cw: domestic violence, animal abuse
“I want sole custody of Lilly,” I said, fighting to keep my voice firm and even, the cell phone held close to my mouth to make my voice loud and clear to my husband on the other end. Any trace of fear would betray me and there was too much at stake for this deal to fail.
“What do I get?” John barked. Ever since I filed for divorce, he asked me constantly: “What do I get for eight years of marriage?”
Lilly entered our lives when John and I were still newlyweds. After responding to an ad for Golden Retriever puppies in the Seattle Times, we pulled up to the seller’s house on a dark-too-early November evening. In the backyard, we were surrounded by red-gold fuzzy blurs. Lilly had a white star on her chest, visible even in the darkened garden. I knelt on the cold concrete patio and called: “Come here, puppies!” Lilly bounded over and climbed onto my lap, a soft, warm, wiggling lump with damp paws and a soft black nose she nuzzled into my palm.
Lilly was just a few months old when the front door of our country rambler burst open, and John dragged her in by the scruff of her neck.
“She took a shit in the garage,” he growled.
“Of course, she did,” I said. “She’s five months old.”
“She knows better,” he said. “Disobedient little bitch.”
Lilly’s eyes, the whites visible, pleaded with me, but I knew it would be worse for us both if I intervened. John was angry, even violent, before our marriage, but the violence never bled over to me. Since we were married and had moved into the country, the only place we could afford, but also isolated from friends and family, it wasn’t just the walls that were feeling his fists. I stood frozen in the kitchen, the dishes momentarily forgotten, as John kicked Lilly and threw her into the dark backyard before turning the hose on her. It was January. When John eventually stormed back into the garage, I brought Lilly inside. She shivered gently and put her head between my knees, her safe place. I dried her off, gave her treats, and lay down beside her in front of the fire, my head tucked into the curve of her belly.
Lilly and I were never obedient enough. John had to be the alpha. Not doing what he said immediately, asking him to do something, asking him not to do something, were all signs of disrespect.
When one night, food poisoning made me so sick I nearly passed out, my head lolling against the bathroom cabinet, I called out to John.
“I need help,” I appealed weakly.
He arrived at the bathroom door—a new one, still smelling of fresh white paint, to replace the one he’d kicked in a few months before—and looked at me as I sat on the toilet, pajama bottoms around my ankles, a bucket on my lap.
“You fucking selfish bitch,” he snarled. “I told you I had to get up early for work and you woke me up anyway.”
Tears welled in my eyes as he went back to bed, leaving me alone again. At the sound of my sobs, Lilly came into the bathroom and licked the salt from my chin. We cuddled on the tiled-bathroom floor, the bath mat our bed, my dressing gown our blanket, Lilly’s belly my pillow.
On a cold, wet Sunday walk a few months later, a winter rainstorm swelled the Tolt river near our home to the top of its banks. John picked up a stick and Lilly mouthed for it. When the river was low, we threw sticks for her to fetch. Like most Golden Retrievers, she was happiest when she was swimming, an instinct that overrode any sense of danger. John hefted the stick, as if to throw it into the churning, brown-gray water. His eyes dared me to say something. I couldn’t help it.
“Don’t,” I said.
As soon as the word left my mouth, he arced his arm back for the throw. Head turning to follow the stick, Lilly bounded into the torrent after it. Fists clenched in fear and shame, I ran to the riverbank. Stupid, stupid. Why did I say that?
I held my breath as Lilly retrieved the stick. She was a strong swimmer. She could make it. She bobbed in the water faster and faster with each paw stroke as she swam hard against the current. But chasing the stick had taken her too far downstream. She looked at me, wide-eyed. Her whimper before she was swept away made my stomach drop to the mossy ground below.
Running now, along the bank, I tried to spot her red head amongst the white water as she tumbled through the rapids. The evergreen trees between the path and the water blocked my view. Standing atop the old train bridge across the river, my knuckles white as I gripped the railing, I scanned the length of too-fast moving water. The torrent took logs, entire trees down the river. A new log jam had formed with this recent storm about 200 feet downstream. The water flowed around it too easily, hiding its snagging, suffocating underbelly. Where is she? Please God no.
High pitched cries rose above the roar of the flood. Downriver, I spotted her. Gulping air, Lilly struggled, her front paws slipping, clawing for purchase on the mud and rock bank. The river kept pushing her, willing her to let go and lose herself in its rush.
John thwacked a path toward Lilly through the brush and blackberry bushes. Her cries grew louder, more urgent now that she could hear him. One last cry, not the high-pitched scream, but a loud, deep almost-growl as John pulled her to safety. Relief, clammy with the moist air, enveloped me.
“It’s your fault,” said John as I embraced Lilly on the riverbank and teased thorns from her belly, the glacier water soaking through my jeans. We both shivered.
