In my regular, pre-parenthood adult life I seldom visited pet stores. I’d stopped keeping pets in the sixth grade and, having never owned a real pet like a dog or cat or even a parrot, I always felt pet store employees could tell from my bearing and scent that I didn’t belong there. Oh, once in a while, when I was lonely because Bill had to work late, I’d window shop, and wander into the pet store in the mall to stare at the puppies—sometimes asking to hold whichever one looked the softest—sometimes curling up to the idea of buying one but stopping short when I remembered my childhood experiences at keeping small creatures alive, always deciding in the last minute to spare them.
When I was nine I saved six months’ allowance to purchase an aquarium. Then, I oversaw the deaths—through overfeeding, underfeeding, incorrect Ph balance in the water, tank malfunction, mixing of aggressive and non-aggressive fish in the tank, accidental poisoning, intentional poisoning by my little sister Marchie, and unexplained quietus—of twelve fish and one seahorse in three months.
I gave up on pet ownership for a year after that.
Then I bought a hamster.
I fared no better with hamsters. They averaged a couple months apiece. Marchie started calling me the “Grim Reaper of Animals.” After the second hamster died, I stuck to raising plants.
My mother praised my basil’s flavor and tenderness.
The pet store near the hospital lacked the fetid, desperate-animal smell I associated with such places. The plastic chew toys off-gassed less in this store than in others—or maybe the air seemed fresher because the backdoor was open, allowing an occasional cool breeze inside. The store smelled mostly of cedar mingled with a hamster-piss odor I recognized from when I owned hamsters.
I’d found myself in that pet store killing time with my four-year-old son Teddy, before my doctor’s appointment that Monday. Teddy loved it so much, I’d told him we’d go back the next day and we did.
Teddy settled himself cross-legged on the floor in front of the puppy display. The puppies lived one or two to a box in what looked like a three-story apartment building set against the back wall of the store. Teddy watched as the two puppies in the ground floor “apartment” scrapped over a set of plastic keys. The bigger puppy pinned its suitemate; the smaller dog’s ear between the larger one’s teeth.
“No biting!” Teddy shouted at the bigger puppy—and then, tapping compassionately on the glass “Don’t worry, it will heal!” to the smaller one.
Teddy, an only child, really talked like that.
I shifted from one foot to the other, in moderate pain. The prescription pain pills made me too groggy to function so I took acetaminophen instead, which only slightly blunted the pain. I stood a while with my eyes closed, expecting Teddy to get bored, but he didn’t. So I watched the animals. In the top-floor of the puppy apartment building, sat a fluffy Maltese with an air about her like that of a confused, elderly woman. Unlike the beagle and the pug two floors down, the Maltese stared out at the pet store patrons. Or maybe she saw her own reflection: she did not appear to really notice us. She was on sale. I wondered if she sensed she was two-hundred dollars cheaper than the day before. I wondered if it troubled her.
My mother always said “life is troubles punctuated by smiles.” For dogs maybe instead of smiles you could say “tail waggings.” I wasn’t sure. I thought about how much heartbreak people saved dogs by having them fixed.
Only nothing is ever fixed.
I wasn’t supposed to get pregnant. I’d hemorrhaged after giving birth to Teddy and the infection following the surgery it took to stop the bleeding caused scar tissue to build in my uterus. Asherman’s Syndrome, they called it. So much scar tissue, they explained, it was “extremely unlikely” I’d conceive again without more surgery. I was only twenty-four years old and in no hurry to repeat the agony I went through having Teddy, so Bill and I agreed I should not undergo surgery to “maybe” regain my fertility. Yet I got happy when I found out I was pregnant. It felt like a reversal of fate, a miracle. Teddy would have a brother or sister after all. My OBGYN warned me not to get my hopes up, but my hopes climbed a little higher each day. If I could get pregnant against the odds, I could carry to term against the odds. He advised me to “take it easy.” I hadn’t so much as lifted Teddy in a month.
“I’m ready to go,” I said to Teddy, feeling shaky, remembering I was supposed to avoid standing until it was over—worried for a second about violating doctors’ orders, then falling hard on the thought that following doctors’ orders guaranteed nothing.
Teddy looked up at me, his eyes full of puppies. “Five more minutes, Mommy. Please?”
Five more minutes would not kill me. And if the bleeding got worse, the hospital was across the street.
I put my hand over my womb. The cramping had subsided a little. Dr. Haversoll said the DNC could wait a few days, until Bill got back tomorrow from his meeting in China, that it wasn’t urgent—that the pregnancy wasn’t far enough along the procedure to be urgent.
I had not told Bill.
I put the thought of telling Bill behind glass to avoid crying. If I’d cried Teddy would have hugged me and asked me if I was okay and asked me if it would heal and offered to kiss the spot that hurt and I’d have cried harder. When Bill got home I could cry privately: I used this thought like cotton to soak up the tears in my head.
I studied the dogs, grinding my teeth in pain. I needed to be strong that Tuesday. I could cry on Wednesday.
There were two dogs—a Jack Russell and a collie—in the apartment between the old lady dog and the scrappers: they were easy to overlook. They’d had their backs to the window and spent the last ten minutes cuddling in their nook, half-asleep, the way Bill and I did after a long day when he was not in a meeting in China. A lady walked up with her preteen daughters. She wanted to buy the Jack Russell. The collie raised her head as a store employee removed her companion: then she sat up and stared at the door through which he’s been removed. She stayed that way, as if taxidermied.
She was still sitting up, back to the window, staring at the door like that when Teddy bounced up to tug on my skirt.
“Mommy,” he said. “Can I have a puppy?”
“Which one do you think you want?” I said—not wanting to say no right away; trying to call up the strength to deal with the tantrum he’d throw when I said no.
He pointed at the collie. “That one.”
“Why that one,” I asked, surprised, hoping he could not tell how close I was to tears.
Teddy looked at me with his serious eyes—eyes just like Bill’s—eyes set in an expression that otherwise reflected my side of the family as Teddy looked like a smaller, cuter, brown-eyed version of my father. Yes, Teddy reminded me of dad—had from the day he was born. Bill saw it, too—it was Bill who suggested we name Teddy after my stalwart, tender father. Teddy. How I loved his soft, sticky face; his watermelon-and-corn-chips smell; the gentleness with which he kissed my cheek to wake me each morning, laughing at my sleepiness and saying: “The sun is up!” For a moment I forgot the pain in my lower abdomen and smiled at my son.
He wiggled his doughty little hand into mine.
“That one looks sad,” he said, pointing at the collie with his free hand. “I want to make her happy.”
Jennifer Companik graduated from Northwestern University's Master of Arts in Creative Writing program in 2009 and is a fiction reader for *TriQuarterly*, the university’s literary journal. She is a staff writer at RadiantStreets.com. Some of her publications include: a first-prize awarded story in *The Ledge* magazine's 2014 Short Fiction Award Competition, a winning entry in Larry Doyle’s Agony and Ecstasy Contest, anthologized in the expanded paperback edition of Doyle’s novel *I Love You, Beth Cooper*; an essay for *Newcity* magazine; a semi-finalist short story entry in the *Chicago Tribune’s* Great Chicago Ghost Story Contest; a memoir in *Smith Magazine’s* book *It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure*; and several essays for *The Good Men Project*.