August 8––That one part of boygenius’s “Me & My Dog” is playing when the call comes. You know the one: when Julien and Lucy join Phoebe, and they all start yelling about not breathing and crying around teenagers and all that other sad shit that they sing about. You know, the lead-in to the big “I wanna be emaciated.” It’s a really good part of the song; I’d even call it my favorite part.
But my three queens are cut short by a brief period of silence, in which I question if my phone had died, immediately followed by the sounding of the generic “jazzy” ringtone I made in GarageBand for iOS when I was fifteen. My stepmother’s phone number appears on my car’s little screen, and beneath it a green “Accept” and a red “Decline.” Oh, boy, that shade of red looks so damn pressable. How could she interrupt boygenius? How could she stop the crescendo?
I look out my windscreen at the flat, straight stretch of I-95 South illuminated by periodic streetlights and the way-too-bright headlights on the lifted trucks of suburbanite Masshole dads. I look back at the screen, the jazzy ringtone still playing. I look back at the road. I press Accept.
“Hey, what’s up.”
She pauses. There’s something thick in her silence, backdropped by my grandmother’s and brother’s conversation behind her. She sighs, a shaky exhale.
“Yeah, honey. We’re taking him to the vet now.”
All I can think to say is, “Okay. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. I love you.”
Three beeps followed by the return of Phoebe, Lucy, and Julien: “Tell your friend I’ll be alright. In the morning it won’t matter.” I keep driving. Home is the last place I’m thinking of going.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning.
May 1–– My freshman spring, I’m unsure what I am going to do over the summer. As is the norm at Princeton, I am incessantly peppered with the what-are-you-doing-this-summer question. I know that I am going to take a class at Harvard (boo!) and work in a restaurant kitchen near my house, but I’m not interning at some firm, or going to Europe for a global seminar like all my peers seem to be. I am filled with doubts and feelings of inadequacy entering my summer, which make me determined to enjoy the season as much as I can. “Motion Sickness” is playing through my speaker when I decide that this is going to be the Summer of Me, not the Summer of Those I Love and Deeply Care For.
May 20–– After moving out of Hamilton 321, I am home for two days before I fuck off to Galway to live with my grandparents for two weeks. I decided that I wanted to fly across the Atlantic to be with them, rather than reacquainting myself with my family, my friends, and my hometown. And as I spend my days peacefully lounging around, alternating between Punisher the audiobook of Normal People, life continues back home. We lost my uncle, my grandparents’ eldest child, in 2022 to an overdose. Nearly every relative I see while away tells me I am just like him: witty, driven, and intense. I take it like a compliment, but I always find the comparison sort of dark. The last time I’d seen Gary alive was his wedding in 2015. He lived such a busy, fast-paced life between Chicago, New York, and the wild vacations he and his husband took that it seemed he had lost connection with the family writ large.
June 22–– My cousin Harry arrives from England. He is to take my bedroom, and I’m to sleep at friends’ houses for the next 5 weeks, while trying to bond with my family and cousin during the day. I messed up on that second part.
I stay at friends’ houses nearly every day, electing to do nothing with them rather than to do nothing with my family. I imagine my stepmother watching my location on Life360 move between friends’ houses and the restaurant, wondering when I’ll call or stop at home to check in. Meanwhile, I’m listening to the Glitch Gum remix of “Kyoto” and sipping on a White Claw Surge in a basement, pretending the real world doesn’t exist.
July 23–– Harry’s family arrives: aunt, uncle, and two more cousins are now in our house. A house that feels cramped for five now has ten people (plus our dog Smokey) squeezed in. It’s even more of a reason to not show up at home. I spend my days in Boston with friends, cooking food at the restaurant, and studying in the library for my final. My nights are in more basements or on porches, listening to music (often “I Know the End”) and trying to cling to the remainder of the summer as it slips away. Just one week, I keep telling myself. Just one week until I can return to my own space and be at peace again.
July 30–– After work, I drive my cousins to Logan while my dad, in the other car, drives his sister and her husband. When we park up in the drop-off area in front of Terminal E Departures, my aunt and uncle thank me profusely for what I had done for them while they were here. Despite saying “Oh, don’t mention it. I love you too,” I can only think to myself, What did I even do that’s worth thanking? After a long session of hugs and goodbyes, I drive myself back home, the car silent except for Phoebe Bridgers’s discography playing in the background and Siri’s intermittent interruptions telling me about the various hazards on Route 1. I feel an emptiness in my gut, like I’ve just let a really wonderful opportunity slip through my fingers. I’m beginning to wish I could start over and try again. I want there to be some issue with their plane that forces them to stay for longer. Anything for a second chance.
August 1–– Smokey has a seizure, his second, and I’m home for this one. He’s walking, suddenly goes stiff, falls over, and starts struggling to breathe. It’s one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to watch, and I’m so anxious and scared for him that I call out of work immediately. I’m beginning to realize that I needed to be home with my family, not just for the hard parts (the dog-having-a-seizure parts) but for the good too.
