Illustration by Ruth Sora Lee
By Alisa A. Gaston-Linn
It is afternoon with the lethargic winter sun muted through the bedroom sheer curtains and closed window when I place my swaddled baby into her bassinet at the foot of my bed. I need to nap. Give me twenty minutes to weaken the swell of my exhaustion. Twenty minutes is all I ask. It does not take long for my senses to shut down and my body to collapse into dormancy. I awake two hours later. My curls in a mess. My baby is serene, her minuscule mouth releasing airy baby breaths while I try to move myself out of that sleep-invoking disorientated state. The wind presses and wails outside, the naked willow tree branches slap across our back deck, making my listless state of mind emptier.
It has been a dry winter in the foothills of Colorado. No snow in ages. Yellow, crackly grass, neither deciduous nor evergreen trees gaining moisture. I pull my body out of bed and tense up because of the lack of fullness in the room, the space normally occupied by our two dogs that sleep in their open kennels in the corners of our bedroom. They are not there. Scotia is an eighty-pound Weimaraner and Tetley is a seventy-five-pound Weimaraner-Lab mix, so they are not difficult to overlook. I walk downstairs. I search the house, checking their usual spots: the sofa in the living room, the dog beds in the family room, behind the dining room table, in the basement next to the doggy-door that leads to the backyard, then the backyard itself, but they are nowhere. My confusion melds into panic. I feel the lack of canine energy throughout the entire house, which is a peculiar sense of loss. A house without a dog—after it has been saturated with dog smell, dog mud, dog spit, and the general goodness of dog—is not complete.
I run upstairs to be sure my baby is still asleep before I frantically check all of the “dog spots” again. Finally, I look out one of the back windows and see that the wind has blown open the gate. The lake is a block over and we can see it through the neighbors’ yards behind us. During the summer, the dogs like to swim there, Scotia chasing sticks and Tetley chasing the Canada geese. During cold, moist winters, the lake freezes over, hard. The deepest spot is barely fifteen feet, so we take the dogs on the solid ice and they run the distance of the entire lake, often leaping and wrestling while the weightless snowflakes float in soft grey skies. Some of the neighbors whose homes border the lake have told us that one of their favorite things to do in the winter months is to watch our dogs play on the ice.
But now in this warmer winter, the lake is not frozen solid. The blue waters are half frozen, half open, and as I run out the back door to look in the yard again, the dread overwhelms me. The dogs are out; they must have gone to the lake. I imagine them with their exquisite, silver-colored coats running toward what they thought would be thick ice, then falling into the cold, paralyzing water and drowning. My dogs submerged, dead. I cry out as agony infests my brain. And then for one particle of a moment, I am relieved. I am relieved that my dogs are dead.
Now I begin to sob because I am a barbarian. A wretched woman to wish her dogs asphyxiated by a chilling lake. The sobs turn to fury. Blood boiling, head screaming because I know why the gate blew open. My husband did not shut it right. He seldom does, even though I have told him in a pestering echo to be sure the latch is locked. The gate has blown open more times in the four years we have lived in this house than I can recall. I want to phone him and tell him he has killed our dogs. I am going to shout with such force that he feels the pierce of my voice transmitted into radio waves moving through the receiver, coiling around his neck, like a snake squeezing, until he passes out. But I have already called him at work this week more than once, using my most irritated of tones, asking where he put the dog leashes, where he put the silver cooking tongs, where he put the dustpan and small broom. I can sense that he is sapped by all of my calls. There is a flicker in my head, a hint warning that my rationale is bent, yet the birth of my baby has put me into protection mode, and this, I tell myself, explains my resentment toward my husband and hounds.
Soon after we married, I realized that this man of mine is the type who is not concerned with the order of things in a home, but it goes beyond that. His thoughts engross him, bewitch his brain, smudge all fractions of lucid compartmentalizing. I have found the milk in the pantry, a bag of apples under the bathroom sink next to the cleaning products, a pack of duct tape rolls in the refrigerator and on a different day, his wallet in the refrigerator, to be specific, in the vegetable drawer. But, his behavior seemed uneventful, funny, not worth mentioning. I simply looked for things and eventually found them.
