The dogs are scratching at the kitchen door. How long, Lydia thinks, has she been lost in the thought of her rival dead? She passes her hand over her eyes, an unconscious effort to push the hot red edge off everything she sees, and goes to the door to let them in.
When Ivan confessed that he was in love with another woman, Lydia thought she could ride it out. She told him what she had so often told him in the turbulent course of their marriage, that he was a fool, that he would be sorry. Even as she watched his friends loading his possessions into the truck, even when she stood alone in the silent half-empty house contemplating a pale patch on the wall where one of his pictures had been, even then she didn’t believe he was gone. Now she has only one hope to hold on to: He has left the dogs with her, and this must mean he will be coming back.
At the door Gretta hangs back, as she always does, but Spats pushes his way in as soon as she has turned the knob, knocking the door back against her shins and barreling past her, his heavy tail slapping the wood repeatedly. No sooner is he inside than he turns to block the door so that Gretta can’t get past him. He lowers his big head and nips at her forelegs; it’s play, it’s all in fun, but Gretta only edges past him, pressing close to Lydia, who pushes at the bigger dog with her foot. “Spats,” she says, “leave her alone.” Spats backs away, but he is only waiting until she is gone; then he will try again. Lydia is struck with the inevitability of this scene. It happens every day, several times a day, and it is always the same. The dogs gambol into the kitchen, knocking against the table legs, turning about in ever-narrowing circles, until they throw themselves down a few feet apart and settle for their naps. Gretta always sleeps curled tightly in a semicircle, her only defense against attacks from her mate, who sleeps on his side, his long legs extended, his neck stretched out, the open, deep sleep of the innocent or the oppressor.
Lydia stands at the door looking back at the dogs. Sometimes Ivan got right down on the floor with Spats, lay beside him holding his big black head against his chest and talking to him. “Did you have a good time at the park today?” he’d croon. “Did you swim? Are you really tired now? Are you happy?” This memory causes Lydia’s upper lip to pull back from her teeth. How often had she wanted to kick him right in his handsome face when he did that, crooning over the dog as if it were his child or his mistress? What about me? she thought. What about my day? But she never said that; instead she turned away, biting back her anger and confusion, for she couldn’t admit even to herself that she was jealous of a dog.
Spats is asleep immediately, his jaw slack and his tongue lolling out over his black lips. As Lydia looks at him she has an unexpected thought: She could kill him. It is certainly in her power. No one would do anything about it, and it would hurt Ivan as nothing else could. She could poison him, or shoot him, or she could take him to a vet and say he was vicious and have him put down.
She lights a match against the grout in the countertop and turns the stove burner on. It is too cold, and she is so numb with the loss of her husband that she watches the flame wearily, hopelessly; it can do so little for her. She could plunge her hand into it and burn it, or she could stand close to it and still be cold. Then she puts the kettle over the flame and turns away.
She sits quietly in the still house; she goes through a cycle of resolutions. The first is a simple one: She will make her husband come back. It is inconceivable that she will fail.”
She had argued with Ivan about everything for years, so often and so intensely that it seemed natural to her. She held him responsible for the hot flush that rose to her cheeks, the bitter taste that flooded her mouth at the very thought of him. She believed that she was ill; sometimes she believed her life was nearly over and she hated Ivan for this too, that he was killing her with these arguments and that he didn’t care.
When the water is boiling she pours it over the coffee in the filter and takes her mug to the table. She sits quietly in the still house; the only sound is the clink of the ceramic mug against the bare wood as she sets it down. She goes through a cycle of resolutions. The first is a simple one: She will make her husband come back. It is inconceivable that she will fail. They always had these arguments, they even separated a few times, but he always came back and so he always would. He would tire of this other woman in a few weeks and then he would be back. After all, she asked herself, what did this woman have that she didn’t have? An education? And what good was that? If Ivan loved this woman for her education, it wasn’t really as if he loved her for herself. He loved her for something she had acquired. And Lydia was certain that Ivan had loved her, had married her, and must still love her, only for herself, because she was so apparent, so undisguised; there wasn’t anything else to love her for.
She takes a swallow of the bitter coffee. This first resolution is a calm one: She will wait for her husband and he will return and she will take him back.
