At first I don’t realize it’s dog shit on my back door.
I see the three streaks of jaundiced puce defiling the cheerful white paint. But my brain, unaccustomed to encountering dog shit on surfaces perpendicular to the ground, does not know how to connect it to my Jack Russell Terrier.
I’m almost triumphant when I understand it’s shit, and it’s everywhere. Naming something doesn’t make it go away, but it provides a kind of structure—an organizing principle for what is otherwise overwhelming, too big to comprehend. I recognize “shit” thanks to the stench, which hits me late, like I wrapped it up in a torn-off corner of tissue and parachuted it on my way home from therapy. It’s raucous on the lower corner of the cabinet next to the oven. It’s plastered to the rug I inherited from my grandmother’s estate. It’s flitting all over the wood floors like some kind of spontaneous modern art you make with your body on a furious, lonely weekend afternoon.
I made art like that once, with my ex. We went to a free art festival where a woman named Donnalynne Lefever instructed us in the art of mana prima. This is where you use your hands as brushes, dipping them in titanium-white powdered pigment mixed with water and smearing them all over a black base in various ecstatic patterns.
Donnalynne put on The Glitch Mob and told us to surrender our bodies to the music. “It can really influence the patterns that appear,” she explained, voice velvet, hair wild, technicolor poncho slouching. “This is a good technique for visionary artists—it’s a water-based alternative. Come, play. Be free.”
We played. We were free. When we finished one board, we just added water and wiped it down, started again. Because nothing is permanent. Because we must be open to change.
I was feeling permanent. I was anorexic and suicidal, lonely and furious, stuck in a massive concrete slab of a city, living in a centipede-infested basement the size of a Chrysler Town & Country. Everything I could want was blocks away: the Smithsonian, the café–bookstore that hosted queer open mics, the quirky bakery that sold me a honey-steeped Kouign-Amann croissant every morning, the Metro that would plummet deep into the city’s bowels before ejecting me up, up, up, over the Potomac, into deferent, cobblestoned Virginia, then backwards over the same forty-five minute course, with all its peaks and descents, eleven hours later.
In Washington, DC, Big Things are happening all the time. One’s mere proximity to all the Big Things increases the likelihood that you will become part of them. Something spectacular is always lurking around a corner, waiting to swallow you and then spit you out as a sharper version of yourself. All your soft parts whittled away, sculpted into something ultra-useful, something built to endure.
The capital crams 711,571 crabby, stressed-out overachievers into sixty-six square miles. They’re wearing tailored suits to happy hour, necks oppressed by silk ties and starched collars, asking each other, “What do you do?” and “Do you have a card?” They’re moving their Acuras and Audis six times a day so they don’t get towed, or they’re paying $250 a month to garage them and another $250 a month to park them at the office, or they’re shoving past each other underground as the trains come roaring into stations, no time for “Excuse me” or “Good morning.” Everyone’s going to be a brilliant success, or maybe they already are, and next, they’re going to be a brilliant success who also changes the world.
In four years, I shook hundreds of hands, clinked hundreds of glasses, studied hundreds and hundreds of averted eyes. I made only one friend—a Floridian who lasted a little over a year before deciding she felt more welcome in Minnesota, with its rounded-out vowels and negative-fifty-degree wind chills.
We met for beers once when she was back in town for business. “DC is cool, but it isn’t nice,” she concluded, childishly, and I almost sneered at her before I realized, well, exactly.
My dog is jubilant in my shit-covered kitchen. He’s prancing around delighted with himself, tongue undulating like a sodden rope swing, stubby tail a vibrating blur.
I take several breaths, each fifty-thousand leagues deep. I pick him up and place him in the hallway so I can open the door and all the windows and get to scouring. After an hour, I’m still not certain I’ve scrubbed it all out, but I’m tired, so it’s cleansed by decree, by the power of language alone, like when I first adopted Cloo from the rescue and couldn’t stop washing my hands, obsessively, every time I touched him.
“How did you get over it?” asked my awestruck sister, who won’t even allow me to place my Android on her kitchen counter.
“I decided he’s not unclean,” I explained. “I made it a rule, and then I believed it.”
I was going to be a brilliant success once. Four years earlier, I’d landed a DC editorial position that came with benefits and $45,000 a year—a fifty percent increase from what I’d been making at a small digital ad agency in the Chicago suburbs.
I knew this was the first step on my yellow brick road to greatness. I knew this because I was twenty-two.
