After my birthday, my ex-boyfriend Abe wanted to drop by with a belated birthday gift. The last time I saw him was in October, before my boyfriend Michael, before my new life. He called on holidays and left a voicemail wishing me a Happy something or other. I texted back a thank you and explained how busy I was. We hadn’t really had a conversation. I suspected he thought it was the perfect romantic arrangement; I was too busy to talk and see him but still there … somewhere.
He stopped by when I was alone in the house. He brought me a box and was smiling when he came in. We hugged and spoke briefly about things.
“Hey, you have a tree outside. That would be good for tying the dogs to if you want them outside,” he said.
“Yeah, how about I tie you up out there for an hour and see how you like it,” I said.
Even after two years, he never understood my love for animals. His idea in my old apartment with a yard was to keep the dogs permanently outside and barricade them from the porch.
When Michael was hanging out in my living room while we were just dating, he watched my pit bull Esther climb the arm of the couch and look out the window like a house cat. “You get it. You let your dogs do whatever they want. That’s what I really like about you. You get it.”
Some may say I don’t “discipline” my dogs but the truth is I just don’t control them. I don’t need to prove domination over them. I know I have a greater understanding of the human world around us, the dangers and realities. I don’t have to make them wait for their dinner or keep them off the furniture to prove it. I don’t want to sit on my couch unless my dogs are there. I don’t want to sleep in my bed unless my dogs are there. Everything else doesn’t really matter. I could never afford expensive things. The dogs were once destructive, but the less emotional I am about things, the calmer they are. The less I try to control them, the more harmonious the household.
“Greg disappeared so Michael moved in. Do you remember Michael from Doggie Daycare?” I asked.
“Yeah. I remember him,” Abe kind of quietly sang.
“We are in that bedroom and Frank is still in the back room.”
“Oh …” Abe thought, looking confused then distressed. “You two must be pretty cramped in that room sharing the same bed.”
“HAHA!” Then I remembered he had no inkling I was in a relationship. “Mike and I are together, like dating.”
“… Oh,” he said. “I thought Michael was gay.”
“Me too,” I said, digging my bare toes into the curve of the tile. “I guess he isn’t.” I shrugged and offered up a lopsided smile.
“Good … I am glad you are happy,” he said a little strained but genuine.
“I finally found someone who wants to move in with me.” I almost regretted saying that aloud, but often I think about how close Abe and I were to moving in and how obvious it was (now) he just didn’t want to.
Abe stayed to talk about how he was discovering the secret to expanding his life span to biblical standards. 2,000 years. It was something he discovered with the water. He was building something to change the water using magnetism or electricity in some method I didn’t understand. I listened.
“Why are you smiling at me like that?” he asked.
“Just … this is fascinating but so very you.”
“Well, I could share it with you,” he offered. “Once I figure out the formula we could live like Moses.”
“Yeah, I could be your 2,000 year old platonic queen.” I laughed. He didn’t really.
We said our goodbyes and I opened up the birthday package to find several containers of marijuana bud, Marijuana infused iced tea, soap from the South of France and a $100 bill. When showing it to Frank, he looked to Mike and said, “Uh oh, he is showing us up.”
That was Abe though. He swept in with a grand gesture of generosity every once in a while and then disappeared in long silences. I had no idea what he thought, what he hoped or what he wanted. And now, I don’t care.
Alia invited Frank, me and Michael over for a barbeque one night. She said I should bring the dogs so they could use the yard to stretch out. We all took swigs of whisky before heading out to the West Hills in what used to be a home. Temporary as it was, Alia saved my life. She gave me shelter when I was stuck in Washington, living in a strange man’s house with no way out. She was my out.
That night we returned to her. We all piled the dogs in the car and drove out. At her house was a friend she invited and Ryan, her boyfriend. When we arrived, we agreed that I should go to the grocery store with Frank to buy food since I was vegan.
