From her new book
Blueprints for Building Better Girls

Elissa Schappell

After a year of us trying to get pregnant, my doctor said, “Sometimes fate needs help.” A former hippie who threw the I Ching every morning, she suggested that I cast my lot with the moon and gave me a small pink calendar. On the front was the silhouette of a woman with extraordinarily long hair, and the name of a prescription drug I’d never heard of.

“Female pattern baldness?”

“Just ignore that.”

The calendar approach made sense to my very logical husband. He worked in the office of the city planner. His job was determining how many fire hydrants, water fountains, and stop signs were necessary in order to improve the quality of life in any given neighborhood. How many libraries, playgrounds, and schools, I wondered, did people need to be happy?

My mother, having given birth to four children, all of whom, except for me, had procreated, pressed the issue of my husband seeing a doctor. The clock was ticking.

“You know you can’t have just one,” my mother said, as though babies were peanuts.

According to tests, Douglas’s sperm count was average, the speed and motility of his swimmers normal, “if,” his doctor said, “a little on the sluggish side.”

Douglas said, “I prefer the term laid-back.”

Still, I could imagine his sperm, a file of pale balding men in Bermuda trunks and sunglasses, wading out to stand knee-deep in water, arms crossed, reluctant to go any further.

In truth, we had sex more than pandas, but less than dogs. And month after month, I got my period. And month after month, the plague of babies spread. Unstoppable, they slipped under the door and through the mail slot. Stork-and-cabbage-leaf embossed birth announcements fat with glossy photos of newborns, all wispy comb-overs and padded cheeks, watery eyes and pouts pearled with drool. With their looks of disgust, alarm, and defiant boredom, the photos felt like Wanted posters. Clearly, these potato-faced outlaws were itching for trouble, plotting to drive their parents to ruin and an early grave. We wanted one.

It seemed unfair. Friends who hadn’t been trying, who wanted to wait before hatching number two, got pregnant. They threw up their hands in happy defeat. “What can you do?” they said, shrugging foolishly.

Worst of all, though, were the parents whose children were older. “Wait,” they said. “Travel. Enjoy being a couple. Get a dog. At least a dog won’t grow up to write a tell-all book about what lousy parents you were.”

We wanted a dog, of course. No home was complete without one, curled up at your feet while you read the paper, barking at strangers, trotting alongside the kid as she flies her first kite. We just wanted a baby first.

Then, one day it just appeared. The plus sign. Plus one? A kiss?

We’d get the dog later.

The first time we heard the baby’s heartbeat, my husband squeezed my hand. Tighter than on our wedding day, tighter than last summer at the Cape when I got pulled into the undertow. He squeezed my hand tighter than I’d ever imagined he’d dare squeeze anything. I liked that.

He shut his eyes to listen. “The syncopation—” Douglas said, grinning. He was imagining describing the musical nuances of Charlie Parker and Chet Baker, how he’d teach his child—no, his son—to snap its fingers. He let go of my hand and wiped his sweaty palm on his pants leg.

I said, “It’s just a sea monkey now. What are you going to be like when it’s real?”

“Don’t say that,” he said. “It is real.”

He told everybody—friends, family, neighbors, business associates, even the night doorman knew. We are pregnant.

When we went to our favorite place, an Italian restaurant around the corner, he told the waiter. The enthusiasm with which the man clapped my husband on the back and shook his hand, you’d have thought we were family. When he pulled out his billfold to show us his children’s confirmation pictures, we beamed at each other. We are pregnant!

He told his mother he hoped it was a boy. She hoped it was a boy too.

My mother sounded overcome with relief. “Oh, Katie, this is wonderful news. I’m so happy for you. I knew you could do it,” she said. The exact reaction I’d gotten when I’d told her I was engaged. “Douglas,” she added, “must be beside himself.”

I’d told only a few people. I’d told my best friend from college, because we’d gotten engaged and married at the same time and vowed to have babies together too. She was on her second. We hadn’t spoken in nearly a year. When I told her I was finally going to deliver on my promise, she shrieked, “Hurray! Now we can take family vacations together!”

I hadn’t planned on telling my friend Teddy; she’d guessed when I ordered a ginger ale at lunch, instead of my usual red wine. The fact that Teddy, who’d briefly slummed as a publicist at the ad agency where I worked, never wanted children (“I inherited that gene from my mother,” she’d say) lent her an air of mystery and sophistication. “It’s not that I don’t adore children, I do. My clients are my children,” she liked to say. “Plus, given all my darling nieces and nephews, I shall never want for potential organ donors.”

She’d made a toast. “To Kate. You will be a fabulous mother.”

I said I hoped so.

My assistant had been relieved. To a sweet Mormon girl whose chief pleasure seemed to be planning the office’s birthday parties and showers, my mood swings and the nodding off at my desk, the donuts, meant I either was on drugs or had a brain tumor.