Now, after having a baby, this disorder of things is a huge hammer forcing me down. I storm around, talking to myself, searching. I dwell on how much time I have wasted rummaging through our home looking for the pasta spoon, the stainless steel food storage bin with the blue lid, the small black water bottle. Hours that have added up to weeks. Weeks have calculated to months. I imagine red chunks marked on my calendar demonstrating the shortened temporal length of my productiveness as a new mother caused by my pursuit of these things.
And he is loud. By nature, he is boisterous, his voice carries, he whistles, even when he has no tune in his head he flutes out a cacophony. His “up” energy used to comfort me, assuring me he is happy and content. Now, it drains my energy. He does not enter rooms, he arrives. He does not open doors, he bursts through them. The same with closing, the doors bash, mimicking his genuine presence. He does not place things into drawers, he tosses them, which causes mini-crashes each time he uses any type of utensil or tool. Pre-baby it made no difference, I never winced. Yet, in my present condition, every gesture that involves access and conclusion is like glass shattering and this fictitious glass is within me, cutting my skin, muscle, and core.
My dogs are dead, I tell myself. These two dogs that did not even flinch when we brought our baby home. Who are gentle and friendly, and for the most part, obedient. Scotia the intelligent, cheeky one, and Tetley the one we rescued from a shelter with his separation anxiety and history of being abused. I sit on the couch, read recipes for homemade baby food, and imagine how the house would be without the chaos of these two large dogs—and I like it. Yet I am ashamed.
From the time I was two, there has been a dog in my home. I don’t know how to live without them. This is how I finally concede that a deterioration has begun to burrow through my normal state of existence. Even though I know I should not, I dial my husband’s number at work. He answers in his loving, jubilant way, “Hey, Babe.” And I begin to release my wrath. He listens as I hurl my condemnation of how many times he has left the gate open, how the dogs are surely dead, how he is to blame, how irresponsible, absent-minded, and plain idiotic it is to leave a gate unlatched. He ignores all the degradation and with toleration assures me that the dogs are alive. “They’ll come home, they always do.”
I shriek, “Unless they get hit by a car! You know Scotia likes to go to the other neighborhood across First Street! You know how busy that street is!”
When I am not resenting the man I love, I am terrified he will die. He rides a BMW Dakar motorcycle to work, even in winter, but only when there is no ice on the roads or heavy snows smothering the ground. He is an exquisite rider. A safe rider. He wears a helmet and follows the rules. It is the other drivers in cars that cause my concern. When my baby is sleeping, and I attempt to get things done around the house, I fall into a hypnagogic state of consciousness, and run gruesome hypothetical scenes in my head. As he is turning left, a car heading straight slams into him, catapulting his bike to the other side of the road where he falls to the ground and the crushing metal traps him. Or a car pulls out from a side road and forcefully moves over the bike, breaking it into parts, and mangling him. I am so disturbed by my own creations, I whimper until my stomach muscles contract and I begin to cramp in pain.
I hate these dogs. I cannot stand how Scotia’s short, thick hairs embed into the fabric of my bra and stick my breasts like a pinprick. When she jumps onto the counter and steals food, I jab her in the neck and erupt. “Get out of here, you rotten dog!” When she barks at the UPS truck passing, I drag her by the scruff to her kennel, slam the door shut and lock it. When I am on the floor playing with my baby and Tetley leans his head into my face because he is needy, I scold him and push him away and he cowers. Before I had the baby, I used to put my arms around him and let him drop into my lap.
When I tuck my baby into the carrier strapped to my chest and take the dogs for walks, I don’t allow them to stop and explore. If they have to pee, I let them pee, then I yank them back into the manic pace. Before, I had compassion and adoration toward my dogs, I used nonaggressive corrections. Now I use a menacing whip of acrimony.
I detest how my husband has refused to read anything about how to take care of a baby. I stew in irritation because after quitting my job to stay home to raise our daughter—a mutual decision made by my husband and me—I haven’t earned my own money for the first time since I began working at the age of thirteen as a babysitter and washing my uncle’s company pickup trucks. And because after I married I sold my house and moved out of Denver with its art-house movie theaters, performing arts centers, most excellent restaurants, writing community, and museums. I had lived an independent life for a long time. I met my husband when I was thirty-eight, didn’t have my child until I was forty-three.
