THE BABY

Illustration by simon steiner

Illustration by simon steiner

 
 

Before starting down the road to motherhood, Dana and June decided to adopt a dog. It had to be a toy, since their apartment, above a Hollywood garage, was so small that the bed pulled down from a wall and the bathroom only held one person unless the other was in the shower. In what passed for a kitchen, the doll-sized stove resembled the Little Tikes Dana had played with as a child. The cupboards weren’t big enough for pots and pans; they had to hang these on a rack.

But they were happy. They loved this place, their first together. All day the sun washed its wrap-around windows as if bestowing blessings. All night, despite cars roaring down Sunset and the screams of people spilling out of bars, they could see, as they held each other, a slice of sky through jacaranda boughs, a lonely star or two, gleaming. Both freelance writers with flexible schedules, they’d met one Tuesday at a Catherine Opie show and bonded beside a photo of a beauty smoking a cigar. Slowly, over the next few months, they inched closer, discovering that their crazy chemistry wasn’t compromised by their deep compatibility. Dana, who’d never had such a pretty girlfriend, considered June too good for her, even as June observed that they looked alike, with their wild brown hair, blue eyes and black-framed glasses. But June was delicate and thin, Dana tall and big—“practically a giant,” as a former girlfriend had cruelly said. What June had said when Dana first spent the night was: “I feel safe with you.”

At the adoption agency they had to fill out a lengthy questionnaire and have an interview with the director. Why did they want a dog? Did they have a yard? Plan to leave the dog alone? Had they picked a vet? How stable was their relationship? Dana, who’d only had one childhood dog, a mutt she and her brother had ignored, was taken aback and deferred to June, who’d grown up with a pack of collies.

Later, in a room full of yapping cages, both were drawn to a small Pomeranian-sheltie mix who looked exactly like a fox. He’d been sent back from a family the week before and was older than they wanted, but the director was persuasive.

“He’s a peach,” she said flatly. “I’ve got three people interested. You like him, better say so.” When asked why he’d been returned, she bristled. “He’s sweet, he’s affectionate. Is that a crime?” With faint sarcasm she conceded that his obsession with fetch games might be hard on someone busy—the implication being, some heartless, soulless jerk. Then again, he had a trick so good some might choose him just for that: If you said “Namaste,” he put his paws together prayerfully and begged you to throw his toy. The woman demonstrated with a squeaky three-legged cat.

A week later, after a home inspection and reference check, they were allowed to come for him in June’s car. “His feet smell like Fritos,” said Dana, touched when he settled in her lap, as if he’d finally come home. “His head’s softer than a bunny’s,” said June, reaching out to touch him and also Dana, who smiled, feeling blessed. They had his bed ready, a leash, a harness, blankets, toys. After exploring the apartment, he sniffed June’s purse and found the squeaky cat the director had given them. He worked it out and dropped it at her feet. She threw it. Dana threw it. She threw it. The afternoon passed.

When they broke for dinner, “the Baby,” as they called him, kept dropping his toy and backing up, eyes shining. He offered Namaste. He pressed the toy on them as if they might have missed what he was getting at. When Dana said, “Not now,” he hiked his paws on her and whined. When they sat down to eat, he jumped in June’s lap. “Just tonight,” she said, feeding him a potato. At bedtime, ignoring his bed, he jumped on theirs and Dana said, “Just tonight.”

They bought a Snugli so they could trade off carrying him around. If you didn’t, he brought toys. Namaste. Namaste. If you ignored the toys, he whimpered to be held.

To Dana, this was all pretty cute at first. Her old dog Felix never did much of anything. Like a lodger in their house, he was strictly there for the room and board. Baby burrowed in hard.

One night, as he slept between them, she sent a toe out toward June. “I miss you,” she whispered.

“He’s such an infant,” June whispered back.

“A real baby. You can see what we’d be getting into.”

“Seriously. Multiplied by fifty.”

The dog snored as they kissed, free for now from any real or imagined future as the moon rose through the jacaranda.

In the morning, while June was out, Dana called the director of the agency, who listened coldly to her concerns. “How would you feel? Everything’s strange there. Your place. Your partner. You. As much as he’s been bounced around—”

“Wait,” Dana said. “Bounced around?”

Shocked by the woman’s rudeness, she couldn’t wait to tell June. “He’s a problem child,” she reported as they ate lunch at the kitchen table. “Apparently he’s been returned a lot.” As she recalled the details of the phonecall, she laughed. Especially at the woman’s parting zinger.

You people. You want perfect? Try a breeder. I hear good things about the puggle.

“The puggle--?” Dana giggled.

June didn’t. She set her fork down. “You called without asking me? Why would you?” She studied Dana like a stranger. “Will I come home one day and find him gone?”

“Of course not! How can you say that?”

Words—unthinkable words—began to fly between them. Plates were pushed away, napkins thrown down. June stormed off and Dana followed, the dog dashing around as they shouted.

Dana felt punched, blindsided. Eventually she slammed out of the apartment and marched up Sunset, past cafes where people lunched beneath awnings, drank wine, waved sandwiches in some carefree world she would never be part of. She walked and walked, across Sunset, down Doheny, right on Santa Monica, losing herself amid the stores, the people, the cars. Propelled by an inner voice. Where can I go? How much money do I have? Where can I go? How much?

She remembered the girl she’d dated before June, whom she’d met on a dating app and who had showed up late (and maybe drunk) to their designated spot. Wow, you’re huge, she said. Practically a giant. You should come with a warning. Or maybe a more honest picture. Dana went home with her anyway. Kept dating her. Jesus.

Then one day, who knew why, she’d gone alone to that Catherine Opie show.

When the phone vibrated in her pocket, she almost didn’t feel it. When she answered it, she almost hung up on the thick, stammering voice.

“I feel like. I feel…”  

Dana looked around. It had gotten dark. She didn’t recognize where she was. Somewhere in Beverly Hills.

“I was just,” the voice said. “I was, oh—”

 “June?” She had never heard June cry.

It was a choked and clumsy sound, and she had to wait while it stopped and started. “June,” she said. “Hey...” She finally sat down on the sidewalk.

Tall houses rose around her, half-timbered Tudors, white Colonials, lights winking on, palm trees etched against the sky. A boy rattled by on a bike. A cat dove for the bushes.

She realized she’d been holding her breath.  

“I’m sorry,” she finally murmured. “What I said—”

“Oh, Dana, God.”

“What I mean is—”

They hadn’t yet learned how to square off and fight without sledge-hammering their life. Avoid the soft spots. Listen. Go quiet when they needed to. In time they would. Acquire skills that would carry them through a second year in their apartment, through a couple of work and family crises, through romantic upsets and near-affairs. Then there was the Baby’s death. They bought a house. June wrote a book. They never did have kids. In the end, they chose to focus on each other. Art. Friends. Self-improvement.

But that night, so early in their relationship—almost the very start, if you considered its long haul—all Dana had to do was go home.


Los Angeles writer Susan Heeger has published fiction in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Good Housekeeping and Brain, Child. “The Baby” is part of a story collection she’s working on with L.A. illustrator and graphic designer Simon Steiner called Animals Like Us, in which animals help humans solve problems, fall in love, improve their characters and find peace.