By Michael Gutgsell
Life was for sale at the pet store, and it went to whoever was willing to pay. The cost of a purebred dog was in the thousands, and even with all the problems from so much inbreeding, people still wanted them. Each breed had a specific set of prices you were able to use when making a sale. I made a single sale, to a gay man buying a Yorkshire Terrier. Instead of getting used to it, I became more uncomfortable with the practice. We loved the dogs that lived in our little cages, and yet we sold them to whoever was willing to pay, without screening them.
There was a Pomeranian I called Barnaby. He was gentle, quiet, and sweet, his coat white, brown, and tan. I took him out whenever possible to pet and play with him. All the feelings I didn’t feel for Carlos, all the loneliness and disgust were eased when I was with little Barnaby. I was just present. The price was insurmountable, but I started thinking about taking him home. I would get him lion cuts so he’d always look this cute, and we would be best friends and experience everything together. I could even take him to England and back to college. I started looking into it and talking to my parents, who were by no means dismissive of the idea. They wanted me to think it through, though, since it was a huge decision. I agreed. It wasn’t practical, but I loved the tiny dog.
One day, a young woman with rhinestones on her phone and an enormous pink leather bag came in and bought Barnaby. In a voice loud and confident with money she told us she was going to call him Simba and he was going to look so cute in her purse. Life with Barnaby was a dream, and the kind that doesn’t come true. Reality was being a dumb young guy working for minimum wage in a khaki uniform, sleeping with the boss. I stepped into the back office and cried.
Escape was unreal to me, but necessary. I couldn’t imagine what England would be like: it was inevitable but impossible to grasp. I fell into a rut, thinking I would always feel and be this way, and there was no way out. Even though I had a clear plan ahead of me, I feared coming back after a year abroad to this life. Wouldn’t I just be stepping backwards? Wouldn’t it all start again? I wanted something completely new. A winning lottery ticket that would make me independent. A kind man who would take me out of this job and somewhere safe and clean. Where were my parents in all of this? We had dinner together when I wasn’t working, and then I drifted up to the third floor where my room was located and lay on the big bed, reading, listening to the musicals that were the basis for my fantasies of escape.
I would take walks on my lunch, anything to just get away from the fluorescent lights and dog odor and crushing depression. I ate on a patch of grass beside the library, under the shade of a tree. One day I had forgotten a fork, and I stopped into a cafe to grab one. There was a man sitting in the window, a grizzled, older man with piercing blue eyes. For a moment, his gaze met mine. I got my fork and left.
Later on, back at the pet store, he came in. He approached me and asked where to find the cat food. We talked for a bit, flirted, and he asked me to come over for a glass of wine after my shift. He looked like ET, but I loved the way he spoke, the way he looked at me. I also figured out a way to break it off with Carlos.
The man, a professor in English, told me later that he had planned to just hook up with me and that would be it, but I arrested him with a casual Mrs. Dalloway quote. We started our own affair. He was prickly, and rarely straightforwardly kind. His nicknames for me were all unprintable. He gave me beautiful books, we had great sex, I loved his tabby cat Habibi. We would sit on his porch, drinking Old Fashioneds, he would smoke cigarettes he kept in the freezer, and we’d laugh about my bosses. His humor was nasty.
I wanted him to love me. I puttered around his apartment, playing house and wringing my hands when I broke a glass trying to wash the dishes.
He provided me the excuse to break things off with the owner. I couldn’t find the words to end it, so I used a new relationship as the reason. I told Carlos about my “feelings,” my desire to focus on a relationship of my own, the dead-end nature of our own relationship, my future. I probably also told him I was uncomfortable with something that could end up hurting his wife. That would be sort of a low-blow, but I’m pretty sure I said that. He was gracious. The summer was winding down, anyway. We left it off like it was A Romance That Could Never Be. I sighed with relief.
My last week finally came, and everything felt lighter. On my last night, Barbara and I dressed up a Boston Terrier in a leopard print vest and I pretended the dog was singing “Somewhere That’s Green.” Barbara laughed, tilting her pile of hair back and covering her mouth with her long, red-tipped fingers. I wished we had done this sooner.
When I came back from England, my Professor had gained a lot of weight and seemed depressed. He didn’t keep his cigarettes in the freezer anymore. He told me I was too young, too self-centered. I biked by the pet store. There were big signs posted across the windows: “Going Out of Business Sale!” I went in. Only a couple people were there. I looked for Barbara by the finches, but she was not there. The owners weren’t either, they were probably with the new child. I looked around, and I was glad that soon this place wouldn’t exist anymore.
Months later, I was out with a date and looked up to see Carlos at the end of the bar. He was with a handsome young man who looked flashy and bored. Carlos was talking softly to him, gesturing with one hand slowly, like he was petting the side of a cat.
“Do you know them?” my date asked, following my gaze.
“No,” I lied, embarrassed by my decisions and not wanting to ever talk about that summer job or the depressing affairs again. I turned away to avoid Carlos noticing me. “I don’t know him.”
Michael Gutgsell is a regular writer for Tumbleweed Diaries. You can read more of him on his weekly blog, Making a Mess of It, or on the blog for Tree House Humane Society, the no-kill stray cat shelter where he works.