Ayla died several years ago, brittle with chronic pain. But I took this a decade prior, when she was in her open-mouthed panting prime, good natured, what James Herriot called “an obvious grinner.” I loved her like a child before I knew what it was like to love children.When I had children, my older daughter insisted Ayla was her sister. Once, I happened to mention something about Ayla’s parents. My daughter looked at me, stunned.
“Ayla’s mom and dad were…dogs?”She was wonderful to my babies, in a fiercely protective way, but also made it clear she didn’t understand why I had chosen to include such noisy, unpredictable, clumsy beasts in our pack. On the other hand, they were a constant source of dropped, spilled, and occasionally regurgitated food, and she thought that was at least partial compensation for their obvious liabilities.
This picture was taken on the side of the Franklin Mountains, overlooking the west valley of El Paso, where I lived at the time. This was a lifetime ago, so long ago that I imagine if you wanted see the timeline of my life, the cartographer would have to telescope it with those little slashes.Looking back on it is an exercise in perspective, and humility, because no matter how much I thought I knew something to be true, I was wrong.
I was in my open-mouthed panting prime then, too. I was still ensconced in my first marriage, a series of small unhappinesses that would soon become a suffocating but unspecified misery before imploding altogether.I was also still ensconced in my first “real” (read: post-college) job, a career path that would strangely mirror the trajectory of my first marriage.
These things seemed—were—momentous. There were days during the year of the divorce that I wondered if I would ever again breathe without feeling the grief lodged in my chest. I tortured myself with the questions: had I done enough? Was it the right decision? But today, for the most part, I don’t even remember that marriage, and when I do, I can call it my “starter marriage” without a hint of guilt or shame or doubt.And when I decided to leave that miserable, thankless, grinding cubicle wasteland, I was terrified I was being reckless (my parents shared my concern). I was leaving the security of a good job with a Fortune Five company, benefits, retirement, and an all-but guaranteed ascent to mid-level management by my forties. I had no plan, and only the vaguest destination: Out. That company was General Motors. Cue the laugh track. I had worried I was throwing my career away, but it turns out I was just dodging a big, slow, bankrupt bullet.
Soon after the divorce, I had an affair with a married man. It was, according to everyone who loved me, a horrible thing. I was a homewrecker, the lowest position a woman could possibly aspire to. When I came to my senses I would see that I was being used! Foolish! Naïve! A traitor to the cause of feminism!Now, nearly 20 years later, I can say: in many ways it was wonderful. Not wonderful in a way that I’ll ever repeat, granted, but wonderful enough that I still look back on a thousand little things from that year of iniquity with gratitude.
Then one night we went out. He got drunk, which he did more often than I cared to admit. I tried to take his keys. He insisted he was fine with the sloshing belligerence only the completely inebriated can muster. An acquaintance urged me to let him call me a cab, give me a ride home, anything but get in the car with him.I got in the car with him.
He weaved and slurred and raged down the I-10 as it snaked around the southern tip of the Franklin Mountains. I begged him to stop, let me drive, let me out. But I was trapped. Trapped in a speeding car with a man who just might kill an innocent person with his pathetic addiction and pride. Or he might kill me. But I wasn’t innocent. I had chosen to get in that car because I was too afraid to risk the confrontation, too afraid to stand up for myself, too afraid to hurt his feelings.Miraculously, we made it home safely.
It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, getting in that car. But nearly 20 years later just writing about that night, I can feel the fear and shame twisting together in my chest.When I snapped this picture-of-a-picture, I suddenly saw there was a crack in the glass of the picture frame. It’s been there for years. I dropped the frame; the glass cracked; I made a mental note I ought to find a new one but never did. Instead, over the years, the crack in the glass has faded so far from my consciousness that I can look right at it and not see it. It’s not important to me, I suppose—I want to see my gorgeous sunlit dog before age robbed her of that obvious grin, the open-mouthed pant. So that is what I see. The crack is not part of my vision, in either sense of the word.
But now, distanced and reframed through the quickie ipod pic, the crack leaps into the foreground: evidence of my carelessness, I suppose, or maybe my willful and selective oblivion. The crack becomes important. I notice other things, too. The frame is almost archaeologically dusty. In order to take the picture, I had to move clutter: a knitting pattern I haven’t touched in weeks, a physical therapy ball, a broken necklace my daughter has been patiently waiting for me to fix so long that it, too, will have to be excavated. A jar of fish food. A bag of crystalized ginger from that stomach bug two weeks ago. So much strata, preserving my shortcomings.My heart aches a little to realize I have neglected this memorial. Ayla was a central and loyal part of my life for fourteen years. She deserves more than a cracked frame caked with dust. My heart aches a little for me. I close my eyes and the cartographer’s hash lines disappear. That night rushes back at me. I deserved more, too.