Excerpt

“Littermates”

Claire Rudy Foster

December 13, 2019 
The following story is excerpted from Claire Rudy Foster's short story collection Shine of the Ever which is a literary mix tape of queer voices out of 1990s Portland. Claire Rudy Foster is a queer, nonbinary trans writer who lives in Portland, Oregon. Foster writes fiction, nonfiction, personal essays, articles, reported news stories, interviews, book reviews, cultural commentary, books, screenplays, TV and film treatments, speeches, editorials, blog content, and letters. They also work as a ghostwriter.

Lauren and the dog have the same dull-blue, wide-set eyes. When I met them at the park by the library, they were also wearing the same shade of bright magenta. This seemed like overkill, so I didn’t say anything. Maybe Lauren just liked pink, although she didn’t seem like the kind of woman who was into pink, even ironically. She did like irony. That was one of the things we had in common.

The dog was snapped into a pink padded harness, to prevent jumping up. Lauren had long adhesive strips the same color as the harness around one kneecap, from a recent surgery. When she said hello, she made a point of telling me that the surgery was painful and invasive, but she wouldn’t take the Vicodin the doctor gave her. The dog lolled at her feet, happy and oblivious.

“What did you do with them?” I asked.

“I flushed them.”

“That’s terrible for the environment.”

She bared her teeth at me. “It’s not terrible for my sobriety.”

Lauren and I were both in recovery. We have the same sponsor, which makes us littermates. When I was drinking and using, I thought recovery was a big, inclusive club where you go to connect with people and hang out and form lifelong friendships, but, in reality, most of the people I ended up meeting in recovery were kind of shitty. I don’t say that to be mean; it’s just true.

I’m kind of shitty for saying that, actually. So that’s my proof.

I am an alcoholic because I drink myself into the hospital every time I feel like I’m a victim of the future, the maybe. The future is a dead lunar surface, empty and open, like a field covered in smooth, silver sand or salt. Fear of the future is why I relapse about every 90 days. That is as long as I can stand to be uncomfortable. I can’t accept the future. It is a place where nothing can grow, no matter how much I water it.

Every time I get sober, it’s because I hope I have something to look forward to. My sponsor said I was “terminally unique” and she didn’t mean it as a compliment, but as a true and accurate statement. I am unique. I just don’t want to die from it.

*

The puppy was named Sawyer Grey: a big name for a little, wiggly dog. I think the “Grey” was in the name because of the fur color, which was like the color of rain. I scooped it up and snuggled it to my chest. We were sitting in the summer grass at the park, and, if the puppy got away, it’d just fall onto the soft, safe green grass.

“Did you get any callbacks today?” Lauren asked me.

She knew I was looking for a job. Everyone in our recovery group knew, because that’s all I talked about in AA meetings—work.

“No. I sent out my resume to a few places.”

“Maybe it’s a sign,” she said, in that way that sober people have that is both irritating and reassuring at the same time. The puppy lunged gently at my face and licked my chin.

“Hey,” I said and put it down.

I don’t know why I keep saying “it” when the puppy was definitely a girl dog. I guess I don’t really believe that everything has a gender, and it feels weird to call a dog “she.” It’s also weird that people will ask a dog’s sex before they greet it. Like, what makes you think the dog cares? Why are you so worried about misgendering a dog?

Lauren and I were doing what unemployed people did at 11:25 am on a Wednesday when everyone else was at work.

It’s about as weird as calling it a bitch. I’m a feminist but I’m not into reclaiming derogatory words. They feel wrong in my mouth. My own feelings about human genders are complicated, and it just seems unnecessary to slap a gender on every living thing when we can’t even accept people’s different gender expressions and identities and stuff. I kept thinking, what if the dog was male but still had the pink harness? Would people call it a boy? I was pretty sure I couldn’t get past any of my first-visit-only job interviews because I wasn’t wearing the right colors for my workplace gender.

Everything about the way I looked and sounded gave me away. I wasn’t interviewing because I cared about the job; I was looking for benefits. But you can’t say that, even if it’s true. I need insurance so I can be OK in my body for once.

“Sawyer Grey, come here,” Lauren said. She tugged the leash, but not hard. The puppy didn’t need that much encouragement; it ran right onto her lap and put its paws on her chest. Lauren was definitely a she.

“On the upside, I’ve gotten really good at filling out applications,” I joked.

“I don’t even look for work anymore,” Lauren said. “It’s all referrals at this point. So much easier than knocking on people’s doors.”

