Alone in a stranger’s house with only two cats for company—one crazy, the other increasingly frail—these were hard times trying to hold ground—arrogant, self-deluded, yet ever more and more nervous. Happiness—it was all a matter of luck.
I saw Michael again one night on TV. Just out of the blue. I had believed myself sheltered from any such blow by the religious avoidance of all sports media, but beyond niche famous now, here he was promoting a credit card company in prime time. Like Lazarus rising from dead emotion. Larger in all aspects, he was riding high and funny (Don’t you know me . . .?), grinning his predatory grin. I blamed him for everything. Everything. His onscreen charm rubbed our diverging fortunes in my face. How many girls I could well guess dreamt of succumbing to this seductive power, exquisitely trigger-cocked one after the other down the line to give him whatever he wanted. I had nothing better to offer.
Dad sent me a letter, a not too veiled attempt to shore me up, which unsettled me further; Mom was the family correspondent. Did it look that bad? They were concerned about my rattling around in that ridiculous house, self-destructing in a faraway place with no family or friends nearby to keep the mess contained. What on earth was I doing? They were concerned about Izzie. They were concerned about their two girls, uncharted and adrift. Even so, they underestimated the power of the undertow, the downward drag of the sense of self-worthlessness, the knowledge when drowning of your inability to swim only pulling you deeper. One thing and one thing alone released me from the tugging: walking the beach. I walked and walked, a solitary presence on the shore, as if understanding would eventually come with the accumulation of a certain mileage; if that were so, I would’ve been able to explain it all. I waded in at the water’s edge. The tide accepted and washed around me; the vast horizon demanded no explanation.
Exhausted eventually, I’d sit on the sand, supposedly sketching or reading, but really just thinking, thinking, trying to think it through, staring out into the steely blueness till hypnotized, bleached bits of white—seagulls—soaring and bobbing in and out of my peripheral vision, sandpipers skittering in and out of view. Most times gentle, sometimes ravenous, sea breezes enfolded and caressed like a higher power. I closed my eyes and clung to the feeling—the beach became my ashram. Hunkered down amidst the tidal debris, the sodden sticks and broken shells, the shards of plastic cups, the remnants of foam rubber, shrouded in jacket or blanket, I looked back over my past and questioned every judgment I ever made. Did I love Michael or was he just convenient cover? I’d been uncertain as to how to carve out something of my own, had had no clue where to start. I was afraid, lazy, that’s why I went with him, that’s why I took the money . . . there are several choice names for women who take the money, not so many for men who take the money, make the money. What could I call him? In what state of inebriation, after how many cocktails of vanity and ego, had I decided to move here, to live off my art? To think that I possessed art? I thought of everything there was to think of, but I could not force myself to think of the horror before me. I could not force myself to think of Izzie and Ben.
Izzie and Ben . . . The manifestation of misery stole into that house. It sunk itself upon Ben. It attached itself and gnawed at him till he sat hunched over, swaying slightly forwards and back, blue eyes half-closed. The presence of such immutable suffering in one so young—the weariness, the waiting for the angels—scarred me with a sadness I would always carry. My faith in the power of good over evil was broken and never whole again.
Ben was dragged back and forth to the vet in a search for answers, but this activity garnered no relief for either one of us. I came back one day and could not find Izzie. ‘Did he get out?’ I thought, fear trickling down my spine, visions of road accidents or vicious kids ballooning up in my mind. I put Ben’s carrier down quickly on the living room rug; he uttered a barely audible lament that chilled my soul. I was gonna sue that damn breeder for bringing such wretchedness into this world and foisting it on me. I finally found Izzie hiding in the corner of my bedroom closet, those mischievous priest eyes now impenetrable, resigned, focused at some point distant no matter how much I tried to turn his face toward mine. I fought to keep a tight rein on my rising panic, pressing him to me, rocking him like a baby. From somewhere deep within him, but separate as if from an intruder in the room, came that same far-off raspy cry—a distant but approaching death-rattle—and I put him down as if scalded, fear riding full swing at the realization that the cruelty of my arrogance was only beginning to be made apparent. Ben died at the vet three weeks later, his heart arresting while undergoing anesthesia for an exploratory procedure. He was eight months old. He was born with a luminous soul but a cardiomyopic heart—no one supposedly knew.
Izzie deteriorated. My vet ran every test possible, finally pronouncing the dreaded diagnosis of FIP—a guess, a death sentence. I vowed to fight the invisible evil; I owed it to him. In retrospect it would have been kinder to let him go peacefully. But how could I accept this? Once upon a time he slept pushed tight up against me, waking me up in the morning with the feel of him against my cheek. I tried to make him eat, and one night when he couldn’t, I yelled at him, picking him up and plopping him down again at his food. He looked at me not accusingly, but sadly, wearily, asking why I was doing this to him. Didn’t I understand? I never forgot that look, it burned itself down into the deepest fissures of my mind and stayed there, a firm hand on the shoulder from the seat behind, pushing me back down whenever I tried to leave the show, just not able to watch anymore. What had I done to this happy spirit? For what purpose? For a time again I lived in my car, plowing back and forth to the vet, a traveling misery show, forcing the vehicle forward through sheer will as much as gasoline. Mercifully, one night the door opened and Izzie left me, carrying his master’s soul into paradise. Condemned here to earth, I was left undeniably alone.