Here is Porch writer and Tenx9 first-timer Jennifer Chesak’s story from August 2016’s theme “Strangers.” 

Teetering the Line

A teenager lives kitty-corner from me, and we’ve teetered this line between being strangers and friends. Are we friends? Me, a late thirty-something woman who hoards mulch bags from the garden center, and he, a young man navigating the years where you get your first job and your driver’s license—and, for him, some tough experiences that I’ve laid witness to…

I was in my home one afternoon when I heard a thud followed by howling. Brakes squealed, and a car jammed in reverse. Before I’d even looked out my window, I knew what 38-Strangershad happened and ran outside. Tony’s puppy was lying in the ditch, bleeding from the mouth. A woman stood outside her car, yelling. “It was like hitting a rock,” she said. She shook her head at Tony. “Why didn’t you have him on a leash?”

Before this moment, Tony and I had never spoken; I actually didn’t even know his name. We were essentially strangers. But we’d waved to each other in passing as neighbors tend to do. Over the years, his wide smile had caught my eye, and in recent weeks, I couldn’t help but notice the affection this teen, all arms and legs, doled out on this pup, who was still yet all paws. Now he stood on the lawn, shaking and with tears clouding his usually bright eyes. Words trapped in his throat as he tried to respond to this woman. All he could do was throw his hands in the air. Then he dropped them to his side in defeat.

I looked at the little yellow dog quivering on the ground and back at Tony. I learned that he was home alone and that his dad couldn’t be reached because their only cell had been shut off. “I’m gonna grab my keys; we’ll take him to the vet,” I said. I also told the woman who had hit the dog—she was still yelling—to write down her name and number and get going.

By this time another neighbor had come out to the street. She’d been listening to the commotion. “You can’t just take that boy without his dad’s permission.”

I turned back to Tony. “I can take your dog, but I think you should come.”

We eased little Sunny, the puppy, onto a blanket I had grabbed, and then Tony slid into the passenger seat with her on his lap.

Tony took quick and shallow breaths in the car. I tried to reassure him—and myself—that Sunny would be okay, that she was likely just in shock. I also told Tony I would cover the charges with my credit card.

“I’ll pay you back,” he said. “I applied for a job at Pizza Hut.” He told me he’d just turned 16 and could now work.

“Don’t worry,” I said. I reached over and lightly touched Sunny. “We’ll figure something out.”

On the short drive down Gallatin Road to the vet, I learned that Tony and his friend had found two puppies in an old tire left out near Cornelia Fort Airpark in Shelby Bottoms. They’d rescued them and each kept one. The pups had just received their first shots.

The vet assessed the situation quickly in a room separate from us. At first, it appeared that Sunny might just have a broken leg, but after further evaluation, I learned that she had extensive internal bleeding. Yes, there was a chance she’d make it, but surgery would cost a few thousand, and it was not a guarantee. The vet leveled with me in the hallway. Putting Sunny down was probably the unfortunate but best choice for the dog. She wanted me to get ahold of Tony’s parents, but I explained that wasn’t possible.

I went back into the exam room, got down on my knees in front of Tony sitting in the chair, and although I was a stranger to him, I took his hands in mine and told him the news. He cried in my arms, and he didn’t know it, but my tears fell into his hair.

“Do you want to say goodbye to Sunny?” I asked. He nodded. The vet brought her in, still wrapped in the blanket, and placed her on Tony’s lap.

He cried into her fur and said his goodbyes. “I’m so sorry, girl. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t protect you.” He lifted his head and shook with sobs. He repeated his apologies to this pup who had clearly received a lot of love from him in a short time.

On the drive home, Tony told me about the accident. He’d been filling Sunny’s water bowl with the outside spigot when she slipped out of his arms. Just then the woman came speeding down the road. “This isn’t your fault,” I said. But he wasn’t ready to hear those words.

His father’s truck wasn’t in the drive yet when we returned to our block. I invited Tony to my house, but he said he’d be fine and just wanted to be alone. I understood. We exchanged a hug and went our separate ways. Inside, I curled up with my dog and sobbed.

When Tony walked by with a friend a few days later, I wondered how he was, but I didn’t want to embarrass him by asking. I didn’t want to out him as being pals with the neighbor lady. I gave a discreet wave. He returned the gesture much more animatedly, and then he stopped and asked me how I was. A few weeks later, he came over while I was gardening, and he asked me about getting a rescue dog from a shelter. He continued to wave every time he walked by.

We were no longer strangers; we were friends, and seeing him always made me smile. Then one day, about a year later, I feared I’d ruined everything. I feared I’d teetered us back across the line to a place of unfamiliarity—one we wouldn’t be able to come back from.

I was sitting on my back deck with my husband and some friends. Our house borders South Inglewood Park in East Nashville. Tony and another young man, who was older and of bigger build, were walking on the path. Suddenly, the other guy grabbed Tony and began to hit and punch him. I jumped up and yelled for him to stop. With his grip still on Tony, he came to the chain-link fence and threatened to jump it if I didn’t “shut the fuck up.”

I grabbed my phone and called the cops. The whole time, Tony never fought back; he only ducked the punches when he could. The altercation broke up before the police arrived, and the other guy took off in his car, tires screeching. I later heard Tony’s dad yelling at him in their driveway.

I didn’t regret sticking up for Tony, but I worried that he would be mad at me for getting involved.

The next day I was unloading groceries, and Tony and a friend came walking by. I had this moment of panic. I almost considered hiding my head back in my SUV to pretend I didn’t see him. If he was embarrassed to be associated with the cop-calling, busybody neighbor lady, he’d have an out.

But that’s not Tony’s style. He made it a point to catch my eye, even though I’d positioned myself half behind a porch pillar. And he flashed me his big Tony smile. “Hey, how’s it going?” he said. I gave a goofy wave and an even bigger goofy grin. I stepped into the open and asked how he was.

I’d just been schooled by a teenager. You see, on Tony’s part, there was never any teetering. We were decidedly well past the line of being strangers. We are officially friends.

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