For the first time in his life, Douglas cooked. Dismaying heaps of kale, spinach, and turnips. Soups that smelled like compost. I told him, “It’s your fault if this baby winds up looking like the bastard son of the Jolly Green Giant. And you know how people gossip.”

He was good to me. He did things he’d never done before. Put his arm around me and walked on the side where the traffic raced by. In restaurants, he sent back food that suddenly seemed inedible; I’d feigned nausea a few times just so he’d do it. He wondered if the swelling in my feet was something we should worry about. While I napped, he did the dishes, necktie flipped over his shoulder. He danced. My husband, who never danced, not even at weddings, boogied around the apartment humming along to the radio. I joked, had I known he’d act like this I’d have gotten pregnant a long time ago. “I should always be pregnant,” I said.

“Sounds good to me,” he said.

I tried to do everything right. The moment the X (a kiss!) appeared, I’d stopped drinking and smoking pot. I swore off blue-veined cheeses, sushi, and all non-organic produce. I gave up coloring the gray in my hair, which with fairy-tale speed had grown thicker and shinier seemingly overnight. I was on the sofa searching the index of What to Expect to determine whether or not it was safe to paint my toenails when I felt the first signs of “quickening.” I’d liked the term the moment I read it. It suggested that the baby was taking shape, setting up like clay, and quickly.

I wasn’t sure, though. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it was gas. Maybe I just wanted to feel it so badly I felt it. Then I felt it again. No, I told myself, no. Maybe I shouldn’t be happy. Maybe I should be panicking. The third time—third time is the charm—I called to my husband.

He didn’t dare get excited. “After all,” he said, smiling nervously, “it could just be your imagination.” I took his hand and pressed it low on my stomach. He shut his eyes. Then there it was, the sensation of bubbles, like laughter underwater.

First the baby, then him. It seemed for a moment like the two of them were laughing together. Already.

Before he could pull his hand away, I told him that if he moved his hand south, I’d really make his heart quicken. He blushed. It just came out. He said he knew it was stupid given how small the baby was, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the soft spot. One unfortunate thrust and, at best, the baby would have a lisp or a lazy eye, or do just so-so on the SATs.


The fact that Douglas insisted on coming to my second-trimester appointment had come as a happy surprise, especially since it required him to cut out in the middle of his team’s presentation to resurrect a Brooklyn playground that had become an open-air drug bazaar in an “underserved” neighborhood. The fact that my practical, notoriously thrifty husband was lobbying for the costly four-foot-tall elephant statues, hollowed out so children could crawl inside and hide—“What kid wouldn’t like that?” he said—had taken everyone by surprise.

I didn’t ask if he’d factored in the danger of a child crawling into the belly of an elephant and finding a crack pipe, or getting jabbed with an AIDS-infected needle. I didn’t ask if he’d done the math on the possibility of junkies themselves moving into the beasts and making themselves at home.

Instead, ensconced in the examining room, the two of us giggled over the fact that the stirrups were sheathed with cloth booties advertising a birth control pill that also combated teen acne. What would have once inspired indignation—the depths to which pharmaceutical companies would sink to sell their wares—now had us in stitches.

“Talk about your captive audience,” I said.

“If it’s a girl, I’m putting her in a bubble until she’s eighteen,” he said.

When the technician couldn’t find the heartbeat, my husband asked her to keep looking, as if the baby were playing Marco Polo and had swum behind a kidney, or was curled up and holding its breath under my lungs. Until that moment we were a we; after, it was just me.

You know how it is, when the high school football team wins the championship, it’s we won! When the team loses, they lost.

To be fair, Douglas never said Kate lost the baby with any blame or bitterness. Still, Kate lost the baby, especially when said to his mother, made it sound like I left it in a bowling alley, or drove off with it on the roof of our car. Miscarried. I hated that term too. It implied negligence on my part. It whispered maliciousness, irresponsibility, like I’d held the baby upside down, swung it by one foot, dropped it like a bag of eggs.

I didn’t have to tell my mother, she heard it in my voice. “Oh, Kate,” she said. Two days later, a spider plant arrived. It’s impossible to kill a spider plant.

There were cards, and friends bearing the traditional dish of mourning, lasagna, appeared on our doorstep. Does every culture respond to loss with a variation on the easy-to-freeze, multilayered casserole? The bouquets of flowers went straight in the trash. I waited for someone, Teddy maybe, to say something like “The baby left? Just left? Fuck that lousy selfish blob. You’ve dodged a bullet. A bullet in a diaper.” Instead they said: “You can always adopt. These things happen for a reason. You don’t know, maybe it’s for the best.”

We had no real pictures to show, except the sonogram, which I’d tucked in my wallet like a first school picture. It was fuzzy and printed from a computer image. If you held it upside down, couldn’t it be a jellyfish? Why keep a picture of a jellyfish? But I did.

My husband took time off work. The first time I called it Oops, no paternity leave, he’d smiled gamely. The second time he’d winced. “Please,” he’d said.

