For those who didn’t see it on my Facebook or Twitter feeds, my new story, “Orville’s Song,” has been published on Burlesque Press’s online journal, The Variety Show. Read it here for free. And please like, share, forward, etc.
Recently on Facebook and Twitter, I stated that those who say they wouldn’t change a thing about their pasts are either lying or overly stubborn. I caught some flack for that claim. One of my friends misunderstood; he argued that he wouldn’t change a thing along the way because he’s happy with the destination. Another said that, because she constantly critiques herself, she wouldn’t change much. As for the latter, I can only envy my friend’s comfort with most of her decisions and actions. I constantly self-critique, too, but in retrospect, I still find that I’ve erred much of the time. In terms of the former, my statement wasn’t about changing who I am today. It’s about wishing that my present self could go back and say to the younger me, “Even though you think you know what you’re doing, you are about to make a mistake. Don’t be dumb/selfish/mean/insensitive.”
Many of those past actions involve wronging others. And while I could—and, eventually, will—write about my struggles with relationships and family, today I am thinking of my failures to take care of an old friend. His name was Tank. He was a dog. He loved me, as dogs love people, unconditionally and with his whole being. And, as is often the case with people and their “love” for animals, I cared about him when it was convenient and ignored him when it wasn’t. Now, when I try to sleep at night, I often see his face—dark fur with brown patches, a white chest as if he were wearing a cummerbund, eyes so radiant they could melt a glacier. He always looked so happy, until the day he got sick and I abandoned him.
I still remember the day I brought him home. It was during my first marriage, when things were always volatile. I was nineteen years old, with a wife and daughter. I was a student at Louisiana Tech University and was majoring in engineering, which I hated. But I had come out of high school with dollar signs in my eyes, and since I had taken all the college-prep math and science classes my high school offered, I felt well-prepared. I didn’t particularly enjoy the work in those courses, but I believed that I could work a job I didn’t like if it meant that I could make enough money to do whatever I wanted otherwise. And since even in 1989-90 we could tell that computers would soon rule the world, I declared a computer engineering major.
I hated my classes. Hated them. My favorite things to do were reading and writing, and there I was, taking Calculus II and Chemistry and Introduction to Computer Programming. As I sat there taking notes on arcane formulas and weights of gases and ways to make a “DO WHILE” loop or whatever it was called, I saw my future stretching out before me, endless days of sitting in front of a screen and writing code so that other people could use computers to do the kinds of things that I really wanted to do. But I have never been a quitter, and my parents were proud of me and my scholarships, and my wife and her family constantly expressed money concerns in ways that told me changing my major to, say, English would lead to full-scale civil war. And so I trudged on, miserable and bitter, angry at myself for declaring a major that I didn’t want and at them for pressuring me to stick with it.
My strategy—if you can call unconscious decisions a strategy—was to self-sabotage. I stopped going to classes I didn’t like and never got around to dropping them. I skipped tests to go home for a weekend. I went to see Aerosmith and Joan Jett the night before a Trigonometry final, which I showed up to twenty minutes late and left before anyone else. When the university put me on a one-semester academic suspension, I packed up my family and moved back to southeast Arkansas, where I enrolled in the University of Arkansas at Monticello without declaring a major. After drifting for a semester or two, I finally pulled the trigger and declared. I was an English major. I have never looked back.
But in between realizing that I hated engineering and finally making the right decision, I went through several varieties of hell. And since my family life caused a lot of the tension, I wanted something else to love, something that, like my beautiful daughter, would not judge me or pressure me to live a life I didn’t want. I thought a pet might strengthen the already-firm bonds between me and my daughter. So I decided to get a dog.
A lady I knew from work was giving some away. They weren’t any special breed, but I knew when I got mine that he would be fairly big—not Great Dane or Saint Bernard big, but not poodle or Pomeranian territory, either. I chose him because he was gorgeous and gregarious, and because he had a great name already—Tank. It conjured images of unstoppable canine energy, powerful runs through tall grass. I brought him home in the back seat of my car. He was good.