We left for Pavilions and I waded under the florescent lights, drifting from cold aisle to cold aisle, making quick and painless decisions on this or that. When we returned, something was off.
“Where is Michael?” I asked.
“He is walking the dogs,” she said. “In a sense…”
“In a sense?” I asked.
“They kinda … ran away,” she said.
The moment hit me like cold water. I froze. Dropped my keys. Dropped my purse. And I took off running.
I burst out onto the sidewalk. West Hills isn’t a busy town, but Alia’s house is one block from a busy street. “Maggie! MAGGIE!”
Maggie was my oldest. Esther was my other pit bull and deaf. Because she was deaf, she would most likely follow Maggie where ever she went. Brad returned before I even knew they were missing. I was later told he was the one who wandered back in through the garage door and tipped them off to the other two missing.
My worst fear is someone will shoot them simply because they are pit bulls. It happens. The second fear, they are hit by a car. Or they are picked up and never returned because their microchip has traveled under their skin and isn’t registered on the scanner, or someone keeps them in their yard or sells them for experimentation. I have read about every possible outcome, and like a frantic mother I screamed their names and ran in random directions hoping something would come from the black perimeter. You listen to your heart. You close your ears and your mouth and let your gut lead you down one alley, beyond a yard, around a random corner.
“MAGGIE! GET OVER HERE NOWWWWW!” I screamed until my voice cracked. I was panting at the base of my throat. I would be hyperventilating if I wasn’t so focused in the moment. I turned my head for anything, any cue. A sound. A silence. A movement.
In the corner of my eye, I saw a white head crossing four lanes of traffic. “ESTHER!” I screamed, even though she couldn’t hear me. I waved my hand impatiently for her to come to me. She reads my hand gestures and obediently crossed the river of traffic to me, smiling and wagging her tail from the adventure.
I took her collar and led her into Alia’s.
“Close the doors!” I ordered. Polite went out the window. I was in Mommy mode. I went back outside as Brad looked at me worried, one paw up and tail shaking so fast it was a blur. He always does that when he knows something is wrong.
I slammed the front door and ran back out into the night. Michael was out there looking. I think Ryan was, too. My phone was dying and I was convinced that if anyone was going to find Maggie it was me. My mother’s intuition would bring us together like two magnetic strips a half an inch apart, we only had a neighborhood between us.
I ran down the sidewalk and tripped on a bump in the concrete and tumbled down on the ground, ripping open my pants and cutting open my knee. My phone smashed and flew in pieces, gone somewhere in the night. I got back up and ran, fully aware I was bordering on hysteria now.
“Maggie! MAGGIE MAY! MAGGIE, YOU COME HOME NOW!”
I screamed, waiting for something. I was two blocks south of Alia’s on the busy street. I looked south. Then I looked north. The traffic was stopped. The headlights were all frozen and motionless in one, uniform line. That was bad. I took off running again screaming, “MAGGIE MAY!!!!!”
On the sidewalk, Ryan and Alia were both holding Maggie. She was panting frantically in her Pooh Bear pose. Her rump on the ground and both legs spread for her pot belly.
“She was hit by a car but she is ok. She just has a broken leg,” Alia said.
“AHHHHHHH!” I screamed and fell to my knees. This is how I remember it. I don’t know if they told me to get my car, but there was some exchange with direction. I ran back to the house, dumped out my purse on the floor but couldn’t find my keys. I screamed again.
Alia’s friend kept his distance. I believe up to that point he had a crush on me. When you see a woman on the precipice of losing her child, she transforms. I screamed. He backed away. I left again and ran back to Maggie.
“I couldn’t find my keys,” I said.
“That’s ok, Ryan is bringing the car around,” she said. “She is ok … she just has a broken leg.”
“I don’t have any money!!!” I said. There was a few hundred dollars in cash I kept in a washed out pickle jar back at the house. I knew about vet bills. They can ruin you. They have already ruined me.
