Before Nina graduated, she dated a guy named Dillon. Dillon Yates. He lived just outside of downtown New Haven with his doe-eyed German Shepherd. It was a she. Her name was Maggie. She licked his face a lot and shit like clockwork in the rectangular backyard adorned with yellow grass. At night, she’d scramble foolishly up the stairs, her nails scratching up the already ancient flooring. Dillon had informed Nina that she was still young, just two years old. On her birthday, he put a party hat on her inquisitive, long face and drank a beer in bed.
When Nina stayed the night at Dillon’s apartment, Maggie most often wedged herself between the two of them. This made her feel like one of two siblings begrudgingly sharing a hotel bed on vacation - a fortress of pillows to keep the two sides distinct and uncrossable. Dillon slept hard and startled in his sleep. Maggie was most often awake, ears perked up at the slightest sound. Nina held her breath.
Dillon’s apartment was fashioned in silly remnants of times past: a pink tiled bathroom with matching wallpaper, a checkered kitchen with really squeaky cabinets, one old chandelier in the foyer. His room was half-decorated, which was impressive for any 26-year-old bachelor. He had a record player, a handful of books, a bed without a frame, a tv, some lopsided posters. It was a modest-sized (and ridiculously overpriced) apartment tucked into the top floor of an aging property by the river among a line of equally old, fading houses. Overall, it was a charming space. Especially since it didn’t smell like dog. Nina really didn’t like that. She didn’t like dogs either, and now that she thought about it, she didn’t love Dillon.
Yesterday, Nina and Dillon spent the afternoon together in the city. She paid for parking in a gated lot, as there was no chance she could parallel park in New Haven. Dillon walked over from the gym. He had this casual manner about him that made the whole date seem kind of insignificant, perfectly temporal. This is probably why Nina kept going on dates with him. It just wasn’t a big deal.
Around 1:00, they got lunch and then proceeded to weave their way through a string of shops - barely even glancing at each storefront before entering. They eventually ended up in some real-uppity place next to a pilates studio. Inside, Nina bought this fur-collared jacket (unthinkingly) which was upwards of two hundred dollars. She didn’t know why she bought it in the first place - money was tight. Dillon was so nonchalant and disinterested that trying to “show off” by purchasing an item from a store with no sales was a childish maneuver. He trod alongside her in sweatpants, looking like he might break out in a brisk jog at any moment. He was a fitness coach at Yale, which was so obnoxious to her she almost couldn’t look at him sometimes. Too many t-shirts and zip-ups all bearing that bulldog mascot (a strange, very undistinguished choice for fucking Yale).
Afterward, Dillon walked Nina (and her shopping bags garishly sprouting tissue paper) down to the lot. She was ready to call it quits right then and there - eject a classic, vague break-up line: I don’t think this is working out. I think we should take a break. I need some time alone to figure things out. But before she could do it, he leaned in all sweetly and kissed her once, then left with his hands in his pockets. She watched him from her car for a minute, briskly jogging across the street, blending effortlessly into the pedestrian current.
That very same day, Dillon texted her in the evening - a total change of pace. He spewed some sentiments about how much he wanted to see her again today—just dying to see her again. On top of that, he conveniently dropped the news that he would be leaving for Arizona tomorrow morning. His uncle was getting married or something. To her, the whole story sounded like one of those elaborate lies. Yeah, my nana is real sick, she um fell, and then she got pneumonia! Bad lungs. It isn’t looking good. Definitely won’t be able to make it.
Lie or not, he went to the airport, looking very manly with this oversized duffle bag, just as stocky as him. Now Nina was stuck with Maggie for the long weekend.
On day one of her impromptu pet-sitting, Nina stripped the bed and washed everything. Comforter, sheets, pillowcases, throw blankets. By making everything smell like laundry detergent rather than Dillon, she felt much more at ease staying in his apartment alone. Like this, she could pretend it was a hotel - a bed and breakfast. She could daydream like this. She always slept better on clean sheets.
