The Last Trial

It’s a myth that snow is white, because today there is nothing but gray horizon, sky, and earth. I am hunched over the wheel, trying to keep my little red Toyota on I-75 as I creep northward through thick snow that continues to fall. My dog circles in his crate behind me, his nails ticking against the plastic sides as he tries to get comfortable; he senses my agitation as we inch along. We are headed to Detroit for an obedience trial in the middle of January. In two weeks, I will be moving out of the house I share with my husband and into an apartment of my own.

I will be taking my three Scottish Terriers with me. This weekend’s trial will be my last dog show for a while because I’ve been showing for almost ten years and am ready for a break. I’m also not sure if I’ll be able to afford this hobby in my new, divorced, single-income life.

What I don’t yet know is that this will be my last dog show.

*   *   *

The previous November, I go to see a lawyer. Heather is incongruously named. She is maybe fifty-five, with a blunt gray pageboy, piercing eyes, thin lips. She wears an expensively-cut suit and sits behind a massive desk; floor-to-ceiling windows stand in for walls on two sides of her office. When I’m not looking at her, I can enjoy an expansive view of downtown.

“Well, this looks pretty straightforward,” she says after looking over my debts and assets worksheet. “You don’t have any kids. All you’ve got is the house.” She looks down again through the reading glasses perched on her nose. “And his 401(k), but that’s not worth much.”

“What comes next?” I ask her.

“If you agree on everything and there are no disputes, we file the paperwork. Our date with the judge can be set for as soon as thirty days later.”

Thirty days. After eleven years of marriage, it seems like both an eternity and the blink of an eye.

*   *   *

I am showing Basil, my Scottie, in a class called Utility. It is the most advanced of all classes in an obedience trial and has an extremely high “non-qualifying”—failure—rate. We have already trialed in Utility twelve times before this weekend. We have yet to qualify.

I trudge through the snow, dragging the crate and my training bag into the building, then return to the car for the dog. I carry him inside because the snow is too deep for him to walk through, and I don’t want his muscles stiffening up from getting cold and wet. I’ve set us up in a quiet corner of the building; the air is redolent of musty concrete and wet dog, and once Basil is inside his crate, he pokes his nose through the grate of his crate door. He inhales, gathering information with his nose. What does he smell that I can’t?

I want so badly to qualify today. I want to end on a good note.

*   *   *

My marriage came apart on a beautiful July day only six months before the last trial. On that flawless afternoon, one marked by a high blue sky and cicadas humming in the trees, I sat down at our desktop computer and opened up our checking account software.

We were $400 overdrawn. Again.

I scrolled through the entries, knowing before I saw them exactly where the money was going.

Arby’s

Burger King

Wendy’s

BW3’s

McDonald’s

Wendy’s

White Castle

McDonald’s

I closed out the program and swiveled in my office chair, listening to the sound of my own breathing, then I paced out to the living room. I had threatened him for years, begging, yelling and screaming, but now, I knew for certain without uttering any words at all. I was done.

I called my friend Diane, a veterinarian, at work. I had to tell someone. She had just had her first child, and was going through all sorts of marital problems of her own.

I told her about the fast food, the overdrafts, how we were broke again—again!—because of it. I told her that I was leaving him.

“Oh,” she said, her voice neutral. “Wow. Are you sure?”

I knew what it sounded like—that I was leaving my husband because he binged on fast food, because he was fat. But how could I explain to her that there was more to this, that the extra weight that encased him had become a physical manifestation of the disconnect between us?

Yes, I told her. I was sure.

*   *   *

I pick up my armband, do a little bit of warm-up heeling with my dog. When we’re done, I flip Basil a cheese cube the size of a pencil eraser; he leaps into the air and snatches it before it hits the floor. He wags his tail, and I thump his chest. I return him to his crate to wait, where he sits inside, tense, watching.

He loves to train and learn new behaviors, but he is a nervous and high-strung animal. I have to work constantly to manage his stress at trials, to keep him calm and happy. At a recent trial in Nashville, he completed the entire heeling pattern on three legs, hopping along as he scratched his belly with one rear leg; excessive scratching is a sign of stress. We barely made it out of the ring with a qualifying score. Afterward, several other exhibitors laughed and made jokey comments about how to correct it. I wasn’t laughing, and I wasn’t going to correct it. “He’s blowing you off!” each one said, a favorite refrain of obedience exhibitors when the dog doesn’t perform as commanded.

