Alma Mathijsen – I Don’t Want to Be a Dog
There’s a different look in your eye. It scares me. You swirl the pasta around your fork with practiced ease, dabbing the meat sauce with your knife. You’re in a hurry to finish your plate, whereas usually it’s me eating your food. For a long time I was embarrassed about this – shouldn’t I eat a bit less? Then I gave up on that feeling, I was having it all already, in a way. The love and the food.
‘I don’t know,’ you say.
Your plate is empty and you look at me. For more than a year now I’ve been hearing those words in answer to every question. Why won’t you talk now? Why can’t I touch you? Why can’t I snuggle up to you anymore? There are three raviolis left, in too much oil. I know exactly what you mean, but still don’t dare to hear you say it. I’m not going to respond yet, I tell myself. I’m going to take a very long time eating my food. I’ve tried that before, but it never worked, I’m just too eager, too greedy. My throat tightens. Each mouthful is too big, the pasta squashes against the roof of my mouth. Is this what not liking to eat feels like? You once said you’d rather take a pill than have to eat three meals a day. I think I’d rather die than not eat three meals a day.
You repeat: ‘I really don’t know any more.’
I thought you’d never dare to say that twice in succession. Can I pretend I didn’t hear? So we can just get on with life? So I can get on with writing my piece for tomorrow’s paper, while you pull the bedclothes up to your chin and go back to sleep. Because I don’t know either. I don’t know why we’re here, nor what the point of it all is, nor whether the universe is finite. But that wasn’t what you meant. What you meant was that you really don’t know how to make things better, how you could possibly fix things between us. That word bothers me – really. That you really don’t know. As if there’s a way of not knowing other than really.
‘Nor do I,’ I tell him. I’m lying.
I can think of a thousand ways and I’ve been suggesting them for years.
Yet more summers in Italy, more Aperol Spritz, yet more paracetamol next day, less clothes, more fire, and it’s real fires I’m talking about, fires we make ourselves in the night, even if the fire brigade has to come out and we have to run and hide behind the rocks.
Yet more food you can’t finish which I end up eating so you won’t feel bad in front of the waiter.
Yet more lounging on the sofa, enlaced, watching The Lobster all over again, finding bits of popcorn between the cushions, eating them up and then picking our teeth for the rest of the evening. Getting each other to listen to yet more songs, including the one I’m ashamed of. I’ll join in drinking the whisky that leaves my throat smoky and raw. Yet more ‘Fluff’ and other nicknames for me which make no sense at all but sound like a declaration of love each time you say them.
Yet more fingers in my ear and in other places.
Yet more mirrors and looking in them when you hold me or when you fuck me, yes more of that please, much more.
Talking anyway, with people we don’t know, have never met, who call themselves therapists and who don’t listen to what we say but to what we mean.
And afterwards yet more trips to the cinema when the sun’s high in the sky.
Yet more looking at each other’s phones to see other people’s messages, your feed’s more fun than mine in any case.
More bike rides in the rain going nowhere.
You lying down on top of me yet again with me keeping perfectly still, just to feel your weight and then in the end the same yet again.
You ask for the bill. I can’t hold back my tears and you just look. I don’t dare to raise my eyes because I can’t bear to see you’re still not crying. As we walk back home a completely different feeling comes over me. Suddenly I’ve had enough.
‘Okay then,’ I say, ‘we’ll stop.’
When I was a kid I’d crumble a roll of biscuits if I couldn’t have one. If I can’t have a biscuit no one else can either. The old destructive urge rises up through my gut and comes out as hateful speech. I utter the words slowly, rolling them on my tongue before articulating them with precision. Six oven-baked buns with a flourish at the end. This is unexplored territory.
‘I don’t know either anymore,’ I say, insincerely.
‘You say you don’t, but what you mean is you do.”
A woman bends down, her fingers wrapped in a blue plastic bag. An untrimmed poodle bounces about impatiently. Without the least revulsion she scrapes the shit off the paving stone. You give the dog an indulgent look, appearing to have forgotten what I just said.
