Read Dog Stays in the Picture Online

Authors: Susan; Morse

Dog Stays in the Picture (8 page)

Ben and his Whatsit could joyfully dart all over the house for weeks:
Bzzzzzz! Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!
And there'd be Sam, in a corner, slumped mournfully over his identical but hatefully impotent Sonic Death Ray.

Broken.

And now Sam's trying to figure out what this tendency to pick the defective toy might signify in the grand scheme, moving forward into life as a master of the universe at Ivy U.

The fondue is superb. My secret is to make twice as much as the suggested portions, so we can all (except David) completely stuff ourselves. Sam says he's abandoned his broken-toy essay idea. He is going to write what he calls
My Philosophy
—a provocative treatise exploring the way his friends and the talking heads on television seemed unnecessarily narrow-minded in their opinions during the presidential election. He thinks people his age are much too young to be fixed in their beliefs and need to stay open to new ideas.
Not bad
, we tell him.

Eliza and Ben depart early to ring in the New Year with their friends. Must be nice; Sam is resigned to missing most of tonight's fun with his buddies, but he's hoping he can get out of here by midnight so he can drive to a friend's for a sleepover. David and his mother retire to watch a movie. I do dishes (
why
does cheese always stick to pots like frigging epoxy?) then pace in the next room.

Lilly follows, alert to my growing anxiety, her toenails keeping time.
Click-clack click-clack
.

Sam sits at the island in the kitchen with his laptop.
Tick-tock tick-tock.

Wait a second. There is no sound of typing coming from that kitchen. The boy has gone into a torpor again, I know it.

Click-clack click-clack.

Tick-tock tick-tock.

Three hours to go.

What am I doing anyway? Nobody stood over me when I applied for college. I filled in my one application by hand, in
pen
, and stuck the thing in the mail with a check, and a month or so later I was accepted. End of story. What a world we live in now.

That boy needs a jump-start. Maybe I should go in there, grab one of the fondue forks off the dish drainer, and stab him with it.

At 11:38 p.m. Sam finally completes his long essay. All I do is skim it; at this point he could have written
I Think I Am A Child-Molesting Cannibal Terrorist From Outer Space
and I would have sent the piece in unchallenged because at least it's an essay. Maybe the admissions staff will be so swamped and buried under all the other essays about
What I Learned From My Dog When It Died
and
How Football Makes Me A Compassionate Citizen
, they won't have time to process Sam's anyway.

So Sam and I charge off with Lilly at our heels
(Hey! Where's she going? This is not okay; she has to wait for you—ouch, your toenails!)
to submit his long essay and all the other Ivy U short answers and whatnot
on the newest computer in the house. We are positive the Common App site will be jammed this close to the midnight deadline with millions of dead dogs and compassionate football crap and we're going to need the best technology we've got.

When Sam tries to upload his first short answer, the supplement site rejects it three times. He's getting a little uptight and so am I. We have been here before, sitting in front of the Common App website applying to all Sam's other schools, grabbing the mouse from each other, elbowing, hissing,
No no Sam why did you click that you have to click that other thing, I did this with Eliza you have to let me do it.
And
Oh my God, Mama, stop it just calm down what is your problem.

—It's BROKEN, Sam.

—No, it's not, Mama.

Nothing is broken.

Lilly is curled under the desk at my feet, even though the floor is very, very hard under there. She seems to feel this is the best place to be right now.

Sam, Lilly, and I log out and log back in to see if that helps. The first short answer about
Why I chose Ivy U
seems to be uploading; there's a sort of spinny thing next to it going round and round and round.
Tick-tock tick-tock.

It is 11:41 p.m. Once this thing finishes spinning we still have to upload a few more short answers and the big long essay before we can finally hit Submit. Then Sam will have joined throngs of ancestors, at least as an applicant, at Ivy U.

Click. Rejected?!

—S%#[email protected]^*# Sam, I'm right. Your Common Application is
broken
.

Our boys entered the world by vaginal delivery, which seems to impress people. Twins are often C-sectioned out, but we had a naturally oriented, hot-dog Southern California OBGYN with twin girls of his own who was confident he could make my dream of old-fashioned childbirth a reality.

