:: Article

Puppy Shower

By Laurane Marchive.

(Artist: Kayleigh Cassidy)

You hate puppy showers. You find them silly, degrading. It’s all the games, and puppies running  everywhere; it makes you anxious. At puppy showers, you always find yourself on the edge, at the periphery. Always too quiet or not funny enough, not loud enough, not smart enough––you hate it. But you don’t want to be left out, and Celine, the puppy-mummy-to-be, is one of your oldest friends. So there you are, walking down the street and carrying an enormous present shaped like a dog bone, wrapped in white paper with a red bow on each end. Whenever you catch your reflection in a shop windows, you wince; the giant bone makes you look minuscule, makes your head looks like a child’s, or a cartoon character’s.

Above your head, the sky is grey and veinous, the clouds angry-pulsating. It’s about to rain. To rain ‘like a pissing cow,’ Elsa would say. Elsa, at least, will be there, that’s one thing to look forward to. Your body chimes with nerves and excitement.

At the bottom of the building, you press the buzzer. A voice grizzles in the grey intercom.

‘Hello?’

‘Hey,’ you say. ‘It’s Mariane, for the shower?’

‘Mariane! Come up!’

In the elevator you readjust your tights, your skirt. You pout your lips and dab them pink. You hate puppy showers but this time, you think, it might be different. This time you want to be pretty; your heart radiates shards of electricity. Your feet make pointy sharp sounds against the tiled floor of the corridor. Tap tap tap tap. Cherry-pink suede shoes. Little fun kitten heels. Cherry-pink is Elsa’s favourite colour, you bought the shoes thinking of her. Of course, they’re not the most comfortable shoes; if anything, they’re quite painful. They remind you of being a child, of going to ballet school, of wearing pointe shoes and wrapping the tips of your toes in plasters. Tap tap tap tap. Maybe you bought the shoes a size too small. Maybe you’re just not used to wearing heels. You’re already getting blisters on the side of your toes, but still. When you stood in the shop and you looked at your feet, the shoes on them looked a lot like the promise of a cuter, prettier, more interesting you.

A woman you don’t know opens the door with a smile. She wears a purple jumper embroidered with a puppy face. She extends her arms and greets you like a friend.

‘Hi, I’m Bethany,’ she says. ‘Come on in, everybody’s here already.’

She ushers you into the living room. It is filled with round helium balloons. Pink balloons, white balloons. Enough balloons to make you deaf if they all burst. You hug the giant bone tighter and stare up the latex avalanche, all this air-filled rubber on the verge of collapse. Perched on an armchair between the two tallest balloon bunches, Celine sips a drink like a queen on her throne. Her long brown hair is folded behind her ears. The tips of her nails are painted red but her cream-coloured dress makes her look sacrificial, like those virgins thrown into volcanoes to appease gods in old stories. You walk to her and kiss her cheek. She beams. You are happy for her, you say. For as long as you can remember, she’s always wanted a puppy.

Sitting on soft chairs and pecking at biscuits, you see women you’ve met before, friends of Celine and Tom. And then more women you don’t know, wearing pastel-coloured clothes with crisp Peter Pan collars. They wave at you, happily, like people who wave at ships when they leave port, onward on some great adventure. You scan the room, your throat burning. You look for the shape of Elsa but she is nowhere in sight. Near the window, a Dalmatian chews on a squeaky brown ball. There is also a beige poodle, sleeping under the table, and a Yorkshire terrier sitting on Stella’s lap. When you step on an orange plastic cockerel, it squeaks under your weight.

Bethany takes your coat.

‘Have a drink,’ she says, placing a glass of prosecco in your hand.

‘Thanks.’ You nod to the present in your arms. ‘Where can I put this?’

‘Ah, the gift pile is over there.’

You place your present in the pile, then sit on an empty chair. You readjust the dainty leather strap around your left ankle. Looking at them now, from above, atop the white carpet, the cute little shoes don’t look so cute after all. Maybe they actually look like clown shoes. Maybe they make your feet look so wide you could crush baby animals underneath your soles. Maybe you were stupid to think some pretty little shoes would make you interesting or––

Elsa walks in and your heart almost bursts. She carries a glass of champagne, casually, gracefully, like she can just exist effortlessly in the world. You want to get up and scream her name, but she sits down across the room from you and resumes a conversation with a woman called Ingrid. Elsa’s hair is a black bob, she wears a white shirt. She looks like a flapper, or like a cabaret star. Like she should be sporting a pearl necklace, or a machine gun. You feel the space between your skin and your lungs simultaneously tighten and soften, the air melts in your throat. When Elsa finally sees you, her face lights up, she smiles. You want to go to her, to bite her lips. Instead, Ingrid says something funny and Elsa returns to their conversation.