All the while, Maggie was perplexed but docile. A bit whiny. She was a good dog, though. Even Nina could tell as much. She even felt induced to go to the store and buy Maggie new treats. She stared at the little bags with cartoon dogs on them with long tongues and took a while to ponder the options carefully before choosing. Without Dillon around, she really wanted the dog to like her. It was an odd sentiment, as every night, she rehearsed what she would say to Dillon when he got back from Arizona - how she would break things off.
Night two, she found herself in the bathroom feeling overpowered by some phantom presence, full to the brim with this melancholic restlessness. She rummaged through her stuff and then through his cabinets, snooped a little but didn’t find much: a case of Irish Spring, a jug of drain cleaner, Windex. She stared at herself for a long time in his mirror. Putting her hair up, and back down, and back up again. Her face was pale. When she smiled, her teeth were fuzzy. She remembered she’d forgotten to brush them last night. This happened too often. Laziness that was automatic. Lethargy that didn’t have an ironfisted grip on her, per se, but hung about like an aura.
After brushing her teeth until her gums bled, Nina opened up this new skin cream that looked like a jar of semen. She’d bought it out shopping with him, which was only yesterday. It had been on sale at a holistic skincare store.
“Basil,” Dillon had sniffed the sample.
“I like it. It’s unique,” he’d smiled at her then, and his eyes creased. A trait that always sporadically aged him.
Nina smeared a glob of it on his cheek in the store, and he laughed. She’d left that store happy, she thinks (for just a moment). Happiness was not so concrete for her. Many things were not happy until milled over in retrospect.
Nina didn’t hear from Dillon that evening. Maggie was in her usual position in the middle of the bed, so she slept precariously in the corner, thinking, churning. She thought about Dillon at some wedding in the desert - sweating as he does at the gym. She pictured him wearing a suit that hugs his muscles awkwardly, dancing with some cousin he hasn’t seen in five years, who grew up while he was gone. She wondered if he’d notice the deep neckline of her dress, the youthful perfume rolled onto her neck, her clean smile void of braces. Nina often perceived Dillon as a man of repressed urges...of shaky conviction. He had a dark cross tattooed on his arm and layered, inky wings spanning his upper back. She imagined her hands on them while he was inside her. It made her stomach drop.
Finally figuring that Dillon would update her tomorrow, let her know what time his flight home was and all, she turned off the lights. She could hear Maggie exhale in one long, innocent sigh, and all of a sudden, she wanted to cry. Her face felt cool from the basil cream she’d smoothed over her forehead and cheeks but not tacky like when Dillon would finish on her chest. She traced her face again, morbidly reminding herself of the skull beneath the skin. Eventually, she turned over and brought her knees in to condense herself into sleep. The bedding smelled clean, but she almost wished it didn’t.
In the morning, she let Maggie out for her clockwork bowel movement and called Dillon’s cell twice. Nothing. It wasn’t until that evening that she knew something was wrong.
Shortly after 7 pm, after stalking his Facebook diligently, she found his mom Maureen, and the freshly married uncle, Bryan. He wasn't making up the wedding after all. His mom was a realtor, which conveniently led her to a contact. She called and left a message, not realizing how she spoke in hushed tones, not recognizing her voice at all.
At 9:30, her phone rang, and she picked it up, expecting to hear Dillon’s mother but got a hasty male voice instead.
“Nina?” The way he probed a response made her feel like a dog.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“I’m Kevin Yates. I saw the voicemail on my wife’s phone.”
“Oh yes, thank you for getting back to me. You see, I’m trying to get a hold of Dillon. He left me in charge of his dog and -”
“There’s been an accident,” he stopped me. “A collision. He left my brother’s wedding last night; the crash was head-on. Happened around 1:00 am. We’re dealing with the -”
“He’s dead. My son - listen, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to attend to my family.”
“Of course. I’m sorry. I just -- but what about Maggie?”