I was justifiably nervous but determined to try. I did my homework during pregnancy, reading everything I could find about what to expect at delivery. One thing I found encouraging was that the first twin to arrive sort of opens the birth canal, making the second twin's entrance less excruciating for the mother. So you're literally getting two for the price of one, pain-wise.

Thing is, we weren't yet acquainted with Sam and his predisposition for last-minute drama and general Sonic Whatsit–type bad luck.

—Sam, you've been working all week and your friends are waiting. Your actual writing's all done, and I can't stand that this stupid clunky website is keeping you here on your last New Year's Eve of high school. Why don't you go? I'll just hand-type your short answers into the boxes if I have to. I swear on a stack of bibles I won't change anything.

In the middle of copying out
I am interested in Ivy U because everyone always tells me this is the best school for me
or something, I begin to get a major stomachache. The doubled-over childbirth kind. I am literally on the floor trying to reach up to the keyboard from under the desk, just to tap one more key, sweating; it's so awful. What's wrong with me? Oh, the fondue on top of the cheese at lunch.

What if I have to go to the emergency room and this thing never gets submitted oh no. …

Twelve minutes to midnight—crap! I crawl to the intercom and summon David to come help me, which is highly unusual. He has never laid eyes on a Common Application in his life and really has no idea what is going on. I just need him to check my typing to see if I have made any mistakes or changed Sam's writing in any way.

—He's used “really” twice in one paragraph.

—That's okay, David.

—Are you sure?

David hasn't had a chance to wrap his mind around all the nuances of college-application etiquette. He's right, of course, but Sam must express himself in his own way, leaving blemishes.

—David, the priority is authenticity.

I'm trying to explain this strategy from under the desk, next to Lilly, both of us curled up in balls together.
(She's so close!)
So it doesn't seem I'm being taken seriously, and, oh well, we
get rid of Sam's extra “really”
agree not to touch one hair on Sam's short essay's head.
Save
.

Now for the long essay. It's kind of comforting to birth this final application alone here, with my husband. Just the two of us.

And Lilly.

The twins were born sixteen minutes apart. With multiples, an interval longer than twenty minutes traditionally warrants an emergency C-section for the second birth, so we were cutting it close. Sam, the second to arrive, became tangled in the umbilical cord on his way out. The hot-dog doc had to literally unravel our youngest, boldly pulling Sam into life like a magician extricating the last gasping, freaked-out rabbit who's been accidentally suffocating in the top hat.

David laid our first boy on my chest: Ben was utterly calm, looking up at me. I was oblivious to everything else, exhausted, naturally, luxuriating in my first intimate moment with this fine-looking new specimen we'd been given, and trusting David would look after Sam. As predicted, the second delivery was not painful for me. But while we were waiting for Sam's arrival it began to dawn on David that something was amiss. Nobody said anything, but an extra, unfamiliar doctor had materialized next to the hot-dog doc, all eyes sober-looking and intent over surgical masks.

We'd asked Eliza's pediatrician, Jay, to be with us for the occasion, almost for comfort, like a touchstone. Jay quickly went over to David and began to whisper soothingly in his ear.

It's okay. It's okay. It's okay.

The boys had been lined up perfectly when my contractions started the night before, but somehow when Ben was working his way out past his brother, part of Sam's umbilical cord got tangled, wrapping him tightly in an extremely awkward, potentially lethal position, delaying his entrance long past the preferred time gap. Everything did turn out okay. But the hot dog was visibly shaken, and for Sam's father there was an excruciating interval of fear that our youngest might be
broken
.

All the short answers are installed and proofread and we're in the home stretch: uploading the long essay. Sam ended up bagging his
My Philosophy
idea, we discover, opting instead for a topic from Ivy U's list of suggestions:
a class or intellectual experience that has inspired you.
David hasn't had a chance to read it yet. Sam's written about a class taught by his favorite, most inspiring English teacher, keeping him anonymous. This teacher was fired late last year, and Sam, who has a strong tendency to stick up for underdogs, wants to protect him in case someone reads about the man's unorthodox, life-changing teaching style and decides not to hire him. Judging by my quick skim earlier this evening, it's a very appreciative, thoughtful essay and David wants to see.

