Bad enough that Dale went to San Francisco for a three-month picture assignment without taking Sela, or even telling her he was going—he dumped Cleo on her too. And then the dog started to go blind.
At first Cleo gave no hints of anything wrong. Maybe less barky, but Sela figured that was because Dale wasn’t there to give her a cookie every other minute. Cleo never interested her much anyway. By dog standards she was cute: long body, short legs, big eyes, nose like a black strawberry. Otherwise she was awful, totally spoiled, snapping at other dogs and Sela too (or any girl who stole Dale’s attention), barking if they went out without her and then pissing the rug out of spite. She played Dale like a violin, but growing up on a dairy farm had left Sela unsentimental about animals, and unplayable.
The only thing that truly interested Sela was making great pictures. Every morning she woke up hoping this would be the day she finally turned the corner and made one. Her latest thing was shooting through a piece of cloudy glass—an exercise prescribed by Dale, to make her work harder to “find the picture,” or maybe just to distract her while he snuck out of town.
Today, when Cleo started whining for breakfast, she noticed that the dog’s eyes looked cloudy. Then Cleo banged into a wall and couldn’t find her bowl. Her tail, normally up like a curved blade, was down between her legs. So Sela called the vet. The vet said, “I’ll call Doc Purdy,” a canine ophthalmologist who agreed to see them immediately. This was not a good day to be late for her job at the gallery—Mag, the owner, was more crazed than ever with the mandala project—but Sela said yes. The rotten dog refused to walk; she had to beg a cab to take them the five blocks.
Doc Purdy sounded like a grandfather type, but a bone-thin woman let them in. Her lips were severe, her bristly hair almost a threat. You’re a great picture, Sela thought. She thought this all the time encountering people in New York. But when she actually tried to make the picture, it never quite worked.
In the exam room Purdy said nothing as Sela described Cleo’s symptoms. She peered into Cleo’s face and pointed an instrument at each eye until it made a ticking noise. Shutting the room lights, she flashed each eye with a penlight. With the lights back on she said: “Glaucoma.”
“Can’t you treat that?” Sela dimly remembered the ex-wife of an uncle back in Wisconsin having glaucoma.
“Yes. But the left eye is already blind.”
“How? Her eyes seemed fine until this morning.”
“You didn’t know what to look for. Glaucoma progresses rapidly in dogs. This probably started a few days ago. I’ve seen dogs go blind in forty-eight hours.”
Cleo wagged her tail as Purdy spoke, making a thudding noise on the metal examining table. Sela’s eyes suddenly felt thick; she reminded herself that this was just a dog. “What about the other eye then?”
“Damage to the cornea, although not as severe as the left eye. Hard to say for certain. It might have limited vision if we get the pressure down.”
“So how do we do that?”
Purdy took two small bottles from a cabinet and put a drop from one bottle in each of Cleo’s eyes. “By giving her these. Assuming they work.”
“But if they do, will her eye be OK?”
“With medication the right eye might stay visual for six months. But medication only works for a limited time.” She opened the other bottle and put two more drops in Cleo’s eyes. Cleo sighed but didn’t squirm at all, and to Sela’s amazement licked Purdy’s chin. “In the end all dogs with glaucoma go blind.”
“And there’s nothing else you can do?” Sela meant this as a factual question but the words came out hard. Purdy glanced at her. Her body may have been frail, but her eyes were like amber.
“Let’s see how she does with these meds. If the eye is even visual.” She shifted, indicating they were finished, but Sela didn’t move, as if willing her to say something better. Purdy said: “You do know she’s a Dandie Dinmont? This breed is prone to glaucoma.”
“Well, she’s my boyfriend’s dog, not mine,” Sela said curtly. “He’s out of town.”
Purdy handed Sela a leaflet—Living With Your Blind Dog—instructed her on using the drops, and told her to come back in two days.
Sela had strong arms—a legacy of lifting heavy pails since she was ten—but she put Cleo on the sidewalk when they got outside. No how would she let this dog expect to be carried.
“Cleo, you got to walk.” Sela tugged the leash; Cleo didn’t respond. “C’mon, move,” she said, gently, then with high-pitched enthusiasm, then practically yelling, even nudging Cleo’s rump. Nothing. Cleo was up on all fours, but frozen from nose to tail. Immovable.
