Issue 19 / Fall 2019
Because it was his birthday, she poured a glass of wine and made a sandwich before they went out to dinner, knowing she’d be in for an evening not only of hunger but of raised eyebrows and uninspired, butterless side dishes. She made mock tuna on sourdough using Vegenaise and tempeh, celery and green onions, a few herbs from the garden.
Hartley’s fifty-second birthday wasn’t a big one, by any means, but with both of the boys out of town she knew they had to do something. She’d made the reservation for eight o’clock at his favorite steakhouse, the mere thought of which made her stomach turn.
To make it bearable, she dressed up a bit—a little black dress that still fit, a new pair of reading glasses with rhinestones on the arm of the frame, not that she’d have much use for the menu.
They parked down the street from the restaurant on Harbor Island so they could take a walk after dinner. Inside, they sat at a table overlooking the bay, toward San Diego, and the city and harbor lights glimmered off the water. He looked at the wine list and ordered a bottle of Malbec. Laura skimmed the menu—as she’d thought, nothing vegan at a steakhouse but a few sides—then pulled off her reading glasses. She’d bought them because she thought they were fun, but as the rhinestones glittered garishly in the candlelight, she realized that they weren’t festive, just old-ladyish. She folded them and stashed them in her purse.
She looked at her husband in the candlelight. It was no wonder people dined in places like this—in this light, he could’ve been thirty years younger, his face in the flickering light as handsome as it was at twenty-two.
He swirled the Malbec in his glass and took a sip, then nodded his approval to the sommelier.
“Did the kids call?” she asked. Their oldest, Travis, was at Chico State and too busy to make a special trip home, and Jason, a senior, was at a tennis tournament for the week.
“They e-mailed,” he said.
She missed the buffer of having the kids around yet wasn’t quite willing to admit that with Travis barely gone and Jason still at home, she and Hartley had already fallen into something like empty nest syndrome. An evening out alone was rare; they usually ate at home with Jason—and sometimes Travis, too, on school holidays—or out at the occasional charity fundraiser or, less often, at dinner parties. Hartley told her once, accusingly, that invitations had dwindled since she stopped eating meat—No one knows what to do with that—and that no one wanted to come over to their house because they were afraid of what they might be served.
“Are you taking tomorrow off?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I just thought—for your birthday, you know. A long weekend would be nice.” Already she was sorry she asked; she didn’t have any special plans and preferred not to make any. Hartley’s idea of fun—golf, a day puttering around the bay in his boat—didn’t align with hers. Sometimes it amazed her that they ever had.
He shook his head. “Too busy.” An estate lawyer, he spent his days immersed in the aftermath of death, but he never seemed to mind.
She fell silent, and a moment later he asked, “You? Any new work coming in?”
After spending the last twenty years at home, she’d begun doing freelance graphic design, not because they needed the money but because she needed something to do. She already volunteered with a local animal rescue group, with women several decades her senior, and she’d begun taking on design projects because she felt the need to get back to who she used to be rather than envision who she might become.
“A couple possibilities,” she said. “I might do a project for the Humane Society. They have a new director and want to create a new campaign. Sounds interesting.”
She caught him suppressing an eye roll. “Pro bono?” he asked.
“I don’t know what their budget is. But sure, I’d do it for free.”
Their salads arrived, and he went silent and began eating rather mindlessly, as if they weren’t mid-conversation.
“It would be an opportunity to do a logo,” she continued, “and create a brand from scratch. Good for my portfolio. So, I think I’m going to do it.” She decided, in fact, in that very moment.
“You don’t need to do everything gratis,” he said. “With Travis in college and Jason right behind him.”
“It’s not everything. It’s one job.”
They finished their salads in silence and then passed the time discussing the summer and where they might go for their annual vacation, and whether she could make enough extra money, which their travel budget now apparently depended upon.
She had to admit that her roasted potatoes and sautéed kale were delicious, though she felt nauseated when she looked at his plate, at the blood pooling under the slab of meat. When he crossed his knife and fork over the plate, a third of the meat remained.