After a few minutes, Bethany stands up in the middle of the room. She knocks a spoon on her own glass.

‘Everyone!’ She shouts, the dog on her jumper glistening in the light. ‘First of all, thank you all for coming today. As you all know, we’re here to celebrate Celine and Tom’s family, which is about to get bigger!’

Everyone claps: clap clap clap clap.

‘Tomorrow,’ she continues, ‘Celine and Tom will be welcoming Patty, a wonderful little Dachshund, into their home. So today is Celine’s last day of freedom before… well, before the storm hits! As today is a day of celebration, we’ll start by playing a few games. We will then have tea and cake. And then we will open the presents!’

Clap clap clap clap.

‘So without further ado…’ Bethany produces a tray of soft-looking white squares with brown lumps in the middle. ‘The first game is called ‘Guess the Puppy Pad!’ Potty training can be a big challenge,’ she adds, knowing smiles flying across the room, ‘but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun! Each pad contains a different melted chocolate or sweet. The game is: you give them a sniff or a lick, you pass them on, and whoever gets all of them right wins a prize!’

You stare at Elsa, try and catch her eyes but they are focused on the brown smudge in front of her. You never thought she’d be a ‘Guess the Puppy Pad’ kind of person, and yet she laughs. She sniffs a pad; from the edge of your chair you can see the tip of her tongue, curling out of her lips like a small lizard. She gives the smudge a lick and says something to Ingrid. When Ingrid replies, Elsa laughs again, tilting her head back, throat exposed, the small blue snake of a vein travelling up the side of her skin.

Someone passes you a training pad encrusted with brown stains. Next to you, the Dalmatian gives up on its ball and edges for a cupcake on the table.

‘Phillip, no!’ Bethany holds him back by the collar.

The dog stares at the pads travelling from hand to hand, nostrils flaring. As you plunge a finger into a brown peanut-riddled lump, the dog makes his way towards you. He gives your ankles a nudge, you push him away discreetly. You work your way through five sets of pads. By the end of the game, you write Nutella, Mars Bar, KitKat, Oreo, and Maltesers on a pale piece of paper.

Despite your best efforts, you win.

‘Congratulations, Mariane!’ Bethany comes to you, hugs your body. ‘So here is your prize…’

She ruffles through a white woven basket. She takes out a puppy ears headband and hands it over to you. You haven’t worn a headband since you were ten. Since you were cast, in the ballet-school end of the year production, as background rat in the Nutcracker. Everybody watches, Elsa looks at you, nodding, encouraging. Phillip rubs a paw on your leg, and you put on the headband.

For a moment there is a floating, a slight awkwardness. Then you smile.

‘You look so cute!’ Elsa beams.

And clap clap clap clap.

You play ‘Who’s a Good Doggie’ and ‘What’s Mummy’s Favourite Pup?’ After a few rounds, the room is full of grown women wearing puppy wares. Before the next game starts, you excuse yourself, head outside. You want to be alone, or for Elsa to join, but Ingrid follows you. She wears a blue dress, and an ample black coat that flaps around her like a bat.

‘So, where do you know Celine from?’ she asks, taking out a cigarette.

‘University,’ you say. ‘You?’

‘We work together.’

You nod. You do not want to be having this conversation, so you cast a glance towards the window to catch Elsa’s silhouette. The curtains are too thick and you can only see shadows, but you’ve been friends for long enough that you could recognise the shape of her anywhere. Friends. Is that what you are? Close friends with boyfriends. Straight friends who go for drinks and talk all night. Just friends, until something crept in. You felt it swirl, but at first, you didn’t say anything.

‘Is it your first puppy shower?’ Ingrid asks.

‘I’ve been to a few,’ you reply, ‘all my friends seem to be getting pups at the moment.’