We sit side by side on the sofa in a way we never did before. Now you’re heaving and crying, each tear coursing through your body to erupt as a shuddering sob. For a brief moment I enjoy the sight of it, thinking back to all those times I stood before you, naked, and you ignored me. Now I shall pretend not to notice you crying. I succeed for two seconds, then I let myself fall against you.
‘D’you want me to go now?’ you ask.
No, don’ t go, do anything you like, but don’t go.
‘It’s up to you.’
Up to me again. That’s not what I want. I want you to stay, I want you to never leave, I want you to hold me and drink me up.
‘Maybe you should,’ I say, murdering everything as I say it.
I’m making your choice for you, I say the words you’re too cowardly to say. Now it’s me hanging in your arms, heaving.
‘Fluff,’ you say for the last time.
You kiss me, it’s salty with tears. Stop putting our coat on, take your hand off the doorknob, stop putting one foot in front of the other.
And then everything’s changed. I collapse onto the carpet, never knew it could prick so sharply into the palms of my hands.
‘I like coming here when the others are asleep.’
Gerard and I go past the lake into the pine wood. The smell is so good, I only know it from pine-scented bath salts. Now and then there’s a waft of dog-marked territory, the further in the wood the fainter it gets.
‘Nearly there now.’
He spends much of the day in bed; at nightfall he’s gone from his basket. I’m starting to adapt my sleep rhythm to the reunitement. At the consultation they said it’s probably too early for that, the others don’t usually start until the final week, when the placement is certain. I’d rather get used to it now. You don’t usually go to sleep until two a.m. , or even later when you have a gig, could be four or even five in the morning. I don’t know if you’ll take me along to gigs, if I’ll be allowed to wait for you in the dressing room, or if you’ll ask me up on stage on special occasions. Some performers do that. This is my dog Eleanor, she’s coming to say hi, she always wants to say hi. Could you say hi back? Hiiiiiiiii! Sleeping until noon, perhaps even until one, that sounds just fine to me. You often went back to sleep when I started work in the next room. That was so restful. From now on I’ll just sleep as long as you do. Which is why it’s such a good idea to join Gerard on his walks. It’ll be several hours before I can return to my basket.
‘Any changes?’ Gerard asks.
By now I’ve got hair sprouting all over my body, my nails have turned black and pointy. The ground underfoot is already less painful to walk on.
‘ Look,’ I say, raising my left foot, ‘paw-pads coming on, right?’
Gerard puts his snout down to check.
‘Looks like it. This is your fourth day. I’m jealous, I must admit.’
‘I won’t have to leave just yet, you know. I still have quite a lot to get done before I’m ready.’
‘Last month there was a young lady here, only twenty-two years old, still had long blond hair when she arrived, within six days she’d transitioned into a golden retriever, and the day after that she was placed. Six days in all, just six days. I don’t want to dwell on it, or I’d get some very dark thoughts.’
There’s blossom on the trees, the scent is overpowering.
‘What’s your favourite season?’
‘How d’you mean?’
‘Oh, just in general.’
‘Before I knew Elwin I was hardly what you’d call a fun-loving guy. If you’d asked me then, my answer would probably have been winter. Spring raises expectations, expectations that summer never fulfills – it’s always a let-down. The same goes for autumn, you might still get a few more fine days, but they’re no good either. But winter, that’s different, at least you know it won’t be getting any worse. You know where you stand. Given the choice back then, I’d have said winter.’
Twigs crackle as I walk, Gerard is far more light-footed, he makes barely a sound.
Elwin’s favourite season is summer. Since meeting him I’ve learnt to love the sun. He used to layer on the sunscreen from top to toe, the whole bathroom would smell of it for days. Sometimes he left footprints on the parquet, but I didn’t mind in the least. He installed himself on my sun deck and stayed there for hours on end. Late in the afternoon I settled down beside him. He took my hand in his, which felt hot and sticky, and then he said: ‘I want it to never end.’ And I thought exactly the same. My whole life I couldn’t stand people fawning over each other in that cliché lovey-dovey way, but now that it was happening to me I wanted nothing else. The more cliché the better. I love you, I wanted to whisper in his ear. I didn’t actually dare say that until months later. Elwin said it back to me right away, it melted my heart.
