About five years ago, I found myself kind of in a rut. I was spending a lot of the day alone. I was waking up and puttering around the internet and then before I knew it, it was four in the afternoon, I was still in my underwear, and the only progress I’d made could be counted in the number of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I’d eaten. I had a girlfriend, but she was at work all day, like a productive adult woman, so my days were still pretty lonely. Everybody was telling me that I should exercise, but… that sounds like a lot of work. So I did what any guy in his mid-twenties would do when he’s looking to spice things up — I spent a week with my grandparents. Or at least I planned to.
My grandparents live in Central California — big, wide open land with horses and a swimming pool. I called my grandmother and asked if I could stay there for a few days, just, you know, for a change of scenery. She said sure. A couple days later, I drove up there. It’s about a four-hour drive. I pulled up to the house, and nobody was there. Like, nobody.
I called my grandparents. No answer. I called my cousins who lived there, too. No answer. I called my dad. He answered.
—Hey. Where are my abuelita and abuelito?
—Because I’m supposed to stay at their house this week!
A pause. Then…
—Oh. Well… they’re in Mexico.
So apparently, this is what happens when your sole point of contact is a 70-year-old woman. My grandmother got the dates mixed up, so they were gone. And my cousins, who I thought still lived there, had since moved out. When they eventually called me back, they told me where the secret key was and that I could stay as long as I wanted to.
That night on the phone, my girlfriend asked how things were going, and as I’m talking to her, I’m just wandering around this big, empty house. You know, I went up to Sanger — that’s where they live — to get away, yeah, but also to see people. If I wanted to be alone all day, I’d have stayed in my apartment.
A few days later, my dad and I got lunch, and he mentioned how stressed out he’d been over the last few weeks. But I’m the one who’s unemployed and half-dead from boredom, so I kind of waved it off and brought the conversation back to what I really wanted to talk about… me. I’m not a sociopath, so I did it in an artful way, but I distinctly remember sitting there and thinking, “Fuck. The old man is a bummer.”
That night on the phone with my girlfriend, she asked, “How’s it going? Has it gotten any better?”
And the answer was no. This relaxing week at my grandparents’ had been equal parts lonely and depressing. She asked, “Then what are you still doing there?” And I really didn’t have a good answer. The plan was to have lunch again with my family the next day and then probably drive back to L.A. afterwards.
The next day at lunch, my dad got up to go to the bathroom, and my step-mom leaned across the table almost conspiratorially.
—Your dad doesn’t want me to tell you this, but I think he had a heart attack last night. He woke up, and he was in pain, so I convinced him to go to the urgent care.
—What did they say?
—They didn’t have the right equipment or something, I don’t know. They gave him aspirin and told him to come back if the chest pains came back.
Well, fuck. I started freaking out because, you know, I had plans to drive home. This was ruining all my plans!
My dad came back to the table, and I kept my eye on him, trying to figure out if he was showing the symptoms of a heart attack. Keep in mind, I was an unemployed writer, not a doctor. I didn’t know what the symptoms of a heart attack were. So then I just came out and said it.
—You know, Vero told me what happened last night, and I think we should go to the hospital. Maybe it’s nothing, but while I’m here, we should just go.
My dad brushed it off, saying it was nothing. But between me and my stepmom, we kind of forced him. We went to the hospital, and they started running tests, and then my girlfriend called me. I distinctly remember stepping into the hallway at the hospital to take her call.
—I’m at the hospital right now. I think my dad might’ve had a heart attack last night.
—Oh my God. Is he okay? Does he have heart attack symptoms?
(Jesus, does everybody know what these symptoms are except for me?! By the way, I know that left arm pain is one of the symptoms. But that can’t be the only symptom. Otherwise, every left-handed pitcher in baseball is having a heart attack all the time.)
I filled her in and then asked, “What’s going on with you?”
—Oh, nothing. Someone at my cousin’s work was gonna take her dog back to the pound, so Katherine volunteered to foster it, but Katherine’s out of town this weekend, so I’m doing it.
—Okay, that’s fine. I’ll talk to you later.
I hung up and went back in with my dad. A couple hours later, a doctor came in. He had gray, wiry hair, and he told my dad that yeah, he had, in fact, suffered a heart attack. He ran through all the ways my dad’s gonna have to change his lifestyle — no red meat, no cigars, less stress. And then he turned to me.
—I’m glad you’re here, young man, because I don’t want this to be you in twenty years. Do you exercise?
—(Good God, no. But I said nothing.)
—Do you eat red meat?
—(I wondered if he could smell the bacon burger on my breath. But again, I said nothing.)
—Do you have stress?
—(I’m unemployed and so fucking lonely, I drove four hours to spend a week with my grandparents, who are currently on vacation. I don’t know if that qualifies as stress, but it qualifies as something. Yet again, I said nothing).
Fortunately, my dad recovered. It was a mild heart attack. A day or two later, he was released from the hospital. Another day or so after that, I was free to go back home.
As I was driving back to L.A., I started replaying the last few days in my head. It was a big week. As I was replaying everything, a tiny alarm started flashing in my head. Not a blaring siren, but a small, persistent light blinking in my head. So I called my girlfriend.
—You’re not fostering that dog. You’re keeping that dog!
—No, I’m fostering her. I posted a picture on Facebook asking if anyone wanted her.
—Well, so far, no one’s claimed her, but when someone does, I’ll give her away.
—Okay… Then name the dog “Temporary”.
And then the line went quiet. And in this little mousey voice, she said… “But I already named her Scout.”
That was five years ago, and as recently as this morning, I’m still walking Scout every day. Usually twice a day. But hey, it’s exercise. And I can’t just up and leave for a week like I used to, because someone’s gotta be here to take care of Scout. She brings her own level of stress to the apartment. She’s on Prozac right now. I never thought my life would include going to the vet and paying for my dog’s Prozac prescription. But here we are.
But it’s great. It’s nice to have someone here when I get home. I mean, my girlfriend in the story is now my wife, and she’s great, too. But it’s different with Scout. Five years have gone by, and I’m glad the dog’s still around, too.
For the record, I’m glad my dad’s still around, too.