I can still smell Him in the bed sometimes. Among the aroma of fresh detergent and vanilla and the cat, I can still smell Him. This morning, I thought I heard the weight of His boots on the floorboards, and I waited anxiously by the door. I wanted to greet Him so bad. Thrust my nose into His belly and wag my tail, His palm on the place on my head where I like it so much, between my eyes.
He’d take me out running in the forest away from the city while you slept or wrote or wept. He’d let me off the leash and man, would I just go. Like a rocket, weaving like a rocket between the trees and bushes. My jaw slack, tongue lolling to the side, my claws uprooting the dirt, I’d go and go and go and my name is Virtue.
I learned tricks. He taught me tricks. Sit, stay, paw, down. I learned them all. I’m a very smart dog! When you finally emerged from the bedroom, from the dark, and into the kitchen, we very much wanted to show you how smart I am. He’d grin and grab your hand and say, “Look! Watch what Virtue learned!” And I’d twirl and twirl, sit, stay, paw, down. We’d both look at you, wanting your approval, needing it. But you’d dismiss us, tell Him to teach me how to pay rent, and go back to bed.
I remember before He came. I remember the ones who left. A dog’s memory is a long procession of moments, a museum of your ex-lovers. I remember the one who hit me over and over for defecating on his bed. You thought it was funny and laughed at me, even as I lay trembling under the table. I didn’t mean to — I swear.
I remember the others that weren’t Him. They came into our bed. Cat would lie outstretched judging. I just wanted them to like me. Every time another new one came you’d smile and twirl and twirl. I’d toe-dance by your feet, tail wagging, tongue lolling. I liked to see you happy.
There was the one with the pictures drawn in his skin. The ship and dragon and birds. I’d study his pictures, not understanding how such beauty could be placed on biceps, on clavicles. I’d sniff and sniff at his pictures, trying to understand why your skin wasn’t blue, black, yellow, red.
You told me once when the picture man was gone that it scared you, those pictures — the eternalness of them. How’d they last long after you were gone. I didn’t understand.
When the men left, you’d cry. You’d cry and sleep more than I did. And listen, those pills you took, they won’t help with anything. They won’t make you strong.
His beard and body were my favorite. A big beard I could burrow in. A big body I could rest on. Yours is so bony, all limbs and angles and elbows. But His — my God. A dog could get used to that. I did. I used to think woodland creatures nested in His beard. I would lick and paw and nuzzle and He would laugh and say, “Virtue, stop it! There’s nothing in there!” And I would lick and lick and I was so happy.
Since the day you brought me home I knew you were strong. I was a puppy. You took me from that place of steel and screams and bars and bought me a bed. You named me Virtue because “I was the embodiment of good and I would make you better,” you said. You bought me Stuffed Llama and reprimanded Cat when she used her claws on me.
I was your running partner. I stayed right at your heels and we would wind and bolt and fly through the forest, through the park. I didn’t even need a leash.
I learned to protect you from your dreams, to cuddle up close when you’d yelp in your sleep. When I’d whimper in mine, you’d do the same for me.
Remember last winter? Remember when everything looked like it was on its last leg before spring came like an explosion? You spouted off things about how you disagreed with Rilke’s whole essay about love meaning to deny the self and to be consumed by flames. I don’t even know who Rilke is.
You never left the apartment all winter. You barely walked me. I got tired of playing with Stuffed Llama.
Cat and I would look at each other as you moved through the rooms like a ghost. Sometimes you’d talk to people and I got confused. I made a search through every room and only found shadows.
You wrote and wrote and wrote. When I tried to lie at your feet you’d kick me away. When I tried to lick the tears from your face you’d push me away. When I would question Cat, she’d tell me to keep my distance. Be there by not being there, or something.
Then He came. With His beard and body and kindness. I got to go on runs again. To run all slacked jaw and lolling tongue and gripping claws. I learned tricks and was proud and He was proud but you were still so sad. I wanted to make you believe that you were strong.
We met Him in the spring. Your sadness had left with the snow and you took me on walks again. That morning the sky smelled of smoke and you took me for a stroll. We stopped by your favorite café and you tied me up outside. When you were gone, He knelt beside me. He patted me on the head between my eyes and said, “You’re a cutie. You’re a good dog.”
When you came out, coffee in hand, He was still kneeling. We both looked at you and you looked back, smiling.
The day after he called, we both danced in the kitchen. Twirl, twirl, twirling.
That summer I watched you fall in love. You stopped taking those pills. We went for runs and walks. I learned tricks. I am such a smart boy! He helped you stop weeping. He helped me learn my tricks. Sit, stay, paw, down.
Cat even liked Him. She hardly likes anyone. He’d stroke her behind the ear, above the tail and she’d purr. One day, He brought her this toy mouse full of what he called “kitty meth.” She became feral with that mouse. Bug eyed and crazy and chased it throughout the house. I’ve never seen Cat act like that before. Front to back to side to side to front to side to back. All over, throughout every room she ran. Afterward, embarrassed by her display, she spent the rest of the week on the couch, lounging and grooming, not looking at anyone.
But oh, you let Him go. Actually, you made Him go. You returned to your stupor, to the sadness. You returned to those pills that won’t make you strong. You left us alone to hide in your room, in those words you always write.
I pleaded with you. I am still pleading with you. He loved you and you loved Him! I loved Him! Cat, I’m not sure as she claims felines do not yearn or love or feel. But WE loved Him, both me and you!
It was winter again when He left. The flowers were gone. Your strength had waned. As you slept, He took me on our last walk. “Be kind to her, Virtue. Be a good dog. She needs you. Protect her,” he said.
What He didn’t understand was that I know you are strong.