‘Same,’ she says. ‘Do you have dogs yourself?’

‘No. You?’

She looks at the end of her cigarette.

‘No…’ She flicks the tip of the cigarette’s ash. ‘I’m scared of them, actually.’

‘Scared of dogs? Really?’

‘Yes.’ She rests her back against the wet concrete. ‘I was bitten by a beagle when I was five. It was the family dog, a spiteful little thing… It hated me and then one day, out of the blue, it bit me. It was horrible! There was blood everywhere…’

Upstairs, someone opens the window. The curtain flickers in the rain and your heart skips a beat, you expect Elsa’s face to appear, to ask after you but there’s only the sound of laughter, emptying into the street.

‘Really, you wouldn’t think,’ Ingrid continues ‘when you see them all cute and pretty in their fancy little dog jackets, but dogs are monsters!’ She plants her eyes into yours. ‘They scare the shit out of me…Anyway, I know I shouldn’t say this but…I was just hoping there wouldn’t be dogs here today. I thought the puppy shower was for the owner, not for the puppies. You know?’

You try and nod with gravitas. You look up at the window again. When you first felt something for Elsa, you ignored it, you didn’t want to scare her. But then, last week. You went for dinner, ended up in a club somewhere in Soho, this club underground. You started dancing. She put a hand on your hip, it was her idea. You would have never done it, but you wanted her, it. She kissed you first, her boyfriend was away for the night. You woke up in sheets that smelled like him.

You wait for the sound of Elsa’s voice to tumble down the window, but it doesn’t. Droplets of dirty London rain fall on your pretty cherry shoes.

‘It’s tough, though…’ Ingrid says, ‘Because I still want to be invited to parties. I don’t want to be the grumpy woman no one wants to have around because she hates dogs…’ she laughs. ‘I’m trying to make an effort,’ she adds, ‘to not let it show.’

‘Yes,’ you shrug. ‘Dogs do smell fear, though.’

She scratches her pink puppy ears.

‘Yeah, I know.’

In the living room, you refill your glass with prosecco. The moment you sit down, Phillip makes his way towards you. He nudges your leg and starts licking your ankles. When you look down, his big black eyes dive straight into yours. You’ve never liked dogs. It’s not that they scare you, you’re just not that into them. They smell bad, they shit everywhere, and they destroy everything. But that’s not really something you can say, of course, not here. So you pet Phillip’s head when it lands on your lap.

Across the living room, Celine says something silly. A joke. Someone shouts ‘puppy brain!’ and everyone laughs. Bethany brings in a new tray of cookies. They are shaped like golden glitter turds. Elsa takes one, places it on her tongue, rolls her eyes in performative bliss. You want to melt in her skin, in the sound of her voice. That was one of your worries, initially, that her body would be too similar to yours, that you would disappear into hers. You worried kissing her would be like kissing yourself, but a better version of yourself. A version that is more graceful, more beautiful. Your limbs felt thicker than hers, more disjointed. You wondered how she could ever want you, but that night, in her bed, she did. She pinned you down and ran her tongue on your neck, behind your ears. Whenever her fingers landed on your hips, it felt like a tickle, near unbearable. You expected the skin between her legs to be soft but her hair was curly and short, prickly like sandpaper. That made you want her even more. You dipped your fingers into her. The flesh was warm, and wet, and melting like butter. Amphibian almost. There isn’t flesh like that anywhere else on the human body, even the inside of your mouth is harsher.

Between you and her, Bethany rubs and burrows into Phillip’s belly.

‘Who’s a good doggy?’ Bethany purrs, the dog’s pink tongue slipping in and out of his mouth, licking her face, her lips, ‘Who’s a good doggy-dog? Who’s Mummy good doggy puppy?’

Elsa stands up.

‘Would anyone like a drink?’ she asks.

She heads to the kitchen and you jump on your feet, following her. She opens the fridge, takes out two new prosecco bottles. You stay quiet as she undoes the wiring, her shoulder blades coming closer together when she pulls on the cork. She says nothing and keeps her eyes on the glass, so you walk closer to her, take in the smell of her clothes, the perfume she always wears. On her white shirt, a single black fallen hair curls up like a small eel. You lift it from the fabric, let it glide to the floor.

She turns towards you.

‘What are you doing?’ She asks, a slight mimic of surprise in her eyes.