And she remembered another time Cleo put on the brakes, yanking Sela back to the curb just as a speeding cab ran over the spot where she’d been standing. Not that Cleo meant to save her life—the dog was just being rotten stubborn. Even so, Sela felt like she owed her one. With a sigh she bent and hoisted Cleo onto her shoulder.
“Hi Cleo! No mood to walk today?” Roberta from their street, wearing her usual miniskirt, displaying legs still slim as a girl’s to divert you from her fortyish face. She always fussed over Cleo, but only as an excuse to flirt with Dale (who flirted back but had no interest in any woman over twenty). With no Dale in sight she kept going. It always bugged Sela when people greeted the dog by name yet ignored her, a fellow human. Women, that is; men never ignored her.
She knew this not with pride but as a fact. To men she was a desirable object. This sometimes benefited her—like the African cab driver stopping now, jumping out to open the door for her—but she didn’t use it, mostly. She did use it with Dale, but honestly, as what she brought to their arrangement.
In the cab, she dialed his number, though his goodbye note had warned that where he’d be supposedly had no cell coverage. “You’ve reached Dale Mondo. Make your message mondo short and I might call back . . .”
The sound of his voice made her hang up without saying anything. But Cleo, hearing him, started whining and squirming. “Shut up. Stop. Here!” This last barked at the cab driver; he waved off her money, as if her bad temper only made her hotter.
Cleo grunted as Sela lifted her. Rushing to the vet, Sela had gone out for the first time in ages without her camera, an old twin-lens reflex (once owned by Arbus, Dale claimed); the absence of its weight between her breasts, replaced by the weight of Cleo on her shoulder, made her feel lost. Then through the gallery’s front window she saw red and gold, the robes of the monks already back at work on the mandala. Damn. She was really late and couldn’t afford to lose this job. She’d only gotten it because Dale was Mag’s biggest artist. Also, Dale and Mag had once been lovers; that was years ago but Mag still took a weird pleasure in hiring her successors and watching every one of them get dumped.
After years of searching for a man, Mag had traveled to Asia and found God instead, in the form of the Dalai Lama. Her aesthetic vision shifted from Arbus and Winogrand and inheritors like Dale to eastern religious art. Dale, too self-worshipping to believe in any God, complained about sharing wall space with Buddha bullshit. Mag’s hiring of Sela seemed to placate him—until she brought over six Tibetan monks. She arranged to have them create, over two weeks, right in the gallery, in view of New York’s wealthy and elite, a sand mandala to honor the Dalai Lama’s birthday. She’d publicly invited the Dalai to come bless the mandala tomorrow when it was finished. Sela’s private opinion was that he must have better things to do.
Mag devoted both exhibit rooms to the project, one for the mandala, one for a photographic history of the Dalai, along with quotes from famous people about his impact on the world. Meanwhile Dale’s latest pictures, a series on transgender people at various trans stages, were temporarily put into storage. Dale had called Mag, screaming that he was done with her and would never let her exhibit his work again.
Then he abruptly ditched New York for San Francisco. So for the moment Sela still had her job, since Mag needed her desperately to help coordinate the daily viewings of the developing mandala; but these days she never knew what kind of reception she would get.
She found Mag planted just inside the front door, waiting for her.
“Tashi Delek,” she said, hands on heart. This was some Tibetan greeting that recognized how awesome you were, and Mag had been saying it every morning since the monks came. Today it was strictly for their benefit, because she added, “You’re late.”
“Sorry.” She should have left it at that, but: “We had an emergency.”
“Emergency?” This whispered with astonishment, as if nothing could be more urgent than Mag’s mission, as she’d been telling Sela since Asia, to be a conduit for the Dalai’s love. Some conduit—Sela had always thought she looked like a giant ladybug. Tiny head, round body, no real neck between the two, insect-skinny legs and arms. A huge orange shawl intended to soften her looked like a shell; her arms stirred like antennae when she spoke.
“Cleo has glaucoma. Already blind in one eye, maybe both. We came straight from the vet.”
“But . . . you can’t bring her here.”
Another whisper, but she also shifted to block Sela’s path. Her buggy eyes large with emotion, or just blank.
“We have holy men here . . . performing a sacred ritual.”
“Don’t they love all living creatures?” She waved past Mag at the head monk—the only one with any English—and he waved back and smiled sweetly at Cleo.
