|Writing, Marriage, and
Walking a Dog: A Memoir
by Karen Wunsch
New York City, Early 1970s
Steve and I are walking down Broadway on a Saturday night, and since I
grew up in the city and he didn’t, I’m in the midst of one of my favorite shticks—
reminiscing about what used to be where before all the banks and Chinese
restaurants. “This used to be a supermarket, but before that it was a store that
sold purses and women’s gloves….” We’re in our late twenties, newly married,
on our way to a small Italian restaurant. But when we’re almost there we see a
man retching and there’s vomit all over the sidewalk. I’m a gagger, so Steve
suggests that we walk around the block until I calm down.
We walk by the Merit Farms where when I was single I’d buy gluey
potato knishes for my dinner. Periodically, I remember the vomiting man and
gag. We go by the Danskin store where I still buy skimpy wrap-around skirts
made for dancers. Finally I feel better and we head back to the restaurant. The
man is gone. And soon I’m feeling amazed all over again that after all the dead-
end affairs, it’s really me sitting at this table with its checked cloth and dripping
candle, drinking wine and eating spaghetti with a man I love who loves me.
Steve and I didn’t know anyone in our large Upper West Side apartment
building until I began having elevator conversations with Roger Mueller, a tall
social worker around our age with thinning brown hair and a nice deep voice.
He was usually with his large boxer, Jules. Roger’s wife, Ruth, also seemed
interesting, but I ran into Roger more often. Since we lived on the 15th floor,
the Muellers were on 12, and the elevator was pretty slow, we often had time
to chat. Roger and I had similar tastes in books and movies; he, too, had a
recording of Jeanne Moreau singing her song from Jules et Jim. He was
interested in my being a writer and mentioned that he hoped to write a novel
one day. We chuckled about all the people we knew who were in
psychotherapy and always saying, “I’m getting in touch with my anger.” When
I wore a new floppy hat with flowers on it, Roger noticed. Excited about the
arrival of Szechuan food in the city (Chinese food had pretty much meant
spareribs and chow mein), we made vague plans for the four of us to go out
one night for cold noodles with sesame sauce, a new dish that we—and it
seemed like everyone else on the Upper West Side—couldn’t get enough of.
In the small elevator, Jules tended to lie down with his body pressed against
my leg. Although I wasn’t a dog lover, I didn’t mind. I was pleased to get to
know someone in our building and also liked the idea of being friendly with an
attractive man I wasn’t going to end up sleeping with.
I’d had a story published in a literary quarterly and happened to meet
Roger as I was coming into our building carrying several copies of the issue.
When he asked me to lend him a copy I handed one over, but I had mixed
feelings. I knew that even when I liked a friend’s writing, reading it usually felt
like an obligation, and I suspected that many of my friends felt the same way
about my writing. When I had a story published I rarely read the other
contributors, afraid that if their writing wasn’t good it would reflect badly upon
mine, but also—and this was unsettling—I wasn’t especially curious. Of course,
I also wanted people to read what I wrote, even though when someone I knew
had published something, I’d say I loved it whether or not this was true. So I
was both pleased and nervous that now Roger had my story (about a thin
English-major type who wears a rainbow of Danskin skirts as she looks for
love in the city).
When we stopped at his floor he mentioned that he and Ruth were going
away for the July 4th weekend and he dreaded having to put Jules in a kennel.
Impulsively, I offered to dog-sit. Although I realized I was also volunteering
Steve, I wasn’t worried: we were still at that newlywed stage when we almost
enjoyed doing “shit jobs” for each other—he didn’t know how to sew on a
button, I hated to vacuum, etc.—despite what was then called “Women’s Lib.”
A Sweltering July 4th Weekend
As soon as Steve and I opened the Muellers’ apartment door, there was
a sickening smell. Diarrhea was splashed everywhere.
I started gagging.
Whatever his physical problems, Jules had the energy to keep incessantly
barking at us. The windows were closed and it was stifling.
“Just go,” Steve told me grimly.
My protestations that I wanted to help—unfortunately interspersed with
gagging—only seemed to (understandably) annoy him.
Before staggering out, I noticed the magazine with my story on the coffee
Since our air conditioner was barely working, I opened the windows,
pulled down the shades, stripped to my underwear, and waited for Steve. He
was gone a long time.
For a while after he got back he just sat on the couch, silently shaking his
head. Finally he said that after he’d cleaned everything up and gotten Jules
outside, he shat all over the sidewalk. “Several times. And every time, some
self-righteous Upper West Side type would yell at me, ‘Curb your dog,’ adding
helpfully, ‘it’s the law.’”