But I can’t bring myself to act on this realization; I run away from the problem. I text my boss fifteen minutes later asking to come in. I wanted money, I wanted the hours, I wanted to forget about the bad and just keep moving forward. I didn’t need to be present; My family can deal with this mess without me, and I can pretend that I’m somewhere else entirely. I listen to “Ketchum, ID” on the way to work.
August 8 (part 2)–– Smokey is put down after my call with my stepmother. I still go to my friend’s house, as I had been planning to do, and don’t mention to them that my family is putting my dog down. I don’t want the oh-my-god-are-you-okays and the aw-man-that-suckses. I want my life to continue as “normal,” whatever that means to me.
August 9––It’s only been one night since Smokey died, but I spend the day back at the house. Home feels significantly more empty and hollow without Smokey underfoot. My stepmother sends our family group chat a picture of an adorable Golden Retriever puppy, Champ, with the text “We’re picking him up in North Carolina on the 18th. Do either of the boys want to come with me and Nana to get him?” My first reaction is to say “No, I need to work next week,” but I’m unsettled by the emptiness I feel in the house and in my core. I text her back. “of course i will”
August 15–– I feel particularly sad today; the full weight of my nearly-completely-wasted summer is upon my shoulders. For some reason, in this sadness, I want to go to the New England Aquarium. Upon arriving and paying the outrageous fee to get in, I peruse the various tanks, enraptured by the great variety of species on display. I watch the sea lions get fed, I watch the Penguins swimming, I watch jellyfish undulate in the water. But I spend a particularly long time in front of one tank, in particular. There’s a school of fish in a cylindrical tank with a button on the outside that onlookers can press to switch the current of the water inside, and watch the fish switch directions to go against the current. Pressing the button was a particularly cruel thing to do to these fish. Just when they’re used to the current moving one way, some snot-nosed kid with chocolate on his face and hands runs up and pushes the shiny green button to make them flip around. He turns their world completely around.
I notice a fish, let’s call him Frank, near the top left of the tank. Every time the button is pressed, Frank briefly refuses to turn around. He resists the current for as long as possible before relenting and falling in with the crowd. Every time, without fail, Frank does this. I feel like Frank at that moment. I refused to do what my family wanted because I wanted something else. I pushed myself to stay busy. I ignored the turmoil at home. I forgot to enjoy the brief period of time that I had to be at home and find solace in the company of my loved ones. I neglected to cherish one of my final summers in Georgetown. I decided that I, like Frank, would have to turn around before it was too late––before I was swept away with the current.
August 18–– We awake before the sun is up in Mount Airy, North Carolina. In the past two days, we’ve driven upwards of 14 hours down interstates to get to Champ. To the tunes of the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Steely Dan, my family connected about the summer and about our extended family, sharing stories, gossip, and sagely advice that we all seemed to have for one another. It’s the longest amount of time I’ve spent consistently with my family all summer. In the car all day, cramped in a hotel room at night, we spend 48 hours together.
We depart to the address the breeder gave us, and upon the final turn onto Majestic View Lane, the rolling hills of North Carolina and southern Virginia are on full display, with the morning glow illuminating the immense beauty of the landscape. Upon seeing this through the car windscreen, I think we all realize that something good is happening to the family. When my brother held Champ in his arms, he looked so peaceful. Champ found a home with my family, just as I was beginning to do so as well.
August 22–– It’s only been four days since Champ was brought back to Massachusetts, and I have to say goodbye. I’m departing for Princeton to be a CA Leader, but how could Champ know that much? He still pisses himself when someone comes to say hi! I have regretted my actions all summer. I regret how I treated my family; how I put myself above them at every turn, and how I let my beloved dog slip away in the background. All summer, I listened to Phoebe Bridgers, and all summer I acted selfishly. All summer, to the tunes of Punisher, Stranger in the Alps, and boygenius, I put my desires above the needs of my loved ones and wasn’t even there to see Smokey go. I’m not saying that Phoebe Bridgers killed my dog. But that’s kinda what I’m saying.
However, thanks to Frank, Champ, and Steely Dan, I reconnected with those that cared for and raised me. I can’t imagine a better way to finish my not-so-great summer than a three-day road trip to the South to pick up a dog we impulsively chose in our time of mourning. Looking back, I wish I could’ve acted more rationally sooner. There isn’t much time to be connected and to spend quality time with the people I love. Therefore, in the fleeting moments in which it is possible, I’m determined to take advantage of it. Life doesn’t have to be go-go-go. Sometimes, it’s okay to stop-stop-stop and smell the roses.
I said my tearful goodbyes to my family and to the puppy, and after a bit of a meltdown from my stepmother, I am off. My car full of nearly all my earthly possessions, I left my bed behind once more to go sleep on one that doesn’t belong to me: this time, for a semester. I started my road trip with Spotify’s boygenius Radio playing. About twenty minutes in, “Me & My Dog” comes on. I not only skip it, but change the playlist.