The antennae went wild. “That’s not the point. She might distract them. Or damage the mandala.”
“But I can’t leave her alone, Mag.”
“Get a dog sitter.”
“This just happened. And Dale’s, you know, not around—”
The moment she said his name she knew it was a mistake. Mag leaned in: “He still hasn’t called you?”
“No, but I haven’t called him either.”
“Even if you do, he won’t call back.” Sela had thought this herself, but hearing it said hit her with a force she hadn’t expected. “This is his pattern. When he disappears you know it’s over.”
“Let me just keep her here for today.” Cleo began squirming, and Sela lowered her to the floor. The dog froze. “See. She won’t move. Won’t even sit.” Rising, she saw the Dalai smiling at her from the wall. She thought all religion was stupid but couldn’t help liking his homely face. “What about him?” she said. “Would he turn her away?”
Mag gasped. Not because her hypocrisy was exposed, but because Cleo had sat—no, squatted, a huge puddle spreading behind her.
“I’ll clean it.”
“No. Get her out now. Take her home and then come back.”
“If I take her home, I’m not coming back,” Sela said.
Mag’s eyes got even bigger, but she said nothing.
“Fine. I quit. Good luck tomorrow.” She scooped Cleo off the floor, trying to ignore the pee smell and praying that Mag would stop her.
Cab after cab flew past her begging arm. Finally one stopped, but the middle-eastern driver said dogs were unclean and only relented when Sela spread her hoodie across the back seat. Then the idiot turned onto Fifth Street instead of Fourth and got stuck behind a garbage truck picking up a mountain of bags at the first townhouse.
Fuck it. She settled Cleo in her lap and called Dale’s number. After enduring his message she said: “Maybe you don’t want to talk to me, but this is about Cleo. She’s got glaucoma, she’s going blind. No how can I deal with this alone. She’s your dog, Dale. For her sake, you need to come home. Please call me back.”
Of course he didn’t pick up, it wasn’t even seven yet in San Francisco. The bastard was still unconscious. Sela always woke at four-thirty herself (another farm habit) and Dale snoring five more hours gave her space to work at making pictures. When Dale woke he was like a two-year-old baby with a fifty-year-old’s appetite for sex and drugs. He might be laughing or lashing out depending on his mood, but demanding all her attention until his mood shifted again to his latest photo assignment; then he ignored her.
Being Dale’s assistant with benefits in exchange for him teaching her everything he knew—that was their deal. But soon it was obvious he had no intention of teaching her anything; he’d decided that Sela adored him, just like Cleo, and expected the same dumb devotion. And lately he’d been ignoring her more and more.
“When he disappears you know it’s over.” She’d known this since he left. But knowing something and admitting you know it are two different things.
“Getting out here!” She threw the driver a ten and flung the door open.
The first time Dale brought Sela back to his loft, Cleo rushed to the door and planted her front paws on Dale’s legs, her tongue slapping his chin and nose as he bent to pet her, a singing noise rising from her throat. He bribed her down with a cookie and said, “This is Sela.” Cleo looked at Sela and barked. The bark was huge, like what you’d expect from a junkyard pit bull, not this fluffy thing. “Say hello to her,” Dale said. Sela tried but couldn’t hear herself; when she extended a hand in peace, palm up, Cleo snapped at it and barked louder. It took three more cookies to quiet her.
Later, when Dale and Sela were having sex, Cleo jumped on the bed, growling when they moaned, then darted in to sniff Sela’s ass. “Hey!” Sela pulled away from her and off Dale. “What’s with her?” “Jealous,” he laughed. He got a pill from a vial on the bureau, and shoved it down Cleo’s throat. “You shouldn’t do that,” Sela said, but five minutes later Cleo was fast asleep. “Thank you Trazadone,” Dale said.
She resumed barking the next morning. She barked when Sela spoke, barked when she moved, followed her and barked more whenever she sat down. “Walk her,” Dale suggested. Cleo kept trying to bite the leash, but she did walk, and on impulse Sela took her all the way to her tiny ground-floor studio on Avenue C. She led Cleo to the center of the room. “OK Cleo. This is my place.” No point in saying more—the animal wouldn’t understand. She dropped the leash and ignored Cleo as she stuffed clothes and camera stuff into a backpack. Cleo barked some more, but soon stopped, moving slowly around the room, sniffing everything. Gradually she stretched out on her belly, back legs splayed behind her, pads up, and started snoring. When they returned to Dale’s place, she was calm.
