Benji the Family Dog, 1992

I’ve decided to start sharing my private journal with you. This is an entry I have kept private for years. I never intended to share it. It is too personal. The names have been changed in order to avoid needless drama. But I’ve begun to panic thinking about dying and having so much of my past wither away under the manicured lawns of my local cemetery. I’d like to plant my journal in a garden somewhere and let it grow. I am no longer afraid of its thorns, snakes, or magic rabbit holes. These are my stories.

I see a flashing image of my aunt running across a thick white carpet with a small plastic pouch dangling from her stomach. The pouch is overflowing with a brownish-yellow liquid that’s thick and mushy. She’s holding it as she drags herself across the carpet. It’s dripping from the side of her palm. My aunt cannot go to the bathroom in the way most normal people go to the bathroom. The tiny plastic pouch is filled with whatever is trying to escape her stomach. This is how she goes to the bathroom now. My aunt is dying from colon cancer that originated in her breast. These are her last days. She’s wearing big-framed glasses and a floral dress. Her hair is up in a blondish bun. Her pale skin is moist and pink. She’s running to the bathroom to flush her insides down the toilet. My aunt is a tall Soviet-looking woman who still looks like she could fight off a bear. In a few months, she’ll be dead.

It’s the spring of 1992, and I’m sitting cross-legged on the thick carpet of my aunt’s house watching The A-Team. Wrapped around my legs is a golden retriever named Benji, who has a Ferrari-red tongue, humongous brown eyes, and the kind of unbending loyalty that seems nonexistent in the human race. His fur is soft and shampooed with the stuff you wash babies with. He smells like strawberries dipped into melted caramel. Benji is the color of the sun when it melts into the Pacific Ocean. I’m watching The A-Team, mesmerized, in fact, by Mr. T, who looks like a black pharaoh with a Sex Pistol mohawk. Benji, as I recall, dashes towards my grandmother, who can be heard crying in the kitchen. My grandmother is a stockier version of my aunt with tightly wrapped white hair and powder blue dress that looks like something a nurse would wear during the Second World War. She’s wearing brown stockings under the dress. My grandmother used to transcribe literature for the Soviet Union. She is a staunch communist intellectual. But she’s beginning to forget things. We’re on Justin Avenue, in a small suburb in the San Fernando Valley, and there’s human excrement trickling out a woman’s stomach and staining the freshly vacuumed carpet. I’m watching machine-gun bullets flying past the edges of a big-screen Sony TV. A golden dog is running towards a confused grandmother crying in a kitchen as her daughter calls to Jesus in the bathroom. I’m watching Mr. T flexing his muscles underneath layers of gold. I’m watching someone with white hair and black-leather gloves planting explosives—kaboom. I’m escaping death by getting as close as I can to it; cinematic nihilism through the lens of red-white-and-blue obliviousness. Clenched between my fist is a can of warm and flat Coke. I’m my grandmother’s worst nightmare.

My grandmother leaves the kitchen and walks into the yard; that’s where she likes to smoke, near the trees, away from the stench of homecooked death. The sun is raining down onto her face. She doesn’t own a pair of sunglasses. Benji follows her. The A-Team goes to commercial. I decide to go outside to play with Benji. Walking through the kitchen, I notice a bronze crucifix hanging above the stove. I see faded Disneyland photos pressed against a white refrigerator. Mickey Mouse looks like Death himself. Everything smells like a hospital pantry filled expired eggs and slime. I’m nine years old. I can hear Benji barking in a dizzying blur of wet-nosed ecstasy. I walk outside, turn to my right, and notice the small chain-link gate open at the top of the driveway, which leads into the street. My grandmother is in the backyard smoking her cigarette (Virginia Slims, like my mom). The sun is gently microwaving her skin. She’s in heaven.

“Where’s Benji,” I ask. My grandmother panics and rushes towards me, as the cigarette smoke trails behind her. Her eyes are cherry red. Her skin is cooked brown by the sun. “He was right here,” she says. “The gate is open. Why aren’t you paying attention?” I scream at my grandmother, as I run towards the gate. At this point, if I was carrying a kitchen knife, I would have stabbed my grandmother in the stomach. The smell of Virginia Slims will never leave me.

“Benji!” my grandmother says, as my aunt, Benji’s mother, moans in the bathroom. My aunt’s husband isn’t home. Her son is at a birthday. My mom isn’t here. Benji, the family dog, is running towards the street with his googly eyes and cartoonishly long tongue dangling right above his drooled-on dog collar. He’s happy and hypnotized by the fantasy of freedom. All dogs dream of it.

That’s when I hear a sound I wish I could forget. Two sounds, at once; one a high-pitched cry of a dog, and the other of car tires melting together into a symphony of horror. I freeze as my heart begins to hammer through my ribs. My grandmother slowly runs past me and tosses her cigarette into the street. I can see Benji motionless on the black gravel. He’s breathing. Black tread marks cover his baby-shampooed fur. I can see Benji’s lungs pumping air in-and-out of his body, rapidly. Benji’s breathing is releasing blood that softly trickles onto grandmother’s powder blue dress. The blood eventually gets into her gray hair. Grandma hair and dog blood—that’s what I remember most vividly.

I slowly walk towards Benji, whose eyes follow me as I get closer to his dark orange fur, which is stained in his own blood. His mouth is open. His tongue is hanging down the side of his black jaw. I’m too afraid to touch him. My grandmother cries as if she was just informed that her daughter had died. I remember that sound, too, at Forest Lawn, 1992. The car that hit Benjo never stopped. I don’t remember what it looked like.

My aunt’s husband, Edward, along with my mom, pull up to the house in a gray Toyota Camry. Edward pulls down his window. “What happened?!” Benji’s eyes are still open. My grandmother, somehow, as I stand frozen, bends down and peels Benji off the gravel and heads towards the car. She’s weeping when she does this. Edward opens the door and helps my grandmother lower Benji’s limp body into the Camry. The seat my mom was sitting in is covered in blood. Edwards screams at me, “GO INSIDE!”

Edward drives Benji to the hospital. My grandmother stands under the sun with her hands shaking in front of her covered in Benji, cigarette ash, and black dirt. I run inside. My mom follows me. I dive into the couch and begin to weep with bass in my voice. I can hear Mr. T talking in the background. He sounds like the kind of guy who never cries. My aunt limps into the living room and starts talking to my mom, who looks like she just left the sight of a homicide. I can hear The A-Team theme music as this happens. That was the last time I remember seeing my aunt. I saw her again after that, I’m sure, but that’s the last picture of her I have in my head.

Benji died in the hospital a few hours later. I never forgave my grandmother for letting Benji run towards the gate. Who left the gate open? I do not know. But that was when when we realized my grandmother had Alzheimer’s. She just forgot.

My grandmother and aunt are now buried somewhere in Forest Lawn’s lush rolling hillsides. I don’t know where. There’s no map. I’ve never been to their graves. Benji never had a funeral. They don’t bury dogs at Forest Lawn. Benji exists in the fragmented memories of people who are either dead or desperately trying to forget the day the family dog was run over by a car. My map to Benji is the theme music from The A-Team.