On the week I almost got a dog, it had been two or three months since I’d moved to town and I hadn’t started working out again. I look like I’m in shape, but I almost never am. The dog thought came to me because I’m not, overall, a big fan of the gym. I was new in town and the park looked promising when I passed it in my car. It has this luscious sprawling green you can see from the road, dotted with trees enough to look nicely shady. Plus you can see four or five trails that dip privately into the woods behind it. I thought it would make the perfect running spot, if it wasn’t the creepy kind of park that mothers warned their nice daughters to keep out of. I couldn’t tell from looking. And I live alone and work from home, writing, so it wasn’t the easiest thing for me to find out.
I’m not much of a fan of people at all, in fact. The dog thought was: if I had a good, big dog with teeth, I could go and fit in no matter what kind of park it was. Maybe that seems selfish as a reason for adopting a live animal, but consider the fact that I don’t care. I’m not lonely. I don’t have kids to vicariously enchant me with their wide-eyed observation of canine virtue. So earning the respect of potential perverts would be my reason for rescuing a shelter dog, and I would be able to go to places after that without bothering to ask if it was safe or nice or frowned upon.
It turned out when I had a look at the animal shelter that the dogs were sub-par for my purposes. The ones that weren’t puppies showed no signs of being dedicated to my health and safety exclusively. There were some who looked mean in general, and some who looked friendly in general, but no happy mediums in there who were well-trained already and only wanted me for a friend. I caught one of the smart ones snorting at me skeptically, and couldn’t keep myself convinced after that I had grown mature enough to keep a pet. Embarrassed to share this with the shelter assistant who obviously secretes responsibility for a living, I feigned an emergency phone call and left with some over-acted cries of alarm.
I’m so glad the world isn’t like ancient Greece, anymore, when Spartan ladies couldn’t exercise without being sexual deviants. And I’m glad these aren’t the Victorian days when you didn’t take off your clothes in the bath or people said the same kinds of things about you. Now everybody talks about how good for you it is to exercise, and you can walk into any gym with the subtlest of smirks, letting everyone know you’re doing this just for you – making your body feel uncomfortable without its being mandatory – and that it’s all a part of your routine since you’re a real, normal grown-up making all the right decisions. Maybe you stop feeling that way when you actually do do it every day; I haven’t kept up a routine long enough to know.
The one gym in town was nice, facilities-wise. Not as private as a dog park, but if I brought the right kind of music I hoped the rest of the people would be less noticeable. On the Monday after I didn’t get the dog I went in, expecting that in the middle of the afternoon most of the townsfolk would be away at jobs. I found something appropriately spunky and pop to feed through my earphones, and settled into stride on an elliptical machine. It was hard to think about anything in particular around the excitement of the music and the fast-building searing in my lungs. I pictured tendons in my throat, taut strings against a sword of too much air. That made the pain more interesting. The tightness in my chest felt like a corset –some jealous god had bound up my innards to keep track of the gusts going in and out, daring me to take a bigger breath. When I did, it burned. I held it tight in savage rebellion against my flesh and its slow-plotting creator, slamming leg after leg ahead, rising and thrusting again, snorting futile sprays till I couldn’t hear the music over pounding heartbeats in each ear.
When my vision started swimming, I gave up and allowed my legs to eat up their momentum while the elliptical steps carried me on in waning cycles. Now the pain that pinned my mind down so neatly replaced itself with rushing, unstoppable sensation. I felt the blood in every part of me lap and recoil, filling me with pressure in a second and deflating, scraping back away from naked nerves, making my whole body pulse between its own gasping embrace crowding out the world and the tingle of a helpless, raw perception. My legs hadn’t completely stopped cycling yet, and the machine’s dull resistance kept a fuzzy strain moving up my thighs. Somewhere in that slow-and-steady motion, the last embers of my motivation flared – not enough to reach my mind, but enough to make my body pay attention. I didn’t have it in me to brace; the thrill went rippling into my tissue, collecting untapped sparks, growing as a force like a snowball down a hill. My body recognized this momentum before I did; I startled myself when a little, plainly sexual moan rose from the back of my throat and flung itself out through my nose.
I stumbled a moment, then righted myself. This energy was something new, and exhausted as my ego was I couldn’t find it in me to break from the tension that pushed itself beyond the force of pain toward some great, miraculous pleasure. I could feel all the gunky of my old self sizzle against a poker of piercing air inside me, dissolve in the smoldering, salty smog I’d created, peeling back spaces that let a being more tender and frail begin to shiver, and stir –
I stopped, eyes snapping angry circles at the man who had come to break my regimen.