After Sela moved in with Dale, something made her keep paying the rent on the studio. She would take Cleo there when she was acting up—or, more often lately, when Dale was. So now, after exiting the cab, and with Cleo on her shoulder, she headed for the studio instead.
Her room had a weird shape, wide at the entrance, narrowing to the wall with her one window (facing a backyard with nothing green in it). A sink and counter on one side when you came in, bathtub and closet with a toilet on the other. Beyond that, against one wall was her unmade bed, opposite a table and chair she’d picked off the street.
The only decoration was a picture taped above the bed, an old printout withered from years of traveling with her. A Winogrand of a girl dressed like a gypsy, facing the camera. Behind her a crowd milled around, waiting for something, a concert or demonstration. A bundle of string was wrapped around her right hand, while with her left she drew a line from it, raised above her head and out of the frame. When Sela first saw the picture at an exhibit, she couldn’t walk past it; she stared and stared at it and slowly sank to the floor, her eyes brimming with tears. She didn’t understand why it affected her. But she knew that making a picture with this kind of power would give her a reason to be on this earth.
Now she avoided looking at it. She nudged dust knots aside and lowered Cleo to that patch of the floor. “You know where you are. You stay here till Dale—”
Cleo barked like a gunshot.
“Right,” Sela said. “I don’t want to hear that name either.”
She went to the counter and set out the medicine bottles next to a red ball with Cleo’s teeth marks all over it. In the fridge she found nothing but a jug of water, a curled slice of spinach pizza, and an open box of dog cookies.
She heard a noise that was half sniff, half grunt. She turned and saw Cleo raising her head to the ceiling, nose twitching as if seeking information from the air. A low whine emerged from her—not her singing, but the first notes of a howl.
“Cleo, how’s about a treat?” Cleo’s head tilted toward her. From the box Sela took a cookie, which she always called treats, something Cleo had to earn. “Sit.”
After a long moment, Cleo set her rump down.
“Good girl! Here.” She watched Cleo chew, and had no idea what to do next. Then she remembered the leaflet Purdy gave her. She pulled it out of her pocket. “OK Cleo. Let’s figure out—”
And caught herself. With a dog you should give commands or offer praise. Otherwise you were just talking to yourself.
The leaflet was a lot of blah-blah about the most powerful senses in dogs being smell and hearing, their vision was less developed than in humans, the loss of it less traumatic. But then she read:
“Memory is used to negotiate environment. Confine your dog to a small area and gradually expand it to help your pet memorize one area at a time. Keep the furniture consistent. Help your dog move with confidence, using words it will recognize and trust. Say ‘Go’ when you want your dog to go forward, ‘Stop’ for stopping, ‘Turn’ for turning a corner, ‘Back’ for reversing direction . . .”
Sela picked up Cleo’s leash. “Go,” she said, and tugged. Cleo didn’t go.
“Go.” She tugged harder, took two steps; her arm was yanked back, and turning she saw Cleo still on her rump, immovable as a ton of cement.
“She’s a Dandie,” Dale had laughed once when Cleo almost pulled Sela off her feet. “If she don’t want to move, a truck can’t make her!”
She tried again, shouting Go and jerking the leash upward, as if pulling the dog off her feet might get her moving. But she only succeeded in dragging Cleo, not making her walk. Suddenly the dog raised its back end off the ground. “Good girl!” But then she realized what Cleo was doing: taking a shit worthy of a Holstein.
“Goddammit!” Sela dropped the leash, shoved Cleo aside, and used the last of her paper towels cleaning the shit. “Fine. Fuck you.” Then she turned her back on the dog. She forced down the pizza slice, checked her phone—no message from Dale, of course.
She remembered it was time for Cleo’s drops. The dog was frozen just where Sela had left her, head up; she didn’t squirm as Sela put the drops in, but when both eyes were done she shook herself. Her topknot flared like a Vegas showgirl’s hair.
“OK Cleo.” She’s just a dog. No clue what’s happening to her, just making it from one moment to the next. What about you?
