Breaking and Exiting

By Bea Karol

You walked right in through the open back door. It wasn’t an invitation, but I can see how you might have taken it as one. My garden offered no entertainment. No swingset. No paddling pool. Not even a plastic table and chairs to throw around. It was a wasteland of lawn surrounded by fast-growing evergreens. I kept the grass short, though I intended to replace it with Astroturf. Outside was always too hot or too cold to enjoy anyway.

The day you came through the trees (where from still eludes me) was warm. I left the door open to remove the lingering smell of a roasted hake. The world outside was crisped like it had been left out in the sun too long and denied water. Over the smell of fish, baked sugar travelled on an imperceptible breeze from the biscuit factory nearby. The factory-made brittle oblongs that dissolved in hot liquid and melted on the tongue. Later, I crushed shards of biscuit to crumbs with my footsteps on the kitchen floor and wondered if it comforted the spilled packets to smell the birth of their brothers and sisters as they returned to dust. A primal origin scent, an airborne amniotic.

There were noises downstairs for a while before the bang. The bang made me sit back from my screen. It wrenched me from creating the subtle this-is-cucumber-but-not-cucumber label that engrossed me. I’d drawn outlines of green in roughly tessellating shapes. A fine san serif font that promised an aroma of fruits and leather. It said natural and sterile. My task was to elevate the scent. To take away associations of fridges and old car seats and promise, instead, a sanitised antiquity, weightless connotations of quality. I was so enthralled in the task at hand that even out in the endless suburban sprawl, where an off-key birdsong raises suspicion, I failed to register the scuffling and rustling from downstairs. It was the bang that broke my flow, followed by the clatter of objects, wood, metal, and plastic.

Sigrid, my Shih Tzu, leapt from her bed on the floor to my lap. She never was a very good dog. If you can rely on a dog to do one thing, it should be to defend a home from intrusion. This was not in Sigrid’s nature. On my lap, she began to shake a little and whine. Her long fur fuzzed with rapid vibrations, and she became blurred at the edges, like an error in my field of vision.

The dog was a present from my boyfriend, over-presumptuous in many ways. We’d been seeing each other for only a few weeks, maybe a couple of nights a week.  One Tuesday evening, he stood on my doorstep with a cardboard box into which he’d poked a dizzying array of screwdriver-shaped holes. He was going away for two weeks, he said, to a conference. He was to present a paper on ‘Disrupted Temporalities in Times of Revolution.’ I remember the name of the paper well. He repeated it to me many, many times. And though I don’t recall its content or any of his other work for that matter, the title has stayed with me. The dog, he said, was to keep me company while he was away.

I could have rejected it. I could have seen it for what it was. But at the time, so early on, I was unaware of how little I would miss him and what an accurate replacement for his company Sigrid would prove to be. Now, I cannot speak for all Shih Tzus, but Sigrid was a uniquely unrewarding dog. People who love dogs talk about how much their dog gives them. They’ll tell you that they shower them with attention when they arrive home. That their dog knows when they’re sad. That it gets defensive around bad people. Sigrid showed no such strength of character. She is not a dog that gives. She needs. She needed me to feed her and walk her and clean up her shit. I had to bathe her unpractical hair and brush it every day. She needed special shampoo, and a shallow bath with water gently poured from a cup, never straight from the tap. She was particular about her food, one day nibbling through the wild boar flavour, the next refusing it. I have opened packet after packet, throwing away perfectly good morsels at her whimsy. While I did all this, she’d look at me with her small face of displeasure. When I was done, she’d demand space on my lap or at my feet, where she could monitor me until she decided she needed something again.

The noises continued as I made my way downstairs. I held my phone tightly in my right hand, ready to dial. I paused by the door to the kitchen. Edging my face beyond the frame, I peered sideways through the glass panels. Then I saw you. I stood straight on to get a better view. There you were. Legs spread in a wide triangle, head hanging down between them. You were facing me in a position where I only saw the back of your head. Your round ears stroked the wooden floor. Claws poked out from under a skirt of fur at your feet. Your arms hugged the tops of your legs.

