THE PHYSICS OF GRIEF
“You need to get moving,” the doctor says in August. It’s six months since my mother’s funeral. He pens directions on his pad, talks about the pressures caused by thirty extra pounds.
“For your heart,” he says, handing over the prescription. I raise my eyebrows but follow his loops and arrows to the shelter and look for the dog with the least to lose.
“This is Orion,” says the index card leashed to the cage with a paperclip. “This is Elizabeth,” I say by way of introduction. The small, mud-colored mutt seems not to care much one way or the other. His fur’s been shaved in broad patches.
“This is Orion,” says the index card leashed to the cage with a paperclip. “This is Elizabeth,” I say by way of introduction.
The next day, Orion and I drive to my apartment. He curls next to three weeks’ worth of garbage bags while I phone the chair of my committee to tell him I’ll be back to classes in the fall.
The streets around campus are wide and crowded, and there are plenty of good examples for us to follow. But the steps of the library are also wide, and they are not crowded, and Orion will not budge. We have a talk about how to be a dog: walking, jogging, great interest in sticks and rabbits. About starting slow and gaining momentum. Orion blinks. These, I explain, are the fundamental rules of doghood. I explain that rules are important. Still, he is unmoved.
My sneakers are giving me blisters anyway, so I check out Where the Red Fern Grows, and we spend the afternoon on the couch, reading and sniffling and sharing an apple.
A body in motion will remain in motion, I tell a lecture hall of freshmen. But those in the back are a step ahead: a body asleep remains oblivious.
Then I see the amnesiac professor, the one who has forgotten my phone number. Or, he sees me: he stands in the corner of the graduate lounge for a full minute before coming to the table where my books are stacked around me like a fort. “So sorry for your loss,” he says, looking me in the shoulder. He points to my notes on Schrödinger’s cat and discourses a moment on quantum nonlocality, his area of specialty. He avoids, however, the supreme coincidence of his spring disappearance. “It’s good to have you back,” he says. “Let’s do coffee some time.” When he hugs me, he’s careful not to touch the new places, the thicker, fuller places he has not known.
When he hugs me, he’s careful not to touch the new places, the thicker, fuller places he has not known.
He looks the same, except for his shirt. Its color can only be described as eggplant. It’s something a wife picks out.
At the dog park, Orion prefers the area for big dogs.
“He’s out of his element,” says a man who introduces himself as a dog rescuer. According to him, I am doing an insufficient job. “He could snap that plastic collar at any moment. Keep that for walking, get something sturdier for his tags.”
“Okay,” I say.
Orion trots toward a group of romping labs. He looks on with interest. When a tussle breaks out, a dog three times Orion’s size tumbles into him. Orion scurries to the fence and paws at the gate, whimpering.
The dog rescuer sighs and shifts, leaves crunching underfoot. “And make a ‘Lost Dog’ flyer now,” he urges, “before something happens. If he goes missing, the fifteen minutes you don’t spend on the flier could be fifteen minutes you spend finding him.”
I nod. Or at least I think my head is moving.
But I go home and I cannot make the flyer. The loss of Orion now, after nearly no time at all, after so much is already gone, seems like more than what can be demanded of one person, though the laws of probability say otherwise. So I tug the chain of the desk lamp and spread my fingers across the keyboard, but still nothing comes. What does it look like—that kind of acceptance? That kind of preparation for a loss not set in stone? It’s fiction of the worst sort.
On the carpet next to me, Orion has settled into a half-sleep, one paw stretched out under his head, in the attitude of a person reclining. He does this sometimes.
I try the keys again but all I get is this: e4ojprgkerkopre8w jore’m’’ko, the language of clubbed limbs.
In the closet beneath things that are beneath other things are recipe boxes filled with pictures. I trace the garden patterns on their lids, the brittle rubberbands. Farther back, through the folds of a sunfaded quilt, I feel the bumps of a strand of pearls, the ridges of a brooch. Nosing in the excavation, Orion discovers a black t-strap.
“Hey,” I say. “Those were expensive.” His jaw tightens.
“What if I need to go out sometime?” I take hold of the heel and Orion plants his back paws.
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction: I pull, he pulls. We eye one another, braced in a slobbery deadlock. Then I let go and he flies backwards into a floor lamp. It slams the bookshelf, the bulb shattering, the shade tearing. Even so, I admire his determination.
November, the month of Andromeda and Cassiopeia. I finish my beer and twist the tops off two more. I lie back on my plastic lawn chair and watch the sky. Mostly, it looks like a failure of imagination. A connect-the-dots planned but not executed. There’s a moment though, after I’ve poured the third bottle over the balcony, when it seems almost possible: the ordering of the heavens, more than just a random spillage of gas and gravity and fire across the sky.
There’s a moment though, after I’ve poured the third bottle over the balcony, when it seems almost possible: the ordering of the heavens, more than just a random spillage of gas and gravity and fire across the sky.
When my mother finally died, there was nothing left to do: the whole trajectory was already plotted. They lifted the body from the bed, transported it to rooms unseen. I knelt in the pew, folded my fingers, said mass. Walked into the brisk February air. The flesh became ash. All of it according to the will. All so that I might not be burdened by the doing of details.
The morning of the first snow that sticks, a Sunday, I walk Orion to the wide lawn of the Korean church across from the university. He pauses beneath the windows, quiet and attentive, as though he’s attended service all his life. During the hymns, his ears rise at moments I can’t explain. But it’s not the strangeness of the language; he responds in the spaces between the words. There must be something of the organ he hears, something I cannot.
It means nothing to be ready, I want to tell the dog rescuer. But we will not go back to the dog park. Orion favors the open space, the illusion of freedom. He’s a philosopher.
Acceleration is directly proportional to the net force applied, I tell my little dog and chuck his yellow ball far ahead of us. He leaps and dashes, darts and pulls me along, the snow disappearing with the warmth of his paws.
I want to say, It will not come to that: I will be responsible, I will run three miles a day and keep going, I will think of my heart.
I will lace my fingers through this leash and follow, as if my life depended on it.
Ashley Kunsa’s fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, and her critical work has been published in the Journal of Modern Literature and Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. She received the 2011 A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize for flash fiction and in 2009 was named a finalist for Narrative magazine’s Thirty Below contest. A 2009 graduate of Penn State’s Master of Fine Arts program, Ashley is currently a doctoral candidate in English literature at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. She lives with her husband and son outside the city, not far from where she grew up.