The Lady with the Little Dog, by Anton Chekhov

Neus Canyelles

Artwork by Olaya Barr

Yes, I’m the woman with the little dog. The woman, not the lady. I’m not a lady, because ladies don’t exist nowadays, and even if they do, no one actually calls them that. But many people who see me every day on the street at certain times do call me “the woman with the little dog” because I go everywhere with my little dog, a curly-haired poodle. She looks like a cotton ball. Or a cloud hovering just above the sidewalks of the avenues. We leave pretty early in the morning to take my daughters to school. All three of us walk together. Sometimes I carry their backpacks, full of books and notebooks, and they grab Baby’s leash and stroll ahead, very pleased. Then, at the door of the school, we kiss and say goodbye until the afternoon, and I walk home all alone with my little dog. We usually take a slightly longer walk through the park next to our house, where we see other people with their dogs. Baby approaches them, sniffs them, circles around them with interest. Then I tell her it’s time to leave the streets behind and go work in our lair. The woman with the little dog climbs the stairs and turns her apartment key in the lock. She usually makes tea and turns on the TV to listen to the news. A columnist has to be well-informed; you need to know what’s happening in the world in order to be able to write about it. And, as the newscasters discuss the most important events of the night before and that morning, the lady with the little dog makes her way through the apartment’s rooms, stooping over to make the beds. She can’t sit down to write if the house is a mess. This is a time-wasting obsession, but whenever she tries to ignore it, she can’t write anything coherent; her mind is always somewhere else: the sheets and comforters dangling over the parquet floor, the flattened pillows, the girls’ wrinkled pajamas tossed over the chairs in the bedrooms. The slippers and toys scattered all over the place. The bedtime storybooks she read to them the night before lying open on the rugs, with their favorite pages bookmarked. No, there’s no way you could concentrate like that. That’s why, while the newscasters talk of government spending cuts and casualties from the attacks in Syria, she moves through the rooms, makes the beds, and folds the clothes. She smiles with satisfaction as she closes the doors. And only then, when her tea is already cold and she almost never wants to finish it, can she go over to the computer desk and press the power button. Now everything begins. The dog lies down in her little bed at the foot of the desk, looks up at her, and puts her head back down. She nudges her favorite bone with her snout to make a little more room for herself. The woman with the little dog says: Baby, how are you, princess? And she scratches her behind the ears.

The computer greets her. Those machines do that: they say hello. Then she chooses the file, the font, and everything else she needs to start the day’s article. She’s thinking that this week it won’t be about politics, the economy, or society. An article about literature, perhaps? No, not that either. She’s written a lot about literature recently. She’s also written a lot about language. Almost every Sunday, she pens some sort of commentary about books. About the books of the moment, which is what the newspaper wants. About thick tomes on history or the Spanish Civil War. About books that contain awful secrets. Ninety percent of the books that top the bestseller lists are hiding awful secrets. No, not today. She’s tired of books. She doesn’t want to write about anything transcendent right now. But maybe: a banal article, written for lots of laughs. Like a tragicomic article, inspired by the nineteenth-century, a time when some women were ladies, when an elegant woman strolling with a little dog down the waterfront promenade of a city for vacationers could be known as “the lady with the little dog.” And everyone would agree. And no one would laugh about it. Everyone would want to get to know her, because there would be something mysterious about her life. Perhaps she had taken up alone in a hotel, or at a spa, to recover from an illness or a terrible family matter that had caused quite the upheaval. Yes, exactly. A lady can allow herself to indulge in something like that. Relaxing in front of the sea. Strolling with a parasol in the late afternoon, dressed in white with a charming hat, while the rest of the guests spend their time murmuring to one another or trying to figure out what could have happened to her, the lady. The lady with the little dog is hiding something. She has a slightly melancholy air about her. She’s married, but not happily. Her husband is an absent businessman. He won’t even come to spend time with her. She’s lucky to have the little dog.

That lady with the little dog could well be named Anna Sergeyevna, and if someone were to approach her and the dog at her skirt were to creep forward a few centimeters to protect her, she, too, would sweetly respond: she doesn’t bite. I myself, the woman with the little dog, say that often: she doesn’t bite. So people can enjoy petting Baby without feeling afraid. My name isn’t Anna Sergeyevna, of course. I don’t have an absent husband, and I don’t summer at seaside hotels, either. In fact, it’s been years since I’ve summered anywhere. I spend the summers writing articles, paying close attention to the news and everything that happens in the world. And I’m aware that no matter how much I write and stay informed about what’s happening, I still don’t know anything. I’ve been sure of that for years; it may be the only thing I’m sure of. Deep down, we don’t really know anything. And just as some unknown, higher order—represented by a few powerful people who control everything—plays with our lives without us knowing it, there’s also another smaller order, minuscule even, that carries our individual destinies toward somewhere unthinkable. Because sure, I’m the woman with the little dog. But there’s more.