Sure, I grew up in Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin—an unremarkable village nestled into Green Bay’s armpit, whose claim to fame was receiving hand-me-down football uniforms from the Packers when the high school first opened in the 1960s. But now, I ran up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial every morning. I waved to international embassies and the Pentagon on my subway commute. I had two computer monitors at work and a weekly work-from-home day and then, eight months later, I received a premature promotion that came with a fancy title and a corner office.
The median household income in DC is $85,203 a year, according to Data USA, a collaboration between Deloitte, Datawheel, and Cesar Hidalgo, professor at the MIT Media Lab. But in a 2019 GoBankingRates study that uses the fifty-thirty-twenty budgeting rule to determine “comfortability”—dividing income into fifty percent for necessities, thirty percent for discretionary spending, and twenty percent for savings—researchers determined you need an annual salary of $122,934 to make it work as a renter in the nation’s capital. That increases to an outrageous $142,230 if you’re a homeowner.
“Senior editor” feels like the beginnings of brilliant success when you’re fresh out of undergrad. Less so four years and one raise later, when you’ve watched most of your coworkers come and go, on to Bigger Things. When you’ve lost twenty-five pounds and all your human connections and you’ve unraveled far past the point of looking for another job, lest you find out writing about insurance for a trade association is the best you have to offer this world. Lest you find out you’re not so brilliant after all.
We lie to ourselves because it’s easier, because it makes the unbearable bearable. But it was never going to work. I’m not cut out for a city where no one remembers my name—where that fact automatically renders me obsolete.
Cloo has been taking dumps in my apartment for months now, but he’s never done anything this theatrical. “I came home to literal shit on my walls,” I wail to everyone who will listen. “Like he’s a goddamn monkey. And there was none even on him, which means he either a) licked it off or b) is a witch.”
“Definitely the latter,” everyone agrees. “Have you tried crating him?”
Immediately, inelegantly, I change the subject. Crating might be fine for all you assholes who eat meat and toss your single-use plastics into the recycling without rinsing them out first, but I don’t need to lock my dog in a cage to keep him out of trouble. What could be crueler, or lazier, for that matter? Maybe free roam is a naïve idea, but surely, confining him to the kitchen is a better solution than literal imprisonment. Can’t a smaller room serve a similar purpose to a crate, with its steel bars, with its door that closes and locks?
I returned from DC with a mostly dead potted plant and a U-Haul on the hottest day of the year. The heat index was above 120℉ and there was no elevator or air conditioning in my new Midwestern apartment building—just four flights of stairs and a few fans chug-chug-chugging in a rhythm so insistent and jolly I fantasized about ripping them off the ceiling with my bare hands, hurling them to the floor, and dancing upon their defeated blades, bellowing, “Mutiny! Traitors!”
Which is to say, I did not reacclimate instantly to the culture that raised me. I was irritated by everything—the twentysomethings wearing flare jeans and North Face jackets unironically, the neighbors looking me in the eye with a smile and a greeting when I was just trying to walk Cloo with my headphones on, the silence when I opened my windows at night so comprehensive I couldn’t sleep without a Benadryl for weeks: no downtown traffic shrieking, no insufferable pedestrian chit-chat lit up by dregs of whiskey, no streetlamp flickering in the exact patch of window light that fell across my pillow, flirting maddeningly with my eyelids.
Just the cicadas, singing mournfully. Just the small-town trappings, just the walls-closing-in dread, and that terrifying question bouncing off the ten-foot-tall ceilings: “What have I done?”
Whatever the answer, it was obviously a mistake of heinous proportions. I was furious that when I managed to hunt down a lesbian book club, instead of finding dozens of overeducated NPR addicts dissecting Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, it was just me and a middle-aged banker struggling to find something to love in trashy erotica.
I was furious when I remembered to move my car in the nick of time on the first Wednesday of the month, and then watched from my window as the street cleaner veered around every parked vehicle whose owner had forgotten, no tickets or tow trucks in sight.
I was furious that the only businesses within a half-mile radius of my apartment were the donut bakery owned by three people in their nineties (who opened up at 4 a.m. and dealt only in cash), and the quaint little garden shop that sells succulents and terrariums and artsy wire animals for moms to screw into the ground of their sprawling Midwestern lawns.
The first time I bought something, a middle-aged gay couple smiled kindly at the row of rainbowed circles tattooed on my inner forearm, as though we were sharing a secret handshake, as though we had something in common, and this made me furious, too.
