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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt.

8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Sick as Dogs

I was sick. Bad enough. But life is never quite so crappy as when I’m sick and alone. I had to warm my own soup on the stove and boil my own water for tea, my floppy, duck-hunting hat jammed on my head because it marginally soothed me. And since there was no one else, now I had to walk the dog. It was hot in the apartment, making it uncomfortable to bundle up. By the time I'd put on jeans over sweats over thermals, a sweater over a flannel over a T-shirt, a wool cap under my duck hat, wool socks, a scarf, and my pea coat, I was slimy with sweat. I would have liked to have turned off the radiators and let the place absorb heat from neighboring apartments; unfortunately all the old women living above and below me and all along the floor had the same idea. Maybe all the old women in the building. I had the feeling that my radiators were the only ones on, the steam from the massive boiler forced through only my pipes.

It was late winter, old street sand crusting the sidewalk. The wind on my sweaty face hurt. I wrapped my scarf around my mouth and nose and tucked it under my hat. Georgia didn't seem to care much—or even have noticed much—that I was sick. She pulled in little arcs at the farthest distance her leash allowed, and I decided to take her to the dog run even

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

though I hate its forced sociability. I didn't have the energy to walk her tired and if I didn't wear her out she'd annoy me all day. But there were no other dogs when I got there. I checked the time: 9:30. Must be after the pre-work walks but before the professional dog-walker walks. I unhooked Georgia's leash and she took off, trying to sniff every dusty yard of the place. People like to imagine their dogs are just curious about smells, but I can’t put out of my mind that dogs mainly scent-mark for territorial reasons. It makes me feel a little bad about coming back to the city, where Georgia can’t possibly mark out her range. Any mark she tries to make is covered the next day by the urine of twenty other dogs. In her mind the dog run must tell of an overwhelming pack milling in a tiny cage, without sense or self-respect. Finally she picked a spot, squatted and began to strain. I sat down on a bench and blew my nose. I should have brought tea. On top of everything else I was getting a headache from missing my morning caffeine. When Georgia was finished I hauled myself to my feet, bagged her shit and threw it out. An old man came in with a dog about half Georgia's size, some kind of terrier, fat. It waddled in straight lines, turning only when it had to, and Georgia followed close, her nose glued to its rear. The man sat next to me. He had that sour look an old man gets when his nose grows too big and the loose skin of his jowls draws his mouth into a permanent frown. "Usually have the place to ourselves this hour," he said. "That's Ollie. I'm Leo." "Ben," I said. I wasn't introducing my dog. "You sick today, Ben?" Leo said.

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

I nodded. "You shouldn't be out here in the cold." I pointed to Georgia. "You can't get your wife to do it? Or a roommate?" "No." Leo didn’t say anything for a minute. Together we watched our dogs circulate like it was interesting. Then he pressed his hands into his thighs and stood, grunting like an old man who’s made a decision. "Let's go," he said. I looked up at him. "What?" "You come to my place, I'll fix you something," Leo said. Sometimes the lonely old women in my building try to befriend me, so I wasn't unused to such invitations. Sometimes I’m even friendly back. But the old women are my neighbors, and the type of people who assume I’m a nice boy since the co-op board approved me. In New York complete strangers don’t just invite you home from the dog park, no matter their age. I got up myself, shook my head, took a dog treat from my pocket, and called Georgia's name. "I just want to go back to bed," I said. Georgia came for the treat and I leashed her. "Thanks anyway."

Leo caught me at the first crosswalk. He was a little out of breath. "I'll bring you something later," he said. "What building you in?" I didn't want him in the apartment. "No thanks," I said.

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

"It's okay," Leo said. He put out a hand to touch my sleeve but stopped midway. The light changed. "Really, I appreciate it, but no thanks," I said, and walked away as fast as my weak legs allowed. After a block I peeked over my shoulder and saw he wasn't trying to keep up with me, and I slowed down and limped home, stripped off my sticky layers, and huddled in bed. Georgia jumped up next to me and studiously licked a spot next to her vagina for a quarter-hour, making an oblong wet mark on the sheets, then went to sleep.