Five years since she’d left the farm and her father. He had bone cancer. She suspected her own marrow was tainted, her time limited. She had to do something. Waitressing and stripping got her nowhere. Then by chance she got to work for a photographer in Milwaukee, which sparked her love for pictures but convinced her she’d never make a decent one until she got out of Wisconsin. New York—that’s where she had to go. Latch onto someone powerful, not for their fame or money but for their power to teach her. She read that Dale Mondo, one of her lesser heroes, liked his girls young. Sela was twenty-three but knew she could pass for nineteen. She wrote to him, volunteered to be his assistant without pay, and enclosed a slutty picture. Dale agreed to meet. Seeing how he looked her over, she made her proposition. Dale laughed and took her home.
And now she was dumped, with no pictures to show for it.
She put the drops back on the counter, noticed the ball again. She grabbed and tossed it across the room.
Cleo turned her head as if to follow the ball’s flight. Then she went after it, stopped where it stopped, and grabbed it in her mouth. She walked right to Sela, dropping the ball at her feet. Her eyes locked on her while waiting for her to throw it again.
Sela rolled it, tossed it high, whipped it in different directions. Each time the ball left her hand Cleo ran exactly where it was going, picked it up the second it came to rest, and brought it back to Sela. Dropping it at her feet with a growl. Like she could see.
No, she just knows every corner of this room, Sela thought. Doing it all with hearing and smell.
She got an idea. She removed her sneakers, started some pounding music on her phone, slipped across the room and brought back the chair, setting it in front of her. Then she threw the ball. Cleo caught it on a bounce, turned, and stopped. She was too far off to smell the chair—she saw it; and she knew Sela had put it there to trick her. She put the ball on the floor, and raised her head to give Sela a look that made Sela gasp. She grabbed her phone and switched from music to the camera. On principle she never used the phone camera and never took dog pictures. But now she pointed the phone at Cleo and pressed the button again and again.
She moved from behind the chair. Cleo seemed to consider this, then picked up the ball and brought it over. On one side of her mouth the fur was matted up like a sneer.
“You win, Cleo.” She gave her a cookie. As Cleo chomped, Sela swiped through the six or seven pictures she’d made. Blurred, bad composition, but from every one of them Cleo looked back at her, eyes pure, crushing.
Sela felt her own eyes thicken.
But these aren’t good, you crying won’t make them good—Yet the sight of Cleo seeing trampled these thoughts and set loose others: She would take more pictures, all with the phone. She would document the dog’s escape from the dark, her struggle to keep seeing, rage at being misunderstood and misdiagnosed by the human dopes around her, transformation from parasite to survivor. And she would call the series: Cleo’s Vision.
She called Purdy’s office, told them the medicine was working and Cleo could see. She asked to bring her back a day sooner. The receptionist put her on hold and then said, “Tomorrow 6 pm.”
She felt impatient, but the day passed easily. No message from Dale so she left him another one, now telling him not to come home, even if he did she wouldn’t be there and neither would Cleo. Meanwhile Mag had e-mailed her, not apologizing yet pleading for her to help at the gallery today; Sela replied that neither the mandala nor the Dalai was her problem anymore.
Around four-thirty, she and Cleo went to Five Napkin Burger on Avenue B, where she’d worked before Dale got her the gallery job, and shared a veggie burger outside. When the manager came by to say hello, she asked for her job back. He said OK but she would get all the worst shifts. “Fine,” she said.
From Five Napkin they went to Purdy’s office, Cleo actually walking ahead of Sela. A receptionist let them in this time, but there was nobody else in the waiting room and the woman had a pocketbook slung over her arm. “She’ll be out in a minute,” she said as she left.
When Purdy appeared, Sela said, “She’s much better.” Purdy didn’t answer, but Sela kept talking as they entered the exam room. “Doing good. She definitely can see.”
Purdy followed the same procedure as the day before—holding the ticking instrument to each of Cleo’s eyes, and, after shutting the room lights, flashing a penlight in the eyes. Then she turned the lights back on. “OK, Cleo.” She put her hand briefly on Cleo’s head.
Turning to Sela: “The pressure is back to normal in the right eye, slightly above normal in the left. But it’s only been 36 hours. It appears the drops are working.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Yes. But I don’t see any evidence that she’s visual.”
“Oh . . . no. She can see, really. Maybe only fifty percent, but that eye can see.”
