You are on page 1of 32

The Dog Walker

Diana Altman

Diana Altman

There comes a time in an adventurous young woman‟s life when her age

makes her wince. She‟s too old for where she is. She thought marriage would blow

her way, inevitable as milkweed silk but she finds herself among the unchosen

though men on the street follow her with their eyes then touch the top of their

zippers to be sure they‟re all the way up. She peers into every passing pram, melts

at the sight of smocking in baby shop windows. She sleeps with her cat. Lying

awake at night eyes wide open in the dark she wonders if she‟ll be one of the barren,

one of the buds that never flower. Could Fate be so cruel? How do the other young

women do it? How do they get those rings on their fingers? How can they stand

those men they married? Some of her friends embarrass her the way they are with

their husbands. They seem diminished, tarnished, overly accommodating. Some of

them actually wash their husband‟s clothes, including underpants.

Now, seeing my own adventurous daughter slogging through this mire of self-

doubt, kissing her cat too much, I‟m reminded of myself so long ago when Love was

marching toward me but hadn‟t yet arrived.

My college classmates married immediately after graduation but six years

later I was hitchhiking around Great Britain with another unmarried school
teacher. The summer vacations were the reason I became a teacher. I‟d been to

Easter Island, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Greece, Turkey, and Europe.

After exploring Devon and Cornwall then paying homage to Wordsworth in

the Lake District, my friend and I returned to London. It was late August and time

to go home. She packed but I just couldn‟t. Everything inside had come to a halt.

Period. That‟s it. No more. I was like a creature that molts feathers or sheds

outgrown skin. I was in the grip of something. So I sold my airline ticket home,

wrote a letter of resignation to the principal of the school where I taught English,

and sent a letter to my boyfriend in Boston telling him that I intended to stay in

London. Before boarding her flight, my friend promised to sublet my apartment in

Harvard Square and tend to my cat. Then she was gone.

I found a rented room in a flat owned by Mrs. Webb, a twinkly old woman

whose mouth was on the side of her face. A stroke? In her ornate living room there

were bulbous sofas and armchairs, burgundy brocade wallpaper, velvet drapery

decorated with gold tassels. Oil paintings in frilly gold frames hung salon style up to

the ceiling. She must have once lived in a grand house.

The room she was renting had the leftovers, a lop-sided bureau, a single bed

with tall bedposts that probably once held a canopy and a rickety lady‟s desk. On

one wall was a large oil painting of a dreamy young woman with plump white arms

looking to heaven while holding a lyre and a scroll. A label on the frame read, “The

Muse.” Every morning when I sat down to write, I greeted the Muse and asked for
her help and appreciated the pitcher of water left for me by Mrs. Webb who took

seriously what I was trying to do.

At home in Cambridge if I announced that I wanted to quit teaching and

become a writer the response would be, “You and everyone else.” Or that cliché

sneer, “What are you going to do, write the great American novel?” It was a relief to

be in London where entire rooms at the Tate Gallery were devoted to portraits of

authors. I could take this chance, quit my job, because my father had died and left

me enough money to live modestly.

I knew nothing about freelancing. I didn‟t know you were supposed to query

editors to ask if they wanted the piece. I thought you wrote whatever you wanted

then tried to sell it. So I gave myself an assignment. I would write about the

International Sheep Dog Trials to be held in Scotland. For three days I watched

shepherds, reticent, soft-spoken men ruddy and wrinkled from sun and wind, send

their Border Collies into a field to herd sheep through gates and into pens. The

Duchess of Gloucester, a frail old woman, arrived in a black limousine and I was

escorted into her tent and introduced as an American journalist. We had an

excruciating few minutes together, not knowing what to say, she twirling her

wedding band round and round as my grandmother did when she was nervous; then

I was ushered out of her tent. I sat on wet benches in the drizzle and watched the

champion dogs drop to their bellies and paralyze the sheep with a beam from their

eyes, then release the sheep by looking away.
I was surprised to discover that I had nothing much to say about the

International Sheep Dog Trials. What was I thinking? Why did I imagine it would

be interesting? But real journalists have to write all the time about things that

don‟t interest them. So I hunkered down and wrote it this way and that way, the

basket next to my desk filling with crumpled paper. I wrote in my journal, answered

letters from friends, from my sister, from Grandma in Chicago. I sent letters to my

mother at various American Express offices as she traveled around the world. I

wrote to my boyfriend Martin but he did not reply.

Morning confinement done, almost wild with restlessness, I escaped to the

shops on the Kings Road where there were racks of granny skirts, bell bottom pant

suits, velvet jackets for men, and the music that surrounded me while I looked was

Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Let it Be, and Brown Eyed Girl.