An hour later the phone rang, the double tone that meant it was the doorman. "There's a Leo Roth here for you," the doorman said. "I don't want to see him," I said, and hung up. But I shouldn't have said that. I should have said I didn't know any Leo. I reached for my robe.

Leo had brought two bags. One held Chinese food, and he announced each dish as he transferred it from bag to kitchen table: two orders each of wonton and hot-and-sour soup, a moo shu pork, a beef and broccoli, a dry fried string bean, a ma po tofu, and an eggplant with ginger sauce. The other was full of grapefruits, carrots, and cans and cans of Rokeach brand cabbage soup. "Only at the kosher market," Leo said of these. "Terrific for a cold. Tons of vitamin C." He'd also brought Ollie, who stood placidly while Georgia freaked out around her, running to the far end of the apartment and back. This, at least, had been her sovereign territory; no other dog had ever trespassed on it. "I didn't know what you like," Leo said, wavering a hand at all the food.

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

"You didn't have to." My sash was slipping, and I pushed my hands deep in the robe's pockets to hold it closed. "Listen, you know the only thing worse than not having a person to look after you when you're sick?" Leo said. "Not having a person to look after when they're sick." I sighed, and Leo seemed to take it as a sign of acquiescence. He sat at the table and opened one of the cartons. "You mind?" he said, splitting a pair of disposable chopsticks.

Forty-five minutes later, Leo was still there. He'd badgered me into eating half a bowl of hot-and-sour before I realized he probably hadn't thought to ask for no MSG. Leo had been profusely apologetic, and had insisted on calling all the Chinese places in the neighborhood, trying to find one that didn't use it in their soups. What I really wanted was Chef Boyardee like my mother used to make me—and there were still cans of it in the cupboard—but it would have been an insult to make it just at the moment. So I had gone back to bed, where finally, despite Georgia's continuing agitation, I fell asleep.

Leo shook me awake. "Don't wake up," he said. "I just need more cash for the delivery boy." I pointed at my pants, crumpled on the floor, my underwear still in them, and rolled over. Out in the hall, I heard Leo say, "You gotta learn English. My parents, they had to do it, took my dad nine months. And you Orientals are supposed to be smart like us Jews, right?"

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

I hoped he hadn't ordered from Szechuan Garden. They had the best kung pao, and I didn't want their delivery guy to hate me. I got out of bed, wrapping myself in both my robe and a blanket, and went to see if I could shut Leo up. Ollie sat on one of the kitchen chairs. Georgia had buried her muzzle up to her eyes in a carton and was licking it furiously. "No!" I cried, grabbing the carton away. Leo carried in a cardboard box stacked with food. "What's the matter, it was empty," he said. He balanced the box between his hip and the edge of the table and fixed his attention on one of the Chinese food cartons, brought his hand slowly forward like he wasn't sure he could grasp it, finally picked it up, moved it to one side, and put it down. Then he turned to the next carton, his hand shaking a little as it approached it. He looked like a badly designed automaton, verifying his spatial calculations at each step before moving on. When he’d finally cleared enough space, he set the box on the table. I sat down on the couch, put my head against the wall and closed my eyes. In the kitchen the refrigerator door rattled open and things scraped around inside as Leo tried to make room for all he'd bought. "Leo. I'm sorry I yelled about the dog. But don't feed her that stuff, okay?" Leo didn't answer. I wondered if I'd spoken loudly enough to be heard over the refrigerator hum, the bottles clanking and so on. I wasn't sure I was even loud enough to be heard outside my own head. It took effort to draw enough air to speak. "You know what's funny?" Leo called out finally. "I tell my kids all these years to be much

