The sheen of Cindy's eyes matched that of the pearls around her neck: they didn't gleam, but held muted points of light. Unremarkable and lacklustre, they served as an indication of her immutably vapid nature. The way she dressed, however, was enough to dispel the doubts of the inexperienced and the desperate: she made up her hair and her face so that she looked mildly pretty instead of plain. She dressed in clothes that clung to her curves but not her skin, allowing a show of sexuality that wouldn't be considered cheap. Over her yellow singlet, she draped a shawl of guipure lace that looked inexpensive but not tacky. She applied her makeup modestly but distinctly, as if she were trying to fool people into thinking she was beautiful and confident in her own skin.
She was exactly the type of woman that stirred that instinct-driven entity within me, the wolf that grew slyer and stronger with every triumphant human encounter. I never bothered with women I knew couldn't be put down easily; my pleasure lay not in the chase, but in the take down. And the more women I took down, the better.
Cindy's dull eyes met mine with a warmth that made them seem almost lively. "So… we didn't get to do a lot of talking back in Sydney," she smiled, sprinkling a bit of olive oil on her salad. "All I know is that you work in pain management, as an anaesthesiologist."
"Do you work with the elderly a lot? I'm assuming that's what brought you to the conference." She speared a fork through a piece of lettuce and took a bite.
I took a sip from my glass, nodding. I had been floating in the heat of my thoughts and the cool water brought me back to the present. "I get a heartbreaking number of cancer patients, young and old; but I also spend a lot of time on geriatric patients. Most of them have bone and joint disorders that have them coming in more than a few times."
"I had a great aunt who had arthritis and spondylosis. Her doctor recommended she get surgery for both, it was that bad. She didn't go through with it — too scared."
I nodded. "I have to participate in surgeries now and then. It's become sort of a talent of mine to convince people to get the procedures they need. We aren't technically supposed to push anyone into it, as you know — we have to be delicate with our words, right? There's a lot of risk involved in giving the elderly anesthesia. Avoiding lawsuits — the most exciting part of working with geriatrics, if you ask me." I chuckled and dug into my salmon.
"Putting people under — that must be so nerve-wracking." Cindy's riveted stare reminded me of a little girl watching a Disney movie. I had her full attention. In a room diffuse with the tinkling laughter of the powerful and the wealthy, I was all she could see.
"It is," I agreed. "For sure. But I'd be lying if I said I felt no thrill in it. I — "
My thoughts began to slow down, drowning my brain in images of unmoving bodies that mirrored death, whether their hearts still beat or not. The warm stirring in my chest moved south and brought about an arousal more pressing and urgent, and more straightforwardly assuaged. The rising heat was distracting…
"I once had to euthanise a dog," I blurted out.
That did it. The thought of putting a dog to sleep wasn't nearly as stimulating as putting humans to sleep. My crotch and my pants both began to loosen.
Cindy's captivation abruptly dissolved. There was nothing like talk of dead dogs to bring your head down from the clouds.
"Why?" she asked. It was just one word, but it was distinct with alarm and intrigue. She needed me to divulge more to her, to feed her attention and excitement.
I thought for a moment, deciding what to disclose and what to conceal, then cleared my throat and leaned forward in my seat. I looked at her with a half-contrived sincerity and began the story.
"I found this puppy once, when I was nine. He was probably just a few weeks old, just learning to walk. He was really cute — floppy brown ears and cream-coloured fur. He was always excited so his tail was constantly whipping around like a propeller." I grinned and looked just past Cindy's shoulder, conjuring images in my mind of where I found the animal. "I took him home from the park. It was nearly sunset, and he looked hungry. I figured I could take him home to a nice dinner, for both of us. I'd had a big day — I was hungry too. Mom cooked up something special that night, but I forgot what.
"I remember the puppy was shivering in my arms, and I could feel his ribcage though his fur. I called him Jack after Jack Skellington, from Nightmare Before Christmas — not exactly a good choice, now that I think about it, but it's the first thing that came to mind when I saw his hollowed out chest and black gaping eyes. He was smiling, too, even if he felt like he'd break apart if I squeezed him too hard."
I took Cindy's hand and laced our fingers together. She would revel at that connection, and my story would strike deeper. I continued, no longer needing to search for memories.
"Jack ate like a champ that night. I slipped some of my food into this plastic takeout container and he pressed his tongue into every corner for the tiniest morsels. I told my parents that I just wanted to feed him for the one night then take him to the shelter, but I couldn't bring myself to take him out of the house the next day. It took a lot of begging, and a promise to do twenty hours of chores and get good grades for my parents to let me keep him."
"So what happened to him?" Cindy prompted. "Why did you have to put him to sleep?"
I sucked in a deep breath and released it audibly, wrinkling my brow. "I — "
I paused. This was supposed to be hard for me.
