Ross Gay Finds Delight in Nourishing Need, Adult Braces, and Kissing a Very Small Dog One Million Times
"I have never kissed a creature so many times, and I have loved and kissed many creatures many times, believe me."
One Million Kisses
You might not have pegged me as such, but I used to be the kind of guy, I’m sorry to admit, who did not much truck with little dogs, either in theory or practice, despite being related to one (my partner, Stephanie, has a small dog) for over a decade. And though I love Tucker, I have not always liked him. It seems mutual—love, occasional dislike, very occasional snapping when I get between him and his mother—some of which perhaps comes from me not appreciating the idea or the fact of small dogs, which he is, and which a dog can smell on you, and might poop where you’re going to step to let you know.
Which makes it a lovely surprise, the pipsqueak pup—much smaller even than Tucker—sitting on my lap as I write this, and who has been my companion this week as his mother (Stephanie’s mother, Myrna) is gone and who has even slept under the covers with me. This morning, coming out from his den down near my knees where he was snuggled into a little moon, he put his two hands on my chest and looked all the way through my eyes into my previously ice-cold-to-his-likes heart, which made it start melting, first thing in the morning too.
This friendship with Noah the dog encourages me to get on my hands and knees, to his level, at which he then gets even lower, reaching his legs out in front of him and looking up at me, waiting, and when I reach to kiss him, he tilts his face up, and then he jumps back and turns a little circle or chirps before coming back to me and stretching and looking again up at me. It is really something, we can do this for a long time.
Sometimes, when I get down on my hands and knees to join him, and maybe growl a little bit or make funny noises, not quite baby talk—puppy talk I guess—Noah will sidle up next to me (I’m on all fours now, a big dog, kind of a mastiff with smaller teeth, the kind of dog I used to like most of all, now I see), putting his flank against my arm, and kind of lower his head to look at me sideways, which I’m interpreting is his way of saying you are my friend and my mother, which is a reasonable assessment given as in the time it’s taken him to do this, I have probably kissed him 8,000 times. I mean I have never kissed a creature so many times, and I have loved and kissed many creatures many times, believe me.
The night before I was to leave, after he realized I was more interested in cooking myself dinner than playing with him, he disappeared into the living room where, when I went to check on him, I saw that he had snuggled into my winter vest such that his head was peeking out of the armhole. This motherfucker. I let my beans burn while I bestowed upon him a couple hundred more kisses.
Listen to bonus content from a conversation between Inciting Joy author/narrator Ross Gay and audiobook producer Laura Essex, courtesy of Hachette Audio.
When we were taking our final walk, I was hearing some pretty sad music in my head, getting pre-choked up, or whatever that feeling of sadness is that is actually the anticipation of sadness—anticipatory sadness, heads up for that, it’ll smash the moment—as he sniffed and peed on every low-to-the-ground thing he could get to, and took a few quick steps toward every squirrel taunting him before looking at me like, Not gonna happen huh? And me at him, Nah, not gonna happen. We admired how the last of the leaves falling from the maples lining the towpath were gold, and how they made for us a golden way. As we noticed how most everything had died back, I told him in a couple months the first sprigs of ferns and nettle will be coming back. Then, if we’re lucky, almost all the rest. It happens like this again and again, this going and coming, I said, because he’s a puppy, and doesn’t know what the hell’s going on. That’s wild, he said. You won’t believe it, said I.I have probably kissed him 8,000 times. I mean I have never kissed a creature so many times, and I have loved and kissed many creatures many times, believe me.
As I was packing up the car to leave, he kept doing his arms out stretchy thing to get me to be a mastiff, which I did, three or four times, each time kissing him a few hundred times, until the last time, when I said I gotta hit it man, I have a long drive, I’ll see you soon. But because he’s a puppy, soon means little to him. So he stood there, kind of duck-footed like James Harden after a big play, his eyes the biggest in the world, wondering, I think, how long soon was, and was it true.
As is my mother’s way sometimes, she offered this dime of wisdom as we were driving from Camp Hill into Harrisburg, almost in passing, though in the midst of a serious or serious-ish conversation, grave maybe is the better word, as is common for us, when she said, describing her grandchildren, now 16 and 14 years old, who will forevermore call her Munga, which was precisely how the oldest couldn’t say Grandma, and who still sometimes like to sleep over, or come over for a meal, and for whom she always bakes a this or a that (that requires some clarification: the best pound cake; eighteen kinds of cookies; etc.), and goes to games major and minor, traveling often quite far to sit on the hard stands despite the arthritis creeping into her lower spine, and worries on their behalf, for she changed their diapers and bathed them and when their parents were off early to work she was the one got them off to school, which included, after waking them up very gently, soothingly as a loon singing their diminutive names, I kid you not, making for them whatever breakfast they wanted—I think they called it putting in our orders—usually eggs and bacon for the one, and chocolate chip pancakes for the other, and who still not infrequently takes them to doctor’s appointments and always makes the awards ceremonies and the concerts, and if ever their folks are caught up she’s the one takes over: They saved my life. They gave me a reason to stay alive.