Purdy didn’t argue. She put out the lights, flashed her penlight again. “It doesn’t respond to light.”
“It responds to me. When I move, it follows me—”
“She’s hearing or smelling you. Come behind me. Look over my shoulder. See? I flash the light and the eye doesn’t react. I move the light. Nothing.”
But when Purdy put the lights back on, Cleo seemed to be staring straight at her. The picture of her looking like she could see, yet seeing nothing–Sela realized she was crying, soundlessly; and the tears couldn’t be stopped, even when she slammed her lids shut.
“Wait. Look at this.” Sela found the pictures from yesterday, put her phone in front of Purdy. Hope pulsed and died in Purdy’s silence.
“Cleo, look at me!” Cleo’s head moved in her direction. She’s hearing you. That Purdy didn’t say this again, let her think it for herself, seemed almost kind. “Oh, Cleo,” she said harshly.
Purdy didn’t put her hand on Sela, but she stood so close it was like a touch. Her white coat and top of her shirt were open, and Sela could see her collarbone; and then another bump, circular, above her right breast. A port, she realized. Her father had one.
“It’s an adjustment,” Purdy said. She saw where Sela was staring but made no effort to cover it. “Sometimes even more for the person than the dog.”
When Sela didn’t answer, Purdy went on: “The key thing now is make Cleo comfortable. The medication is working, but that’s temporary. When the pressure rises again, it’ll be painful for her. We can prevent that by giving her eyes a gentamycin injection to kill the fluid producing cells. That will stop the pressure permanently.” She paused, watching Sela’s face. “We don’t have to do this today—”
“We’re not doing anything,” she said. “What do I owe you?”
Outside, she walked rapidly, yanking the leash to make Cleo keep up. At the corner of Tenth Street and Avenue A, where they should have turned left for Sela’s apartment, Sela went straight instead. In the middle of the street the dog stopped.
“Oh, now you can’t walk? Let’s go.” Sela jerked the leash, shoved Cleo’s rump with her foot, got her to the opposite corner, and then Cleo became a ton of cement. Sela yanked and pain sliced through her wrist to her shoulder blade.
“You’re a liar. Made a real idiot out of me. Idiot!” she yelled (causing a man who’d been eyeing her to hurry on). She pulled out her phone, found the Cleo pictures, and deleted them.
“I’m bringing you back to him. He’s a liar too. You can lie to each other.” She pulled the leash with both hands, but the sound of Cleo’s claws and belly scraping the pavement was too pitiful, and she stopped. She crouched and hit Cleo twice on her nose.
Looking up, she saw that the streetlights had come on, car headlights too. Then she noticed that the cars, like Cleo, weren’t moving. They stretched from the light on Tenth through the intersection and as far beyond it as she could see. She turned; more cars were backed up all the way to Twelfth or Thirteenth.
“Witnesses. In front of them you made me hit you.” But the windows of most of the cars were dark. Limousines.
Then she remembered that tonight they would finish the mandala. Here was the New York elite, lemming up to see it.
The light on Tenth turned green, red, green. Nothing moved. “Hate you,” she said to Cleo, who sat with head up, eyes big like always. But her face seemed to be directed past Sela. Sela turned and saw another face that she knew.
The front passenger window of the limo blocking the intersection was open. Sitting there next to the driver was the Dalai Lama. It had to be him—that round, homely, beaming face had greeted her every morning for the past two weeks.
He smiled at her like a close moon, while his squinty eyes assessed her, narrowing further yet never losing the smile. Sela opened her mouth and nothing came out. She raised her arm—not the free one, but the one chained by the leash to Cleo.
He looked at Cleo, back at Sela, nodded, brought his hands together and dipped his head once, twice, in the blessing gesture she recognized from the monks.
She couldn’t say she felt any different. But she called out “Thanks Dalai!” Which sounded disrespectful, but he kept smiling and dipped his head once more. Then he looked ahead, saw that none of the cars were moving, and muttered something to his driver. The driver managed to maneuver the limo left without hitting the limo in front, turned onto Tenth Street and sped off.
Sela felt her shoulders shake, laughing. She said, “Good timing, Cleo.”
Cleo didn’t look any different either. Still blind. No how could she have known the Dalai was next to them. But she flicked her tail, lifted her rump off the pavement, and started walking. Sela followed, again accepting that she owed her one.