Stacey could see in the slight twitch of Max’s soft ears that some unheard call to canine adventures had sounded his way. She waited for the customary swivel of his head that would bring his questioning eyes around to look back up at her and, when it came, chuckled and bent to unhook his leash.
“Ah, my Max, you are forever the gentleman.”
She patted him affectionately- her signal to him that he was free to take his leave- and then straightened up slowly, ever amazed at how little evidence of her dog remained once he had plunged his solid, yellow-gold body into the expansive, wild growth of green and brown plantlife around them. Stacey knew that Max would happily scamper around for hours now- following the scented trail of whatever had caught his fancy- and left him to it.
Max and herself had struck up this amicable relationship on their first meeting: him a large-pawed pup, sitting on the mat by his (then) owner’s front door- eagerly waiting his let-out; her a nervous, soon-to-be-first-time dog owner. She had overlooked his quizzical, chocolate-brown gaze (aimed at the closing door behind her) and had allowed herself to be escorted to see the rest of the litter. By the time she had made her way back to her car, bitch-pup underarm, he was sitting on her front seat waiting for her to get in (to this day she had no idea how he had gotten there!) and she had had to promptly turn around and apologetically dump her armload back with its mother.
“It seems I have been taken,” She had explained , pointing back at her rusting-blue, student car- where Max’s wet nose could be seen making anxious trails on the passenger windows.
“Don’t worry, pup!” -she had laughed back to him- “You are a keeper!”
She had called him Max after one of her Grade 3, ex-boyfriends (of which she had had a spat in her primary school days. Braces, bad skin and her growing indifference to the opposite sex had put an end to it all, however, by the time she had reached highschool): both Max’s had similar coloured hair/fur and both did not mind playing in opposite sandpits to her own when she so desired and asked it of them.
Stacey whistled once in the general direction where Max had disappeared and, receiving a soft bark in reply, turned back with a sigh along the path they had come: back to the small, rustic cottage that she had rented for the holidays and back to the pile of books waiting on the kitchen table for her studious attention…
“You really should not let that dog run free like you do Stace.” In the fading light, from their vantage point on the cottages stone steps, Stacey and Robert could see Max making his spent way back up to them out from beneath the greying border of trees and undergrowth.
“He is getting fat and needs some exercise and I do not have time to walk him, Robert.” Stacey defended, with a slight tilting of her chin as she shot his silhouette a defiant glance.
On her arrival back at the cottage earlier that afternoon, she had been greeted her with a low whoop, followed by a side-tackle to her midriff. This was Robert, dramatically launching himself from the bushes in which he has been hiding. His exuberance had sent them both crashing to the ground, winding Stacey momentarily and awarding Robert a few solid punches to his chest once she has recovered. Not that Robert has caught her unawares: his car was parked in the tree-lined driveway she had just walked up and the sight of it had put a small, knowing smile on her face and a cautious air to her step.
Herself and Robert were reasonably good friends of late- having attended the same English Lit and Psychology classes for the past few years, during which they had shared a love for intense conversations (peppered with dry wit and humour) over glasses of red wine, steaming cups of coffee and large bowls of student meal staples such as vegetarian pasta and lightly salted popcorn.
They also shared an unspoken agreement to stay off territory that the other demarcated as ‘off limits’, or ‘no go’ (as Stacey liked to call them), which Robert early on discovered was much of the more personal aspects of Stacey’s thought-life. Being a reasonable and laid back young man, Robert concluded that any ‘no go’ territory would have been established for good reason and that Stacey was entitled to it. He was comfortable enough with the many companionable and preoccupied silences that stretched out between them as she wandered mentally away from him, leaving him to his own devices. Plus her aloofness at times was a relieving alternative to any clinginess he otherwise would have had to outmanoeuvre. And if it bugged him, he excused himself. They were, after all, quite clearly, just friends.
After dusting themselves off, unloading his bags and the few food items he had purchased at the small grocery store in town, they settled themselves outside with a glass of cheap, box-wine to watch the night fall.
“Your Gran Mags phoned you again, didn’t she?” Stacey narrowed her dark eyes over the rim of her wine glass at him: her ‘perceptive’ look.
