The Non-Binary Nature Of Love by Sarah Evans
Misha is laid out on the back seat and she whimpers as the car bounces over the speed-bumps. Back home, Jamie’s coat is hung up in the hallway. ‘I’m back,’ I shout, the words echoing up the stairway of our maisonette, but not triggering a response.
I find him in the spare bedroom, headphones on, immersed in his virtual world.
‘Jamie,’ I say. He fails to register me. ‘Jamie!’
He doesn’t look my way, just raises an arm in acknowledgement and carries on mowing down extra-terrestrials with his mega laser-gun. ‘Gimme a minute,’ he says.
In the living room, I curl up on the sofa and when Misha jumps up to join me I don’t push her back down. I bury my face in her soft, silver fur, inhaling the peaty smell of her which mingles with something far more noxious on her breath.
‘Christ!’ Jamie has appeared from nowhere and I feel his shadow over me. ‘Can’t you keep her off the sofa.’
I wait for it to click that I’m upset. But already he’s heading away. ‘Anything you want for dinner?’ he asks.
I feel invisible as I follow him into the kitchen.
‘Pizza? Flan? Curry?’ He’s crouched down, rummaging in the freezer. ‘What d’you want?’ he repeats.
‘Dunno.’ I force the word out, and his face tightens and still he hasn’t looked. ‘Jamie,’ I say. And finally the signal reaches him and he glances up. His features soften to concern.
‘What?’ he says. ‘What?’ And I know he still hasn’t remembered that it’s the vet I’ve been to, not a dog walk.
‘Misha has cancer.’ The horrible word emerges muffled, my throat sore from swallowing back tears.
‘Hey,’ he says. ‘Come here.’ His arms close round me, but I can almost hear the countdown in his head as he tries to work out how long he needs to hold me for, before he can get on with dinner.
Later, I pick at food. ‘It might be possible to treat her,’ I say, staring down at my plate.
‘They could operate. Followed by chemo.’
‘Sounds very intrusive,’ he says cautiously. ‘And presumably no guarantees.’
Which is what the vet said. Surgery would involve removing not just the tumour, but much of Misha’s upper jaw, and though dogs can adapt, it wouldn’t be easy, for any of us.
It isn’t that Jamie is uncaring; I remind myself of that as he carries on forking up food. Just that as a non-dog person himself he struggles to get it, to understand the fuss.
‘How long otherwise?’ he asks.
I shrug miserably. The vet said he could put her down anytime. That it is entirely up to me, but she’ll only get worse, and it would be unkind to drag it out too long. He wants me to make a clear-cut decision, switching Misha off, rather than letting her light slowly dim. ‘Soon,’ I say.
We turn on the telly, some detective yarn I don’t have the concentration for. Jamie doesn’t protest this time when Misha joins me on the sofa. It was supposed to be one of his rules – not on the furniture – but I’ve never got Misha to adhere to it, not strictly. Jamie would never have chosen to have a dog and he only accepted Misha because I gave him a binary choice: both of us; or neither. And of course it’s tough for him, not just the fact of any dog, but that Matt had bought Misha for me.
Matt. I can’t believe I’ve not thought of him before and I flush guiltily. I say, ‘I ought to let Matt know.’
‘I suppose.’ Jamie’s voice is carefully neutral.
Now the idea is there, I can’t seem to let it go. I imagine bumping into him and him asking after Misha; me having to say she’s dead, and how awful I would feel for not letting him know. So even though the chances of this encounter are remote, I wait for Jamie to retreat back to his computer, gunning down his mutant aliens, and then I get my mobile and search for Matt’s number.
I’ve never had any reason to delete it, nor any reason to ring. I wonder if he’ll have erased me and the call will turn up as an unknown number that he might not answer; whether he might not answer anyway. I listen to the ring and wish I was better prepared for what to say.
It turns to voicemail.
‘Hey, Matt, it’s me. I mean it’s Caroline.’ Except he always called me Caro. Seconds pass in which I cannot find the words. ‘It’s about Misha. Ring me back if you want to know more.’
Next morning Jamie brings me coffee in bed and reminds me that there’s a match on this afternoon and he’s meeting up with mates to see it on a big screen somewhere in the West End. He sounds apologetic as he adds, ‘You could come too.’
I wrinkle my nose and say, ‘Nah. I’ll stay home.’
‘You could still come into London with me this morning. We could do the RA exhibition. Have lunch out.’
But I want to spend the day with Misha.