“You don’t tell me what to do.” And: “How can you say I don’t care about her? I pulled her out, didn’t I?”
After eight years of marriage, I left John with the assistance of a domestic violence nonprofit. The nonprofit helped me find an apartment and offered to pay the deposit and first month’s rent. I had a job, but John controlled our finances. I couldn’t withdraw money or write a check without him knowing. I found a ground floor apartment in a pet-friendly building, with a small patch of grass for Lilly to play on.
“There’s a $300 pet deposit,” said the rental associate as I sat in an uncomfortable chair in the faux-living room leasing office. I dug my fingernails into my palms to keep myself from crying.
“Can it be waived?” I asked. “You know my situation. The agency didn’t agree to pay a pet deposit.”
“I understand,” the associate said with real compassion in her eyes, “but there’s no exception.”
In the car park, I called the nonprofit on my cellphone. The winter wind stung my hands, but I couldn’t bear to have this conversation in the car, where Lilly was waiting.
“I, um… There’s a pet deposit. It’s $300. I don’t know if I can take this apartment,” I said, hesitant, hoping.
“It’s no problem,” said the housing advocate. “Of course, you need to take your dog. We’ll cover it.”
It was all I could do not to sink to my knees on the asphalt with gratitude. Tears ran freely down my face now and I turned to smile at Lilly as she watched me with concern through the rear window.
John wanted 50/50 custody of Lilly because there was part of him that cared for her, in the same deluded way he believed he cared for me. But also because just like in our marriage, he wanted to use her against me, as a way to keep his grip on me, even when our marriage was over.
As we worked through the divorce, I dropped Lilly off with his parents on visitation days. Often, I went to pick her up only to find that John hadn’t brought her back yet.
“He’s gone camping,” his mom told me apologetically one day.
“It’s my day,” I said, as if playing by the rules meant anything to John.
“I’m sorry. He’s not back ’til tomorrow.”
I’d made another mistake. I’d recently asked John to not take Lilly on long walks. She was getting older and had trouble with her joints. When I collected her the next day, she was limping.
I needed a plan. One that got John what he felt he deserved for eight years of marriage and got me and Lilly our freedom. In the final battle of our divorce, John had to believe he’d beaten me.
“If you don’t give me what I want, then I’ll take you to court and make sure that neither of us gets a penny,” he’d said.
What John wanted was to make me pay for leaving him. He tried to intimidate me and to find me, and when that didn’t work, he switched tack. He decided to literally make me pay, by demanding more than 50% of our marital assets and insisting on 50% of Lilly.
“What do I get?” he snapped the day I called him to finalize the disbursement of our assets, to see if my plan would work.
“What you get is twenty grand,” I said.
Silence on the line, except for his breathing, heavy, angry, calculating his next move.
“I still get Lilly for weekends when I want her. And camping trips.”
A deep breath. “No,” I said. “Sole custody means you don’t have her at all. You get twenty grand. I get Lilly.”
Silence again. Don’t say anything. Don’t let him know how much you want her.
And then, finally: “Okay.”
The tension flew out of me. Sensing it, Lilly lifted her head to look at me from where she was nestled on the floor near my feet. It was the first time I ever won with John, and the last time I’d have to.
Lilly and I were inseparable as we learned to love and trust again. In time, a slammed door wouldn’t make Lilly flinch. She’d put her head between my knees only for ear scritches. And now, when we cuddled with my head on her belly, we were watching TV contentedly on the couch. There were many nights when we were curled up together that I stared at the unfamiliar walls around me and wondered what had happened to my life, worried about money and what would come next. I’d bury my face in the safety of Lilly’s belly and whisper: “You’re my twenty-karat Golden.”
On a spring Saturday afternoon, not long after Lilly and I moved into a new rental with a small backyard and a deck where she could watch the squirrels, Lilly ran up to a man in the park and leaned in against him, tail thrashing.
“I’m sorry,” I said, quickly crossing the damp grass between us and reaching for her collar. “She thinks we were all put on this earth to love on her,” I joked, wary of this stranger.
“I don’t think that’s it at all,” said the man, grinning down at Lilly as he scratched her rump and her leg started to kick in response. “I think she gets so much love at home that she thinks the whole world is full of love for her.”
The fear I was feeling shifted into a pleasant warming of my chest. Lilly’s unabashed friendliness towards the man suggested she knew he was kind. Was she able to do what I was afraid I couldn’t? “Yes, thanks,” I stammered. “She does.”
That night, I scratched Lilly behind her ears as she stared up at me from her spot on the couch. I read once that when a dog looks a human in the eye, it’s their way of telling you they love you. I, too, had a home filled with nothing but love. Lilly and I had given that to each other. In that moment, I knew she was worth far more than $20k. To me, she was priceless.