Mrs. Webb made some suggestions, said I should describe the Duchess of

Gloucester as elderly rather than old. It was gratifying to see her laugh at the funny

parts. I sent the piece to the National Geographic.

Summer faded into autumn. I walked in Kensington Gardens, went to the

Tate to greet the William Blake paintings, visited the local music school library

where I took out Beethoven quartets and listened to them in a booth with earphones

on. I went to the movies, sat in the dark smoking Kents and tapping the ash in the

metal cup attached to the seat in front of me. I did not miss Harvard Square and I
didn‟t really miss my friends but sometimes there was an ache in my chest from


I phoned a friend of mine from home who was now living in London. I had

counted on Howie‟s companionship once I was settled in. He was my classmate at

graduate school, sat next to me in a class about operant conditioning. He made fun

of the subject by handing me a chocolate milk dud every time I took a note. He‟d

been fired from the high school where he taught because he couldn‟t control the

class and had been traveling around the world for the last year.

In an Indian restaurant, listlessly chewing Malai Kofta, he told me about his

search for a doctor who could diagnose the cause of the depression that had

immobilized him for the last several months. “She‟s the only one,” he said staring

too long at the basket of Chapatis, “who said, Drugs? I said yes in Katmandu. Hash.

She said maybe it will wear off and maybe it won‟t.” We became silent at the horror

of this possibility, the life-long regret. “Does it show?”

“Not really,” I lied noticing the white foam at the edges of his mouth from

tranquilizers. “Maybe a little sleepy.”

“Would you mind if I went home now?”

“No, Howie. Not at all.”

“Did you notice my shirt?”

“Yes. I like the bead work.”
“See you next week?” he asked taking much too long to stand up.

“Sure. See you here next week. Let‟s try the curry next time.” So I sat there

by myself sopping up sauce with rice then took the tube back to South Kensington

while chewing on some breath-freshening seeds scooped from a brass dish by the

entrance door.

The editor of the National Geographic wrote that he had just published a

piece about sheep dogs but thanks anyway. Please try again. I wondered what I

might do to earn some money while still guarding the mornings for writing. Dog

walking seemed a good idea. I tacked up posters and a woman with a shaky voice

phoned. She said that she couldn‟t afford the price on the poster. She was on the

dole. Her feet hurt and her dog hadn‟t been out in a fortnight. Would I lower the


Her name was not next to any of the buzzers in the lobby of her building. I

stood perplexed on the sidewalk until I noticed stairs going down from the sidewalk

to a basement corridor lit by a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling. At the far

end was a door. No bell, no knocker. I rapped with my fist which set off furious

barking. Then silence. I rapped again. Now the dog threw itself against the door,

whamp! I checked my watch. We had agreed on one o‟clock. I banged on the door as

if it was a kettle drum and the dog went wild barking and throwing itself against

the door. Then silence. Just as I turned to leave I heard the metallic jiggling of the

chain bolt. The door opened a crack. “Who‟s there?”
“It‟s the dog walker.”

Her response took as long as it might if my words were written and she had

to get her purse and fish out her glasses. At last she said, “Easy lad,” and opened

the door a crack. I squeezed through and she shut it fast and I found myself in the

pitch dark surrounded by unpleasant smells. I was trapped. The dog leaped up on

me again and again while I readjusted my balance and willed myself to stay calm.

Maybe this woman was blind and did not know it was dark. “Is there a light in


Her rusty voice said, “Next to the door.”

I felt along the wall and flicked the switch. I saw a brown mutt and an old

hag in a bathrobe with gray hair sticking up out of her head like sun rays. Her legs

were wrapped in bandages from the knees down and arthritis had twisted her

hands. Rags were wrapped around her feet instead of shoes. She squinted up at me

like a nocturnal creature called out at noon.

Newspapers yellow with age were piled in stacks as high as my waist. Some

newspapers had been spread on the floor and were stained yellow and had dried dog

poop on them. Empty jars and tin cans were strewn about. There were no windows.

Cobwebs hung in strands from the dingy pipes on the ceiling. Tufting oozed out of

holes in an upholstered armchair. A cot in the corner was a jumble of dirty blankets.
The dog was so excited it turned itself in circles and smacked its own face

with its wagging tail. “What‟s his name?” I asked trying to keep my expression

bland as if nothing here was surprising.

She kept peering up at me as if trying to figure out how all of a sudden a

person was in her home. Then she said, “Rupert,” rolling the „r‟ in a musical,

Scottish way. Rupert was a poet‟s name, a literary name, a name so romantic and

large it seemed to vibrate and I stood hushed as if dropped into a fairy tale. To

shake off the spell I spoke. “He looks like a Border Collie.” The only resemblance

was his alert face and feathery tail.

