When I unlocked and opened the door, Paws stood up in her crate and began wagging her tail violently. She was a lap-dog-sized mutt with black and white speckled fur and mostly black paws. She had expressive ears that sometimes stuck up and sometimes lay back on her head. It was nice to have someone uncomplicated to welcome me home.
“Hey, girl,” I said. “Did you miss me?”
I opened her crate, and she ran around my legs like a cat before she bounded into my bedroom. She knew my habits as well as I did.
I took off the dress I’d worn to church and hung it in my closet before I picked out casual summer clothes. My dark hair was mostly straight, but it curled at the ends and I thought it made a cute ponytail, starting at the crown of my head and bouncing off my neck when I walked.
“Almost ready,” I said to Paws. “Just going to check my phone.” I found that I had missed a call from my dad. I slipped the phone into my pocket. I’d call him later. He was probably calling to find out why I was not talking to my mom.
That’s not true.
I wasn’t not talking to her. I was only taking a break from talking to her. It was true that she didn’t understand the difference, but I hoped I was doing the right thing.
When I picked up the leash, Paws sat without being told and waited for me to hook it to her collar. Then she flung herself into the air a few times as we headed out the door.
There wasn’t much traffic on the street we had to cross. I still took Paws the extra twenty feet or so to the crosswalk. If we were out to get some exercise it seemed silly to avoid steps. I saw a few familiar faces at the dog park and a few familiar dogs. I knew the names of the dogs because they were regularly called out. The people’s names I didn’t know. The dog park was the one place I never tried to make friends. I was there for Paws, who was my one true friend. I let her go to play with the other dogs, and I picked a spot in a corner where I could observe and enjoy a little quiet. I was kind of small-talked out for the day anyway.
After a few minutes, I noticed a guy in a white baseball hat who seemed to be making his way towards me. I thought I might have seen him before but not enough to know which dog was his. He was making his way towards me with his eyes on the dogs, but the path was too straight not to be intentional. He took a couple decisive steps as he faced me and said, “Hi.”
“Hi,” I said. I don’t like baseball hats.
“Which dog is yours?” he asked.
“The white and black one,” I said, pointing at Paws. That’s why she’s running laps around me.
“How long have you had him? Or her?”
“Her,” I said. “About three years.”
“This is a nice park.” He turned to survey the area. He looked back at me with an expression that flipped between apology and desperation. It seemed he was picking up on the fact that I wanted him to go away. I felt guilty. I shouldn’t be rude just because I was trying to figure out how my dad and I could talk about my mom without really talking about anything. This guy didn’t care about my problems.
“Which dog is yours?” I asked. I wasn’t entirely faking the interest.
“I, uh…” He gestured to a dog sniffing a nearby tree. “I brought the dachshund. Her name is Baby but I didn’t name her.”
He fidgeted with mild embarrassment. I assumed that if he didn’t name the dog that meant he had rescued her from a shelter that already named her. In my book, that was nothing to be ashamed of. I hadn’t named Paws either. “She’s cute,” I said. “Have you brought her here before?”
He shook his head. “I’m sort of new to the area. Um… Tracker Briggs.” He held his hand out to me.
I took it briefly and said, “Alexa. How new is sort of new?”
“Well, I grew up here but I was away for school and just moved back.”
“What were you studying?”
“Analytics. I just finished my Master’s and now I’m working at an insurance place. It’s, um, I guess I like it so far.”
“That’s good. I mean that you like it. You wouldn’t want all those years of school to go to waste.” I smiled to show that I was mostly teasing. It sounded like a boring job to me but probably no more so than my own.
He returned the smile cautiously. “You sound like my mom.”
“Is that a good thing?”
He shrugged and stuffed his hands into his pockets. The toe of his shoe kicked at a rock and drew both of our attention. In the silence that followed, I let my eyes return to his face slowly. The calves sticking out of his shorts were muscular but hairy. He was very thin and his hands were larger than mine. I’d detected that at the handshake. They weren’t beefy at all, just had long fingers. I noticed that his bottom lip was unusually fuller than the top which for some odd reason put thoughts in my head that should not be there in the presence of a stranger. I wanted to take a closer look at his eyes, but I really did not like baseball hats. I scanned the park for Paws as I made the brilliant remark that, “I like this weather.”
I caught a nod out of the corner of my eye before he asked, “Are you here only on Sundays?”
“No, I bring Paws after work almost any day it isn’t wet. We can’t come if it’s wet because she likes to roll in the mud.”
“Sounds like harmless fun,” he said with a laugh.
“It might be if she didn’t hate baths so much.”
His eyes widened. “She’s not a biter, is she?”
“Oh, no. She just sort of curls in on herself all pathetically and looks at me like it’s my fault.”
“Has it ever been your fault?”
I could tell he was kidding, but I didn’t know exactly what he meant so I laughed and tried to give him a puzzled look at the same time.
He shrugged and seemed to be rolling his eyes at himself. “I have no clue what I’m talking about.”
For some reason, that made it funnier to me. I stopped laughing when I realized he had turned a bit red.
“I should probably go,” he said.
“All right. It was nice to meet you.” I tried not to sound disappointed or relieved as he waved with one hand and pulled a leash from his pocket with the other. Though I might have been disappointed and relieved. I didn’t want him to go because of anything I had said or laughed at. Something about him was making me tense though, making me wish I could run after Paws.
I watched him scoop up the little dachshund and clip a leash to her before putting her back on the ground. She folded her legs and refused to walk. He picked her up again, and I was still watching him when he turned back and smiled at me. A brief heady feeling made me glad I’d opened myself up for a friendly conversation.
The weather really could not have been more perfect so it wasn’t only a desire to delay a certain phone call that made me spend another hour at the park, alternating between reading a book on my phone and watching Paws run around with a stick in her mouth.
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