This is the third story in a linked trilogy, all three installments of which are published in The Puritan. Part two, “Silicon Giddy” appeared in our 32nd issue, Winter 2016, and “Bellyflop” appeared in our 28th issue, Winter 2015. [Eds.]
Imagine it’s you facing the loss of the still-ripening cherries between your legs. Imagine you’re the black-and-white splotched Jack Russel mix with a knuckle in your tail from getting run over by a mountain bike. Imagine you have no idea that a vet might soon be opening your scrotal sac and scraping out your testes and your vas deferens like a chef spooning seeds from a cantaloupe. Imagine you have to wear a cone on your head to keep you from licking your own stitched and scabby genital region. A cone to stop you from sniffing and tonguing the sore and pungent spots you desperately want to tongue and sniff. Because tonguing is how you treat your wounds, sniffing how you sculpt your world. Picture these humans you desperately adore, the male with the scars and the female with different coloured eyes. Conjure these companions who walk city streets stooping to collect your steaming excretions in winter chill, handling the warmth of your digested kibble through the coarse and rustling plastic of a poo bag. These people who nuzzle and spoon you, who snoog you softly in their beds at night. Who named you Ezra but mostly call you Chèvre and Bedrock and Nebuchadnezzra. Who cook chicken necks to mix with your food, placing those gizzards in a special Tupperware marked “dog chicken.” Microwaving that rangy poultry for fifteen seconds to take off the chill before mixing it with your grain-free kibble. These people who refuse to eat meat themselves but who care enough about your health and pleasure to bring chicken necks into their kitchen. Now imagine that these same people decide to remove your genitals. Because your dispatched testes mean an easier life for them. Mean not having to show face at the dog park and say “intact.” Because this way all your erotic drives can be channelled into puppy playdates and doggy daycares and vigorous Kong-tossing sessions. Imagine that these people who call themselves animal lovers want to reroute your sexuality, to sluice your eros—to make every light in you beam for them and them alone.
This is the quiet perversity looping through Gavin’s mind as he watches Rubix drop a drool-slathered frisbee at his feet. This is the societal hypocrisy that has caused the first real disagreement between Gavin and Zara.
Zara. The vegan with optic heterochromia who works the counter at the neighbourhood microbrew and volunteers at the Ecology Network. Zara who was born in Mumbai and has never been back but has vowed to take Gavin there one day to watch cricket and swim with sea turtles and sip tea under whispering fronds. Zara who did not turn Gavin’s life around but pushed it into a delirious cartwheel of pleasure and something larger. Zara who said yes he should go to cooking school at NSCC and no he was not too old to start a new career. Zara who read his chapbook of poems about teeth decomposing in Coke cans and said she liked their gothic ecstasies, said they read like the music of blood-drunk mosquitoes and what better compliment could she have given? Zara with one blue eye and one green and Gavin never able to say which was more ravishing against the opiate dusk of her skin. Zara the woman who is adamant about the benefits of neutering their dog.
Gavin stoops to grab the drool-slick disc as Hermione the red-coated duck toller takes a vigorous interest in Ezra’s crotch. He tosses the frisbee and watches Rubix blast across the pitch while Hermione continues to sniff Ezra’s privates, tail thwacking Gavin’s shins. Gavin knows Hermione was spayed last April but still he follows protocol—tugs Ezra away and tells Hermione’s person that Ezra hasn’t been neutered yet, prompting a grimace from that toqued barista. Kijiji trees a squirrel and Ezra charges over to howl up at the quivering tuft of russet. Gavin watches Ezra leap at the tree, watches that gangly puppy coil and spring and wonders how it happened—when did such joy become available through a body other than his own?
Zara is home brewing peppermint tea and as they say hello he wills the glow of this woman standing over the stove they share to seep through him. She pecks his cheek and he says he missed her and they embrace like nothing is wrong. She pours him tea and puts peanut butter in a Kong for Ezra. Much as he wants everything to be resolved between them Gavin finds himself saying about Hermione’s person. Saying who does she think she is and all this bourgeois nuclear dog family bullshit. Zara scoffs and they glitch into the argument that has come to define them. Gavin says about the banality, says it is just so perverse to have this nation of so-called pet lovers scraping out their companion animals like Halloween pumpkins.
Zara mentions the safety, the docility, the trainability.
They throw cancers back and forth.
Gavin adds weight gain, surgery complications, the cone.
“Would you feel the same if it was a female?”
“Of course,” Gavin lies. He has weighed this question many times and remains deeply, shamefully unsure.
“How much of your life are you willing to spend on these same words, this same conversation?”
“A lot, I hope.” He tries to be cute but sounds petulant. Meaning Zara heads to the bathroom to take a triumphant shower. Gavin picks up his collected Baudelaire and stares at a poem for a long time, not turning the page. Zara sings a Springsteen tune into the shower head and the notes come to Gavin thick and muddled through the bathroom wall.