But what appears to others as a refusal to listen to me is, I know, a symptom of a bigger problem.

*   *   *

I step into the ring with Basil and unhook his leash, handing it to the ring steward. This class is entirely off-leash. The judge, a woman, is stern and unsmiling as she invites us into the ring to begin. The judge says, “Forward!” and the three of us step off together, the judge tailing my dog and me, a clipboard in her hands for marking off points on my score sheet. I signal Basil to stop and stand, then walk to the other side of the ring.

When I signal Basil to lie down from thirty feet away, my arm high in the air—I am not permitted to speak at any point during this exercise—he becomes distracted by the Golden Retriever in the ring next to ours. He takes an extra few seconds to lie down; my heart is thumping, but he finally folds to the floor. He completes the rest of the signals, slow but perfect. I’m twitchy with nerves. Slow responses mean an increase in stress. Each exercise is likely to get more difficult for him.

*   *   *

Here is what no one wants to hear when you tell them you are getting divorced: that you are happy—no, you are thrilled—and it’s the best thing you’ve ever done for yourself. There will be a long pause and they will stare at you, unsure what to say when their sympathy has been rejected. They will half-smile and say things like, “Oh, okay,” and they will keep staring at you as if you have two heads.

This will happen again and again.

What you never think to tell them is that you have suffered long enough, that you have cataloged enough varieties of loneliness and misery to last all the rest of your days.

Now that you have experienced happiness, you will not pretend to be sad.

*   *   *

Our favorite exercise is scent discrimination, and it follows the signal exercise. The ring steward spreads out my scent articles—four metal dumbbells and four leather dumbbells—on the green rubber ring matting, twenty feet away. Two articles (one of each kind) have been held back for me to scent with my hands. Once the ring steward finishes placing the unscented articles on the floor, Basil and I turn our backs to the pile so my dog will not see where the scented articles are placed. I pick up the metal article and twist it between my hands, rubbing my scent onto its center bar, then place it on the judge’s outstretched clipboard.

After the judge puts my article in the pile, she tells me, “Send your dog!” and I turn and command Basil: “Find it!” Basil races away from me and heads straight to the pile, but right away I can see he’s struggling. He’s mouthing the articles—picking up the wrong ones and then dropping them. He knows my scent, he knows this exercise, but something isn’t right. In frustration, he grabs at a random article—the judge shakes her head to signal to me it’s the wrong one—and starts returning to me. This automatically fails us, so I lean out, pointing at the pile, and snap at him. “Find it!” I say, my voice sharp as thumbtacks.

Basil—sensitive, nervous, eager to please—flinches and stops short, dropping the article on the floor. I have never once raised my voice at this dog—he has been trained with bits of cheese and liver and tugs on furry mice as his rewards—and in his panic, he runs right out of the ring.

In seven years of trials, this has never happened. The ring steward runs out of the ring after him, then snags him by the collar and walks him back to me. The judge says, “Thank you, you’re excused,” and turns her back, scribbling on her clipboard; we’re automatically dismissed. I snap the leash on Basil’s collar and walk out of the ring red-faced, baffled and embarrassed by both our failure and my behavior toward my dog. I feel guilty for yelling at him. I put Basil in his crate with a few pieces of cheese and slump in my canvas chair, trying to figure out just what went wrong.

Another handler, a man, walks by and says, “Hey, don’t give up. There’s a reason we call that class Futility.”

*   *   *

Futility. This is what I feel for years as I cook food—good food—my husband won’t eat. He eats a sliver of the Greek frittata or half a bowl of the pumpkin black bean soup and after they’ve been put in the refrigerator, he never touches the leftovers. I pack vegetable lasagna for his lunch at work, only to find the containers days later, their contents black and molding, inside his car. Near the end, this is also where I will find the cases of Coke stored, the empties rattling all over the floor of the vehicle. He goes through a case every three days.

I am twenty-two when I marry him. We are basically friends who have bad sex very occasionally; we are both looking for escape from our parents and from what the future holds for college dropouts. He tells me he loves me three weeks after we meet. I try to send him away and tell him I’m not interested, but he keeps calling and appearing on my doorstep until a combination of loneliness and anxiety about the future makes me give up and give in.

