THE WAITING ROOM
I sit in the waiting room of an animal hospital, holding my phone in my lap and my head in my hands. I tap my feet and rub the dust between the tile and each shoe’s worn sole. Magazines cover a table beside me—Popular Mechanics, Martha Stewart Living, Highlights—all months old. I grab my book from under my chair and spread it open. The characters are dead on the page, interred in type. Nothing can change what befalls them. There is no “is,” no “will be”—only what was. If only my fate were so determined.
I unlock my phone, check for messages. Nothing. The time hasn’t changed. I’m alone. My two little sisters were here earlier: Pacing, pacing circles on the concrete porch of the hospital’s façade as the setting sun casts red on the mountains—calling and calling our mom, and our mom not answering, so crying instead—crying because what else are you to do when you’re twelve and fourteen, and your dog has been hiding at home in the corner for a week and not drinking or eating or licking the chicken broth from the palms of your hands, and you tell your mom, but she ignores you and she ignores you till your older brother drives with the dog in his lap to the vet where a tech feigning a smile takes the dog to a back room and still your mom ignores you? This can’t be happening. This isn’t happening. My sisters’ big eyes appeal for reason. I have none to give. We huddle outside on the concrete among the sagebrush and sand dunes. The day’s last light bleeds over the horizon. We are children. Where is our mother?
My partner Julie gathers my sisters in her arms and says everything is going to be OK and leads them away. I want to go, but I’m not twelve nor fourteen; I’m twenty years old, which binds me alone to this godforsaken fluorescent lightbox of desperation.
Two men occupy the seats to my right, one bald with neck tattoos and the other wearing a backwards cap and stud earrings. I drown my thoughts with their conversation.
“What happened?” asks Earrings.
“I don’t know, bro,” says Tattoos, twisting an orange towel in his lap. “I got home and there was blood on the floor—”
“A la verga!”
“She was shitting and vomiting blood.”
“I wrapped her up,” he extends the towel, “and took her straight over.”
“Man…. Is she gonna be OK?”
“I don’t know, bro.” Tattoos drops his head. “I don’t know.”
The blue towel in which I’d bundled my dog, the family dog of my childhood, drapes over the armrest of my chair. Hooking the towel with my fingers, I roll it in my palm. Its rough threads catch in the creases of my skin. The sensation takes me to the neuroscience lab where I work as a research assistant, where I swaddle the lab rats in dirty little towels.
Rat burritos, we call them. It’s one of the first skills you learn when handling rats in a laboratory setting—since it’s how you restrain them—and though I’ve worked in the lab for almost a year, it’s a skill I’ve yet to master. Every burrito begins by removing the wire lid to the rat’s shoebox-sized plastic enclosure. This will excite the rat—and its cagemate if it has one. The rat will scurry about, tunnel into the bedding, and scale the polycarbonate walls. You must have the right timing to pick it up. You don’t want to freak it out more than it already is. That’s how you get pissed on and bitten. I’ve found it best to reach from behind when the rat’s standing on its hind legs, leaning against the wall—snag it unawares. It takes two hands: One to cinch the shoulders together, the other to hoist the hips. You’re going to need a good grip, so it doesn’t twist loose. Don’t squeeze too tightly: Once, I squeezed too tightly and heard a pop. The rat’s bones are brittle. They feel like toothpicks through its fur. Break them, and the rat’s of no use for your experiments. Lift the rat from its cage and secure it in your hands. The rat sniffles, nostrils aflare. As it gasps, wiggling its whiskers, it might even start defecating midair. With your index finger, massage its cheek. Look at its incisors, sharp and orange. Be thankful you weren’t bitten. (Unless you were.) Appreciate its soft coat and inquisitive eyes, its short arms and tiny, dexterous hands. It might even appear cute. Not now—not while there’s a burrito to fix—perhaps under different circumstances. Discard the thought. Return to the task at hand. Procure a quality, soiled towelette. Catching a whiff of the towel, the rat recoils. Adjust your grip. This part must be quick and neat, or you’ll need to repeat it, or worse, chase the rat you just dropped on the polished concrete floor. With one hand, pinch the rat’s shoulders together so its arms make an X across its chest. With the other, slide the towel under the rat and fold a flap up onto its back. Hold the flap down and take the other end of the towel and encircle the rat till you’re out of towel. Tuck the towel’s end into the wrap and you’re done! Your very own rat burrito.
“Ahem.” A person beside me calls for my attention.
I startle, fumbling my phone. It almost tumbles to the tile. I turn my head to the sound and see the vet tech, a freckled woman with high cheekbones, that took my dog to the examining room.
“Hi,” I glance over her name tag, “Melanie.”
“Hi,” Melanie says, “She’s not looking great back there.”
“The doc wants to run some diagnostics—bloodwork and an X-ray.”
“We just need your authorization and for you to approve the fees.”
“Yes, yes. Do whatever you have to.” I’m not ready to lose my dog.
My phone rings. I answer: “Hello—”
“The girls won’t quit bitching.” It’s my mom.