“His dog. Maggie. He left me in charge of her while he was gone.”
Kevin Yates sighed before continuing in his string of exasperated replies. “Honestly, we can’t drive up there and then back to Arizona to get her. It’s just not plausible. Do you just want to take her?”
“Is... that okay?”
“Of course it is.”
“And the apartment?”
“Leave the key behind when you go, please. Don’t take any of his things.”
“Of course not, I would never -” Nina was hurt by the insinuation of such a thing. Kevin Yates did not know her.
“Thank you for calling. I’m sorry I have to go,” Kevin Yates hung up the phone, cold from grief.
Nina spent one more night on the sheets that no longer smelled like the now-dead Dillon Yates. She was yet to cry on the pillowcase or rip her hair out. You see, she did not love Dillon Yates, even in death. But being touched by another’s premature death left her just as worse off than if she really had.
After pacing the old floors a couple of times, she picked a book up off his shelf. The Stranger by Albert Camus. An odd book to have found a home with him. She sat down in bed to read - one hand holding the paperback open in front of her. Organically, she ended up moving her other hand (the right) across her left cheek in consolation. She did not even realize she was doing it. Eventually, Maggie joined her and retired to her usual spot. Nina had read about half of the book.
Only then did her eyes burn. She looked over at the dog - head rested down between its outstretched legs. Silent. Benign. Intuitive.
“I’m sorry, Maggie,” she choked, “it looks like you’re gonna be stuck with me.”
Nina was in a tricky place, cornered by tragedy. She was not important enough of an extension of Dillon Yates’ life to feel entitled to truly give herself over to mourning. His coworkers had a better claim to that than his girlfriend of a mere month. Yet, leaving behind an apartment to rot with Maggie on a leash was the most weighty event of her life. It cemented in her mind that she would not or rather could not move on. It just wasn’t possible. She’d think about the freshly clean sheets she’d hastily robbed of any trace of him...the bed he’d never return to. She thought more about the emptiness of that apartment than Dillon himself and their short time together. It was like the times she found herself in her own bed, realizing another person used to inhabit this very same space with their own complications and weaknesses and pains...all of which there was now no trace of.
Above all, Nina thought about Maggie. She had no experience owning a dog or loving a dog...just like she had no experience truly loving a partner. But, she soon discovered that Maggie’s silent companionship was the closest thing she could find to mindlessly enjoyable company. The first week with her, she went to Pet Smart and bought nearly one of everything that had a dog on the packaging. The store was frighteningly empty, and she briefly thought she was dreaming.
Upon presenting her many offerings, Maggie was largely unmoved. However, she did utilize the dog bed. It wasn’t until after Nina got her Master’s degree that Maggie would sleep in bed with her. It took years. Years that felt like months. Through which Nina would grow to depend on Maggie, though the love was never reciprocal. Maggie was content but not adoring...as if she understood the forced circumstances, the tragedy that sewed them together. Nina recognized this dynamic and respected it. Others on the street unknowingly giggled at it, watching Nina trail weakly behind Maggie as if there wasn’t a leash there to bind them. Maggie thanked Nina for her safety, for her routine care, but nothing more.
Nina was thirty-three when Maggie died. Her job was steady then and had been for years. Money was no longer tight. And she had never slept with anyone else after Dillon Yates.
It was only when she said goodbye to Maggie - parting with her with a look, with silence - that she realized she herself had aged. It had happened safely, mindlessly, as she and Maggie had settled into their ways, into life. Nina grew basil. She read, and she dreamt, she forgot to brush her teeth. She pulled into the same parking space every morning at work with precision and security. She knew the baristas at her local cafe, and they knew her. Her acquaintances threw parties that required RSVPs. She watched Maggie socialize with other dogs on the green. She cooked for one and cleaned in silence. She learned what she enjoyed and what she hated. And until Maggie died, there was no need to survey it all, to make sense of it. It was unremarkable. It was both frightening and soothing that the passing of time could mean so little.
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