“Aye, that he does,” she said looking at me with a bit more trust. “He‟s a cross

between a Labrador and a retriever.”

She shuffled toward a table heaped with clutter to get a collar and leash. She

touched her feet to the floor in a tentative way because they hurt. Her hands were

so twisted and Rupert‟s leaps were so elastic she couldn‟t get the collar on him.

Rupert was acting as if he‟d just won the sweepstakes. Would I be calling attention

to her infirmity if I offered to do the collar for her? On the other hand, this was

taking too long so I held my hand out softly and she gave me the collar. Rupert was

made out of lightening bolts but I got him buckled, at last. When Miss Gruffin

opened the door, she said, “Now don‟t knock the lady over, Rupert.”

Rupert charged down the corridor, up the basement stairs, out into the bright

day. He paused to blink then galloped off pulling me behind him, my leash arm
straight out. We darted between pedestrians on the sidewalk all minding their own

business until they had to step out of the way fast. I yanked but it made no

difference. I was on a runaway horse. Up ahead was a little girl looking in a store

window. Rupert charged toward her with a ferocious roar. I yanked and yanked as

the girl‟s mother stood rooted in astonishment then scooped the child up. Rupert

lunged again, the child screamed, the mother‟s eyes widened at me but there was no

time to apologize. We tornadoed toward another child who screamed as Rupert

barked into his face. Pedestrians turned to stare. On we went toward a dog heeling

politely next to its owner. Rupert shrieked at the dog, the dog snarled, the owner

kept saying, “I say, I say,” as I disentangled our leashes. I was bombarded by the

scorn of strangers.

Suddenly, Rupert dropped to his belly and shot his eyebeam at a fire hydrant.

He crept closer paralyzing it with his gaze. I was torn between laughing at him and

feeling sorry for him. Here was a dog eager to work but living in a basement like a

prisoner. My heart went out to him. “Rupert, that‟s not a sheep. You can‟t herd that

thing.” He slunk over to it, sniffed, then peed on it.

Off we raced gaining on a stylish young woman with an Afghan hound

prancing at her heel. The dog‟s silky hair swayed like palm fronds next to her high

heeled boots. I was in jeans and a black tee shirt, no make up, hair pulled back

carelessly in a ponytail that had come loose. I imagined the attack, the scramble,

the humiliation. But instead of attacking when we got close Rupert dropped to his

belly and crept along fixing the dog with his eye. I tried to yank him up but he just
kept sneaking along lifting each foot slowly. Feeling as if someone was following

her, the young woman checked over her shoulder and saw Rupert slinking behind

her. She was about my age. Surely she would see the humor in Rupert‟s breeding

coming out all wrong like this. But when her eyes met mine they overflowed with

contempt. What was I doing to myself? Why couldn‟t I be like her, settled, married,

prosperous? She got rid of us by ducking into a store.

“Was Rupert a good lad then?” Miss Gruffin had dressed up for me in a blue,

wrinkled dress and the light was on.

“Well, he‟s sort of strong.”

“Aye,” she said. “He‟s always been a good healthy pup.” Rupert slapped her

bandaged leg with his wagging tail. “Is it an American lass you are then?”

We examined each other for a brief, shy second. “Yes.” I wasn‟t sure how I felt

about being befriended by this person.

“So far from home?”

“Yes. I guess I am.”

When she snapped open her coin purse time took on a suspended, silvery

quality. Here was a test. Could I take money from someone on welfare? If I didn‟t

accept her coins she‟d know her life seemed squalid. And how could she depend

upon her dog being walked if she did not pay for it? “It‟s four shillings,” I said,
reminding her of the amount we‟d agreed upon on the phone. Miss Gruffin placed

the coins in my hand and it felt like a kiss.

At one o‟clock the next day I didn‟t have to wait at the door. It opened right

away, the light was on, Miss Gruffin was in her dress and Rupert leaped up on me

again and again then spun around in tight circles whining with joy. I snapped on

his collar and we bounded down the corridor, up the stairs and out onto the street.

He stopped long enough to leave a steaming pile at the entrance of a store and I

pretended not to notice as he dragged me away. He barked at all the children and

all the dogs so I steered him to the park where he raced along so fast my arm ached.

“And how was the lad today?” Miss Gruffin asked.

I felt like saying he ought to be put down. There‟s no amount of money you

could give me to make this worth it. But I said, “Well, he‟s pretty strong.”