Was it Ryan that arrived with the car … or Frank? I don’t remember. I only know Alia took the wheel while Maggie sat in the passenger seat. There was blood and she was panting like crazy. Frank was in the back seat with me. Maggie crawled under the dash into a big, brown plump ball.
“Come on, Maggie!” Frank said with a father’s cut.
Frank and Alia were trying to find the nearest vet hospital, but it was closed. We all were having phone problems. The batteries were dying or dead.
“Between the three of us, we don’t have a working cell phone?” I asked dryly.
They responded with something. My head was in a cloud. The two of them were working out suggestions and my tears kept pooling over my mouth. When Maggie crawled under the dash, I knew it was bad. I knew it wasn’t a broken leg.
I clasped my hands together against the window and began praying. Now, I grew up Catholic but I am not religious at all. I wouldn’t say I am atheist. I would say I am too human to know what is really going on.
“Please God, don’t take my baby. She is my baby. I am not ready yet. Don’t take her. I am not ready. I AM NOT READY!” I whimpered sharply at the end of each prayer. I knew she was old. 10 or 11 years old. Statistics say she will only live another year or two. I didn’t care. She was my arthritic, old, grouchy baby. I rescued her 5 years ago in a strip mall in Hollywood. I trained her. I fed her. I saved her. And she saved me.
Maggie and Esther came with me when I left my longest relationship. They came with me when I ran out of unemployment benefits and moved to a shack in Sylmar. They came with me to my parents’ house when I had exhausted all my finances. They came with me to a strange old man’s house in the backwoods of Washington when my parents kicked me out with no money.
I never gave them up and they never gave up on me. If I lost my dogs, I lost my soul.
We ended up at an emergency vet hospital. We parked and I got out of the car and rang the bell. No answer. Somehow I got in and ran down the hallways, opened up doors to back hallways screaming “IS ANYONE HERE????” I was wild.
A vet team came out with me to the parking lot and opened the car door. The vet tech took one look at Maggie and said, “$1,500 just to get her stabilized.”
I threw myself on the pavement, screaming. “WHY???? I don’t have any money!! God damn it! WHY!!!?”
I was on the ground, I felt the spit and tears spill out on the pavement. I felt the eyes of the other family in the waiting room look me over. I didn’t care. All I could hear was ringing in my head.
How did she get out?
How was she hit?
When will the bad luck end?
I remember the gravel pressed against my forehead when Frank’s arms wrapped around me.
“Pull yourself together!” he said, lifting me up. “Pull yourself together for Maggie.” I could feel the warmth of his breath on my ear.
He lifted me up again, and I felt my whole body held in the air. I didn’t know he was that strong. This time when the soles of my shoes hit the ground, I took off running back inside the hospital. I followed Maggie and the vet team in. I must have given permission to do whatever they had to do, because she was taken in the back and stabilized.
Alia, Frank and I were in an exam room talking to the vet. Michael wasn’t there because his phone was dying and he didn’t have a car. I hated him for being as disorganized as the rest of us.
X-rays were put up. “What we have here is a lot of internal bleeding. That is what all this fog is right here. It is hard to say what the damage is with so much bleeding right now, but so far it looks like her lungs and heart are intact,” the vet said. “You can see the bones aren’t broken here but there is a lot of arthritic … wait a minute … how old is this dog?”
“We don’t know. She is a rescue. But I know, she suffers from a lot of arthritis,” I said.
“It’s not that, it is just you can see a lot of the arthritic pressure on her bones here and here.” If it isn’t that, then why did you just repeat what I said?
“She is older so I am worried that, you know, her life is in danger because she is so old,” I said.
“Well, it doesn’t matter the age of the dog but the general health. And the general health of this dog is good.”
“Is her life in danger right now?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Her life is definitely in danger right now. All we can do is either go in and remove the spleen, which looks ruptured right here. That procedure is about $2400. That is what we would recommend. I know you are financially strained right now, so maybe that isn’t an option. Or we could wait for the body to absorb as much blood as it can and I have seen spleens repair themselves. There was a dog I treated where the spleen was severed almost completely in half. That spleen repaired itself. However, then it is always in danger of rupturing again from physical activity.”
“She isn’t very physical,” I said into my soggy tissue. She can barely trot anymore.
“So, you have the instruments here, now, to help this dog survive and you will not save this life because of money. Is that right?” Alia asked.
“Well, it isn’t me. It’s the hospital. I cannot move forward without some kind of monetary-“ he was cut off.
“So what you are saying is you could save a life. You have everything here and ready to save this dog’s life. But you are choosing not to because of money,” she said again.
“I don’t care for the implication that-“ now I cut him off.
“Stop! I have a few hundred dollars in cash back home. I will drive back or get someone to drive back, grab the cash and help get her through the night. We will just hope the spleen repairs itself.”
The vet kind of hung his head. It was the middle of the night now. My dog’s life was in the balance. He knew what was at stake. And I am sure he saw it a million times before.
They stabilized Maggie and I was allowed to go back and see her. By this time, my hysterical weeping stopped and my eyes were so puffy and red, I could barely see out of them. I hovered over her. She tried to lift her head but the drugs and fatigue made it hard. I told her it was ok to lie back down and she rested her head on the table.
There was blood coming out of her mouth and a skid mark on her back. I was assured the blood from her mouth wasn’t serious.
Frank saw the hit. He said a truck ran completely over her at 30 miles an hour. It was a busy street. They were calling for her, she saw my friends and happily trotted towards them without a thought.
The truck stopped then took off, leaving her there in the middle of the road like road kill. Ryan and Frank carried her to the side of the road. Ryan looked up at Frank, Frank who loves Maggie maybe more than he loves me, and calmly said “Run.” Frank said he will always remember and respect Ryan for that one moment. To be the voice of clarity when blood and tears flooded the mind, Ryan held my baby and told him to run.
Frank also said he would always be haunted by the image of the hit and run. Every time he started to describe it I asked him to stop. I would obsess over every detail. I would relive it in my mind until the day I died. I couldn’t pin that on my memory with everything else. It is hard enough forgetting violent images of people in faraway countries, animals in not so far away neighborhoods. I didn’t need that image of someone I held so dear, so close to my heart.
I sat next to Maggie and stroked her fur. Her eyes fluttered shut. Michael walked in. He took my car and stopped at two vet hospitals before arriving to the right one. He just hit them in order on his iPhone map app. He was weeping. He was wearing the olive green and maroon striped hoodie I bought him for Christmas. His jeans were ripped and he had white sneakers on. He is a small man, about 5’4. Somehow, in that moment, he never looked smaller to me. He looked like a teenage kid who made a terrible mistake one night while babysitting.
When he came over, he started crying over Maggie.
“She needs to focus on healing right now, so please stop stressing her out!” I said coldly.
“Okay … okay,” he said, whimpering.
Alia had pulled us both aside to say one thing or another about staying strong, relying on each other. How we are all there for Maggie and she needs our support.
“I just don’t know how all three of my dogs could have walked out without anyone noticing,” I said, again coldly.
“We opened the garage door so the barbeque smoke could get out,” Alia said, softly.
“And why were the dogs left unattended by an open door?” Michael once asked if I grew up with a speech impediment because I use such long hand articulation. I wasn’t, I just didn’t speak very much until after puberty.
“It was our fault. It was my fault, too,” she said. I knew it. I was mad at Michael because I was allowed to be mad at Michael. We were close enough that I could be comfortably rude. Also, he was a dog sitter. A dog person. Their doggie daddy. He should have known better. My most precious gifts weren’t looked after in the 25 minutes I left to buy goddamn potato chips and that will always make me a little crazy.
Alia stroked both our arms and said something inspirational. When she walked away I said, quite plainly, “If she doesn’t make it, I don’t know how our relationship can survive.”
“I know it,” he said, just as plainly.
We had to lay down a few hundred. Michael gave over his whole paycheck. I had some money on my debit. I even think Frank chipped in a significant amount so we weren’t financially ruined.
They told me I could only lie next to her for awhile. She was back in the general ER area where other procedures were happening, and we couldn’t be in the way or stress the animals out. Maggie was put on the ground with an IV and blanket. I lay down next to her and tried not to press too much weight on her. Michael sat by her head.
I know what they say. When it is time, you have to let go. You have to sometimes give a loved one permission to go away. This particular night, I wasn’t that better person. I begged her to hang on. I pressed my body against her back and said, “Stay with me, baby. I am not leaving you. You hang on for mommy, ok?”
I closed my eyes and felt myself on a dock, holding on to Maggie as she set adrift to a wide ocean. I could FEEL that. “You don’t leave me,” I said. “Not yet.”
Maggie would pass away someday, but not now. Someday when she was grey and old, too achy to walk, too tired to eat, too fat to stand. Frank already said he pictured himself taking off her collar moments before she passed away. The mention of this a year earlier in a Greek restaurant, of course, pushed me to tears. Losing them is not something I can discuss. It will be a moment I will have to face without preparation.
Maggie had a “hard life” for the first five years. When I took her to a pit bull rescue, the woman said she could tell she suffered. She had probably been through 5 or 6 pregnancies. Her knees and elbows were furless from living on concrete. She had a cigarette burn on her right buttock. The fur was rubbed raw from behind her ears to around her nose, as if she lived in a muzzle.
When I took her home off the streets of Hollywood, she was fucking thrilled. I never saw a dog so happy to sleep in a crate in a living room. She became my whole world. She became Esther’s whole world. Maggie, with her sad eyes and arched eye brows, her frequent yawns followed by heavy eye lids, the drool over food you had the nerve to eat on the couch in front of her would pool and trickle down from her lower lip to the floor, THAT Maggie would suffer a violent end after everything I gave her.
When I walked Maggie for the first time, her paws bled. She hadn’t ever been exposed to sidewalks or exercise before. She didn’t know what to do with the bone I gave her. She only knew that she wanted to be close to me. So I taught her how to walk and sit and jump and lay down. I gave her rawhides, and Himalayan Yak Milk chews, and biscuits and pig ears, beef elbows, bully sticks, raw food and vegetables. I showed her the hills of Hollywood, the mountains behind Pasadena, the backwoods of Washington state, the river beds and forests of the Angeles National Forest, the top of Topanga canyon and the bottom of Malibu beach. She ran along the beaches of San Diego and San Onofre.
I gave her a sister and a brother, lots of foster dogs to play with and love. Lots of strange, wonderful people to watch and nuzzle. I gave her a second chance. How could that be over already? There was more I wanted to give her.
A lot of women will say they felt the most like a woman when they raised a child or got married or achieved some level of beauty and grace. For me, it was when Esther and Maggie were in training class, downtown at the Coliseum. One of the “tests” was to call your dog, off leash, from 50 feet away. Both girls came plowing towards me when I called their name. Crouched with my arms outstretched, they knocked me completely over. I trained these pit bulls. I felt safe for the first time in my life walking at night, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. Men crossed the street to avoid me instead of following me and asking me questions. The dogs stood by me through broken hearts, lovers and estranged parents, financial destitution, getting fired, getting sick. They taught me what love and loyalty really were on some level human beings have forgotten.
Maggie. Aka The Magster. Aka Mag Pies. Aka The Tank. Aka Maggie May. My Maggie was facing death after the most pivotal 5 years of my life. It was an unjust end to one of the richest friendships, one of the purest loves, of my life.
Her breathing became erratic. She was gasping, like she was going to have a heart attack.
“Michael … Michael …” I softly screamed.
He woke up and put his hand on her. He spoke to her softly and we stared at her until the staff asked us to leave. We had to sleep in the waiting room. Frank and Alia went home. They both said they couldn’t do anything there at the hospital. They really couldn’t.