‘We’re nearly there. When I get back with Elwin, summer will be my favourite again, that’s what I wanted to say. Here we are.’
Around the base of a thick tree there are hundreds of scraps of litter, all very neatly arranged.
‘This is what he ate every Sunday after his last training.’
Gerard points to a Twix wrapper. It has two little pebbles on top to keep it from blowing away.
‘I took this book from the monitors’ rooms, it’s not much good, but it’s a thriller and Elwin liked those. I do too, as a matter of fact, I’ve even written a couple myself – am I boasting, now? No matter. This stick is important. I carved his initials into it.’
I don’t dare ask how he managed to carve the stick – must have done it with his teeth, couldn’t have been with his paws.
We wrote a song about a stick, just before it was over. I am your stick, I said, you throw me away and fetch me back. That’s a good line, you said, and pulled up your keyboard. In a few minutes you had a tune, we sang it together. I don’t know which of us was the stick, I expect it was me. I’m your stick, you throw me away and fetch me back. This is far too destructive to my mind, you keep taking my love for granted, you destroy me. Singing together like that, fifty times or more, and still not realizing the end is near. I don’t quite know how that works. The future always has clues hidden in the present. I can hardly believe that mine were so obvious while I was so blind. I can’t listen to that song just now. It’ll be different when I’m back with you.
‘These are beech nuts, Elwin didn’t particularly like them, but there’s not much I can gather in this wood. If a waste bin gets blown over by the wind I consider myself lucky.’
It’s an altar without candles. The other dogs yearn for their sweethearts, but what Gerard does is worship.
My snout is emerging. I felt it this morning. It’s my fourteenth day at the centre. I sleep late in the mornings, just as I planned to do. In the afternoon I try to get as much practice in as possible, I want to be fit for the reunitement. At night I walk with Gerard. He talks an awful lot about Elwin, and I talk about you. They still don’t know why it’s taking so long with Gerard. Sometimes I’m afraid his transition has stopped, but I’ll never mention that to him. My whole face feels different, my nose has turned quite black already, my mouth feels tight. It’s Sunday, which means we’re fed wet food. I’m not keen on that, but the other dogs love it. I like hot food, not the cold and wet kind. I’d rather have pellets, they don’t remind me so much of the food I miss so badly. I hope you’ll go on cooking for me. Whoever decided that dogs don’t like human food deserves to be punched. Gerard prefers eating when everyone else has finished, he doesn’t like seeing the others gorge themselves. He and I wait for the others to finish so we can eat in peace.
‘My arms were the first to change, but I still I haven’t got used to eating straight with my mouth,’ he says.
The wet food in particular repels him, bits of it get stuck in the corners of his mouth, which are hard to get rid of without using your hands, and he always wants to look clean and tidy.
‘Gug going prackiss ee we gy gouth.’
Gerard gives me a worried look. Is this really happening already? I can’t pronounce the letters any more.
The I has gone.
‘Gug prackiss ee gy gouth.’
The t and the m have also gone. I can’t get my tongue round the sounds any more. Tears well up in Gerard’s eyes. He’s about to lose his friend. I want to feel regret on his behalf, but what I feel is excitement. It’s going faster than I dared to hope. Maybe it’s because I’m younger than Gerard, he’s a bit overage for the programme, really, in fact he bought himself a place.
‘Can you still think straight?’
How can I tell, I wonder, but it looks like it. I still want to be with you, I know I was once a writer and that Gerard is my friend. I nod my head.
‘You already look different.’
Gerard looks at his food and then back at me.
‘It’s a nice snout, honestly.’
‘Wog will gug be? Wog. Will. Gug. Be.’
I point to myself.
‘I don’t know, I don’t think you’ll be a pedigree. But that’s not what you were after, is it?’
A quiet border collie would suit me fine, if such a creature exists. Or your favourite of course, the Australian sheep dog, but that’s not on the cards. You mentioned mongrels, if I remember right. That’s it for you, it seems. A rough-haired, loving mongrel.
– Translation by Ina Rilke