“Aye. He comes from good stock.” Before she set her coins in my palm she

said, “And are you all alone so far away from your home?” She was small, almost a

gnome and everything about her could be seen as frayed, disheveled, in need of

repair, except the look in her eyes and that was steady and deep and fearless. Here

was one of those instances where one soul was extending its hand to another and all

the trappings were irrelevant. This had happened to me before but only in the

realm of age, once with a friend‟s old mother and a few times with small children

who talked to me person to person and when we laughed I thought, look at this, I‟m

laughing my head off with someone who‟s nine. “Yes. I came here with my friend
but she went home to Boston. We were only supposed to stay for the summer but I

just couldn‟t go back.”

She did not understand that I was talking about something internal. “Aye,

„tis lovely here in London.”

“Are you from here?”

“I grew tired of living in the country,” she said. “My sister, now she‟s still

there in her house in Argyleshire.”

“I was just in Argyleshire. I went to the International Sheep Dog Trials.”

“My sister, now she‟s house proud. I‟m not house proud.”

This apology went right to my heart so all that came out was, “Oh. Okay. See

you tomorrow. Bye Rupert.” He smiled but didn‟t come toward me, stood next to

Miss Gruffin as the host at a party might stand next to the hostess, wagged his tail

once like the goodbye wave of a human hand, and I went out confused. Wait a

minute. Were these my new friends? Had it come to this?

Every day I went to Miss Gruffin, took Rupert out, and ran along after him

yanking on his impervious neck when he lunged at another dog. Every day my

shoulder ached and I wondered why I was bothering with this ridiculous job that

paid me about a dollar a week. One day my patience snapped and I let him off the

leash rehearsing an apology to Miss Gruffin, “I‟m so sorry but Rupert ran away. I

never should have let him off the leash.” Rupert stood there as if amazed while I sat
on a bench and opened Daniel Deronda. Rupert began to run in wide circles around

my bench, ran so fast his ears flattened, around and around like an out-of-control

merry-go-round then he bounded away and I wouldn‟t have cared except he was

heading straight for a little mop of a dog in the distance, also not on a leash. I

leaped from the bench and ran toward the owner who was about to find herself with

a pile of bloody white fur. Rupert braked in front of the little dog. They sniffed each

other and then bounced up and down together. The owner and I exchanged a fond

smile as if these were our children. I went back to the bench and continued to read.

When the hour was up I called Rupert and in an instant he was there in front of me.

He sat there smiling as I snapped on his leash. “Rupert,” I said and for the first

time I caressed him. “You were lonely. You were just lonely.”

Rupert became calmer, no longer hauled me up the basement stairs. We

walked briskly to the park where he was popular. He met the same friends every

day, played chasing games with them. I sat on a bench reading like a nursemaid

and when the hour was over Rupert returned without my having to call him as if he

was wearing a watch. Sometimes I leaned forward and put my hands on his

shoulders and we remained cheek to cheek while I imbibed his trigger-happy,

cheerful personality. How Miss Gruffin kept him so clean, I have no idea. I bought a

dog brush and sometimes, after his romp was finished, he let me groom him and he

seemed to like the feeling of the brush and the smoothing of my hand.

One day someone else phoned about dog walking and invited me to meet

Treacle, a tri-colored Sheltie. I examined the buzzers in the lobby of a dressy
apartment building and took the elevator up to the penthouse. A smartly dressed

woman about my age opened the front door to a spacious apartment with walls of

windows showing views of London all the way to the Thames. In the living room,

guests in chic clothes sat on modern chairs and sofas holding cocktail glasses. I

could be friends with these people. They would see through my disguise. They‟d see

at a glance that my jeans and black turtleneck were not all there was, that the real

me had drawers full of cashmere sweaters and a boyfriend who was a prominent

physician. One day we‟d all laugh about how we met, how I showed up at the door

pretending to be an uneducated dog walker. The guests gave me an indifferent

glance and went on with their conversation. The hostess stopped me dead with a

look that said I was to remain in the foyer like a person delivering dry cleaning. She

hooked a leash on the collar of a Sheltie that waited politely. She handed me the

leash, then closed the door behind me saying, “Thanks awfully.”

The dog sat while we waited for the elevator then trotted at my heel as we

crossed the lobby and went out onto the street. He was perfectly behaved like a

robot dog, did not look at me or share his personality in any way. Pedestrians

thought he was adorable, asked me how long I‟d had him, told me about Shelties

they knew. A tide of love flowed toward my shin as I walked with Treacle on the

sidewalk. He kept time with me perfectly, the leash never getting too tight or too

slack, so I could enjoy my own stride and I soon found myself in a tidy residential

neighborhood with houses set back from the road and cars in driveways. It was

evening and everyone was home from work settling down for the night. A light came
on in a downstairs room. Then a light came on upstairs in another house. More

lights came on. Those illuminated windows gave each house a picturesque coziness.