Michael sat up in the small, stiff chairs while I broke my body over the uncomfortable metal arm rests. The air conditioning was spilling all over me and my thin sweatshirt was barely enough to keep me from forgetting the cold. My head fell on his lap. His hand combed through my hair. I couldn’t stop thinking about those gasps for air. After 45 minutes, I asked to return to Maggie. They let us.
The resident cat came up to Maggie and sniffed her. Maggie was so doped up, all she could do was sway her head around in a haze and stare back. “Well, this is the first and last time a cat will ever get that close to Maggie,” I said, laughing.
We fell asleep next to her.
They woke us and said we should move into a kennel. All three of us lazily walked into a large kennel and lay on thin blankets and cold concrete til dawn. Michael texted my boss to tell her what was happening and I was given the day off.
At dawn, the vet came in. “Well, it looks like she made it through the night. Every hour she lives it increases her likelihood for survival. She has a really good chance now.”
“I don’t want to leave …” I said, groggily.
“She will be ok. Why don’t you go home, get some food and sleep in a bed for a few hours. We will call you if anything changes,” he said, gentler than he had earlier in the night.
I whispered in her ear that I would be back and to get better. She wouldn’t go back to sleep. She tried to stand on wobbly legs and follow us out, the IV tube stretching out to meet me. “No, no, no. You stay, Maggie. Mommy will be back. I promise.”
As we left, the nurse smiled at us in the lobby. “She was watching both of you while you were sleeping. It was very cute.”
We went back to Alia’s, so we were close. She gave us her bedroom and told us to sleep. Frank would head back to the house for a change of clothes, cash and any other necessities. He would take home the other two kids who knew something was terribly wrong. I think someone gave me food, but I don’t remember eating it. I was bleeding. An unscheduled period from the shock. I borrowed a tampon and slept with Michael for a few hours.
I needed to remain still in a permanent embrace.
In the afternoon, we called the vet. They said Maggie could go home but it she wouldn’t be able to walk or really recover for a few weeks. I didn’t care. We would build her a wagon. We would spoon feed her. Maggie would be coming home.
Alia seemed so sure of it. “That’s right! That’s Maggie! She fought and she won!” I never thought Alia really doubted Maggie would make it, but I started to realize everyone doubted she would make it. They were just keeping me sane.
The spare room at home was set up as a kind of hospice. It isn’t much of a spare room, you can’t fit a real bed in there. Maggie was given a beanbag and blankets. I slept, ate and did homework in there for a full week. We gave her medicine and spoke to her. The dogs slept against her. In a day she was sitting up. In two days she was urinating and defecating normally. And then, in less than a week, she was walking again.
I knew it was one of her last miracles.
If she died, what would I have learned?
She wouldn’t be the first pet to die an untimely death. Life isn’t fair. Death is certain. People are reckless assholes.
One time, my sister was crying over a dog she loved who died of some kind of blood poisoning. When it struck, he only had a few days left and there was nothing she could have done. While weeping on my couch over her broken heart, she said, “What if dogs lived for 30 years? Then I would have to kill myself.” The love is so divine; I choose the word divine because nothing else seems proper. The love is so celestial that we are only graced with it in small doses. It is a gift for small stretches of a human life. Human love is something we must gnaw on, bleed over and suffer through for a lifetime. In people we learn to forgive, to negotiate, to grow, transform and fight. In dogs, we only learn loyalty and devotion. Who could survive the human world fed only on loyalty and devotion? We would be killed out there. It is a window into another type of existence none of us are ready for. Not yet. Not me. Not you. Not Abe and not Michael.
Now Maggie is stretched out on the bed, giving me dirty looks for throwing raspberry kisses at her butt. She hates that.
Maggie May. My queen. My child. My love. My second chance.
I was given a little more time. I don’t pretend to know why, but I know it was brought to me by angels.