I don’t do well without pets. Even as a college freshman, I had an illicit pet rat in my dorm room, named Prufrock1 and subsisting on smuggled cafeteria food.
Why do we have pets, anyway? To someone who doesn’t feel the itch to tie their life to someone of a different species, pets make no sense at all – they’re noisy, smelly, destructive and/or dirty, and they arrive laden with the expectation of a future full of responsibility, expense, and eventual heartbreak.
To some of us, though, all these downsides feel like upsides – our lives feel incomplete when they’re not weighted with the need to care for, and be cared for by, another creature or two (or five, or twelve…)
A therapist friend told me about a theory of family dynamics that holds that we marry the person our family of origin needs to be complete. I’m not sure about that when it comes to partner choice (although I must concede that it took Miles’s wedding to bring an honest-to-god extrovert into our clan), but I think there’s something to be said for it when it comes to pets.
I got Prufrock at a time when I was intensely lonely. College was a strange, unwelcoming environment, where none of the skills I’d developed over seventeen years of life worked at all: not for making friends, not for passing classes, not even for maintaining basic hygiene for my body and my environment. If you’re too weird for UC Santa Cruz, you are very weird indeed, so I guess I was. Prufrock was someone who genuinely liked me, who I could take care of without being taken advantage of. He rode in my pocket or up my sleeve to classes and errands, so I didn’t have to be by myself. By the time he died – I smuggled him onto an airplane in my purse, and he ate the lining and was dead when we landed – I was feeling a little more able to get on with my life, so I was petless for the rest of that term.
By my sophomore year, though, Frank and I had moved in together, and we were both people who were used to having pets. He got Phoebe, a calico cat he had for many years after, and I got Mac, who acted out all the resistance I could not afford to let myself feel: against being half of a couple, against having our own place, and a few years later against becoming a parent – against getting older, really.
My reasons for choosing Mac had less to do with any particular knowledge of his breed than they did with Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, a favorite book: Mac was a big white Standard Poodle pup that I got for a few bucks from a backyard breeder.
I know now that a wuss like me is not a good fit for an alpha puppy, and that feeding an animal that size was not actually practical on my student budget – but when Mac clambered over a squirming white cloud of littermates to lick my face, I knew he was my dog.
Mac and I did as well as could be expected, given that I had next to no experience in puppy training and that he was a big, high-energy dog who needed a whole lot more exercise and attention than I could give him. He was the charming homewrecker every girl falls in love with once, and he wrecked several homes in the years of our association. Fortunately, he loved baby Miles and was gentle with him…
… with the occasional hiccup. One afternoon, I was having a friend over for dinner, and didn’t have time to make dessert. So two-year-old Miles, who was just learning his letter sounds, and I stopped at the bakery to buy a small cake. The nice bakery lady even handed a free cookie to the cute little boy, and he was nibbling it slowly to make it last – until we stepped in the front door, and Mac inhaled it out of his hand in a single gulp.
You can imagine the wailing. And I didn’t blame him. I picked him up and tried to soothe him. “Is there anything that would make you feel better?” I asked.
The tears stopped like he’d found a shutoff valve. He looked me straight in the eye, then looked at the pink bakery box I’d placed on top of the refrigerator, and announced, firmly: “It begins with the letter K.”
In the course of Mac’s life with us, he:
- Appeared out of nowhere to bite a cop (who we’d called to investigate someone camped out in our basement) on the inner thigh, an inch from his scrotum. The cop did not have a sense of humor, and Mac did two weeks of hard time in the Sacramento County Pound.
- During a family gathering, disappeared every crumb of a large platter of sandwiches from a china plate atop a four-foot-high pass-through, without moving the plate an inch or making a sound that could be heard by the dozen people ten feet away.
- Vaulted effortlessly over every fence we installed, including an eight-foot one with a jagged wooden top.
- During the pre-Independence Day fireworks in our predominantly Latino neighborhood, tore an entire second-story window out of the frame with his teeth, and disappeared for two weeks. He eventually showed up in an industrial office just a few blocks away. The place had no open windows, and all its doors were locked. Nobody ever figured out how he had gotten in.
The last straw was when he began applying his formidable intelligence and dentition to the brand-new townhouse that Frank and I had stretched our budget to the max to purchase. We gave him away. I hope he landed with someone who had the knowledge and patience to bring out the good dog that was hiding somewhere in that curly, chaotic head.
After Mac, I was cautious about acquiring another dog. But then a friend told me about a couple who were relinquishing a female Basset Hound. I grew up with a basset, and I have a weakness for their gentle, loyal thickheadedness, so we adopted Gert.
I’m not sure about some of what was wrong about Gert, or what issue in our family dynamic she served. I think she must have been raised in a puppy mill – she showed no signs of affection, happiness, excitement – not even fear or hostility: she was a long, low blank slate that none of us could find a way to love. (The fact that the cracks in our marriage were beginning to show around then might have been part of it, but, honestly, I think nobody could really connect to Gert, including the couple who gave her to us.)
One thing I do know was wrong with her was that she had the most virulent flea allergy I’ve ever seen. Just one little black bloodsucker turned her into a frantic, scratching, balding, sleepless sausage stuffed with misery. This was long before today’s miraculous systemic flea prevention; we tried everything from professional flea baths to every brand of flea collar on the market to putting garlic oil in her food. Nothing helped. By the time she had no hair left from shoulderblades to tail and couldn’t sleep at all, we gave up and had her euthanized – to her relief and ours.
I think one of the reasons we have pets is that they’re practice for losing people. With the exception of parrots and tortoises, pets tend to have lifespans a great deal shorter than people do; to love a dog or cat or reptile or rodent is to recognize that you will grieve it someday.
The decision to euthanize a suffering animal is the biggest and hardest promise we make to our pets. They give us affection, entertainment, touch and love; we give them a painless and loving death. (“Painless” for them. Not so much for us.)
During both of my parents’ deaths, both chosen to the degree that the law made possible for each of them, I was forcefully reminded of the dogs and cats I’ve said goodbye to through the years. Human euthanasia can take as much as twenty-four hours between the moment the fatal draft is swallowed and the moment the body gives up its futile effort to keep functioning. With a pet, the same process takes seconds or maybe minutes.
I will never understand how we can be more generous to our pets in their time of greatest need than we are to the humans we love.
My dad’s wife Mona had to euthanize her dearly loved cat Scarlett, and was so distraught that she chose never to have another pet. That choice, to reject love because loss always lies at the end of it, is the saddest choice I can imagine. Love is a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, and there is no more demanding exercise than letting go.
After Gert, I gave up on dogs for most of a decade, although we had a series of unmemorable cats (Frank’s cat Phoebe went to live at his folks’ house after we adopted Jane, who we discovered had feline leukemia and was dangerously contagious). I tried having a canary – I love the happy sound of a canary singing; it brings sunshine into the household – but I knew nothing about birdkeeping, plus having an ornithophobic mother had rubbed off: I had a very hard time handling Zack2 at all, much less catching him during his numerous escape attempts. I walked in one day and found him dead in his cage, and that was that.
Then came Maynard, the first pet since Mac to become an integral part of my life. We got Maynard when he was a half-grown kitten and Miles was just starting to toddle, so they grew up together: Miles’s first word was “kitty.”
Maynard (named for the proto-hippie Maynard G. Krebs of Dobie Gillis fame, a longtime crush object/role model) was a handsome cream tabby with one of the strongest personalities I’ve ever encountered in a cat: if he did something he shouldn’t, I would correct him with a hiss or light swat, after which he refused to speak to me for several days – but he would never do that thing again, and would in fact completely and permanently ignore the existence of whatever temptation had gotten him into trouble.
Maynard was far better suited to life in suburbia than I was. He spent most nights out hunting, and unlike most of the cats I’ve had, did not bring his prizes home – later, I’d find a few scraps of mouse or bird in a vegetable bed. On one occasion, I looked out the window to see him carrying a dead rat in his mouth. He paused, glared at me with an unmistakable air of “mind your own business, bitch,” and disappeared over the fence.
The only time one of the Dudes wanted a pet of their own was when Miles asked for a pet rat for his tenth birthday, so we got Rocky3. The first time I saw Maynard go into a predator crouch near Rocky, I hissed at him and he ran out of the room. From then on, Rocky did not exist as far as Maynard was concerned.
Sadly, Miles shortly discovered what all rat fanciers learn too soon: they are smart, affectionate, terrific pets, and they don’t last long. He wept for Rocky but did not ask for another pet.
More than the kids or Frank or me, Maynard hated our breakup. I’d moved to the top floor of a funky old downtown Victorian; I was fairly sure he could manage the traffic, but not at all convinced that he could find his way back if he got out (I suspected that he’d head straight back to our old place, several city miles away; cats are often more attached to homes than they are to the people in them). The kids and I agreed he needed to stay indoors for a couple of months.
He was miserable. I’d found my independence but cost him his. He complained, he sulked, he tried to dart between our feet anytime we opened a door. Nevertheless, we remained obdurate, for most of the three months we’d agreed on…
… and here the narrative reaches a fork. My recollection is that one day when we were just back from taking Maynard to the vet, the cumulative misery of his behavior at home and his utter hysteria in the carrier finally got to me, and I said, “Okay, let’s let him out now,” and Miles opened the cage.
I learned when I started working on this book that Miles does not remember me giving him the order to open the cage; he thinks he did it under his own initiative.
The truth is lost in time (Ben, the only other person present, doesn’t remember). Two facts are certain: Miles and I have each spent three decades feeling hugely responsible and guilty, without either of us knowing that the other felt that way. And we never saw Maynard again.
I didn’t last long without animal hair on my furniture, of course. I adopted a pair of identical orange kittens, Biff and Happy4 . Shortly thereafter I met Jay, and the cats, particularly Biff, became more his than mine. Jay was inconsolable when Biff met his end at the fender of a passing car; we heard from a neighbor who claimed to have seen the car swerve to hit him, which added rage to Jay’s grief.
Both cats turned out to be diabetic (I don’t know for sure that orange cats are more susceptible to diabetes, but it does seem as though I’ve seen the disease more often in orange cats than other colors). Biff was gone before the disease got more than “special food” serious, but Happy – who one of our friends dubbed “the world’s least aptly named pet”; he was a sulker and a kvetch – lived on: we went through the special food, the insulin injections, the multiple vet trips for blood tests. Then, like many diabetic cats, he developed kidney issues necessitating a multi-thousand-dollar surgery, and that turned into one of the bitterest fights Jay and I ever had.
Jay, a former ambulance crewman, had “do not let things die” as his prime directive – he was appalled by the fact that many of our acquaintances with AIDS had chosen to end their lives on their own terms, and disgusted by the people who participated in helping that happen. I believed that keeping Happy alive would do little for his feline quality of life and would, as a secondary consideration, cost more than we could afford. Jay won, as usual, and Happy lived to grouse another day – but after Jay and I split up, I watched Happy get unhappier with each passing day, until he was no longer grooming himself or asking for affection, at which point I drove him to the vet and said, weeping, “End this.” I never told Jay; he may be learning it for the first time as he reads this book.
And then there was Amy, another character who really merits a whole book of her own. I’d said for years that if I ever got to design my own dog, I’d breed a Standard Poodle with a Labrador, imagining Mac’s intelligence and high spirits modulated by the phlegmatic lab personality. (This was long before “labradoodles” and other popular crossbreeds were a thing in the US, although Australia had discovered this particular combination years before.) And one day I happened to open a copy of the Penny Saver5, to find an ad for a litter of poodle/lab pups just a few blocks from our house.
Our lease firmly excluded any pets other than Happy, to whom the landlady had agreed reluctantly. But we figured we weren’t going to get our cleaning or security deposits back anyway, so we might as well get a puppy.
Amy was a scrap of black fur about the size of my two fists when we got her; when the vet estimated she’d top out at about 100 lbs., we snorted. (She actually maxed out at 120, but that was well above her fighting weight, which was indeed around 100.) After a couple of the usual loud sad nights with a crated new pup, she settled in nicely, sleeping in her crate and hanging out in the kitchen during the day while we figured out the whole housebreaking thing.
If Mac had been the dog of my young-adult years and Maynard the cat of my new-mom years, Amy was the dog of my becoming-a-famous-perv years. She was joyously friendly and welcoming to the more or less constant stream of friends and family visiting or occupying our house – years later, when I was recovering from surgery and Jay asked for a guideline about who I wanted to visit me during my recovery, I thought about it for a few seconds and responded, “Anyone for whom Amy makes the Wookiee noise.” (The “Wookiee noise,” a warbling moan of joy, was reserved for the folks she considered family; everyone else got an ordinary someone’s-here bark.)
Because I had Amy before people started being doctrinaire about leaving dogs alone in cars6, she went almost everywhere with me. She considered my car to be her apartment, and welcomed the opportunity for a ride even if it meant waiting patiently for me for a few hours while I shopped or visited.
Like all of us, Amy had a few gaps in her otherwise very high intelligence: to her dying day, she never figured out why it was a bad idea to walk on the other side of a telephone pole from the person holding her leash. But she intuitively understood a vast range of human language and customs.
- She got very excited at one point when she overheard me telling someone that I was going to yoga. Yoga, yogurt – who can tell the difference? Similarly, she heard a dinner table conversation about a half barrel of fish we kept in the yard, and immediately came to the table to get her share of fish, a favorite treat.
- She figured out on her own that if she’d been scolded, a handshake was a détente. She’d sidle up, sit at your feet, cast a pleading look from under her shaggy mop, and lift one paw, until you relented and gave her a shake.
- After raiding the garbage on a pouring miserable day, she was sent into the yard for a time-out. Now, the yard had a small porch with an eave that sheltered it from the rain, and we assumed that she’d huddle there for the twenty minutes or so of her disgrace. But when we looked out the window she was sitting in the pouring rain, head down, fur streaming with water, abjection in every line of her body: a posture that said quite clearly, “I’m the worst dog in the world and I wouldn’t blame you if you never let me back in.”
A question I often ponder about Amy is: “Does someone have to do BDSM to be part of the kink community?” (Given that I’ve done maybe three scenes in the last decade, this question is more than academic for me.)
- Amy was known and beloved by a vast number of Bay Area pervs. She attended play parties (perpetual doorkeeper Brandie once said, “If that dog ever figures out how to work a doorknob, I’m out of a job”), salons, private play dates, and pretty much every other kind of gathering the kink community has created.
- One of the tests Jay used to confirm that someone had been to our house was the question, “Name the submissive who sleeps at the foot of Jay and Janet’s bed.”
- If Amy was at a party and a scene was being too loud or violent for her, she would calmly leave the room, returning when things were more comfortable: in other words, she had better party etiquette than many of the humans in our circle of acquaintances.
- Jay and I were at the time giving biweekly salons in our home, offering a mini-workshop, demonstration or game for the first hour and then breaking into a freeform social. In one such demonstration – Jay had devised a new way to tie someone in a spreadeagle – our sweetie Lynn was playing victim, and several attendees were acting as bedposts. Amy wandered into the room and saw her beloved Aunt Lynn, who took care of her when we were traveling, spreadeagled on the floor and getting a lot of attention. She pushed through the crowd of onlookers, flopped onto her back next to Lynn, and spread all four of her legs as far apart as her anatomy would allow. The room, of course, dissolved into hysterics (Lynn sat up, rubbing her wrists indignantly and sputtering “Upstaged by a fucking dog!”). In other words, Amy even had some volunteer experience as a demo model.
So you tell me: kink community member, or not? I’m inclined to vote for the former.
When I left Jay’s and my relationship, he refused to see Amy again, saying it made him too sad. Of all the things that came up during that long and contentious breakup, this is the one I found hardest to forgive. She mourned him for months.
But a year later, when Edward came home with me after a date, she took one look at him and fell instantly in love. That got my attention (Amy had excellent taste in people), and our next date cemented the impression: that was the date during which Edward helped me clip away several little balls of shit that had formed in the place that dog groomers, with nowhere near enough irony, call the “sanitary area.” Not every potential sweetie is up for that, but Edward was.
Amy, perhaps even more than Jay or Edward, was an inextricable part of my life for thirteen years – from the rental house I shared with Jay and two friends/occasional lovers, to the duplex I bought with the same folks, to the industrial loft where I tried to salvage Greenery when it was trying very hard to circle the drain, to the little house in Oakland where Edward and I lived for the first phase of our relationship. When I was sad, Amy let me cry into her shaggy back; when I was cold, she let me shove my blue feet under her warm belly; when I was confused, she was a patient and dedicated listener; when I was busy, she’d curl up with a sigh and keep me company while I worked frantically on the save-my-company project.
But Amy had not been intentionally bred, the way the best of today’s Labradoodles are. Her mother was a championship Standard Poodle, but her dad was a rogue fence-climbing Lab who apparently suffered from hip dysplasia. By the time she’d been part of my life for more than a decade, she was starting to show signs of being in pain most of the time: the long walks that had once delighted her turned into geriatric shuffles. Edward and I decided that we’d know her time had come when she was unable to climb the stairs to sleep next to my bed, as she’d done since puppyhood.
That day came far too soon. We called a vet who could come to the house. The vet, who was our age, arrived, and we remembered just in time that none of us would be able to lift 100 lbs. of inert dog – so instead, we took her out to her beloved car, helped her into the back, and got her comfortably settled in the environment she knew so well. We presented her with the unbelievable bounty of three – three! – pig ears, and while she was trying to choose which one to munch, the vet slipped the needle into her leg and she was gone.
We buried her ashes under a bush in the front yard, and when we moved to Oregon a few years later, we disinterred her and buried her under a hazelnut sapling here.
There have been other dogs and cats since Amy, and I’ve loved them all and I still do. But she was my heart dog, and she was my loyal companion during the most kaleidoscopic, wonderful, awful years of my life, and nobody, dog or cat or human, will ever really take her place.
As I write this, we have Willow (graying Border Collie/Lab mix), Augie (Australian Shepherd/something with very short legs – Corgi perhaps, or caterpillar), Pearl (matronly gray tabby), and Nick (gangly cream tabby). So these are the pets that have found me for this part of my life, to support me as I retire from the publishing business, as I try to figure out my goals for my final decades, as I experience the inevitable aches and twinges of aging, as I gradually withdraw from the active travel and teaching that were so much a part of my existence for several decades. They cuddle, they amuse, they provide skin contact (well, fur contact, but still), they demand that I stay busy and aware. It is at least possible that one or both of the younger ones, Augie and Nick, may be the last pets I have; if things don’t get quite that bad, those two are well-suited to living in a senior complex, or in assisted living.
None of them have ever attended a play party, or withdrawn from a room where the smacking noises hurt their ears. They’ve never raised a baby, survived a breakup, kept me company when I was single and lonely. They are, in short, pets that belong to someone who is in the process of becoming an elderly person, and they are really, really good at it.
1 Yes, I was indeed that pretentious.
2 Short for “Muzak.”
3 I swear I never told him about Prufrock – the name resemblance was, as far as I know, pure coincidence.
4 I am pleased to report that I no longer give my pets pretentious literary names. On the other hand, I’ve always wanted a pet named Smee, and if I can ever talk Edward into it, I intend to have one, because every pirate needs a Smee.
5 A free weekly paper containing nothing but classified ads – kind of like Craigslist, but in print. God, you’re young.
6 Not that overheating was ordinarily a serious problem in cool gray San Francisco; on the rare occasions the temperature got above 80, I left her home.