‘Nothing,’ you say, ‘you just had something on your shirt.’

She looks at her shirt then at you, frowning at first then the frown breaks. She smiles something cute and charming. Takes a step back and pops one of the prosecco bottles open. When she looks at you again, her thunder is gone. Her eyes have laughter in them, an ebullition sparkle. The blue puppy ears on her head make her look like a cat. A well opens in your chest like water draining, drowning, swelling up or liquifying.

‘So, how are you?’ you ask, digging your hands into your pockets.

‘Good!’ She smiles, keeping her eyes on the second bottle. ‘Good. You?’

‘I’m good. I’ve been… thinking about you.’

Her body seems to produce light, heat. You want to take a step towards her but the way she holds herself, just inches further back than you would expect between friends—friends!—the thought does cross your mind that maybe she doesn’t know what to do. Your heart falters. But then again, Elsa’s a flirt, she’s always been a flirt, always liked to play, the push and pull of the game.

‘Me too,’ she says after a while, presenting you with her softest, sparkliest grin. ‘I’m glad you’re here. Are you having fun?’

‘I guess so,’ you say. ‘Are you having fun? I thought you said these shower things were stupid?’

She shrugs, puts down the bottle and anchors her eyes into yours. Your fingers, hers, brushing on the kitchen top, almost. She takes away her hand, smiles again. You want to take a step closer but she now looks not into your eyes, but somewhere above. Your forehead. Or to the side. Your earlobe maybe. Something stings at the back of your throat. She extends her arm and replaces a strand of hair behind your ear. Not like one does to a lover, but like one does to a child, with a quiet, almost mocking smile.

‘Do you want to go for a drink, later?’ You ask. ‘Just you and I?’

‘What do you mean?’ She says, moving away her arm, the smile on her face now dead or dying.

‘We could… you know…’

She waits for you to finish your sentence. When you don’t, she moves closer to you. You feel your heart shrink, unable to stop thinking of what it was like, to dissolve into the warmth of her skin. Unable to think, also, what she might be thinking. Or what it is she wants you to do.

From the open door, the sound of laughter rises.

‘We’re about to open the presents,’ Bethany bursts in, ‘Are you guys coming?’

‘… Of course!’ Elsa says. She flattens the wrinkles on her shirt. ‘Let’s go back,’ she pulls on your arm. You stay still, trying to keep her with you but she lets go, heads for the door.

‘I’ll be just a minute,’ you call after her.

Alone in the kitchen, you don’t want to move, because moving might spill you and you don’t want to spill. Elsa always does that, did that, even as a friend. Always playing hard to get, wanting people to come to her, always wanting to be chased, to be the one in control. But that’s fine, you can do the chasing, all you need is some time. You walk into the bathroom, lock yourself in. Above the toilets, a banner says woof woof. You run your hands under cold water in the sink. On the marble surface, there is dog shampoo and a puppy toothbrush in a glass. You think of Elsa’s own bathroom, of every time she said I’ll be dead before I fill it with dog stuff. The ball of your heart expands in your chest like candyfloss.

In the foul dog-shampoo cleanliness of the room, you wash your face, scrub it bare of lipstick. You adjust your hair underneath the puppy headband. The ears look ridiculous on you.

Bethany knocks her spoon on her glass again:

‘Everyone! I think it’s time for what we’ve all been waiting for. Time to open the presents!’

Celine offers a grin and you sit on a small chair next to Ingrid.

‘But first…’ Bethany continues, leading Celine to a spot on the sofa nearest the big pile, ‘first, you have to look the part!’ She hands Celine an elasticated rubber dog nose. It has whiskers. Celine laughs and obediently puts it on, presenting her face to the room.

Clap clap clap clap.

Celine digs into the pile of multicoloured gifts, opening them one by one. As she takes out a sequence of colourful items—a pink leash with sparkles, a banana dog toy, a doggy winter coat—you stare so hard at Elsa you can see her eyes, avoiding yours, focusing on the presents. She might just be scared, you know. But you also know she did want you before, so she will want you again; you can feel it. You watch as Celine opens your gift, the giant white bone with the red shiny bow. She rips the wrapping apart and unfolds the adult-size dog costume, complete with a tail and a hood with ears and great blue eyes.

