My friend Heather has sex with her cat. Not literally, of course. But the cat easily gets what Heather calls over stimulated and grabs her arm and humps it. This involves teeth and claws and blood but does not faze her. She flicks him on the head and tells him to quit, and ten minutes later he does it again. The cat, George, is one of her many rescues. Sometimes I wonder if I am, too. Especially today.
We’re meeting for an emergency lunch at her favorite place. She was available because Friday is her day off, but she would have met me anyway. As an animal shelter volunteer, she’s always up for a crisis.
Jean, my therapist, would call Heather an enabler and her relationship with George co-dependent. She doesn’t know the half of it. And Jean says I’m dysfunctional. In her head, she probably thinks lots worse. But as she has told me repeatedly over the years, what she or anyone else thinks is not something I have control over, so I shouldn’t worry about it.
Easy for her to say.
I do worry about what others think and listen hard for the subtext when they speak. Today, my worst fears were realized. There had been no need for reading between the lines. I wondered how hard it would be for Jean to squeeze me in for an emergency session after the emergency lunch.
Heather wore long sleeves despite eighty-degree temps.
“Another wild night with lover-cat George?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes and snapped open her menu to hide from my accusing look. I don’t know why she bothers with the menu. She orders the veggie burger and water with lemon. My taste runs toward a real burger with French fries and blue cheese and…
“Come to the shelter with me after lunch.” She mumbles this around a bite of toasted pita chip and hummus without looking up from the menu she isn’t reading.
“I don’t have ti—”
“Yes you do.” Then, she did look at me with that gaze that misses nothing. I’ve never been able to lie to her. We’ve been friends since high school. Plus, she can see through bull even faster than my therapist.
I did have time because I’d lost my job that morning. Hence the emergency lunch. The reality of it hadn’t set in; I was still jet lagged from that week’s business trip. They’d barely given me time to grab a cup of coffee before calling me in to the conference room.
I would never lose my job, of course. Only a moron would do that.
There’d been a merger. Positions were eliminated, consolidated. After hearing laid off, my eyes glazed over at the business speak, the euphemisms.
Like enabler, co-dependent, dysfunctional.
Like I lost my mother a couple of years ago. No. She died. End of story.
The shelter was noisy and smelly and no matter how often I go, I enter with a vague sense of unease because I know I won’t be taking one of the animals home and leave with a distinct sense of self-loathing because I haven’t taken ten animals home. Why I accompany Heather on these ventures is beyond me.
“We got some new dogs in,” she said as I followed her down the narrow hall.
They always have new dogs. And cats. More come in than go out. It’s a no-kill shelter. Her cork-soled Birkenstocks made no sound except for the occasional squeak on the hard linoleum. The clack of my high heels echoed off the walls, competing with the persistent barking.
Truthfully, I go to torture myself. I love animals and would have at least a cat if my travel schedule allowed. But I live alone and am gone more than I’m there. It wouldn’t be fair. I like it that way. Not the unfair part, but the being-gone-so-much-I-don’t-have-time-for-commitments part.
There’s some honesty for you. The job is my life so I don’t have to have a life. I said it. Happy?
At least, it was my life, other than sessions with Jean, which typically go like this:
How are you feeling?
No, Stephanie. Feelings.
I got nothin’.
Anger. That’s a feeling, right? Worked my butt off for that company for fifteen years. Traveled every week to wherever I was needed, no questions asked. Stayed focused. Met all the goals. Kept the clients happy. Made them money, for God’s sake. New management dropped me like a buzzing bowl of wasps. Probably to hire some young, cheap straight-out-of-college no-experience sweet thing…I was pushing fifty; I had no life and no job. But, I had anger.
“Wow,” Heather said, piercing my fugue. “I’ve never seen him do that.”
“Huh?” I tried to track back to the previous conversation. Had there been a previous conversation?
You’re too much in your head, Stephanie…
We stood halfway down a row of twenty concrete runs. In the one in front of us sat the biggest dog I’d ever seen. He was staring at me. Locked on like he was going for the kill. Except his tail was wagging. Very slowly brushing a fan shape through a puddle of pee. His eyes held a knowingness that gave me a chill.
“You’ve never seen him give puppy eyes to a potential adopter or you’ve never seen him wag his tail in his own pee?”
She ignored my tone. “He usually stays in the back of the run. I’ve never seen him stare at anyone like he recognizes them, let alone wag his tail.”
“You think too much.” Easy for me to say.
“I think maybe…” Her eyes lost focus and she glanced over her shoulder.
I’d seen that look before. Heather is half psychic on her mother’s side. She has made some uncanny predictions that came true. I don’t know if I believe it, but I wish she’d foreseen the sucker punch I’d received that morning and warned me.
I gave her a gentle shake. “What?”
“Nothing. Never mind.”
“Oh, no, missy. Don’t never mind me. Spill.”
She looked at the dog, then at me, then at the dog, then let her gaze rest on my face with a resigned sigh. “What if he’s your lover from a previous life?”
“What if—?Are you serious? That’s rich even for you. I don’t need a dog.”
Heather carried on as if I hadn’t spoken. “And he did something wrong. Something wrong to you. He needs your forgiveness before he can move on.”