At home, he ordered us takeout and brought me cups of weak tea. Rubbed my shoulders like a man with no feeling in his hands. He said what I needed him to say—even though it was the clip-on tie of clichés—It will bring us closer together—and it had. Here we were sitting on the sofa, closer than we ever did. He walked around the apartment turning on lights and electronics. It didn’t matter if the room was empty. On went the stereo in the living room, the CD player in the kitchen, the clock radio in our bedroom, and the one in the shower. There wouldn’t be even a minute of quiet when the Miles Davis at The Blue Note CD ended, because the voice of Terry Gross interviewing a ten-year-old oboe prodigy could be heard coming from the bathroom. You’d never have known that there were just the two of us in there.

After a week, I went back to work. My cover story, a virulent strain of flu, which, given how hollow-eyed and shaky I was, was believable. My assistant, who frowned on all stimulants, made an exception, bringing me a three-shot latte, the legal equivalent of crack cocaine. Then politely excused herself in case I wanted to cry.

Later, when she popped her head in my office to ask if there was anything she could do, I congratulated her on her new role as manager of health benefits for pregnant women and maternity leave. Then told her that, as of today, we had a new policy regarding in-office parties. I’d looked at our budget. All those cakes and balloons, they were bleeding us dry. I knew it wasn’t going to make me popular, but I didn’t care.

I’d never wanted this job. I’d taken the job as assistant to the head of human resources almost a decade ago, under the delusion that once I was in I could move over to the creative side. I’d fantasized that I wouldn’t be operating copiers and faxes but rather, as my sinister-sounding title suggested, as- sisting my boss with the operation of heavy machinery, the jackhammers and drills, mining the most valuable parts out of an employee. Now I was trapped. It seemed ironic that, as the head of human resources, I couldn’t produce a human.

At least the miscarriage gave me a Get-Out-of-Baby-Showers-Free card. There’d be no more sucking mai tais out of baby bottles. No more games where you tried to diaper a Vaseline-greased watermelon, guess the guest of honor’s weight, or identify the type of candy bar melted in a Pamper. All that paled in comparison to no longer having to listen to the wives’ woeful bitching about how, despite their being thirty pounds overweight, unwashed, and covered in baby vomit, their husbands still couldn’t keep their hands off them. They were dying to fuck them. Even with the baby in their bed. Even when the baby was nursing.

“You don’t understand,” a friend of mine had announced. “I told my husband as long as I can sleep through it and he doesn’t wake the baby, he could do whatever he wanted to me.”

I couldn’t imagine. I knew I’d get my sleep. My husband would see to that.

I didn’t go, didn’t even send gifts anymore. My gift was my absence. Free of me—in my invisible black veil and arm-band—the mothers could relax, swap baby pictures and tragic tales of cracked nipples and cradle cap.

Moving to Brooklyn wasn’t a snap decision. We’d always said we might. Change is good, we said. So many couples get stuck in a rut. Brooklyn had excellent public schools and parks, easy access to all forms of transportation. The water taxi between downtown Manhattan and DUMBO would be fun. The fact that our once-adventurous friends demurred, saying they’d feel safer on the Titanic, was more evidence we needed a new life. In every way, Brooklyn seemed a better place to raise a child than Manhattan.

“Even the lesbians get pregnant in Park Slope,” our real estate agent had joked as she led us down a leafy avenue. A fleet of baby carriages seized the right-of-way like floats in a parade or a funeral procession. “All you have to do is touch a doorknob or sit on a toilet seat. I swear it’s in the water.”

It might as well have been true. There were pregnant women as far as the eye could see. Young and tattooed, graying and in clogs, fit and over thirty in T-shirts so tight you could see their belly buttons protruding like the stems of pumpkins. Only seconds after entering the room, they’d shuck off their coats and sweaters like strippers arriving late to a bachelor party, just in case you missed the fact that they were knocked up.

When we found a place after only a weekend of searching, it seemed like destiny. It was perfect. Our pine box house, we called it, because the only way we swore we’d ever leave it was in a coffin. We stood in the foyer, sunlight pouring through the windows, and gazed up at the high ceilings, the crown moldings, neither of us saying a word, like we were in a church. Standing in the kitchen, I imagined Douglas and the baby playing on the floor racing Matchbox cars while I tried to get a Thanksgiving turkey out of the oven.

There was a fireplace in the parlor. We’d sit in front of the fire and listen to music, play board games and let the baby cheat. When the baby got sleepy, it would put its head on the dog and use it as a pillow.

My husband stood in the bay window, gazing out like the captain of a ship plotting a new course. “We will put the piano here,” he said. “We’ll sit here together and I’ll plink his, its, fingers on the keys. All the classics. ‘Chopsticks.’ We’ll drive you nuts with ‘Heart and Soul.’”

“Why not start now, Dougie?” I pulled up my shirt and offered him my belly. “Play a few bars.”