“Yeah,” I said. I was thinking about how, if I was a dog trainer, I don’t think I would want to give up a puppy I’d named and trained and gotten all ready for its new family. I was also thinking how easy Lauren had it compared to me. She looked like what she was. The people who hired her didn’t have to work through awkward feelings regarding their dog trainer. She was someone they felt comfortable paying. She didn’t need anything except self-acceptance to feel comfortable in her skin.

Lauren looked at me with her dog eyes, and I knew she was picturing me naked. When your gender is treated like a sideshow act, you get used to being eyeballed. I can feel when people are thinking about what’s in my pants. Lauren was more transparent than most.

“Where’d the name come from?” I asked her, just to change the subject.

“Sasha Grey.”

“The porn star?”

“I just really like her,” Lauren said. “She can take a pounding. It’s hot.”

I looked down at the grass.

Lauren rubbed Sawyer Grey, who was sitting between her legs. The way her hand moved over the dog’s still-stretchy skin made the gesture look obscene.

“You ever think about getting one of these?” she asked me.

“I’m on food stamps and I run out of unemployment next month,” I said. “My landlord doesn’t allow dogs unless they’re service animals. What would I feed a dog?”

“You have plenty of time for one, at least.”

“I wish I didn’t.”

She looked at me through her eyelashes. “I could get you a doctor’s note. Sawyer Grey will need a new home in six weeks. I’m training her so she can go to a foster home.”

“She’s a pit bull.”

“I have a certificate that says she’s a mastiff mix. Breed banning is immoral. Look at her. Is that the face of a killer?”

The puppy wriggled to its feet. It toddled toward me. Without thinking, I reached out to pat its face. My hand landed in its mouth. I could feel the tiny needles of its future teeth, still latent in its gums. I looked down at my fingers. They tickled the velvet of the dog’s tongue. She looked up at me.

“Give that back,” I said, and she opened her mouth. My hand wasn’t even wet.

I didn’t feel secure in God’s universe at this moment. I wasn’t sure I believed in God.

“Tell her she’s a good girl,” Lauren said.

“Good girl,” I said to Sawyer Grey, even though it was a total betrayal of my principles. She was a cute puppy. She put her paw on my leg, and her little dewclaw scratched a thin, chalky line on my skin. I licked my finger and rubbed it over the spot, and the pale mark disappeared, turning back into the color of the rest of me.

*

Our section of the park was empty except for some people in matching neon green T-shirts unloading produce crates from a white truck. Across the grass, a few mothers in saris watched their kids play on the metal swings. Lauren and I were doing what unemployed people did at 11:25 am on a Wednesday when everyone else was at work.

Usually at this time I would be heading to one of my recovery meetings to panic about the job offers I wasn’t getting. Instead, I was in the park. I rubbed the tips of Sawyer Grey’s ears and wondered if dogs got sunburned on days like this. The weather was so hot that, honestly, Lauren and I could have been wearing bathing suits and it wouldn’t have been weird.

I will tell you right now that I would never and could never end up with Lauren. She’s not butch enough for me, first of all. Also, even though it’s super against the rules of AA, our sponsor sometimes tells me the things she and Lauren talk about when they’re alone together. These snippets and stories aren’t anything bad, exactly, but they are the kind of thing you shouldn’t learn from another person.

For example: What if I fell in love with Lauren and we were in bed together and I touched her face while she told me one of the things I’ve already heard from our sponsor and I had to nod and pretend it was new information and I was a liar who couldn’t, like, honor her bravery for revealing herself to me like that? I don’t want intimacy that is built on mutual convenience, or that contains a single untruth.

Not that I would ever sleep with someone who was into porn in that way and said things like what she said about Sasha Grey. That’s a deal-breaker all by itself. I mean, what if I fell in love with someone who saw all bodies that way, even mine, and that perspective was the thing that kept us from really connecting in a meaningful way? I wouldn’t be different to them, I’d be just another piece of flesh to pound. Dog chow. Every time we slept together I would wonder, is this really love or is it just impact?

*

The people finished unloading their crates, got a big green camping canopy out of the truck, and started to unfold it. I watched how they cooperated with each other. Life was supposed to work like that, with everyone moving in tandem. The canopy had enough shade for all of them, plus a table and two folding chairs. One of the people had a clipboard and nodded at it while the others arranged the crates so that they’d have a cool spot to sit.

