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Jena Schwartz: Salvo

In the winter of 2010, I ran away from home for a week. My parents had bought a small house in Vieques, P.R. Many months into working on a memoir that felt at once urgent and elusive, I felt inexplicably driven to get the words down. My husband and I had been married for a decade; our daughter was seven and our son was just shy of four. We lived in a sweet house on a cul-de-sac that backed up against conservation land with walking trails, in a neighborhood that boasted generous backyards where passels of kids played with minimal parental supervision. Our lives were not perfect, but we were happy. Or so we thought.  

Our first dog, Juke, had died in December 2007, and later that winter, two years before my solo trip, the four of us had traveled to Vieques with my parents for a week. During that trip, we visited the Vieques Humane Society thinking maybe we might adopt a rescue dog, but none of the pups there spoke to us. Then, just a day or two before our return trip, we encountered two stray dogs on one of the island’s spectacular and largely empty beaches. One of them seemed especially gentle, hanging around beyond the usual search for tourists with good snacks. 

We wound up bringing him back to the house with us, where he promptly chewed through the screen of the back door, freeing himself to the outdoors where he was clearly accustomed to roaming. We took him to a vet and had him checked out, and next thing we knew we were getting papers and securing a travel crate in which he would fly home with us in the belly of the plane. We estimated that he was six months old and named him Bobo. While the snow and cold came as a bit of a shock, he settled in surprisingly quickly. He is an old man now, with grey eyebrows and that same mellow nature. He lives with my ex-husband.  

Back to 2010, two years after Bobo came to Vermont and the winter when I went to Vieques alone to write: Shortly after I got to the house after two flights and a puddle jumper, Marion knocked on the door. Marion was the neighbor up the street, a widow from Sacramento known for taking in strays. She was not alone.

“This is Salvo!” she said cheerfully. I looked down to see a white dog, pure muscle, of unclear breed, with about 2/3 of his body covered in burn scars. I asked what had happened to him, and she told me about the abandoned building at the top of the steep hill that had burned, with several dogs inside. Salvo made it out, and she had nursed him back to health.

“He is good company,” she cooed, depositing him in the kitchen before turning to leave. “Let me know if you need anything!”

For the next five or six days, Salvo was my sidekick. He slept on the floor in the mornings while I wrote for three, four, sometimes five hours at a stretch, then hopped in the jeep with me after lunch to drive towards Esperanza, turning off onto a long dirt road surrounded by brush and finally ending up at one of the beaches the U.S. Navy had long before given color names – Red Beach, Blue Beach. He sat by my cheap chair while I swam as if keeping watch over my stuff, then we’d head back to the house and chill for the evening.

By the end of the week, Marion’s little ploy had worked perfectly: I was in love.

I called my husband and told him about Salvo. “What do you think?” I buzzed, eager for him to meet my enthusiasm. He was not sold. The last thing we needed, really, was another dog, another mouth to feed, another living being under our roof. We were both self-employed, money was tight, we had two young kids, and life was pretty full-up. In fact, it was upon my return from that solo retreat that we’d gone for a walk on South Union Street and I’d mustered up the courage to say out loud, for the first time, “We’re not happy.” Mind you, I did not say, “I’m not happy,” because at that juncture, as a 36-year-old wife and mother, I was not yet easily able to separate the “I” from the “we.”

And that must have been where Salvo came in. My husband and I started couples counseling. And I grew obsessed with bringing Salvo up north, if nothing else as a foster while we looked for a permanent home for him. Finally, my husband acquiesced. I probably told myself it was our decision as opposed to my decision, but this I cannot remember. And on April 8, 2010, the night before my younger child’s fourth birthday, while my children slept, I drove three miles to the little Burlington International Airport to bring our new dog home. The next morning, I shared a photo of our new addition on Facebook, with the following caption: Salvo arrived late last night and is happily sniffing out his new world. He’s two years old, and already he has: survived a house fire, fallen out a moving truck window, healed in a tropical climate, spent twelve hours in a crate on an airplane, and arrived in New England to begin again. I’m telling you, this little guy has such good energy. Just having him around makes me feel calm and uplifted.”

Having two dogs was a big change from having one dog, and Salvo was the opposite of Bobo. His desire to play was boundless, and he prodded and provoked Bobo at all hours, despite Bobo’s attempts to shrug off this energetic newcomer. He was clearly my project, and I became responsible for providing him with enough walks to burn off some of that joie de vivre. Therapy was going well, we thought; we congratulated ourselves on how evolved we were as a couple, how communicative, how loving, connected, and mutually supportive.

And then one night in June, after spending the evening at a woman’s house reading poetry, I walked up the front steps of our home shortly before midnight and knew nothing would ever be the same. A few days later, I came out to my husband. Our marriage exploded into shards in a matter of minutes. We sat with the therapist the next day in an emergency session, and it wasn’t more than a week or two after that that I said in that same office that I could not stay married.

An agonizing summer ensued, and keeping Salvo no longer felt viable as we tensely navigated the debris of my announcement and lurched towards our impending separation. With Marion’s help, we found a forever home for Salvo with a recent Dartmouth grad. It was clear, looking back on my instant attachment to him the previous winter that he was more than a dog; he was a bellwether of sorts, a brutally damaged and beautifully healed creature who had been through hell and not only survived but kept his spirit intact, a harbinger in four-legged form of things to come, things that would be mine alone.

I never did finish that memoir.


Copyright 2021 Jena Schwartz

The author with Salvo

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This entry was posted on April 11, 2021 by in Health and Nutrition, Personal Essays, spirituality and tagged , , , , , .

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