Around you, my grandmother’s navy linen tablecloth, pulled from the table with everything on it. The wooden fruit bowl, empty on its side. Yellow lemons dispersed to different corners across the dark floor. The candle holder, one stick snapped in half like a mouse with a broken back. A bottle opener, a half-full bottle of fizzy water, a pile of letters scattered. Dried flowers, spilling muted pink and straw-coloured dust. A new white chip in their lilac vase. Tangled with the tablecloth, a chair lay on its back. I could have painted the scene. It was a sixteenth-century Dutch still-life. A sumptuous, tumbling richness. But you weren’t done. You kept adding to it.

I could only watch as you opened cupboards, climbed in, and pushed the contents out, kicking with your flat back paws. Sweet things interested you. Marshmallows leftover from a summer barbeque. Sugared, sticky peanuts. The packets of biscuits you tore into, fumbling with clumsy paws and snuffling the liberated contents from the floor. Drawer handles looked like a ladder. Each drawer swung open as you attempted to climb, throwing you onto your back, legs in the air. You managed to climb onto the worktop in the end, knocking kitchen utensils to the floor, clearing the decks with a single sideways swoop as you crawled on all-fours.

Splayed on your belly, you fished in the fridge under the counter. A bag of lettuce came out first. Then the smoked cheddar cheese, which you ate in three bites. You scratched at the milk carton until it tore, and you drank sloppily, shaking the container and licking residue from the worktop. You fell asleep in a puddle of spilt milk.

I’d never seen a kitchen in such a state of disarray. Not a real one, anyway. I’d seen them on TV, wrecked by floods, earthquakes, or bombs. I confess: the chaos lit something in me. The casual attitude with which you tore through my belongings, helping yourself. The fact that you could sleep through all this mess, that it meant nothing to you, was thrilling. I watched from behind the door as your chest rose and fell slowly, enormously.

That sleep told me you were alone. I did not worry that a mother might come crashing through my garden and set to work on further destruction. There were no sightings on the news. No warnings of a breakout from the zoo. Without external instructions towards panic, I was not scared. How could I be? You had stood with your head between your legs in my kitchen. You hadn’t hesitated or asked for permission. You had searched with a curiosity but also a real hunger. Who was I to deny you anything?

I don’t know how long I waited for you to wake up. It was dark when you did. You ate an apple in two bites and began sifting through your spoils on the floor. Dark beady eyes and sharp white teeth. While you had your face in a packet of muesli, I gently opened the door. I sat out of sight at the bottom of the stairs. Breath rose shallow in my chest as I heard a delicate chorus of tapping claws make their way across the floor. You walked right past me and into the sitting room. The carefully thrown cushions must have offended you because you bounced on the sofa then tore through the covers, pulling out stuffing like handfuls of snow.

I shut my bedroom door that night. Sigrid, still shaking, took her usual spot at the end of my bed. When I woke, I was in a state of distress, sure that downstairs I’d find the house empty again. That thought and my hollow stomach drew me to the kitchen. You sat slumped against the cupboard, idly licking the closed lid of a jam jar. Your long, pink tongue electric against black fur, visceral and curling round the sweet rim. It was boysenberry jam bearing a label of my design. The company had briefed me to ‘make boysenberry sexy again’ so against the red and purple berry hues I had added a flesh tone. The jam people loved it. The colours were smeared in a bold watercolour effect, homely and also reminiscent of a massacre.

If you were startled by me, I’ll never know. It was more probable that you had been aware of me the whole time and simply didn’t care. Your button eyes locked on mine. I held your gaze. Your nose twitched once, twice. You saw everything in me and disregarded it like the empty biscuit wrapper. I liked that. I exchanged the jam jar for a banana I’d peeled. It was squashed at one end, but you didn’t care. After the banana, you accepted the open jam jar with glee, working your tongue into the corners. I scraped spilt coffee granules onto a spoon and filled the stove pot. Of course, there was no milk. But I found muesli at the bottom of the box, over which I poured orange juice. It was a strange flavour, brightly sweet but good. I sat like you on my bum, legs splayed out in front. I licked a finger and dragged it across the floor, collecting a layer of biscuit crumbs. The taste of sugar against a bitter tang.

It was three days later that my boyfriend came around. I hadn’t told him about you. He’d never seen a kitchen in such chaos either. By that time, it was the sitting room too. He pretended to be shocked, disgusted. Then he tried to reason with me. He enquired about Sigrid, who by that point was installed in my bedroom and spent most of his time on top of the wardrobe with a clear view of the door. I suggested he take her, but he wanted her as little as I had. His final play was to threaten to tell the animal protection people. This, I managed not to laugh at, as I knew he never would. He was not someone who did things. 

Although he did tell Sarah, who called me and suggested she come over for wine and a box set. You and I had taken to watching reality TV most nights. I think you liked watching the cast debase themselves by professing love to people they’d never seen. Or perhaps it was the undesirability of so many coveted houses, slick and pristine and not at all lived in, so very unlike the home we were building together. Sarah’s face told me she hadn’t believed whatever my boyfriend had said to her. She thought he was exaggerating, which he was prone to do. She lingered in the hallway and clutched her bag to her body. At first, she tried to navigate around the food spread across the floor and the crockery you’d pulled off the shelves earlier. Following my lead, and also because it was impossible not to, she became more comfortable stepping on things. Rice Krispies crunched underfoot like broken glass. Maybe it was broken glass.

Sarah’s wide eyes shot anxiously around the kitchen. She handed me a bottle of red wine, reaching to pass it, so she didn’t need to step further in. I located a plastic cup for her and rinsed an old tin of baked beans under the tap for myself. Finally, she spoke a full sentence.

You can’t live like this. She paused. Is it still here?

I pointed to the cupboard where you sometimes liked to sleep and held a finger to my lips.

Come through to the sitting room, I said.

I directed Sarah to the sofa, its innards fluffing up around her neatly crossed legs. She took in the books with pages torn out, the curtains’ shredded bottoms, and the bite marks around the edge of the coffee table. I was exploding from my own life like the stuffing from the sofa.

We can watch TV, I said. But you can see the screen is cracked.

It didn’t stop you and me watching it, though. What came through was a splintered version of the world where people’s voices jumped and slowed or crackled like they were possessed. Sarah lifted the cup to her lips.

Do you need help?

Oh no, I said. We get along just fine. It’s very easy really.

I mean help. Are you okay?

I could tell that Sarah wasn’t convinced by my reassurances. I told her I was working, that I was going to the supermarket. All the normal things we enjoy in life. She, too, waved the idea of animal protection and even suggested that you might be a danger. But like I said, I am not friends with people who come good on their intentions. To Sarah, I would become a story, to be pulled out at particular times throughout her life like a curiosity, to embellish her own experiences and vindicate her choices.

When it was time to go, she demanded to see you. I protested, but I knew she couldn’t have her story without a first-hand sighting. What interest is another crazy lady without the creature that drove her to it? You were the serpent to my Eve. Sometimes I think you were the apple. You bared your teeth from the back of the cupboard. Sarah jumped, popping a bag of crisps in the process. It was you in all your vicious glory. You gave her what she needed.

My boyfriend came over once more before he called and told me he couldn’t be with me like that.

Okay, I said.

You learned to climb the stairs, leaving deep claw marks in the wood. I began to climb them on all fours, running my fingers over the sharp gullies, feeling the assured marks of your existence. Sigrid was not happy with the new arrangement. One day, as I carried her downstairs for her walk (she whined if I dared put her perfect feet on the floor), she leapt from my arms and ran, full pelt, faster than I’d ever seen her run, across the kitchen floor. Dried chickpeas spun in all directions under her feet. She jumped over the swamp of tablecloth, creased and stained now, to reach the back door. It was open, as is our habit, and through it, Sigrid sped out across the lawn and dived through the conifers. The image of her white fur disappearing into green is burnt on my retina like sun glare.

I can only imagine she’s gone to where you came from. I believe wholeheartedly that somewhere Sigrid is living her best life, freed from the shampoos and grooming that felt so important to her here. For that, she, too, has you to thank.