She’d stopped asking questions and started stating facts. All with that faraway look in her eyes. Spooky. The dog turned to her with his ears up, then looked back to me and panted eagerly. I’d swear he was smiling, agreeing with her. I could just hear him saying, “Yeah, yeah, that’s it. That’s the ticket.”
I was not his ticket. I turned to Heather. “I get it. You’re trying to take advantage of me because I’m still in shock. You think you can pawn off this poor thing on me with a crazy sob story because I’m not all here. Well, you’re wrong. I’m not lonely and I’m not scared and I’m fine and I’m not going home with a dog.”
Even I could hear the desperation in my voice. For some inexplicable reason I started crying.
Twenty minutes later I walked out, William the Conqueror on a leash at my side.
The William the Conqueror and I were not lovers in a previous life. Iâm fairly certain Iâd remember something like that. Heather had been calling the half-Lab-half-mastodon Billy, but that didnât fit hisâ¦stature. And I couldnât help it. Heâd conquered me.
William had been in and out of the shelter several times. Always adopted with good intentions, always returned with stories of behavior such as he wouldn’t come in the house, he would never leave the house, he ate all the doors off all the cabinets in the kitchen, he refused to eat anything at all.
“He’s been waiting for you,” Heather said.
“I’ll bet you say that to all the suckers,” I said.
She shrugged. I hated that shrug. Heather says she’s French, but I suspect Gypsy blood. She expresses more with one shrug than I ever will with my entire being if I continue therapy through this life and into the next nineteen. Think what you want, says that shrug. You don’t fool me, says that shrug. You’ll be glad, says that shrug. You’ll thank me later. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…
Certainly my philosophy never dreamt of lovers in previous lives. It had, on occasion, fantasized about one in this. But I’d been keeping my eye on the ball, or the prize, or the brass ring. Eventually, I became too scared of dating to chance it. Now, I had William.
I glanced at him where he hunched on the passenger seat of my small hybrid watching intently out the window. I’d offered him the back where there was more room, but he insisted on being next to me, and I didn’t argue. Probably not the best way to start our relationship. His brindle coat—longer than a Lab’s and wiry like the Irish Wolfhound that was probably his other half—was stiff and scruffy and in need of a wash. He smelled. His feet were huge and I could feel his ribs. If he’d been abused, I couldn’t tell. He met my gaze with a gleam in his eye expecting adventure. I ruffled his floppy ears. He pushed his head against my hand and licked my palm.
“Sorry to disappoint you, boy, but we won’t be doing much adventuring.”
He cocked his head, pink tongue hanging out one side, and I was struck to the heart with…something. He expressed more in that common gesture...think what you want…you don’t fool me…you’ll thank me later.
Maybe I read too much into it. Maybe I was in shock. Maybe there are more things in heaven and earth. Maybe I really needed to call my therapist.
“Don’t even consider humping my leg or any other part of me, got it?”
He smiled again.
At Walmart, I left the window halfway open for him and told him to stay while I ran in for dog food and all the other things Heather told me to get. It took me a while to locate the aisle with pet supplies because Iâd never needed it. And then I was stuck. Dog food, sure, but which one? What size collar? That was easy, the biggest one. Same for a bed. A toy? Bones and balls and stuffed ducks and Frisbees and I had no idea what he liked. I grabbed one of each. Two kinds of food and three boxes of snacks. Shampoo.
As I pushed the heavy cart across the cavernous store to the people food section, my feet started to hurt and I wished I’d changed out of my pencil-skirted suit and pumps. Ugly reality caught up with me, and I was tired, tired, tired, regretting whatever foolish notion prompted me to give in and bring a dog home. I grabbed a package of peanut-butter cookies, then a second for insurance, a couple of bottles of wine and one of Scotch, a couple of cans of soup and a box of mac ‘n cheese—which I hadn’t eaten in years. Hot dogs, frozen pizza and fish sticks rounded out my basket of comfort. I bypassed the produce section and headed for the shortest checkout line.
That’s when I heard a screech from the other end of the store. This was Walmart and that could have been anything. Someone yelled stop, but I kept my head down and randomly stacked items on the conveyer belt. I rarely shopped and kept little food at home because I was there so rarely. Even so, usually I put the cans and other heavy stuff first, then boxes and paper goods and finally fruit, veggies, bread, eggs. That level of organization was momentarily beyond me. I studiously ignored the ripple of commotion heading my way, trying to focus the tiny bit of energy remaining in my system toward hurrying the cashier and person in front of me, and wondering if I should go back for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia.
Something rammed me, my knee buckled and my shin barked a jagged edge of the cart.
“Ow, hey!” I whipped around, a sharp retort ready.
Oh dear lord. The Conqueror had found me. He’d squeezed out of the car, negotiated a Friday afternoon Walmart parking lot, threaded the double automatic doors, zipped past the greeter and located me inside a huge building teeming with people and smells.
He licked my bleeding shin and looked at me with what could only be joy, his entire body wagging while his long tail knocked candy bars off the shelf behind him. Something lurched in my chest for the second time in less than an hour. Tears pricked my eyelids for the umpteenth time that day.
I know I’m cut off from my emotions and have no idea what love is supposed to feel like, but I’m pretty sure that’s when I fell.