They were sixteen and they’d set out swimming in the harbour—Theo and Gavin and Drew. Sixteen and swimming in that sewage-slick elbow of the Atlantic and they knew it wasn’t safe but the mushrooms did not care for prohibitions, did not fear bacteria, did not respect sanitation. Swimming among the tiny jellyfish and the tampon applicators, among the unrecorded suicides and the debris of 1917. They’d set out together but soon they were alone, each boy on his own journey through water and body and mind. Drew and Theo disappeared and Gavin was not concerned with them. The water moved over him and each slither was an undreamt dermal rhapsody. He swam through the black, swam beneath the surface and found to his pleasure that he had no need for air. Through the darkness he saw a hulking shadow, gnarled and round.
Gavin and Zara met on a rideshare journey to Montreal. He’d borrowed his mother’s car to go to Montreal for the launch of his poetry chapbook, Agricola Dentata, and he didn’t want to do the twelve-hour drive alone. His ad got a few responses and of course he chose the woman’s name and when she climbed in the car wearing a romper that showed the floral tattoos stitched up her thighs he felt sleazy and fearful and awed. There was traffic on Robie and Gavin brought up the city’s need for light rail but Zara said that was what she loved about this place, that they were stuck on this peninsula within a peninsula so the city couldn’t possibly get any bigger. He said she was right, said the only way to build was up but the people wouldn’t abide that because they didn’t want to ruin the view from Citadel Hill.
“Fucking perfect!” she laughed. “This place is so delightfully backward.”
Zara was from Halifax and had gone to St. Pats while Gavin went to QE. She was only a year younger but they somehow knew none of the same people—she’d been in French immersion and the high school musical while he was drinking Colt Forty-Five and skateboarding poorly and secretly writing blank verse sonnets about fingernail clippings.
Dropping her in Mile End he wanted to ask for her number but only managed to blurt about the poetry launch. She said “that could be cool” and slid out of the car and he assumed he’d never see her again until he was two poems deep in the dark room full of hostile strangers. She strode in with her shoulder bandaged from a fresh tattoo and laughed with the bartender in the middle of his poem. Laughed and flicked back her hair and became a streak of neon in a sepia photo. After his set he bought her a cider and as they chatted their mouths and knees drew closer and closer. When he went to the bathroom she crept up behind him at the sink and hissed “whatever you want” into his neck but another poet walked in and they stumbled out giggling.
They met Zara’s friends at a dangerously packed bar on the Plateau. Zara found a storeroom and thieved two six packs of Stella, stashing the beer in the corner where the two of them kissed and rubbed thighs and drank free until close. They stumbled home with five or six of Zara’s Blundstone-wearing girlfriends, all of whom were vocally unimpressed by Gavin’s skate shoes and straight-leg jeans. Gavin peed in an alley and got a ticket from a police officer in camo shorts and when he looked up Zara and her friends were gone.
He drove home the next day hungover and cursing himself for not getting her number. Lying in his bed in Halifax he told himself not to but finally got up at three in the morning and emailed her. She wrote back a single, unpunctuated line—“what’s your address?” Three days later she showed up with a growler of IPA and a toothbrush and she hadn’t left since.
Gavin goes for post-work drinks with Theo and Drew, who won’t stop swiping his phone. Drew is bragging that he never swipes left and using words like “Tinderella” and Gavin is wondering how this culture can believe it is the dogs of the world who need their sexuality adjusted. Gavin starts a conversation about turning thirty, how people suddenly stop looking at you as if you were always about to throw a stink bomb. Drew says girls love thirty-year-old guys and points to the grey streak in his lumberjack beard and Gavin can’t tell how serious he is. Theo snorts but he is not there, he has drifted. He’s usually euphoric since Corrine got a job at Halifax Grammar and they moved back to town but tonight he seems punctured. He says something about how we’re all nothing but deteriorating bodies and the comment looms in the acrid bar air.
They order tequilas and Gavin thinks as he often has about how dogs are like practise children. All the thirtyish couples he knows who didn’t want or couldn’t afford or couldn’t commit to human children got dogs instead, their nurturing instincts channelled into doggy daycares and doggy spas and doggy treats. Gavin thinks that a dog might be better than a kid anyway because it never grows up, never turns teenage and gets caught shoplifting. Never totals the car. A dog never winds up staggering across streets heedless of lights and horns and intersections, face scaled with meth sores.
But dogs come with their own set of problems. Such as the one facing him now as three old friends sit together ignoring each other at a table. Three faces lit by the ionic cosmos of Drew’s phone. Gavin is considering how silence is alright between old friends, how silence between long-time pals is even kind of pleasant, when Theo blurts the news about his mother. No warning whatever and then the words “early onset” and Drew and Gavin sitting there in the dark, gulping. Drew asks how could this have happened and Theo shrugs and downs his beer and Gavin finds himself saying it’s okay.
Saying it’s okay and not believing it and thinking of Nancy, cosmic Nancy, her tanned calves in platform sandals just two summers ago at Theo’s wedding. How could a body that sleek and sure ever break down? He is thinking of Nancy in all her ageless splendour and putting a hand on Theo’s shoulder and saying it will be fine, these things take time, it will be slow, very slow.
