When I first started dating, several previously dormant characteristics were dragged (resentfully, very resentfully) to the surface:
If he calls me sweetheart - regardless of the context - a Gone Girl plot to destroy his very sense of self plays out in vivid detail until I can make a run for it,
I enjoy a little lovin’ spoonful of distance, and
I am a Golden Retriever.
I don’t mean to rip off the equally fair Helena here, and I don’t *think* I require any feminist intervention, but I love you as your dogs do: Loyally, boundlessly, and with lots of cuddling and horseplay involved.
And while you may have learned differently, through friends at sleepovers and birthday party experiments, what people require to feel trusted, respected, what feels good and what feels worse, I learned through the just less than pedagogical methods of a dog named Monte.
We lived in the shadow of Mt. Jumbo, on the mouth of Clark Fork River, sometime in July 2006. The summer was misleadingly and intensely hot; due to its fruit-fly lifespan, air conditioning was a rarity, and so we sat in front of fans and waved the freezer door every hour on the hour until the whole house smelt of fish-sticks and Neapolitan. I was eight and mostly concerned with drawing the perfect horse for a chance at being featured in the local paper’s weather section. Soon, everything would turn orange and the gaping whale mouth of winter would swallow us up.
The year I lived in Montana was spent largely in solitude. I hadn’t made friends yet - the people of Montana are a little less forthcoming than sunny, sunny Californians - and so my time was largely wasted under fir trees, professional grade Bug Abode in tow. Whatever meandering thoughts of loneliness I had were gently discarded there, alongside the worms and the centipedes. I didn’t like to get caught up in lonely panic; it seemed beyond my pay grade.
Many hours were spent deeply entrenched in fantasies of teenage romance, running away, disappearing - sometimes just a phone call with a sympathetic voice on the other end. I wondered if life on the mountain's peak would offer some clarity or at the very least connection to something outside of myself. One afternoon, following an argument with my mother, I decided it was worth the risk to visit. By the light of a galloping horse lamp, I packed a bindle and scribbled a note to my father:
"I am sorry for being selfish, I just can't take it anymore."
I tucked myself into bed and tried to sleep. My stuffed horses looked at me with beady eyes, wet with betrayal. They would never forgive me. I pulled a quilt over their heads and tried my best to ignore them.
How ominous the rustling of leaves suddenly seemed, how loud the crow’s call, as though God had flipped a switch and turned the whole world's sympathy off.
A faucet’s noisy drip
a distant echoing laugh
silhouettes dashing on the edge of the woods
Try it, the world dared. Try it and see.
Increasingly concerned about the likelihood of hypothermia or kidnapping, I postponed my grand hike, figuring a week or two would provide the emotional maturity I was currently lacking. In the meantime, I would hoard granola bars. My horses sighed in relief. I kept my eyes on the sky in search of a full moon that could light my way and waited for a signal, an encouragement, anything to say "now's the time".
Montana’s winter lasts nine months round-trip: A fact heard in passing and then quickly proven. Snow came and snow never left. My patch of grass and solitude buried beneath thick layers of white linen, there seemed no place left to store the time and, as Mt. Jumbo’s precipice slowly disappeared beneath a veil of cold fog, no hope left for my romantic escape. I unpacked my bindle, burrowed my head into the carpet, and cried. My Czech drinking bird dipped its head, lifted it, dipped, and then stayed.
And then there was Monte.
He stood on my lap in the back of my father’s truck and watched our little town go by: Burger shack, smoothie shack, three casinos, Carpet World. He had lived his days thus far deep in the ice forest of Seeley Lake, and with only his brothers’ slobbery faces to serve as a view, he seemed resolved to spend the rest of his life exploring everywhere else: “What’s that? Who’s over there? How does this work?!”
He liked to smell every piece of every room. He liked hugs. He liked his Christmas sweater. He would watch you as you held him, wide-eyed, fascinated by your strength and the size of your nose. He was very affectionate, and always in a good mood. He would trip over himself on his way down the stairs, but never grew cynical - I think he always held out hope that one day he could be graceful.
He became the recipient of my intense attention (in part because his bowel movements were of particular interest to my mother who didn’t like to have her pristine vacuum carpet lines destroyed). Chatty mid-day walks were part of our ritual, so were nighttime confessions. I learned to over-explain to make up for the language barrier and quickly figured out that physical gestures like scratches and belly rubs can communicate more than any well-spelled thought.
