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At home I ate pad thai and drank white wine, fed Dominic, and gave him his medicine. I’d known nothing about dogs before him—how or where to pet them—but he was patient with me, and I’d soon discovered his favorite places to be touched. His entire head was brown with the exception of two white patches: one a white stripe down the center of his forehead, which I stroked gently with one finger and called his angel mark, and the other a diamond shape on the back of his neck, an arrow pointing as if to say, Scratch me here. This was the area that he could not reach with his paws, and, when scratched, would lull him right to sleep. We would play a game where he gazed at me lovingly, trying to keep his brown eyes open, his lids growing heavy, then popping open, then heavier and heavier until they were sealed shut: just two stitches lined with little lashes.
When he rolled over onto his back and showed me his white underside, it meant that it was time for a belly rub. Sometimes I would get crazy like I was waxing a car, Dominic pawing joyfully at the air, fur flying, tongue out, and panting. Other times I would gently stroke and kiss the softness there, relishing his scent, which was somehow reminiscent of a warm roast chicken.
My favorite place to kiss him was smack in the center of one of his big floppy ears. I could tell that he didn’t like to be touched there, but he made the supreme sacrifice and allowed me to drape those delicious suede pancakes over my face. The other area I loved was the crook of his neck, just under the jaw, where his skin was soft and loose. Somehow—perhaps through the wear of the collar, or simply with time—he had gone hairless there, so that what was left was only the creamiest of baby skin. I spent most of my time with him with my head burrowed in that spot. I could have lived there.
After we’d both had dinner, I touched the candle I’d purchased, rubbing my fingers up and down it, saying a little prayer for happiness. I said a prayer to the gods I wasn’t sure if I believed in—that I doubted even existed. I actually felt like the prayer was saying me.
I said, “Gods, please help me to be happy. Let me do the will of the universe and be willing to do the will of the universe, whatever that even is. Clearly I know very little. Clearly what I think I know leads me only to a place of suicidal longing. I never asked to be born on the planet. I never asked to exist. But I am here now so could you maybe at least try and help me enjoy my life?”
I felt silly asking to enjoy my life. I wondered if this was more than any human being should ask. Did anyone ever say that life was to be enjoyed and not suffered? What if the suffering was the point? But I didn’t want to suffer anymore. I couldn’t take it. That was clear. So I was going to try to be happy, even if it brought me more suffering. The candle burning, amethyst in hand, sitting on the deck of the beach house, I felt closer to myself than I had since before Jamie. I began to cry. Dominic made a noise, then got up into my lap and licked the tears off my face. He was licking them because they tasted good. He did the same thing when I was sweaty too. But I pretended that they were licks of love, and that’s what it felt like. Maybe this group therapy shit was working. Maybe this was self-love. I didn’t know and I didn’t really care. Where there had been a vile, depressive ooze was now quiet. The quiet itself was a thing: a sweet-filled quiet, as though the depression had been alchemized into something delicious.
I looked out at the ocean. It was as though I hadn’t noticed it before, or hadn’t wanted to see it. I was scared of its wild ambivalence, so powerful and amorphous, like the depression itself. It didn’t give a fuck about me. It could eat me without even knowing.
But now I saw each of the waves individually, one after the other, and felt them to be in rhythm with my heartbeat. They glimmered and splashed in the moonlight. Maybe the ocean was cheering for me after all? Maybe we were on the same side, comprised of the same things, water mostly, also mystery. The ocean swallowed things up—boats, people—but it didn’t look outside itself for fulfillment. It could take whatever skimmed its surface or it could leave it. In its depths already lived a whole world of who-knows-what. It was self-sustaining. I should be like that. It made me wonder what was inside of me.
I’d heard it said that when you’re feeling good is sometimes when you’re the most suicidal. Maybe it’s after you decide that you’re going to do it that you suddenly seem happier. I don’t think that’s why I walked across the beach to the ocean that night. I don’t think I was planning to jump into the ocean drunk or that I wanted to get killed by a stranger. I knew it was dangerous to be out there at midnight. I rarely even walked the boardwalk after ten or eleven. I think I just felt invincible, connected to myself, like I could do anything and be totally fine. Maybe I was looking for a new high.
I climbed up on one of the big black rocks that lined the ocean in a cluster. I sat there for a little while looking out at the waves, more gray and white now that I was up close. I wondered if the rocks were somehow sentient, lonely out here in the cold moonlight.
“Hi,” I said to the rocks.
The rocks said nothing. They had the ocean and they had one another. I wondered if they ever got annoyed by the waves’ constant lapping, the daily irritation of their own gradual erosion. Did they secretly long for a tsunami to come eclipse them into the ocean, just to be done with it all already? Or did they enjoy that slow, rhythmic tickling?
From the corner of my eye I spotted something fleshy on the edge of one of the rocks. It was a pair of hands. Fair hands, pale under the moon, with the nails bitten down to just slivers. Run! shrieked a voice inside me. A surge of adrenaline rang through my body like an alarm. But I couldn’t move.
Then I saw a beautiful face, the wave of brown hair in an eye, and I gasped out loud. Was this the face of death?
“So sorry,” the face said. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I was just taking a break for a second from my swim.”
“It’s okay,” I sputtered, still frozen in place.
The swimmer leaned on the rock with his arms. They were thick and meaty—not cut like a bodybuilder’s, but you could see the muscles underneath what looked like a layer of baby chub. They reminded me of eating a piece of fish with thick skin and a small layer of fat, strong and also soft, very white. I wanted to bite them. His chest was hairless, and I noticed that the color of his nipples matched perfectly his lips, like pencil erasers. He looked like he was twenty-one, at most. If this was death then death was hot.
“Doesn’t it scare you to be night-swimming? Isn’t the water freezing?” I asked.
“I’ve got a wet suit on my lower half,” he said. “But no, it doesn’t scare me. I like the way the splashes look in the moonlight and I like having the ocean to myself. Well, almost to myself.”
“Yeah, it’s nice out here,” I said.
The wine was wearing off. I suddenly felt exhausted. His teeth were shiny white, but not like an actor’s. They didn’t look bleached or fake. They were practically iridescent, like the inside of a shell. There was something almost feminine about him, pretty, but his jaw was well defined. These surfer boys. I always forgot that they were real. I mean, I knew that they existed. I knew they were alive. But it really seemed to me that the surfing was a costume, like they were only pretending to be so enamored of it. How could anyone be that devoted to something so lacking a destination? Just wave after wave, over and over. I wished someone were that enamored of me. But their love for surfing was real. It was a fact. They really loved surfing as much as they appeared to love it. This one didn’t have a board, though. This wasn’t a surfer. This was a swimmer.