Theo says no. It’s fast. Last week she got lost on Barrington and parked in front of the house on Morris where she hasn’t lived for fifteen years. She sat there for five hours and missed two work meetings before she called anyone. Gavin cups his friend’s hands and Theo gives in to a long silent sob and they are three thirty-year-old men sitting in a dark bar with eyes wet and throats burning, helpless against the gnaw of decay.
Gavin and Zara and Ezra are sitting in bed watching a documentary about Margaret Howe, a British researcher who lived in a place called “The Dolphin House” in the 1960s. Ezra lies on Zara’s belly, legs splayed like a frog’s, grinding his nose into whatever hand he can reach until the head-scratch continues. The Dolphin House was run by a hippy scientist named John Lilly who performed experiments such as injecting dolphins with LSD. Howe’s job was teaching English to a bottlenose named Peter. The research ended with Peter moving to a tiny, dark, half-septic pool in Miami and choosing to simply stop breathing, to descend to the bottom of that toxic, lightless pool as the air seeped out of him. But before that there were the dolphin hand jobs. A vet mentions that dolphins often prefer humans to their own kind and implies that Peter was in love with Howe. Howe herself is strangely forthcoming about the fact that, when his desire got in the way of her research, she satisfied Peter manually.
After the film, Zara tells Gavin about the time she swam with dolphins. Her family went to a resort in Mexico and she spent the days sunbathing and playing ping pong with a boy from Rhode Island whose mouth was a snare of braces. She and her sister begged until her mother took them on the overpriced excursion and when they got there it deadened something in her. A small pool and a smell like sewage and cheap old fish. Dolphins chirping in that tiny stinking pool and she knew it was ridiculous but nonetheless felt that they were asking her personally for help. She’d once seen a National Geographic video with dolphins swimming wild off the coast of Florida. Racing fast through the wide and blameless blue and leaping out of the water before darting back in and she didn’t know much about dolphins but as she watched them in that pool chattering for food she knew that it was wrong.
Though Gavin wants to, he doesn’t say who are we to be the arbiters of animal life.
They lie together in silence for too long and then Zara says, “We’re okay, right?” Her eyes pulse like gentle oceans, one blue and one green. Gavin says of course and believes it. Believes that they are okay, fundamentally. Believes that this crisis will make them closer, the way a broken bone heals stronger.
Gavin ushers Ezra out of the room and the dog watches plaintively as the door swings closed. As he pulls Zara in, Gavin finds himself thinking of that lonely dog curled on the far side of the door, listening to the squelch and creek. He wonders whether Zara, too, is thinking of Ezra. But he doesn’t ask.
Gavin’s task is pulling the meat out of the lobsters, putting the big chunks in the fish tray marked “lob fet” and the small stuff in the one marked “lob rolls.” Gavin, who has dreams of starting a vegetarian bistro with Zara and growing their own rosemary and oregano and cucumbers on the patio, is the person the red-faced chef chooses to boil then vivisect these crustaceans. Gavin who is studying cooking at NSCC and works here at minimum wage because of an agreement between the restaurant and the college. Gavin who plans to get his red seal, who has plans to stage in Chicago and Brooklyn. Gavin who has recently mastered garlic scape pesto, who dreams of tapping his own maples and baptising pistachios in their syrup, who has designed a seven-course meal including onion confit and cayenne mushroom bisque and ending with salted caramel-apple profiteroles. This is the person they elect to drop live animals into boiling water before manually dissecting them, the person who will go home and wash his hands again and again and still be unable to rid his flesh of the chalky aftermath of the bodies he has torn and mangled.
With each exoskeleton he slices open and snaps off, with each intact tail he eases out of its sheath, with each pea-green-sludge of tomalley he spatulas into the fish tray, Gavin thinks about Ezra. Ezra lying inert under general anaesthetic as a faceless surgeon slices open his scrotum, seeking the small slick planets she is paid to extract.
As he considers his canine companion’s reproductive organs, Gavin makes an incision and turns a lobster over to tear the tail off, finding the underside coated with a slick beard of eggs. The green-black beads clinging to that pale red tail. He remembers reading about a lobster that traveled 273 miles between Maine and Nantucket, knows that in the wild they often walk vast distances to lay their eggs. But these ones would have lived differently, conceived in hatcheries and grown in a suburb of tanks and filtration systems, of regular testing and men with thick gloves. Gavin thinks of all these dark, alien animals growing strong and fat and reproducing and none of them marching freely through the ocean, none of them hunting by night or hiding their eggs in the swaying deep, none of them birthed amid the dark and flowing greens of rock weed, alaria, or kelp.
Gavin comes to live in the thrall of the procedure. His mind a gothic slideshow of veterinarians and gleaming surgical steel. After weeks squinting through screen-blue darkness after Zara goes to bed, he knows the procedure so well he thinks he could perform it. He becomes enamoured with the epididymis and the term vas differens, derived from the Latin for “vessel” and “carrying-forth.” This glandular circuit an escape route for sperm, most of whom will be released into hostile terrain and die. The term reminds him of the great, churning tides of the Bay of Fundy. The tide and the sperm, the mind and the moon, all of it always carrying forth and this scientist species wanting to mute that motion, to dam the waterways of life. He writes a suite of poems based on this metaphor but it brings him no closer to a decision.