She sets the mug down roughly on the table, for the inevitable question is upon her: How long can she wait? This has been going on for two months, and she is sick of waiting. There must be something she can do. The thought of action stiffens her spine, and her jaw clenches involuntarily. Now comes the terrible vision of her revenge, which never fails to take her so by surprise that she sighs as she lays herself open to it; revenge is her only lover now. She will see a lawyer, sue Ivan for adultery, and get every cent she can out of him, everything, for the rest of his life. But this is unsatisfactory, promising, as it does, nothing better than a long life without him, a life in which he continues to love someone else. She would do better to buy a gun and shoot him. She could call him late at night, when the other woman is asleep, and beg him to come over. He will come; she can scare him into it. And then when he lets himself in with his key, she will shoot him in the living room. He left her, she will tell the court. She bought the gun to protect herself because she was alone. How was she to know he would let himself in so late at night? He told her he was never coming back and she had assumed the footsteps in the living room came from the man every lonely woman lies in bed at night listening for, the man who has found out her secret, who knows she is alone, whose mission, which is sanctioned by the male world, is to break the spirit if not the bones of those rebellious women who have the temerity to sleep at night without a man. So she shot him. She wasn’t going to ask any questions and live to see him get off in court. How could she have known the intruder was her husband, who had abandoned her?
Yes, yes, that would work. It would be easily accomplished, but wouldn’t she only end up as she was now? Better to murder the other woman, who was, after all, the cause of all this intolerable pain. She knew her name, knew where she lived, where she worked. She had called her several times just to hear her voice, her cheerful hello, in which Lydia always heard Ivan’s presence, as if he were standing right next to the woman and she had turned away from kissing him to answer the insistent phone. Lydia had heard of a man who killed people for money. She could pay this man, and then the woman would be gone.
The kettle is screaming; she has forgotten to turn off the flame. She could drink another cup of coffee, then take a bath. But that would take only an hour or so and she has to get through the whole day. The silence in the house is intense, though she knows it is no more quiet than usual. Ivan was never home much in the daytime. What did she do before? It seems to her that that life was another life, one she will never know again, the life in which each day ended with the appearance of her husband. Sometimes, she admits, she had not been happy to see him, but her certainty that she would see him made the question of whether she was happy or sad a matter of indifference to her. Often she didn’t see him until late at night, when he appeared at one of the clubs where she was singing. He took a place in the audience, and when she saw him she always sang for him. Then they were both happy. He knew she was admired, and that pleased him, as if she was his reflection and what others saw when they looked at her was more of him. Sometimes he gave her that same affectionate look he gave himself in mirrors, and when he did it made her lightheaded, and she would sing, holding her hands out a little before her, one index finger stretched out as if she were pointing at something, and she would wait until the inevitable line about how it was “you” she loved, wanted, hated, couldn’t get free of, couldn’t live without, and at that “you” she would make her moving hands be still and with her eyes as well as her hands she would point to her husband in the crowd. Those were the happiest moments they had, though neither of them was really conscious of them, nor did they ever speak of this happiness. When, during the break, they did speak, it was usually to argue about something.
She thinks of this as she stares dully at the dogs, Ivan’s dogs. Later she will drive through the cold afternoon light to Larry’s cold garage, where they will rehearse. They will have dinner together; Larry and Simon will try to cheer her up, and Kenneth, the drummer, will sit looking on in his usual daze. They will take drugs if anyone has any, cocaine or marijuana, and Simon will drink a six-pack of beer.
Then they will go to the club and she will sing as best she can. She will sing and sing, into the drunken faces of the audience, over the bobbing heads of the frenzied dancers; she will sing like some blinded bird lost in a dark forest trying to find her way out by listening to the echo of her own voice. The truth is that she sings better than she ever has. Everyone tells her so. Her voice is so full of suffering that hearing it would move a stone, though it will not move her husband, because he won’t be there. Yet she can’t stop looking for him in the audience, as she always has. And as she sings and looks for him she will remember exactly what it was like to find herself in his eyes. That was how she had first seen him, sitting at a table on the edge of the floor, watching her closely. He was carrying on a conversation with a tired-looking woman across from him, but he watched Lydia so closely that she could feel his eyes on her. She smiled. She was aware of herself as the surprising creation she really was, a woman who was beautiful to look at and beautiful to hear. She was, at that moment, so self-conscious and so contented that she didn’t notice what an oddity he was, a man who was both beautiful and masculine. Her attachment to his appearance, to his gestures, the suddenness of his smile, the coldness of his eyes, came later. At that moment it was herself in his eyes that she loved – as fatal a love match as she would ever know.