Now I live in a small town with only two decent restaurants, no independent films, and what I would call more like a piece of a museum rather than an actual museum. Once, it exhibited art by Ansel Adams, but I am not interested in black and white photos that are forever circulating on calendars, postcards, and cups. Give me the not-so-saturating art of Yoshitomo Nara or Willem de Kooning. Even though I took part in these decisions, I somehow see my husband as the ogre who forced me to give up a life of dinner parties, art walks, scrumptious food served under glorious atmospheres, book readings, and writer’s retreats.
When my husband breathes on me at night in our bed, I roll over. When he wants to have sex, I cringe. I am not available for intimacy, even on the simplest level. When I am home alone with my baby, I am sliding through blissfulness, bonding with her as I breastfeed, smiling until it hurts when she plays on the blanket with toys. It is the first time in my life I understand what it means to be willing to give your life for someone else. As long as I can ignore the dogs, and focus only on my daughter, I am one of those mothers. A normal one. A calm one. A mother who adjusts in the same way any animal instinctively knows how to care for offspring and everything else around her. But when the dogs refuse to leave my side or my husband comes home from work and begins his usual clamor, my warm, flowing self freezes as quickly and fiercely as our lake during hard winters and I am cracking like the ice as it moves with pressure. Around this man who loads and empties the dishwasher without me asking, who shares in the cooking, who brings me tea, who changes diapers and does the nighttime routine with our baby every night so that he can bond with her, who is affectionate, who once went to the drugstore at 3:00 in the morning to buy anti-nausea medicine when I had the flu, around this man, I am an abomination.
He does not always take my denigration, he fights accordingly. But mostly, I see him looking desperately into me while I stand in front of him, when we’re talking, when I’m spiteful, he is searching for me in my face, probably wondering what happened to the woman he married. I have sorrow in these moments, when I understand that he knows he has lost me.
I walk outside to the front of the house and call for my dogs. I whistle using four fingers pressed to my tongue, the type of whistle heard at a sporting event. I wait. It is cold even without snow. The wind bats my curls, I pull my wool cardigan closer, then whistle more. I call again. Tears swell, but not because of the frigid temperature. The thought of cremating my dogs together is devastating. I will mix their ashes before spreading them so they will always have one another, especially after I have been so mean. Yet, thinking of light ashes drifting away, lifting from under my responsibility, settles me. I whistle one more time, and then, they come running. They are not dead. They are not even dripping from a possible fall into the lake. They rush into the house, joyful with dog smiles as though nothing has happened.
It is not my dogs who are in danger. I am the one sinking to the lower-density stratifying waters, the upper surface trying to freeze while I am trying to prevent the hardening. There is something wrong with me. I feel it through the tips of my nerves, the chambers of my heart. I want nothing more than to retreat into our bedroom, shut the door, and read a book while my baby lies on my chest sleeping. He can take care of the dogs. I will hush my dreadful thoughts as my daughter hears my pulse in her dreams.
When my husband comes home and sees that the dogs are safe, I am making dinner, poaching salmon. I do not want to hear I told you so from him so I turn on the dogs again, disregarding my earlier fear of their possible demise. They scratch the back door to go outside but I don’t want to let them outside, I am busy whisking the cream to create a thick sauce. I shout, “Go lay down!” Scotia runs and hides in the bathroom, and Tetley shakes. My husband asks if I want to get rid of them. I know he loves these dogs, but I also know that wanting to help me is more crucial to him. I walk away without saying a word. I felt relief when I thought my dogs had drowned, yet now I am furious with my husband for making such a horrific suggestion.
This turmoil in our house continues for another year. After dinner on a dark, winter night, I have a massage scheduled at a local chiropractic office. It is the one moment, once a month, that I have complete tranquility moving through my body. That I forget about every item my husband has lost or his exaggerated activities, that I forget about our invasive dogs. My husband has made plans to meet up with some motorcycle enthusiasts once I return. After my massage, I stop at the grocery store to pick up yogurt and cashews, I also realize we need fresh fruit so I fill several bags.