And the dog ages steadily, the surgery more threatening with each passing day.
Two mixed terrier puppies entered their world and Gavin had no precedent for the way they would bend his life, the way his mind would buckle and zing. They called the smaller one Ezra and the bigger one Pound and when Gavin laid down to read both of them would crawl onto his chest and stare at him, the breath gradually slowing in their tiny puppy lungs. They eventually gave Pound to a friend of Zara’s and it was just the two of them and Ezra, their one-bedroom flat with the screeching bathroom fan and the warped back door with the glitchy lock transformed into a palace of canine glee.
Gavin had never had dogs as a child and the bond was baffling to him. The trill in his heart when he let Ezra off leash and watched him take off across the grass, front legs barely visible as they scooped and dug into a pinball blur of forward, forward, forward. Gavin was baffled by the joy he took in Ezra’s habit of carrying a stick that was far, far too large for him, bouncing it off the calves of anyone who walked near. And he was astounded by his despair, his bottomless torment the day he watched that pup scamper too close to a fat-wheeled Norco, heard the crunch of busted tailbone and the dog’s awful squeal. A sound Ezra had never made before and how could Gavin not hear it as his own failure, stooping to comfort his puppy and wishing that he himself could have licked that frail bone back together.
And now Gavin has to choose. He has to decide whether or not to wilfully hurt this creature he has done everything possible to protect. He must decide whether or not to extract something vital from this beloved companion’s innards, something that could bring him pleasure and excitement and riveting carnal bliss. Gavin must decide whether to permanently maim this cherished friend, whether to squash Ezra’s world.
The shadow was dark and round and when he looked closer he saw it was a mine. A massive underwater mine, the curved and rusted iron slick with a mucus of algae, a gnarled barnacle braille. He thought of Mr. Healy in Social Studies class, talking about the bombs left in the harbour by German U-boats. Saying there were about 3,000 unexploded bombs in the harbour. A chore to remove those explosives and most of them dead by now so the traffic passed through the water in the hopes that nothing shifted or changed its mind.
Gavin was drifting towards the ancient, rusted mine when Nancy appeared, beckoning him. Nancy flickering in the watery dark and it was only the two of them there in the liquid emptiness where no pollution or creatures or bombs could harm them. He saw her beckon and without a movement of leg or arm he felt himself drifting closer.
Gavin gets up early to walk Ezra around the block and then he makes Zara a burrito fried in handfuls of the garlic he plucked last week from their backyard. She roams naked and fat-eyed into the kitchen, cups him from behind as he whips the guacamole. “Smells gorgeous,” she says and he is surprised, as always, that all it takes is the fragrance of bulbs frying in oil to blend this discord of rooms into a home. He says she smells gorgeous and she laughs, filling a mug with the coffee he’s just pressed. She sits down at the table, steam rising from her cup, and Ezra nuzzles into her calf. Gavin wonders, briefly, if the dog is stirred by the sight of this naked woman. He wonders this but does not say anything, does not say anything of the sort as he serves breakfast and sits down to eat. They talk about Gavin’s work, about his fall courses, about the cherry tomatoes finally ripening in the one patch of full sun. Zara asks about Corinne and Theo, suggests that they have them over for dinner. Gavin says they’re doing well and Theo has a gig teaching environmental philosophy at SMU in the fall. He’s reached the middle of a sentence about the student-as-customer model before he realizes that he’s not telling Zara about Nancy. He’s not telling her and he’s not going to and what does this mean? Ezra is rising onto his hind legs to sniff at the table scraps and Gavin knows sharply, darkly, that he will not tell Zara about Nancy or Blue Velvet or the early onset. Instead, he sneaks Ezra a peanut and scratches the dog’s eager ears and thinks about swelling ventricles, a shrinking hippocampus. He smells Ezra’s fetid breath as the dog’s tongue licks the sweat from his neck and thinks of the plaque and tangles in Nancy’s brain, boring it out like a sugar-mined tooth.
There’s a bald man Gavin has never seen before at the dog park. He has a little black part-pug hybrid and a T-shirt that reads #alldogsmatter. When someone asks him what breed his dog is Gavin hears him answer, loudly “he’s a rescue.” Gavin stays to the outskirts talking to Chimichanga’s owner and trying not to hear the man lecturing about microchips and puppy mills and shock collars. But the rescue gets an interest in Ezra as he raises his leg to mark the fence and when the smaller dog approaches, Ezra yaps at him. The owner scuttles over as the dogs bark and growl louder. Ezra lunges, teeth bared. Gavin races towards Ezra but he’s not quite there when the owner bends to scoop his dog up into his arms, which Gavin knows is the worst thing he could do. Ezra goes manic and leaps for the pug mix, who squirms out of his owner’s arms and lands on the turf in a rage of growls and bent necks, a fury of teeth and bulging eyes. Turf and fur spin in the air as the dogs snap and bite, both owners trying to wrangle their snarling pets. Gavin finally grasps Ezra’s collar and the bald man yanks his dog back up into his arms and Gavin tries to say sorry but the man is shouting at him.
Gavin hears curses and gibberish and finally makes out “Jesus man, get ahold of your dog.” The adrenaline swells through his neck and chest, his biceps coiling. He knows whatever he says will be brash so he stays silent as the man asks with quavering voice, “Is your dog even neutered?” It is not a question but an assault. Gavin gets Ezra on leash and as they walk away he hears the man shouting, “How dare you!”
At home he is trembling as he tells Zara the story and then announces that he won’t be going to that dog park anymore. He can no longer abide the PETA brigade, these people with all the answers. He will take Ezra to Point Pleasant or the Commons and he will simply walk, walk where he and his dog are not cornered in this bastion of norms.
Zara shrugs and says “Do what you’ve got to do,” turning back to her laptop and he feels it like a foot to the gut. Wishes that just for once she would simply take his side.
Gavin sits down at his desk and starts a poem about doggie pills and doggie condoms. At the end Bob Barker appears on the stage of The Price is Right, wagging his liver-spotted fingers at a nation of suburban dreamhome gamblers, commanding: “Thy dog shalt not fuck.”
Pro: less prone to aggression.
Con: may not reliably reduce aggression.
Pro: dog will be calmer around unspayed females.
Con: almost no unspayed female dogs left in urban dog culture.
Pro: more focused on companion human.
Con: dog will spend two weeks healing with head in cone.
Pro: reduces leg-lifting.
Con: triples risk of obesity.
Pro: reduced likelihood of testicular cancer.
Con: dog will be unable to reproduce.
Pro: dog will be unable to reproduce.
Con: coat may become patchy and haggard.
Con: may lead to hip dysplasia.
Con: ligament rupture.
Con: geriatric cognitive impairment.
Con: risk of death from anaesthetic complications.
Con: risk of death or injury from surgical complications.
Con: wilfully mutilating another living creature.
Con: wilfully mutilating another living creature.
Con: wilfully mutilating another living creature.
Cindy’d clearly had a couple of pinots before they got there. She has already put her hand on Zara’s thigh and winked at Gavin while hissing “this one’s a keeper” and now she’s talking about cats. They ordered Thai food because Cindy claims not to know how to cook vegan and now the table around them is a Styrofoam jungle. Gavin tries to ask his mother about her new boyfriend the Via Rail conductor and then tries to ask about her job at Canada Post HQ but she glares over her glasses and keeps on about the feral cats. There are swarms of them in the neighbourhood, she says, fucking and fighting and eating all the songbirds, spreading diseases among the housecats. Cindy looks right at Zara as she rants, one eye drooping and the other fierce with an intimacy not natural between two women who’ve met six or seven times. Cindy says one night a feral cat got trapped in her basement and it was spraying and crazed and she had to try to beat it out with a hockey stick but it would not move. So here she was, Cindy, alone in her own house with this cat locked in a room and the window was open but the beast would not move. They stayed up all night like that. Cindy tried to sleep but she could feel the cat there, poised and fearful, and in the morning she found it precisely where she’d left it in the corner of the room. She had breakfast and watched it some more and finally realized it must’ve been desperately hungry so she put some cold chicken by the back door with a saucer of milk and she left the house. Went around the corner to get a coffee. Waited as long as she could. When she came back the cat was gone, the dishes licked spotless.
Cindy smiles smugly and pours herself more wine. Gavin exchanges a look with Zara and asks what the story has to do with feral cats and Cindy says sterilization. We need to sterilize them, of course. A silence thickens in the room and Gavin lets it linger.
Gavin is readying himself to leave when Cindy invites Zara downstairs to see the collection. Zara looks surprised and says of course and so they head down to the basement where Gavin’s mother keeps her horde of children’s body parts. They stand among the dust and the suitcases, looking at Gavin’s umbilical cord—grey and curled and stiff in its dusty Ziplock womb. The teeth come next. Why would his mother have kept every baby tooth and wisdom tooth and molar Gavin’s growing body ever shucked? After the teeth there are jars of hair: Gavin’s grade two rat tail, his grade ten Mohawk, his grade twelve surfer curls. As Gavin stands embarrassed in the midst of his personal mausoleum he wonders what would become of Ezra’s testes if they were removed. Zara recently told him about rendering and deadstock, about how “livestock management” companies cruise farms collecting the carcasses of horses and goats and cows, pulping those bodies into the stearic acids and slip agents that become bike tires, shampoo, plastic bags. Now he finds himself wondering if Ezra’s gonads will be recycled into kibble, fed back to other dogs like a canine Soylent Green.
This is what Gavin is thinking as Cindy unveils her masterpiece—a hand-made cedar box containing Gavin’s hospital bracelet alongside newspaper clippings from the electrocution and curled polaroid photos of the burns that permanently marbled his torso and sent purple tentacles flaring up his arms and calves. The burns he’s had to have cut and grafted twice since the accident because the scars stay still as his body grows and ages. Seeing those polaroids, Gavin feels the burns brighten under his shirt, feels his gut turn tidal as he recalls the drunken foolish choice to climb that tower. Gavin burns shameful but Zara is calm and sweet as she looks at each photo and newspaper clipping, nodding at Cindy’s comments and then leaning into Gavin and whispering “all of this is what you are, and I love all of what you are.”
When Gavin was ten he went with Theo and Nancy to their family cottage in Hubbards. Nancy had just broken up with Theo’s father and it was just her and the two boys. They spent three mosquito-droning days at a two-bedroom cabin thick with the smell of pine. There were dunes with prickly grasses and a beach strewn with sun-bleached driftwood and rusted lobster traps. Each night they had bonfires and watched the stars and Gavin learned to love the taste of burnt marshmallows. On the last day Theo got an ear infection and had to stay in bed and Gavin and Nancy went down to the beach. He found a dried out lobster claw and pretended it was his hand as he put his arm around Nancy’s shoulder. When she saw that gnarled pincer at her clavicle she laughed and laughed and he felt himself large and noticed. When they went out into the water she watched him swimming and said “no no not like that” and then taught him how to do a proper breaststroke, taught him it was all about timing—the smooth arc of the arms pulling you forward, the legs coiling together as the arms reset. The frog kick and the forward dart of the hands and that moment of skimming effortless across the surface. She explained it, then showed him. He watched her gliding seal-sleek in a black one-piece and then he got it, felt the astonishing ease of it as he shot through the brisk Atlantic on that still and sunny day.
The cabin had an ancient, rusted outdoor shower with a rotting plywood door. Gavin was eager to wash off the salt and sand and so he rushed into that shower thinking Nancy was still down at the beach and found her naked and stooping to pull the sand from her toes. Her breasts dangling freely, dappled by the patches of sun leaking through the slats. They stood there looking at each other like cats crossing paths in an alley. Gavin took no more than a glance at those breasts—curiously pale, nipples like sand dollars.
She did not say a word to Gavin on the drive home, even though Theo was in the back seat still suffering from earache and he was sitting up front. They drove in silence and Gavin stared out the windshield at the road slithering beneath the bright open blue, saw Nancy’s breasts in every cloud.
On the walk home Zara says she likes Gavin’s mother. Gavin scoffs and asks why and she says how else would Gavin have developed such a dazzling corkscrew mind. He stops her and they hold each other in the middle of the street, a warm wind cloaking them in a swirl of grass and ocean. They make a pact not to talk about Ezra or sterilization so Zara talks about the tidal turbine in the Bay of Fundy. Highest tides in the world so of course they want to squeeze that churning power into dollars. And of course this green energy might not be so green and the lobster fishermen are concerned about the impact to the ecosystem, about the plankton being sucked into the 1000 tonne rotors churning the waters of the ancient cove. The cove that bears the world’s only fossilized trace of the moment life managed to scuttle out of the ocean and stagger onto land.
He’d been alone in the dark ocean among the lurking mines until Nancy appeared like a beacon. A younger Nancy, a less complicated Nancy, and as he watched her swim astride him he saw her legs melt and flick into a tail. A tail scaled with glimmering greens and blues, a glowing blur streaking the dark water. The water a volatile blackness and he knew it was cold but he also knew he could not feel that cold, felt nothing but Nancy’s wavering proximity. She swam closer still and he saw nothing but the thrill of her. He felt himself dancing in her nimbus and he wanted her. A vague want, a desire that did not involve genitals or fluids or climaxes. He felt himself drained of the precision of drives, acquiescing to a novel, blunt euphoria.
They arrive at their apartment and find the back door swinging open. The dog is gone and Gavin is thinking of course. Thinking of fucking course and he and Zara are grabbing the leash and some treats and blasting outside wailing the dog’s name into the clammy summer sky. It’s almost midnight but some neighbours are out on the porch and they join in and soon the neighbourhood is a clamour of Ezz-ra, Ezz-ra and they are rounding two corners and coming out onto Gottingen. Gavin thinks they should split up but he doesn’t say this because he doesn’t want to be alone he just wants this to not be happening. He wants this not ever to happen but it also seems inevitable that their dog, their puppy, is gone. Inevitable that this tender love would swell and swell and burst.
And likewise inevitable that Gavin should round the corner and turn out onto Gottingen and see a dark furry hump in the middle of the road. See the still-wet blood slanting across the yellow line and say Zara’s name in a tone that makes her stop and follow his gaze and sprint into the middle of the road through hornbleat and headlights.
Gavin waits for the traffic to pass and walks slowly behind her, knowing already all he needs to know. He hears Zara sobbing as he gets closer but then her sobs are a kind of crazed laughter and he sees that the furry hump in the road is a raccoon, still wheezing. Its tiny mouth quivering, paws scrubbing together.
Gavin looks stupidly around for a shovel but then he is back on the sidewalk, calling Ezra’s name again, and Zara is with him. They walk down Gottingen and through the square and then turn back, tracing and retracing the grid between Gottingen and Agricola, fattening the night on the name of their dog. Finally they agree to split up and Gavin says he’ll go home to notify the SPCA which is no doubt ridiculous but he does not know what else to do. When he gets home he finds the back door still slung open and Ezra cringing in the kitchen, sitting obedient and fearful. Gavin bends down and hugs him, feeling a brilliant and boundless love. More love than he’d known there could be in the world.