I couldn’t tell if Steve smelled of shit or I was just imagining it. Although I
hadn’t noticed anything on his clothes, I worried he was somehow staining our
new furniture. I wished he’d take a shower instead of just sitting there as if he
couldn’t believe his bad luck. Soon we were arguing bitterly about whether the
Muellers had known about the diarrhea before they left.
It was hot and humid all weekend. I stopped going to the Muellers’
apartment because I’d start gagging before I even got off the elevator, and after
a while I stopped apologizing—it just got on Steve’s nerves. He’d be gone for
what seemed like hours. Most of the rest of the time we just sat around in our
Sunday morning Steve came back sooner than usual and announced
triumphantly that Jules was cured. He’d check again in a couple of hours and
if Jules was still OK, we could all go to Central Park. As I looked for the fancy
picnic basket we’d gotten as a wedding present, the idea of the three of us
going on an outing began to seem like some kind of sweet precursor to our
having a baby. But before we even got to the park, Jules shat all over the
My gagging seemed to make people even more vociferous as they yelled
at Steve to curb his damn dog. When a well-dressed man walking a poodle
said something particularly nasty, I managed to be nasty right back before
Steve ordered me to go home.
I didn’t like his tone.
Grimly he pointed out that he didn’t want to have to get into a fistfight to
Although I could see his point, I stomped off.
Jules recovered. The next few times Roger and I met he apologized
profusely. I’d tell him to forget about it, but when he’d repeat his offer to take
us out for cold noodles, I’d be vague.
Another Shit Job
About the time I began to wonder when Roger would return my story, he
began apologizing for keeping it so long. “Don’t worry about it,” I said, and we
went right back to our only-somewhat-less-satisfying elevator conversations. But
after a while I realized that I was beginning to dread running into him because
although he no longer mentioned my story, he’d started to look furtive and guilty.
“He doesn’t have to read a word,” I’d complain to Steve. “All he has to
do is tell me he loved it, I’ve done it a million times, everyone does.”
Steve, a procrastinator, insisted that Roger had every intention of giving my
story a thorough reading and then making dazzlingly insightful comments about
it. Finally he said, “Assume you gave him the magazine and forget about it.”
But soon I began to bitterly resent feeling uncomfortable every time I
approached my own elevator. If Roger—whom I seemed to be running into
more often—noticed that I was less friendly, he didn’t let on. When Jules
would push his large, hot body against my leg I’d furtively push him back, but
apparently he didn’t get it, and it was hard to move him.
Waking up in the middle of a hot August night, I suddenly remembered
Roger telling me that he hoped to write fiction one day. I began to worry that
he’d retyped my story and submitted it somewhere else under his own name.
Although I realized that this was highly unlikely, I resented being awake and
thinking about Roger. It occurred to me that the next time we met I might not be
able to stop myself from saying something nasty, and then it would be really hard
for me to approach the elevator. Plus: if Steve happened to be there when I lost
my temper, he and Roger might end up having a fistfight, and someone could get
First thing in the morning I told Steve he had to go right down and get my
“It’s your story, you go, you’re the one who got involved with him. I’m
But we both knew that he’d do it.
He left without shaving or brushing his teeth.
I couldn’t decide whether he was taking so long because something terrible
was happening, or if it was just that a lot of people were using the elevator.
Finally I heard his key in the lock.
He handed me my story. “I was polite. I just told him, ‘Karen wants her
story back, please give it to me now.’”
Roger swore he’d been about to read it, promised to read it by “tonight.
Evenly Steve said, “You have to give it back to me now.”
Reluctantly handing it over and saying that he was sorry, Roger mumbled
that I was awfully sensitive.
“He said I was too sensitive?”
“I don’t know, something like that. He said he was sorry. Forget about it.”
Although I wondered if Roger really had apologized, I decided to let it go.
When Roger and I met at the elevator, we barely nodded, and soon it was
as if we’d never talked at all. After a while I seemed to run into him less often;
maybe they moved. When I’d tell friends the story, one woman surprised me by
saying she’d never ask her husband to do shit jobs. Writers were always eager
to tell me some horror story of their own.
Eventually Steve and I decided to buy a house in the suburbs, about half an
hour away from Manhattan. Sometimes I felt sad about leaving the place where
I’d been young and lonely and found love. I’d brood about how before long I’d
no longer remember which stores and restaurants used to be where. But then
I’d approach our elevator or eat cold noodles and think of Roger, and I’d tell
myself that I was ready to go.
Karen Wunsch has published fiction, creative nonfiction and memoir in many
magazines including Harper’s Bazaar, Saveur, Epoch, the Kansas Quarterly,
the North Dakota Quarterly, Confrontation, Kalliope, and The Literary
Review. She is an Associate Professor of English at Queensborough
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 1, Number 2
Copyright © 2006
by Leah Browning, Editor.
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published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors