Yesterday I asked my mother on the phone what happened to the little puppy we got when we were living in the big white housed called Avenel in Virginia. “We didn’t have a puppy there,” she answered. Her voice was a little hard, a little uncertain. “Yes, we did,” I said. “I remember you yelling at it when it shat on the living room carpet.” I remember my mother pushing the puppy down with her right hand, forcing his head almost into his shit, yelling at him like she meant to kill him. She said you had to do it that way or they’d never learn. I believed her.
“I remember the puppy we got in England,” my mother went on, cheery and soft now. “Remember him? He was so cute, and then he got sick and died.”
“Buffin,” I said.
My mother had wanted an Old English Sheepdog. She’d had one growing up. All our dogs til then had been mutts and strays that came and went. This time my mother went to a breeder. She paid money and brought home the grey and white fluffy puppy. She said he had papers. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew Buffin was a bought dog, not a found one.
I went back to boarding school within a week or so after Buffin came. I hardly remember him at all. But I do remember, a few weeks later, hearing that he had died. He’d gotten sick. My mother told me in her weekly letter.
It was the same day that I heard myself promise Jane and Sheila that I would move in with them. Jane and Sheila weren’t my best friends. They were okay, but not part of the tight-knit group I did everything with. But I had gotten to talking with them that night during recreation time in the big hall and they had invited me to room with them – they needed a third.
Then I was lying in bed, a single bed in a long double row of single beds, separated by curtains. There was a window at the head of each bed, a small sink in the corner and each cubicle had a small wardrobe. I lay in the dark.
I could not stop crying. I had cried in bed many times in school. I often felt sad there and knew how to cry without anyone hearing me. But this was a crying that would not stop. It seemed to go on all night. I kept thinking of the puppy’s death. The little puppy. Though I hardly knew him I could not stop crying for him. And I kept thinking too of the promise just made to Jane and Sheila. I wished I hadn’t said yes. I didn’t really want to move in with them, but I was cornered. When they had suggested it I didn’t know what else to say. It had even seemed kind of innovative at first. You weren’t supposed to move in the middle of term, but now it just felt like moving in with two girls who were dull and on the edges of things. Plus, I was scared. What would my regular friends think? I knew it would need some explaining.
And then I kept thinking of my mother at the fair. It had been my idea to go, the last time she came to visit. I had pushed and pushed to go on the rides – the bright tents hastily set up in some muddy field. We’d ended up in some kind of metal box car that swung and dipped and jolted. You had to hold on hard. My mother sat across from me in a black and white checked suit. She held my baby sister on her lap. I saw her face freeze with concern as she grabbed a bar and held the baby tight.
Afterwards, she put her hand to her brown hair and said, “Oh, one of my combs is gone.” She’d lost one of the silver combs my father had brought her from a business trip to Morocco. My father’s presents to my mother were not romantic. I knew that. But they looked valuable.
As I kept replaying the scene of my mother in the tilting ride, the loss of the comb, Buffin’s death, the waves of crying kept washing over me. As soon as one was done another would begin. I felt I had done something horribly wrong in making her go on the rides. If it weren’t for me she’d still have the lovely silver comb.
Within a few days my friends went on the attack. “How could you leave Ann?” they hissed. “How mean you are.” Ann was in the single bed across from me. She was my official best friend, but I didn’t really like her best. I liked her a lot, but not best.
I went ahead and moved in with Sheila and Jane. I didn’t know how to get out of it. The good friends weren’t reliable after that. Sometimes they were fun like before, but sometimes they would not speak to me.
I asked my mother if I could stop going to this school. I let her and my father think that it was because I wanted to live at home. And for a little while I thought maybe I’d like it at home again. I imagined doing homework at the dining room table in the evening with my sister, the lamplight soft like in Little House in the Big Woods.
But it wasn’t like Little House in the Big Woods and shifting to a new school didn’t help. I didn’t know what had happened, but I couldn’t make friends anymore.