curled brown slab with sticky-thick white icing blanketing the inside. Finally, I’d lick the icing away and eat the cake. But when I tore away that crinkly clear wrapping and had those rolls between my fingers, I found myself tearing into them with blind fury.
* * *
Following our trip to the doctor, my mother warned me not to let the dog lick or drool on me. Which by itself is quite something, because it suggests some acknowledgement on my mother’s part that my allergies still really existed. She couldn’t seem to make up her mind about whether I was allergic or not.
“I know, I try not to let him do it,” I sighed, “but licking is a dog’s way of showing affection. And I’m afraid if I pull away too soon, I’ll end up giving him a rejection complex. I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
She twisted her face into that all-too-familiar “Don’t be absurd!” expression and said,
“He’s a dog for Christ’s sake! He doesn’t have feelings!”
Eventually, with repeated brief exposures to the same animal, my body adapted enough to co-exist with Patches on a limited basis. And it was a good thing, too, because after that first purchase of the air filter for my room, I could never get my mother to track down replacement filters for the machine and it fell into disuse. True, I paid the price of a perpetually mottled complexion, irritated eyes, embarrassing red rings circling my nostrils, and a chronic chest rattle. These things worsened depending on my proximity to Patches, but because of my affection for him, I was willing to suffer in short spurts.
Sometimes when Patches was sprawled across the sofa, I’d kneel on the floor beside him and stroke his head and say, over and over,
“Patch-chezzzzzzzzz. Are you my sweet baby? Yeee-essssssss, you’re my sweet baby…”
This routine had its own music. I kept my voice low and soothing, until I hit the word “you” in “Are you my sweet baby?” Here my voice rose to its highest pitch, a chipmunk-like question mark I sustained all the way through “baby”, after which I abruptly plunged several octaves on, “Yeee-essssss, you’re my sweet baby.”
Patches gazed into my eyes and squeaked from the back of his throat, a sort of happy weeping or bird song. The more I repeated my lovey-dovey mantra, the closer he’d scoot his doggy face to the edge of the couch, to be closer to mine. The brow muscles beneath the furry fat of his forehead formed an affecting furrow, like a woman looking upon a newborn, overcome by preciousness. The dog’s little love tweets came faster and louder. His moist nose quivered, the jowly flaps of skin over his mouth began to tremble. Then came the pleading whines, as though he so desperately wanted to tell me,
“I love you! I love you! If only I had a mouth that was shaped to form the words!”
After a few repetitions of our mantra and my gentle caresses down his head and back, Patches was nearly overcome with affection. The desperate tweeting and whining, the increased intensity of his chocolate brown gaze, the quivering little face, it was all building up…until he lunged! toward me and frantically lapped at my face. I refused him as gently as possible, then bolted upstairs to scrub my face and flush my eyes out with Visine.
One day, Patches began to mimic me. Melodically, I mean.
“Arrrrrrre………you my sweet baby?”
His low throaty moan rose to meet my high note.
I plunged into my baritone and he followed me down, his doggy noise diving in an efficient, smooth downward arc. When I asked if he was my baby again, he met me note for note.
I was fascinated. Enchanted! This dog was a genius! Maybe he could even be taught to speak! I’d once seen a dog on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” say “I love you” to his owner. I decided to teach Patches to say something, too, against all odds.
I sat on a chair in the kitchen, with Patches planted patiently on the floor before me, looking up with such touching compliance, a willing pupil.
I started with the basics. It was easy to get him to howl. I’d just start howling myself, loudly, and he’d throw his head back and bay at the water-stained ceiling tiles with a mouth that surprised me in its ability to shape itself into a near-perfect “O” without the benefit of lips.
Once I had Patches howling, I could add some cadence or pattern to my own howl and he’d copy it. When I had him solidly following my lead, I leaned forward and looked him meaningfully in the eyes.
“Looooooove,” I howled quietly, my gaze locked onto his. It was a sound something like the word “love”, but more like the way I imagined a creature with a dog-shaped mouth might say it. It was guttural, with less emphasis on the consonants. Still, I tried to demonstrate the necessary “L” sound by pressing my tongue fat against my upper teeth and ending with an exaggerated, lick-like flourish. I reasoned that since dogs could lick, maybe I could get Patches to combine a noise made while licking the roof of his mouth with a howl-like “O” sound and in the end, produce something similar to “Lo”.
Sweet, faithful Patches. He stood for many long minutes, trying like hell to get it right, for me. He really did watch my face – intently – and you could see the wheels turning behind those Hershey Kiss eyes as he moved his mouth to parrot me. Sometimes he seemed to be gearing himself up to try especially hard, like the equivalent of a verbal running jump. He did a little dance in place with his front paws, tapping out his determination on the linoleum; huffed quickly several times and licked his chops.
The edges of his mouth curved around amorphous vowels and then he whistled, or whined, or made hilarious confounded-caveman noises through his sinuses. Sometimes he lifted his paw and placed it on my knee as if to say,
“I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I’m just an idiot shelter dog who’ll die never knowing the glory of a poorly-scripted Bob Saget introduction. Forgive me, I’m just as God made me!”
My mother thought I was nuts. But I was there and I know the truth. This animal tried very hard to learn from me.
* * *
One day, about eight years after Patches joined our household, I asked my mother point-blank, just for the fun of it:
“Why did you and Daddy get Patches when you know I’m allergic to animals?”
She answered quickly, defensively,
“But you love Patches!”
I stood there, feeling the irritation etching itself into my face. Quietly, I heard myself utter,
“What does that have to do with anything?”
But if she heard me, my mother chose not to answer.