The Stray

Like many, he was under the impression that getting a dog would be a solution to a problem not exactly pinpointable. One that was emotional, of course, but also so all-encompassing in its severity, that it would take more than the addition of another “entity” into his life to “solve” it. Not that the condition of sheer and extreme loneliness was something that could ever really be remedied in this life. And certainly not for Vaughan, who had been abandoned in his childhood to workaholic parents and an older brother, Eric, who was usually out wreaking havoc rather than sitting at home with Vaughan, who, instead of watching TV, took to his parents’ bookshelf like a newborn to a tit. It began with Nabokov’s Lolita–which, one supposes, was better discovered to a boy as an adolescent than as an adult (or maybe not, since the pedophilic-by-osmosis lust of Humbert Humbert can stick with one well into manhood, which undoubtedly paved the road for a nation of creeps later on in the twentieth century). Then he segued into Nabokov’s mentee, Pynchon, before circling back to Joyce’s Ulysses and then through the century again with F. Scott Fitzgerald. These were the men who raised him, which isn’t a very pretty picture when you think about it. And indeed, a surefire recipe for loneliness in that the wistful (even if macabre) romance characterized by most of these writers’ novels set him up to be disappointed by the banality of real life. 

Starting at school, he realized that none of the girls had much going on upstairs other than thoughts of makeup, clothing and the pop star du jour. The only one he might have talked to was a true misanthrope who kept her nose buried in The Bell Jar when she wasn’t too busy actually existing in it. So that was that. He wandered the halls alone. Ate his lunch solo in the stall of the bathroom like pre-Plastics Cady Heron. Did everything he could to avoid any interactions with the jocks that would inevitably smack him upside the head while jeering at him for his ostensible intelligence (complete with the props of black-rimmed glasses and arms that were perpetually cradling books thanks to an already overstuffed backpack).

A lack of finding true esprit de corps among any of his fellow students led him to ask for a dog many times, beginning in junior high, only to be met with the rebuff that he wasn’t mature or responsible enough to handle it. He wanted to laugh in their faces. For he had exhibited far greater signs of maturity than anyone else in his godforsaken nuclear family. One that Eric had absconded from roughly four years ago as soon as he had the chance. Last anyone heard, he was working on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz. Leaving Vaughan to rot as an only child back on the East Coast, hub of all things faux pretentious. At least Vaughan was bona fide in his own so-called pretension of being “well-read.” Even though he thought it ought to be mandatory for everyone to read what he had. That it only scratched the surface of what it would take to make a person erudite. 

In his senior year, he tried asking one more time for a beloved canine, even adopting one from the local shelter would suffice over some brand new puppy he would have to burden them with while he went off to school at Oxford, as far as he could get from both his brother in California and his parents in Massachusetts. He was declined. Then he realized how foolish he had been this entire time in not simply getting a dog without asking, for Christ knows they were never home long enough to notice much in the way of any glaring changes. It was just another prime example of the meekness he hated himself for. One that would only augment as time wore on, and he completed not just a Bachelor’s but also a Master’s before going on to teach as a professor of literature at the Sorbonne.

He had made it, at least in terms of securing his right to be preeminently pompous. Yet he was still left with a feeling of emptiness and unquenchable alienation, just like one of the characters from those books he spent reading in his youth. Except, in their case, it appeared somehow noble. Glamorously so. In his, it was just pathetic as he sat alone at the tabac across from the school, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee with no pleasure taken in these most pleasurable of acts. Even when he was presented with a Lolita moment by one of his students that would catch sight of him and join him briefly for a smoke, he didn’t seize upon the “chance,” for he knew it would never play out with the same grand tragedian flair as the romance between Humbert and Dolores. 

Finally, he had to ask himself what it was he was really waiting for with regard to this plebeian dream of getting a dog. Maybe he didn’t want to think of himself as being that basic, that humanly needy for companionship. But then, one night, when stumbling home drunk from one of his haunts, fate intervened to present him with a scruffy mutt that started to follow him. He screamed at him, told him to go away. But he wouldn’t. Seemingly loyal from the outset, Vaughan named him Cadeau and slowly got used to the idea of his presence in the apartment. A very large spread that seemed to date back all the way to Louis XIV in its palatial setup and structure. “Open concept” was the phrase real estate agents liked to use. He didn’t really give a shit, the school was paying his rent for some reason. Anything to persuasively keep him from going back to America. As if he needed further incentive not to. And even the tenuously affixed chandelier in the living room didn’t bother him when it looked as though it might fall at any moment right onto the coffee table where he liked to put his feet up while reading L’Humanité

It was only when Cadeau entered the space that he started to fear the chandelier’s perilous state–the last thing his psyche needed was to mourn the freak accidental death of his long desired and recently acquired canine. So, in an emboldened moment of at-home drunkenness, he found an oversized ladder in la cave of the building, ascended it and proceeded to remove the chandelier himself. Alas, he fell off as he was unlinking the chain, stunned by the sight of a bat’s skeleton nested inside. Who knows how long it had been there, or what omen it portended?

The dog, suddenly miffed and set off into the very basest of its feral instincts, proceeded to bark and growl at Vaughan as the shattered glass of the chandelier and the bat remains surrounded him. He felt his spine might be shattered as well, for even the slightest movement was a study in agony. This was when he truly had to admit that having a pet–a “loyal dog”–was still no substitute for a devoted human presence that might have saved him from his destiny of being ripped to shreds by Cadeau, who had turned on him as though Vaughan was in cahoots with the bat carcass. Or maybe the turncoat thought Vaughan’s ties to it somehow made him a vampire of ill augury to Cadeau’s own safety. “Human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece,” he murmured to himself as he started to fade. And, in that moment, he could have sworn he saw the bat rise up out of its detritus and fly away after getting its own bite in for good measure between the dog’s. 

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