I walk into the house, I am relaxed, ready to take a hot bath and go to bed. My husband is sitting on the couch. He is angry. He thought I would be home over an hour ago. I did not know this, I thought he was leaving much later. We argue. Both of us are right, both are wrong. The baby is upstairs in her crib, in a deep sleep with the humidifier humming and sound machine purring, with the acoustic design of our home restricting the noise that travels up to her room, so we are free to let it out. We argue for a good ten minutes, I am standing, he is sitting on the couch. Then he stands and reaches high for a pillow on the back of the couch next to me, but I do not see the pillow, I only see the elevated arm and open hand and I snap into a ferocity that my husband has never seen. My entire body visibly trembles as my voice extends to an outrageous pitch louder than any sound he has ever made. “Don’t you ever raise a hand to me! If you ever raise a hand to me or hit me, I will rip you to fucking pieces!” My husband is stunned, incapacitated, with a mixed look of amazement and regret. I continue, “I will fucking take your daughter and leave and you will never see her again!”
I am crying and hyperventilating all at once and I run up to our bedroom, shut and lock the door, and collapse onto the floor, hysterical. My husband’s footsteps are quiet as he walks up the stairs and I hear light taps on the door. “Please,” he begs, “let me in.” It takes a while before I open it. When he comes in he is gentle. He gathers me up and carries me to our bed. “I would never, ever hit you. I was reaching for the pillow.” I am inconsolable. He wraps his arms around me and repeats what he said. My intellect that has gone haywire is only half-processing the message. He tells me over and over until it floats in like a soft snow, the snowflakes melting on my face, the cold making my brain function in the correct way. This is the moment I know my marriage will end if I do not find my way back to normalcy.
My doctors look beyond the birth of my child and they focus on my age. Forty-five. They order the labs, they take a saliva swab and run the hormone levels, the phlebotomists draw my blood, I go through all of the examinations. A collision has taken place, they tell me, postpartum depression has hit head on with perimenopause. I am dismayed. I am relieved. My motherhood anxiety and despair is fusing with my hormonal transitional mood swings and I feel like an enormous, guilt-ridden mess. I go through various supplemental mixtures and medications until the doctors find the correct concoction and the calibration takes place.
Every day I must take a mild antidepressant, progesterone, testosterone, and a pile of food-based vitamins. I begin seeing a therapist who convinces me that I am not at fault, that I have had no control over the transformation of chemical structures in my body. The calm that finally moves through brings me back, opens the water. The overflow sends me into a warmer presence where my husband is waiting. Where my dogs are waiting.
Four years later, I sometimes have lows, but they are no longer explosive, no longer hateful. My husband has forgiven me, and so I forgive myself. After being together for eleven years, we have a thick devotion, a lasting attachment, we feel the vitality between us again. And the dogs. I am both humiliated and grateful that they never doubted me even when I treated them with nothing but contempt. They are now eight years old, both graying on the chins, they sleep back-to-back at the foot of my bed. My baby is now five years old. She naps while I sit at the computer researching the best elementary schools in our area. My husband tinkers with his motorcycle in the garage. While the December snow falls, I am a tranquil mother, waiting for the lake to freeze so that our dogs can run and play. I love these dogs.
Author’s Note: I was a bit hesitant to write about this awful stage in my life because I didn’t want to hurt my husband. I thought the piece might insinuate that I didn’t love him. I’m still stunned at how patient he was with me through all of it. But he’s a strong person and held on because I think he understood all along that my internal chaos never spoiled the love.
Alisa A. Gaston-Linn’s work has appeared in The Sun, The Montreal Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Rocky Mountain Parent, the anthologies Untold Stories: Life, Love, and Reproduction, and Creatures of Habitat, along with other publications. She has taught creative writing to youth at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers, and has volunteered as a creative writing facilitator for the Boys and Girls Club, and Urban Peak Teen Shelter. She is currently working on a novel.
Ruth Sora Lee has been drawing portraits on napkins since she was a little girl. She and Brain, Child go way back in 2006 where she received one of her first illustration jobs (thank you!). Since then, she has taught art to elementary students for five wonderful years and became a mother. She lives in southern CA with her husband and daughter.
RETURN TO THE DECEMBER ISSUE