Christmas by Paula J. Lambert

Paula J. Lambert

Delia wasn’t sure Frank loved her and now that she might be pregnant, that seemed like a problem. She sat naked on the edge of the tub with her knees together and her bare feet spread, the EPT box on the floor beside her. At 39, she was too old for this kind of crisis. She’d been on the pill for seventeen years and in all that time had never known that ‘certain antibiotics may interact with birth control pills to make them less effective in preventing pregnancy.’ It was printed on the New York Times-length inserts that until now she’d thrown away each time she opened a new pack… so much for government warnings.

Frank, of course, had never said he loved her but she kept thinking he might. She thought sometimes that the words might come while they were making love, that he’d be swept away just once, but all that ever came was a sort of tribal howl as he came inside her, a sound that without fail opened up the space between them. The ejaculation put him in touch with something inside himself, she was sure of that. It was something so deep, so aboriginal and so personal that her presence in bringing it out was incidental. The best she could do was hold on and wait for him to come back, which he always did with a final deep sigh into the side of her neck. He was appreciative, she knew, and sometimes he even thanked her. For quite a while now, she’d let herself believe that that was enough.

She’d started to think that it wasn’t by the time the holidays came around. As they were discussing their plans for Christmas, he talked about going to see his children and needing someone to watch the dog. He debated whether he would fly or drive all the way to New York, how long the trip would take and when he would be back. When he came around to asking about her plans to go to Indiana to see her sister, she told him she’d decided not to go; that there were too many things she needed to do at home, and his eyes began to widen.

‘Ohh…,’ he said slowly. ‘You’re not going?’ She shook her head and saw a look cross over his face, a look that said, she thought, ‘that changes everything,’ and she waited for him to say, “We could have Christmas here, you and I. Nevermind the family, they’ll get along without us. It’ll be just the two of us this year…” The words that came out instead were, ‘That means you could feed the dog.’

So here she was on Christmas eve, three weeks over a bout of bronchitis, two weeks late for her period, and an hour-and-a-half late to feed the dog; a full-grown black lab named Enkidu.

She picked up the box and read the directions for the ninth time, simple directions with little picture boxes beside the print so that any foolish woman, excited or terrified or pissed, could follow them without any trouble. The results took three minutes. She decided after getting up from the tub and starting the test, that she wasn’t ready for an answer. She left the plastic tester on the edge of the sink, washed her hands quickly without looking at it, then flew to the bedroom and put on her most comfortable jeans and an old wool sweater. It was Dave’s sweater–an old boyfriend–and she’d inherited it somehow during the time she helped him pack up everything he owned, leaving her to join the Peace Corps in Guatemala. Dave had loved her, she was sure of that, but as he explained it, what he needed more was to make a difference to the world and not just one person. So there was a sort of nobility in his leaving, in her being left, since it was not for another woman or for a relationship gone sour. It was for fresh water and a new sanitation system; for the opportunity to dig ditches for someone, who, she could not argue needed him more than she did.

She continued to think about Dave as she walked in the cold to Frank’s house. She heard Enkidu barking for her when she was still nearly a block away and burrowed her gloved hands into her coat pockets, looking up at the clear, star-lit sky. Someday, would somebody need her as much? Enkidu’s barking grew more insistent as she approached the house, and when she walked up the drive toward the back yard, she could see him jumping, hurling his eighty-pound body against the sides of the too-small kennel, crashing into the chain-link wall over and over again.

‘Enkidu!’ she said in a low firm voice. ‘Shhh. Enkidu! Stop that!’

She lifted the latch on the kennel door and the dog leapt out, passing her by to run across the yard to the neighbor’s fence. He turned sharply at the last minute and ran back to Delia, turned again and ran in wild figure eights around the yard that Delia had always thought much too small for such a big dog. She stepped into the kennel to get out of his way and shook her head at the large holes he’d dug; too big for the kennel too and desperate to get out. He’d learned to dig down, the holes were deep, but not out. He’d be able to free himself, she thought, if he figured out that one small detail: how to tunnel under the chain link fence. Instead he only dug deeper, doing himself no real good at all.

She stepped over the largest hole to check his water and food, and when she turned back, she saw the door had closed behind her, locking her in. It unnerved her just enough that she stumbled back into the hole as she dove for the latch, fumbling with it as she tried to lift it up to free herself. When the latch came free she shoved the door open and leapt back into the yard.

Enkidu began to calm down as she went about her chores, unwinding the garden hose for his water and winding it back up again, dragging the bag of food from the garage to the kennel and lifting it with a grunt to fill the large food bin. The bag was lighter going back, and the dog followed her into the stark garage, lit by a single bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling. She looked about for the leash she knew she’d left here somewhere. She’d put it in a special place last time so she’d remember, but now couldn’t think where it was.

Inside, she knew, was a bright red leash that hung neatly on a peg in the foyer, but Frank had not given her a key to the house. It didn’t seem necessary, he’d said, there was nothing in there she’d need, and she hadn’t argued though her feelings were a little hurt. Giving her the key, she thought, would have been a gesture of trust a gesture, maybe, of commitment. But to him it was a matter of what was practical. Why take it personally, she remembered thinking, when it was just his way? She’d let it go.

It would have been nice she realized now, to be able to get inside and warm up a little before taking the dog for his walk. She finally remembered the chain she was looking for was on the windowsill near the light switch. She hooked it to Enkidu’s collar, turned off the light, and together they stepped out into the dark. One of the lights in the house had been left on, and she could see inside through the largest window the livingroom bathed in a yellow glow. There was no TV in that room she knew’or anywhere else in the house’but shelves and shelves of what she guessed were five or six hundred books. She walked up close to the window and could see as she imagined that the room was neat as a pin, not one book out of place. He always returned even the book he was currently reading to its proper place on the proper shelf, alphabetical by author’s last name and categorized by subject.

Frank was the most well-read man she’d ever known. He knew not just a little bit about a lot of things the way some people did in order to be able to make conversation with different types of people at dinner parties, but he knew a lot about a many of things. Even the dog’s name was complicated; it came from the Gilgamesh, an epic poem that she doubted more than five people she’d ever known had read. Enkidu was the god-king’s treasured friend, part man and part animal; it was a beautiful name for a dog. Frank was brilliant, and that was part of what had drawn her to him. He was older than she, retired from the university where she was still in mid-career, he an administrator and she an assistant professor who’d all but given up on ever achieving tenure in her department.

Enkidu pulled at the leash, and she strained to look a little longer, trying to imagine her and Frank in the room together with a baby toddling across the carefully swept Persian carpet.

Enkidu pulled again and this time she walked away, into the clear, cold night. The temperature was dropping and she was sorry she hadn’t worn a hat. Enkidu stopped from time to time to urinate on the tires of the cars that lined the street or to mark a neighbor’s bushes. Every time they stopped, she saw her breath rise in front of her and wondered how much was inside her waiting to be let out, waiting to be made visible.

She thought about the gift Frank had given her back on December first while they finished dessert at their favorite Indian restaurant. The gift was a small, intricately detailed Advent calendar from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The details were based on an illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages, and of course she knew now the irony of counting down the days before Christmas, counting the days before the Christ-child arrived to save the world.

Enkidu, she remembered as she stood in the cold, had gobbled up the leftovers they brought home and then immediately thrown up on the Persian carpet.

‘Didn’t you, boy?’ she said out loud. ‘You’re such a good dog, aren’t you?’ At the sound of her voice, Enkidu turned and looked at her, his mouth open and bright pink tongue hanging out. She noticed that his breath showed, too, as he panted. She stopped and knelt down on one knee, pulling the dog toward her in a playful hug, rubbing both sides of his neck with her gloved hands. ‘Aren’t you, boy? You’re a good dog, aren’t you?’ The dog licked the side of her face, a friendly, slobbery kiss, and then pulled away from her when she stood, leading her once again.

They’d gone almost all the way around the block, headed back now for the house and the kennel, and she knew he’d start resisting as soon as he smelled his own lawn. He always resisted the kennel and had to be coaxed in with a Milkbone and a strong pull of the leash. She remembered closing herself into the kennel earlier, the awful, though momentary, feeling of being locked in, and she suddenly did not want to do it, did not want to be responsible for confining him to the cage.

She stopped again and this time sat on the curb. She held the leash loosely in her hand and let Enkidu wander as far as it would reach. At first she sat still, thinking only of how cold and damp the pavement was as snow began to fall. She didn’t want to leave. She didn’t want to go home to the small, white, plastic applicator sitting on the cold white porcelain sink.

How had she managed to get into this adolescent predicament? The first time she and Frank had slept together, they held each other afterward until he made it clear that he was ready to sleep. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Good night.’ And he rolled over so that his back was to Delia, a sudden wall between them. Delia was not even sure for a minute if that meant she was supposed to leave. Did ‘good night’ plus the wall equal ‘let yourself out?” She stayed, but did not sleep for a long time; lying on her side and staring into his back, wondering what had happened that they could not touch, could not face one another. At one point she did reach out her hand and touch him, her full palm on the center of his warm back, but he did not respond. He might have been asleep. But she still felt lonely when she finally drifted off herself, despite the fact that there was another human being right beside her.

When she woke up in the morning, she was alone again; he had gotten up and out of bed before her. She found him in the livingroom reading. ‘Good morning!’ he’d said cheerfully, getting up from the chair and giving her a kiss on the cheek. ‘How’d you sleep?’ She lied and said fine, deciding again that she should not be so sensitive. It was just his way.

The problem she decided now, as she brushed the accumulating snow from her shoulders, was that it wasn’t her way. Frank was good and kind but he was also cold. She admired and trusted him, was attracted to him and even loved him… she was pretty sure. But it was the kind of love, she thought, that maybe you have to walk away from, a kind of love that wasn’t good for you.

She called Enkidu to her with a kiss and he obediently came to her side. Reaching up, she unhooked the chain from his collar and gave him a push. ‘There now,’ she said. ‘Go on.’ He hesitated until she pushed him again. ‘Go.’

He walked away then, slowly, weaving down the sidewalk sniffing at this and that, leaving a zig-zag pattern of prints behind him on the snow-dusted sidewalk. She watched him until, sensing his freedom, he began a slow trot and then, suddenly, broke into a run.

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