Beyond the Scanners

Over a low growl his voice continued.

‘Yeah, no, this place is great,’ he waved, as if he had chosen the decor himself. The bar went about its usual business ignoring him. ‘Nobody comes up and hassles you.’

Tim had an overinflated sense of his own fame, which made him appear quite foreign in the room. He had achieved brief notoriety as the bad boy of English letters when he won the Blackwater Prize for Fiction for Twist ‘Em Handy, a novel he had entirely plagiarised, cutting and pasting the opening sentence from every book that had ever won a literary award.

‘I didn’t know they let dogs in though.’ Tim stared and pointed his nose at the small but aggressively poised animal curling out from behind Miranda’s back.

‘They don’t,’ she said. ‘But I’m crazy.’

Miranda stressed this last word so much that it managed to sound both funny and terrifying. Tim wasn’t sure how to react. The date, to Miranda’s mind, was not going well. Furman had set her up with most of his straight, single address book and she had now hit the Ts.

‘Ha,’ Tim chuffed as if he got her joke, when he didn’t. ‘Right, yeah.’ He affected the air of someone who dug crazy chicks when actually they scared him deeply. He was suddenly unsure if it was a joke at all.

‘No really’ – Miranda had already decided to abort the date early and have a little fun –  ‘I’m crazy crazy.’  The neon beer signs above the bar reflected in her eyes and gave her a wired look. ‘Hendricks is a Service Dog. I need him. He keeps me sane.’ She snuggled down towards him, making exaggerated ‘mama’ noises and let the animal lick her on the lips. Tim could have sworn the dog winked at him.

Whenever a date wasn’t going well, when a situation was becoming difficult, Miranda would resort to Hendricks. He had become her clutch purse of discomfort. To begin with, she would bring the dog everywhere more for his benefit than her own, since he seemed so disturbed every time he was left alone in her apartment. She would regularly return to find her Jack Russell puppy whimpering in a sea of shredded underwear and dirty protests. After suffering the dismissal of a ‘No Dogs’ policy one too many times, which always left her and the dog an inconsolable pair, a friend had told her of the ‘Service Dog Trick’. She visited an amenable psychotherapist, who played the game and officially prescribed her a dog, furnishing her with a suitably forceful accompanying letter:

To Whom It May Concern,

Miranda is my patient and has been under my care since October 2006. I am intimately familiar with her history and with the functional limitations imposed on her by her mental illness.         

Miranda has difficulty coping with her anxiety.  In order to help alleviate this, and to enhance her ability to function independently, I have prescribed Miranda an emotional support animal. The presence of this animal is necessary for the mental well-being of Miranda as its presence will mitigate the symptoms she is currently experiencing.        

Please allow Miranda to be accompanied by her emotional support animal in your establishment…

Since then, the letter had been triumphantly thrust at many a disgruntled doorman, who had been forced to step aside. The letter really worked.

The more she wielded the letter, and indeed the dog, the more she did in fact rely on them. Hendricks was the ultimate accessory. He became the barometer of an encounter and his guttural utterances or wheezing whine could make or break a meeting. On another such abortive jaunt, a pudgy financier had sat across the table from Miranda and ran his taut, sausage fingers through greased and thinning hair. While he expounded his theory that ‘free healthcare only encourages people to get sick’, Hendricks had rustled down beneath them both to violently mount and mate the man’s crocodile loafers.

Even on a good day, Miranda looked to the dog constantly; eyes darting to him with every turn in conversation; the head flick to check on him tousling her long hair into a distracted mess, which had the effect of making her appear unstable. The diagnosis was self-fulfilling: Miranda could no longer remember if the dog needed her or if she, in truth, needed the dog.

After the sixth-consecutive bad date in as many weeks, Miranda had decided to skip town for a while and visit her sister in Vancouver. A slap of sororial sensibility usually served to realign her senses and she would return, refocused and ready to re-engage with the electric city and its thrum of sexuality. Hendricks would come with, of course.

Having dismissed the check-in staff at the airport with a swish of her prescription and allowed a raucous family of six to pet Hendricks through security, Miranda and her canine daemon entered the no-man’s land of Departures. Her drinking was under control these days, but always, beyond the scanners, with the humiliating belt removal and The Baring of the Socks, a drink seemed appropriate, even necessary, whatever the hour. She designated a travel day a ‘non-day’, when normal rules and codes of behaviour did not apply and therefore alcohol could be consumed with impunity. Despite the certainty of her destination, at this point she always liked to embrace aimlessness, as if her journey might take her anywhere and that she couldn’t care less.

Before she could make it as far as the bar she stopped, frozen by the sight of a man idly flapping through a cycling magazine. He was comfortably the most beautiful man she had seen in some months, even against the glossy wall of movie stars and the rippling abdominals of fitness magazines. Hendricks seemed to nose the man’s beauty from inside his carry-on porta-kennel and began a scrappy, twitching dance that whizzed and scraped the fabric of his cage. Miranda was struck immobile and, unable to make eye contact with Hendricks, simply stood staring at this tall stranger, before she fussed over some chewing gum, paid with a shatter of spilled quarters and stumbled towards her flight.

At the gate Miranda again waved her special letter:

…please allow Miranda to be accompanied by her emotional support animal in the cabin of the aircraft, in accordance with the Air Carrier Access Act (49 U.S.C. 41705 and 14 C.F.R. 382)…

Impervious to looks of scorn, she settled into her seat with Hendricks, still zipped up, on her lap. She enjoyed the warm smugness that came with twisting the system and boarding an international flight with an animal. Hendricks began his giddy dance again, scratching at the vent and positively whistling, while Miranda subtly enjoyed his tune. 

She looked up to find the handsome stranger from the newsstand straddling her as he made for the seat next to hers. Her smugness intensified to a hot buzzing as he planted himself and smiled at her, nodding to her companion. 

‘I didn’t know they let dogs on board,’ he said softly, so as not to disturb the muted atmosphere of the cabin. Miranda felt her ears tickle with the warmth and reassurance of his voice. He had the healthy glow of an outdoors type. Maybe he kept an allotment. Perhaps he dug wells for starving children in Africa.

‘They don’t,’ she half-said. ‘But…’  She froze. I can’t tell him I’m crazy, she thought. That would be crazy. 

‘He’s an emotional support animal.’ She said this so quickly and quietly that she hoped the madness of her words would be swallowed by the hissing vacuum of the engines powering up.

‘Cool,’ he smiled. With perfect acceptance he turned and faced straight ahead. Was he about to pray?

As the plane shunted from taxi to full-tilt take-off he closed his eyes and clenched tightly, gripping the armrests, locking into an upright braced position. He looked as though he were strapped to an electric chair, ready for the end.

Hendricks nosed open the side-zip of his bag enough to extend his neck and paw and lay his head on the man’s arm, just as the front wheels of the jet left the earth. As the dog closed his eyes, the man opened his. He looked down at Hendricks then up at Miranda, who hadn’t drawn breath for several long seconds, but was gazing back at him, absorbing his anxiety and distilling it into something strong, even meaningful. The aircraft banked and the windows blinked into blue.