I do a lot of feverish research and learn that everyone is right about crating. Of the many traits all dogs share, one is natural “denning instincts.” Wild dogs sleep up to sixteen hours a day. Small breeds, especially, need a place where they can hide out and burrow, lick their paws for comfort. Somewhere nonthreatening. A place they can claim as their own.
The whole genius of a crate is that it’s big enough to allow a dog to stretch out, stand up, turn around, and snuggle in comfortably, but pretty much nothing else. That’s partially to give him a calm, quiet resting place away from the everyday toils of canine living, and partially because unless there’s something medically wrong, a dog will never, ever shit where he sleeps.
If you give a high-strung, anxious rescue dog a whole kitchen, let alone an entire apartment, he’ll inevitably end up panicked, overwhelmed, steeped in despair and a mess of his own making, eating his own shit to keep from losing his mind.
The fury was fragmenting into panic a few weeks after I moved, when an acquaintance emailed me about quitting her first job after college for a new opportunity. “This past year has taught me that I’m capable of much more than I thought,” she wrote—a line I couldn’t shake out of my head. I couldn’t stop reading the email, over and over, this snapshot of someone bursting at the seams with possibility. I was feeling catastrophically sorry for myself, feeling like the raisin version of what I thought I was supposed to become. Here were her twenties, grinning open-armed before her like I-55 on a Tuesday afternoon, and there were mine, whimpering and sputtering behind me, chained to everything I was losing and couldn’t even name.
“I feel like I gave up on becoming someone I can be proud of,” I wept to my sister. “Maybe I’m just a mediocre person destined for a mediocre life.”
She gave me a hard look. The look said, “Tread carefully; I bought a house in this city, after all.” Or maybe it said, “You work from home in a 1,300-square-foot apartment with wraparound windows and an entire wall of exposed brick, where you wake up bathed in the golden sunlight of an indie movie, where you make coffee in a four-cup pot from the 1970s, where you buy plants and you water them and they stay alive as if staying alive is worth it, where you sit in your living room and watch the sky darken around its edges, the tree line slowly fading into the deep, dark blue of a silent night, where you turn records over when they click, so much space and so much time, everything slow and sweet and lolling like buttercream, so what, exactly, is the problem?”
Or maybe it said, in not as many words, “The world is full of people who have learned how to live with their failures. Either figure it out, or start calling yours something else.”
Amazon sells me a collapsible crate for $29.99. When it arrives on a Sunday afternoon, I pull it out of its packaging and lug it into my office so I can assemble it next to my desk—according to my research, it should be kept in a safe place, one your dog associates with you.
I’ve devoted the last week to developing an extensive training regimen that will maximize Cloo’s potential for acclimation. First, I’ll entice him to venture in with his favorite blanket and fistfuls of treats. I’ll sit next to it while he gets comfortable, cooing over and over until he believes me, “Nice Cloo! Nice crate!” I won’t close the door until he seems impressed, or at least content, or at least unbothered. I’ll eventually lock him in, nonchalantly, no big deal, but I’ll continue to sit nearby, perhaps humming a little Antje Duvekot, perhaps reading him some Mary Oliver.
Then, I’ll walk out of the room, out of his sight, increasing the length of my departures incrementally, minute by minute, until we can achieve half an hour in separate rooms without incident. This process could take several days or several weeks, but afterwards, the training websites promise, Cloo will finally be ready for long-term crating.
“Long-term” can be a tricky timeline. Big or small, there are things we notice right away, and there are things sitting around in plain sight, waiting for us to look. A tequila sunrise, for example—how much does one cost where you live? Not at a fancy bar, just the regular kind, with a cigarette machine and an outdoor patio. In DC, I could never find one for less than twelve dollars. Here, they cost four.
Four dollars. Four dollars! I laughed at the bartender when he told me. “Back where I used to live, this would have cost three times as much!” I crowed, loud enough for every person at the bar to roll their eyes in unison.
I did that a lot the first few months. “In DC, my apartment was a 500-square-foot basement that I shared with another human being!” “In DC, rent was $1,800 a month, not including utilities!” “In DC, a dinner out for one—not even a nice dinner, okay, just an average one—wouldn’t cost less than forty-five bucks, before tip! Can you imagine? Can you even imagine?”
The population here is less than half of DC’s, spread over a slightly more generous patch of land. We’re not big enough to warrant a spot on that study with the fifty-thirty-twenty rule, but in a larger city across the state, “comfortability” is achievable as a renter with an annual salary of $72,303 a year (and it’s worth noting that when the US Census Bureau measured median household income by region in 2017, the Midwest as a whole ranked second to last at $61,136, which is around the same as the average annual salary in this city specifically; the South clocked $55,709 compared to the Northeast’s $66,450).