I was filled with longing. I envied the people behind those windows, wondered how

they managed to get all that domestic bliss for themselves. This was a moment to

mark. Drunks are warned by DT‟s, but I had this moment of walking on the

sidewalk with a strange dog at dusk as lights came on in the houses and knew I‟d

let things go too far.

When I returned Treacle, his owner paid me the correct amount then fished

in her purse for a tip. “No!” I said. Couldn‟t she see that I wasn‟t really a dog

walker? Couldn‟t she see my grandmother saying, “Tips? Take tips?” horrified when

I announced my intention to work as a waitress one summer. My grandmother, who

lived in a penthouse in Chicago, said tips as if it meant sewage. Treacle‟s owner

held the coins toward me in an insistent way so I took them and slunk back to Mrs.

Webb‟s where I sat on the sofa in her living room turning the pages of her theater

scrapbook examining press clippings from the days when she was a set designer. As

if she could read my mind she said, “My dear. Why not tell them that you‟re a

writer, that you take walks anyway?”

I phoned Martin and reversed the charges so they wouldn‟t show up on Mrs.

Webb‟s bill. When I heard him say, “Hello?” my heart jumped and when the

overseas operator asked if he would accept the charges from me there was a long

silence and I knew he wasn‟t debating about paying for the call but was recovering
from surprise. His “Yes” was tentative, suspicious. “I have your party on the line,”

the operator said to me, “go ahead please.”


I thought he couldn‟t hear me way over there across the ocean because it took

so long for him to reply. “I‟m surprised.”


“Why? You left.”

“I know.”

“Are you ever coming home?”

“I don‟t know.”

“Do you need anything? Money?”


“What are you living on?”


“But it doesn‟t make any sense to use up your savings. And you quit your job.

What are you going to do when you come back? They‟re not going to re-hire you

after leaving them in the lurch.”

“I don‟t want them to re-hire me.”
“You gave no warning.”

“I know. Did you talk to Nancy?”

“She said she sublet your apartment.” There was another long silence. “I

don‟t understand you.”

“Me either.”

“I can appreciate that you have some things you‟re working out. I can

appreciate that. But what about your children‟s book? That editor at Houghton

Mifflin said she wanted to see it. I thought you were going to send it to her. Can you

just leave a project like that in the middle? I don‟t understand.”

“I can‟t explain, Martin.”

“You left me.”

“I know.”

“It‟s lonely. I might as well be sleeping at the lab.”

“I don‟t think George would be too happy about that. He‟d have to share his

cot with you.”

“Not his lab.”

“Not his lab? Whose lab?” He didn‟t reply. “You mean got the grant? The

Kripke Foundation grant?”
“More than I asked for.”

“Are you kidding? Martin! That‟s fabulous! More than you asked for? I can‟t

believe it!”

“Enough to hire an assistant.”

“Oh my God, Martin! I can‟t believe it! This is too wonderful! When did you


“A couple of weeks ago.”

“That is too wonderful. Your own lab. And what happened with the


“I‟m speaking.”

“They accepted your paper?”

“Featured speaker.”

“Martin! Featured speaker! That is great! Holy mackerel. And what about the

New England Journal of Medicine paper?”

“Accepted. March issue.”

“Oh my God. Martin this is great. Has Harvard weighed in?”

“No, but they will. They can‟t refuse me the professorship if I get the

MacArthur.” We sat in silence for a minute. “You sound good. Have you worked out

what you needed to work out?”
“I don‟t know.”

“It‟s not like you couldn‟t write here. You wrote all the time here.”

“Martin, my life doesn‟t bear scrutiny.”

He laughed. “Join the club.”

“You sound like you‟re in the next room.”

“You too.”

“This is costing you a fortune.”

“I know.”

“We should probably hang up.”

“Just tell me what I should expect. Are you going to come home?”




“I have to eat by myself all the time.”

“You aren‟t taking out anyone else?”

“No one who matters. I have to eat anyway.” I had forgotten that Martin‟s

idea of courting was taking a woman to a restaurant which wasn‟t a waste of time
since he had to eat anyway. “Why are you up at one in the morning?” This, too, was

Martinish, to know the time difference. “Are you having trouble sleeping?”


“Drinking a lot of coffee?”

“Not too much.”



“Here‟s my prescription. Get an airline ticket and come home.”

The next day I was lighthearted and decided that I‟d embrace the vocation of

dog walking and turn it into a money maker. I would walk several dogs at once and

make each hour profitable. First I would combine Treacle and Rupert for increased

efficiency and then I‟d advertise for new clients.

