From Stepdog, a novel by Nicole Galland, © 2015 by Nicole Galland, published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Nicole Galland will be signing copies of Stepdog and speaking on a panel on developing character and voice with novelists Geraldine Brooks and LaShonda Katrice Barnett at Islanders Write on Monday, August 10.

“O’Connor,” a male voice called. We looked at each other. I stood up. She didn’t move. With nauseating dread, I was sure she wasn’t going in to the interview.

“Put away your cell phone,” she muttered, finally standing. “For the next half-hour this green card is not about your brilliant career, it’s about your marriage.”

Surly but abashed, I put away the phone, and grabbed her limp hand as we walked toward the middle-aged official who had called my name. He was tall and gaunt, and grim, like that servant in The Addams Family. He introduced himself as Mr. Smith. I bet all the immigration officials called themselves Smith.

He led us along a narrow hall — more industrial carpet, more fluorescent lights — and into his very little office, one of many off the same corridor. It was just large enough for him to slide between his desk and the wall and then sit behind his desk. There were two chairs on the near side, and we took these. Sara’s hand had remained limp in mine; she pulled it away as soon as we were seated. I tried to give her a reassuring squeeze before she had entirely removed it, but she ignored this and did not look at me. I felt my gut clench. Which made my headache worse. I felt like one of those rubber stress-release dolls, whose eyes bulge out when you squeeze its belly.

Sara, the furrow between her eyebrows misshaping her face, unclasped a blue plastic accordion file: the most recent tax return, which she’d filed jointly; the records of our joint bank account, including printed statements showing that we both used it regularly. Affidavits from our friends, who all said they saw it coming and that Sara had never seemed so happy. Printed copies of all the photos from the parties and gatherings. She had spent hours preparing this dossier, although I’d like to think I helped some by serenading her and feeding her ice cream while she did so. She looked as if she wanted to simply hand the folder over to the bloke and then close her eyes and hold her breath until he made his decision. She did not want to ruin this for me, but her heart was not in it today.

I sat back in my chair and pretended I did not have a pounding headache or a mouth full of cotton. I wished I was still a smoker, and then I was glad I wasn’t because then I’d be craving a smoke even worse than I was now.

The bloke had his own file on us, all the stuff we’d sent in weeks ago. He looked through it, as if for the first time, glancing up at us occasionally. He especially glanced a lot at me, which I’m sure had to do with how miserable I looked. To be fair, his own skin was a sallow pasty color, and the bags under his eyes larger than the eyes themselves. I knew I had bags that morning, too, and hoped I did not look as saggy as he did, because that would definitely undermine the charm I needed to ooze, to make up for Sara’s lack of spirit. Mr. Smith’s expression suggested he was holding a grudge against one of us and hoped to find satisfaction before we left the room. Or maybe that was the hangover talking.

“So,” he said at last in a droll voice, looking up. “You’re married.” He said it as if he already did not buy it. “How did you meet?” His eyes turned to Sara. She fumbled a moment, looking like a deer in headlights. What a nightmare, I thought.     

Something clicked in Sara and she managed to summarize, succinctly but without enthusiasm, the story of my busking in front of the museum, and how I kissed her when she laid me off. This was the story that, if told with her usual twinkly-eyed pleasure, would surely have netted me the green card right away. I could see that she was genuinely trying to look engaged, but what showed most was that she was making an effort. It looked and sounded forced.

Mr. Smith seemed pensive. Then he turned to me. I thought for a moment he was going to ask me what color Sara’s toothbrush was. “You moved in together very quickly. Why?” he asked me.

“Because she has a dog,” I said in flat, low tones. Thepain was shifting from dehydration headache to tension headache.

He blinked. My response didn’t exactly answer his question, but he found something useful in it. “What kind of dog?”

“A sort of golden-red silky mutt,” I said — too promptly, so that it sounded like something I had memorized. I think that made him suspicious.

“Boy or girl?” he asked.

“Girl,” I said more slowly, which again made me sound ragged. “Her name is Sara. I mean Cody.” I had to suppress a welling up of the nervous giggles. Sara glared at me like I was mad.

“What kind of food does she eat?” he asked.

“Oh, God, I don’t know,” I said, trying not to groan, the edges of my vision blurring from the pain. I sensed Sara squirm, and Mr. Smith’s eyebrows rose a little. A slightly predatory look settled onto his gaunt features; now he looked interested. I was about to fuck this up — because of the dog. “The big blue bag with a giant salmon leaping out of a stream,” I said.

He continued to gaze at me levelly. He seemed suddenly like a sheriff in a ’70s TV show who was nice enough, but about to inform me that he was going to have to take me in. And secretly, he would enjoy it. After all, calling someone out was the only thrill to be had in his job.

“What’s her name again?”


“How old is she?”

“She’s 2,” I said.

“Three,” Sara corrected. She paled slightly, and gave him a pleading look. “Rory can hardly keep track of his own age,” she said, a nervous joke. “And he’s right about the dog food, it’s called Taste of the Wild, and you can go online right now and see it. He does most of the shopping because I’m at work. He’s bought it plenty of times.”

Stop it, I tried to say to her psychically. She was terribly tense, and he was noticing.

He looked at me. “How big is the dog?”

“I’m not sure,” I said, fighting off a rising sense of worry, which at least had the benefit of cutting right through the headache and giving me some clarity. This was not going at all the way I’d imagined it. “Maybe 65 pounds.”

“Where’d she come from?”

“I don’t know. She’s not my dog. She’s my wife’s dog.” I silently thanked all the young mothers of the Arboretum for giving me the chance to learn to say that so offhandedly.

But Mr. Smith frowned. “Doesn’t that make her your dog?”

“No, and here’s why,” I said, feeling my Irish temperament well up through the hangover fog and get the better of me. “Sara’s mother had just died when Sara and her ex got the puppy, so she was pretty fragile. Her ex was such a wanker that her best friend Lena literally spits when she mentions him. He was very controlling and he decided they were going to have the best dog in the world, so he pressured Sara to take a leave of absence from her job at the museum, if you please, so she could be home with the puppy all day and train it. If I were her, I’d hate the dog for all that, but Sara’s so affectionate and loving, and she needs affection and love, and she used to get it all day long at work, but now she only got it from the dog, plus of course the dog came of age believing that life consisted of spending all day every day with Sara, so they developed a seriously codependent relationship which frankly neither of them has grown out of, and explains why no matter what I do for the dog — and let me tell you, I do a lot, I take her out to the Arboretum every weekday and we go to her favorite spots, every single day, rain, hail, sleet or snow, and I give her treats — I have a whole bag of treats I keep in my anorak that Sara doesn’t even know about — ”

“You do?” said Sara, making nonhostile eye contact with me for the first time since Lena’s kitchen.

“And all she wants when Sara comes home is Sara’s attention, not mine, so yes, she is my wife’s dog, and my stepdog, so I don’t know where she came from. That’s Sara’s business.”

I suddenly noticed I was standing up. Somehow in all of that, despite the hangover, I’d risen and started pacing in the tiny office, and didn’t even realize it until I stopped.

I sat down. Quickly. “Sorry,” I said.

Sara was staring at me. “I didn’t know you gave her treats,” she said, sotto voce.

“Not nearly as much as you do,” I retorted impatiently.

A cough from Mr. Smith silenced us and commanded our complete attention. He grimaced, and looked back and forth between us.

“I think I’ve seen enough,” he said, forebodingly.

I felt my stomach sink into my balls.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” he went on. “And that was about the most convincing display of matrimony I have ever witnessed in this room. Mr. O’Connor, sir, welcome to the United States of America.”

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