He blushed. “Not here,” he said, and moved to the hall to admire the carved banister. In the hall was where I imagined teaching the baby to walk. Holding hands, I’d skate the baby down the hallway in socks.

I bought a new calendar. It seemed like bad luck to use the old one, so I’d thrown it out. I began taking my temperature and keeping track of the days. When it was time, I sidled up to my husband, who was hunched over a map of sewer lines with a ruler and pencil, and said, “Doctor’s orders,” in my best naughty-nurse voice. He blushed and kept his eyes fixed on the map. “Are you ready to explore Fertile Crescent?” I asked, wiggling my hips.

“Dear god, stop,” he said, exasperated, as though I was some sort of dim-witted sexual predator. Mortified, I dropped the act. “It’s time,” I said. He sighed, put down his pen—his fingers so blue with ink the tips looked frostbitten—and trudged into the bedroom.

“I’m sorry it’s such a chore,” I said, trying not to notice how he recoiled when I reached to unbutton his shirt.

“I’m tired, Kate. I’m sorry. This playground is one headache after another. Can’t you understand? I’m tired.”

Occasionally I’d try to trick Douglas into making love to me when I wasn’t ovulating. I was lonely. Sometimes it worked, other times he was less trusting. “Are you sure? Let me see the calendar.”

Adopting the dog wasn’t my idea. I always crossed the street when I saw the animal shelter people camped out on the sidewalk. The moment the grim-faced volunteer opened the cage, the fluffy dog burst out like a showgirl, like she’d been waiting her whole life for Douglas to show up and save her. He was smitten.

The woman, whose tan, heavily lined face suggested a lifetime spent in the sun smoking cigarettes, smiled knowingly. “Ah, that one,” she said, lighting a cigarette, “has a lot of love to give.”

My husband held the dog in front of him, making faces like he was trying to get it to laugh. He was undone. What a little cutie-pie. He couldn’t understand how anybody could abandon a dog like this.

He asked if she’d been abused. He’d heard stories of dogs adopted from the pound who one day are model dogs, then the next snap and bite the face off the baby.

“Well, do you have a child, sir?” she asked, like she was setting a trap. “Do you?”

He looked at the ground.

“Not yet,” my husband said, “but someday. Soon, hopefully.” He reached for my hand and squeezed it. He wanted that dog. The dog anyone would want. The one that would be the easiest to give away.

“Then no question. You picked the winner,” she said, exhaling smoke out her nose. “She’s the best one we’ve got.” The dog reclined in my husband’s arms, offering up her belly.

In order to give Douglas and the dog a moment alone, she turned to adjust the shelter’s banner. MEET YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND, it said, and underneath it in a handwritten scrawl, The life you save may be your own!

The cages on the bottom represented the bargain basement rack. In a corner cage was a reddish brown dog sitting with his back to the street. I didn’t walk around the cage because I was curious to see his face or wanted to look in his eyes. I didn’t. I was just stalling. Even so, as much as I fought it, I couldn’t help myself. He was an older dog, with a long, wedge-shaped head that made him look regal, proud. It made me mad that he wasn’t even trying to save himself.

“Go ahead. Pet him if you want. He won’t bite,” offered another volunteer, whose expression, despite her earnest smile, telegraphed a perpetual disappointment in the human race. She stared at me, then picked up a large plastic bottle filled with donated change and began shaking it like a melancholy maraca.

She was testing me. Daring me to prove that I wasn’t scared, or heartless. Which left me with no choice but to stick my hand in the cage. The moment I touched the dog he closed his eyes. Did closing his eyes mean he was happy, or that he didn’t want to get attached? All I knew was that suddenly adopting a dog—today! A dog! A dog off the street!—seemed the thing to do. It wasn’t crazy. People fell in love on the street all the time.

I gazed over at Douglas, who gave me a pleading look. You would have thought from the terrible expression of pain on his face when he handed the little dog back that the two had been physically attached.

“We’ll have to talk it over,” he said quietly.

“Don’t take too long. It’s August. Vacation time.” The overly tan woman snorted, exhaling smoke through her nose. “You’d be sick to your stomach if you knew how many people abandon their pets just so they can go to Disneyland or the Jersey Shore for two weeks without having to pay for a kennel. Let them out in the morning like it’s any normal day—then lock up the house and go. Dump them in a parking lot behind the supermarket. Drive twenty miles out of town and leave them in a field by the side of the road.”

“Don’t some of those dogs find their way back home?” I said. “You always hear stories—”

“Ha!” the smiling volunteer snapped. “I’d like to wring the neck of the bastard that made The Incredible Journey. That idea that if a pet is really loyal—”

“Let’s just say,” the raisin-faced woman interrupted, “that where we usually provide a two-week stay, we’re now offering a more limited time engagement.”

My husband rubbed my shoulders. He whispered in my ear that a dog would be good for us. It would take our minds off of things. We wanted a dog. We were dog people. We’d get pregnant again, and everybody knew it was bad to bring a baby into a house with a new dog, or vice versa. And didn’t we want two kids? If we were ever to have a dog, now would be the time to get it. And, he said, “we’d be saving a life.”