‘You know,’ you say, ‘I thought, that way… your puppy and you could look the same?’

Everybody laughs and Elsa smiles.

Then, a noise on the street. Firecrackers maybe, or a moped exhaust pipe. Next to Bethany, the poodle startles. He barks. Runs to the window. Philip jumps up and runs after him, launching himself across the living room. Bethany shouts. The poodle yelps. Phillip knocks over a cookie tray. Turns around. When he runs past you, you can feel Ingrid, stiffening on her chair, her legs tight together. She places one hand on your lap and squeezes it so hard it hurts. Her fear is hard and intoxicating. Next time Phillip comes next to her, you grab him by the collar and gives him a tap on the bum.

Bethany stands up.

‘Hey,’ she cries. ‘What did you do that for?’

‘What do you mean?’ You say.

‘You hit him!’

You feel your cheeks reddening. ‘I didn’t…’

‘You just did, I saw you!’

‘I…’

‘She didn’t…’ Ingrid intervenes. ‘I saw it, it was just a little tap. Almost nothing, really…’

‘Don’t get involved Ingrid,’ Bethany says. ‘We all know you don’t even like dogs.’

Ingrid blushes. She shrinks on her seat, quivering like a small bird. Everybody around the room, including Elsa, begins to frown and whisper.

‘It’s not true,’ Ingrid starts. ‘It’s not true, I do like dogs…’

The women in the room now look from you to Ingrid and from Ingrid to you. Like it’s your fault she doesn’t like dogs. Like you’re somehow in this together.

‘It’s true you don’t like dogs,’ you blurt out. And then, looking at the room: ‘She told me earlier. She said she wished there were no dogs here.’ Ingrid stares at you, her eyes widen. You straighten yourself and turn back towards her. ‘You also said Philip was the worst.’

‘I didn’t!’ Ingrid says, her eyes shining. ‘You’re lying!’

‘I’m not, I’m just repeating what you said. It’s not your fault you hate dogs.’

In the silence of the room, Ingrid bites her lips and you smile at Elsa. When Ingrid speaks again, her voice crackles.

‘I’m sorry…’ she whispers.

‘Ok… let’s just… relax,’ Celine says, her voice muffled by the rubber nose. ‘Should we have more prosecco?’

‘Or we could play another game?’ Elsa offers.

‘Yes.’ Bethany says calmly. ‘Yes, let’s play Puppy Fetch.’

‘What’s Puppy Fetch?’ You look down at your feet, aware of Bethany’s gaze on your neck.

‘It’s a game where the puppy-mummy-to-be plays the doggy.’

‘I don’t know if I want to do that…’ Celine winces.

Elsa nods. ‘Someone else could be the doggy?’

‘That’s a great idea,’ Bethany says. She looks at Ingrid, but Ingrid is frozen on her chair, looking at no one. So Bethany nods in your direction. ‘Fine,’ she says. ‘Mariane, why don’t you be the doggy?’

Now, you don’t want really to be the doggy. But you want to show Elsa that you love games, that you are brave and not scared. So you stand in the middle of the living room and you don the puppy suit. The one you bought for Celine. Because, Bethany says, if there’s a puppy suit, you might as well wear it, it’s funnier that way. You thread your legs into the puppy legs, slide your arms into the puppy arms. You let the hood fall over your eyes. The suit is made of cheap material, thin fleece or something that you know would melt over a flame. You zip it up.

‘You have to stand in the middle,’ Bethany says, arms crossed against her chest and a thin smile on her face. ‘We’ll stand in a circle around you, and we’ll throw the ball to each other. Then at any point, someone can shout ‘Run!’ and you have to spin as fast as you can to catch your tail. Then someone can shout ‘Fetch!’ and whoever has the ball throws it at you, and you have to catch it. Got it?’

‘Got it…’

‘But you have to get down on all fours, like a real puppy,’ she adds. ‘The game is better that way.’

You look at her and you’re not sure, but she says this with such confidence you find yourself doing it. You get on all fours. They form a large circle around you, their bodies lining the living-room walls. Under your palms, the carpet is hard and scratchy. From here you can see Celine’s ankles, other women’s shoes and a grease stain on the side of Bethany’s pump. You see Ingrid but she stands at the back, away from the game, her face melting. You also see the pointy end of Elsa’s boot, and the shine of her see-through tights. When you look up at her, she is holding the red ball.