I didn’t feel secure in God’s universe at this moment. I wasn’t sure I believed in God, but that didn’t really matter because I wasn’t that far into the Twelve Steps yet. My unhappiness was sour, pulling on my tongue. I knew that sharing my negativity in meetings, or really anywhere, was stupid: Every time I did, the recovered part of my brain wondered what the fuck did I have to complain about? Here I was, sitting in the sun, sober, with a puppy. But I couldn’t get the future off my mind, and it sucked all the color out of the present moment.

“What are you looking at?” Lauren said. She rolled onto her side.

Her.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that, in this story, I’m going to end up with Lauren even though I already said I wasn’t. You’re thinking that my self-esteem is so low that I will go to bed with her. I have nothing else to do. My body is the wrong shape from itself. Lauren, to someone like me, is probably looking pretty good. I could use the validation, right?

My sponsor says that being able to read other people’s minds only happens in comic books. She’d be angry if I slept with Lauren. The first rule of staying sober is Don’t shit where you eat. People relapse because they do things they’re ashamed of. Or, not exactly ashamed, but not one-hundred-percent comfortable with. It’s hard to go to a meeting when you’ve fucked someone who goes there, too. Once you’ve been naked with someone it’s hard to be honest with them, or in front of them, in my experience.

I may like women, but I don’t like all women.

Besides, I only sleep with people I’m actually already in love with. No one in their right mind has sex just for fun.

I tried hard to imagine Jesus in the farm truck, blasting the new John Mayer album as he delivered fruits and veggies to people in need.

The puppy flopped next to Lauren and closed its eyes. Its tongue protruded from its soft lips as though licking the grass. In a moment, it was snoring.

“I’m going to see what they have in those crates,” I said and got up as quietly as I could. Lauren turned away from me, leaning over Sawyer Grey like a mother over a snoozing infant.

When I got close to the canopy, I realized that the logos on the volunteers’ T-shirts were for a Christian church. The screen print was a cartoon Jesus distributing sardines and baguettes, with a big smile plastered across his face. His toes stuck out of his sandals under his robe. He looked really pumped to be helping people out. This was clearly the artist’s interpretation of the loaves and fishes miracle.

I don’t think I would look that happy if I was doing a miracle. It probably doesn’t feel that great to have divine power channeled through your wimpy human body.

The guy who was holding a clipboard looked me over and smiled, just as big as Jesus. His teeth were crooked: One of the front ones was just a tiny bit longer than its partner, and they folded in together like a collapsing picket fence.

“Would you like something to eat?” he asked. “We have farm-fresh food that needs to go to a good home.”

“I’m not Christian,” I said.

“Arguably, neither was the Savior,” he said. “Can I write your name down, so we know who we’ve impacted today through our work and faith in the Gospel?”

It didn’t look like work to me. Two of the other guys were sharing an energy drink in the shade by the truck. A woman with cockatoo hair sat in a camping chair with her hands folded, as though posing for a photo.

“Hold on,” I said. “I didn’t say I would take anything.”

His smile stiffened for a moment, faster than a microaggression, but I saw it and I knew he was the kind of guy who had to pray in order to tolerate people who were different—like me. He didn’t care for people who obstinately resisted the easy categories instead of just going with the program and letting Jesus take the wheel.

I tried hard to imagine Jesus in the farm truck, blasting the new John Mayer album as he delivered fruits and veggies to people in need. But what did I know? People believed all kinds of crazy stuff. For example: I believed that sitting in a church basement and drinking bad coffee with a bunch of drunks would change my life for the better. It worked for ninety days at a time.

I’d always had an issue with needing to belong, though. The best way was to get interested in the things that other people cared about, so in high school I convinced myself that I could stomach alt rock. My need to be liked meant I ended up owning every CD released by Third Eye Blind and other popular bands that the boys I crushed on talked about in the cafeteria. I listened to those albums over and over and read the liner notes as if there was going to be a quiz on the lyrics. Nobody asked me to join in, but I listened. Remembering these things made me squirm inside. I used to be so eager to find common ground with those alien male creatures, to ride in their cars and be pawed by them at football games. Belonging did not come naturally to me, though; that was for people like Lauren, who was born to be the desired one, the girl who knew all the cool songs, who could crack sarcastic jokes without thinking twice, who knew an ollie from a kick flip, and who seemed to have been born with a magical ability to make boys like her and make them think she really liked them back. I had watched girls like that in awe, coming and going in cars that blasted the Pixies or the Smiths; this shared language evaded me. I felt as though I was stranded on an island, all alone with my solitary, quirky brain.

