I squeezed my eyes shut. How was I going to make it? I was unfit company. They’d taught me the combat mind-set. How to look for threats, how to always be on alert, checking for dangers. They didn’t teach us how to turn that off when we went home. I didn’t know how to live not in war anymore.
I felt so alone. I didn’t talk to anyone because no one understood what I was going through. Not family, not friends. I didn’t blame them. I had a hard time talking to anyone now. And I didn’t want to burden people with my problems. Marines were supposed to be tough. We were taught to suck it up. That we could get through anything, oo-rah! So to admit I had a problem, or worse, a disability, felt to me more than a failure. It was a betrayal.
It was dark when we arrived home. The holiday lights flickered merrily on Pinckney Street. We pulled up at the house. My mother had turned on the holiday lights, no doubt hoping to make me feel more cheery when I arrived home. Mama thought holiday decorations could cheer anyone up. But the blinking fairy lights and bright red bows had the opposite effect. They mocked how detached I felt from the joy of the season. I just wanted to get to my room, away from prying eyes. I didn’t want to answer any more questions. I didn’t want to join the family. I didn’t want to live.
My father parked the car in the garage and let his hand rest on the steering wheel. We sat a moment in the dark. I waited. I felt he wanted to say something. But he opened his door and without a word returned to the house. I sat in the dark car a moment longer, clutching my bag of pills, and looked out in the darkness. I should leave, I thought. I’d move out after Christmas. I didn’t want to put my family through any more heartache. I got out of the car and slammed the door, then walked with my head ducked into my collar and my hands in my pockets along the paved walk to the front door. Pushing open the door, I was hit by the heated, pine-scented air.
My mother stepped out from the kitchen into the front hall to greet me. She was wearing the same blue sweater over jeans, and her hair in the same hairstyle she’d worn since I was a child. She twisted a dish towel in her hands and her face was starched with an expectant smile. Miller stood behind her, sullenly staring. The fear I saw in his eyes nearly killed me.
“I’m sorry,” I said in a rush, and went directly to the stairs. I was halfway up when I heard my mother call after me, “You got a phone call! A Clarissa Black from Pets for Vets. She said to call her as soon as possible.”
I froze. My mother’s words had permeated the wall around me. They traveled deep inside my brain, past the stormy darkness swirling there to where one infinitesimally small flame of hope still flickered. A dog, I thought, and I felt that small flame surge. In all my despair I’d forgotten about the interview with Clarissa. I barely remembered it now. I gripped the stair railing and slowly turned to see my mother standing at the bottom of the stairs, her face uplifted, and waiting. Damn if I didn’t see that flicker of hope in her eyes, as well.
“Thanks.” Grasping at a straw, I replied, “I’ll call her.”
Two days later, I was sitting in an overstuffed chair in the living room, clean shaven, showered, wearing a freshly ironed shirt and polished shoes, waiting for my meeting with my dog. I took great care dressing for this meeting, as I would for any first date. After all, this was the beginning of a new relationship in my life, arguably one of the most important.
While in the hospital I’d met a guy who had a service dog, and he swore that dog saved his life. He told me how one night he had picked up the phone and was either going to call the suicide prevention hotline or Pets for Vets. He called Pets for Vets. I wasn’t a doctor, but I knew I needed more help than I was getting from pills. So I took the card he gave me and when I was discharged from the hospital I applied for a service dog. Clarissa came out to my apartment to interview me a week later. She told me she needed to learn more about me, my personality, my wants and needs, to get a picture of the dog she would find for me in a shelter.
“Sort of like match.com?” I’d asked her.
She’d laughed but she didn’t deny it.
“The way I look at it, you and the dog save each other. It’s win-win.”
Her questions were exhausting but thorough. I didn’t care what the dog looked like—white, black, big, small, male, female. I just wanted a smart dog with a big heart.
So here I was, waiting for Clarissa’s arrival, only this time she was coming with the dog she’d matched with me. I had my doubts she’d find the perfect dog for me. It seemed too good to be true that a dog could change my life. But I’d already tried so many different therapies. I was running out of options.
Clarissa had agreed to come today, Friday, so that Miller would be in school when the dog arrived. I was worried how Miller would react to my getting a dog. What with how much he pined for a dog of his own. Would he understand what a service dog was compared to a pet? Could he understand that I didn’t just want this dog, I needed this dog? He was only ten years old. I didn’t think he would.
The doorbell rang and my whole body tensed. I clenched my knees and forced myself to keep my feet planted on the floor and remain seated, which is what Clarissa had instructed me to do. From my chair I heard the door open, the high-pitched sound of greetings, then my mother and Clarissa sharing pleasantries. It was hard not to get up, but discipline prevailed. I counted to ten slowly, calming myself. A moment later my mother came in, her eyes glittering with excitement. She told me she was instructed to put the blindfold over my eyes. I knew this was part of the process. I could’ve just closed my eyes, but I went along with the blindfold. The idea was that when I opened my eyes, I’d have that first moment when I would see the dog up close, rather than watching the dog walk in. It was meant to be a wow moment.
Once the blindfold was secure, Mama called out the okay. “I’m leaving now. Clarissa said it was important you be alone.” Mama kissed my cheek and I heard her retreating footfalls.
I could feel the tension mounting inside me. I sensed I was being watched. It took all my determination not to rip off the blindfold.
“Hi, Taylor,” Clarissa called out as she walked in. Her voice was calm and cheery.
I imagined her the last time I saw her. Exceptionally pretty, blond, blue-eyed. You’d expect she was a model, not someone who trained service dogs. She was the kind of girl I’d normally ask out. But these were not normal times and Clarissa Black was all-business.