I changed Rupert‟s appointment to a later hour and went to pick up Treacle

with Rupert trotting by my side. I attached Rupert‟s leash to the leg of a table in the

lobby, took the elevator up, got Treacle and came down. Until I saw the hair rise up

on both those dogs, until I heard the guttural threat of those growls, until I saw

those lips turned backwards and those fangs exposed, I didn‟t really know what

beast means. All those lessons in heeling, in sitting, staying, waiting for the kibble,

all of that fell from Treacle as he lunged at Rupert yanking the leash out of my

hand and Rupert, tied to the table, could not get away. He shrieked in surprise and
fury as Treacle snapped at him with his fangs. The sound was huge, terrifying, an

eruption of pure violence. Heart in my throat, I rushed into the fray, grabbed

Treacle‟s leash and hauled him away into the elevator and told his owner I‟d be

back later, didn‟t wait to hear her response, ran to the elevator, pushed the button,

ran to Rupert whose breath was coming so fast it squeaked. I unknotted his leash.

He would not look at me. We walked outside. Anyone who has lived with cats knows

that animals turn their backs on you. Rupert had his back turned though he was

next to me. “I‟m sorry,” I said down to him. “I didn‟t know that dog was like that.”

We walked in icy silence. “Rupert,” I said. He would not look at me. “You don‟t think

I like that dog better than you, do you?” He peeked at me from the edge of his eye. “I

don‟t like that dog, Rupert. I don‟t even know that dog. I could never like him better

than you.” Rupert turned his head slightly and peeked at me again. “I like you

much better. A million times better.” He stopped and looked at me from the top of

his eyes. “A million times better.” He gave his tail one thump. “Oh, Rupert,” I said

and bent down and we had a long hug before we went to the park.

I took off his leash and he dashed away to find his friends but the hour was

different. He raced back as if to ask me where his friends were, raced away, came

back. There were no other dogs. Not one. Rupert continued searching then came to

where I was sitting and sat down in front of me. Like a wolf he raised his chin to the

December sky, made his mouth into an „o‟ and howled with grief. It was the loneliest

sound I‟d ever heard. He did it again and I knew that it was not healthy for me to

understand that sound so thoroughly.
“I‟m thinking maybe it might be time for me to go home,” I said to Miss


“Aye, Lass. You‟ll be leaving then?”

I bought an airline ticket to Boston, disengaged from walking Treacle, and

two weeks later had my last walk with Rupert. He seemed to know my plans

because when I bent down to take off his collar he grabbed me around the waist and

began humping me. I let him do that for a while, express himself in that masculine

way, then I said goodbye.

The day before I departed I was walking on the Fulham Road and saw Miss

Gruffin shuffling along carrying a bag of groceries. To strangers she was just

another bag lady wrapped in filthy shawls, soot in the crevices of her wrinkles, a

moth-eaten scarf tied around her head, the kind of underground person made

picturesque by Dickens. Rags were wrapped around her feet and I wondered what

she was going to do now that I couldn‟t help her with Rupert. “Miss Gruffin?” I said.

“Should we have a cup of tea? Will you be my guest?”

We sat together at a table in one of the nearby restaurants, the waiters

hovering in case I needed help getting away. I felt proud to be sitting in public with

Miss Gruffin, superior in my understanding that all is not as it appears. It was

rebellious to bring her among the well-heeled patrons of that place who tried not to

stare. Perhaps my mind had become more open and I wondered if this would stick

when I returned to Harvard Square. We sipped our tea, lit up a cigarette, and sat
there in silence while I wondered if I‟d made a mistake. What could we possibly talk

about? What was I thinking? “Every day, Lass, at one o‟clock he goes to the door

and waits for you. Exactly at one o‟clock.”

I could imagine him there waiting, turning to look at her, waiting some

more, going to the table where she kept his collar, going back to the door, sitting

there listening for my footsteps.

“Sits there facing the door.”

I sighed so she‟d know I was sorry but in truth I didn‟t miss him or her

either. I wanted to go home. I was done with it here. I was in the habit now of

writing every morning and I‟d continue at home, work on the novel I‟d started, send

my children‟s book around to publishers. I wanted to go home to Martin and my

apartment and my cat and my friends and Cambridge where I knew every street

and my landlady who said I was like a daughter to her as an excuse for never fixing

anything. “Rupert can tell time,” I said.


“Do you know how I know that?” A waiter came to the table and stood there

poised to take away Miss Guffin‟s tea cup. “We‟re not finished yet,” I said and he

backed off. “I know because I let him off the leash. I shouldn‟t have done that, but I

did. I let him off and he ran around the park and played with other dogs and exactly

when it was time to go home he came back to me and sat right in front of me so I

could hook on his leash.”
“Aye. He‟s full of brains.”

“I could write to you.”

She either didn‟t hear me or was pretending she didn‟t. After a while she

said, “In a raid do not rush, take cover quietly, then others will do the same. If we

see a light we shout Put that light out! Or Cover that window!”

“Were you hurt during the blitz?” I asked.

“Aye. I became tired.” We sipped tea and took bites of some sugar cookies that

came along with the tea. She said nothing more, just sank down into herself and I

wondered if I‟d have trouble getting her out of there. We finished the tea and the

second we got up the waiters swooped down to clear away.

“I‟ll write to you,” I said when we reached her corner. “Would you like to

have the rest of these cigarettes? I don‟t think I‟m going to smoke any more of

them.” When I handed her the pack she put it in her grocery bag and shuffled away

without looking back even though I stood there on the crowded sidewalk waiting to

wave goodbye.

In the ladies room at Logan Airport in Boston, I tried to make myself

presentable for Martin who said he would meet me at baggage claim. I took off stale

traveling clothes and changed into one of my new outfits. I brushed my teeth, pulled

my hair back into a ponytail, leaned in close to the mirror to draw on eye liner, used
lipstick for the first time in months, squirted a spray of perfume toward the ceiling

and stood under it so the drops could shower down on me.

I searched in the crowd at baggage claim, checked my watch, searched again.

No matter, my bag hadn‟t arrived yet. Then the bags did come out and none of them

were mine and then one of them was mine so I yanked it off the carousel and stood

there waiting. People arrived, found their passengers and departed pushing luggage

carts. A half hour later I was the only one standing next to an empty carousel.

Maybe he was stuck in traffic. It took me an hour to realize he wasn‟t coming to get

me. Some emergency must have kept him at the hospital.

I took a cab to his apartment, went up in the elevator up, rang his bell, and

there he was in his chinos, loafers, and blue oxford shirt, a handsome, serious man

with slightly rounded shoulders and a gaze that was sexually modest. I‟d

interrupted him. His dining table was cluttered with pens, papers and open books.

“I thought you were going to meet me,” I said. “I waited there like an idiot.” He said

nothing. “You said you would meet me. You said it. I didn‟t say it. You said it.” My

stomach began to roil and my heart sank as I thought, why did I come back? How

typical of Martin to provoke me this way. “Do you want me to be here or not?” I said.

I saw that familiar flick of satisfaction in his eyes when my voice became


He stepped back to make room for me to pass into his apartment. Now I

remembered how much I did not like his bland apartment, everything chosen by a
decorator so as not to offend, nothing that revealed anything about Martin except

the large television and the wall of stereo components with speakers so much better

than mine. We stood looking at each other. “You have to give me time,” he said. I

put down my suitcase and walked toward him and we had a long hug. My body was

used to his body, the way we fit together, his smell, a distant whiff of Dial soap.

“Do you want me to stay here or not?”

The phone rang and he went into his bedroom to answer. I sank down on the

sofa and strained to hear his conversation. It was a woman and he was making

arrangements with her, deciding on a time and restaurant. When he returned to the

living room I said, “Martin, you‟re the one who suggested I stay here. I told you the

person subletting my apartment can‟t be out until Tuesday and you said to stay

here. You said it. I didn‟t say it.”

“I can‟t handle this right now,” he said.

Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with anger and I flew at him with my fists. He

shrank back trying to get rid of me and I hit him again and again in a blind rage,

out of mind, until he managed to grab my hands and push me back and then I came

to and stood there dazed as if coming up from a seizure, my breath coming in deep,

shaky trembles. “That shows you love me,” he said and he took me in his arms and I

stayed there that night listening to Brahms with his expensive earphones clamped

on while he worked on his paper and when I woke up he was already gone to the
hospital and I wasn‟t sure what to do, whether I should stay with him for two more

nights or stay with a girlfriend and I chose him.

Back in my own apartment, reunited with my cat, able to listen full blast to

my own records, I worked on a novel and sent stories off to various literary

magazines. On week nights I saw my friends all the while wondering about flying at

Martin that way. It seemed to have bothered me more than it did him. It seemed

like the worst moment of my life, being out of my mind like that.

“You‟re always so impressed by people,” my friend Joe said to me one night as

we passed a joint back and forth and watched the sky turn rosy with dawn while

sitting on my back porch. “Why are you always so impressed.”

“Aren‟t you impressed by people?”

“No,” he said. “It‟s the relationship that matters.” I thought he was saying

this because he wanted me to break up with Martin and be his girlfriend. But how

could I be his girlfriend? He was a poet who lost every job. He didn‟t know how to

drive a car but managed to get hold of one and showed up to take me for a drive

that began by backing hard into the car behind us. He drank too much and when we

went to bookstores he slipped a book into the pocket of his greatcoat. Yet I loved

being with him. I had never stayed up late talking to Martin, seldom laughed with

him, never admired the way he danced, certainly never wrote stories me doing one

paragraph him doing the next, never took walks in the snow, never called him up

crying because the heroine in the Mill on the Floss died in the end. Friends were
one thing, husbands quite another. I never mixed Martin in with my friends. Martin

made them all seem silly. They thought they had “potential” and imagined that one

day they would get tired of sitting at the cafes in Harvard Square and they would

write that novel or that piece of music or that book of poems. Martin was actually

saving people. He cared for nothing but his work and this seemed right to me. My

mother described him as “a prize.” I had heard all my life the wisdom passed from

Grandma to my mother: “A man who only has you on his mind, doesn‟t have much

on his mind.”

I found my old sketch pad and tried to draw my cat curled with her paw over

her face. The result was surprising because I used to know how to draw. I‟d let

myself become too rusty so I decided to take a night-time drawing class at the

Boston Museum School. Standing behind me in line to register was a curly haired

young man, a teddy bear person who made me laugh. When the class began we sat

next to each other. On a raised platform at the front of the room a model posed

naked. The teacher, a young woman with silky straight hair, told us to view the

female body as we might an eggplant, as shadows and shapes. I wondered what

kind of girl would take off her clothes and show absolutely everything to a room full

of strangers. The only sound in the room was charcoal scraping over paper. The

atmosphere was absolutely serious.

At the break I went downstairs to the store to buy an eraser. I was still

worried about my fight with Martin, how savage I‟d been. I paid for the eraser and

walked down the corridor to the classroom. Suddenly, I had an epiphany. Martin
always made me angry, always made me jealous, and always disappointed me. This,

I suddenly knew, was how I felt as a child. I was always jealous of my sister, always

disappointed by my father, and always furious at my mother. I was in the habit of

being angry, jealous, and disappointed. It was a habit and that‟s why Martin felt

like home. It was a habit like nail biting and I could choose not to have it. I could

choose to stop it. This insight was so blinding that if I was a bible-believing person

I‟d say I had a visitation. These words formed in my head, “I will only be with men

who make me happy.” Up until this second I thought that if I could only be different

I could be happy. But now it was clear. The different I had to be was that I had to be

a person who avoids people who made them unhappy. Being single was not the

worst thing. I would be single for the rest of my life rather than continue in the

habit of being with people who upset me. When I got home that night I phoned

Martin and said we were finished. He called the next day to ask if I felt better and I

repeated my decision. It was over.

The third week of drawing class the teacher went from desk to desk offering

advice. The teacher said I should fill up the whole page, use bigger gestures. What

she said seemed profound, a metaphor for having the nerve to fill up my life. I sat

there thinking about my pinched little drawing, how it would take courage to draw

larger. In an absent way I watched the teacher as she moved from desk to desk. On

the other side of the room was a young man who was so tall his legs leaked out in

the aisle. When the teacher leaned down to examine his drawing her hair swung

around and I was stabbed with jealousy. It was as if a dagger went into my heart. I
thought, “Get away from him! How dare you take advantage of your position as

teacher to flirt with him. Get away.” How odd! I‟d never seen that man before.

At the break, when people were out of the classroom, I pretended to be

interested in everyone‟s drawing but really wanted to see his. His was the best. The

figure filled the page, the lines clear and confident. He‟d drawn the nipples in an

unusual way. They were little structures. His page was bursting with personality. I

went out into the hall. His walk was graceful, undulating. His hair was shiny and

clean, sandy-colored, parted on one side and hanging over one eye. He smiled down

at me and said, “Hello.”

I said, “Do you see the model as shapes?”

He said, “I try to.”

Why was I smiling so much? I couldn‟t stop smiling. I said, “I just see her as

an exhibitionist. You‟re a good drawer.”

“Thank you.”

“Are you an artist?”

“Yes,” he said. He kept looking at me and looking at me. “What do you do?”

“I‟m a writer.”

“Ever have anything published?”
“No,” I said. “Boo hoo,” and I put my forehead on his chest. I touched my

forehead to the chest of a complete stranger and got a whiff of him that made my

knees weak. Then I had to step back and be embarrassed.

Later, when we reviewed our first impressions, rubbing the moments over

and over to bring out the shine, he said that when he saw me across the room

laughing with the teddy bear man he thought, “Why are you wasting your time with

him? He‟s not for you.”

©Diana Altman