The phone rings. She hesitates, then gets up and crosses to the counter. She picks up the receiver and holds it to her ear.
“Hello,” Ivan says. “Lydia?”
She says nothing.
“Talk to me!” he exclaims.
“Why should I?”
“Are you all right?”
“What are you doing?”
“Why are you calling me?”
“About the dogs.”
“What about them?”
“Are they OK?”
She sighs. “Yes.” Then, patiently, “When are you coming to get them?”
“I can’t,” he says. “I can’t take them. I can’t keep them here.”
“There’s no fenced yard. Vivian’s landlord doesn’t allow dogs.”
At the mention of her rival’s name, Lydia feels a sudden rush of blood to her face. “You bastard,” she hisses.
“Baby, please,” he says, “try to understand.”
She slams the receiver down into the cradle. “Bastard,” she says again. Her fingers tighten on the edge of the counter until the knuckles are white. He doesn’t want the dogs. He doesn’t want her. He isn’t coming back. “I really can’t stand it,” she says into the empty kitchen. “I don’t think I will be able to stand it.”
She is feeding the dogs. They have to eat at either end of the kitchen because Spats will eat Gretta’s dinner if he can. Gretta has to be fed first; then Spats is lured away from her bowl with his own. Gretta eats quickly, swallowing one big bite after another, for she knows she has only the time it takes Spats to finish his meal before he will push her away from hers. Tonight Spats is in a bad humor. He growls at Gretta when Lydia sets her bowl down. Gretta hangs her head and backs away. “Spats!” Lydia says. “Leave her alone.” She pushes him away with one hand, holding out his bowl before him with the other. But he growls again, turning his face toward her, and she sees that his teeth are bared and his threat is serious. “Spats,” she says firmly, but she backs away. His eyes glaze over with something deep and vicious, and she knows that he no longer hears her. She drops the bowl. The sound of the bowl hitting the linoleum and the sight of his food scattered before him brings Spats back to himself. He falls to eating off the floor. Gretta lifts her head to watch him, then returns to her hurried eating.
Now, she confesses to herself, she is drowning. Alone, at night, in the moonless sea of her bed, where she is tossed from nightmare to nightmare so that she wakes gasping for air.”
Lydia leans against the stove. Her legs are weak and her heart beats absurdly in her ears. In the midst of all this weakness a habitual ambivalence goes hard as stone. Gretta, she thinks, certainly deserves to eat in peace. She looks down at Spats. Now he is the big, awkward, playful, good fellow again.
“You just killed yourself,” Lydia says. Spats looks back at her, his expression friendly, affable. He no longer remembers his fit of bad temper.
Lydia smiles at him. “You just killed yourself and you don’t even have the sense to know it,” she says.
It is nearly dawn. Lydia lies in her bed alone. She used to sleep on her back when Ivan was with her. Now she sleeps on her side, her legs drawn up to her chest. Or rather, she reminds herself, she lies awake in this position and waits for the sleep that doesn’t come.
As far as she is concerned she is still married. Her husband is gone, but marriage, in her view, is not a condition that can be dissolved by external circumstances. She has always believed this; she told Ivan this when she married him, and he agreed or said he agreed. They were bound together for life. He said he wanted nothing more.
She still believes it. It is all she understands marriage to be. They must cling to each other and let the great nightmarish flood of time wash over them as it will; at the end they would be found wherever they were left, washed onto whatever alien shore, dead or alive, still together, their lives entwined as surely as their bodies, inseparably, eternally. How many times in that last year, in the midst of the interminable quarrels that constituted their life together, had she seen pass across his face an expression that filled her with rage, for she saw that he knew she was drowning and he feared she would pull him down with her. So even as she raged at him, she clung to him more tightly, and the lovemaking that followed their arguments was so intense, so filled with her need of him that, she told herself, he must know, wherever she was going, he was going with her.