“Wasn’t it good?” she asked.
“You didn’t eat much. Are you feeling all right?”
He smiled. “Old age, I guess. Can’t put it away like I used to.”
“Well, it’ll make a nice lunch tomorrow,” she said.
He gave her a strange look. “I won’t want it then.”
She looked at his plate, knowing better than to mention the cow who’d lived a short, gruesome life before being slaughtered, or the thousands of gallons of water that went into producing that twenty-two-ounce rib eye.
She shook her head. “Such a waste,” she murmured.
“Fine,” he said. “Take it home. We’ll feed it to Buster.”
But when the steak came back, wrapped in tin foil in the shape of a swan, he ignored it, as if taunting her into picking it up. So she did, just before they left the table.
As they walked along the water toward the car, she glimpsed a homeless man up ahead, holding a hand-printed cardboard sign reading, Hungry. Anything helps.
As they got closer, she saw that the homeless guy had a dog, and she suddenly could not justify returning home to feed what was left of this fifty-dollar steak to her own dog, when the contents of this swan was in fact a whole meal for a human being.
Despite the humidity warming the air, the man wore a thick Mexican poncho, the kind she’d bought for the kids back when she used to go to Tijuana with other young moms for cheap lobster and cheaper margaritas. She leaned down to hand over the swan. “God bless,” the man said, and she nodded, not knowing how else to respond.
She often had a hard time believing she’d spent the last twenty years of her life in a house of men—married twenty-five years, a mother for two decades. She would look at the young women her sons had dated over the last few years and marvel that she and Hartley were that age once. Jason, especially, was a diehard romantic; he was the one she worried about. What if he married as young as she and Hartley did? She still didn’t know if her marriage was a success story or a cautionary tale.
She and Hartley had met in college, when they were both juniors—he was mellow, a stoner, the perfect antidote at the time to her anxious, Type-A self. The first night they got high together, he remarked that she was the only person he’d ever known who got more animated on pot instead of less. They’d laughed over her nervous chatter and restlessness—she’d wanted to go for a walk, to the movies, anything but sit in a dim room listening to low music. She was the type who studied for an exam not just hours before but days or even weeks before; he believed that if he studied stoned, he had to take the test stoned, too—both of which happened most of the time.
She hadn’t expected their relationship to last—she wasn’t interested in anything long-term with a pothead, handsome as he was—and she was more surprised than anyone when they kept in touch over the summer before their senior year. This was back in the days of letters and long-distance phone calls—no e-mail, no cell phones; her family’s phone wasn’t even a cordless, so she had to pull the phone into the bathroom for privacy when they spoke, which left her sisters tripping over the cord. Still, she was planning to break up with Hartley once they returned to campus; she wanted to get a solid design portfolio together and figured he would waste another year getting high.
But he’d given up the pot, she discovered once they reunited, except on weekends, and he was applying to law schools. And the electricity between them was still there, heightened by the time apart, by their tan, taut summer bodies—and she fell for him all over again, as if he were a new man, which in many ways he was.
But thirty years later, she found herself longing for the old Hartley, the laidback, easygoing one. He’d grown serious, conservative. Many women she knew from college had found freedom in marriage, in the security of having a spouse with money—they could work or not, they could stay home with their kids if they wanted—but Laura felt more enslaved than free. Once he began making money, Hartley became obsessed with it: holding onto it, investing it, avoiding taxes on it.
In fairness, she’d changed, too. She’d gotten involved with animal rescue, with the Humane Society; she had learned about animal agriculture, had gone vegetarian and then vegan. When she started cooking vegetarian meals, all three of them had protested. What the hell’s this? asked Travis over dinner one night, spearing a forkful of white julienned vegetables in her Asian tofu salad. It’s daikon, a root vegetable, she said. He laughed. Seriously? It sounds like something you clean your carpet with, he said, then adopted an infomercial voice: Fight tough stains with daikon. Only $99 if you call today.