“Better believe it,” Robert laughed and shook his head, “ I don’t know how a woman of her age knows when ‘varsity holidays are on, but this woman is like a bloodhound. I’m a week into summer fun and she is phoning me already for favours and errands!” Stacey knew from previous experiences with Robert and Gran Mags that she quickly exhausted any demands of Robert’s time and energy she has right to as his only surviving grandparent. For some bizarre reason, she had latched onto Robert as her ticket to the old-age high-life: transforming him into her chauffer, her fashion consultant, her bowling partner, her drinking buddy (no less) and her holiday-time confidante.
“I told her that I was, in fact, out of town for an undefined period of time and that I would let her know should plans change.” This Robert said gulping down the rest of his wine and rolling his eyes dramatically. Prying her half empty glass from Stacey’s protesting fingers, Robert rose to fill their glasses.
“You are right Stace,” Robert said with a far-from-gentle toe-nudge to the panting body that had squeezed its way into the small space behind Stacey’s bended knees and the stone step, “Max is getting fat.”
Stacey stuck out her tongue and bent down to rest her cheek against Max’s soft head.
“Are you going to return my wine glass to me anytime soon or am I going to have to set my fat dog onto you to get it done?” Stacey asked- her voice muffled by his golden fur.
Robert sighed and turned into the dark house, leaving Stacey affectionately cooing into Max’s sleepy, chocolate-brown eyes. He wondered sometimes at this woman: choosing a tongue-lolling canine as the love of her life…
Max had not really noticed Stacey when she had pulled up in the driveway that day, beyond the perfunctionary lifting of his ears as she had screeched to a halt dangerously close to the garage doors at the end of it.
He had been alternatively pressing his nose up against the puppy flap (or anti-puppy flap, rather, as it had been jimmied in such a way that no matter how often it was pawed, shouldered, nosed or run into, it would not give way) and turning around to sniff the air behind him for his then-owner: a middle-aged lady in squeaky sneakers, who carried the confusing, mixed aroma of crushed garlic and lavenders around with her wherever she went. The closer the smell wafted in his direction, the louder his small tail thumped on the mat beneath it: he had quickly learned that there would come a time in the day where he was to be freed from the confines of the small house to scamper around the garden in supervised, four-legged delight.
So, when Stacey had knocked on the door and he had been gently nudged out of the way to allow her in, his attention had been more riveted on the crack of light and fresh gust of air that her entrance had afforded his world than on her badly painted toenails and her inexpensive sandals as they had sidled their way in and past him.
With the door firmly closed behind them and the sound of their voices fading off to hover just above the rest of the puppy litter, Max had returned his nose to its eager post against the plastic flap to wait. A sudden motion behind him and the feeling of a firm grip around the scruff of his neck at that point caught him by surprise. He had hung, suspended and swaying to a loping gait, until the slam of a car door behind him and the sudden, stuffy embrace of ill ventilation had signalled his arrival in Stacey’s car.
By the time Stacey had made her way back towards her car, Max’s anxious, tongue-lolling attempts to find air had slimed up much of the car windows. Hearing her surprised laugh, he had yapped at her through the glass in protest.
A few minutes later, she was sliding behind her steering wheel, glancing at him quizzically and inexpertly reversing down the driveway. She had cranked down her window to wave a polite goodbye to the woman standing on the top of her porch stairs and then safely dumped him onto the back seat, amidst a pile of clean laundry, books and loose pieces of paper.
“How did you get in here then, pup, mmm?”
Max did not seem to hear her. After sniffing the contents of the back seat thoroughly and finding that it worked best to remain seated whilst Stacey drived, he had happily settled himself down for the drive home- leaning back against the cracked leather behind him, with his head tilted up to catch the many scents carried in on the cooling breeze.
Miriam took in her husband’s lengthy frame innocently sprawled out across their too-small couch in the corner of their too-small television room. He was pretending to read a spy-novel. She folded her arms, poised one eyebrow in a questioning arch and waited.
“Anything I can help you with, dear?” Angus smiled as he turned the page, fixing his attention on the blurred sentence at the top of the page.
