Monika R. MartynI made the call on a dismal Sunday evening. For the better part of an hour I lifted the receiver then changed my mind and abandoned my mission; a nervous change of heart, three times before committing. While I held the phone to my chest, the dial tone angrily pulsing, I stared at the snowflakes gently tumbling from a velvet winter’s sky. It was darker than usual and I had nowhere to go other than into the soft snow.
After I hung up and had gently explained that I would not leave my name, nor would I, for reasons much too personal, consent to being a witness. Tactfully, I convinced the operator to send someone. An officer who would handle the whole problem in a sensitive manner.
Upstairs the low hum of crying continued intermittently and sometimes gusted to sobs of unspeakable pain, that even through ceilings and walls were unmistakable. I plugged my ears but the cries ripped through me and told story enough to shape my conclusions.
I harnessed my dog, slipped his argyle sweater over his sausage body, and stepped into the winter boots I kept next to the slow breathing heat vent. For reasons I couldn’t admit, I refused to bear witness to what would surely unfold within minutes.
The thick tread of my boots made neat impressions in the wet virgin snow. Noodles dug his nose in and sniffed the unbroken path. His small paws rolled miniature snowballs while he walked. Together, we turned south and away from the two-story house I had so recently moved into. My landlord had neglected to warn me, and when I met the upstairs tenants, with grocery bags cradled in their arms, they seemed likeable enough. A solitary duo: he protective and she timidly looking to the ground. I had missed the first clue.
When I awoke on the first morning after my arrival, I heard water gush in the upstairs bathroom. Noodles and I had slept soundly, and the clock blinked its light at shortly before seven. Since I had no schedule or demands on my time, I rolled over and petted Noodles. The move across country had worn us out. I suffered from the long drive and the packing and unpacking; Noodles because one simply can’t explain such things to a dog. In the stillness of the morning, I listened to soft moans sung by an orchestra of off-key tears. A sound that has plagued me each morning since.
On the blanketed sidewalk, we cut a path and I hated breaking the beauty of the freshly fallen snow. Christmas decorations that a month ago had looked so festive were now tired of blinking. Beautiful star-like flakes landed on Noodle’s sweater and intermittent flakes clung to my long lashes and slowly melted into wet kisses on my cheeks. There’s a beauty in winter that leaves me breathless; yet I detest being so cold. I ducked my head deeper into the woolen scarf wound around my neck and walked. Before I reached the corner, I saw the flash of headlights, the sound of tires crunching on snow. Without looking back, I knew it was the cruiser. I imagined the soft knock on the door and the burly officer asking for permission to enter.
What surprised me was that no one had called in the incident before. Does everyone turn a blind eye when a woman suffers? (as the symptoms of the moans clearly indicated). I was about to head east when I met another dog walker. Our dogs sniffed one another which always makes me marvel how easy it is for dogs to discern each other by scent alone.
“Nice night for a walk.” The gentleman said, fog danced from his covered mouth.
“Beautiful. Haven’t experience snow in some time.” I always say too much.
“Been south?” He asked to make polite conversation.
Our dogs were speaking their own language sniffing butts and noses.
“Yes. Just came back.”
“See that cruiser?” He gestured over his shoulder with the nod of his head.
“Yes. I did. Know anything?”
I played dumb and shifted on my feet kicking the snow. I vaguely remembered the intricacies of small communities and how much they resented the invasion of strangers among their circle.
“Sad story. Surprised the ambulance didn’t get there first.”
To make sure we were speaking of the same cruiser, I looked over my shoulder to see the tail lights of the police car parked in the driveway.
Although I had suspected the worst, the need for an ambulance definitely signified more horror than I had first imagined.
“Yup. Sure enough, every few weeks or so. Poor things.” He shrugged his shoulders.
Poor things? I said to myself. Poor things or just bloody stupid. I consider myself to be a compassionate person but at that very moment I realized my kindness monitor would only reach so far. Why on earth would someone choose to stay in a situation like that? I must have shook my head slightly.
“You’d never know to look at them.” He blinked the falling snow from his eyes.
I thought about the dogs again sniffing to get a feel and being able to gauge each other just like that. Of course stance and waving tails tell the rest of the story.
“He seems so nice and kind, and she’s such a pretty thing.” I was confounded.
My eyes must have broadcast the confusion within the yellow circle cast from the streetlamp. because the gentleman caught the confusion set in my eyes. The simple word seems left off all the horror and brutality and didn’t leave room for nice and kind in my opinion.
“Have you met them?”
“Just the once.” I admitted.
“They’re quite the pair. Legendary on the street really.”