It's 11:55 now. I'm so nervous that we're going to have something go wrong at midnight again but my husband, the father of our boys, has a right to savor his youngest offspring's last eloquent bid for the future before uploading.

David reads Sam's long essay. And indeed, he agrees it is acceptable. Lilly rests her nose on my foot.

Done. Submit.

Nothing Is Broken.

Our sons are on their way.

6.

Toy Story

AUGUST 2010

T
oy Story 3
has hit a major boomer nerve.

This movie is the highest-grossing Pixar film to date. It's even more successful than its predecessors,
Toy Story 1
and
2
; in fact it's the first animated feature film ever to hit the billion-dollar worldwide box-office mark. That callous little wretch Andy has grown up and abandoned his toys, and he's leaving for college exactly the same summer as Ben and Sam. This means we're right smack in the center of the Pixar target zone.

Toy Story
is not the first movie to get under my parental skin like this. Back when the boys were just a couple of months old, David and I, exhausted, wanted to try a night out. We hadn't yet dared leave all three children at home with helpers, and I insisted we needed three for this maneuver, for safety's sake. We only had two sitters that I knew well enough to trust, so, crossing fingers, we took a leap of faith with a new one to make up a trio. Because I was breastfeeding, the outing required military-type planning—it took about a week to sock away enough extra breast milk to last for our two hours of freedom and get all my elaborate written instructions in shape for the three sitters. I think it was the newness of our third helper that got to me, although the breastfeeding theme in the movie David let me choose didn't help much.

Till then, I'd always enjoyed a good scary movie—I'd screamed enthusiastically through
Silence of the Lambs
the year before, clawing at David in delighted spasms. Now I was eager for another psychic release after the long postnatal confinement, so
The Hand that Rocks the Cradle
,
starring Rebecca De Mornay as the malevolent nanny, seemed like a great idea. When we left the three sitters with all their instructions and refrigerated breast milk I was walking on air, finally out with my husband like a normal person. The good feeling began to dissipate just a little when De Mornay (secretly having a psychotic break due to a recent miscarriage) started giving the baby's mother mean looks behind her back. I tried my best to squelch images of Sitter Number Three back at home grabbing our butcher knife from the rack in the kitchen, offing numbers One and Two and then slowly, deliberately climbing the stairs, knife dripping, softly singsonging,
El-iiiii-za? Be-ennn? Sa-ammm?

We made it all the way to that scene where De Mornay slithers into the baby's room to nurse it herself. Popcorn went flying, and I was out of there.

You'd think at this point I'd know it's best to avoid movies that are dangerously close to my emotional core. I can't help it, I'm a sucker for cinematic catharsis. And
Toy Story
is just a cartoon—right?

I've been investigating online. The general consensus seems to be that the
Toy Story
series
is particularly meaningful to fathers. All the main characters are men. Original story credits for the trilogy are given to male writers only, and the opening date for this current installment was two days before Father's Day, Friday, June 10. Three days after our boys' high school graduation.

For some reason David and I ended up seeing
Toy Story 3
without our kids a couple of months ago. The Cineplex was packed with people of many shapes and sizes, and during the final wrenching scene, when Andy takes one last look at Woody, Buzz, Slinky Dog, and the gang from the window of his packed-up college-bound car at the end of the summer, I became aware of a throbbing mass of anguished adults literally keening all around us in the dark. I thought,
Now I know where my ABBA ladies have been hiding. And they've brought their husbands!

There's been masculine outpouring online—grown men who haven't cried since they saw
Old Yeller
as kids are posting shamelessly, admitting they were blithering messes by the final good-bye.

An interesting paradox: Andy is fatherless, like many of the central characters in classic children's stories. The
Toy Story
writers are tight-lipped on the subject, but the online community has given it some thought. Most seem to agree that Andy's father died just before the first movie
begins. They think Woody the cowboy (who's clearly a vintage '50s-era toy) must have belonged to Andy's dad originally, and represents a sort of paternal substitute, fretting alternately, as fathers do, between how best to do right by his son and how he and the gang will cope when his pal grows up and they're no longer needed.