"I forgot to mention… how bad my dad's temper is. When something gets him going, nothing and no one can stop him. My mom clams up and rides it out because, honestly, he looks crazed when he's set off. Deranged. I… I've never seen it but I'm willing to bet he's laid hands on her before, more than just once."
The warmth in Cindy's eyes softened, melting into pity; her grip on my hand became one of sympathy. I felt a jolt of annoyance. How? How could this woman feel sorry for me? After a beat, I reminded myself of the purpose for telling this story and resumed the tale.
"Jack's novelty — it didn't last long. Since the beginning, I took good care of him: trained him, fattened him up so you couldn't see his bones anymore… You'd never guess I'd gotten him off the street.
"My parents promised I could keep him after I earned him, and I did. I did everything in my power to earn him. But my dad was never one for keeping promises, especially if that promise started to annoy him. He started hating the little things Jack did — typical dog stuff: begging for scraps, barking at cars passing outside, scratching at the doors to be let out… He never gnawed our shoes or soiled the carpet — I trained him really well. Or at least I thought I did." I took a pause and a deep breath, creasing my brows and staring fixedly at the table.
Brooding, troubled, emotional. I repeated the mantra in my head as I continued, willing myself to be all those things. Brooding, troubled, emotional.
"It's okay, Artie," Cindy said, her voice a concerned whine in my ears. "Just let it all out," she prompted.
Everthing came out in a stream that bubbled from my lips: "It was that time, that only time, that I failed to let Jack out into the garden. Around 6PM usually, just after sunset. He knew the time. I knew the time. But that night, for some reason, I forgot. I was in the basement, busy with school or chores or some other thing that wasn't important — I don't remember what it was. It doesn't matter anymore. The only thing that matters is that I forgot.
"I forgot, and I can just imaging Jack sitting there at the door, staring into the backyard, waiting patiently till he couldn't wait anymore. He ended up going on the rug in the kitchen. My dad caught him, got him by scruff and dragged him up the steps. I heard Jack squealing and I could tell it wasn't out of excitement or for attention. It was… pain." I swallowed visibly, could feel my heart, hear it thudding in my chest.
"I opened my bedroom door, and there they were: my dad holding a squirming Jack against his chest. One hand was around his neck, the other clamped down on his snout. Jack's whimpers were muffled, but his eyes… the terror in them hit me full force like a scream. And then Dad just… snapped. Broke his neck like a fucking tree branch."
I let go of Cindy's hands and gripped my hands tightly together, the skin of my knuckles turning the color of the bone beneath them. "The bastard didn't even bother to kill him quickly. He dropped Jack on the floor, where he panted and whimpered for the longest time.
"In the end, I had to do it with a cocktail of sedatives. I had to feed them to Jack one by one. He was crying the whole time — it was torture. Until now, I say I did it for Jack, to take away his pain, but I think it was just as much for my pain as it was for his. It took a while, before I heard him gasp and whine a final time. Its sound was so striking, so… alive. But it was the sound of death."
Cindy's eyes were shining, and her fingers drifted silently to her mouth. She looked as I imagine I had looked that night, seeing Jack alive and then, in an instant, gone.
"I didn't say anything after that. Or maybe I did. Maybe I just made some sort of sound — I don't remember. The only thing clear to me a few days later was what my dad said that night, before he left me with Jack dying in the hallway. He just said, 'He pissed on the rug. Clean it up.'
"The way he said it was what bothered me most. He didn't sound cold, didn't sound angry. He didn't sound anything." I stared blankly at the table cloth, meandering between sincerity and pretence. The spiel was over; the feverish stirrings I felt were vague, but real.
"Artie…" Cindy said gently. "I don't know what to say. It's…"
I looked up at her, willing her to go on. There was nothing more for me to say at this point.
"It's terrible." She shrugged helplessly. "You couldn't have known what your father would do."
"My father…" I murmured, channeling some anger, which was easier to conjure than self-pity, "was just a rodent. I should have been able to stop him. Not just with Jack, but with my mom. And with m — " I let the statement hang, letting Cindy's assumptions fill the gaps.
"It's not your fault," she stressed, eyebrows arched in unfeigned worry.
I sighed deeply and ran a palm over my face. "I'm sorry, Cindy. Really. I shouldn't have brought this up now — not at lunch, at a nice place like this. I killed the mood — I'm sorry."
"Artie, maybe this was the best time to face this. With someone. With me — not alone. I mean, this must've been weighing on you for so long… It has, hasn't it?"
I paused in genuine thought, reviewing all my life lived with that caustic poisonous presence. My father had existed in the house like a sickening virus, infecting my mother, my life. Our everything.
Cindy was right. It had been weighing on me. On us. Right at our gut, at our core. A heavy stone adhering to muscle and sinew, as much a part of us as our own heart. I felt bitter bile rising into my stomach, making me want to vomit.
"It's been long, all right." My voice was a dark snarl.
Cindy drew back in her chair, withdrawing her hands to her lap, her eyes darkened by a shade of fear.
"Too long," I growled.