A rare night off; I was at the kitchen table, journal open, paints out, and pen uncapped. I had plenty of inspiration those first nights in California—everything around me was new, including working full-time, having an enviable tan, maddening and isolating general anxiety, enjoying perfect summer days even in the fall, and trying to meet new people, all while becoming a fully-functioning member of society. I turned some light music on, mixed a few colors, picked out a brush, and then—incessant scratching on the linoleum floor.
She wasn’t even my dog.
Nola belonged to the girl whose name was on the lease, who was gone sometimes six days a week. I was paying for half of an apartment I got mostly to myself, and while it didn’t feel like my place to condition or punish the dog, I tried my best to give her some of my attention.
She laid down and gave me puppy dog eyes. Her canine wiles weren’t going to work this time. Nola was wild and sweet, but not a puppy
The exceptional thing about Nola was that whenever she was inside, she wanted out, and whenever she was outside, she wanted in. She would take her food from her bowl, kibble by kibble, and lay it out on the floor, choosing to eat exclusively off of the living room carpet. I would watch as she took her excess energy out on her bed. It ended up shredded across the floor and partially consumed. It was a mad, mad love that I enjoyed observing, knowing full well I wouldn’t be held responsible for cleaning up the mess.
I hadn’t been asked to take her for walks, and with a grueling job search to conduct and no WiFi in the rundown basement-level unit we occupied, at the end of the day I was gone almost as many hours a week as the roommate was. But, food appeared in Nola’s dish every day and she never made a mess on the carpet. Somebody was taking care of her, so I saw no real reason to complain about her behavior.
Nola bucked her head and whined at my light scolding. I hadn’t even looked up but she could tell that I was annoyed. In my mind I willed her, “Whatever you’re doing to the kitchen floor, stop,” and I returned to my journaling. We observed a few minutes of quiet, but then more scratching. I ignored it as long as I could but curiosity overwhelmed me and finally I looked up.
Nola was laying on the floor, one paw cautiously outstretched on top of something, not quite crushing it into the ugly white linoleum, but awfully close. She made eye contact with me, as if to say, “Look what I did!” Whatever it was, whatever she had done, I didn’t want to see it, even though I knew there was a good chance I’d step in it tomorrow morning. I started to gather my things and prepared to say goodnight to the dog but I stopped when Nola moved her paw.
A cricket—the ugly, tan, California kind—was struggling on the linoleum where her paw had been. Nola looked on, not with sordid amusement, but instead with longing. As the cricket flailed across the floor, she scooted closer and nudged it with her nose. Nola laid her head down next to it and closed her eyes.
I watched, at first bemused at the dog who maimed a cricket only to sleep while it suffered, but as Nola persistently moved closer and closer, I watched the dog who maimed a cricket to be close to it, regardless of whether it suffered or not.
Just to be close to it.
Because she just wanted to be close to something.
In that instant, I felt a pang of guilt. I knew this feeling, intimately. Making friends was the hardest part of moving, and while nearly everyone had casually mentioned “not knowing anyone out there,” no one had mentioned the crippling loneliness, the deafening radio silence, and the varying faces of ceaseless rejection that accompanied a cross-country move. My closest friend was the clerk at the video store, who, despite speaking little English, made sure no one checked out the next “Sherlock” discs for me as I rented them repeatedly in quick succession, and also held back bags of Skittles for me (they were his best-selling candy and regularly went out of stock).
Regardless, I got the broom and swept the cricket out the back door. As I closed the screen door, Nola put her head down and sauntered back toward the roommate’s forever empty bedroom. I got ready for bed, and nearly tripped on the dog, laying in the hallway outside my bathroom door. I gave her a quick scratch behind the ears, and said, “Goodnight, Nola,” but as I stepped into my bedroom, I saw her, sitting, head down in the middle of the hallway. I turned the lights off and turned around, but instead of closing my door as I stepped blindly to the bed, I left it open just a crack.
Sure enough, within a minute, Nola nudged her way in, whining. At the time, I was still sleeping on an air mattress, and with her dog claws, there was no way I was letting her on my “bed.” I patted the floor next to my head and she laid down. Her bed on the floor, my bed on the air mattress. For a night we were the same; she, so lonely she maimed a cricket to be close to something alive, and me, so lonely I lured the roommate’s dog to my bedside to be close to something alive.
When I woke up, she was gone. The roommate must have returned at some point in the night. But after that night, I carried with me a better understanding of Nola and myself, the lengths we go to combat loneliness. I tried harder to give her my time when I could, and every night, I left my door open a crack.
A few months later, I moved out of the rundown basement-level unit.
I had been running back and forth between apartments all day and as I made my last trip back, I stopped at the plant nursery and picked up a small orchid for the roommate—somehow I had learned they were her favorite. I walked in the front door, sat down at the kitchen table, scribbled a quick thank you note, and set it next to the flower. There was an unusual feeling in the apartment and as I gathered the very last trace of myself to pack into the car, and as I stood in the doorway, taking everything in one last time, I realized what it was. Nola was gone. On rare occasions, the roommate took her with wherever she would go during the days. I was alone.
I turned around, locked the door, and slid the key under the mat. Unexpectedly, in that instant, there was another pang of guilt. In recent weeks, I had had a stream of luck—I found a job, a more permanent place to live, even a moving truck and friends to help me load it—and the time I had to give to Nola was very limited. As I realized that I would probably never see her again, I wondered what her life would be like. She would come home to an empty apartment, and I wondered if she would wait for me, or lay next to where my mattress used to me. I wondered if the next roommate would leave her door open a crack to let her in, or get up every five minutes to let her out, then in, then out, and in again. I wondered if she would even notice, or remember me; we did only share a residence for six months. As I drove away, I consoled myself with the thought that maybe none of this even mattered, because maybe the next roommate would let her keep the cricket.