“Hey, I’ve been trying to get a hold of you.”
“They won’t leave me alone.”
“Where are you?”
“They hate me.” Her words are a murmur among a fog of voices. She’s in a crowded place.
“The girls don’t hate you. They—”
“They hate me.”
“No, they just need you to be there for them.”
“They don’t understand.”
“Why don’t you just come home?”
“They hate me.” I’m not getting through to her.
“Mom, the vet wanted to run some tests and I said yes—”
“Good.” Her voice clears. “You did the right thing.” Each word is sharp, selective. “I’ll pay. Money doesn’t matter. The dog is family.”
“They hate me,” she continues.
“Please talk to them.”
I hang up, walk outside, and sit on the concrete porch, leaning against the stucco.
I take ten more calls in the next half hour: Julie dropped my sisters off at their dad’s (my stepdad, divorced from my mom) and is on her way back to the animal hospital. My stepdad apologizes for my mom’s behavior. He might know her better than anyone, but even he’s clueless as to what’s gotten into her lately.
My sisters want updates. How is she doing? What do they think is wrong? Is she going to be OK? I don’t know. My gut urges me to say I don’t know, but I can’t. I can’t accept the uncertainty of not knowing. Because acceptance would expose my helplessness. I tell them not to worry. She’s a strong dog. She’s been through worse—remember the coyotes? My words are as much for myself as they are for my sisters. Everything is going to be OK. I repeat the words internally as prayer.
Julie is back. I stand. Her eyes are pink and puffy from earlier tears. We hold each other. I thank her for taking care of my sisters. She has become family. Her head rests on my chest. I notice how tense my neck is, how heavy my head is. My breath slows. My hands move along her spine. My fingers comb through her hair. I close my eyes. She says she hasn’t fallen apart like this since her grandma overdosed. She says she’s worried about me. She’s worried I’ve been suppressing my emotions. She says it’s OK to let it out. I realize I haven’t cried yet.
Melanie meets Julie and me inside.
“The doctor found something on the X-ray,” Melanie says. “We need to operate as soon as possible.”
“Are there any other options?”
Julie squeezes my arm.
“What are her chances?” I ask.
“It’s common for dogs to make a full recovery.”
“But what are the odds—can you put a number to it?”
“I—She’s young enough. It’s possible.”
“Let’s do it.”
“The surgeon on call has to come in. You two can visit with your dog till she arrives.”
We follow her through the door off the waiting room and down a narrow hallway. The creature comforts of the waiting room disappear. The floor, walls, and ceiling are white, colorless. A uniform gray stripe runs along the wall’s center, parallel to the floor. Somehow the lighting seems even more fluorescent, more unnatural. It hurts my eyes. The farther we go, the more the space between our heads and the ceiling seems to shrink. The windowless corridor is not an animal hospital but a diagrammatic representation of one—not somewhere pets go to be saved but somewhere they go to be put down. Melanie points us to a room at the hall’s end.
The room’s foul air transports me to the colony room—where the rats live in the neuroscience lab. Commercial-grade cleaners fail to conceal rot. My presence unnerves the stirrings of captivity—untrimmed nails, fidgeting feet, arrhythmic breath. But instead of drawers of rats, cubbies of cages stack from floor to ceiling. Most are empty. A calico cat presses itself against its cage’s door, its fur sticking out between the wire in a grid pattern. A terrier yips uncontrollably from a cage by my left ear. A tangle of tubes and wires flows from a floor-level cage. I crouch to inspect. The strands lead to a pile of blankets and pair of paws, bandaged in gauze. Beneath the fabric, wedged between heating pads, lying on a bloodstained mat is my dog. A straw stapled to her snout feeds her oxygen. I check her IV bag.
“It’s diazepam,” Melanie says from the entryway. “For the seizures.”
Seizures?! With my thumb, I knead the cold pads of my dog’s paw.
“Good girl,” I whisper.
Her ear flexes and sound rings within her, but her face reads blank.
Julie runs out the door. Melanie points to the restroom. I count out the EKG’s five-second beep interval. Julie returns and faints at the threshold, falling backward. A bespectacled tech swoops in, sliding her arms under Julie’s collapsing frame, cradling her limp neck in a damp towel. I hook Julie’s arm and help the tech pull Julie to her feet, propping her back against a wall. Melanie stands with cold towel in hand. She dabs Julie’s forehead. Julie’s legs buckle. I dive between her and the ground, only partly breaking her fall. Tremors surge through her. Kneeling, I look upon her. Her face paints a portrait of terror. I don’t know what to do. Melanie and the other tech swarm, hovering with their towels.
“Are you OK, mija?” the bespectacled tech asks.
Julie’s eyelids flitter.
It’s dark out. The waiting room is silent. I still don’t know where my mom is. I’m tired of taking calls, tired of sending texts, tired of spreading news. Tired. The dog’s in for surgery: removal of the reproductive system to treat pyometra, a uterine infection common among aging female dogs that have never been pregnant. An X-ray showed how the dog’s hips had shifted, how her swelling organs had pried them apart. Bones don’t move overnight. Just yesterday, she was frolicking in the backyard, ignoring the pain.