They say these three movies represent archetypal stages of life. The first
Toy Story
is Youth. Woody is in his prime, full of innocent swagger. When space ranger Buzz Lightyear arrives
,
he's competition, and Woody reacts the way a particularly insecure parent might when confronted with his child's first inspiring middle school teacher or coach. And just as young navel-gazing boomer parents grapple with their own fallibility, the growing realization they can't shield their children from all the ills of the world no matter how hard they try, Buzz falls apart when he's forced to face the fact that he is only a toy, and not (as he believes at first) a superhero charged to protect the galaxy from evil Emperor Zurg, equipped with a jet-powered laser-shooting spacesuit.

Toy Story 2
's life stage is Middle Age. Woody the cowboy is beginning to show signs of wear. His shooting arm damaged, Woody spends most of this second installment in the franchise
trying to summon his earlier agility despite a useless appendage flopping flaccid at his side (totally phallic!). He goes through a genuine (albeit animated) midlife crisis when confronted with his roots: As it turns out, Woody was once the central character of a
Sputnik
-era western-themed TV puppet show called
Woody's Roundup
, and he almost abandons Andy and the gang to fly off and spend eternity where he thinks he'll be better appreciated, on display in a toy museum in Tokyo with his former
co-stars, rather than face an uncertain destiny as Andy's useless, deteriorating one-time favorite toy.

Here's something David and I have decided: Woody's cute, long-lost sidekick horse marionette from the
Roundup
,
named Bullseye, must have been designed using a rescued greyhound as inspiration. Lilly's equine bearing is part of what attracted me to the breed, and Bullseye's kind of like a dog in a horse costume. He's a ringer for Lilly—athletic and sensitive, desperate to please, and meltingly woebegone all at once. Like all rescue animals, Bullseye's clearly pining for a permanent place where he belongs, what the greyhound adoption associations call a Forever Home. I wanted to eat Bullseye up when I first saw him. Now I have Lilly.

This year's
Toy Story 3
is
about Death; it explores our fear of mortality, old age, and retirement. In 3-D, no less! Andy is eighteen, he's never home, and the neglected toys are desperate for contact, reduced to figuring out a way to make a cell phone ring deep inside the toy chest, on the off chance Andy will pick them up for a second rummaging around for it. The toys just need a hug!

I can relate.

The million-dollar question (okay
billion-worldwide-dollar question
)
is,
Which of the gang will be left out on the curb? Which in a box in the attic? And which will be donated, retired to dreaded Sunnyside Day Care?
(Sunnyside! Sounds and
looks
like one of those assisted-living chains.
Toy Story 3
's Sunnyside Day Care turns out to be precisely as dismal as we aging boomers fear a senior living place could be, complete with a skilled nursing-type toy-repair center kitted out with duct tape, epoxy, and spare batteries.)

Ben and Sam ended up choosing schools in completely opposite directions. They seemed satisfied with their decisions and were looking forward to new adventures. It made sense to simplify college drop-offs by splitting the duties: David would fly with Ben to Texas, we decided, because I'd already visited his school. Then, David could recuperate from being poisoned due to his massive sensitivity to fast food and Texas air fresheners while I delivered Sam up north later in the week. (David's time is precious at the moment, and he needs his health. He'll be joining the cast of HBO's
Tremé
in October—they introduced his character over a few episodes in their first season, which filmed last spring. This year he'll be a regular character, which means he'll be down there from mid-fall to late spring. When he arrives he's got his work cut out for him finding a rental house with a yard for Lilly and so forth.)

I was looking forward to taking Sam to school. This would be my first chance to see his New England campus, one of the places David and Sam had hit together already during the hectic tour circuit the summer before. The whole plan seemed logical.

Except maybe not.

Fortunately, David seemed healthy when he came home from Texas, and I was pleased that he and Ben had had some good father-son time. But in the middle of the night a few days before my scheduled trip north with Sam, I woke to a God-awful sound I couldn't identify.

