I named him Monster. As soon as you saw him, you’d understand why. He was imposing and colossal, closer in size to a horse than a dog. But the intimidation ended there for the most part. I got him as a puppy from an ad I found in the newspaper one morning while I was taking a break from gardening. Claire tried to talk me out of it. She said a pet in and of itself was a big responsibility but a Great Dane was going to be a challenge and she didn’t know if I was ready for that. I suppose it wouldn’t be wrong to say that I went through with it half out of desire and half out of spite. I didn’t like it when people told me I couldn’t do something. That I couldn’t handle something. There’s nothing left for me to experience that I can’t handle.
The sun poured in through my kitchen windows, glinting off my granite countertops and white tile as I walked through my living room, clutching my morning tea. Monster was taking up the entire couch. There was a thin layer of dust coating the end table closest to the kitchen in the shape of a picture frame that no longer sat there. I wiped the dust away. No sense in leaving a reminder of what was no longer there. Especially today. Monster leaned over and sniffed the area I had just cleaned. His ears flattened and he looked up at me before hopping off the couch and walking over to me. He was almost as tall as I was standing, and easily two feet taller than me if he stood on his hind legs. But apart from probably being able to bring down an elephant on his own, he was very gentle and I swear he was aware of his size. Claire says he embodies my desire for strength and security or some bullshit like that. But then again Claire says a lot of things.
Monster and I walked through the house to the back door. It was a warm fall morning here. Probably one of the last before winter settled over us. I watched as sunset-colored maple leaves fluttered softly to the slowly withering greenness of the grass. Connecticut is very different from California. I remember waking and walking outside to a glittering gold sun and the smell of salt. I remember the lack of shadows. But now the shadows are everywhere. I guess they were waiting for me. I watched Monster as he played in the freshly fallen leaves. Saw his black and gray speckled body become adorned with bronze and ruby fragments. I could see some green leaves still clinging to their branches in the maple tree, refusing to change, to fall, and I understood their resolve. I think that’s one of the biggest differences between Connecticut and California—their relationships to change. California is consistent and unchanging. The trees keep their green and the skies keep its sun. But real life isn’t like that. Greens fade and wilt and skies darken and sometimes you wake up and just wish for rain. Real life is like Connecticut. California is a thief.
I pulled a pack of cigarettes from my back pocket and brought one of them to my lips. Until recently I wasn’t a smoker. But I was trying to be. Claire was pleased to hear that. She called it an affirmation of life, said that it meant I was seeking out ways to move towards joy, towards pleasure. I didn’t tell her it was just because I’d grown lazy and lethargic and decided to let something else kill me rather than do it myself. Monster was sniffing the piles of leaves and when one fell from the tree onto his nose he jumped up so he was on his hind legs and put his front paws on the trunk of the tree. He was trying to catch the leaves on their way down, to save them from the fall.
I walked through the backyard and around the side of my house, Monster followed. The house was eastward facing and big, three stories, white with blue shutters and a half wrap-around porch. It was a nice family house and unfortunately I got stuck with it. I wanted to sell it. To move and leave it behind, but every time I spoke to a realtor they promised me it would be a quick sell and I’d lose my nerve. I took a drag on my cigarette and blew the smoke out through my mouth; Monster pressed his head into my free hand as we walked. He was my justification for keeping the house. It may have been too big for me, but it was just about right for Monster and me. Our street was quiet for the most part, lined with houses of similar size and style. Mostly families or young couples opting for suburb over city life. The sun painted the front of the house with morning light and I took a seat on my front steps, watched the few cars that passed by. Some would point from their windows at Monster and smile at me and I would nod or wave. Some would stop and ask his name.
“Monster,” I would say.
They would usually laugh or say something along the lines of, “Suits him.”
The sun was growing high in the sky and although there were clouds, it was still remarkably warm for a November morning. I was wearing sweatpants and an old college t-shirt that’s been worn so thin and soft it felt like silk. My hair was in a loose ponytail around my neck and I rested my elbows on my knees. Claire would disapprove. She would tell me to, “actively participate in life.” But I didn’t have much to do. It was Grace’s last day today, so she was running the shop. So there was that much more flexibility and freedom in my day.
“Good morning, Alice,” I heard a voice from over the fence that marked the edge of my property. It was my neighbor. “How are you doing today?”
“I’m great,” I lied to her. “How are you, Cora?”
“Fantastic!” she beamed and I found myself wondering how that must feel. “I just got a letter from my daughter. Christa is coming home in a couple weeks!” She said shaking the letter over the fence as if I needed to see the proof to believe it. I didn’t. But apparently Monster did because he jumped up to the fence startling Cora and tried to grab the paper from her hands. I couldn’t help but smirk. “Jesus, Monster,” Cora said clutching her chest. “How can something as big as you sneak up on me?” she playfully hit his nose with the paper and shook her head at me, to which I shrugged. Monster watched Cora walk back to her house before turning and staring at me on the steps. The front of the house was bathed in sunlight and to a naïve onlooker you would think that light was beating the darkness, but I wasn’t fooled. I knew the shadows were in the back.
She got a letter from her daughter. I tried to avoid the thought of daughter and instead focused on the letter part. Who still writes letters? Isn’t it all about texting and social media now? I wondered where her daughter was coming from. I knew she was in college but I didn’t know where. I never asked and never would. I wondered what she looked like and if she had a boyfriend. I tried to picture what she was studying at school and what kind of friends she had. What kind of hobbies did she have and what she was afraid of. And I pictured the reunion of mother and daughter—but not Cora and not Christa.
The sun felt hot even though it couldn’t have been more than 55 degrees out. A fog settled over my eyes and my heart started to beat uncontrollably in my chest. My breath became short and labored and I started to panic. This is it, I thought. My blood was flooding with cortisol, sweat was pouring from my body. My hands groped for the porch railing to steady myself as blackness started to fall over my eyes. I saw sky. I saw Monster. And then I didn’t.