I’m not in love with him when we get married but neither of us realizes what an enormous problem this will turn out to be. All my life, my mother has punished me for any expression of emotion; joy, fear, unhappiness, curiosity, anger, all forbidden. I was never permitted to say no, and if I tried, my mother exercised her wrath upon me with her fists, wooden spoons, my father’s belt. The consequence of this upbringing is that I don’t know what I feel, let alone how to say it. I am not even aware that I deserve to say no. I tell myself that this man I marry is a nice guy, that I will learn to love him. He carries an extra twenty-five pounds on our wedding day, but as the years plod by, he gains more weight, and I begin to fixate on what he eats. Mealtimes become battlegrounds: I stare as he nibbles at the tuna salad, knowing that in two hours he’ll just go to the sports bar down the street so he can enjoy his platters of hot wings in peace.

I join a gym, then berate him into coming with me, only to glare at him from my treadmill as he lazily pedals on the stationary bike watching Jerry Springer, one of his favorite shows. I bribe him with sexual favors—a surprise for every ten pounds—and this is met with enthusiasm but no change in behavior. I send him to our doctor for help, and when he comes home telling me he’s going to do the Atkins diet, I explode. “But what about the emotional eating? No fad diet is going to help that!” I shriek.

The irony of what I’m saying is completely lost on me.

For years I convince myself that this is marriage, living together and paying bills. I make enough money to pay for my hobby; I have the freedom to go to dog shows every weekend—alone, because he has no interest and prefers binge-watching The Sopranos or Seinfeld or anything at all, really—and I think that this means I am happy because of this freedom, or at least I am content. It could be worse, I think, over and over, judging against the standard of my parents’ dysfunctional marriage. He doesn’t beat me or cheat on me.

One afternoon, an afternoon that stands in for all the rest, I whisk together a pomegranate vinaigrette and drizzle it over torn romaine and heirloom tomatoes. This is long before pomegranates are a foodie food, and, as with anything new, my husband is instantly suspicious when I hand him a plate. It is both a challenge and an offering: will you eat it? Do you love me?

“Try it,” I say as we stand in the kitchen. “It’s delicious.”

He forks a bite into his mouth. He doesn’t even chew before he retches. He opens his mouth and spits the chewed lettuce onto the plate.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t,” he says, his mouth hanging open as he turns to get some water from the sink. He stops to pant as he guzzles water. “The dressing,” he says, by way of explanation. His eyes are watering.

I glare at him. He rejects my food, and therefore he rejects me. What I am not yet able to admit to myself is that we never really loved each other to begin with, and there is no fixing this.

At the end, he’s a hundred pounds overweight.

*   *   *

Obedience is a sport true to its name. The dog must listen to every command and perform it promptly, without being told a second time, and the more precisely he responds, the higher the score.

When it works, the sport of obedience showcases the teamwork between dog and handler, the fluidity of their connection. But no matter how willing the dog is, no matter how intelligent, there is an unspoken conviction among all handlers: the dog who doesn’t do as commanded is simply a reflection of its owner’s inability to train it.

*   *   *

It’s late afternoon and it’s time for me to go home. I pack up the car, slogging in and out of the building, my boots cutting into the snow. I load Basil into his crate and he falls asleep before I even pull out of the lot. The sun is shining now, and the snow looks like shattered glass. I drive through downtown Detroit, creeping along as I make my way to I-75 under a blinding white sky, thinking about my upcoming move. In only two weeks, my life will look completely different. There will be no more dog shows. I will live in a large apartment near downtown. I will start dating. I will travel to New York City and Florida and Italy. I will start writing seriously. I will shed twenty-five pounds of my own, weight I picked up during my tenure as a wife, weight my ex-husband never mentioned. It will be years before I realize just how cruel I’ve been, draping a mantle of shame and guilt over my own shoulders, and then a few more beyond that before I understand I am not entirely to blame for everything that went wrong. Eventually I will write my ex-husband a letter of apology for all that I’ve done, all that I’ve said.

But that is all yet to come.

The roads in the city are stacked with snow, and I am forced to drive slowly to avoid spinning out. In perfect weather, this is a five-hour drive, but now I’m wondering if I’ll need to stop in Toledo, the halfway point between Detroit and Columbus, and stay the night.

But a pleasant surprise awaits: when I get onto the highway, it is scraped clean. The road is perfectly clear.

By Amy Collini

 

 

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