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The River Diaries

Thursday, July 20, 2000

Will you let me stray from the river today? We did walk by it this morning—by it as opposed to along it or with it. I say this because my attention was elsewhere, my thoughts grappling with ideas about shame and sympathy that I will discuss later. On the surface, I saw all the expected things. A bright sunny breezy day makes for a very rippling blue river. More people out jogging, walking, bicycling. I wondered if the bike riders, bent low over their handles, their knees pumping, were imagining themselves climbing the Alpine stage of the Tour of France or better yet, on their homestretch dash into Paris. I know I would have been. Wearing black thigh-hugging Spandex with the words “Cinzano” written in blue down their side. But these are the reveries of a girl from the Bronx.

On the homeward turn of today’s river walk, I was dazzled by the sky. A half-sky full of a light white cloud shelf that gently melted out into the blue. All the beauty of the day, of being alive, was displayed above me. Perry trotted a little quicker today, the breeze lifting his spirits. A woman passing with her reddish retriever, who had taken a swim in the river, said to me in passing, “Your dog always looks like he is smiling.” I remembered the first moments of our walk, when we had just come out of the tunnel, passing another woman coming back from her walk. Just as Perry came abreast of her, she raised her hand to straighten her cap; for a moment, all the promised pleasure of the morning disappeared for him. He yelped in phantom pain, his body curving around itself in protection from the imagined blow.

For nine years now this dog has been in my care, in a safe home, and still he flinches from remembered beatings. My then lover and I first met him when we responded to a frantic call from a friend to take a look at this poor animal who, abandoned for months in Central Park, had used up all his time in the animal shelter and various foster homes. His back legs weakened from confinement, Perry came with all the quirks abused animals often have, rituals of protection all his own: walk only with the buildings on your flank, never let an unknown hand pat your head, cry in pain before the danger is realized. Sometimes still when we are walking in the street and out of the corner of his eye, he sees a newspaper blowing in the wind, he will shriek with expected pain. But in the country or on our walks or curled up in bed with me, he seems to forget his beginnings. I hope in his dog way, he finds some peace.

On Monday I received the news that my CAT scan was clear. I was relieved, but now am more perplexed about what is happening to me. I have been reading a book, The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer—and Back by Katherine Russell Rich (Crown, 1999) that struck home in many ways: the loneliness of this illness—even in a room filled with friends—the quiet sense of a dialogue only I can hear; the danger of exploiting the illness for sympathy, for an excuse not to do more in life. Am I who came out in the decade of queer shame, the American 1950s, taking refuge in this newfound sympathy? Is this why I write these entries? Am I a coward or a quiet walker? Our old wounds flare up in new cuts. I think this is enough for today.


© 2000 Joan Nestle

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