After she’s spent hours sitting at the computer and has probably written an article that she’s pretty happy with, she reads it over once, twice. Maybe she changes a few words. Not many. And if she doesn’t have to send it to the editor right away, she saves it in her folder. Then she organizes the papers and books scattered across her desk. She usually listens to music while making lunch. The girls eat at the school cafeteria, so she eats alone. Whatever she has: a no-frills meal. And that’s when she takes advantage of the break to talk on the phone. She holds the phone to her ear with her shoulder and cuts the fillet with her knife and fork at the same time. And do you know who she talks to? It’s easy to guess. His name isn’t Dmitri Gurov, but we have to keep in mind that, in this story, that’s the part he plays. This false Dmitri is long past fifty, and he’s afraid of his wife. He doesn’t like to be at home alone with her because she’s always sick. And this makes him sick too. If she coughs and feels pain in her lungs, he suddenly contracts a cold. If she complains of a headache, he gets neuralgia. If she catches a stomach virus, he feels like everything he eats weighs in his stomach like a brick. Life with his wife becomes less and less bearable each day. In spite of this, their family ties are strong, and he also has children who are still quite young. The youngest goes to university; he’s a strong student in art history.

Anna and Dmitri—who, as we’ve already established, don’t actually go by those names—first met at a downtown café, in a square where pigeons fly around a bronze statue and bathe in the fountain. She was sitting at the patio, having a coffee and reading the newspaper. He sat down at the table next to her, and when he moved the chair, Baby came out from underneath.

“She doesn’t bite,” she said, smiling sweetly.

He didn’t like Baby one bit. He tried to slide her over a little with his foot to pull out the chair a bit more, and she growled. The woman picked her up and put her on her lap. He wanted to smoke and there was no ashtray on his table, so he asked to borrow hers.

“Sure, here. Do you want the newspaper too? I’m done reading it.”

At that point he grumbled about something in a low voice, and she said that she had to go. They met again the next day at the same spot. And so on, for three more days. The coincidence forced them to start talking about their lives.

“He doesn’t even pay attention to me anymore,” he said, a bit more trusting.

“It’s a she. This is Baby. My youngest daughter chose the name,” she explained.

“Oh, that’s a nice name,” he said, still not daring to pet her.

He had gone to school for science, but now he worked on researching market prices and other very boring tasks. He had a sickly wife and two wonderful sons. He was born in another city, and he wanted to go back there when he retired. She was divorced and had two young daughters. She wrote opinion pieces for a local newspaper, even though there wasn’t much work now and she would definitely have to find another job soon. She spent most of her day with her little dog and didn’t really interact with many people, because she was a person who loved solitude.

They walked for a little while along the avenue, and then they parted ways: he went back home, and she went to pick up the two girls at school. While she waited in the courtyard, she watched the mothers and fathers calling out from their cars or forming circles and chatting distractedly. She asked herself what those families were like, what they talked about during family gatherings at home, if they were happy or unhappy. This went on until Baby pulled the leash forcefully to get slack to run over to the two girls, and the woman followed mechanically.

He got to his house, took off his shoes, and thought that he would see her the following day, probably. He remembered her hazelnut-colored eyes and her wavy hair. She seemed like an exquisite woman, certainly more so than his wife, and something in her gaze stirred his compassion. In his youth, he’d been attracted to some women who also had that same half-tender, half-defiant look in their eyes. Those were the women he liked: willing to have a fling with him, but delicate and loving too. Some women were carefree, though, and they seemed happy just to be desired and retained for a short period of time; other women, somewhat passionless, got close to him out of mere curiosity and a fear of dying without having experienced anything that would pull them away from the everyday, so as not to be different from those women who did give themselves over totally and without hesitation, even if not out of genuine love. Then—how could he forget—there was another pretty sizeable group, made up of women seeking the sublime: something to justify their relationship above everything, the grace that would designate their experience as the only true one, which must be revered for all eternity. His wife belonged to the second group and, as such, did not love him. Once the experiment—which resulted in two descendants—was over, everything dissolved into thin air. Nothing remained, aside from the sickly symptoms that would bubble up all of a sudden in her body in order to keep him from leaving her.

What happened next was that those afternoons at the café, along with the time during which the woman with the little dog would stroll for a while until she went to pick up her daughters, turned into longer, shared walks through the city streets. Sometimes they would change their route and go to the pier or through the park, where Baby would take the opportunity to sniff the dogs that approached her. And one day, when the weather was getting nicer, Dmitri-not-really-Dmitri, thinking that soon the school year would end and they would have to come up with another way to see each other, perhaps intoxicated from the smell of the flowers or simply because he couldn’t hold out any longer and was tired of so much politeness, took her by the waist and said to her:

“Let’s go to your place.”

And they started to walk quickly down the sidewalk. School would get out in an hour, but they still had time. She opened the door wildly, pulled on the little dog’s leash, and went into the bedroom; he followed her. She hadn’t been with a man for many years. She only saw her ex-husband once a week when it was his turn to come pick up the girls. They said hello, asked how the other person was doing, and said goodbye. Mechanically. Not one word more than was strictly necessary. Seven years of that. And now, today, she would be late to pick up the girls because she just couldn’t stop.

“This is a bad idea,” she said, as she buttoned up her blouse and smoothed down her hair with her hands.

“Don’t say that, don’t say it again.”

“I love living an uncomplicated life. I don’t even know what I’m doing to myself.”

“But why are you giving yourself such a hard time? Nothing’s wrong.”

“I have to go, I have to go . . . They’re waiting for me. I don’t want to see you ever again.”

“Let me at least look at you for a few seconds,” he said, as he finished getting dressed.

He left first and went down the stairs without turning around, and I knew that yes, without a doubt, I was the woman with the little dog. Like Anna Sergeyevna and Dmitri Gurov, neither of us slept well that night.

He spent the days doing his market analysis, and I wrote the articles my head editor requested: floods in Pakistan, Romanians kicked out of France, summer fashion trends, the season’s bestseller, the protesters calling for participatory democracy, the Tramuntana Mountain Range named a World Heritage site.

Of course, the fact that he couldn’t classify me into one of the three types of women he’d met throughout his life led him to become obsessed with me. And—this is how he explained it to me—he went from constantly remembering our first meeting and our conversations to having the sense that I—and Baby, her too—were constantly with him. It was the words that came back to him first, only to be joined by images. He saw my face approaching his cheek, my hands touching his hair and underneath his chin to lift his head up, my hazelnut-colored eyes with their steady gaze. He saw me as much more beautiful, young, and delicate than I actually am.

And when he couldn’t take it anymore, he would leave the house and rush to the café. He would sit in his same chair and wait for me for hours, even though he knew I wouldn’t ever show up. He’d ask for the newspaper, to see if one of my articles had appeared, and, if it did, he would tear it out with his hands and stuff it into his pants pocket. He needed to talk to someone about his suffering. He chose the waiter.

“Do you remember that woman who used to come and sit here every afternoon, who was always talking with me? Yes, the woman with the white poodle . . . ” he asked almost without looking him in the face, as if he still expected to see me appear from somewhere.

But the waiter didn’t know who he was talking about. He looked at him, perturbed; that café was one of the busiest in the square.

Poor Dmitri-not-really-Dmitri had just one idea left. And he decided to give it a try. One evening, just before five o’clock, he started walking to the school, where he planned to wait for her. He was sure she would show up. Some of the girls had already gotten out, wearing their plaid skirts and with their backpacks in tow. Maybe one of them was hers. She was on time, with the little dog and a plastic bag on her arm. Her daughters went over to her and hugged her. She took snacks out of the bag. Another mother approached, and the two women started to talk. She laughed. She had the same sweet expression as always. The girls played with some of their friends, while some other girls petted little Baby. He took it all in, from behind a garbage can designated for dog waste. And when they started to walk home, he followed them at a careful distance. When it had been ten minutes since they’d gone upstairs, he rang the buzzer. She let him in and went out to the landing to get him, but she scolded him immediately:

“Why did you come here? Why? Why?”

“Please, you have to understand.”

“I’ve been trying not to think about you. But I’m not happy.”

He took her hands and kissed each of her fingers, then the palms of her hands, and finally, her forehead.

“What are you doing? They might see us. The girls are inside. You have to leave.”

“I don’t care if they see me,” he said, eyes gleaming.

“Go. We’ll talk tomorrow. Call me and we’ll figure out how and where to meet. But not here. The girls finish school next month.”

“My wife is sick again. They have to run tests. I’m sure I’ll get sick soon too. Sometimes I can’t catch my breath. I have no appetite.”

And right when he finished his sentence, he kissed her. He continued:

“And you’re not happy.”

“No. I’ve been thinking about you. I can’t sleep.”

“We’ll find a way. We will. We have to.”

“You have to go now.”

And now it was she who hugged him, almost violently, for a few seconds, before saying goodbye.

Yes, I am the woman with the little dog. I’m not Anna Sergeyevna, even though I do quite like that name. And the man I love isn’t Dmitri Gurov. We talked on the phone just a little while ago, while I ate my fillet. We talk every day, and we keep making plans to spend some time together. He just told me: enough, my love, no more tears; we’ll talk again soon, we’ll find a way. We both know that we’ll have to overcome some terrible obstacles. The hardest part is just beginning. But now—as on that day in the courtyard outside the school, when I asked myself what others’ lives must be like—I can’t help but think that everything that’s truly important, real, interesting, and genuine happens behind closed doors. Everything that’s readily apparent about me is insignificant. Look, the woman with the little dog, people say. By the same token, everything I see of others is a ruse or disguise. True existence is what happens out of plain sight.

Maybe I will write a banal and tragicomic article about a woman from the twenty-first century with a nineteenth-century problem. Something easy to read, distracting entertainment for these days filled with disaster and destruction. And so, the hours will pass, and the day will end as always, with pajamas and bedtime stories. The other things that can’t be seen won’t be seen. Baby will climb into my bed, turn in three circles, and make herself comfortable in the curve drawn by my legs. I’ll say to her: How are you, princess? Sleep tight.

translated from the Catalan by Marlena Gittleman