My Neighbor Doesn't Remember Everything She Forgets
by Stephanie Johnson
My neighbor has a new puppy that my dog likes to pee on. When my dog sees the puppy, he trots over to the chain link fence between our yards, spins a circle or two, lifts his leg, and lets loose. I try to deter this behavior, but my dog is stubborn.I don't like to blame the victim, but the puppy isn't very smart. He sits there. He wags his tail. When the shower's over, he shakes. He puts his paws on the fence, begging for me to pet him, but I don't want to touch him. He's covered in piss.
My neighbor meets me at the fence. "Oh ho," she says. She claps her hands. "Look at that. I think he liked it." She laughs and the puppy wags his tail. He rolls over and she rubs his belly.
"Bad dog," I say, more because I want my neighbor to hear than because I think my dog listens to me. The dog likes my husband better.
"Oh, he never barks," my neighbor says. "You have a good dog. He's a good boy. He'll protect you if anyone tries to break in."
Even if I disagree, I try to accept compliments gracefully, especially when they come from someone who needs to give her puppy his tenth bath of the week. "He's a pretty good dog," I say.
She points at the puppy. "We're too old for this," she says. "But Hank, you know, he wanted the dog." She sighs. "What can you do? It doesn't do any good to argue. Men will do what men will do."
"Don't even try and stop them," I say.
"I've started getting in cars with men who aren't my husband," she continues. "Happened again yesterday. Hank was supposed to pick me up in front of the post office. The man was kind enough, but he wasn't Hank. It wasn't our car. Can you imagine?"
My neighbor told me she wrote my name in a notebook she keeps by her refrigerator. I'm after her grandchildren's names and the date of her husband's last heart attack, but before the names of the new neighbors across the street and the list of who to call if Hank's pacemaker fails. She says when it gets bad enough, she'll have to pin a note on her shirt to remind her that everything she needs to remember is in that notebook.
"Tell me again," she says. "Where's your husband?"
When I don't answer quickly enough, she says, "Wait, wait. Don't tell me. You've told me before." She presses her fingers against her forehead. "I know you've told me. Don't tell me again."
It's hard to get a word in edgewise with my neighbor. She likes to talk, and I don't hold that against her. After seven decades, she's got a lot to say. She doesn't always know what happened fifteen minutes ago, but she knows things, important things.
Her face wrinkles. "I'm sorry," she says. She shakes her head.
The puppy yips. When he barks, he hops, propels himself off the ground. Despite recent events, he's happy. Nothing gets this dog down.
"You know," my neighbor says, "when I had my first, I didn't know what to do. I thought, My God, I've made a mistake. We didn't know anything then-we enjoyed food and sex, and then, well, that's what came of it. A woman at our church couldn't have them. No one said anything about it, but everyone knew. And I thought, I'll give this to her. . . ."
My neighbor curls her fingers in the fence. "I didn't think I wanted him," she says. Then she stops, presses her palm against her mouth. "What a horrible thing," she says. "What a horrible thing to remember. Why did I remember that?" Her eyes water and she shakes her head.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I don't remember everything I forget. Is your husband with his mother?"
He's not, but it's pretty to think so, so I nod.
"He'll come home soon," she says. She picks up the puppy, cradles him against her chest like a child.
I know I should take the dog in, but insomnia's rawness makes me want to talk. I remind her that she complimented me back then, said I looked healthy as if she could sense I never wore beauty conventionally, as if she knew my body belonged round and full, weighted and earthbound. Since then, others have told me that we have to accept what we can't change. They said, some things just happen and no one is to blame. We can't always beat the odds. I know these things. But now my husband pays monthly for a room across town while I pay daily for vacancy. I tell her I think I see the face in my dreams. I tell her about what we measure in weeks and months and pounds, the things we can't hold—shouldn't count on to save us—because they're not here. I try to name the thing we never missed until it was lost, all the things that never stood a chance in this beautiful and brutal world.
Stephanie Johnson lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Quay, Lily, Verbsap, Keyhole Magazine, Fickle Muses, Boston Literary Magazine, and Idlewheel. Her essays have regularly appeared in The Rambler in her column "No Do-Overs."