A Storyby Carol Dines
When they bought the dog, they were a different family. The family they would become was there, inside them, waiting to show itself the moment the daughter, about to turn ten at the end of the summer, would begin to see her parents as people who could fail her at various crucial moments in her life. But the parents didn’t know they would fail their daughter, and the daughter still felt safe, especially in the car, listening to her parents plan a dinner party.
“Why should we include them?” the mother asked. “We’ve had them twice, and we’ve never been to their house.”
“Maybe they don’t have parties,” her father replied.
“Maybe they don’t like us.”
They were driving south from Minneapolis on an empty four-lane highway, staring at farms, fields of ripe corn waiting to be harvested. It was late August, mist rising off the Mississippi. The family had just returned from two years in Paris. The father and daughter missed the excitement of living in a foreign city where everything felt new. The flatness of the Midwest resonated with the flatness they felt inside, coming home to the same neighborhood, same grocery store, same English language, flat and dull as the highway stretching before them. Only the wife was glad to be home. She was tired of feeling fat among the slender French women, tired of hanging laundry to dry, pushing jeans, T-shirts, nylons through wooden slats, pulling cords to raise the drying rack, socks on radiators, sheets over closet doors. She had learned not to complain about the small kitchen, thin walls, rats scurrying around dumpsters below their balcony, vibrations from the Métro waking them at night. The husband and daughter adored Paris and refused to hear anything bad about it. If the mother pointed out the Métro smelled of urine, they defended the uriney scent, saying Americans had a sanitized version of the world. Then they would find something to dislike about Minnesota. Gas-guzzling SUVs. Toothpicks after meals. Orange cheese.
The daughter had no idea they were going to pick up a puppy for her tenth birthday, a promise they’d made before going to France. The parents wanted to surprise her—a good breeder five hours away, a farming family in Marshall, Minnesota, who raised Standard Poodles, good family dogs. “My uncle left me some land.” The father liked to invent stories, this one about Jewish relatives who fled Russian pogroms and came to Minnesota to farm. “We’re going to look at it and decide if we want to keep it or sell it.”
The daughter was surprised to hear her father speak of relatives in southern Minnesota. He was from New York City, and he referred to Minnesota as Siberia.
“Combien de temps, Papa?”
“Deux heures, cherie. Calme-toi.”
The mother rolled her eyes. Left out of these conversations, she felt they were slightly incestuous, this bond of language that excluded her. The mother had tried to learn French, four years in college and then again at Centre de Langue Française, but when she practiced at home, the daughter and husband corrected her accent. “Pas comme ça,” her daughter repeated the correct pronunciation, delighting in her mother’s failures.
As they continued driving, the daughter stared at the fields of corn, wondering what it would be like to grow up on a farm, far away from other houses. Basically everything you believed could change according to where you lived. She felt it in her bones, and it made her slightly uncomfortable, as if everything were light enough to blow away. And maybe what didn’t blow away didn’t matter much either.
“Speed limit is seventy.” The mother glanced at the father. “Tired?”
“Sure? I can take over.” Two years before, he had fallen asleep at the wheel on their way to visit grandparents. Just in time, she liked to remind him, referring to that moment when she’d opened her eyes to see their car careening across the highway toward the ravine. Just in time for the father to grip the wheel and stop the car five feet from a cement drainage pipe. Even after the car had stopped moving, the mother kept screaming, “You almost killed us! You almost killed us!” That is what the daughter remembered best, not the father’s momentary lapse in consciousness but the mother’s shrill voice that wouldn’t stop.
She stared at the back of her mother’s head, brown frizzy curls tied back in a ponytail. The mother’s voice filled the car as she turned to look at the father. The mother’s voice filled up the car. “If she’s a vegan, I could make a vegetable curry with coconut milk.” Mouth-wrinkles pinching, unpinching. The daughter was glad she looked like her father—blue eyes and blond hair. The mother could talk about the smallest, most insignificant things—whether bagged carrots were chemically treated, how long eggs were safe, whether nail polish was toxic. She had this amazing ability to make a big deal out of everything. The daughter worried she would inherit this trait. She had huge feelings, feelings that moved inside her like birds crossing oceans, no land in sight. She sensed she was on the verge of understanding truths that would cause her pain, would make her angry, particularly at her mother, who, having had four miscarriages, loved her daughter with an urgency that confirmed the daughter’s importance in the family but also frightened the daughter with a sense of unending responsibility.
