Len was awakened at 5 o’clock by the sensation of a tongue caressing his ear. He was in that pleasant, still half-asleep world, where his night thoughts hadn’t yet transformed into his daytime anxieties. The warmth and wetness of the tongue awakened him but was agreeable enough not to startle him. He checked the time on his phone, just to be sure there was no mistake. There wasn’t. Roger always knew when it was time to go to the dog park.
Len opened the garage and then the rear driver’s side door of his car. Roger bounded in and contentedly set himself up next to the window. When they got to the park, Roger turned to make sure Len was where he always was, about ten yards behind. Had it not been dark and if Roger was not a dog, he would have noticed that Len was crying.
It was more than a year earlier, at nearly the exact same spot, that Len had first met Jess. A group of about five hearty-souled dog owners were standing around talking and trying to keep warm. He had walked over in the middle of the conversation and had heard the woman who turned out to be Jess saying that she was working on her PhD in Literature. Len rarely spoke to anyone at the park. His diffidence almost always prevented it. He couldn’t resist here, though. He told everyone that if he could begin again, that’s what he would do-get a PhD in Literature. For the next half hour Len and Jess discussed their all-time favorite books. There was huge overlap. Updike, Faulkner and of course, David Foster Wallace were all common allies. When they left to go home, he looked at her carefully. She wasn’t attractive in a traditional way, though she was quite pretty and fit. It was almost like she was trying to not be appealing. Each morning, regardless of the weather, they began to meet at the dog park at precisely 5:45.
Jess was kind of the reverse “black sheep” of her family. Neither of her parents had gone to college and her sister was a secretary at a small business. But Jess somehow was a genius. She graduated from Yale and was working on her PhD at Penn. At first, she spoke affably to Len about her family. She described their quirks benignly and expressed affection for everyone. But after a couple of weeks, some vitriol began to seep out. Her mom had lately been drinking too much and had briefly left her father for another man. Her honesty and sensitivity resonated with him. It opened a floodgate of emotion and the words poured out.
Len told her about his marriage and how it had come to be a total failure. When he first met Debbie, they seemed to have so much in common. He was already a well-known criminal defense attorney and she was a public defender. They understood each other’s work and appreciated the nuances of their daily courtroom triumphs and disappointments. As the years went by and they become parents, cracks in their relationship began to appear. Len reconnected with his passion for books and became a voracious reader. He wanted to be left alone with Wallace Stegner.
One mild, early March morning when it felt and almost began to smell like spring, she asked if she could kiss him. And right on the street, in front of the Rite Aid, they did. When Len got home half an hour later, his heart was still beating out of his chest. He tried to calm himself down. Irrationally, he feared that the unadulterated joy that was flowing through his body would reveal his indiscretion. When she texted him later that day, he almost trembled with excitement when he saw her name on his phone. It struck him that this elation was a physical manifestation of love.
She told him that she wanted more of him. She said she loved the time they spent together, but when they were apart, she was despondent. She wanted to be in a real relationship. The intimacy that they shared was like an addiction. Intensely satisfying when it was present but debilitating when it was not. She wanted to know when he was going to move out.
He told her that he hated his life at home and that he would be moving out soon. But it wasn’t so clear in his mind. Until he met Jess, he hadn’t really been considering leaving. His marriage, like those of most of his friends, had been boring and mirthless for quite some time. But the routine, no matter how unsatisfying, was still going to be hard to break.
One day, early in the fall, when the light in the morning was just beginning to change and the breezes were no longer so mild and innocuous, she told him she had gone on a date the previous night. Her friend had given her the number of a sociology professor named Richard. She’d called him and they went on a canoe trip down the Schuykill River. Jess told Len that it was fun, but that she could sense that she was not his type.
Len joked with Jess about the date. He told her that the guy sounded like the man in the Dos Equis beer commercial. Who other than the “most interesting man in the world” would take a first date on a canoe trip? He encouraged her to try to see him again. He believed the intimacy that he and Jess shared was of a different order than a date or a canoe trip. He had never been in love before. He failed to recognize its fragility.
She told him that they went out again. And then a third time. Eventually she told him that she considered them to be a couple. Early one morning, when the cold weather had made the dogs particularly frisky, she told Len that her relationship with Richard had become exclusive. That she couldn’t see him anymore.
Roger and Len had a game that they now played together at the dog park. Len brought a tennis ball and would hold it up so Roger could see it. This was a signal for Roger to begin running across the grass. Len would throw the ball as far as he could and Roger would sprint after it. When he finally retrieved it, he’d scamper back to Len and drop the ball at his feet. Roger then would immediately sit and wait for Len to give him a treat. They would repeat this activity over and over again. After about ten minutes of tossing, Len sat on a bench and stared up at the still star-lit sky. It was becoming more and more difficult to spend time at home. He mostly sat silently in his room. Len put his earpods in and put on the song he had listened to a hundred times in the last few weeks. Tom Waits was singing about an old girlfriend named Martha: “I remember quiet evenings, trembling close to you.”
About the Author: Richard is a Professor in the Sociology Department at Temple University. He is also a practicing criminal defense attorney in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.