In my senior year of college, in a course called Creative Nonfiction, a professor shared an idea that cracked my mind open a bit: Dispense, if you will, of whatever separation you think there is between fiction and nonfiction. More often than not, he claimed, writers are more confessional than we’d like to believe in our fictions. And, in our nonfictions, we take our liberties.
Genres and categories serve their purposes, of course, but I find that interesting things happen at the spaces where they blur.
So it was when I read the synopsis for The Friend, a story I couldn’t immediately determine was true or concocted, confessional or creative invention. Calling off the search for certainty, I opted to read it as is.
The Friend tells the story of a woman who, following the suicide of a lifelong friend, is startled to end up with something he left behind: Apollo, the Great Dane, whose size attracts eyes on the sidewalks of New York City, and whose grief for his master is palpable in the way he moves around the world afterward. Swallowed up in grief herself, the narrator speaks directly to her fallen friend, recounting his scars and stories, and venturing off in curious directions –– what makes a writer write, and what do we know about suicide, and what do we know about the inner worlds of dogs, and what do we know about anyone’s inner world?
I move from chair to couch, Apollo watching, forehead creased. Once I’m settled, he comes and sits down in front of me. Eye to eye. What do dogs think when they see someone cry? Bred to be comforters, they comfort us. But how puzzling human unhappiness must be to them. We who can fill our dishes any time and with as much food as we like, who can go outside whenever we wish, and run free –– we who have no master constantly needing to be pleased, or obeyed…
At first, the narrator takes Apollo into her home as a graceful, temporary gesture. Surely there will be someone who will want to take him home, she –– admittedly a cat person –– promises herself. Through her own grief, her own bottomless list of questions emerging for a person no longer around to answer them, she begins to find commonality with the beast grieving on her floorboards. The spectacle of her newfound pet soon gives way to worry over her mental health, her friends concerned about her choice to forego time with them for time with Apollo.
Watching Apollo sleep. The peaceful rise and fall of his flank. His belly is full, he is warm and dry, he has had a four-mile walk today. As usual when he hunched in the street to do his business I guarded him from passing cars. And, in the park, when a texting jogger bore down on us, Apollo barked and blocked his path before he could run into me. I have played several rounds of tug-of-war with him today, I have talked to him, and sung to him, and read him some poetry. I have trimmed his nails and brushed every inch of his coat. Now, watching him sleep, I feel a surge of contentment. There follows another, deeper feeling, singular and mysterious, yet at the same time perfectly familiar. I don’t know why it takes a full minute for me to name it.
What are we, Apollo and I, if not two solitudes that protect and border and greet each other?
As I pressed through the story, I was increasingly uncertain whether or not my eyes were poring over fiction or nonfiction. Certainly, the narrative is grounded in a world that feels distinctly real, and the elements of grief are all-too-familiar to anyone who’s lost something they won’t get back. Apollo is, to the reader, a warm and comforting presence, and I found myself aching for his healing, along with the narrator’s. What is it, the narrator presses, about our relationships with dogs? Are they simply animals trained to respond to us, or is there something more to them? Flipping to the next page, I began to expect I’d find more questions than answers.
Strays is what a writer I recently read calls those who, for one reason or another, and despite whatever they might have wanted earlier in life, never really become a part of life, not in the way most people do. They may have serious relationships, they may have friends, even a sizable circle, they may spend large portions of their time in the company of others. But they never marry and they never have children. On holidays, they join some family or other group. This goes on year after year, until they finally find it in themselves to admit that they’re really rather just stay home.
But you must see a lot of people like that, I say to the therapist.
Actually, he says, I don’t.
In the penultimate section of The Friend, a detail of the story is shared that tempted me to sharply pivot in my interpretation of its story. An answer is revealed –– whether fiction or nonfiction, some elements of the story as I’d understood it were changed –– and I found myself perplexed as to what to do with that shift. Does this impact the meaning, I asked myself, does it change what I can take away from this? I decided, with an exhale, no.
Grief is a harrowing journey, perhaps especially when the loss of somebody we loved feels like it has no comfortable explanation. Through the narrator’s explorations and musings, I began to understand her means of processing her pain –– curiosity, intellectualism, academia. If I make this pain academic, she seems to promise herself, it will be something I can sort and put away. It is her time, then, with the dog Apollo, that reveals to her a harder truth: We are, in the wake of our losses, little more than somatic wounds, aching in the absence of what came before. We can find comfort, however, in those around us who recognize our grief.