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Tough Enough to Leave

Published: March 14, 2014

Illustration by Karen Donley-Hayes

Illustration by Karen Donley-Hayes

“If you want a pet, buy one.” said Neil. “Why rent for a few months?”

The nine week old yellow lab was hers for a year. Leah’s job was to housebreak Ace, teach her basic commands. If Ace wasn’t skittish, if she was willing to learn, one day she would be a service dog.

Some people volunteered because it was a good thing. Others volunteered because they needed to. For Leah, Ace filled an emptiness inside her. It felt like she’d been starving and suddenly the hunger was no longer there. Within days an invisible cord connected Leah to the dog. The puppy’s breath smelled like oatmeal. Leah’s fingers raked the thick fur.

“You’re sending the dog messages all the time.” The trainers told her. “Look how she watches your feet. How she responds to your voice.”

At first the commands weren’t automatic. Each night Leah practiced hand signals in the bathroom mirror, her wrists bobbing and weaving like a crazed puppeteer. But soon she and Ace had their own special language. The dog was easy to read. A playful bow, an upright tail, a paw that clamored like a child.

“The puppy needs to feel safe.” the trainers said. “You have to earn her trust.”

*****

It had been three years since Leah found out about Neil’s affair. He had been working fourteen hour days six days a week, or so he told her. That’s what it took to get ahead, he would say. But his hello kiss every night reeked of liquor. Somehow he found time to work out at the gym. His new muscles bulged underneath his clothes.

“I need new shirts,” he said one night. “The old ones are bursting at the seams.” That’s when she figured it out. Leah had gone into his hamper and scooped up a week’s worth of laundry. The scent of gardenias made her gag. She ran to the medicine chest, held the inhaler to her nose and took long deep breaths. Leah was allergic to perfume and cologne. Neither of them used any.

At first she hadn’t said anything. Leah came from a family that rarely talked. They just swatted their problems like a game of badminton. Swish, tap tap, swish. It was just the three of them. Her mom waitressed at Friendly’s, and her dad managed the local Dollar Store. They’d had their full of chitchat at work and looked forward all day to peace and quiet at home. Swish, tap tap, swish. Her dad hit the green naugahyde barcalounger every night at 5:30, chainsmoked. Didn’t move for hours. Dinner would be on a folding tray, his eyes glued to the TV.

Her mother cleaned like a northeaster, all whirling arms and legs spinning in mad circles. Ran the vacuum until the rugs were beaten flat. Waxed the wood furniture until the finish wore off. Hours every night of mopping, wiping, mopping again. Leah would park herself at the kitchen table, do her homework, and listen to the buzz of electric appliances. Then after a glass of milk and a peck on the cheek she’d be sent to bed. Swish, tap tap, swish.

She had been working at the bookstore when she met Neil. Leah had a plan then: take one course at a time at the community college and maybe in ten years she’d have a degree. But the more people she waited on, the worse she felt about herself. Sure she knew how to dress, how to play the part. She wore tortoiseshell glasses and black turtlenecks. Tasteful cubic zirconium studs in her ears. But when she met someone like Neil, someone whose casual banter screamed prep schools and Ivy League, she felt like a fraud.

She fooled him. Leah was a good listener and Neil took care of his end of the conversation as well as hers. He spoke about his dreams and his ambitions and swept Leah like a tidal surge. She needed to love, and Neil needed to be worshiped.

*****

For weeks she carried a shopping tote of his perfumed shirts wherever she went. “Here comes the bag lady,” her friends teased her. She made them stick their noses in. Do you think the perfume was expensive, she‘d ask? She could never, she told them, compete with Chanel No. 5.

Finally she confronted Neil. “It was nothing,” he blurted. In his panic he offered a list of promises Leah knew he’d never keep. Spend more time at home, even help with chores. Leah didn’t ask for much. Perhaps that was part of the problem.

“Let’s go to Europe,” he offered. “Take the big trip we could never afford.” Every day he brought home brochures and left them splayed on the dining room table. Leah lined them up like tarot cards, trying to read their future.

But when the vacation ended, before their photos were even Facebooked, their relationship returned to the old groove. Cold dinners and empty conversations. When he was home, Neil used his iPhone and his iPad and his laptop to create a wall of pixels between them. He typed fast so she couldn’t guess the passwords.

“It’s time we invested in a house,” he told her one Sunday. Their apartment was in a neighborhood people called transitional. For years it was supposed to be the next best place. But there were still bars on the window fronts. A falafel cart set up shop on their sidewalk every summer.

“But this is home,” said Leah. Panic stuck in her throat. The delicate threads of their relationship seemed torn and frayed. She pictured it unraveling like a skein of yarn rolling on the floor.

Neil drew red circles on the real estate section of the newspaper. “But this is where my friends live!” Leah wanted to shout.

“You see,” Neil continued, his head still down, penning bull’s-eyes on the classifieds, “prices are cheaper in the suburbs.”

For weeks he searched the new listings, schmoozing to realtors on the phone like they were lifelong pals. He’d hang up and repeat the sales pitch word-for-word, his voice bouncing with fake pep. “You can finally get the dog you always talked about,” said Neil. “Get a whole menagerie if you want.”

*****

They found a midsized Colonial shaded by dogwood and maple trees. Several of Neil’s partners lived on the same street. Leah bought two rocking chairs for the front porch and planted azaleas. She was surprised by how happy she was. Gardening became her passion. Every packet she emptied into the soil seemed to pop up with a new surprise. Basil, oregano, thyme. Three varieties of tomatoes shimmied up trellises. Leah spent hours with her spade, enjoying the sweat and the dirt and sheer exhaustion of it.

“You’re a regular Martha Stewart,” Neil teased.

But his commute now was even longer. On the worse days he stayed downtown. Their problems were like cold hard seeds Leah tried to bury. She was so lonely she talked to herself, chatting with photographs on the mantle, mumbling in the laundry room. It was her friends in the city who told her about the organization.

“I’m training a puppy,” she said to Neil. “It’s just for a year.”

She and the dog settled into a routine. In the mornings Leah gently snapped Ace’s red vest in place and slipped the metal collar over her neck. Then they visited churches, shopping centers, even restaurants. Your job, the trainers told her, is to expose Ace to loud noises, children, sudden movements. To make her hardened and resilient. To make her tough enough to leave.

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  • J.M.P.

    Love this story. Great ending.

  • M. Scott

    This is off to a great start. Can’t wait to read the rest.

  • Jeanne

    Lots of great lines in this story. In relatively few words I feel I know Leah.

    Fine writing!