He was soft because I conditioned him every Thursday night in the bathtub. He was soft as rosemary. Or, rosemary from dad’s garden on lamb chops in the winter. He smelled the way the kitchen smells after lamb chops in the winter, with mint sauce. Soft as rainwater. Dart was at once deep and shallow. Intense and blithe. Bouts of neuroses and self-loathing. Varying degrees of unlikability (depending on the crowd). Honest with his eyes in a way I could never be. On the Tuesday before he died, we were eating grapes in my bed. We were giggling and feeling “da funk”...listening to his favorite song, “Dog It” by Digable Planets. Dart always lost it in the second verse, when Ladybug Mecca came on with the alto rapping, “We vanish like vapor / burn paper / we deal real-real so chill / we linger in the funk.” He knew the words by heart.
My breath stood still when he died. As if it were waiting to be held by my lungs, but my lungs were a broken hammock: frayed and split and neglected. All I could think of when he died were the nights when it rained and I scooped his body up, spiraled like a yoyo—listening to rain dancing vibrant on the drain-pipe, as if to techno music in East London—and he was heavy, like carrying a watermelon from the trunk of Mom’s car to the kitchen—Dart, a perfect ball of Cookies ‘n Cream in my arms—and I would put him underneath the covers beside my naked belly. He was interstitial; me, Dart, the sheets. Late nights were our sanctuary: glow-sticks, lava lamps and my torso becoming the Corinthian columns that held up our tented acropolis. When we were in middle school, my friends Kai and Bel would come over and we’d take big bong rips and blow the smoke into Dart’s nostrils, or into his ears, in-between his teeth, and he’d just be lying there, gentle, his eyes getting red! crusting over! glowing! “I’m fluent after dark, in any sit-e-ation / flyer we get the higher we get.”
I was the first in my family to hate my family. The year we got Dart, I was eleven. It was the same year my parents stopped doing cocaine. The same year my parents started parenting. The same year they sat me down at the kitchen table and dished out my rules to live by: 1) Money isn’t everything. 2) Rules are made to be broken. And 3) Never give chocolate to the dog. The first two were easy, but Rule 3 became impossible when I met Dart.
Okay…I guess 1 and 2 make my parents sound like hippies.
They weren’t hippies. Or, maybe it was just that they were only hippies in retrospect. Like, maybe they wore day-glo one-pieces and grew out their hair and fucked on top of school buses, and in some light—but only in some—there may be remnants of a piercing in my dad’s left ear...and rumor has it my dad was nineteen at Woodstock, seeing all that shit and saying Fuck War, pretending to have flat feet, dodging rubber bullets and smoking weed with all the other Deadheads; while my mom, roughly a decade younger, was learning to kiss through smoke rings in the stairwell at an apartment in Northridge, would go on to have boyfriends and one-night-stands and abortions. But all this is hearsay. (Either I didn’t ask about their pasts so they never told me, or they didn’t tell me so I never asked.)
My parents shaped up in the ‘90s—meaning blue denim and shirts with no logos. My parents were sedulous about making me boring. I am boring. I have few hobbies. The hobbies I do have, everybody else has too.
Everything changed when I met Dart. (He was my Clifford if I ever had one.) I was still boring, yeah (ok, sure) but now I had someone to be boring with! someone that could be mine! someone who could transcend the bullshit! and all this while my half-sisters were being chartered across the country back and forth from their mom in Miami Beach to my family in Oceanside. They shared their own room downstairs and were too busy IM-ing boys at their high school or being jealous I had a dad full-time, despite my insisting he wasn’t that great, to notice me and Dart upstairs in our bunk bed sharing secrets under the covers.
I had Dart and that was everything.
I used to write prose poems about Dart’s eyelashes. It was challenging because they were so ineffable. The poems all came out like this:
Nothing was left of him but the eyes
To what stories he alluded with his lashes
Fluttering was reminiscing
Batting was ruminating
And blinking, reflecting
Dart loved chocolate, despite himself. Anything chocolate had him springing, leaping jovially with his pink tongue going up down up down and his tail going left right left, his eyes looking more ravenous all the time. I did this thing that was real fun, like—I did this thing where I would take a fistfull of chocolate chips from the yellow Nestle bag and toss them across the kitchen tile like Jacks; and Dart, he’d be there slipping and skating, paws like socks on the blue-and-white linoleum, skittering here! then there! licking up every one of them. And yeah, maybe it was his kryptonite, but at least he was living! living big! on the edge! contact! contact! life! air! breath! barking F-U to mom’s It’ll make him sick.
Dart died in October of my Junior year.
We were in the backseat of the Jeep en route home from a hike in Julian, tittering and snarling, playing jello, with Dad at the wheel and Mom with her sunglasses on in the front seat yelling back things like how’s my D’Artagnan doing? and us, ignoring her, shock-absorbing every barnacle beneath the backwheels.
Dart and I were really having it that day: swirling together, singing songs aloud to nothingness; the vibrations, maybe, the staticky chime of the wind whipping by. It was special because Dart and I, I mean—we were never all that care-free.
