English assignment for a short story class. Was disappointed when I discovered we were learning about short stories instead of writing them. I forget what the assignment was, actually, but this is probably the one where I asked if I could write a story instead of an essay.

Daniel and Nathan and Michael

She was three months past her third divorce when she found him, curled up and shivering in the winter street. She herself had only her slippers to ward off the slush, frozen, re-frozen, and driven in by dozens of cars.

"Hello," she murmured to him, and his reddened eyes swept hazily in her direction. It reminded her of Daniel, in a way. She pushed her hand out of her bathrobe to see if he would bite, because Daniel had done that, too, in his own way, but he only nudged her with a cold, black nose and licked her hand. That was un-Daniel enough for her.

"Poor little guy." She tugged her bathrobe off and wrapped him in it, carefully, because she knew if he was frightened he might bite her, even if he was un-Daniel. He might be like Nathan, biting unprovoked. But he was too cold to move, and she decided that he was un-Nathan, too.

She took him quietly inside to feed and warm him.

So, did you buy that magazine like I asked you? He had just come home from work, and he was sore, because he worked in a warehouse and there was a lot of heavy lifting, and she'd suggested that maybe she could get a job to help, but he'd said What do I look like, a mama's boy? and she hadn't brought it up again.

Yes, and I got this other one, too. They both ran articles on the election. She'd tossed them both to him, and he'd nodded sort of absently and taken the one he wanted and left the other on the coffee table. She let it sit there for a week before throwing it away.

She'd told one of her friends about it, and she said Geez, girl, it was just a magazine. Let the man read what he wants! so she did. It was a lot easier than worrying about the alternative, and when it turned into If I wanted gourmet cooking, I'd ask for it and Why won't you just do what I ask you for once, she learned how to smile, and she learned how to nod, and she found out that agreeing was easier than arguing.

Later on, her friend asked her if she'd gotten a degree in physics just so she could be some guy's punching bag, and she didn't have anything to say.

She smiled at him as she walked back into the living room. He was squirming out of her bathrobe, and she barely made it in time to catch him before he tumbled from the armchair to the floor.

"You need to be careful," she said lightly, setting him down on the carpet, along with a dish of warmed-up beef noodles.

He wagged his tail at her and stuffed his small muzzle into the bowl, which made him even more un-Daniel and un-Nathan. When he was finished, he looked up at her with pricked ears. She patted him on the head, and he licked her again.

"Do you have a name?" she asked him curiously, and he woofed affectionately at her. "I guess that's a no, isn't it?" She pushed her robe onto the floor and sat down, holding her lop-eared companion in her lap. "Mama always said I was good with names. Guess we can think one up for you."

Her mother had also told her that she was far too kind for her own continued good health. Their conversations frequently began with "Well, what good deed have you done this week?" and ended with "Try not to make your neighbors nauseous, dear." with a little "Just being nice won't get everyone to like you, you know." sprinkled in for good measure. They eventually agreed that neither of them was deriving any pleasure from their communication, and their weekly phone calls tapered quietly to monthly, then yearly, and then they ceased entirely.

She looked down into her lap, where he was licking her hand sleepily. "Are you still hungry?" In answer, he curled up in her lap and fell asleep.

Hey, honey? Would you mind if I had an affair? She had been in the kitchen at the time, chopping vegetables, even though he didn't like them much, but he ate them anyway because he'd heard somewhere that rabbit food was healthy, so she ate them too. Her chopping slowed for a moment.

Whatever you think is best for you. She hadn't really been sure if she'd meant it or not meant it, but he served her divorce papers for breakfast and walked out of the apartment, and all she could think was that it was nice she hadn't had to find a new place this time.

Her friend told her she must have the lousiest luck with men of anyone she'd ever met, and she'd said I only try to give them what they want.

Her friend told her that maybe she should've tried psychology instead of physics.

He squirmed in her lap, and she opened her eyes to smile down at him. "Do you need to go to the bathroom?" His tail gave a guilty wag, and she discovered that, judging from the wetness of her jeans, he already had. "They were dirty anyway," she informed him, forgiving easily, as she always had. She'd even forgiven Michael for taking Natalie and Nicholas away from her.

"I'll throw them in the washer and take a shower, and then we can watch some TV." She stood up and set him on the floor, where he proceeded to nose around the carpet, looking for scraps. One of the things she'd decided she liked about living alone was that she didn't have to worry about someone walking in on her in the bath or shower, or coming around the corner when she wasn't decent. It was very lonely, though. She hoped no one owned her new friend.

She turned the shower up nice and hot and stood there for a long time, letting the water run over her. She didn't have any cuts or bruises for it to sting against, and it couldn't come close to the ones inside. For those, she had her own treatment.

Haven't you ever had an original thought in your life? She looked up at him in puzzlement and hung his jacket on the hook by the door. They had been talking about his job and the stock market and politics, like usual, and she had found that she agreed with him on pretty much every issue, simply because she did.

I don't know what you mean. It came out a little weakly, and she was glad the kids were already in bed, because they didn't need to hear this kind of thing, did they? And she couldn't figure out why he was so upset.

He'd told her what he meant, at length and in great detail, and the next six months were a blur of court appointments and screaming and crying and fighting and more crying, and then she lost the kids, which was strange, because her lawyer had said that the mother almost always gained custody of the kids. Natalie had asked her why she was going, and Nicholas had asked her why Daddy was being so mean, and she'd smiled and said that it was okay, because she could see them sometimes, right? Then Michael had walked up and told her no, she couldn't, and then they all three walked out of her life.

The phone rang, startling her out of the shower and into a towel. She pulled her wet hair back and picked it up on the third ring, while her furry companion yipped curiously at her dripping legs.




"Yeah, it's me, sorry about this –"

"I thought we were done with the divorce, Michael," she said slowly. "Did the lawyers forget about something?"

"No, no, it's nothing. I just thought I'd check in and see how you were doing."

Why? "Oh, I'm fine. I got a job a couple months ago, pushing papers at the university lab."

"Is that so? That's great! Maybe that physics major of yours'll come in handy."

She smiled at the phone, even though he couldn't see. "Maybe."

"So, um, how's your social life been? I talked to Angie the other day, and she said she hadn't seen you – she didn't even know we'd split up."

Oh. "I've been busy," she lied, surprised at how easy it was, but then not surprised because she knew she'd done it many times before.

"Oh, really? Well, that's good. You oughta get in touch with her, though, she's a little worried." A pause.

"She can call me." She'd forgotten to tell Angie about the new phone number after Nathan.

"Yeah, I suppose that's true."

In the ensuing pause, she volunteered a piece of information. "I picked up a puppy today off the street." I'm thinking of naming him after you. "He's really sweet, just needs some housetraining."

"Sounds nice." His voice was dull now, wondering why he called.

"It'll be good to have someone here," she said, remembering why she enjoyed holding up her end of the conversation.

"Yeah." She could see him shaking his head in that way he had. "You always did like puppies." She said nothing, and he added in an apparently vicious tone, "I hope you're happy together."

A laugh bubbled out of her, and she looked over her shoulder to where the dog was chewing absently on the corner of the tupperware bowl she'd served his supper in. "I'm sure we will be."

Click. She listened to the line go dead before quietly hanging up the phone.