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

more careful around people than you. If I was a stranger I'd never be inside my kids' apartments like this." The refrigerator door closed with a thud, heavier than normal. He cut something a few times—the knife rang as it came down on a plate, not a cutting board, ruining my blade—and then came out to the front room. "Here," he said. I opened my eyes. A dissected grapefruit floated on a plate a foot and a half from my face. If I tried to eat that now it wouldn't stay down a quarter-hour. I shook my head. Leo shrugged, pulled out a chair from the table, sat down, and stuck a full wedge in his mouth so that the peel masked his teeth, sucking loudly. "I thought you said you didn't have anybody to take care of," I said. He pulled the peel from his mouth and dropped it on the plate. "Aw, my kids are jerks," he said. "A parent doesn't like to say it, but sometimes, you know." He put another wedge in his mouth. I didn't know. I was quite sure neither of my parents had ever insulted either me or my sister to anyone. Ollie came down from the chair, lay at his master's feet, and draped his chin across one shoe. Georgia sniffed him. All of a sudden I began to cry. More than that, I was sobbing, my tears mixing with snot in a sticky mess on my top lip. Georgia, who hates it when I cry, came barreling across the room, leapt onto the couch, and tried to simultaneously bark and lick my face, while I tried to hold her off. She had after all just had her tongue in the toilet. But I didn't have the strength, and the room wobbled

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

around her hot breath tinged with garlic sauce and the pressure of her front paws on my thigh. Then she was pulled off me and a box of tissues was put in my hands. "C'mon, blow your nose," Leo said. "It's disgusting." I blew my nose, many times, a flood of mucus. "Could I get a glass of water?" I said. Leo went to the kitchen, brought one back. I drank, a cool line down my throat to my stomach. The reason I was crying was this: I was the wrong person for Leo just as much as Leo was the wrong person for me. The right person for me, the one who should have been getting me soup and tissues and water, was gone. I didn't know whom Leo should have been caring for, and it didn't matter. I suspected I would never know. This was a sickness one-nighter, gestures of tenderness inspired by inscrutable need and empty of love, and I felt more alone with Leo than I had since I'd first been left alone. It was horrifying to know that need wasn't tempered with age, that I could feel as bad as I did now forever.

"You know what, Leo?" I said. "I want to be alone for a while. It's real nice what you did." I stood up, and a long, hanging moment afterwards Leo did too. "I'll come by later then, to check," Leo said. "My mom's coming later," I said. "Oh yeah?" Leo clearly didn't believe it. "Where does she live?" She'd lived here, of course, until she hadn't anymore. "Brooklyn." "Where in Brooklyn?" "Park Slope."

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt. 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

"Where in Park Slope?" I never went to Brooklyn. I didn't know the streets. "Where in Park Slope?" "I don't know," I tried. "She just moved in." Leo shook his head gravely, gave a sharp whistle. Ollie stood up, and Leo bent to attach his leash. He had to steady himself with his hand against the chair back and it took a long time, and finally I stepped forward and snapped it on myself, and immediately felt guilty: I’d both called attention to his infirmity and rushed him out the door. I couldn't meet Leo's eyes for more than a few seconds as he put on his coat and hat, or even when he pressed my hand on his way out.

I wanted to hear a familiar voice, so I dialed my old ex-girlfriend's cell phone number. She left it off when she was at work; I ought to be able to hear her greeting. But she'd switched to the generic one provided by the cell phone company, a woman's voice flatly reciting digits. I drew a bath, got in, and slid my back down the tub's slope until my head was submerged, holding my eyes open even though they were still bloodshot from crying and it stung. The world above the water broke into glassy blotches, trembling against each other, merging and separating in a way that looked patterned but that could just as easily be chaos. Dimly, through the porcelain, I heard Georgia push open the bathroom door, heard her nails click on the tile, heard her drop her body onto the bathmat. I knew that when I stood up to towel myself, she would lick the moisture from my shins.