Of course, Tank would later royally piss off my wife, who wanted no dogs bigger than her mother’s Boston Terriers. As he grew, he barked gruffly at inopportune moments and refused to be housetrained even to the extent of scratching on the door. Thus we would awake to find the newspapers we had left out still as spotless and crisp as the day they were printed, while a steaming pile of poop sat on the floor right next to them. He pissed on the tile floor of our mobile home’s kitchen and soaked the carpet more than once. I was constantly cleaning up after him, and none of the old tricks I had learned worked at all. And so I became hyper-aware of any noise in the night—light scratching, the staccato clicks of toenails on tile, whining. And I would rise up out of my deep sleep, already shouting, “Tank, NO!” as I bolted down the short hallway.
More often than not, I was too late or found it was all a false alarm. Tank kept me on my toes that way.
I couldn’t leave him outside; we lived in a trailer park that did not allow loose pets, and we had no money or permission to build a fence. I had no desire to chain him to a tree or a doghouse just for my own convenience; I was at least that selfless. And so I would sleep a few hours at a time, these restful periods broken up by anxiety and stress and nasty work that I had little patience for.
Oh, I still loved the dog. During the day, we’d go outside and I would let him run around in the thirty yards or so between our trailer and the next one. He would chase insects and frolic and play fetch with whatever ball I could find. I’d run with him, trying not to trip over him or step into a hole. I’d tackle him and ruffle his fur and scratch his belly, and he would chase me and rear up on his hind legs, his forepaws on my stomach. Sometimes I’d take those paws and walk with him, fashioning an awkward dance.
Yes, our life together waxed and waned between frustration and boy-and-his-dog joy. Until, that is, we moved back to Arkansas.
Our new life brought all kinds of changes. We lived next to my in-laws, who had multiple dogs and two or three cats. Our trailer sat at an intersection between a road leading to a highway and a gravel road that wound through the more rural portions of town—the dangers of traffic and big trucks in one direction, the song of small patches of woods in the other.
I now had to commute around an hour and a half every day. I was taking a full undergraduate load and working a part-time job that actually drifted toward full-time hours, though the pay was rotten in those days of three-dollar-and-thirty-five-cent-an-hour minimum wage. I had homework and old friends to see and relatives to visit, as well as a wife and daughter that needed and deserved my time and love. And as all this coalesced, my nineteen-to-twenty-year-old self made some good decisions and some bad ones.
Good: I took care of my school, work, and family responsibilities. I made time to hang with my friends, to throw parties, to read for pleasure and play video games every chance I could.
Bad: I had less and less time for Tank. And because I was so busy, I was able to rationalize it. “He’s got a lot of other animals to play with,” I said, letting him out more often and hoping that he would not find his way to the highway, where he would almost certainly be flattened. “It’s not like I’m being lazy,” I said, and that much was true. “It’s not like I don’t care about him anymore. There’s just so much to do.”
Easy words. In many cases, justified. But empty and hollow and insufficient nonetheless.
Because eventually, Tank got sick. One day I came home and he did not greet me with bounds of joy. He looked my way and dragged himself over to the car as I got out, his head hanging as if he were ashamed of his poor efforts. He moved like a dog four times his age. It struck me as odd. I asked everyone about him, but no one had paid him much attention. So I sat with him awhile, scratching behind his ears and telling him what a good boy he was. I talked with him as if he could understand (which, for all I know, he could) and might reply at any time. I told him about my day. But as evening descended and the temperature dropped, I patted him on the head and said, “See you later, buddy.”
By this time, Tank was a full-time outdoors dog. His refusal to take to house training, along with my in-laws’ always-open and comparatively warm laundry room, led my wife to insist on it. I was too tired and distracted to fight about it, and besides, in southeast Arkansas dogs with worse places to sleep led full and happy lives.
Around this time, my school workload increased, and my employer wanted me on duty more often than not, as the cold months had descended, bringing with them the approaching holidays. And so for several days in a row I came home at odd hours—3 pm or six or eleven—exhausted and hungry and ready to fall into bed.
I didn’t see Tank. And, to my everlasting shame, I didn’t even think about him.
Finally one day my wife was waiting for me. She looked both upset and angry. “Tank’s sick,” she said. “He’s in the laundry room.”
“Shit,” I said, more annoyed than concerned. The weight of the day settled on me; I felt it in my lower back, my shoulders, my aching head. I dropped my things on the living room floor and crossed over to my in-laws’. I pushed open the door of the laundry room.