‘Ready?’ Elsa asks.

‘Yes,’ you say. ‘Ready.’

The ball starts bouncing from one pair of hands to the next, slowly, at first, because the circle is large and the women are tipsy. Bethany shouts ‘Run!’ and you start spinning on your hands and knees. It’s hard, but you try to do it gracefully. Then Bethany shouts ‘Fetch!’ and someone throws the ball at you, but they’re too far away and too slow. You see it fly towards you and catch it effortlessly.

‘Puppy-1, humans-0,’ Bethany announces.

All the women take a step forward and the circle becomes smaller. The ball starts passing from hands to hands again. Someone says ‘Run!’ and you start spinning. You try and focus on a single point in the living-room to keep your balance, like dancers when they pirouette. At every rotation you catch the Yorkshire Terrier sleeping on a cushion underneath the window. You hear ‘Fetch!’, someone throws the ball at you but you catch it again.

‘Puppy-2, humans-0,’ Bethany says.

The circle tightens. You feel smug. You feel strong. You look up towards Elsa, to show her that you can do this, that you can play along. Little needles of excitement swell through your body. Elsa looks at you, she smiles, then you hear ‘Fetch!’ and the ball hits the side of your rib.

‘Puppy-2, humans-1,’ Bethany shouts.

You bite your lips. At the far end of the living room, the Yorkshire Terrier stirs in his sleep. You start spinning and all you can see are the women, stopping the ball every so often to make a joke you can’t hear. At some point Bethany shouts: ‘say woof woof, Puppy, say woof woof!’ and you find yourself saying it, woof woof, but defiantly, ironically, so she knows you’re doing it because you think it’s fun and not because you’re told to. The balls hits you again, Bethany shouts ‘Puppy-2, humans-2’ and the circle gets smaller. Now you have to crane your head to see their faces, mostly all you can see are the feet and the limbs, those tall elongated vertical limbs, laughing over you like puppy-eared ballerinas.

You start to feel dizzy. On the white carpet there are faint old erased stains, barely visible, spilled tea or coffee or maybe puppy faeces from previous dogs, previous owners. But even though you feel nauseous, you smile, to show them that you are still in control. You smile and all of a sudden you are ten again. You are ten years old and you are taking a ballet exam. The studio is bright and white, the floor is a wooden dance floor. You have to dance in front of a jury, the walls are lined with your friends, other ten-year old ballerinas waiting for their turn. You wear a pale pink leotard bought by your mother. You dance on pointe shoes but they haven’t been fitted properly. All your toenails are gone, your toes are bleeding. In front of you, there is another child-ballerina, dancing the same routine as you. Her body is long and slender, you want to be her, you try to copy her steps but she twirls too quickly. Your body feels wrong and unwieldy. Your feet hurt so much you keep forgetting the steps, and you know you are going to fail the exam, but your teacher always said ‘if you forget the routine, don’t worry. Just smile!’ So you smile and pirouette, and pirouette and smile. Afterward, when all the dancers have danced, the one woman on the jury singles you out. Are you not ashamed? She asks in her French accent, you don’t know the routine but you smile? What are we to you, she says, dogs? She says you are disrespectful, you will never be a ballerina. You hate her for it, but all you do is smile, and crush your toes on the floor.

You slow down to catch your breath. When you look up, Elsa is holding the ball. She stares at you with a look you don’t know, a sparkle of arousal and something else, the edge of something sharp. Bethany shouts, ‘Say woof woof!’ and you start spinning again. Your toes hurt, curled up for grip in your cherry pink shoes. Above you, the puppy-eared ballerinas grow taller and closer. They are laughing at you but you do say woof woof. It makes your body tingle to say it. Woof woof. Makes your insides warm and fizzy. You want to show Elsa that you are good. You want her to throw the ball again, so you spin on your knees. You bark even louder.

Woof woof woof woof!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laurane Marchive is a French writer and director living in London. Her writing has appeared in The London MagazineThe Mechanics’ Institute ReviewReview 31 and the TLS. In 2020 she was shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize and Highly Commended in the Spread The Word Life Writing Prize. She also runs a circus, or did so, before the world burst into flames.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 23rd, 2020.