“Oh the saddest love story yet. Well I should be on my way. Rex gets cold feet.”
Love story? Legendary? I mouthed into the chilled air. That no one had intervened and done something made bile rise in my throat. Sure enough, before I could round the corner, the flashing lights of an ambulance painted the snow in a faint blue wash. What had I gotten myself into?
I tugged on Noodles’ leash and scooped him into my arms. Despite the warm sweater, he shivered too. I tucked him into my coat as Noodles had only ever walked on endless beaches and hot asphalt. I wasn’t ready to face the piper, and they obviously didn’t need another nosy parker prying into their embarrassing and complicated lives, I walked on.
I resisted temptation to look over my shoulder and watch the ordeal unfold; Noodles grew heavy in my arms. A few blocks later, and by luck, I stumbled upon a late-night coffee shop. A pet friendly neon sign flashed in the window. Surprisingly, at this hour we weren’t the only patrons in need of a safe harbour. The gentleman I had met earlier was snug in the corner bench. He recognized my yellow coat, and I his large dog.
“Come join me.” He said.
I ordered tea and a scone and slid into the bench, Noodles already chumming with Rex’s tail.
“This is an unexpected find. Good to know that places like this exist. Obviously popular.”
“Very. This neighbourhood is very pet oriented. Lots of great off-leash parks.”
Each table was occupied by master and pet. A slight wet odour of dog permeated the air but to a dog lover that scent was akin to the warm scent of pie.
“So you come here often?”
I tried on the old line with a smile on my lips. The gentleman unbundled from his heavy coat and scarf was very handsome. Not that I was in the market, but his well manicured looks, like a dog taking a sniff, intrigued me.
“Several times a week. But tell me about you?”
“Bette.” I said and reached to shake his hand.
“James Lincoln. Nice to meet you Bette.”
His hand was warm and smooth. Mine were still cold. Mittens and gloves couldn’t warm blood.
When the server brought the steaming pot and cup I wrapped my fingers around them for heat.
“James. So you lived here long?” I blew on my tea.
“All my life.”
“What kind of work?”
“General manager of an installation plant. You?”
“Finance. Allows me to work from anywhere.”
“Why’d you come back? To the cold?”
“To that I don’t know the answer just yet?” I laughed.
“Was it you who called it in?”
The question startled me and my involuntary reaction, a slightly flinch, must have answered for me. Plus I wasn’t accustomed to lying.
“Newbies always do. And you did the right thing.” James patted my arm assuringly.
Of course I did the right thing, but I couldn’t believe he could speak of it so offhandedly.
“I didn’t want to get involved, but I had no choice..”
“Hard not to. But rest assured they’re both fine.”
“Yes the ambulance usually takes them both. They hate being separated.”
“Wow. After all that she still won’t leave him?”
“No. That’s love for you. They share a common bond. Who else would take them on?”
“Take them on?”
“You know. With their history.”
His cavalier disposition on such a delicate topic jaded my opinion of him. How could anyone not be irate? I noticed my shoulders rise and when the next patron entered the shop, dusted in white flakes, I made up my mind to end the conversation. There was nothing I could have in common with the man despite his outward charm and good looks.
“I should go.”
I reached for my hat and scarf and slid out. Noodles looked up; displaying disappointment within his brown eyes.
“Did I say something to offend you?”
“I’m not sure I can live in a community where people turn a blind eye to such a blatant cruelty.”
“Blind eye? Cruel?”
“She’s obviously a victim.”
“Yes. As is he.”
“He? He’s six foot tall and obviously a brute.”
“Are we talking about the same couple?” James looked completely puzzled, all the while trying to make sense of my anger.
“31 Baker Street upstairs tenant?”
“How on earth can an entire community ignore a domestic situation. Can you explain it?” I had risen to standing and my shadow, cast by the Tiffany reproduction lamp, loomed over him.
“I’ve been here for three days, and she hasn’t stopped crying.”
A smile quivered on James’ mouth, and I sensed he tried his darndest to suppress his humour.
“She cries all the time. But not because of the reasons you seem to imply.”
“The poor thing suffers …”
I raised my hand to cut James off. I wasn’t willing to share what I knew about suffering with a stranger and obviously a gossip.
“I’ve heard enough.”
“Bette. Please listen. You’re mistaken. They are a loving couple. They just have health problems.”
“Well he does for sure and so do you.”
Indignation made me spit a little.
“They suffer from Crohn’s.”
My face fell.
Outside the snow continued, swirling under the yellow light of the streetlamp.
Crestfallen, I sat back down. That was enough to make anyone cry.
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