She picked up the nearest object at hand- a coaster on a coffee table- and half-heartedly threw it at him. For all his frustrating antics, Miriam loved her husband dearly.
“He was my favourite one, Angus. For what did you go and do that?!”
Angus straightened up from slightly ducking to avoid the coaster as it hit the wall behind his head and richochetted off to land with a thump on the floor next to him.
“What did I do now?” The look Angus gave Miriam was a mock-injured one as he swung his legs around to directly face his slightly sulking wife.
“Why did you put that pup in her car like that when she had chosen one herself and he was the one I wanted to keep for us, Angus?”
They eyebrow had resumed its questioning arch above her one eye.
“She seemed like a nice girl,” he offered Miriam with a smile and then, more pointedly, “and I just got a feeling.”
Miriam stared at her husband in the deadpan manner she had mastered in their 15 years of marriage for times such as this. This look was reserved for ironic effect when they both knew her curiosity was spiked and the questions were reeling within. But they also both knew that there was not much she could say or do once Angus had gotten one of his feelings- there was nothing that could have stopped him from following on that gut instinct ones it has gripped his stubborn self.
Shaking her head, she narrowed her eyes and wagged a pointed finger at him in silent admonition, then turned on her heel and squeaked off back to the kitchen to re-bariccade the remaining pups into their corner, out from which they had spilled during the young woman’s visit.
With her head methodically buried in research for her Honours treatise (the very reason for which she had rented the cottage for her 3-week stay), Stacey moved in autopilot- barely coming up for air apart from the mandatory breaks to eat, make another strong cup of coffee, sleep, and feed her Max. She was already a couple of days into such studied concentration, nibbling on the end of her pen nib and scrawling notes in the margins of one of her photocopied readings, when the world abruptly shifted into focus as, for the first time, she registered the distinct aroma of lazy, student boy assailing her senses.
“Robert!” She growled expertly in the back of her throat- taking in with a sweeping glance the plates piled high in the kitchen sink, the abandoned clothing hanging across much of the furniture and the empty mugs and wine glasses littering the living area surfaces.
Robert, who lay, student-slim and bare-chested outside on a grass mat on the veranda looked up at her through the door, lowering his oversized sunglasses and then craning his neck somewhat to follow her pointed gaze as it fell around the small cottage.
Straightening one leg from its cramped position beneath her, Stacey and jabbed her right thumb in the kitchen’s direction.
“Clean. Now.” She ordered. Robert stood up slowly, pausing to stretch and scratch his chess whilst staring into the garden contemplatively.
“Lovely day, isn’t it?” he asked her casually before ambling through to collect up as many mugs as his fingers could hook and carry on his way to the kitchen sink.
He set the mugs down with a noisy clutter, turned both taps on full blast and proceeded to empty a third of the dish liquid onto the pile of dirty dishes below. Stacey swallowed down her protest (what would it help?) and turned her back on him. The sound of banging crockery and overflowing water escalated behind her.
‘You would swear that you have never washed a dish in your male-privileged life, dear Robert” she drawled dryly.
“Indeed, Stace,” Robert quipped dramatically, “I am the progeny of a long line of lazy, sexist boys whose every whim have been pandered to from birth by their mothers and the respective women in their lives. Don’t you love it?” He smiled smugly at the back of her head, stacking another soap-sudded plate in the dish rack to possibly dry.
Stacey swivelled around in her seat. “You know what the worst thing is in this whole warped scenario?”
“My jocks hanging on the bathroom doorknob to dry?” Robert chuckled into the mug he was cleaning.
“No, Robert.” Stacey bent down to retrieve a lone sock from under her chair. “The worst thing is that I come from a long line of hardworking women whose primary instinct in life seems to boil down to cleaning up after the lazy, sexist boys in our lives.”
“That is indeed warped, Stace.”
“Now, be a dear there hon and rustle me up a peanut butter sandwich why don’t you?”
Stacey pointed to the crumbling remains of one sitting next to the kettle on the counter. “It would be there Robert.” She smiled sweetly.
When he picked it up, sniffed it and then expertly shoved it into his mouth, Stacey barely blinked an eyelid- she was quite accustomed to Robert, The Student. She just sometimes wondered what Robert the Adult might look like…