He said he didn’t care which dog we got. He just wanted one.

I looked in the cages. The red dog had turned around again. Like he’d gone back to his book. He was the one who wouldn’t beg, the one who thought his fate was sealed.

For days after, both my husband and the dog wore a look of surprise.

He’d never have had any life without us.

I wanted to name him Mojo. “That way,” I said, “if he ever gets lost, or runs away, we can say, We’ve lost our Mojo.

Douglas looked baffled. “Why would we lose him? Why would he run away?”

We compromised. Thelonious Mojo sounded soulful. It suited him. As did the red-and-black watch plaid dog bed I’d insisted we buy.

The evening we brought Thelonious home, Douglas took a picture of him curled up in his bed, a squeaky toy in the shape of a rolled-up newspaper at his feet, and e-mailed it to our parents and friends.

“Put down the date we adopted him, and his weight,” I said, half joking. “Which one of us do you think he resembles most?”

He ignored me and hit Send. “I think I should probably take him out for a walk,” Douglas said. I could tell he liked the sound of that.

“We’ll go together. As a family,” I said. “Baby’s first walk.”

Douglas clipped on the leash he’d spent more time shopping for than his last suit. In the park, he’d yielded the leash reluctantly. “I want a turn too, you know,” I said, tugging on it.

“It’s just the traffic,” he said, not letting go. “There is too much traffic. I’m concerned, that’s all. It’s hazardous. There should be another stoplight at the intersection.” Tomorrow at work he’d pull out the highway plans, run the statistics for vehicular manslaughter.

“Fine.” I let go. “You realize how silly this looks, us fighting over who gets to hold his leash?”

Douglas wrapped the leash around his wrist. If the dog took off, he’d amputate his hand. “I’m only thinking of his safety.” He frowned. “I’m a first-time father. Nervous.”

That night and every night afterward, the dog slept in the bed between us. If the dog wasn’t already on the bed, Douglas would go get him and put him right there. At first, I liked the novelty of the two of us getting into bed together at night. That hadn’t happened since the first years of our marriage. Even back then there were times when, five minutes after him, I’d slide between the sheets and he’d already be asleep, or faking it. When I’d started getting into bed before him, showered and perfumed, Douglas had started working late in front of the TV. Passing out on the couch, fully dressed, covered by a blanket of work sheets and building plans, like a homeless architect. Now we were getting into bed at the same time, but my husband was bringing his work, as well as the dog.

This would bother any wife. Since we were supposed to be trying to get pregnant, it really bothered me. Any time I sighed or rolled my eyes, he’d shoot me a look. “Is something wrong?” he’d ask, like he was calling my love for our dog into question.

“Does he have to lay right here between us?” I’d say. “I can’t even see you.”

“I can see you,” he’d say, scarcely looking up from the proposal he was drafting, most recently to build a dog run, complete with doggie water fountains, in Bed-Stuy. Who knew there was a woeful lack of places for the under-served canines of Bed-Stuy to exercise?

“You act like I’m not the one who chose him,” I’d remind him. “I picked him. You forget it was me who saved him from the gas chamber. If you’d had your way there’d be some floozy trophy dog in a sweater and rain boots in his place.”

He’d put his hand protectively on Thelonious. “I’ll turn out the light.”

There were times we’d be petting him together like concubines in a harem, our fingers would touch, and a charge would pass through me.

My mother called from Florida, where she was visiting my sister and her three children, to check in. “You sound depressed. I hope you’re not depressed. You know that there’s depression on your father’s side of the family,” my mother said, “and alcoholism. Are you taking vitamins?”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. “You always know what to say.”

Douglas didn’t have to tell me Thelonious hated it when we fought. In the beginning, as soon as he heard raised voices, he’d trot into the room, stare at us reproachfully, and my husband would start looking for the leash. “Thelonious has to pee,” he’d say, or “I didn’t walk him long enough earlier.” Then he’d head for the hills.

After a while, at the sound of yelling, the crash of a dish thrown on the floor, Thelonious would crawl under the sofa, or our bed, and hide. “Look what you did,” Douglas would say. “Are you happy now?” Then the dog wouldn’t come out until he gave him the all-clear sign.

After a fight, to make it up to him, I’d buy Thelonious a bone, some rawhide. I’d give him a full can of wet food and let him lick the inside of the bathtub after I got out of the shower.

My husband worried. If I behaved like this with a dog, how would I be with a baby? Being allowed to lick the inside of the bathtub wouldn’t comfort a baby.

We hadn’t been back to that Italian restaurant since the night we’d gone there to celebrate. It was an hour on the train from Brooklyn, but it was our anniversary, and we didn’t have a restaurant in Brooklyn that felt special yet. Douglas had been resistant until a friend of his from the dog run (father of Rudy, a Jack Russell Terrier and Thelonius’s supposed “best dog friend”) offered to take him for a few hours. According to Douglas, the two had hit it off immediately and now needed nothing more than a “There Goes a Squirrel” video and a box of Milk Bones to entertain themselves.