On most days we were existentialists. Together we enjoyed silence and gazing into ourselves in shallow pools of water. Dart cried at the end of “Tale of Two Cities.” He was scandalized when I told him about Sartre and de Beauvoir. He yearned for the pure, transparent freedom of de Beauvoir! feeling stifled by cul-de-sacs, satellite neighborhoods, strip-malls, Petcos. Parks with fences. Fake grass. When we read “The Blood of Others” aloud, I could see his eyes bulge with the plight of the universe: Dart, helplessly small, lost in self-bestowed malaise. He hated being a suburbs dog. He felt leashed. Dart lacked empathy because he had never been on the streets, or at the pound, and he was pure-bred. A supremacist; whatever. Bored with his privilege, Dart often acted in socially unacceptable ways and did what he wanted with no regard for consequence. He discovered transgression to escape the accident of birth.
When he wasn’t pushing me away—sleeping on the floor; leaving my bed before I woke up; things like that, to get me to love him less—Dart and I would have movie marathons. Dart loved Buster Keaton films. (“The General,” 1926.) He also enjoyed Woody Allen stand-up. We would bring Chips Ahoy! upstairs and re-watch the set in which Woody Allen turns down, very cavalier, the commission to be that year’s vodka man after consulting his rabbi, because, the rabbi says, it’s illegal, unethical, immoral, etcetera; and a few months later Mr. Allen’s flipping through Life magazine and he comes across an ad with Monique Van Vooren on the beach in Jamaica—and next to her holding a cold glass of vodka in his hand...is his rabbi! Dart and I could watch that bit six or seven times over, and still be overflowing with laughs, discussing the cyclical nature of Allen’s gags...laughs, and piles of cookie crumbs on my quilt.
The road from Julian to Oceanside was sinuous, but Dad was driving fearlessly feeling as funk as Rod Stewart did on his second album. Dad was having—I noticed it in his eyes in the rearview mirror—a ‘Dad’ moment: the I have a full life with wife and kid and dog; finally feeling whole and wholesome for the first time since the Salvation Army squished peaches into his prison slot on Thanksgiving day in 1980, or, since he held me in his arms at Scripps Hospital in University City in 1996. The road from Julian was sinuous, yes, but we knew this getting into the car...and we swore a thing like this only happened on movie sets in North Hollywood. By this, I mean the jeep flipping.
Us. Still bouncing to the vibrations inside, as if spinning in teacups at the County Fair, having just eaten our jumbo pickles and caramelized apples—the air smelling like cotton candy—and Dart, tumbling—over me, then under me, then over me again—and everything’s kaleidoscopic and bright and beautiful—and I think I hear Dart hoorah! as if on the merry-go-round—
His rib cracking against my knee. The pressure of Dart and the car.
Me and not the chocolate.
Me, screaming—no tears! no tears! he’s still here, you’re right here!—Dart! Dart! here, boy! good boy—
My parents indulge my fantasy for years. They are confused by me. Whisper about whether or not I am utterly delusional. They google things. I become the talk among their circle of friends. “Who is Dart?” they ask each other across their pillows. One night, when she thinks I am asleep, my mom asks me, crying: “Who is Dart, baby?” My parents tell me that I never had a dog.
They tell me that I did have a brother. That he committed suicide when he was seventeen. That I was fifteen. That he had been clinically depressed for four years. That we were very close for very long. I repeat in my head: There is no dog. There is no me. There is no him. No me. NO HIM. NO ME. And then his tail flashes beneath my eyes. Images of Dart flutter my brain so vividly that everything else is arid. Dart died one year and four months after my brother did. I stopped eating the day Dart died. I got skeletal-looking and had to leave my school. No dog. No dog.
Except that his name started with a T, I don’t remember my brother. My life becomes a blur of being left behind. “No one is buried in the backyard,” my dad says. “Yes—Dart, Dad, D’Artagnan is. He’s over there, by the garden. By the rosemary.” No dog. No Dart. I could see his body being lowered into the hole I dug: a curled clump memory, liver and white, a metallic collar. Soft as rainwater. My parents tell me that it is a kind of coping mechanism.
After my brother who starts with a T’s funeral, I am shipped around the country, with Dart, like a lost care-package. To Fedex some sense into me. (Why stoic? Why casual? Unresponsive? Undaunted?) Sharon, my godmother, in Los Angeles. An old English teacher, in Eugene. Someone’s ex-boyfriend, in Chicago. (Dart can’t ride the L so we don’t leave the apartment, and I think of that song that goes: “Gazing from my window / To the streets below / On a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow / I am—”) My best friend’s grandmother, in the Lower Peninsula. A half-sister, in Orlando. My dad’s lawyer friend, somewhere in Maine.
I look out English class windows for one year and three months. One year and three months of not paying attention to Updike’s A&P, Oates’ Where are you going, Where have you been? One year and three months of getting asked what I like to eat, when I like to go to bed. It was okay because I had Dart and that was everything.
In September, I’m in Maine—I think, Portland. The English teacher who lets me call her Holly is nice and doesn’t mind that I look out the window. They read “Huck Finn” without me. Thoughts overtake me, like shadows in the reflection of the class window (above the rustic pot with the white pine cones), the day Holly reads Gina Berriault’s “The Stone Boy” aloud. It is the last memory I have of my brother who starts with a T: him, bare-bellied on the carpet, curled up like a fetus, reading “The Stone Boy” from my short story anthology.
Dart becomes very ill, when I’m with Dad’s lawyer friend. I stop eating spinach lasagna and meatloaf—everything in-between. I sometimes drink juice. I become boyish. I wear my brother who starts with a T’s sweatshirt to school and am called a faggot in the hallways. I get hit on by an older woman at the movie theater. My veins become noodles and I am sent home on a plane, Dart’s body limp on my lap.
Part of the Four Letter Word issue