The prices were the first thing that endeared me to this place—those early perceptible quirks of a new lover, a door in a blank wall. I couldn’t get over the reverse sticker shock, but nobody else seemed to notice it. Nobody talked about money or jobs, let alone careers. Nobody even asked me what I did for a living. Apparently, nobody cared.
My first Tinder date here—a classically trained pianist employed by a nonprofit that delivers free pianos to families in need—had recently bought a used Honda because the tin can she’d been driving since college couldn’t pass an emissions test. My second Tinder date here—a brewer with a degree in parks and recreation—had recently outfitted her old silver Toyota with a black passenger-side door after an unfortunate run-in with a parking column.
My new partner’s used Smart Car is missing the cover paneling to the entire driver’s side. A gust of wind blew it clean off one night while they were cruising down I-64. Mass layoffs recently cost them their job at a nearby Amazon warehouse, so most days, the car sits innocently on my street, looking like the world’s cutest little Terminator.
Paying your rent, parking your car, feeding yourself, getting out of bed—everything’s easier here. No potential bearing down on you whenever you walk out the door. Just that swallowing Midwestern sky, yawning languidly above a whole lot of green, and a charming, skimpy skyline shrugging somewhere far away.
All my training precautions are a moot point. When the crate is assembled, Cloo can hardly contain his erection. He prances inside, circles three times, then lays down with a satisfied sigh. He snuggles into himself like the shoelaces you never bother untying.
I drape a dark blue sheet over the top and he stays. I turn on the radio and he stays. I hand him a treat and he gobbles it up, stays. I close the door and lock the latches and walk out of the room and he stays and he stays and he stays.
All the world is his. All the world is this twenty-four by eighteen by twenty-one inch prison. It includes a free divider panel, a leak-proof plastic pan, a carrying handle, rubber feet to protect floors, and a one-year manufacturer’s warranty.
I’m devastated, even disturbed. “He loves his crate. Loves it!” I yell at my sister. “Can you believe it? How depressing is it that we’ve brainwashed dogs into preferring a tiny, dark jail cell as a home?”
“Well,” she responds, thoughtfully, “I suppose when you’re such a tiny creature, and pretty much everything in the world is bigger than you, hiding out somewhere small might be the only thing that makes you feel safe.”
How do people function without the false promises of pressure? Sometimes my partner and I go to the arcade bar where they let you play ski ball and Mario Kart and vintage arcade games for free, Sunday through Thursday, regardless of whether you make a purchase. Sometimes we pick up Taco Bell and eat it in the Terminator, parked across the street from a landmark the locals call the “graffiti wall.” Once, we divided thirty milligrams of the pure MDMA I had left over from nights of bone-crushing bass at sweaty, earsplitting clubs on U Street. We walked to the park and sat on a blanket while LCD Soundsystem pulsed gently through a portable speaker and the January sun unstiffened the sky into fractured golden clouds and our serotonin flooded us with an inky current of something vast and hypnotic and still.
Last week, we wandered through the three-room contemporary art museum and Christine Corday’s Relative Points—a large-scale installation that cold-casts ten thousand pounds of elemental metalloid grit into cylindrical sculptures that visitors are encouraged to touch. Arranged in a non-random constellation, the sculptures boast “various levels of permanence,” says the museum website, “with some of the surface layers eventually changing shape, sloughing off, or even crumbling as a consequence of subtle friction produced by visitor interaction.” It’s a protest against high-brow contemporary art. It’s a protest against the pristine, the perfect, the untouchable.
But my partner is broke and I’m saving for grad school and we’re both sullen INFJs, so mostly we stay in, dressed in hoodies and boxers, wondering what we’d do without our therapists. Mostly we burn incense and play shipboard solitaire side by side, trying to figure out who we are well enough to teach it to someone else. Mostly we find we’re content, here in our smaller lives.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). If you’re a journalist reporting on suicide, suicide prevention, or mental health and mental illness, you can find guides and resources to help you in your work at ReportingOnSuicide.org. This is a personal essay and represents the thoughts and feelings of its author first and foremost. Overall, we have tried to adhere to many of the suggestions at ReportingOnSuicide.org while editing this essay; however, we have also respected the author’s wish to communicate what it’s like to live with suicidal ideation to those who don’t experience it, which means we’ve included some material that might not be appropriate in a traditionally reported journalistic piece. – Ed.