Navigating the Margin

Chels Knorr

Chels Knorr

She kept wandering back and forth in front of the window. Lost. Stopping on patches of grass as she caught a scent of what might have been her puppies, but was probably just random urine.

Her belly, swollen from having just given birth to a litter, drooped toward the ground. Her collar had become too large for her neck and her bony back begged for steak or even garbage-ridden leftovers.

I walked down the stairs from the apartment and whistled at her. Afraid, she cautiously approached. I searched the length of her collar for an ID tag; there was nothing but the torn remnant of a red leash.

“I found a puppy,” I messaged Tyler, my newlywed husband, who understandably assumed I had come across a box reading “Free Puppies” in front of the grocery store and couldn’t resist. He returned home from work to find a full-size dog sitting on our kitchen floor.

A pit bull.

“I thought you said a puppy,” he said. “Puppy and full-size dog are not synonymous.”

“I couldn’t just leave her. She’s lost. And I think she was abused. And she just had puppies. And she was starving. Look how thin she is.” I was defensive, and I wouldn’t tell him until later I had fed her all four packs of his lunchmeat.

“What do we do with her? You don’t want to keep her, right?”

 

No one can prepare you for marriage. You figure out the big things like where you might want to live and how many kids you might want to have together and then you wing it the rest of the way. Before Tyler and I married, I never asked him what the maximum number of dishes in the sink could be before a fight would ensue. I never inquired about how low our bank account balance could get without an argument or where we should keep the mugs (above the coffeemaker seems logical, right?). These aren’t the only ideas that get overlooked pre-vows, but also the idea of becoming responsible grown-ups, balancing autonomy and dependence, making joint decisions and discovering the character of a marriage—and navigating each of these together.

Tyler and I walked over to the Christmas tree lot across the street to ask the owners if the dog belonged to them. “It’s not ours,” the lot owner said. “She just had puppies. A lot of times breeders just ditch the mom after she gives birth because they got what they wanted out of her.” He petted her neck. We canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods for the better part of an hour. No “Lost Dog” signs were plastered on telephone poles or mailboxes. No one had called the shelter to report a missing dog. No one was looking for her.

She lay on the kitchen floor asleep while we cleaned and cooked. Every hour or so, she would turn on her side as if awaiting nursing puppies. But each time she would understand, flip back onto her swollen belly and swallow me with her sad eyes.

About 11, Tyler asked, “So, what do you want to do?” Until this point she had been quietly enjoying our central heat, and for hours we had put off the decision neither of us wanted to make.

“I don’t know.” I couldn’t say much else. Beyond the apartment complex not allowing pets, we didn’t have anywhere to keep her overnight, even illegally. An unknown, stray pit bull wandering our apartment all night scared me, and our attempt to block off the kitchen with boxes as a dog bed resulted in her immediate escape up onto the kitchen counter. But, I knew what happened to shelter dogs that went unclaimed.

“I’ll stay up with her if you don’t want to take her to the pound tonight,” Tyler offered.

I’ll stay up with her. I played this over and over in my head. This is why I married this man. A full day of work tomorrow beginning at 5 a.m. and he’s volunteering to stay up with a dog to which he has no attachment or responsibility—all so I don’t have to face the reality of handing over the red leash.

But I knew we would have the same dilemma in the morning. Sometimes there is no right answer. No happy ending. No sparing from reality. We wanted to save her, but all we could offer was our warm kitchen floor for a few hours. We wanted to find others searching for her, but all we could do were be the people searching.

We put towels down in our SUV, and I climbed in back to sit with the dog on the floor. Tyler drove against the harsh lights of the road, windows foggy from the cold night, shelter-bound.

 

There is a lot of figuring out that comes in the first months of marriage. The first months where we are finding the balance between love notes and grocery lists; the edge where difficult discussions can either overcome hurdles or become grueling arguments; where decisions with no correct answers become collective instead of ones we must fare alone.

The howl of helpless dogs echoed in the empty expanse surrounding the shelter. Tyler held my hand as we walked across the parking lot to the night entrance where the guard opened the door. We answered a few questions, and I hesitantly handed over the red leash remnant.

This was only one margin—this puppy—the first adventure we’d had as married couple that didn’t have a happy ending; the first decision we’d made without a right answer. The sound of scratching paws climbed my spine as we walked back to the car. We had scaled these distances as individuals, but never together before.

We drove back in silence. We could have talked—about the sound of scratching paws, about the kitchen floor, about the misadventure, the searching or the lunchmeat—but we both understood all those things. Instead, Tyler reached across the front seat, and cold hand in cold hand, we braced ourselves, and each other, to navigate whatever margin came next.

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