So, she’d quit serving obviously vegan meals and had simply begun substituting tofu and tempeh and seitan in the tacos and spaghetti and casseroles they were used to having. They hadn’t even noticed—or if they did, they never said a word.
Hartley had asked once, Do you judge me because I eat meat? She’d said, No, of course not—but secretly she did. She didn’t even wear animals anymore, surreptitiously returning most of his gifts because they were made of calfskin or cashmere. She once began to question when the rift between them began, who played the larger role, then realized it wasn’t fair to wonder.
She does wonder, though, whether giving up so many things wasn’t just something to distract her—something to shake up her life, her family, her marriage, to make her feel different.
She nearly missed the article in the local paper, handed to her when Hartley got up from the breakfast table. Preferring the New York Times over the more conservative local news, she rarely gave it as much as a glance. This morning, for some reason, she leafed through it—probably because Hartley was lingering over his coffee and she wasn’t in the mood to make conversation. She was eager to go about her day, but she never felt entirely comfortable until Hartley left for work; her plans always seemed so meager by comparison—compared to the kids’ days, too, for that matter.
When she saw the headline, she drew in a sharp breath, and then another as she began to read.
A homeless man died on Harbor Island Drive just before midnight yesterday, apparently of choking, with an unchewed 4-ounce piece of steak discovered lodged in his throat.
“What is it?”
She barely registered Hartley’s voice, feeling her face flush hot as she continued reading, coffee turning to acid in her gut.
The man, identified as Jared T. Brant, was 30 years old and a veteran of the Iraq War. Brant had apparently accepted foil-wrapped leftovers from a diner earlier that evening.
“Laura?” Hartley asked.
According to those interviewed at the scene, Brant was a fixture in the downtown area, known for his signature Mexican poncho and his dog. The reason Brant was homeless, said a friend of the victim, is because he refused to give up his dog in exchange for a bed at one of the local shelters, which do not allow animals. The dog, named Max, has been transported to the Humane Society.
When she finally looked up, Hartley was waiting, wearing an exasperated look.
Once, she’d have jumped at the chance to tell him what she’d read, what she’d done—to confide in him, to be reassured, to be understood.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
Over the next couple of days, she waited to see if Hartley would read the story, if anyone would link to it on Facebook—if anyone at all in her world had noticed that a homeless man died on the street in their city. But then, would she have noticed, if it hadn’t been her leftovers that killed him?
She kept the news story under a scattering of takeout menus in the kitchen’s junk drawer. She didn’t cut it out but kept the entire Metro section, so if anyone found it, they’d think it just got shoved into the drawer by mistake. But already her fingerprints were smudging the newsprint, she’d read it so many times.
Laura waited three days, then called the communications director at the Humane Society, the one she’d been working with on the campaign. She asked about the dog.
“We’ve had dozens of calls,” Catherine told her, “but so far, no one from the family has stepped up.”
“Are you going to put him in adoption then?”
“We need to get him examined by a vet, so he’ll be in holding for a few more days, but by the end of the week—”
“I’d like to adopt him,” Laura said.
She brought Buster to the shelter with her, to make sure the two dogs got along. She didn’t know what she’d do if they didn’t—but she thought she should have Max vetted by Buster at the very least, since she hadn’t yet told Hartley or the kids.
One of the volunteers went to the holding kennels, returning a few moments later with Max, a charcoal-gray shepherd mix with little white boots on all four feet, a splash of white on his chest. His ears fell forward, framing his face, and he strained at the leash, clearly happy to be out of the kennel.
Laura barely recognized him, realizing that she hadn’t paid much attention to his face, or his owner’s.
“He’s well socialized,” the volunteer said. “Gets along fine with people and other dogs.”
Buster, a white lab, straightened his stance, pulling at his own leash as Max approached. They greeted each other with sniffs and wagging tails. Relieved, Laura watched them play-fight and compete for the volunteer’s attention.
“He’s lonely,” the volunteer said. “Doesn’t understand why he landed in prison all of a sudden. Catherine says you want to adopt him?”
“I’m going to fill out the paperwork right now,” Laura said. She leaned down to rub Max between the ears. He raised his head, flicked out his tongue. “I’ll be back for you tomorrow,” she told him.
The next morning, she left to pick up Max as soon as Hartley’s car disappeared from the driveway. She still hadn’t told him about their new family member, but Jason was due back from the tennis tournament that afternoon, and she’d say it was a surprise for them both.
She brought Buster along again, thinking of the baby cheetahs at the zoo, how they were raised with a dog companion to keep them calm. She hoped Buster would have the same effect when she loaded Max into the car.
When they arrived home, she pulled into the garage and closed the automatic door before opening the back door and letting the dogs out. When she opened the door to the kitchen, Buster raced inside, but Max held back. She had to grab his collar and pull him inside, then shut the door quickly so he wouldn’t turn back.
It took her a few minutes to realize Max wasn’t used to being inside. She watched him step gingerly across the tile in the kitchen, the carpet in the family room, tentatively sniffing the furniture.
“It’s okay, Max,” she said, giving him a treat, then running her hands along his soft, short fur. She didn’t know whether to feel sorry for him, or to feel glad his owner had loved him enough to sleep on the streets instead of in a bed to keep him close.
Jason got home just before Hartley, and his reaction to Max wasn’t what she expected. She thought he’d take it in stride, but then he wasn’t Travis. She always seemed to expect something different from each of her kids, something they couldn’t give—she wished Travis had Jason’s book smarts, his sensitivity, and she wished Jason had Travis’s casual acceptance of just about anything that came his way.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were getting a dog?” Jason asked. “Did you rent out my room, too?”
“Relax, honey. This dog really needed a home, and Buster loves him—see? So I made an executive decision.”
“Dad doesn’t even know?”
“It’s a surprise,” she said.
“He hates surprises.”
Laura sighed. “I know.”
They didn’t talk about it until later, as they were getting ready for bed. Hartley had spent the evening with his lips pursed, though at least he hadn’t taken her to task in front of Jason.
But when he asked her why, she couldn’t answer. She didn’t tell him who the dog was. The best she could do, finally, was tell him that Buster seemed lonely, with Travis gone and everyone busier than ever. He needed a friend, she told him.
She’d picked up an extra dog bed along with new food and water dishes for Max, and she put the bed near Buster’s in their bedroom. Max didn’t seem to know that he was supposed to sleep there; even when Buster settled down, Max whined and followed Hartley to his side of the bed, watching him, tail wagging.
“He really likes men, I guess,” she said.
“No dogs in bed,” Hartley replied. That had always been his rule.
“Come on, Max,” she said, and pulled the dog by his new collar out of the bedroom. Buster, sensing an adventure, followed, and she shut the door behind her.
In the family room, she gave each dog a treat, then settled on the couch, wrapping herself in a blanket. Buster sat next to the couch, where she could dangle her hand down and scratch his ears. Max stood watching them both for a long time from the doorway, then finally lay down where he was, as if keeping guard.
Laura didn’t remember falling asleep, but when she woke, Max was still right there, and his eyes followed her as she got up and crossed the room.
Though she’d told Hartley she would take on more paid work to put toward their vacation, she turned down two jobs to focus on the Humane Society campaign. Max was a steady companion as she sat at her computer for hours at a time, remembering to get up and stretch only when Buster walked in, tail wagging, and dropped a chew toy at her feet.
Buster and Max were good for each other—Buster became more animated, more playful, and he slimmed down a bit with the exercise of chasing another dog around. Max seemed a bit overwhelmed by Buster most of the time, a reluctant playmate. Finally, after three weeks, he accepted his dog bed and curled up into it at night.