But of all the things I’d tried to make friends, at least I’d never pretended to be interested in Jesus. Not like this guy. He clicked the button on his ballpoint pen.

“You’re free to take a look at what we have, sir,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Ma’am.” I don’t even do pronouns, but I couldn’t resist.

“Ma’am,” he repeated, as a deep, bloody flush crept up his neck and into his cheeks.

Guys like this sent me lewd photos on dating apps and offered to rearrange my guts for me. Christian dads were the worst. No matter how much I learned about their favorite bands or sports teams, or the minutiae of the video games they loved, they never managed to see me as more than a fucktoy. I sympathized with straight women, I really did. They got about ten percent of the harassment I did.

I stepped over to the cockatoo-haired woman, whose smile was so white that it practically made my eyes blister. It was like staring into a supernova.

When you are in recovery, everything is a parable; you are the miracle, peeling back the layers of each epiphany.

“Share our bounty,” she chirped. She waved toward the crates, which were piled with some fruit I’d never seen. They were the size of a fist, pale yellow, and puckered with prickles.

“Is this cactus?” I asked. I picked one up and was surprised by its heft.

She laughed. I could hear the tolerance. She was doing the Lord’s work and wasn’t allowed to be rude to me, but underneath I knew she was thinking about Leviticus and about how people like me were an abomination, an insult to God.

“It’s a cucumber, a lemon cuke,” she said. “Looks like one thing and tastes like something completely different. Appearances can be deceiving. But you always know the tree by its fruit, that’s what the Bible says.”

“How do you eat it?”

From under the folding table, she produced a knife, which alarmed me. I stepped back out of instinct, with the cucumber still in my hand. She laughed again.

“Jumpy, aren’t you.”

You would be too, if you were me. A couple of women came up, babies on their hips, and started feeling the pile of cucumbers. They wore embroidered scarves to cover their hair. Immaculate athletic trainers poked out from under their dresses. The woman with the knife turned away from me and started talking to the mothers in a loud, clear voice.

“Now, we need your names before you take,” she said, nodding rapidly. The guy with the clipboard hovered nearby, waiting to record the good deeds they were performing. They didn’t mind people from other countries, but other planets? That was a different issue, I guess.

I backed away and went back to Lauren, who was lying on her back, pointing out the clouds to Sawyer Grey.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said.

“What was wrong with them?” She rolled toward me.

“They’re weirdos. But I got this.” I held up the mystery food. “Ever seen one?”
“It’s a cucumber,” she said, which made me feel like the only person around with a deficient knowledge of exotic produce. Portland was a foodie town, but really, this was too much.

“Some cucumber,” I scoffed, but my ignorance was obvious, and she shrugged, like who hasn’t seen a lemon cucumber before, were you raised on Pluto or something?

She tugged the dog’s leash so it knew we were leaving. The way it looked at Lauren made me feel kind of nauseated, although that could have been the Christians or even just sitting in the sun for too long. Dogs have no discernment. They don’t understand what people are really like; they just believe that everyone is going to be kind to them. Must be nice.

Lauren and Sawyer Grey and I walked the long way back around the blooming mock orange bushes. When we got to the big holly hedge that screened the park from the main road, I turned around and waved at the guy with the clipboard. I had the cucumber in my hand. I brandished it like a grenade. It was wonderfully solid, heavy as a small melon. I thought about how good it would feel to throw it back at those people and let it explode on the lawn, split open and seeds everywhere, right in front of them, where everyone could see.

The guy raised his hand, though, and I felt bad, so I didn’t do it.

It’s negative karma, anyway.

A few blocks into the neighborhood, we found a vacant lot with a chain link fence around it. Huge, thick weeds covered in tiny yellow flowers mingled with grass as high as my knees. The fence was twisted and half torn away from its metal posts, as though someone had yanked and yanked on it, trying to stretch the tension out of the aluminum. It bulged in places, like breasts or a belly. The grass grew through it, unconcerned.

In the center of the lot, two mangy pine trees reached toward each other with bald arms. A squirrel chittered in one of them, and Sawyer Grey lunged through the broken gate, barking and paddling its paws. Lauren tried to get it to heel, but that didn’t help, and the dog spun in an agitated circle until the leash was all wrapped around it and it actually fell down with its big dumb puppy feet flailing at the air.