Tank lay there on his side, breathing shallowly. When he craned his neck to look at me, his movements were stiff and labored, as if the very motion pained him. It probably did. His eyes were dull and weeping; his fur looked matted. And yet, as I came in the room, his tail beat a weak tattoo on the concrete floor. I thought I heard him make a low sound in his throat. It might have been an abortive bark, or a whine, or nothing at all.
I sat down with him and took his head in my lap. I stroked his fur and spoke softly to him and promised him that he was still my dog, even though I had failed him lately. I told him that he would be all right, that whatever had taken hold of him would let go. That he would stand up again, and frolic and leap and bark and wake the neighbors and dig in the hard fall dirt. I apologized for being gone so much, for not realizing how he felt.
And yet I couldn’t think of what I could do for him. I was an undergraduate, meaning I had no income at the college. We had already spent the overage from my financial aid that semester. I doubted that any of my relatives would have lent me money to take Tank to the vet, and all of my friends were either off at college somewhere or broker than I was. And I could not stay out there with him much longer. I was starving and tired, and I had to go do it all again the next day.
So after a while, I lowered his head back down to the concrete and promised him that I would be back as soon as I could.
I never saw him again.
The next few days were even busier than before. When I came home, I was in no mood to take care of anybody besides my daughter. I would do what she required, and then I would sit on the couch and vegetate or go to bed or slog through some homework. I thought about Tank, and I asked about him; apparently his condition had not changed one way or the other. I took this as a positive sign—no news is good news, right?—and went on with my day.
Then one day I came home and was told that Tank was gone.
“What do you mean, gone?” I asked. “Did he die? I thought he was stable.”
At this point, my wife revealed that her brother had gotten tired of watching Tank suffer on the laundry room floor. He had loaded Tank into a truck and carried him out into the woods, where he laid him down on the ground and shot him. It was a mercy killing; my brother-in-law had no malice toward Tank. He was doing the only thing he knew to do, which was put Tank out of his misery, because I, Tank’s owner and friend, had done nothing.
When I heard this news, I felt as if someone had stabbed me with a coring knife and hollowed me out. Into that emptiness spilled conflicting feelings that threatened to crack the foundation of my self-image. I was furious with my brother-in-law for killing my dog. I was grateful to him for doing something to help Tank. I was sad that Tank was gone; I was happy that he wasn’t in pain anymore; I was relieved, damn me, that I would not have to take the time to go into that room and comfort him. Yes, I actually felt relief for myself.
What kind of person was I?
Tank had done what very few people have ever done for me. He accepted me and loved me and gave me his loyalty without question or condition. He loved me when I played with him, and he loved me when I ignored him. He greeted me every day as if he hadn’t seen me in years, during a time when my own wife seemed to wish I would disappear forever. He lay on that cold concrete and fought against whatever was ripping him apart and looked at me. He tried to wag his tail.
And what had I done? Had I gone to every friend and relative I had until I had found enough money to take him to the veterinarian? Had I begged a vet to work out a payment plan with me so that my friend, for whom I was responsible, could live a longer and happier life? Had I sold something precious of mine to finance his treatment? God help me, did I take him out and shoot him myself if I could not be bothered to do anything else?
No. I let him lie there in his sickness and rot from the inside. Because I was busy. Because I wanted some time for myself. In truth, because I was lazy and selfish.
As I have gotten older, I have come to believe that how a person treats animals says a lot about how much they value life itself—the Earth, the people in their lives, people in general. If Kalene’s diet allowed it, I really think I would try to become a vegetarian because I simply cannot abide how animals are treated in the food industry, how each animal’s life must be as important to it as mine is to me. I believe that animals have souls, emotions, desires, maybe even dreams and goals. And I want to do as little as possible to hurt them, my meals notwithstanding.
But in those days, no matter my intentions, I was not a good person. I mistreated that dog, even if I did so for what seemed like good reasons and mostly by omission, rather than commission. I was responsible for his life, his health, his happiness. I failed him in every way possible, even in my own heart.
But I didn’t emerge unscathed. I have never stopped thinking about Tank, or the other pets I had before him. And every single thing I’ve done for my pets since then has been influenced by his presence in my life. It’s why I gladly put off getting things I want or going on trips when my cat needs medical attention. It’s why I advocate for animal rights, why I speak out against things like puppy farms and kill shelters. It’s why, even when I take a bite of steak, I remember that it was once a part of a living, breathing creature that did not want to die and that had done nothing to me.