The mother reached back, touching the edge of the Band-Aid on the daughter’s skinned knee. “You should take the bandage off so it can air.”
The daughter left the bandage on. She began speaking French with her Barbies. She felt too old for dolls but not too old to design clothes, wraparound dresses cut from the mother’s old scarves. Je suis de Paris, the daughter strutted Barbie across her thigh. She was starting fifth grade in the fall. Having lived in another country, she felt smarter than the two Jessicas who lived down the block in Minneapolis. The two Jessicas had become best friends in her absence, calling each other Jess and Jessie to stay separate. Except they weren’t separate, not when the daughter was around them. She told them about France even though they didn’t ask. Cheese could be served for dessert. French bathrooms had two toilets. French ate horse and rabbit and eel, which is why she became vegetarian. French women wore high heels even with bathrobes. She told them about Madame Gonsalvez, the beautiful Portuguese concierge who lived on the first floor and wore high heels to mop the courtyard.
The father turned on the radio. They fell silent, the family, listening to Car Talk, Click and Clack talking to a woman whose husband had caught valley fever after buying a car that had been shipped from Arizona. Was it possible the car carried dust with valley fever? the woman wanted to know. The daughter noticed whenever the father laughed, the mother laughed too, as if she couldn’t let him laugh alone. The daughter saw things she hadn’t noticed before. She could hardly wait to be old enough to stay home alone.
When they arrived at the farm—gray prefab with aluminum siding surrounded by patchy yellow grass—the daughter stared at the rusted porch, gutter hanging from the roof, a child’s tricycle turned on its side. “C’est la maison, Papa?”
“Oui, c’est ça.”
Even before they climbed out of the car, they could hear dogs barking, and the door of the farmhouse opened. A heavyset woman in jeans and T-shirt carried out a black furry bundle and handed it to the daughter. “This one’s yours. She’s eight weeks old today. Just waking up.”
“We wanted to surprise you.” The mother stroked the puppy’s ears.
“She’s mine?” The daughter glanced between her parents.
The father put his arm around her shoulders. “You’ll have to walk her and learn how to take care of her.”
The daughter smiled at the puppy. “This is the happiest day of my life.” It was the only thing she could think of to say, and it sounded canned, and she knew it, and the parents knew it too, but they were still a family that could say canned things and feel the truth behind the words, that who they were together, no matter how fragile, was still as close as they would ever come to giving existence a center. But also, and this was something they would never have admitted to one another, each harbored a sense that a family of three was not a real family. A family of three lacked gravity. They imagined bigger families pulled together like metal to a magnet, filling kitchens and dens with laughter. They pictured big families as fun families. They could divide into teams, fill benches at swim meets, help each other with homework, dispel insecurities about familial traits—big ears, buck teeth, hair that would never lie flat.
They couldn’t have named the loneliness they sometimes felt with one another, the sense that who they were together wasn’t enough. But it was the same feeling every holiday, Easter or Passover, when the mother set the table with good dishes and silverware, and the three of them made an effort to have a real discussion about public education or media literacy or individualism versus collectivism.
Sometimes the father would arrive at the table in an old T-shirt and jeans, and the mother would say, “Why do I spend all day cooking?” And the father would say, “Why do you?” And the mother would say, “Families need rituals.” And the father would say, “I’m fine going out.” And the tension would remain until after the meal, when they went to a movie, which was actually their most consistent holiday ritual, and only then, among strangers more alone than they were, did they feel like a real family.
The family would not have admitted it to one another, but they all sensed they needed something else to love, something beyond themselves. They stood close, smiling at the small furry bundle curled in the daughter’s arms. The puppy yawned, blinking sleepy eyes.
Driving home, they stopped for gas in Corville and bought Subway sandwiches next door. The sun was warm, and they sat at a picnic table, the wind off the fields strong, blowing trash out of bins, cups and straws and sandwich wrappers flying across the highway. The family watched the puppy sniff their feet as they talked about names.
“Claire?” The daughter suggested the name of her best friend in Paris.
“Contessa,” the mother said. “And we could call her Tessa.”
“Remember what your bubbe called you?” the father said, smiling. “Sheynah meydeleh. Yiddish for ‘pretty little girl.’ ”
“Sheynah meydeleh.” The daughter made her choice.
In the first three years of the dog’s life, the family experienced smaller, less important deaths. The daughter’s grades, for instance, mobile pings kidnapping her attention, eyes focused on the screen, fingers clicking, glacial replies, “I am listening.”