My mother looks startlingly frail in pictures of her holding the last two unsold Labrador puppies in a backyard outside of Whitefish, Montana. Her arthritic knuckles are prominent as she cradles two yellow soccer balls in the crook of each arm; her legs are spindly, chin jowly, eyes clouded.
“This one,” she said. “She’s the calmest.” Her voice was excited, breathy; she gave a tick of her tongue like a Spanish fan.
My brothers had provided grandchildren, but I was bringing home the grand Lab. Daisy would love me. She would make me laugh at creepy ex-bosses and my trashed trashiness of slutting around.
My innocence was about to end.
Daisy was 42 days old, sweet and dopey from shots the day before, when we brought her home. She was 43 days old when she discovered that biting — especially my paper-skinned mother — was more fun than anything we had to offer. If we told her not to chew the carpet or climb in the dishwasher, she sat back and barked a detailed argument in her defense. She hated to be held, hated the leash, had meltdowns for which my father gave me leather gloves he’d used to chop wood. House-breaking? Ha!
I was concerned by how much she enjoyed making plush toys squeal.
I was in prison. She was too wild to leave with my parents, and she hated her crate. “You gotta teach that dog to stay,” my father pronounced as she pounced off to eat his slippers or drink weed spray. I looked at him in exasperation. “I’d like her to learn her name first.”
With a determined lack of recognition of whom she and I were, there were no afternoons on the beach. She would have bitten through her leash or run away. Our life was reduced to tossing apples for her in the orchard or walking in the woods, where she could explore bear scat and my patience.
Another lock was added to my prison when my father fell down a flight of stairs. He had a hell of a backache for weeks after, confined to his lounge chair, unable to lie down or walk to the bathroom. My brother did the heavy lifting, and my mother took care of daily intimate needs. I took charge of his fractious appetite.
How about warm peanut butter cookies and milk? Custard? A milkshake? Jell-O made with Cool Whip and marshmallows? Casseroles of potatoes and cheese?
Just one? Just a forkful?
There was a stomach waiting in reserve. Nothing went to waste.
“You don’t want to eat those, do you, Francie?” my mother asked as I took a plate of cookies to the dining room. “Remember, you’re going to be in Oprah’s magazine.”
I shrugged, stony-faced, wanting to say, “Would I be eating them if I didn’t want them, you silly nit?”
Besides, I had a new weapon. Laxatives. Welcome to Club Bulimia! Imagine my mornings. Hobbling to the toilet with Daisy, writhing and biting, in-arms so that she wouldn’t soil the carpets before I emptied my bowels, again and again until shreds of slime were all that w ere left of me.
It was a science experiment. How much could I hurt myself? I stopped taking Zoloft, not gently but abruptly, so that I went through days of woo-woo withdrawal, my brain folding and unfolding itself like amateur origami. I changed my return trip twice, changing my original 5-week stay into an 11-week orgy.
As I packed in late September, I crammed Heathway molasses cookies into my mouth. I left the suitcase and stood over the kitchen sink so that the crumbs wouldn’t litter my clothes. My jaw ached from the give of the cookies — no crunch, no proper mastication, molasses cookies have to be swallowed with an effort. Each bite had a soundtrack. You’re ...a ...no...longer...an...asset...to...this. ...my hand reached for the next: company.
I stopped, spit the brown wad into the garbage, and dumped the few remaining cookies in after. Goddamn. Humiliation, seven months after being fired, was a Preakness jockey.
I was feeling the sugar crash the next day when my brother helped force my vicious 11-week-old, 22-pound dog into a crate at the air- port. “You know,” he said, “you don’t have to keep this dog. Not every dog is the right dog.”
I’d seen so little through to lasting completion in my life — my doctorate, most of my friendships, clients I’d abandoned in being fired, boyfriends, writing projects — my own body, for fuck’s sake. I was bloodied from forehead to toes, but by God, I would turn this piranha into a Labrador, tame her fury, find her heart.
Or maybe she could do the same for me.