Looking for Love and Hashbrowns

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story about a college-aged boy and his girlfriend searching for a lost dog.

Submitted: December 20, 2014

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Submitted: December 20, 2014

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The sky was scarred by lighting, flashing off every few seconds. The air tasted metallic and thick. While there were clouds, pregnant and heavy, the rain had yet to start, and the suspense of the impending storm caused the hairs on their arms to stand erect.

“I can’t believe you lost your dog,” Susan said, huffing as she shined a flashlight between two houses, sweeping the light over the gap. Mark thought he could sense her hope – the fine, golden hairs on her arms raised in anticipation, desperately wanting to see two eyes reflecting back at her. There was nothing but darkness.

Mark sighed, clutching the broken and frayed leash in his hand. “He must’ve chewed up his leash earlier.” He cringed thinking of the startled scream he had emitted before he had a chance to nut-up and grab Hashbrowns, an overly excited beagle with a pension for trouble. The dog had taken off, leash streaming after him, and had been swallowed up by the shadows before Mark had a chance to run after him – had a chance to do anything other than holler out like a Neanderthal, stumbling over his own feet.

A panic had flared in his chest. Hashbrowns might not have been the brightest dog, always howling at the radio and trying to force his love on the cat, but for far too long he had been Mark’s best friend. Mark remembered when he first brought him home from the breeder, a wiggling and squirmy brown-and-white bundle, and how many girls he had picked up that first week from parading Hash around. He had always been the best wingman, never complaining about his own lack of tail (no pun intended, since Hash had gotten in that brawl with that opossum and had quite literally lost his tail).

Now, all he could do was watch numbly as Susan searched hiding spots, sometimes managing to call out weakly to his lost companion, feeling as dismal as the night seemed bleak. This was not the romantic nighttime walk he had imagined. Susan didn’t even seem to like Hash, and Mark hated thinking that she was helping look for him only as a polite obligation and nothing more.

“What’s his name again?”

“Hashbrowns. It’s Hashbrowns.” Had she not been listening? Mark had even introduced the two, Hash ever the gentleman, sitting and watching with bright round eyes while he waited to be acknowledged by Susan. But she hadn’t even so much as offered him a pat on the head or a scritch between the ears, even managing to ignore his mangled tail thumping weakly on the floor, inviting her affection ever so patiently. He always knew when Mark was trying to impress a pretty girl, and despite all the failures and the one-night stands, he never judged or grew tired of their little game: adorable, devoted dog and caring master. Something about the dynamic stirred something like a maternal instinct within most females and made the game of disrobing and sheets-tangling much easier.

Susan called out his name, but it sounded hollow and unconvincing. A flash of lightning illuminated her face: her eyelashes, curled perfectly, and casting a shadow on her high cheekbones. Another flash and another glimpse: a nose straight from a plastic surgeon’s look-book, straight bridge and round, upturned tip. She was a patchwork of perfect features, but at the moment all Mark saw was a girl who couldn’t even be bothered to remember his dog’s – his best friend, for god’s sake – name.

“I don’t think you’re going to find him tonight.”

The idea caused Mark to blanch, a sick feeling twisting in his gut. He imagined Hash soaked and shivering, his throat sore from baying at every growl of thunder.

“No, we have to.”  The conviction in his voice surprised even himself.

*

When Mark first brought Hashbrowns home, he had no idea what a good judge of character he would end up being. In his first few days of cohabitation with Mark and his then roommate Rob, he had seemed to be the worst puppy ever: always pissing in Rob’s bedroom and shredding his discarded bags of leftover McDonald’s breakfast (the habit that would spawn his name) until little pieces of paper bag were left strewn in every corner of the small apartment. It wasn’t until two weeks after Hash’s arrival that Rob started skipping out on rent and bills and disappearing for days at a time. After one particularly long absence, police were knocking on Mark’s front door, Hashbrowns yipping triumphantly while burning circles into the carpet. Rob became nothing more than a good party story – the roommate in debt to more than a few drug suppliers – and Hashbrowns was more than content in claiming his old room.

Of course, it would take months for Mark to fully understand and appreciate the depth of Hashbrowns’s ability. In particular, it would take Cindy Reese.

Cindy was by no means the first woman Hashbrowns would encounter in Mark’s serial dating career. But, she was the first girl Mark saw that he really liked. Mark often thought how juvenile it felt to consciously stop and think about how fond he was of someone, and to allow that fondness to shape the way he interacted with her, completely abandoning his more playboy tendencies and actively pursuing a relationship, something as foreign to him as another language. The culture-shock turned his tongue to lead when he was around her, his palms always sheening with a film of a sweat, and in his mind, a megaphone blared play-by-plays of every awkward phrasing and action. His friends were no help, either -- always quick to remind him that three weeks had passed since the two had started talking and they had yet to hear any intimate details.

