The East Vancouver house is on a street named for the island city where elderly couples go to die. I had wanted to spend July camping, but my wife Litia insisted we dog-sit for her family friend. “It’s only for four weeks,” she said. “You’ll have fun.”
The second you tell someone that, you make it untrue. It’s like telling someone they will learn to love you. Believe me, I have tried.
“He’s a bit of an idiot,” Anna says, plane tickets in hand. Her dog’s name is Ozzy, a white Havanese—which is a small breed I assume was once used to make slippers. Litia and I brought our own dog, Maisy, with us. The first time the dogs meet, Ozzy becomes shrill with anger. Maisy then stands over him and lowers her head onto his, her molars the size of his vertebrae. Ozzy acquiesces to silence.
“Is he okay off-leash?” Litia asks.
Anna hugs her goodbye, kisses her cheek. “He’s a bit of an idiot.”
Aside from money, most of the fights between me and Litia are about her incessant need to help people.
“Who cares if she needed a hand?” I reply amidst our unzipped baggage. “You, me, and Maisy: we’re supposed to be a pack.”
“We are,” she defends.
I squint at her. “Were you awake for that wolf documentary? Do you know what a pack does?”
I’m trying to not let the little things bother me, and I suppose that includes a dog who could work as a loaf of bread’s stunt double. With Litia out for the day, I take Ozzy and Maisy for a walk; East Van is a wonderful place to vent through some steam, because nobody much cares about a muttering man with two comically different-sized dogs. “She has no idea how to make it in this world,” I tell the sidewalk. “Just look at her suitcase: too many shirts, too few socks, and don’t even think I’m going to share my toothpaste.”
At an unfenced field, having rotely unclipped both dogs’ collars, I consider what it means to love someone who the world assumes destined for loneliness. I try to imagine loving Ozzy but, at every turn, find his body repulsive. His tablespoon legs, his crushed velvet fur, his taxidermic gaze. Worst of all is his anus, which slightly protrudes from his body like a rusty penny that’s been hot-glue-gunned on—a rusty penny that I watch scurry across the field, crest the hill, and disappear down the far side.
The concept of a dog running away has never occurred to me. Maisy, who was a stray when the Fredericton SPCA picked her up, knows what life is like on the streets and has no need to revisit the past. But by the time I scramble to the playground’s crow’s nest, Ozzy is gone.
Maisy and I jog down empty streets for 15 minutes until I become frantic and begin stopping cars. The drivers hesitantly crack their windows, and I ask if they’ve seen a small white dog.
“It’s not even mine,” I tell them. “My wife said we’d have fun.”
The drivers range from heartbroken to indignant, though they are all absolutely useless and each conversation ends with a shrug. Watching the day’s fourth Kia Soul pull away, my panic turns to dread as I realize we still have another three weeks to kill before Anna returns home.
“Litia is the reason your dog is dead,” I’ll say, as Anna’s freshly tanned face slackens with grief. “She doesn’t even know what a pack is.”
At the 50-minute mark, I’m searching a construction site when a worker tells me I’m not allowed here with sandals on. My toes curl with shame. I don’t have a mobile phone, so I ask to borrow his.
Litia answers the call and I tell her Ozzy ran away. Without pause, she says she’s coming and hangs up. Not wanting to seem scorned in front of the crew, I fake my way through the rest of the conversation. “I know,” I say. “I know it’s not my fault.”
Ten minutes later, Maisy and I enter through the back door of a store that exclusively sells windshield washer fluid. I make eye-contact with the owner, who’s sitting on the toilet with the bathroom door open. As he screams at me to leave, I pinch and twist the skin on my inner-arm, now convinced I am only having a nightmare. A welt of reality rises.
I exit the store as a young man on a fixed-gear rides down the alley. He circles Maisy and me as I explain why I need to borrow his bike. But then, through his spinning spokes, I see a plastic bag-like animal scamper from a side-street, herded by two firefighters.
With Maisy running alongside us, the biker and I double-Dutch to the firefighters, who tell me Ozzy almost got hit by a tractor.
“You mean trailer?” I say.
They shake their heads. “Tractor.” In the distance, I hear the chortle of a diesel engine.
The four of us attempt to catch the dog, but we’re all too tall; the second we bend down, he scurries away. In desperation, I dive towards him and watch in slow-motion as he ducks beneath my arms and the concrete paints my elbows with red ribbons of failure.
It is Maisy who finally gets Ozzy to be still. She approaches gently, stands overtop him, lowers her jaw to his ear, and whispers, “You’ll never survive out here alone.”
Ozzy lies down in defeat and I grab his collar. Holding him like a human child, I find myself held in the burly arms of the firefighters, my eyes wet with exhaustion.
Before Litia, I spent most of my afternoons staring at the billowing black mould on the stuccoed ceiling of a Commercial Drive laundry room. It’s not that I hung out in the laundry room—it’s that six of us were living in a suite meant for two, and I slept beside the dryer. One guy lived in the hallway, another in a walk-in closet; unlike the mould, none of us were going anywhere fast. I’m sure I’d still be there if Litia, sitting atop the convulsing washer, hadn’t told me there were other ways to live. Three years later, she saw a picture of a dog on the Fredericton SPCA’s website and—against my objections—brought her home.
How do I know what Maisy whispered to Ozzy? Because she has said the same thing to me on several occasions.
On a bench, I am waiting with both dogs. When Maisy’s ears perk up and she turns around, I do the same. My hour of anger, and suddenly she is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Her sunglasses glint, her ring finger dangles the car key, and the setting sun haloes her head. The light becomes still as stained glass. The patron saint of the lost.