In Ai Jiang’s “I Walked the Dogs,” find the telling signs of a strained marriage: “Visiting parents” eight times in a year, which wouldn’t be strange—if Gunen didn’t hate his parents. Or the clipped, sharp conversations that Jiang employs between our narrator and her husband Jine. “I Walked the Dogs” is stripped only to the most essential parts, avoiding, as its characters do, any moment that isn’t necessary, but still finds those salient points of pressure.
Married women have a strange attractiveness, like the glow of pregnant women, or the blossoming blush of a young woman new to relationships.
Or maybe it is all only an excuse. Maybe it makes these hidden desires a little less terrible, a little more logical, rational, in something that has no explanation.
And what authority do I have to speak in such ways about married women other than being one myself? To speak for the entire collective of those bearing wedding bands on their ring fingers and thin tans when they take them off for whatever reason. Like the metal bond of matrimony makes any difference to what a woman—and man—may decide to do, where they might decide to sleep, who they desire in their minds.
“Gunen is visiting his parents, again. Eighth time this year.” Linny stirs her coffee after opening a sixth packet of sugar. We meet every few days at a coffee shop halfway between our two homes.
It wouldn’t have been strange if not for the fact Gunen hates his parents. It wouldn’t have been strange if not for the fact his parents live in Malaysia but he recently checked into a hotel in Dubai, having somehow forgotten he and Linny share an email.
“You have the evidence, why don’t you call him out for it?” I ask. My words are half-hearted. Linny never listens to my advice.
“I could, but he’s the kids’ favorite.” She sighs.
Right. Custody. I forget because I only have dogs.
I nod. “Maybe when they’re older.”
Linny gives me the side eye. “Oh yes. Just ten more years, right? It’ll fly right by.” She ties her hair up in a bun, swiping at the fine baby hairs draping the side of her face. “I wish Gunen is more like Jine. I see him walking the dogs outside every day, you know. 7 p.m. Without fail. Every. Day. After work.”
And how does she know when she lives so far from me? Maybe I’m thinking too much.
“Yeah.” I look at the young waitress fumbling with change by the cash and the way her short skirt hiked up the back—on purpose or not, it drew the eyes of men and women alike.
* * *
“I walked the dogs.”
I hum at Jine’s announcement—the same one he makes every day before dinner—as he enters the kitchen, hanging the leashes by the cupboard with his coffee and my tea. We don’t keep our mugs there. His is always in the office. I never move mine from the bedside and wash it in the bathroom sink. Jine hates it. He hates the steam and my reading light. I tell him to sleep with his back to me. He does and has been doing it for years.
“Me too,” I say.
Jine walks to the fridge, opens it, closes it, opens it again, then looks at the stove. He closes the fridge, hand resting on the handle.
“Let’s order take out,” I say.
Jine looks up in surprise. We’re on a budget, but today I don’t care. His reaction makes it seem like he is the one who bought the Indulge jar resting on top of the microwave rather than me. I’m the one filling it, he only uses it.
Jine tosses loose change on the island, not into the jar, then remains immobile when a few coins roll off and meet the ceramic tiles. Ting, ting, tingtingtingting—
His eyes are on me. My eyes are on the coins. I stoop to snatch the coins and drop them in the jar before raising my phone and call Pizza Pizza. They have the best walk-in deals.
* * *
I smash the Indulge jar—though I didn’t need to since it didn’t function the same way as a piggy bank—and take all the loose change before I meet with Linny at our favorite burger restaurant. We only go once a month, but this is the second time this week.
“He says the dogs like to stop in front of Mary’s lawn. Their usual pee spot. She yells at them whenever they walk past. He told me.” I shrug.
“Well isn’t that convenient?” Linny says, tossing her long brown hair back. Angry? Her hair’s curled today, though she didn’t get all of it with a few strands straight and limp in the back. I reach forward and tug.
“You missed a few.”
She bats my hand away, embarrassed.
