by Tyler Myers
The dogs have an extraordinary sense of social hierarchies, not only the larger framework but the individual complications. For instance, when I come back from tutoring today, the in-laws and Cathreen are away, and as the dogs see it’s me, they immediately shut up. If anyone else were home, or had come home with me, they would have barked for an expectant ten minutes. They know three things to be true: first, that I am above them in social rank and will not defer to their wishes; second, that they are above, or at least equal to, the in-laws; but third, that the in-laws are above me, or at least cancel me out.
Cathreen fits into all this uniquely. They can’t figure her in, I think. She seems to rule the house but will capitulate to the shih tzu, or occasionally the in-laws, or even me if she is in a particularly good mood.
There are nine of us in this house: Cathreen (my talented wife), her mother, her sister, her sister’s baby, three dogs, a cat, and me.
The cat and the baby are president and vice-president of zero words. Everyone is at war with his greedy little self.
Today, we are angry about the cat. The cat pissed on Cathreen’s mom’s blanket, shat on her blue mats that look like yoga mats but aren’t. Someone locked him in, not knowing he was there. This made me upset, but nothing like it makes Cathreen upset when she comes home from work. She says, “It’s no one’s fault,” to herself, with unfocused eyes, and builds a Fisher-Price castle for the baby.
“Talented,” her sister says to cheer her up.
“I’m a talented wife,” Cathreen says. She made the cat tower as well. The smell of cat pee has dissipated, thank God, and tomorrow everything will be like new. Her sister is wearing one of Cathreen’s shirts. The cat is playing with the plastic wrapping for the castle.
She’s still out there finishing up the castle, and I’ve finished writing for the day and want a hug, another hug, another.
All this is around Valentine’s Day, that day of expectant happiness, at the top of the hierarchy of romance and ire. Of course, expectation always kills us. We go out for dinner at her favorite restaurant; she says she remembers the taste of prosciutto and melon, those four golden pieces for eighteen dollars, she can’t get it out of her head. This time, though, she lets them sit. She puts one in my mouth. The grease of the pork curls around the sweetness of the fruit.
I try to make her smile, and for a moment, she does, so I try to make her forget about the house and everyone. She says the prosciutto is no good. She can smell it.
After dinner, we watch a movie I expect will be terrible but isn’t that bad, about relationships, how to tell someone doesn’t like you. We compare notes. This movie could be a game show. I ask her if people are really like this, like them.
The more movies I see, the more I think what it takes to be an actor is a hollow core—something to fill up, like a hive. We sense the buzzing. I only believe one of these people is a person.
“Touch my leg,” Cathreen says later. Not cold, smooth. Bare legs in February.
“Your leg is a leg,” I say, feeling cryptic.
The wind blows, and we walk home. Everyone but me watches TV in her mother’s room.
I sit in the living room and try to get the dogs to stop chewing their nails. They cry like I should be punished. Cupid passes through the room, not touching anyone, licking his arrows. I chew my nails, too, but hide it. When it’s time for bed, I will want to cuddle just Cathreen and me and no cat. Today, I expect to be important. The dogs will scratch the wall behind our heads and cry that no one is holding them, at all.
MATHEW SALESSES is the author of the forthcoming The Last Repatriate (Flatmancrooked), as well as the chapbooks, Our Island of Epidemics (PANK) and We Will Take What We Can Get (Publishing Genius Press). He earned his MFA from Emerson College, where he edited Redivider.
Image by Joseph Desler Costa, from the series There is a Darkness, 2010.