“It’s not like that. She’s the type of girl you take on dates,” he would always explain, face burning with the embarrassment of his schoolboy crush.

*

There was a fine drizzle beading on the surface of cars and sparkling like fallen stars on the road. It was slick and nasty and ominous – a night that made even the mosquitos stay inside.

Mark thought that perhaps he was being too hard on Susan. In the five months (hell, almost half a year -- certainly the longest he’d ever managed to keep a girl) they had been together, she had always been supportive. Maybe a little huffy at first whenever she was forced to tag along on one of his tasks, but always available. That had to mean something, he thought; it had to say something about her character, about devotion or loyalty or love.

She was still with him tonight, too, peering into shadows and pulling bushes apart, though her fingertips weren’t quivering with the hope that his did. So what if she already seemed defeated, resigned to accept Hashbrown’s running-away as something final and unchangeable? Maybe, he thought, this was the difference that would make them fit together like puzzle pieces: Susan, a realist, with no time for patience or blind hope, a perfect complement to Mark’s childlike enthusiasm, born from a lifetime of having dreams handed to him. Susan, always preparing for the worst, and Mark, always having experienced the best.

“My hair is getting messed up,” she muttered, smoothing out non-existent frizz. “It’s getting cold.”

Maybe, he thought, he was that slow, yet always overly-ambitious, kid in the third grade class, reaching for 500-piece puzzle sets but getting overwhelmed half-way through, until finally, he was hammering pieces together, furious and red-faced with spit foaming at the corners of his mouth – his fists pounding against the desk and scattering pieces across the floor while the two mismatched ones were smashed together, awkwardly bending at the seams where they joined.

“You look fine. You’ll be fine.” His dismissiveness made her scoff, fanning her flashlight beam over the road until something glinted back at her, a wink of reflective metal in the night. “Hey, what’s that?” 

Mark pounced on it in an instant – Hashbrowns’s soggy collar, with half the leash coiled like a snake beside it. The dog-bone shaped tag jingled as he picked it up, and the knot in his stomach tightened. An unshakable sense of doom rolled over him. His skin felt clammy, and his mouth dry.

“Oh, maybe he’s around here somewhere!” She sounded less hopeful and more relieved – the nightmare her night had turned into was almost over. “Hashy – c’mere boy!” She was slapping her thighs and speaking in that high-pitched whine Mark found most people adopted when talking to toddlers or animals. Mark was suddenly irritated.

“It’s Hash or Hashbrowns, and he doesn’t like to be talked to that way.” He was insulted. Hashbrowns didn’t like to be cooed at, and besides, he was more intelligent than that. What bothered Mark more, though, was how Susan only perked up when she saw an end beginning to emerge to their search. Not once had any enthusiasm flared in her voice the entire night, and suddenly, at the discovery of the collar – opened right at the clasp, probably having been caught on something (Mark imagined Hash choking and squirming until finally the collar broke free and he could gasp for breath and run panicked and ID-less to some dark corner) – it was there. As if her concern could be turned on at the snap of a finger, only to fizzle out when it was no longer necessary – when there was no more reason to impress.

Susan suddenly reminded him of his mother, and he found himself disgusted with her. His mother ran a 5K for cancer awareness once – an avid charity event attendee. This one, though, Mark remembered in particular. She was all smiles and serenity throughout the marathon and at the finish line, touching people’s arms and congratulating them on their accomplishment and the fine work they had done that day. Three weeks later, when a local child was diagnosed with leukemia, and the family appeared on the local news station – in Gateway Mission clothes and with greasy hair – to beg for donations, his mother had said: “They won’t be getting a penny from me. Look at them. They’ll probably spend it all on drugs.”

Was Susan the girl who donated to the ASPCA monthly but recoiled at the sight of wagging tails, sneered at displays of chail-tases and good-natured panting, and gagged at friendly licks to her hand?

*

It was three months into Mark and Cindy’s relationship, which had mostly consisted of expensive dinners and movies where his arm would hover awkwardly above her shoulders, and after one such date, Mark decided to take Hashbrowns out afterwards, some part of him feeling guilty about spending so much time on winning Cindy’s affection and the other puzzled by something she had said to him earlier.