She meant after her husband, our father, their (would be) grandfather, died, and though I was a little bit chagrined to know I was not enough to keep my Dear Ol’ Ma tethered to this side, nor my brother, I was glad for whatever got the job done, and how nice it’s these two cool kids, inclined to laughter and kindness and keeping an eye on my mother now too. Though it’s not quite how she said it, she needed to be needed, as we do—I mean, good lord, we really do—shy as we are sometimes to acknowledge it, let alone say it. Let alone figure out how to nourish that need. But the grandkids, Hannah and Mikayla, I told you they were cool, came here all needy and sweet to meet for her that need.
Braces on Adults
A couple co-eds were walking in my direction on campus today, chatting and smiling, and at some point, they started laughing hard, kind of leaning into one another, and as they got close to me, then passed, I noticed that one of them had braces on his teeth, which, in anyone not a child makes me a puddle. There is something so dear about this adult endeavor toward what, a better smile, less dental pain, greater jaw health, enunciatory support, that, for whatever reason—lack of access, lack of diagnosis, lack of time, lack of concern—is not endeavored toward until adulthood. I have a friend my age who is always fiddling around with the rubber bands in his mouth, he has some sort of mid-life orthodonture happening, and if he eats, he takes them out, without saying so, the way some people surreptitiously down a few pills at meals without saying so. The way I used to hit my inhaler once or twice a day on good days until I got off dairy. When the frailty of the adult human animal becomes for whatever reason evident, perhaps especially the adult human male animal, whose frailty for that creature is often a source of shame, it can almost make me cry. I guess the braces is that on steroids, because piled atop the frailty (crooked teeth) is this other thing boys sometimes (shamefully) want too, which is to be cute.
My buddy Don, before he was murdered, told me he was excited about having at last a steady and secure job with insurance, perhaps for the rest of his life—quick one: for whomever thinks of tenure as an obscene privilege, I would like to blow your mind with this alternative perspective: what if we all had tenure and three months off and parental leave and a library and comfortable-ish chairs at the job site?—in part because he wanted to get his teeth fixed because, like so many people, he probably spent years uninsured, and definitely dentally uninsured. He smiled when he said it, pulling his bottom lip down to show me his crooked teeth. (It was very cute.)
Unlike this kid on campus, unlike my buddy fiddling with his rubber bands at lunch, unlike dear Don in some parallel life I sometimes imagine for him, alive and down the block and coming over unannounced for dinner and with braces on those lower teeth, I never had braces, never needed them, for my teeth came out, or came in, I guess, pretty straight, though my mother chipped in too. By which I mean the time I was swinging too high—I was always swinging too high—on the shopping cart corral at Sears Surplus down off Roosevelt Boulevard while my mother was inside shopping, which was the bane of my existence, and because I became the bane of hers when I was dragged along, she’d be more than happy if we would play out in the parking lot, good and sane parenting for which she might now be arrested, or put on a list. She also left us in the car when we were little sometimes to grab some milk and, it’s like a miracle or something, we survived. Anyway, as I was having a good time swinging, my feet went a tad too high, my arms couldn’t hold, and I fell face first onto the cement sidewalk below.
My brother, swinging too, albeit less rambunctiously—my brother was the albeit less rambunctious one as evidenced by his one bike through childhood and my fourteen, his zero broken bones or surgeries and my plenty—guided me into the store, blood pouring from my face, which I barely noticed because I couldn’t see through all the stars. My mother barked at Matty to get him out of here he’s gonna bleed on the clothes (we weren’t flush like that; it’s why we were at the Surplus), which he did, guiding me by my elbow back to near the scene of the crime, where our mother met us, as usual a little bit pissed off. She really never got a minute. But she quickly saw my face was caved in and softened, taking my hand and walking me over to the Dunkin Donuts across the parking lot, where she escorted me and my bloody caved in face through the store to the women’s bathroom in the back, and got to work.
But in order to get in there, because my lower teeth had gone through my lower lip and were stuck like that, she had to remove my teeth, which luckily were still intact, from my lip, or my lip from my teeth, or something gross whatever it was. Once she got that out of the way, she looked into my mouth, made a quick call (my mother grew up on a farm, and it’s to that tutelage I attribute this facility; she won states in Minnesota for killing, dressing and preparing a chicken in 1958) reached into my mouth, felt that my lower teeth had all been shoved back quite a ways, and proceeded, with her first two fingers, to drag those teeth, which sounded to me like an earth mover changing a landscape, back into place. She pulled my bloody, punctured lip down to check her work, which smarted, tugged a little here, shoved a little there, squinted the one eye, wet a paper towel in the sink, wiped my face, and said c’mon, let’s go. And she grabbed a dozen munchkins on the way out.