Then a spring day burns through with such clarity Melissa asks me to help her interview dog walkers at the dog park. Not the day nurse. Not the other aid. Me—our first outing since the incident.
Melissa has already cinched the new gait belt around her waist and everything.
“Any bowel movements today?” I almost shout, the question on the tip of my tongue. Yet, I manage to rein myself quiet, “In a few minutes, OK?”
I pretend to study Melissa’s bowel movement charts—the size of which the Powers-That-Be require us to record in quantities of bananas.
Monday: Melissa is one banana. Tuesday: no bananas. Today: I do not know how many bananas Melissa is, and although it is required of me, I do not ask her.
My diligent documenting is how this whole rift started.
Melissa believes I had an option, that I could have lifted her off the bloodied concrete and chosen not to document the incident at all. “Why do you get to decide?” she said. “You’re not my mother.” To which I said what I always say: “You know what I would give to have an aid to follow me around, documenting and analyzing and calibrating my life to ensure I live optimally?”
“You want to trade?”
Melissa had missed my point: some of us are not lucky to be as cared for as her. But I have read enough online about displacement to know that when Melissa accuses me of not being her mother, she is not lashing out at me; she is lashing out at the Powers-that-Be for mandating she be tethered to an aid whenever she exits this house.
I shut Melissa’s casefile, clap my hands. “To the dog park!”
The dog park is not so much a dog park as an agreed upon grassy corner of Washington Park, the margins of which I must troll in the passenger van until finding a distant spot.
Despite what she will tell you, Melissa has never been a steady walker. Any other time I would have taken one look and turned us around. But circumstances are extenuating. And as we navigate the maze of sunbathers and yogis and frisbee tossers, I do my best to synchronize my steps with Melissa’s, to keep my hand no more than a phantom presence in her gait belt, a natural extension of self.
“Aw lookit,” Melissa says, not seeming to notice. “Lookit, lookit!"
“Just one last thing,” I say at the gates of the park. “Then we can move on. I know what it’s like to have someone always lording over your life, questioning your every decision until your life no longer feels like your own. I’d like to tell you a story—”
But before I can start my story, before I can illustrate via personal experience all the ways in which it is not productive to perseverate on certain trains of thought, we enter the park, and a dachshund is bounding to greet us.
Melissa squats down and starts scratching its chin without asking if the dachshund is friendly or not, and although we have talked about the risks of this behavior, I do not remind her.
“What’s your name?” she says. “How old are you?” And her voice drops an octave: “Are you a good boy?”
“Oscar, six, I’d like to think so.”
The dog’s walker—a familiar old man in a tank top, cargo shorts with diabetes socks—answers her questions thoroughly. Too thoroughly. He does not make an excuse like he usually does. Instead, he outlines Oscar’s feeding schedules (twice daily), where he buys Oscar’s oatmeal shampoo (Petco), a product he utilizes on the dachshund bi-monthly (more or less).
With each of his answers, more of Melissa’s body weight quivers into my arm—little by little, then a little more—until I begin to worry: What new restrictions would the Powers-That-Be implement if I drop her? Leg braces? A walker? A wheelchair!?
“Lookit, lookit.” Another dog, another—a poodle, a pit, a greyhound puppy with paws so big they look deformed.
We keep moving, keep petting, my tiring hand never leaving her gait belt, which for all her complaining, Melissa truly seems to have forgotten on her quest to interview every dog walker at the dog park.
Now a dusty dogface rises, a snaggle-toothed mutt who regards us with a wide-eyed stare he seems to share with his owner: this young woman in yoga gear with oversized sunglasses swallowing her face.
Winding the dog’s leash around her hand, she opens her mouth to reveal pearly brace-straightened teeth, readying herself to issue a warning that does not come.
Melissa squats down, starts scratching. “Who’s a good dog?” And to my relief, the dog’s face blooms with an ecstasy that quickly travels down his flank and into his leg, windmilling it until he topples and points a red rocket back at us.
“Oh hi, yeah, he does that,” the young woman says, as if just noticing us, cheeks flushing the same color of her dog’s loins. “What’s your name?” she says.
“Yes,” Melissa says: “Yes, you are a good dog.”
The young woman looks to me, at my hand in the gait belt, and, forcing a smile, she raises her eyebrows over her sunglasses as if expecting me to answer for Melissa. And within those reflective lenses I see myself, see us, this human being walking another human being through the dog park, and the sudden truth of all of today’s kindness plants me firmly inside my body:
Inside my gnarling hand, swollen fingers.
My joints and bones.
The synapses that allow me to hang onto the belt’s loop.
“We, uh, really should, uh, be going,” I say, my fingers slipping.
“Melissa, uh, c’mon,” I say.
Melissa keeps cooing, keeps leaning, petting at the dog, and saying, “Yes, yes,” as the eyes continue to turn toward us—two, four, six at a time—and her weight continues to quiver up into my glitching fingers, prying them apart until I have no choice but to tug hard on the loop and say, “OK, Melissa. That’s enough. C’mon.”
Melissa does not like that one. Melissa thinks regardless of her situation she should be able to pet dogs at the dog park for as long as she wants. And the walk back to the passenger van is silent. Our steps clunk through the throngs of sunny bodies unable to reclaim any synchronicity from earlier, each of us taking turns straining ahead or faltering behind.
And it is here I decide to tell her my story from earlier, the one about the time my mother once tried and failed to teach me the art of the foxtrot. “Every few seconds,” I say as we continue walking, “she’d stop me and say, ‘Listen to the music, stop it, watch my feet.’ She demonstrated the steps for me countless times. But the more I watched my mother, the more I stopped and listened, Melissa, the less my arms and legs seemed to understand my brain. My legs jounced, my arms quivered. Finally, every eye had turned in my direction. The bride, the groom—even the wait staff in their monkey suits had doubled-over laughing.”
To drive my point home, I take two slow steps forward, one quick step to the side, executing the perfect fox trot.
Then I repeat the steps because she didn’t seem to notice.
Then I do this one more time.
Then I say, “Melissa, You see what I’m saying, right?”