Tank taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, one I’ve tried to pass onto my children. Animals aren’t interchangeable tokens we move around at our leisure. They are important, soulful beings with whom we share this planet, this life. If I ever see him again—and I believe that I will—then I plan to tell him that. And I will run with him, talk with him, pet him, and throw that ball to him for as long as he wants.
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I make no claims that what follows is a great piece of writing. It is, however, highly personal, and it’s something I’ve needed to say for longer than I care to think about.
Hard to Say I’m Sorry: an Open Letter to Someone I Miss
As a doctor of American Literature, I am well-acquainted with the fact that most people don’t know much (or care to know) about Modernist poetry. But if I had to bet my paycheck that almost everyone had heard of at least one Modernist poem, I would wager on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” In case you haven’t read it since high school, I hereby quote the final stanza, in which the speaker, having been presented with two possible paths, finally makes his choice.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Once, during my Master’s program, I heard one of my professors say that he had always read “The Road Not Taken” as satirical. He had a hard time believing that a poet of Frost’s caliber would simplify to such a degree the difficulties in navigating life. After all, as we make most of our choices, we see not two paths but several, often looking much the same, the end never in sight. Try as we might to apply logic and foresight to our decisions, we often result to the mental equivalent of flipping a coin; “I’ve got to try something,” we say to ourselves, and we plunge ahead, hoping that we don’t sail over some cliff hidden in the foliage.
Of course, some choices are more important than others. In the end, who really cares if you choose Taco Bell over Burger King on a given day? Does it really matter if you watch Movie A instead of TV Show B, especially in this age of Netflix instant access and DVRs? Possibly not. But some choices can literally change lives. I discovered that as I have discovered most things—through painful experience.
Back when I was much younger—before fatherhood, before marriage, before graduate school and a truly adult life—I had to make a choice. I cannot get into specifics in a public forum, and so I am left with generalizations, half-descriptions, and facades. I hope that if the person I’m talking to ever reads this, she will recognize herself and understand what I’m saying. I have never been good at talking about my feelings, so if I lose my way, I apologize to you, reader, and especially to her for whom this is meant. She deserves better.
If you’ve found your way here, you probably feel like I’ve blindsided you. We haven’t spoken in many years, a situation for which I am solely to blame. I wish I could go back and talk to my younger self; I could avoid so many mistakes that way, including one of the worst—losing touch with you. I cannot, of course, turn back time or reach across the years and fix things. I can only apologize, and believe me, I know how much there is to be sorry for.
We met at a tumultuous time in my life. I had experienced things that devastated me emotionally. After that, I made some dumb decisions about who to care for and trust; these people piled their own kinds of damage on top of what had already been done. I had been convinced that I was worthless, that I would never be happy, that at best I would not drive my car off a bridge. Some days, I hated getting out of bed, and I always teetered on the edge of grim mania, barely stopping myself from punching people in the face for the flimsiest of reasons.
Then, on yet another gray day, I met you.
We hit it off quickly. Something about the way you smiled made me feel warm, and for whatever reason, you seemed to smile at me a lot. We talked. We saw each other socially. Soon, in a moment of unbridled and spectacular surprise, we came together in a kiss that was as desperate as it was passionate. Perhaps you were looking for something, too. I don’t pretend to know. I only know that it happened, and that it shocked both of us, like something out of a movie. When we broke apart, we stared at each other for several weighty moments. Then you said, “Oops,” and I could add nothing more profound. It wasn’t supposed to happen. We didn’t mean for it to. But it had happened, and we would have to deal with it.
We embarked upon a relationship. Your family didn’t like me (and in this, they were not alone); I was the very definition of “damaged goods.” You could have done better. But for us, it worked, at least for a while. I remember that you ended it once, knowing that things were too complicated, that the timing wasn’t right. I accepted your decision with disappointment, but also with understanding. After all, I wouldn’t have wanted to be with me at that time in my life, and I wanted you to be happy. So I watched you walk away. If I recall, I went out with one of my best friends and got drunk and pretended that I was fine.
But I was miserable. I felt a roaring inside me, a howling emptiness that you had begun to fill, and while I was willing to let you go, I didn’t want to. I wanted to call, to drive around until I found you, to beg you to come back. I did none of those things; I was strong enough for that, at least. But I missed you. And the really odd part? This separation only lasted a few days.
Because you did come back. You told me that you had made a mistake, that you knew the problems and the risks of loving me and that you didn’t care. And even though I knew I was too unstable to give you what you deserved, I weakened, because I loved you and wanted to be with you so badly. So we started up again.
But in the end, you can’t run away from your problems. I was too broken for anybody to fix. Only time and a lot of self-analysis would do that. My guilt over some things I’d done and my desire to be a better person in the future led me to break things off. I’m here to tell you that I didn’t want to do it. Walking away from you was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and that’s saying a lot, especially now that I’m forty years old and have been through two divorces, family deaths, long separations from friends and loved ones. But I did it, because I knew that I had a lot of work to do on myself and that you deserved better than I could give. I simply could not ask you to wait until I got myself together.
But because I was afraid, I handled things wrong. I let the situation drag out over a period of weeks in which you wondered what you had done wrong, why I was holding myself at a distance, when things would go back to normal. I tried to tell you the truth many times, but every time I opened my mouth, the words would fail me. The prospect of losing you scared me, and I have never frightened easily. By the time I finally told you that I would need time, that there were things I’d have to do in order to live with myself and be worthy of anyone’s love, I had hurt you. You were very understanding, but any amount of pain I might have caused is unacceptable.
For my poor handling of our relationship and its conclusion, I apologize, from the bottom of my heart. Everything negative that happened was my fault. I tried to be a good person, but you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell. I truly loved our time together, and if circumstances had been different, I would never have done what I did.
For my silence in the years since, I also apologize. Of course, I don’t know if you even wanted to speak to me; I just know that I wanted to speak to you. But I was ashamed, and I was both hopeful and afraid that you’d moved on. So for any moment, no matter how fleeting, that I left you sitting near a silent telephone, I’m sorry.
I’m with my soulmate now, someone who loves me both for what I am and for what I’m not. We’re deliriously happy, something I never thought possible. I would not give that up for the world. I’m trying to be the best father I can be. I’m still trying to be the kind of man I can admire.
But my healing started with you. Your love showed me that I wasn’t worthless, that happiness was possible. For that, I can never repay you. The point I’m trying to make here is that my feelings for you were real. They still are; for me, that kind of love never goes away. No matter the circumstances, I’ll always be here for you. And even in your absence, you’ve always been important to me.
I know you’ve moved on. You’ve got a family of your own now, a life, a career. You seem happy, from what I’ve heard. And no one could be happier for you than I am. For any part I might have played in delaying that happiness, I’m sorry.
I’ve hoped to say all this to you personally, but I can’t seem to get in contact. I’ve thought about this, and I’ve come up with three possible reasons why you don’t want to talk to me. 1) You still love me, even after all this time, and fear what might happen to your life if I come back into it. 2) You’ve realized you never really loved me at all and simply don’t care if you ever talk to me again. 3) Your own feelings (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, you’re afraid that I have some kind of agenda, that I will make trouble for you.
But I’m not egotistical enough to think that you still love me, at least to the extent that you, as an older and wiser person, couldn’t control yourself around me. I don’t think you’d run and leap into my arms, consequences be damned. So I’m crossing out #1. As for #2, I hope it isn’t true. But if it is, I wouldn’t blame you. I can only repeat that my feelings have always been genuine, and that I’d like to be in your life in whatever capacity you’d allow. In terms of #3, I’m not the guy I used to be. I’ve grown up. I’m not selfish enough to cause you problems. I’m no longer confused about who I am or what I can offer. Know that I would never hurt you or the people you care about.
What I’m trying to say is that I miss you, and I’d like to be your friend. I’d like to introduce you to my wife; I think you’d like her. I’d like to tell you about my life and how you’ve affected it. It’s a pretty good story.
But you have more than earned the right to say no. If you don’t want me in your life, I don’t blame you. I will only say that I will always be here. If you ever need or want anything, call or write me. If it’s within my power to give it, I will. In the meantime, just know that I’m sorry for the way I mishandled things, and that I have thought of you often over the years, always fondly.
Saying this has been hard. Thinking about your potential silence is harder. But I made this particular bed, and I’ll lie in it as long as I have to.
I hope this finds you and yours well.