Max was still anxious, though; he sat next to the kitchen table while Laura and Hartley ate, watching Hartley. It drove Hartley crazy.
“Can’t you put them outside while we eat?” he said one evening at dinner. Jason was out for the night, and it was just the two of them.
“Why? They aren’t doing anything.”
The phone rang, and while Laura usually wouldn’t answer it during a meal—she’d never let the boys get away with that—she wanted an excuse to get up from the table.
It was Catherine. “We presented your campaign to the board today,” she said.
Catherine’s voice was unreadable. Laura held her breath.
“They loved it,” she said. “And they think it’s only the beginning. The board voted to allocate funds for a new part-time position. For you.”
“Really?” Laura was embarrassed by the thrill in her voice, but it was the sort of validation she hadn’t received in a long time.
“Can we meet later next week?” Catherine asked. “I’ll e-mail you some dates.”
Hartley had finished eating while she was on the phone, and he passed close to her as he put his plate in the sink.
“Good news?” he asked.
“Just trying to schedule a meeting,” she said, suddenly not wanting to talk about it.
He picked up his wineglass and motioned toward his study. “I have a little work to catch up on.”
Max had stood up and was wagging his tail, but Hartley left the room without even glancing at the dog. Laura went over to Max and rubbed his ears. “It’s okay,” she whispered.
As spring turned into summer, Max relaxed more and more—he romped around with Buster, and he followed Jason around the house, whining when he was gone at school all day. He slept in Jason’s room, on the bed right next to him; Laura was glad Jason was warmer than Hartley this way. She could tell Jason enjoyed the attention—he’d always been the quiet one, forever in the shadow of his older brother; even Buster had always gravitated toward Travis.
When she was home alone with the dogs, she could tell Max was restless, and she didn’t know what to do. She fed him so many treats she noticed the thickening of his body under his fur.
When Travis returned home for the summer, they all went out to dinner, and it was then that Hartley resumed talking about a vacation. He hadn’t mentioned it again to her but clearly had been discussing it with the boys; it was more a continuation of a conversation than the beginning of one.
Laura finished her margarita and signaled the waitress for another, feeling glad that tequila was vegan. She’d called the Mexican restaurant ahead of time to make sure they didn’t use lard in their refried beans or chicken stock in their rice.
She was silent as her family made the case for Hawaii—surfing for Travis, golf for Hartley, beach reading for Jason.
“What do you want to do, Mom?” Jason asked, and she realized she had no idea.
“Hawaii sounds nice,” she said.
Later, she told Hartley she didn’t want to go at all. “It’s perfect for you three,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of work this summer anyway.”
“It’s a family vacation,” Hartley said. “You can’t stay home.”
“I don’t mind. Besides, it’s expensive to kennel two dogs. It’ll be better this way.”
“Why’d you do it?” Hartley asked, looking at Max. “Everything was perfect before.”
She looked at him, thinking he was joking—but he wasn’t. She decided not to argue; she said only, “Just go have fun with the boys.”
Two weeks later, she drove them all to the airport, hugged them each goodbye. It had taken a full week to convince the three of them that she wanted a little time to herself—to work, to go out with friends—but ultimately, they had relented. She watched until they disappeared into the terminal, and when she returned to the empty house, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, taking in the sounds and smells of two dogs and no men.
She called to the dogs, then gave Buster a treat and called Max to the car. She drove to Harbor Island and parked near the same spot where they’d parked the night of Hartley’s birthday. She leashed Max and began to walk. She didn’t remember where she’d encountered Jared T. Brant and his Hungry sign, but Max did—he began to strain at the leash, pulling her forward. Up ahead were three homeless men, sitting in a row on a long, weathered wooden bench, and she saw them look up and recognize Max, and she let herself be pulled along as the dog ran toward something he wouldn’t find, someone who wasn’t there.
Midge Raymond’s novel, My Last Continent, was published by Scribner, and her short story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and Poets & Writers, among others. “Harbor Island” was originally published by the Chicago Tribune.