Footsteps tread toward where Julie and I sit. Melanie:
“Your dog made it through the surgery—”
I silently rejoice. I lift my chin to face her.
“But,” she shifts her tone, “she’s in critical condition. We don’t think she’ll recover.”
Julie’s head dips to my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “She put up a good fight.”
“Will we have to…” I hold out my crooked fingers.
“It’s up to you.”
I don’t understand. All this time, I’ve wanted control, and now that I have it, I reject it. It’s up to me? Why must I make a decision that makes me sick? When either decision leads to the same outcome, can it really be called choice?
“I’m sorry,” Melanie says. “You can be in the room when it happens.”
“OK. Let’s do it.”
My mom arrives drunk. I’d be embarrassed, but I just don’t care right now. I’m mute to her slurs. My stepdad comes next with my sisters. They ignore our mom. I feel bad and sit with my mom. We need to be together now. We’ll deal with the rest later.
Melanie invites us in. Julie stays outside with my sisters. We enter a small, candlelit room. My vision blurs, adjusting to the darkness. I see only figures and motion—a single tall table stands at the room’s center as an altar, a woman shuffles about, performing rites. The walls are painted in muted warm colors, a spectrum from yellow to red to brown. It’s like we’re in one of those old photos that used to be black and white but has since aged into sepia tones. My dog lies on a cushion on the altar. The woman is the vet tech who helped Julie earlier. She prepares a syringe. My mom, my stepdad, and I encircle the altar. Pay our respects. Caress her in our hands. I want her to show us that she can feel us. I want her permission to say goodbye. Her open eyes are absent. Staring in them I see my grandpa lying in his terminal spread of sheets on the hospital’s twelfth floor, not looking good, dying in fact, and I’m ten, and I don’t understand cancer: how it can start in your tongue but end up in your lungs, how it makes your Poppy do chemotherapy and radiation—which makes Poppy more sick and sad and even makes his hair fall out in clumps like the dog’s, and now Poppy wears wool golf hats tilted on his head so that they’d topple with the slightest touch and he always seems to be coughing, hacking really, like the cat when she’s got a hairball—how smoking makes cancer happen, and how my poppy had to fight it but he’s losing. Stripped down to skin and bone, he’s not even making a dent on the mattress, the crib-like rails risen above his sunken body—the cancer is ruthless and life is fragile. The bespectacled tech draws from a bottle of pentobarbital—the same chemical used to euthanize lab rats. I know it well—what it does, what it will do. Rats restrained in towels on stainless-steel tabletops envelop me. I hold a rat burrito in one hand, a syringe in the other. The rat squeaks and squirms, rumpling its wrapping. I jerk it backward as if to fling it underhand. Instead of releasing, I brake and drive the needle into a lump of flesh, emptying its contents. I let go, distending the burrito, dropping the rat in its cage, the syringe on the table. The rat cowers in a corner. It’s a healthy rat, well fed and with thick fur. I’ve spent every other day for the last two months with this rat. For hours at a time, I trained it to run along each edge of a star-shaped maze, reinforcing its behavior with Froot Loops, and often becoming frustrated in failure, then euphoric in success. I observed its sad existence, born into the confines of not much more than a square foot. I fashioned chew toys from knotted paper towels for it. I wonder now where—and whether—it would be if not here. Looking up at me, it appears confused. This is not the routine. But it is. The rat’s black eyes spell betrayal. It quivers. I wonder how I got here, how I could be so naïve to think it would be so easy to take a life. I wonder how I could keep telling myself, It’s just a rat. It’s for a good cause. How when I was doubtful I could rationalize that I was just looking at it the wrong way or how I just tried not to think about it at all. How I could compartmentalize compassion, separate feeling from action and how I was expected and needed to do so, to guard myself from grief. And as my untidy memory unravels through each wound that bleeds into another, I see how I was stupid and unrealistic and selfish. Science seemed so sure till there was blood on my hands. I forgive my mom because it’s not easy to lose something—someone—you love. Because people do irrational things in irrational situations. We are not characters in a story, bound in a book, but people with complex lives and individual experience.
The photos of memory are scarcely chosen. But as I look on my dying dog, I hope to capture the moment: The five of us shoulder-to-shoulder in a shoebox of our own. The dank air and the candles’ restless glow. Us hovering over my dog’s body. My cheeks wet with tears.
Delving for answers, we surface with questions. Subjects of fate, we supplicate to reason: Procedure is ritual. Data are emotion. Results are terminal.
The tech thrusts the syringe and depresses.
Joshua Rysanek learns and kerns in his hometown of Albuquerque, NM, at the University of New Mexico, as a writer, psychology student, and the editor in chief of Conceptions Southwest. Find more of his work with text and image here. Author photo by Julie Mowrey.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #25.