At first I thought this might be Lilly—greyhounds metabolize their food extremely fast (what else is new?). Until my greyhound consultant Linda O'Brien recommended a later dinner hour, when Lilly was fed too early her stomach emptied while she was asleep and she would start loudly retching this slimy bile substance all over the bedroom floor in the wee hours. I kept having to stagger out of bed when Lilly had one of these attacks, cursing unsympathetically, and shut her in the master bathroom just to protect the carpets, which, of course, meant Lilly would spend the rest of the night yelping through the door in absolute terror.
(She's leaving you! You'll never see her again! You're going to lose EVERYTHING!)
Having been there, done that with endless nights nursing sick children throughout our child-rearing years, I find I must draw the line when an animal (no matter how meltingly woebegone) interferes with my sleep.

This night Lilly was peaceful. Someone was upstairs in David's third-floor office making the strangest racket. He often goes up there if he has trouble sleeping, to work, run lines, or watch sports, and I thought,
Boy, is
that
a loud show.
Some ham actor was really chewing the scenery—I couldn't tell if the guy was howling with fake laughter or manufacturing melodramatic wails of misery. Whatever it was, like Ma's
NPR baboon program
, I was desperate to make it
STOP
so I could go back to sleep, and I went up to ask David to please turn down the sound a little.

The attic was dim and the TV screen dark when I peered between the banisters at the top of the stairs. A strange caterwauling was coming from a figure in the shadows: my husband.

The thing is, I carry on as if I'm the emotional hair trigger in this partnership, and David's the even-tempered macho man. But what I love most about my best friend and soul mate is that he is a living, breathing human. His gift, both as an actor and as a man, is that he owns up to the deepest, most hidden aspects of himself; the tender, true parts that many males in our society have been conditioned to squelch.

I'd been impressed, almost envious, of David's philosophical attitude when Eliza left. He seemed a little sad, but it was like he knew she'd be fine, that it was totally fitting for her to start making her way in the world. I've been determined to emulate David's level of maturity for the boys' launch, but as it turns out, I've been operating under a false impression. The inner David was an emotional time bomb, and the bomb exploded that night on the third floor of our house.

It took a while for him to calm down and explain coherently what had happened.

A dream:

David and our three kids are with a group of other parents and children on a cliff, thousands of feet above a freezing-cold torrential river. For some inexplicable dream reason, they all have no choice but to jump off this cliff to certain death. I am not there.

Everyone's terrified. Children are squatting in puddles of cold water, trying to prepare themselves for the frigid rapids below. Eliza is around somewhere—she's screaming but David can't see her face.

He finds the boys. They are right at the edge of the precipice, looking down, summoning courage. They're about twelve years old.

Ben tells David he has a stomachache. He's always been prone to them.

David hugs Sam from behind, and tells him, as deeply and fully as he can, that he loves him—

One second.

Eliza is
faceless
and
screaming
?
That's
it
? No hug, no lingering good-bye for his only daughter and firstborn? And come to think of it:
I
am not
there
? Exactly where
am
I? Shirking responsibility after twenty-one years of devoted stay-at-home martyrdom?
Me
? What, am I blithely jetting off to early retirement somewhere? Taking up trick riding in Tokyo with Bullseye the Woebegone Doghorse?

I know I've seemed a little maxed-out lately after all the college tours and applications and so forth, and it's true I didn't go with David to drop off Ben. But I'd like to be thought of as someone who'd make a point of showing up for the odd torrential freezing-river-cliff good-bye.

Okay, I get it. This is a serious father-son dream—geared more toward the
Toy Story
guys than the ABBA ladies. We are in Woody, Buzz, and Andy territory here. The Morse females (along with other minor supporting characters like Barbie, Bo Peep, and Mrs. Potato Head) are simply going to have to deal.

Then, David realizes his sons are on a kind of chute that will take them over the cliff. A few kids and another grown-up have flown down the chute ahead of them to die. David wants to stop Ben and Sam. He wants to go first, but everything is happening too fast. And so, down the boys go to their deaths, leaving David behind.

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