“I need to go meet someone to study for a test.” The way she had said it, blandly and with no eye contact, made Mark question its truth. Cindy had never studied before, never even expressed any concern over her schooling (she was majoring in something trivial, anyway – marketing maybe? -- that wouldn’t require much effort at all).

He didn’t know if it was a conscious decision on his part, but no sooner had he dropped her off at her place was he speeding off to pick up Hashbrowns and walk Tuscaloosa’s downtown area, a square of coffee shops and cheap restaurants frequented by people majoring in trivial, non-important topics. People with time on their hands and a need to prove that yes, Art History did require a copious amount of effort – just look at all these papers and this extra-tall extra-grande coffee, always more of an accessory than a necessity.

His eyes probed every available space. She had been wearing a red shirt, black jeans, and a matching scarf (he had wondered why, it was hardly cold enough to warrant one, and she had even complained about being hot on the ride home), and every smear of red in his periphery was her. He felt panicky and paranoid and entirely unjustified. This was, he knew, the epitome of privacy invasion; he thought of his mother walking in on him masturbating for the first time, and the doe-eyed look he’d given her, the way the words died in his throat. And then the anger, hot and sudden, as he had shouted at her to close the door. He was opening the door on Cindy, mid-orgasm, vulnerable, unsuspecting.

In his shameful search, he had lost control of their walk, allowing Hashbrowns in all his twenty-pound glory, to lead the way. Hash was vigilant in his tugging at the lead, ignoring the coos of pretty ladies that he usually reveled in, melting to the ground and rolling up to reveal his belly, and bypassing them. Mark allowed him this freedom; it was better he allowed Hash to wander aimlessly than gnaw and growl at the leash every time Mark took a turn he didn’t agree to.

He nearly stepped on Hash when he came to a sudden stop, leaning all of his weight against the leash. The hairs of his spine stood up in a razorback and a low, throaty growl caused his black lip to snarl and reveal the sharp points of his teeth.

They had stopped beside a more popular diner, lanterns and Christmas lights strung along an outside patio where people could eat on iron-made porch furniture, giving all the appearances of something romantic and whimsical, when in reality, the food was cheap, the atmosphere easy to fake, and the restaurant itself sleazy. Mark scanned the ground for another dog, maybe a cat or a bird, that could have caught Hash’s interest. Instead, he caught a glimpse of a pair of slender legs, a pair of black jeans hugging them tight. His throat suddenly tight, his mouth dry, his eyes followed the legs up to a torso bathed in red, a bare neck, and a hand that laid gently on another, rougher hand. A man’s hand.

Cindy’s nose wrinkled with laughter as she leaned closer to the male that sat across the table. He was handsomer than Mark and looked much hipper, with thick-framed glasses and slick-backed hair. He was the type of guy a marketing (was it marketing?) major would date. Mark had never seen Cindy look so bright and animated, so easily sliding into affectionate gestures. He thought of how she rolled her shoulders dismissively each time he tried to drape his arm over her in the darkness of the movie theater. He thought of how hollowly she laughed at his jokes, her nose never wrinkling.

Hash’s leash slipped from his hand as he stood, watching the couple silently, and the moment it hit the ground, Hash bayed loudly and sprinted towards the two, squeezing his body between the iron gates that enclosed the restaurant’s dining area.

“Get back here!” Mark called, but still he stood frozen as Hash grabbed Cindy’s scarf from her open purse and slung it around in his mouth. She and her boyfriend scrambled to try and tame him, but he was quick to dodge their grabbing hands. Mark could have sworn he was smiling when he heard the sounds of ripping fabric, Hash holding the scarf between his front paws as he jerked his head from one side to another, until finally it was in two pieces. “Hashbrowns, now!”

Cindy looked up, her eyes wide as she recognized his voice. They stared at each other for a moment, long enough for Hash to trot over and place a piece of the scarf at Cindy’s feet. He lifted his leg (the first time he ever hiked, Mark would later remember with pride) and marked Cindy’s ankles with a steady stream of urine. Mark called for him again, and this time he obliged, tail wagging as if he had just done his master the best deed a dog could.

Mark picked up his leash, giving the seething Cindy one last look before he walked away, closing the door on her just as quickly as he had opened it.

*

The rain was coming down in a steady sprinkle now, the droplets fat and significant and promising a downpour. Puddles were already forming on the pavement; the steam of humidity rose from the street to create a thick mist that snared their ankles.

“Mark, this is ridiculous.” Susan stood with her arms crossed, her flashlight beam pointed to the sky like a searchlight. “We can’t look for him all night. He’ll show up, he’s just hiding from the thunder. It’s – we’ll catch a cold.”