Nancy is wordlessly calling him closer as she sways her green and gleaming tail but he can’t get near enough to touch her. Something keeps him an arm’s length from her face and shoulders and when he reaches up he finds that there is a large cone over his head. A cone that he cannot remove. He looks down to see whether there is a scar between his legs but he cannot see past the cone. She is calling to him, begging him closer, but the cone is between them. Has always been and will always be between them. Eventually she turns away from him and starts to pump her tail. She swims slowly, looking over her shoulder, her hair luffing like seaweed in a current. She is leaving and he is sinking down into the accumulating darkness, watching her shrink into the distance as he drifts into the bottomless below.
Gavin awakes in the gut of night to find the bed empty. He listens in to the quiet, locates a ripple through that silence and hears it swirl into murmur. Zara’s voice. He thinks of calling her name then thinks no. Instead he rises quietly and leans into the hall, watches her stoop over Ezra, rubbing the sweet spot above his haunch. Gavin hears her cooing and talking a formless gibberish that sometimes settles into “oh yes” or “Ezzy” or “good boy.”
And then he sees it, a slick tulip blooming between Ezra’s legs. A tube of lipstick winding upwards from a bulb of fur. He knows Zara cannot see that wet and urgent flower as she leans over and rubs his back, and he knows that this canine erection might have nothing to do with her. But he also knows, as he watches this scene of intimacy, that there is something in that small sprout of flesh that he detests. Something that makes him uneasy. And he knows, knows and hates himself for knowing, that for all his talk about hypocrisy and repression and consent, he would be happy if that organ were to disappear. If he did not have to face it.
Zara turns and sees him standing there in the door frame. She does not appear surprised. “I’ve decided,” she announces, still stroking Ezra’s neck. “It’s up to you.” Gavin has to ask her to repeat herself and she says again that it should be up to him, that he cares more than she does and so if he feels like he needs to leave Ezra’s genitals intact that’s fine with her.
Gavin puts a hand on the door frame. His heart is a fish, flapping on a beach. No way out of the choice and no way to make it. “It’s on you,” she says and the onus slithers down his throat, fattens there. He thinks for the first time in their eleven months living together how easy it would be to leave her. How possible. To leave Zara, leave the lobsters, take Ezra to a cabin in Bridgewater and write poetry, live on beans. The thought is ugly and rank and he tries to dismiss it but it lingers like an eel in his sternum.
Give the animal a mild sedative and inject with general anaesthetic. Place the gas mask on the muzzle or slip a tube down the animal’s trachea to administer the isoflurane. The anaesthetic gas will ensure the dog remains unconscious throughout the procedure. Once the animal is fully unconscious, make an incision at the tip of its scrotal sac, taking care not to sever the urethra. Pull one testicle out through the seam in the animal’s skin. Trim away the fatty tunica vaginalis, exposing the testicle. Place sutures around the testicular blood vessels and the vas deferens to ensure blood does not flow upon laceration. Slice the spermatic cord above the sutures, severing the testicle. Discard. Repeat. Suture.
Gavin is walking Ezra on the main path overlooking the Northwest Arm as sunlight flickers down through the spruce. Squirrels scamper after bird feed. A seal chirps in the distance and Ezra bounds through the forest, staying close to Gavin and mostly ignoring the dogs on the main path. This is what Gavin likes: just walking. No standing in parks talking about groomers and breeders and crate training. What Gavin likes is walking with his companion, the dog off-leash and racing through the forest as Gavin treads the gravel tongue running through it. Ezra returning now and then for a check-in, tongue curling out of his delirious grin. What he likes is watching Ezra tear after squirrels, reaching full speed on the straightway and then bounding impossibly over stumps and rocks. Watching Ezra stand ankle-deep in the glint of the surf and tilting his head to make eye contact, to share the measureless wealth of his glee.
Gavin is basking in this primal rhythm, the yoked locomotion of human and dog, when they run into her. He doesn’t realize it’s Nancy until she bends down to pet Ezra.
He is thirteen and stealing her personal sex toy and parading it around the neighbourhood. He is thirteen and unable to forgive himself and climbing an electrical tower and shooting deathbound across the night. He is thirteen and seeking Nancy in each rung, finding her in the brilliant wattage that sends him soaring through the cloudless black. Finding her in the tree that catches him, its leaves lush and soft as velvet. He is recovering in the hospital from six broken bones and third degree burns across his torso and limbs and feeling all of his pain, all the lifelong scars on his back and thighs as penance. A penance he craves.
Nancy finishes petting Ezra and looks up, looks straight into Gavin’s face. He can tell she recognizes him, but distantly. For a moment he inhabits her and sees himself as blur, as echo.
He wants to say hello, wants to tell her it’s him, Gavin. Gavin who she’s known for twenty years. Gavin who accosted her and professed his rabid lifelong desire two years ago at her son’s wedding. Gavin who charmed her with a lobster claw and saw her pale breasts swaying in the patchy Hubbards light.
She is gone before he can say any of this, loping casually down the path.
