Lily and the Octopus(2)

Written By: Steven Rowley

Lily snorts at me twice with flared nostrils and I realize I’m still holding her snout. I let go of her, knowing she is seething at the indignity of it all.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she says, tucking her head to gnaw at an itch on her stomach.

“Well, I do want to talk about it.”

Mostly I want to talk about how it could be possible that I’ve never seen it before. How I could be responsible for every aspect of her daily life and well-being—food, water, exercise, toys, chews, inside, outside, medication, elimination, entertainment, snuggling, affection, love—and not notice that one side of her head sports an octopus, alarmingly increasing it in size. The octopus is a master of disguise, I remind myself; its intent is to stay hidden. But even as I say this silently in my head I wonder why I’m letting myself so easily off the hook.

“Does it hurt?”

There’s a sigh. An exhale. When Lily was younger, in her sleep she would make a similar noise, usually right before her legs would start racing, the preamble to a beautiful dream about chasing squirrels or birds or pounding the warm sand on an endless golden beach. I don’t know why, but I think of Ethan Hawke answering the standard questionnaire inspired by Bernard Pivot that ended every episode of Inside the Actors Studio:

“What sound or noise do you love?”

Puppies sighing, Ethan had said.

Yes! Such a wonderful juxtaposition, sighing puppies. As if warm, sleeping puppies felt anything lamentable or had weariness or exasperations to sigh over. And yet they sighed all the time! Exhalations of sweet, innocent breath. But this sigh is different. Subtly. To the untrained ear it might not be noticeable, but I know Lily about as well as I think it’s possible to know another living thing, so I notice it. There’s a heaviness to it. A creakiness. There are cares in her world; there is weight on her shoulders.

I ask her again. “Does it hurt?”

Her answer comes slowly, after great pause and consideration. “Sometimes.”

The very best thing about dogs is how they just know when you need them most, and they’ll drop everything that they’re doing to sit with you awhile. I don’t need to press Lily further. I can do what she has done for me countless times, through heartbreak and illness and depression and days of general uneasiness and malaise. I can sit with her quietly, our bodies touching just enough to generate warmth, to share the vibrating energy of all living things, until our breathing slows and falls into the parallel rhythm it always does when we have our quietest sits.

I pinch the skin on the back of her neck as I imagine her mother once did to carry her when she was a pup.

“There’s a wind coming,” I tell her. Staring down the octopus as much as I dare, I fear there’s more truth to that statement than I’d like. Mostly I am setting Lily up to deliver her favorite line from Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Neither of us has actually seen the film, but they played this exchange endlessly in the commercials back when it was in theaters and we both would collapse in fits of laughter at the sound of Cate Blanchett bellowing and carrying on as the Virgin Queen. My dog does the best Cate Blanchett impression.

Lily perks up just a bit and delivers her response on cue: “I, too, can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me! Let them come with the armies of hell; they will not pass!”

It’s a good effort, one she makes for me. But if I’m being honest, it isn’t her best. Instinctually she probably already knows what is fast becoming clear to me: she is the whelk; she is the crab; she is the snail.

The octopus is hungry.

And it is going to have her.


Friday Afternoon

My therapist’s office is painted the color of unsalted butter. Sitting in that office on the couch with the one broken spring that made it just maddeningly shy of comfortable, I have often thought of shoving the whole room into a mixing bowl with brown sugar and flour and vanilla and chocolate chips. I crave cookies when I’m annoyed, when I feel I know better than those around me. Crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies warm from the oven, with the chocolate soft but not melted. I don’t know the derivation of this comfort craving, but there’s a quote from Cookie Monster that’s always inhabited my head: “Today me will live in the moment, unless it’s unpleasant, in which case me will eat a cookie.” While I don’t take all of my mantras from goggle-eyed blue monsters with questionable grammar, this one has taken root. Lately I’ve been craving cookies a lot.

My therapist’s name is Jenny, which is not a name you should accept for a therapist. Ever. A gymnast, perhaps. Forrest Gump’s wife, sure. A worker at one of those frozen yogurt places where you pump your own yogurt and all they have to do is weigh it and they still think their job is rough. But not a therapist. I just don’t think people take Jennys seriously. Case in point: My name is Edward Flask, but people call me Ted—something I insisted upon after the unfortunate nickname “Special Ed” followed me through grade school because I was so shy. I can see my name scrawled in Jenny’s handwriting across the top of a legal pad on her lap, but the T in Ted is bolder—clearly an addition she made after remembering no one calls me Ed. And I’ve been seeing her for months! Still, Jenny takes my insurance and has an office that is adjacent to my neighborhood (at least by Los Angeles standards). The conclusions she draws are always the wrong ones, but I’ve gotten good at taking her dimwitted advice and filtering it through the mind of an imaginary and much smarter therapist to get the insight into my life that I need. That by itself sounds dysfunctional, but it happens to work for me.

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