“I think you better watch out for Mary,” Linny says, bunching her hair and tying it into a ponytail. She’s not wearing the necklace Gunen gifted her for their fifth anniversary—she never takes it off, usually.
I look down at my half-eaten burger, the bottom bun soggy.
“I don’t have kids.”
* * *
I cook oatmeal. Jine hates oatmeal.
* * *
I sit cross-legged on the ground beside the bed in a motel room with Byu, my Labrador, nestled by my side. Rill, the German Shepperd, sleeps at home, not wanting to take the car trip. Linny drenches the white pillows with her running make-up. It’s 6:30 p.m.
“Why did I confront him?” she asks, banging her head on the pillow.
“Why do we do anything?”
Linny glares. “You told me to do it.”
“You said you wouldn’t. Why did you change your mind?”
Her face slackens. “I don’t know.” Then: “Why do you have your dog?”
I shrug. “So Jine can’t walk him.” Maybe he would walk Rill, but it is unlikely. Rill seems pretty worn out today, being the older of the two.
We sit in silence.
At 6:50 p.m. my phone rings, but I let it ring as Linny and I burrow within the sheets, not knowing which limbs belongs to who, not caring. What did I seek from this, really? There is no love, just pain.
* * *
When I leave the motel, I leave the leash in my pocket. Byu wanders in front of me. I drove, but I leave the car with Linny since she didn’t. It’s an hour to walk home but the burn of my legs feels comforting.
I stop in front of Mary’s house. Byu keeps walking, not even a sniff at her lawn.
I follow, thinking of Linny’s strawberry scent, the tan line on her finger where the ring is missing, and the stained pillows that, at some point, also had my own makeup mixed in.
My phone rings.
“Hey… I was wondering if next week… maybe…” It is Linny.
“Sure.” I hang up.
I don’t regret it, but I hope she calls her husband. Not that I will call mine. What do I owe him anyway? He never does come clean about his Sundays with Mary.
* * *
“Do you want to get unmarried?” I ask.
“Divorced, you mean.”
“No. Unmarried.” I take the leashes from Jine’s hands and hang them.
“Is there a difference?” He looks at me as if I had gone mad.
I stare, willing him to understand. Divorce isn’t an option—not for us, not for our culture. Our parents would never allow it: the scandal it would cause, the whispers among our relatives. Our un-marriage would be a temporary break, and then we would be okay again. We have to be.
“Yes,” he says, understanding, agreeing. Then he looks down at his empty hands, nodding without looking at me. “All right then. Unmarried. We’re unmarried.”
* * *
Jine leaves for his parents’ house the next day.
I walk Byu and Rill at 7:00 p.m. after eating Jine’s favourite dinner, spaghetti with spinach, alone. The dishes from yesterday’s oatmeal still sits in the sink. Jine usually washes them.
When I pass Mary’s house, I feel a tug. Rill sniffs at the lawn, whining, again—fifth time during the walk. His bladder isn’t as strong as it was when he was a decade younger. Byu looks impassive as he waits as Rill circles the tree next to Mary’s trash cans. I freeze.
“I told you to stop—” Me and Mary meet eyes. She crosses her arms over her yellow jumper.
“Could you please tell your husband to stop taking this path when he walks the dogs? It’s not like they can’t pee elsewhere,” she says.
I search her face for something, answers, but all she looks like is an angry neighbor with a patch of yellow, wilting grass below her tree.
My eyes wander from Mary to Rill as I pull out my phone.
“Hey,” I say when Jine picks up.
“I walked the dogs.”
Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer, an immigrant from Fujian, and an active member of HWA. She is an alumnus of the University of Toronto, Gotham Writers’ Workshop, Humber School for Writers, and is currently studying at the University of Edinburgh’s Creative Writing MSc program. When she is not writing, she enjoys playing competitive badminton, going on food adventures, or taking longer-than-necessary naps. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SF, The Dark, PseudoPod, Jellyfish Review, Hobart Pulp, The Masters Review, among others. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (http://aijiang.ca).