I’d been tempted to get stoned before dinner. The topper on an already stressful day was trying to calm my assistant, who—having discovered a picture of a Fudgie the Whale cake with his eyes blacked out and a slash through him in the break room—was certain her life was in danger.

I’d wanted to smoke, but I hadn’t because Douglas, who hadn’t gotten high since we started trying to get pregnant, wouldn’t have approved, and it was our anniversary.

I know neither of us imagined we’d see that waiter—the one who’d toasted our future, who’d shown us his kids—again. Douglas was poring over the wine list when I saw him across the room, waiting on another table. He recognized us. His face lit up, and he waved. Perhaps, his expression said, we had pictures? He mimed rocking a baby. I shook my head no. He was perplexed. Perhaps we’d left the baby at home? I made an exaggerated frowny face. He looked at me blankly. I gave him the thumbs-down. He still didn’t get it. I drew my finger across my throat. This time I saw it register in his eyes just before he turned away.

Another waiter came to take our order. I hadn’t imagined Douglas would mention we were celebrating, but I dared to hope that when the wine arrived we would make a toast to our anniversary. I was tired of always being the one to have to acknowledge such occasions.

“I’m sorry,” I said, cupping my hand around my ear. “Were you about to say something?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Is it cold in here?”

“No.” I vowed not to pick up my fork until he raised his glass.

He cut into his veal, took a sip of his wine.

I couldn’t stand it. “Shouldn’t we drink to us? It is our anniversary.”

“Yes. Of course,” he said courteously, touching the lip of his glass to mine.

Then: “How is work?”

“Work is fine,” I answered. Then he asked me if I enjoyed my meal. No. He did not like the wine. The conversation went on this way throughout dinner. It was as if neither of us was speaking in our native tongue, and lacking fluency in the language we shared, we’d resorted to talking about the weather, about food, about what time it was.

“Next time,” he said, signing the bill, “we’ll give that place on Fifth Avenue a shot. You know, there’s much better Italian in Brooklyn.”

“But,” I said, “this is our place.” He shrugged. My words echoing, like my husband was a large empty room.

I’d waited outside on the stoop while my husband went inside to get the dog. He hadn’t suggested I go with him and meet this new friend, and I wasn’t in the mood. I thought about the cuff links I’d given him as an anniversary gift. Each had a real piece of a New York City subway map preserved under glass. They were one of a kind. I thought about how he’d apologized for not having time to wrap the book of flower photographs he pulled out of the bag from the chain store he’d ducked into after work.

It was a small thing, small like a sliver of glass.

Thelonious, off the leash, trotted alongside Douglas the whole way home. Their strides were so perfectly synced—they could have been one organism. They always walked faster together than they did separately, and it annoyed me. I didn’t try to keep up with them. Soon they were half a block ahead of me, then a block. If Douglas and I got divorced, I’d want equal custody. He was insane if he thought I’d give him the dog.

In the way animals can sense when a storm is approaching, five minutes after we got home Thelonious took refuge under our bed. I said we should talk in the kitchen. I yelled at Douglas for not raising his glass first, never making the toast, ever. He didn’t love me. He couldn’t love me.

“You’re drunk,” he said disdainfully, frowning as I lit a joint off the gas burner of the stove. “Oh, that’s lovely, Kate. No, really. How perfect.” Wasn’t I supposed to be getting healthy, maximizing my chances—my chances, not our chances—of getting pregnant?

I imagined fetuses on a real estate tour trooping through prospective wombs, our potential baby knocking on my uterine wall, testing the foundation, gauging the ambience. The quality of life factor.

I took an extra-large hit and held my smoke.

The next morning, feeling lonelier than usual, I decided to ignore the invisible his/hers sign on our headboard, and nudging Thelonious out of bed, crossed over to my husband’s side. I examined the curve of his neck, the fine hair on his arms, his fingerprints. If the shape of a man’s fingers mimicked the shape of his penis, then did all piano players have long, rectangular penises? I couldn’t remember what Douglas’s penis looked like. Half asleep, I kissed him. He didn’t look worried or flinch. Half asleep, he kissed me back. I wondered if he was kissing in his dream, if he was turned on, and who my husband might be dreaming of. If only we were, both of us, always half asleep, I thought, we could grow old together.

That night all the lights, even Douglas’s reading lamp, were off when I got into bed. I’d assumed he was asleep or playing dead until he rolled toward me and put his hand on my waist. Thelonious jumped off the bed and left the bedroom.

See, his touch said, there’s no problem. Then, as though he’d been rehearsing, he said, “I want to make love to you.”

I was glad for the dark. We were awkward with each other. It was hard to find our rhythm. Apologies were exchanged. In the middle of it I thought, I wonder if this is the last time we’ll ever have sex.

