I’m undone and this is a new thing. I look fine on the outside, of course, because it’s not like I’m dying. I dress like the Americans do, only I wear a few more clothes, maybe. I’ve cut my hair into Peter Pan chunks, the look I had before I lived overseas. Women stop me in the supermarket to tell me that they love it, that it’s chic. I check for any little ping of pleasure at their praise. It isn’t there. In another life I would have raised a hand to the back of my head, riffling the layers, and smiled. I’d have said something about my wonderful stylist, mentioned that I’ve always been a short-haired girl. Now I mutter “thank-you” and wonder why I’d been so quick to cut off my India self.
I am a stranger in my own town, these days. I watch as my children adjust again to life after Asia. They love the ubiquitous air conditioning and all-you-can-drink soda fountains they’ve found here. I do not begrudge them this happiness even as I fear they’ll lose all that our life away had given us. I catch my reflection in a store window and I see my kids skipping behind me. They look normal.
I am ambivalent. India tired me in a way nothing ever has, but it also implanted itself into my psyche, thriving like a virus with a long incubation stage. I cannot forget it. I don’t want to. I don’t know what I want.
That’s not true. I want a puppy.
Dogs are hang-down-your-head creatures in India. I suppose there are the spoiled few who live in flats with their well-off owners, but those were not the ones I saw. The dogs in our village were ribs-under-skin thin, the texture of starvation. I watched the mothers with their engorged teats and bulging bellies as they nosed around for trash piles in which to give birth. Those dogs were painful metaphors, post-it notes I couldn’t crumple.
Once a dog at the train station in Delhi approached my daughter and me. His tail hung low and his head swayed, foam forming around his open mouth. Some children hit him with sticks from behind, sending him into fits of rage. He whipped around and lunged at them, but only long enough to send them shrieking backward for a moment. Then he returned his gaze to us. I sweated and prayed as I gripped my daughter’s hand and inched us toward the far wall. I was sure he’d punish us for the sins of the others but he swerved and lumbered away.
I want a puppy. I want to rescue it. Aloe Vera for my sunburned heart, this will help me, I think. My husband looks online and he finds a picture of scruffy hint of a dog. He is twelve weeks old, a mutt, and no one wants him. Suddenly I’m afraid someone will want him–more than I do at this moment. We call the number on the website and it’s true. Lots of people want him. But if we get in the car right now and drive for an hour they will try to hold the others off. If we don’t make it in time they can’t be responsible, but they will try all the same. The man on the phone has a smile in his voice.
We arrive at the pet store that is acting as a meeting place for all these strays. The cages are arranged in such a way that each dog is visible. I see my puppy at once. I nudge my husband and he sees him too. The kids make a minor fuss about the intolerable level of cuteness in one building but I bat them away like flies. I’m waiting for the man to come and open the cage so that I can feel the weight of this dog in my arms. The man tells us that my puppy has a brother, a black and white mix who’s just as cute as the One I Want. My husband says we’ll hold both, if no one minds, and decide in a moment. The man nods and gives one puppy to my husband and the other, the brindle scrub brush, to me.
We tell the kids to go look at the other dogs if they’re bored. My husband and I stand facing one another. We know we’re ridiculous, two adults with our arms full of puppies, sending the kids to explore. But we’ve seen things we can’t unsee, our blood pumping through enlarged hearts. We wonder about the safety of our friends far away. Will we see them again? Will we go back someday? Will we ever be OK here?
I lift my puppy to my face and I breathe his fur smell. We decide that we cannot take both dogs, and I suggest that we choose the one who licks us first. That can be our sign, I say. My husband rolls his eyes but he smiles. We both know that my puppy is the licky one.
I am in the front seat of the same minivan we had before we sold everything and moved across the ocean. It still drives OK. It smells the same as it did before. The kids sit in the back seats, energized and electric. I hold our puppy on the long drive home and he does not wiggle. He lets his full weight sink into my arms and he rests his head on my wrist.
He is a little thing but I can see that he is already helping to put me back together.