My dog died.
This is really the next set of sounds Bessaline Baxter emits after introducing herself,
"maɪ" "dɒg" "daɪd"
like an autistic child tugging on a stranger's pant-leg on a subway train and converting the recipient of the revelation into as socially inept a creature as the poor, little, surely-lost kid.
I swallow air, and stop myself before I start searching feverishly around the room for Bessaline Baxter's legal guardian(s).
I'm sorry, I say. (I cringe visibly when it comes out more as a question with a slight ellipsis in between the pitifully meek words.)
She lets a tiny sigh escape into the air between us. My dog died, she repeats, earlier this week. I had to put him down. He was old. (Her terse, staccato phrasings do little to convince me my original theory is incorrect.)
I didn't know him very well, she says. He was just a dog.
As she speaks, her eyes aren't so much on me as they are on whatever is directly behind me, or, better, inside me, as though I am translucent and she is watching the vessels and veins behind my flesh with an adamant intensity.
Another tiny sigh.
But it gets to one, doesn't it? (The question mark at the end of her sentence is the first real sign I receive since her introduction that she is even aware I am here.)
I swallow empty air again. It does, I say. It's natural.
She looks momentarily hurt by my apparent disregard for the gravity of the situation. (I really do care, although it's perhaps confusion desperately gasping for air that hides my concern from view.) She clicks her tongue in a disapproving tsk.
It's not natural, she says. It's just a fact. My dog is dead. A fact.
She finally blinks, hints of lucidity (the grace she masterfully embodied from a distance) flushing back into her cheeks.
Take it one degree further, she says. A dog is dead. An animal has died. What profound sorrow is there to be found in so banal a fact?
I am at a blank, only now grasping what is happening. (What is happening?)
They're just facts, she continues. My marriage is over. My career is finished. My dog is dead. Only facts. Facts can't hurt me. Only when I change the "a" to "my" does the fact become personal, does the fact take on importance; to whom? To me, the owner of the "my," but still only one, an individual. An individual suffered a loss. A human being no longer has something she once had. More facts. More equally common occurrences.
Just facts, I echo.
Another tiny sigh.
But it still hurts, she says. I can remind myself of all the facts weightier and more god-awful than my own personal facts, she says, but it doesn't make the facts sting any less. My facts.
If anything, I say, more. If anything, I say, finally gaining some semblance of momentum, it is precisely because they are your facts and no one else's, and because all those other facts are theirs and not yours, that your own personal facts are laced with such disabling venom.
Here, she smiles knowingly, as if guarding a secret that has nothing do with me or her or this conversation, but something tender, something rare in its wholeness, something untethered from mortal trappings, a secret to which I am both ignorant and impervious.
I find the pause appropriate for a more formal greeting, and extend my hand.
My name, by the way, is--
I know who you are, she says, the glint in her eyes suddenly and somewhat dangerously (although this may be only my still nerve-driven paranoia) exacerbated from my attempt to introduce myself.
The smile remains, as she finally looks not past me or through me or inside me, but around me, all at once, her gaze absorbing everything there is about me to absorb, and says:
You're the man who's here for answers.