After he came, he kissed me. The way gamblers kiss a poker chip for luck.

The next day he called me at work. “I have an idea,” he said. “I think we should get away. Go to the Cape. This weekend.”

“Now?” It would be Easter weekend.

“I know the plan wasn’t to go back until that second week in July, but”—he hesitated—“that doesn’t mean we can’t go now, right?”

“Sure,” I said. It would be better to go now anyway. Because you never knew with the beach. A hurricane could come and rip up the shoreline, flatten the clam bar, wipe out the cottages. Everything could get washed into the sea by the time July rolled around. Plus, we agreed, it was high time we took Thelonious to see the ocean. He’d love it. He’d romp in the waves, roll in the sand.

For three days we walked on the beach, watching like proud parents as Thelonious retrieved the tennis balls Douglas threw in the water and ate an old corn dog he found in the sand. All things a baby couldn’t do. He sat perfectly still and stared at the sea. He was such a dreamer, that dog. He trotted back to the blanket and lay down right beside the two of us.

We ate lobster rolls at our favorite shack along the beach highway. Knee to knee at one of the communal picnic tables, we listened to a lovesick cricket answer the chirp of a man’s cell phone—chirp, chirp, chirp. Our neighbors laughed.

At night in our cottage, in the dark, we had sex in a narrow bed and held each other. We wanted a baby. We were on vacation. This was what you did. We were following the instructions, checking off boxes.

We got up early while the sun was fighting to rise above the sea and walked the beach. I wished I had my camera to take a picture of the two of them, my boys, standing side by side looking out at the horizon, both so serious, like they were actually seeing something. They were looking at the future.

“What do you see out there?” Douglas sighed. “I think I can see the coast of England.” On the last morning, we all slept in. The weather had changed. By eleven o’clock, it was clear that the sun wasn’t going to make it out of bed and that, instead of warming up, it was getting colder. It looked like rain, and I was grateful. Bad weather always made ending a vacation a little easier. Even so, my husband suggested we take a walk. One last walk, he said. He clapped his hands for Thelonious to come, but the dog stayed put on the rug like he wanted us to have a private moment.

So the two of us set off alone. For some reason, Douglas took my hand, and so we walked that way, holding hands, going slowly, leaning into each other, the way people do when they’ve gotten bad news.

We didn’t talk at all. I laid my head on his shoulder. I thought, Is he thinking this is the last time we’ll come here? The last time I’ll look at this part of the ocean?

When we got back, Thelonious was asleep. He could barely bring himself to open his eyes. He had no interest in catching a Frisbee. He was ready to go.

While I was packing up the car, they took a last turn around the cottage to make sure we didn’t leave any CDs or sandals or dog toys behind. While I finished arranging the suitcases, Douglas gave Thelonious a pre-car-ride drink. Kneeling beside the dog, he rubbed his ears and stomach while Thelonious tried to drink from his bowl.

“Does he seem a little off to you?” he asked. “Maybe he’s homesick,” I said, “or, no, just a little tired.” My husband kissed him on the head.

“You’re the best boy in the world,” he said, refilling the water dish. “You know that? I love you. The best.”

Thelonious hadn’t shaken the bug he’d gotten at the Cape. However, like a child who doesn’t want to bother or worry his parents, he didn’t fuss. I should have known something was wrong when he started curling up at my feet at night, when he came over to me during dinner and put his head on my knee, right in front of Douglas. I should have known by the way he looked up at me like I’d understand.

I’d insisted on taking him to the vet.

“Why? He’s just a bit under the weather,” my husband said. “Maybe you two have the same thing.”

In the waiting room of the clinic, the shy dogs hid behind their owners’ legs, while the others, despite their owners’ begging, frisked about, jumping on strangers and wrestling like little kids. Thelonious sat patiently by my side. He was such a good boy. I couldn’t help feeling proud and a bit superior. I put my hand on his shoulder and felt it. The same thing I’d felt the first time I saw him. He was mine. I’d saved him.

The vet was an older man with an Irish accent, who wore his white doctor’s coat loosely over a country-doctor-style corduroy jacket and a thick fisherman’s sweater, as though he wished he were James Herriot delivering calves in the middle of the night.

The vet listened to Thelonious’s heart and lungs. “He’s been a little listless lately,” I offered.

“How long now?”

“Just a few days.” I couldn’t be sure.

“Any other symptoms?”

“Not that I know of.” He shined a flashlight in Thelonious’s eyes. I watched the dog’s pupils enlarge.

“Got any blood in the stool?” he asked, sticking the tongue depressor into Thelonious’s mouth. Both of us gagged.

“No blood,” I said.

The vet’s best guess was anemia. “You’ll be wanting to crush up the pills and hide them in his wet food,” he said.

I hated wet food, the smell, the sluice of it as it slid out of the can, it made me retch, but I’d try. Still, I told the vet, “Thelonious is too smart for that old trick. He’d never fall for it.”

The vet shook his head and assured me, “Canines are genetically wired to please their owners. It’s in their nature. If a dog trusts you, you can get away with anything.”

This was exactly why my husband had insisted I be the one to dose Thelonious’s Alpo.

“I’m sorry, but I could never do that to him.” Douglas winced and wrung his hands. “He’d know.”

It was just understood that I could betray that trust. I was the only one of us with a strong enough will to do what was needed. Thelonious would also need medication three times a day. Douglas left earlier and came home later from work than I did. Consistency was important. He wouldn’t want to inadvertently give Thelonious too much or too little. He wished he could work from home like I could, but he couldn’t. I was more than happy to stay home with him for a day or two. “Just until he’s back on his paws.”

While my husband was at work, Thelonious and I lay in bed spooning and watching reruns of cop shows from the days when they wore trench coats, smoked cigars, and had no time for dames. I’d gotten hooked on one where the murder victims narrate the bumbling attempts of detectives to solve their cases. They’d shout: Right there! The knife my wife is using to cut the kids’ peanut butter sandwiches! That’s the murder weapon! Or whisper: That lying, scheming bitch! There was something about having seen the victim’s body Swiss-cheesed by bullets, or blue in a bathtub with a toaster, that made the justice sweeter than usual.

Occasionally I’d get up to check the computer; I ignored the e-mails from work. The first time I vomited, Thelonious got out of bed and came to sit in the doorway of the bathroom like he was worried.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m just pregnant.”

I’d taken the test the night we’d come home from the vet. I knew even without the test, before I realized the similarity between a plus sign and crosshairs.

“But it’s a secret,” I said. “You can’t tell anyone.”

When Douglas came home early from work and saw us together in bed, it was his turn to look jealous. However, when Thelonious seemed too tuckered to lift his head for Douglas to scratch behind his ears, he looked worried.

“Has he been drinking, Kate? Have you been monitoring his hydration? Did you give him his pills? On schedule? Has he eaten anything? He has to eat, Kate. It’s imperative. If he doesn’t eat he can’t ingest the medication.” He got down on his haunches and looked into our dog’s eyes. “Does he look thin to you, Kate? He looks thin to me,” he said. “I’m worried.”

I heard him on the phone. “He doesn’t have the same pep. He’s an older dog—not old—but his energy . . . He’s a little thinner than usual, but he’s a thin dog . . .”

The vet was talking. “Really?” He sounded surprised. “No. Morning is good.”

This vet was younger, with a ponytail and a sunburned nose. She wore pearls. “Thelonious, that’s a pretty name,” she said, looking in his ears. “What do they call you, Thelonious?”

“Thelonious,” my husband said. She would have to take blood, and then X-rays. “He looks better, doesn’t he?” my husband asked as she disappeared into the back room to take the picture. I wished I could lie on that table alongside my dog. Crawl under that lead blanket.

Minutes later she returned with the results. She could tell we were the sort of people who would demand proof. This time, though, I didn’t need to look. My husband examined the X-rays blindly, nodding, even as the vet used the term “like hamburger,” as though the news—good or bad—depended on his reaction.

“I’m sorry,” the vet said, wiping at her eyes. “I’m new.”

“Are you sure?” my husband asked. She had a ponytail, for god’s sake. How could you take her seriously?

“It’s very clear,” the vet said, composing herself.

Douglas turned to me, helpless. “How could we have missed it?”

I wondered whether if we’d come sooner Thelonious might have been cured. I said we’d take him home. We’d wrap him up in his plaid blanket, take him home and make him comfortable.

“I can’t tell you what to do,” the vet said, “but you should know, he’s in a lot of pain.”

“I want to take him home,” my husband said. He couldn’t stand to let go.

Then the vet told us she’d never seen a dog as stoic as ours. “How did you do it, Thelonious?” she said, rubbing between his ears. “How long have you been walking around like this, huh?” Thelonious looked tiredly from me to my husband.

“It’s your choice. You can take him home,” she said. “He might live this way for weeks, a month perhaps, but . . .”

“He was a rescue dog,” I said.

“Take your time.”

For the second time ever I saw my husband cry. I took his hand, and we held each other for a long time before he hoisted himself to sit on the examination table. Gently, he lifted Thelonious’s head into his lap, stroking it while the vet readied the needles. They broke my heart. The first shot relaxed him. The second put him to sleep.

While he was still warm, I kissed my dog, and closed his eyes.

"A Dog Story" is from Elissa's Schappell's new collection, BLUEPRINTS FOR BUILDING BETTER GIRLS, published by Simon & Schuster. Order it now here.

Elissa Schappell is the author of
USE ME, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award, a New York Times Notable Book, and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. She is a contributing editor and the Hot Type book columnist at Vanity Fair, a former senior editor of The Paris Review, and a co-founder and now editor-at-large of Tin House magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her lovely family.

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