Mark scoffed. She sounded just like his mother, and it made him hate her. Beneath the pretense of caring was nothing more than selfishness. He thought of the Christmas his parents had bought him a grand piano – all shiny mahogany, the cherry wood spit-polished to perfection, and beautiful African ivory keys, his mother clapping her hands and cooing, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful?”. Another gift he was never allowed to touch or play with or enjoy; another of his mother’s precious decorations, disguised in elegant silk ribbon.

For twenty-five years he had hoped his mother would change, and she never did. Every favor was a prison sentence – to be held above his head at a later time. He could feel and see it in Susan, too. His thoughts turned to the night he forgot his wallet when they were going to see a movie, and how she had smiled and laughed graciously and handed over the sixteen dollars to the box office attendant. Charming and sweet, and he thought nothing of it. The next date, she said, he owed her.

Not just money, Mark could see now. He would have to pay for the humiliation she suffered – her boyfriend, a nutless sop who couldn’t afford to date her. She told their friends through forced laughter how embarrassed she had been – how the acne-riddled teenager had sneered sympathetically at her, as if he was trying to communicate that even he could treat her better.

Sixteen dollars that he would always be repaying. In foot rubs and compliments, in missed guys’ nights, in expensive presents and ridiculous promises. Just like his mother, who he owed for birthing him – he had ruined her body, stolen her youth, and each day of his existence was an opportunity to pay her back -- each hour he wasn’t trying to please her a waste.

“Just go home, then.”

“Go home?” It almost sounded as if she hadn’t been thinking it since he had picked her up that afternoon. “I want to help Mark, I do, I just think—“

“You want to help? Then do it and stop bitching. I’m not going home without him.”

“I have been helping.” A crack of thunder punctuated the acid in her voice. He could tell she was angry with him for challenging her role of the loving, doting girlfriend.

 There was no delicacy left between them. The rain had eroded away their pleasantness and there was nothing left but raw nerves, bleeding out into the storm.

“How is this helping? We’re standing here, arguing, not doing anything.”

His shirt was beginning to cling to him, a film across his skin, and he couldn’t tell if it was from the rain or the beads of panicked sweat that had begun to roll down the sides of his face and neck. Mark wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her, hard: We have to find him. This isn’t accomplishing anything. You aren’t helping. You never help, you selfish, entitled bitch. You beautiful, smart, stuck-up bitch.

“This is your fault anyway. If you had just left him at home—“

You will never help. I will always owe you.

Mark took a deep breath, sucking in all the static of the night that surrounded them. The rain was falling fast now, in heavy sheets that popped against the street like marbles. He felt a surge of rage, and it sparked in his eyes, but it was just a flash. There was calm afterwards, and clarity. He looked at Susan, so pretty that it made him sick, so fortunate to have a mask of beauty to hide the ugly, permeating self-centeredness, and shook his head.

“I’m done.” 

The relief softened her face immediately. “Okay, we’ll go home—we’ll make some coffee and then start making some posters. He’ll be back, I promise.”

“No,” Mark said, his voice slow and deliberate. “I’m done with you.”

This was the first time he had ever broken up with a girl, and he could see from the shock on her face that this was the first time she had ever been broken up with.

“What do you mean, done?” She was clenching her jaw, carefully phrasing her words. She seemed calm, except for the fire thrashing in her eyes. His mother often had this same look, and he knew that this was his one chance to take back what he had just said. He could erase the recent past, smooth over the argument by reaching out for her and pulling her to his side. He could kiss the top of her head, her hair soaking wet and pressed against her scalp, and apologize now, say that they could go home.

He could forget about the argument, and in two months – long after they had given up their search for Hashbrowns and had settled back into the swing of their relationship – they could be twisted together on the couch, slaves to another Netflix marathon, and she would turn to him and say: “Remember that time you almost broke up with me?”

He would always be in debt to her grudges.

“I mean I’m breaking up with you, Susan. I’m not going to do this any more.”

She backed away from him, as if he was holding a gun to her heart. She wasn’t upset, though – not crushed or sad, but angry. “You’re an idiot,” she started, shaking her head in disappointment. “Who do you think you’ll miss more, really? Me or that stupid mutt?” Her phone was already glued to her cheek, and she started to yell into the speaker for the person on the other line to come pick her up.

Thunder rumbled the neighborhood, shaking the trees and the ground beneath their feet. Chasing its last echo was a sound that made Mark’s head jerk away from Susan’s unraveling – a broken bay from the dark, thick and hoarse, but there.

Mark jolted and ran, until Susan was another misty shadow, following Hashbrowns’s bugling cries.


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