“Hey, there, take it easy! Looked like you were gonna pass out, for a second – you ok?”
There was a buff blonde guy next to my elliptical machine, his body weeping with acrid-warm man sweat and his voice cutting over my private ipod selection. Apparently he’d decided his concern for my safety took precedence over my personal alone time.
I took a second to convince myself I didn’t really want to jam my thumbs into this gentleman’s eyesockets, then removed my headphones with as winning a smile as I could muster. “Yes, I’m fine.” If I’d had a dog, this never would have happened. The gym guy squinted like he needed more convincing, but I didn’t have it in me to play that game today. I widened my smile in conclusion, grabbed my bag and hopped off the machine, shower-room-bound.
Some minutes later I was arching my back in the shower, my pores open to receive their vapors of brooding vanilla. I’d felt better after a pee, but I still was thinking of that interrupted promise – a visceral saving grace, snatched painfully away. I felt cheated on, and looking at my sudsy skin considered my masturbatory options. Should I make a bid for my thwarted desires here, claiming graceful release soon washed away under waves of steamy almond? But that wasn’t quite the same idea, with everything so soft and nice and the heat coming at me from the outside. Besides, I never was very good at masturbating – having to stand so still in one place made it too easy to get distracted with daydreams, or to imagine what my face must look like and wind up feeling silly. I can never take myself seriously enough. So I grimly admitted to myself that the moment that happened on the elliptical was gone, and nothing would bring it back, unless it was another trip on the elliptical.
I took some time to admire myself in the mirror before I put my clothes back on, tracing the beginnings of a slender groove down the middle of my abdomen. My endorphin rush was tricking good smells out of the air, and I imagined it wouldn’t be long before my body looked just the way I wanted it to. Fuck the gym, however. I waited another day to go back to the animal shelter and continue on with my original dog-involving plans. The skeptical one I had noted on the first trip stood as I neared her kennel; she seemed to have been expecting me. I didn’t have the heart to look away; she clearly was the most experienced candidate, and as she seemed to have little patience with bullshit I resigned myself to her being the one. So it was that I found myself signing for my very own Great Dane, full-grown, with a dark coat. When I said I wanted her the shelter-keeper got all misty-eyed and told me that her name was Martha.
I had never taken to a dog before – my family’s succession of Labradors had always got on best with my sister. For a time I had parakeets, but that was over now. After filling out the paperwork and waiting a few days to be approved, I got my dog home, and not long after I took the time to bring her to the park.
Martha was exactly what I needed; from the instant her paws touched dirt, she made it very clear that this was her park, now, and that my presence at her side was so appropriate it ought to be taken for granted. It was a surprise and a relief to me, because there just happened to be a lot of very attractive, muscle-bound young men going about the park today, some with their shirts off and their cardboard-picture abs gleaming in the sun. I’d feared – I don’t know what – some probing glances demanding the origin of my ethnicity, tagging me as out-of-town or out-of-date and stoutly directing me towards the exit. Instead Martha’s force of presence seemed to insulate me from all notice; no one even glanced our way as she sniffed at the wind with the knowing conviction of a snob over wine, and started a trot straight down one of the twisty trails leading into the back-woods. I bounced along behind her with a red leash in one hand, feeling a nice contrast start to build on my cheeks from the autumn cold and the clouds of my shuddering breath. Martha was quiet and sensible enough that after a time I hardly noticed she was leading me, and was able to use the spare mental energy to imagine that I was alone and the steady pull against my hands was some primal sense of direction rooted in my soul and in the ancient, secret powers of the trees.
I felt Martha growl before I heard her; the slack of the line in my hands caught me off-guard. She was stopping short in front of a patch of mountain laurel that dashed itself against an old tree. A man leaned back against it, his mouth opened and eyes closed. On his knees in front of the tree, a second man with a ponytail made a choking sound. I could tell by the motions of the back of his head that he was engaging in fellatio. Martha gave a short, indignant bark, and the man leaning against the tree opened up his eyes. He looked at me briefly with disapproval, despite my dog. Then his eyes rolled back into his head and I tugged Martha backwards up the trail.
“Don’t you start,” I hissed, as she began a harassed wine. “You should never take me by muscular fellating men, ever!”
The dog park must have changed since her day. As far as I was concerned now her credibility was shot, and as I was in no mood to discover more surprises along the hiking paths, I made the executive decision to take us home. On the way, I fought a bag lady.