We do the leisurely breakfast thing – frozen croissants in the oven, posh jam and filtered coffee – and Jamie is making an effort, asking about my week, telling me about his, the conversation we haven’t had time for in the evenings. ‘I’m sorry it’s been so crazily busy,’ he says. ‘We should plan a weekend away somewhere nice.’ He looks at me anxiously.Once the thing with the dog is concluded; I can almost hear his thoughts.
Relief washes through me as finally the front door crashes shut.
I turn my mobile on. It doesn’t buzz immediately and I’m not sure whether to feel relieved or disappointed. A minute on, the connection is properly made and the metal vibrates insistently. One new message.
‘What’s up with Misha? Tell me.’ I check the time, discovering Matt rang back promptly yesterday, and I feel bad about leaving him not knowing overnight.
He picks up at the second ring.
‘Matt.’ My mouth is dry.
‘She has cancer. She’s dying.’ I feel absurdly guilty, as if it’s my fault. As if I neglected her, or Jamie’s dislike has somehow caused her harm. As if by letting Jamie kill what was between me and Matt, I’ve let him kill Misha too.
Except it wasn’t like that. And cancer is just one of those things.
I listen to the silence of the airwaves. ‘Oh God, Caro,’ Matt says softly. ‘Oh God.’
I hear myself prattle about the slow development of symptoms, none of which seemed significant at first.
‘Can I see her?’ Matt asks. ‘Just one more time.’
‘Of course.’ Of course, I say that.
I retrieve Misha’s leash from its hook. Until recently she’d have been already there, tangling between my legs, tail wagging in a blur. I go into the kitchen to call her name and it hurts to see the tired way she looks up at me. She always used to be so frenziedly energetic.
She’ll feel better for getting out, or perhaps it’s just me who can’t bear to stay indoors and besides I couldn’t have invited Matt here. I bend to attach the lead and look into Misha’s mournful eyes and try not to dwell on the misshapen swelling of her left cheekbone, or how her sleek elegance has turned bone thin.
I walk slowly, then have to slow down some more. Misha’s head hangs low, as if the tumour in her mouth is weighing her down. The road is bright with autumn red and purple, and I think how pleasant these suburbs are, the line of plane trees, the band of well-tended front gardens, the decorative Victorian houses; all of it a serious upgrade on the Tooting flat above an Asian restaurant that Matt and I rented.
We turn right and head up away from the busy town centre, towards the genteel village and wide expanse of common where we do a slow circuit of the nearest pond. I’ve let Misha off the leash, but she trails at my heel, rather than bounding off exploring on her own. She lies down at my feet when I sit on a bench.
I remember the three of us coming here, taking the bus from Tooting, then speeding up Wimbledon Hill on foot. Matt and I would be talking and laughing, with Misha straining on the lead. We’d walk all day, knowing every pathway, the dells and ponds, the clusters of trees.
Jamie prefers galleries and museums to walking, and of course I enjoy those things too.
I shiver slightly in the breeze and wonder about continuing on a bit, except Misha already looks exhausted, unable to stir herself even when a duck quacks and waggles its tail just inches from her nose. I glance at the digital watch which Jamie bought me to replace the broken dial-face that had been a present from Matt, the watch which – like him – never kept very good time.
My phone buzzes. Matt. ‘We’re at the round pond,’ I say. Not that it is round, now I look, but that’s what we always called it.
I watch in the direction he will come from. Once or twice I mistake a distant figure, but then he’s there and it’s unambiguously him, his foot-tripping gait as he lopes my way, his grin wide beneath John Lennon glasses. The duffle coat must be a century old; a scarf frays below a mismatched woolly hat. His hair has a fuzziness to it and his chin is stubbled, blurring his edges. I think of Jamie’s square-jawed sharpness, his high-definition, well-groomed good-looks.
Misha struggles to her feet, her tail wagging as he approaches. Matt and I embrace awkwardly and I inhale his scent of old wool and coal-tar shampoo. He turns, face twisted with emotion, and squats low to nuzzle into Misha’s neck and stroke her ears, letting her lick his face and not wincing at her foul breath.
Misha flops down, head between her paws and Matt slumps beside me on the bench, one hand still trailing and resting on Misha’s head. His other hand takes mine. Both of us stare ahead: the little girl feeding the ducks great chunks of bread, the mother with a baby-sling talking on her mobile phone, the young couple with a lively puppy.
‘I wasn’t sure she’d remember me,’ he says.
‘They say dogs never forget.’ It’s a banal enough statement, yet it feels so loaded. Dogs are more constant than people.
‘D’you remember getting her?’ Matt asks, and of course I do.
Both of us were crazy about dogs; I’d never been allowed one as a girl, it was too impractical my parents said. ‘I’ll buy you one for your birthday,’ Matt insisted when we moved in together.
It took two trains, one bus and a long walk to find the farm. Matt was adamant we should get a pure breed, a silver-blue Weimaraner, splurging his windfall from a recent gig. Misha was the last of the litter to go, a squirming bundle of fur, sandpaper tongue and needs. She was undersized and we got her for a discount, but that wasn’t why we took her.
Love clicking on instantly. A simple kind of unwavering love, not requiring shared aspirations or hard choices. Not floundering on arguments over money, careers, mortgages and planning for the future.
Between us we cared for her. Taking it in turns to get up early for pre-work walks and again in the evenings. Matt’s jobs were always on and off, often odd hours and that made it easier.
Now I have more money and less time and dog-walkers are so convenient.
We exhaust our stream of reminiscences. I tell him what the vet said.
He nods. ‘I could help pay,’ he says.
‘It isn’t really about money.’
‘No. I know.’
‘Or about being prepared to nurse her through.’
‘The vet thought putting her down was probably the kindest,’ I conclude, and the absoluteness of it sounds so cruel.
We sit quietly and my hand is still in Matt’s.
‘And how are you?’ I ask.
‘I’m good. The band’s doing well.’
I can’t help but smile.
‘No, seriously. We’re starting to get regular session work. We’ve opened for some great gigs. Studio stuff as well. It’s really taking off.’
I wonder if it could be true, that his dreams might turn out to have substance. I hesitate with the question I want to ask, then blunder on regardless. ‘Seeing anyone?’
‘Not really.’ Perversely, I feel glad. ‘You? I mean how are things?’ he asks back.
‘Great. Really good.’ And it’s just the upset of the last few days that makes it sound so false.
‘And Jamie?’ I can feel the effort it takes for him to say the name.
‘He’s fine.’ I am not – obviously – going to talk about his recent promotion. How money streaming in makes for an easy life materially, yet leaves him working long hours and drained of the energy to do more than battle his way through the evenings online.
‘The two of you?’ Matt is like Misha with a favourite toy, unwilling to let go.
‘We’re fine.’ I think.
His thumb stokes my palm. ‘I never did really understand.’ He speaks very quietly. ‘I thought we were good together.’
My throat tightens. It wasn’t that I stopped loving Matt, not exactly. I discovered that love is not a binary thing, coming with an on-off button, all or nothing, one or the other. Rather it’s a wave that pulses, that peaks and troughs, continually in flux. And different loves can co-exist on different frequencies. It is perfectly possible to love two men.
Not possible to be with both though.
‘I should get Misha home,’ I say.
‘Yes, of course.’ His hand lets go of mine, leaving a damp imprint, leaving me feeling exposed and raw. Neither of us moves, and then we rise simultaneously.
‘Which way are you going?’
‘I’ll head on.’ He gestures vaguely. ‘Might as well go for a proper walk.’
I think of him retracing familiar pathways.
‘Yes, of course.’ I feel let down, abandoned, wishing he’d accompany us at least a little while. ‘I’m going that way.’ The opposite way.
‘Well,’ he says, his fingers with bitten down nails raking through his unkempt hair. ‘Thanks. I mean for letting me know. Letting me see her.’
He pats my shoulder roughly, then crouches and gives Misha an all encompassing hug, unwilling to let go.
He doesn’t look at me as he stands and starts to walk away. ‘See ya then,’ he says.
Misha’s head twists over her shoulder; I watch her still watching Matt and I remember how it took months and months before she stopped fretting over his absence. I remember how I missed the background thrum of his music through the flat, though it had often driven me crazy at the time.
‘Come on, girl.’ I attach the lead, my hand stroking the silk-softness of Misha’s ears and she looks up sorrowfully. Soon, very soon, I will act decisively, telling the vet to turn her life off, wishing my love for her could be switched off too. I think how if I stay with Jamie, I will likely never have another dog.
But I’ve made my choice and I know there is no turning back. Misha and I, we head for home.
© Sarah Evans, 2014
Sarah Evans has had dozens of stories published in magazines, competition anthologies and online. Highlights include: appearing in the 2008 Bridport anthology; having several stories published in the acclaimed Unthology series; and winning a competition run by Spoken Ink who also recorded her story. Her stories have been performed at events in Faversham, UK and by Liars’ League Hong Kong. She recently won the inaugural Winston Fletcher Prize with her story ‘Acclimatising.’
The Non-Binary Nature Of Love was read by Annabel Capper on 6th August 2014