I couldn’t help but laugh, which was nice, because Christians give me anxiety. That was the main part of AA that rubbed me wrong: the God talk. Everyone said to just take what I needed and leave the rest, but when you got down to it there wasn’t a lot left without God. I encountered a specific flavor of God when I lived down near Ashland and was still trying to fit in with the church community there. I got all tangled up: worse than the dog.

My least favorite feeling is when people sense that you don’t belong, or that something is wrong about you, but won’t acknowledge their discomfort. They try harder to be friendly and they get extra polite, but they don’t know how to treat you because they don’t know what the fuck you are. They’re not actually welcoming you, after all, they’re easing their irritation at having to talk to someone who is difficult, who refuses to be like others. It’s worse, in some ways, than a person being straight-up rude, which is horrible but at least it’s honest.

Once I knew I was trans and also an alcoholic, I got some labels and some groups to belong to: an identity. I think that helped put people at ease, because instead of getting awkward when I show up or deliberately leaving an empty chair on either side of me, they just say Hey, Abby, and it’s cool. I don’t feel people’s eyes on me when I get a second cup of bad coffee, like Oh, that tranny’s stealing from the meeting; they never even put a dollar in the basket and they’re taking all the cookies.

If I could choose a superpower it would definitely not be reading people’s minds.

Lauren knelt down and unwound Sawyer Grey. The grass was flattened in one spot, big, as if someone had been making a snow angel in the weeds and pressing them down to make a soft resting place. I saw an orange plastic cap and picked it up, and a couple seconds later I found the syringe that went with it. It was full of black blood, thick and congealed inside the plastic tube. Someone shot up and then pulled the plunger back out as far as it would go.

I capped the needle and threw it over the fence, into the neighbor’s bushes. That house was for sale, so nobody would even see it until after the new owners moved in, got around to doing yard work on a sunny day, and found a dirty syringe in their rhododendron.

Lauren was soothing the dog, who was trying to eat the ragweed. I looked again for needles or broken glass, but didn’t see any. No cigarette butts, either.

“Come sit over here,” I said. “It’s nice.”

The grass was soft and springy under our bodies. She settled beside me and the dog sprawled across my lap and hers, belly up, gazing at the pines. Lauren stretched her leg out, the one with the pink tape over the knee, and sighed.

“I’m so glad none of this is forever,” she said.

I stroked Sawyer Grey’s silky head and gently pinched the tips of her ears. She poked her nose into my palm, and I felt her little teeth again, like the points of a dozen pins. I let her work me over with her soft mouth. She was too little not to need some kind of mama. I didn’t know where I would be in a couple of weeks, in terms of my recovery or employment or anything else like that, but when I looked at her, I thought maybe I was capable of more than I’d assumed. For once the future didn’t feel like an endless, shifting dune.

“I’ll take the dog,” I said.

“I can get you a doctor’s note,” Lauren said. “Then she can live with you. And I have her supplies and some food.”

I tried imagining it. What if, this time, the story was different? I wondered. The dog liked me, and it wasn’t confused by my body or my voice or the other things about me that seemed to repel humans. I’d never had something in my life that wasn’t puzzled by me, including myself.

I sniffed the cucumber, explored its hairy nub with the tip of my nose, and bit through its thin, yellow rind. I wasn’t expecting it to be so sweet, or its seeds so large, suspended in the pulp like grains of pasta. Lauren took it out of my hand and tasted it too; our bite marks overlapped. She looked at it as though it was a crystal ball that would tell us how the rest of the summer would be.

“I heard these are crossbred between regular cucumbers and sweet oranges, but I think it’s just a myth.” She let the dog sniff it.

“It’s not genetically modified?”

“No. Selective breeding.”

She shot me a look of great significance, like Do you get the message yet?

I tilted my head back. When you are in recovery, everything is a parable; you are the miracle, peeling back the layers of each epiphany. You are a fable, a moral, or a cautionary tale. Whatever words I chose carried weight, whether I liked it or not, because Lauren was listening and I could tell that the afternoon was already turning into a story for her, something that could be passed along when I was gone and she had traveled past me into the future.

Abby said she’d take the dog.

Maybe that was the only thing I could give anyone: a sense that they, at least, were better, cured. That’s how stories work. People talk and they make meaning out of happiness or happiness out of meaning. Every little thing is taken, tasted, eaten, shared. So it was written; so shall it be.

__________________________________

From the collection of short stories Shine of the Ever by Claire Rudy Foster. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Interlude Press. Copyright © 2019 by Claire Rudy Foster.




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