How could he know, then, that after taking Ezra to a beach strewn with applicators and cigarette butts he would walk down to the parking lot and see Nancy drifting ghastly from car to car, her white hair streaked with a memory of black. That she would turn shrunken and ancient, old as the Sibyl of Cumae. That she would hold a set of car keys in her hands and glide about pressing the button over and over but hearing no welcoming beep. That when she saw him approaching she would turn to Gavin and, still unable to conjure his name, ask if he had seen her car, a red Toyota. And a full third of Gavin’s life would wither and gasp as he phoned his friend Theo, found out that the car was a blue Kia, took Nancy’s hand with its colony of liver spots, like sand dollars on a beach at low tide.
How could he have known that as she drove out of the parking lot he would glimpse her face through the driver’s side window and wonder once more how someone so lovely could possibly decay. He would realize, then, that he would one day have to tell Zara the whole story. But how could he possibly explain this cosmic beacon, this wounded siren, this disintegrating god?
Gavin would always carry two parallel versions of the experience. He knew what happened and what didn’t happen. What didn’t happen was he didn’t float endlessly underwater, not needing to breathe. What didn’t happen was he didn’t find Nancy and watch her sprout a mermaid’s tail and beckon him towards a rhapsodic unknown.
What did happen was three kids on a freakishly hot day in early June doing mushrooms and traipsing through Point Pleasant, thinking it was a fun idea to go swimming in the harbour. What did happen was a poor choice. What did happen was Gavin lost Drew and Theo and wound up crawling ashore in Dartmouth and the night got a little colder than expected and he walked alone and soaked in just boxers across the McDonald Bridge. What did happen was he did not shower that night and when he woke up he knew instantly. Even before he looked down and saw the red sores and the slugs of plasma he knew it was bad. Cindy made him eat some cereal and take a shower and she didn’t say anything because she didn’t need to. She drove with all the windows down to mute the reek of his flesh. The doctor was a kind old grandmother until he said about the harbour. At which point she made him repeat that he’d swam in the harbour and asked what had he been on and as he admitted about the mushrooms he felt as if all the water had fled his body. What did happen, as the matronly doctor explained in arduous detail, was that every miniscule laceration on Gavin’s body—every paper cut and bug bite and shin nick from his walk through Point Pleasant—had become infected. What did happen was the doctor took a semi-permanent marker and drew circles around every one of those infected wounds and said if the red reaches this line then come back for antibiotics. What did happen was Gavin spending two plus weeks at school wearing long sleeves every day to try to hide the strange new nipples blooming all over his body and the doctor-drawn circles framing them. What did happen was shame and agony and even less interest than usual from girls and constant ridicule from Drew and Theo.
But what did happen remained much less important to Gavin than what did not happen. What did not happen—Nancy, the mine, the mermaid’s tail—was a companion that would always travel with him, a beloved phantasm that would shape and sustain him more than the bland and barren real.
Gavin walks into their apartment and loves it—loves the clusters of cobwebs and the peeling paint, loves that warped and finicky back door, loves this place that has become a cradle for him and Zara and Ezra. He drops the dog’s leash on the floor and holds Zara. Holds her as if his squeezing could weld them into permanence. Ezra scurries about their feet and Gavin delights in this dog and this woman and the things that he now clearly knows. He knows that he has never resented Zara. Knows he has never begrudged this strange-eyed person blending cashew butter in the apartment they share. He squeezes her and tells her he has confused freedom with desire. He has invested far, far too much in a satchel of fluid and hormone. He has seen Nancy lost and confused in a parking lot and she has whispered in her oracle way that what he wants is to take care of others, these others. That she, Zara, is a lovely confusing slash of colours and scents and all he wants is to keep discovering her, to brew her French pressed coarse grind coffee, to make her mango salad and coconut curry and vegan chocolate torte, to trace letters on the back of her hands as she lilts into sleep, to watch the streaks of white bloom like sun-bleached seaweed in her black, black hair. He tells her that he has agonized over this decision but now he knows it is not a decision, it is a feeling. That there are different ways to care and he can only do it the way that feels honest and real.
He says all this to Zara and she does not need to ask about Ezra because she has always known his decision. She says they will be alright, that things will change and things will stay the same but life is astonishing. She tells him life will churn on and there’s no way to know what will happen, let alone control it. She tells him there were palm trees on Antarctica once, tells him this peninsula is just the blunt crown of a weary mountain, a drawling collision of Gondwana, Avolonia, Laurentia. She tells him things will flourish and things will melt. That nothing will be the same but she will protect him. She will hold him against the tidal drone and the vanishing whales and the waters rising to subsume them. Guard him from the acid ocean gnawing the soft sandstone of this peninsula. She vows to keep him safe from the glaciers, melting awake from their long sleep. Safe to listen to the lullaby—chirps and bellows of humpbacks pealing through the oceanic vast. Safe as the restless currents of mind and memory carry forth into the wavering beyond.
David Huebert is the author of the poetry collection We Are No Longer The Smart Kids In Class (Guernica 2015). His fiction has appeared in journals such as Grain, Matrix, Broken Pencil, and The Puritan. His work has also garnered several prizes including The Dalhousie Review short story contest, The Sheldon Currie Fiction Prize, and the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize.