Read Dog Stays in the Picture Online

Authors: Susan; Morse

Dog Stays in the Picture (7 page)

—Good-bye, parents,
the dean trilled, as a thousand precious packages descended (raced) en masse down the aisles onto the floor of the stadium.
Your chickens are safe!
It's like stepping off a cliff. Nothing left to do but straggle out the arena's swinging glass doors and drive back to comfortless hotel rooms. Dumped. Counting the minutes till they doled out one final crumb: a parking-lot good-bye the next morning, out behind the dorms by the trash bins.

Mornings at home have been lonely since she left. David's a late sleeper, and, unlike the boys, Eliza believes in starting the day with a good meal. Breakfast was always our special mother-daughter time. Often we were so absorbed in yakking about this, that, and the other, I'd make her a little late for school. I had no idea how much this meant to me till that first fall without her. I'd set the alarm early as usual to make breakfast for the boys, knowing they'd never eat it and the only discourse I could expect would be a couple of grunts when they came galumphing down the stairs and careened out the door.

While I waited for the privilege of serving cinnamon toast (more likely slinging it at the back of Sam and Ben's car as it shot down the driveway), I'd light the kettle, pull a dirty “College Mom” mug I'd received at Eliza's orientation out of the cluttered dishwasher, and rinse it by hand. No other vessel would do those first raw mornings, scraping butter on toast, weeping into my English Breakfast, debating whether or not to pick up the phone if it rang, knowing the odds were it would NOT be Eliza calling but my mother, probably asking how to turn off her radio.
(Susie, I want to get it to STOP. I don't want this thing on; it's perfectly awful. It's some NPR program and it's just dreadful about bisexual HIPPOS or something. Baboons. And the woman said one of them grabbed her. Disgusting.)

At least Lilly really needs me, even if her constant shadowing has been a bit tiresome. More and more, I'm coming to understand the use of pets as a subconscious substitute for children. I'll never forget seeing a photo of my friend Francesca holding their new puppy, Emma. Francesca and her husband were discussing the possibility of a third child at the time—she had a strong maternal urge that wasn't satisfied yet, and her husband wasn't completely ready. So they got Emma, sort of to tide Francesca over, I'm guessing. This photo of Francesca holding Emma in her arms, practically in breastfeeding position, keeps popping into my head these days. Is Lilly's attention something I encourage subliminally because I fear losing the children? I think I'm going to have to forget I asked that question.

I feel a little bad for Joey. He's definitely out of sorts. I wonder if he's off his feed because Lilly's arrival has stirred up his grief at losing Arrow? I can certainly relate—the boys' preparations do make me think of Eliza. A friend, Tandy, says she'll never forget running into me in the parking lot of the Super Fresh a few days after Eliza's freshman drop-off.

—How are you?
Tandy asked, expecting the standard
Fine, how are you?

Instead, I fell into Tandy's arms, pointing to something I'd just spotted on my shopping list—an obsolete entry in Eliza's loopy script.

—She wanted Nutri-Grain bars!!!

Eliza's a college junior now. I've had three years to absorb and trust what Tandy assured me of that day:
They're not really gone. They come back.

David seems to understand this concept instinctively—all the time he's spent on location, he's become an old hand at good-byes. He processed Eliza's departure philosophically, especially compared to me, and, as it turned out, Tandy was right. Eliza does come home, like clockwork. It is true: You're thrilled they're home. Over the moon with delight, really. But you're kind of used to the reduction in your chore load, and you sort of wish they'd not expect you to do anything extra for them anymore.
(If she
wants Nutri-Grain bars
badly, why can't she go to the market and pick up a box?)

Because David is away so much, the process of applying for college and other academic minutiae is mostly my job. With my stay-at-home status, it is logical that I'm the one our offspring will turn to when it comes time to hit that final Submit
button on the Common Application website. David is on call if we need him, but for the most part it's easier to leave him on the sidelines, in the kitchen making dinner if possible. (I hate cooking, and David's an absolute master. He has tons of food allergies, so he puts a lot of thought into inventing fantastic new recipes. He is an artist. Each meal is a symphony.)

Ben seems to be squared away. He and his girlfriend, Jilli, have been sitting side by side on the sofa for weeks, meticulously perfecting their applications, keeping each other on course. Jilli's mother is a college guidance counselor, so I am under the impression we can actually take the old-fashioned approach with Ben's admission process, sort of like back when I was applying myself. Parents were allowed to stay out of it then, and everything somehow fell into place. Quite relaxing compared to Eliza's frantic process, and this cauldron of stress with Sam. It's lucky Mother Brigid has that party this afternoon and is staying out of my hair, because I'm kind of climbing the walls.

It's New Year's Eve morning and Sam is on the last lap. He's been hard at it all week, now facing tonight's midnight deadline for his big Ivy League reach. These Ivies are a real shot in the dark for most high school seniors given the competitive climate baby boomers' kids face these days, and quite frankly, we admire the kid's guts going for the gold.

Sam chose this Ivy because a lot of his forebears were happy there, and also because it is distinguished as being particularly artsy and humanities-focused, which is a good fit for him. He has finally finished polishing his short answers—a series of quick questions like
Why did you choose to apply to Ivy University?
and so forth—now he's tackling the big essay.

While Sam works, I burn off some of my nervous energy on a rather long and invigorating walk with Lilly. Thankfully there's no snow on the ground at the moment. These walks are a lot more fun than they were when she first arrived. When everything was new, she was on sensory overload and it was all I could do to drag her up the block and back. For a while, the only way to mobilize her was to coordinate our walk schedule with the O'Briens' and travel in a pack, like racetrack dogs. Now Lilly loves a walk. She's becoming more and more interested in her surroundings, slowing down when we pass people on the sidewalk, disappointed if we don't stop to say hello. Usually we do—most people are struck by her regal bearing, her glamorous markings. Walking with Lilly is a little like being out with David when people want to talk movies or take a picture.

Today, we ramble all over the neighborhood and there are lots of squirrels for Lilly to go all instantly rigid and muscular about, ears pricked forward like tiger-striped torpedoes. It's awfully primal when she spots small rabbitlike prey. Unlike Arrow, who used to yank me everywhere, Lilly has wonderful walking manners as long as her prey drive isn't triggered. Her leash stays deceptively slack until she sights something, so it's important to always be ready, because her contained energy sort of shoots electrically up the leash and you are suddenly very aware you're walking a canine superhero.

I don't have the mental capacity to think of anything more creative than cheese and crackers for lunch. While I'm munching I check our voice mail again:

Susie, have they called you yet? I hope you're not worried, because it's all right, really. I mean, it was frightening, but no harm done because that woman I backed into with the scooter at the party today is fine, thank heavens, although it was a little touch and go at first when she fell down and we were very upset until she was able to get up from the floor. So please don't worry and I hope everything's fine with the boys.

And God bless. Call me back. It's Ma, and I'm so much better now I really don't think I need the scooter anymore anyway. It was very useful for a while, but I think for now they'd better keep it.

Because the party was too crowded, you know, and I couldn't see where I was going at all. And I'm very glad that woman's leg braces weren't damaged in the slightest. So call me back.

I call. The scooter has been confiscated, and Ma's supposed to take a month to think about what she's done. Then, maybe, she can have her vehicle back, like a senior-citizen time-out. Tomorrow, when the Ivy U application is finally over with, I'll have to go see her. Visits have been interesting lately. I bring Lilly whenever possible, but she's extremely nervous in the car. I don't think she has ever traveled in a regular passenger vehicle. She won't lie down on the backseat, and because of her long flamingo legs I've been quite worried she'd fall into the seat well and break something. Even her tail can be an issue. I can't get over all the many ways greyhounds can injure themselves—you wouldn't think a dog's tail would be all that vulnerable, but I've heard stories about greys who get so excited when the leash comes out, they whack their tails against something and actually break the skin. They don't feel it, though, and they keep on wagging, and then there's this sort of loose garden hose, geysering blood all over the walls like a doggie horror movie.

My car's backseat now has an elaborate strapped-in dog cover that at least provides Lilly a flat surface. She can stand safely behind me, her needle nose thrust in agitation as far as possible between my headrest and the window, seeking comfort. I try to remember to bring treats, because once we arrive, Ma is mostly disapproving if Lilly is too stressed to relate to her.

—Susie, this dog won't do. It's much too damaged.

—She just needs time, Ma.

Nothing is broken.

I have a feeling my cheese-and-cracker lunch was not such a good idea—too much dairy. We are having our traditional New Year's Eve fondue tonight (just us, the kids, and David's mother), followed by a movie. Usually fondue prep is my job because David's allergic to everything in it. (Okay, that's a slight exaggeration. He can eat cheese. He just can't have the white wine, garlic, cornstarch, lemon juice, kirsch, or nutmeg. Basically anything that makes it taste good. Oh, and no bread. And I'm pretty sure his cheese has to be imported.) So on fondue nights while we crowd around the pot with our little spears to harpoon crusty chunks of French baguette and groan orgasmically about the
flavor of
, David sits watching, patient and uncomplaining, with his plate of rice pasta and broccoli.

I'd like to spare David the nonsense fondue requires (digging out the special forks, setting up the pot and the sterno, slicing all that yummy bread), given he won't have the satisfaction of actually enjoying it once it's served tonight. But this year time is of the essence; the boys have looming deadlines and I need to be available right up till we hit that last Submit button with the final application fee payment. Midnight's a ways off. I'm not stressing too much; not yet, even though Sam is still trying to decide what his long Ivy U essay will be about. He's kicking around an idea for one about going to Toys“R”Us with Ben to choose a treat.

I used to dangle visits to Toys“R”Us as a reward for the kids when they'd endured something particularly stressful, like being vaccinated or having a tooth filled. We'd go straight to Toys“R”Us from the doctor or dentist and let everyone pick out what they wanted in a specific price range.

Eliza gravitated toward reliable standards like the Littlest Pet Shop or My Little Pony. The boys' tastes were trickier.

Being the same sex and age it was natural for them to want the same thing. Usually that thing had to involve batteries or chargers or mechanisms of some kind, which meant it was safe to assume the bloody device was bound to break. I would try to herd the boys to an aisle with something straightforward, like maybe a ball or a plastic dinosaur, but no. They had to have the bells and whistles—swords that light up and make
Star Wars
–type noises were of particular interest. Those things should be banned.

What Sam found interesting fodder for his essay is that after I paid for their identical and fabulous Super Sonic Death Ray Whatsits (always checking carefully that the lights and the
sound effect worked properly on both Whatsits by pushing the Test buttons in the store), we'd drive home as quickly as possible. By the time we reached our driveway, ripped packaging littering the floor of the car, Sam's Death Ray Whatsit would be stone-cold dead.

Not Ben's Whatsit. Ben's Whatsit worked great. It was Sam's.
Sam's. As if he occupied some kind of magnetic field—you know those people whose wristwatches stop immediately when they put them on? I don't believe in curses, but Sam could make a case for it.

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