No Turning Back

(This essay first published in Oh Comely magazine.)

She found me in Arizona—the dog I always knew I’d someday have. I’d been traveling cross-country with Mary Beth and Tracy who had planned the trip for months. They were going to land jobs at a ski resort for the winter. I, on the other hand, barely knew how to ski. I knew even less about my travel companions. They wouldn’t have guessed, when I asked to tag along after hearing second-hand about their plans, that I was the last person close friends and family would expect to quit a job (albeit, part time) and motor thousands of miles west for no discernable reason. By the age of twenty-five I had earned labels of “logical” and “level headed” and, most often, “down to earth.”

Now here I was, hunched in the back seat of Mary Beth’s pine green Subaru sedan at ten o’clock at night, quickly approaching the Four Corners border. We had taken our leisure the first few weeks, motoring across the country to see the Badlands and Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and Old Faithful, Las Vegas and Death Valley, and most recently, the Grand Canyon. It was the tail end of September, and we were camping in the desert. For three nights at the Canyon, we cuddled in our sleeping bags like pack dogs, sharing body warmth. But we couldn’t leave before the classic western wagon ride and weenie roast we’d signed up for when we arrived. Those weenies had not settled in my stomach.

We pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store in a dusty town we later learned was part of the Navajo Nation. Kayenta, the sign read. It looked like a ghost town to us. I saw the dog from the corner of my eye as I exited the car—an orange ball of fur curled up like a fox on the mat outside the door I’d have to walk through to retrieve the bathroom key. I’d seen so many strays by that point in our travels I’d adopted an emotional defense mechanism. I stared straight ahead, knowing that a split-second glance would launch my heart in the same direction and, while my eyes would inevitably return to their forward-facing focus, the heart was more likely to stick, indefinitely, to the fuzzy orange target.

I made a clear first and second pass, barely noticing the wide eyes that followed my every movement. The rest of the dog’s face was hidden, tucked under its plume of a tail. Leaving the bathroom, I braced myself for the third pass, but the dog did not appear in my peripheral vision. I looked directly at the mat. It was vacant. Lucky, I thought, glancing toward the car where I now saw my companions, fawning all over the emaciated canine.

I returned the key then crouched to stroke the feathery red fur framing the scrawny dog’s face. Its pointed ears were almost as big as its head. As I stood to open the car door, the fox-dog exerted all the effort it must have had in that malnourished body to lift itself up on hind legs and extend its two front paws slowly upward as far as they could stretch. Amber eyes gazed into mine with what I could only interpret as hope. “Up?” the dog seemed to say in the same way a small child might ask when her fledgling legs fail to carry her. That’s when my heart launched and stuck.

The fox-dog chased us as we drove away, sprinting down the darkened road after the car. We returned to the convenience store, hoping the clerk would tell us it was hers, but she confirmed that the dog was a stray. An ensuing discussion stalemated with Mary Beth insisting that we keep the dog and Tracy counter advising we do not. The deciding vote came to me. I knew I’d be flying back east for my best friend’s wedding in one week. I planned to sublease my apartment, so I could rejoin my companions after they’d settled on a ski resort.

Now I looked down at this animal, who gazed back up at me with those wide-eyes. I cast my ballot by opening the car door for the little fox-dog to jump in.

“I think we should name her Katy,” Mary Beth said, glancing in the rearview mirror to, apparently, read my mind.

“This is a bad idea,” said Tracy, and I supposed most people would agree. Three girls who scarcely knew each other, floating across the country on fumes for finances, only hope for a prospect, and no place lined up to live, probably shouldn’t snatch a stray dog from an Indian reservation in the middle of a cold desert night.

This crossed my mind as I settled into the back seat with Katy curled against me, the heat of her small body warm against my thigh, my hand resting gently on her back. I gazed out the window at the stars, flashing beacons against an opaque sky.

“Bad idea or not,” I said, “There’s no turning back now.” And on we drove into the darkness.

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