Now, she confesses to herself, she is drowning. Alone, at night, in the moonless sea of her bed, where she is tossed from nightmare to nightmare so that she wakes gasping for air, throwing her arms out before her, she is drowning alone in the dark and there is nothing to hold on to.
Lydia sits on the floor in the veterinarian’s office. Spats lies next to her; his head rests in her lap. He is unconscious but his heart is still beating feebly. Lydia can feel it beneath her palm, which she has pressed against his side. His mouth has gone dry and his dry tongue lolls out to one side. His black lips are slack and there is no sign of the sharp canine teeth that he used to bare so viciously at the slightest provocation. Lydia sits watching his closed eyes and she is afflicted with the horror of what she has done.
He is four years old; she has known him all his life. When Ivan brought him home he was barely weaned and he cried all that first night, a helpless baby whimpering for his lost mother. But he was a sturdy, healthy animal, greedy for life, and he transferred his affections to Ivan and to his food bowl in a matter of days. Before he was half her size he had terrorized Gretta into the role he and Ivan had worked out for her: dog-wife, mother to his children. She would never have a moment’s freedom as long as he lived, no sleep that could not be destroyed by his sudden desire for play, no meal that he did not oversee and covet. She was more intelligent than he, and his brutishness wore her down. She became a nervous, quiet animal who would rather be patted than fed, who barricaded herself under desks, behind chairs, wherever she could find a space Spats couldn’t occupy at the same time.
Spats was well trained; Ivan saw to that. He always came when he was called and he followed just at his master’s heel when they went out for their walks every day. But it ran against his grain; every muscle in his body was tensed for that moment when Ivan would say “Go ahead,” and then he would spring forward and run as hard as he could for as long as he was allowed. He was a fine swimmer and loved to fetch sticks thrown into the water.
When he was a year old, his naturally territorial disposition began to show signs of something amiss. He attacked a neighbor who made the mistake of walking into his yard, and bit him twice, on the arm and on the hand. Lydia stood in the doorway screaming at him, and Ivan was there instantly, shouting at Spats and pulling him away from the startled neighbor, who kept muttering that it was his own fault; he shouldn’t have come into the yard. Lydia had seen the attack from the start; she had, she realized, seen it coming and not known it. What disturbed her was that Spats had tried to bite the man’s face or his throat, and that he had given his victim almost no notice of his intention. One moment he was wagging his tail and barking, she told Ivan; then, with a snarl, he was on the man.
Ivan made excuses for the animal, and Lydia admitted that it was freakish behavior. But in the years that followed, it happened again and again. Lydia had used this evidence against him, had convicted him on the grounds of it; in the last two years he had bitten five people. Between these attacks he was normal, friendly, playful, and he grew into such a beautiful animal, his big head was so noble, his carriage so powerful and impressive, that people were drawn to him and often stopped to ask about him. He enjoyed everything in his life; he did everything – eating, running, swimming – with such gusto that it was a pleasure to watch him. He was so full of energy, of such inexhaustible force, it was as if he embodied life, and death must stand back a little in awe at the sight of him.
Now Lydia strokes his head, which seems to be getting heavier every moment, and she says his name softly. It’s odd, she thinks, that I would like to die but I have to live, and he would like to live but he has to die.
In the last weeks she has wept for herself, for her lost love, for her husband, for her empty life, but the tears that fill her eyes now are for the dying animal she holds in her arms. She is looking straight into the natural beauty that was his life and she sees resting over it, like a relentless cloud of doom, the empty lovelessness that is her own. His big heart has stopped; he is gone.
Reproduced from Sea Lovers: Selected Stories. First published in the collection The Consolation of Nature and Other Stories (Vintage Contemporaries, 1989)
Valerie Martin is the author of ten novels, including The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, Mary Reilly, Italian Fever and Property, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2003. She has also written three collections of short fiction and Salvation, a biography of Saint Francis of Assisi. Sea Lovers: Selected Stories is published by Serpent’s Tail in paperback. Read more.