I also learned that the head-butt is, in fact, a great tool for communicating frustration.
When weather was less forbidding, Monte would accompany me on my business trips to the river side. I would crab-walk through brush and silky mud in search of some new bug species while he trotted upstream, keeping balanced on polished stones, smelling sweet rainbow trout and listening to the evergreens. He’d wander further and further towards the high hills until I’d momentarily lose sight and, panicked, beckon him back.
I’d find him some half mile down river inspecting a plum dwarf butterfly bush. I’d call out to him, and he’d look at me. Sometimes it was as though he had never seen me before, as though I were encroaching on something sacred. I think sometimes the call of the wild was louder than I could be, and he wanted desperately to listen.
He was never ready to go home. It was too small, too warm, its corners too round. His instinctual draw to Nature was untethered by his domestication, and the wide openness of the world called to him with great conviction. We were the same in this way. We’d watch, wistfully, as Nature’s free tendrils grew twisted, unadulterated by imaginary barriers and red tape, uncontrolled by the judgement of others. We watched and we longed.
Ten years on, my mother, Monte, and I were living in a two-bedroom apartment in Dallas, Texas - a far cry from the primal Mountain State we once knew. Our river had become a shared yard with instructions posted on poop-bag stations. Monte must have been disappointed, but he hadn’t hardened in any way: If you winked at him, he’d wink back.
The decision to move to New York City for college was made quickly, and not long after, the all too familiar cardboard box stacks reappeared, sprawling across the living room until any semblance of comfort was squashed. My mother decided to make the same move - she never much took to Texan gruffness - and so the boxes spread further into the kitchen and the bedrooms. Soon, the stacks would brush the ceiling.
The only dissenting family member was Monte. His toys remained unpacked, his bed unmade. Whether it was an active form of protest or a simple lack of thumbs, who’s to say? He would watch us stow away our lives with big eyes, trying desperately to tell me something. I convinced myself that I couldn’t understand.
The truth is: I had stowed Monte away, too, years ago. When I hung up his leash and started opening the back door instead, watching him run off into the wild rather than join him. When I discovered the magic of laptops and Facebook. When we moved. When I engrossed myself in academia, became obsessed with performance, with men, with evolving. When I plotted out my life - drew careful lines from country to country, listing the accomplishments, the esteemed colleagues - without including him.
I had abandoned him. And I had lost a part of myself I wouldn’t find again for many years, and I couldn’t bear the thought of subjecting him to further neglect.
So we found another home for him.
We drove my Toyota Corolla out to a family home in Aubrey, Texas. Monte was freshly shaved for the summer. He rode with his grey face stuck out of an open window. The sun was high and white.
The home sat perched on one-acre of green land. Three barefoot children greeted us at the door, and they liked Monte even before they knew his name. They wrapped their arms around him like an old friend and took him to the edge of their yellow kiddie pool. We stood in the shade on the porch sipping tea with the parents, and watched as Monte drifted out to the edge of the yard, sniffing the chicken coop.
We waited for 45 minutes. We unloaded his food, toys, his bed. We waited with patience as he acclimated to this new scene. At the end, we bid a very polite goodbye. He was falling asleep with his head in my lap, sun-exhausted, and the children were glowing with such satisfaction I couldn’t bring myself to ruin it. So I leaned in close, told him I loved him, and left without looking back. I know he followed me to the door. He always did.
It seems odd, perhaps, to care for a dog so dearly. And it’s true: I talk about him in much the same way I talk about certain professors. Or Ernest Hemingway. But to demote his influence to a half-wit thing I fed because I was legally obligated to would be to deprive the relationship of all the depth and profundity it warrants; it would be to rewrite history, to mature coldly by choice, and I fail to see any value in that.
Just as we mirror the behavior of our parents, our siblings, our friends, we embody the likeness of our surrounding environment. You see it in the reserved nature of Montanans and the nice, smiling disposition of Californians. Pets, weather, colloquialisms: They all play a part in constructing who we become. Monte, a dog, was my project manager.
He would turn sixteen on Halloween this year, but something tells me he’s not here anymore.
I spaced out during a long writing session this weekend and wound up watching a flock of pigeons peck at the ground. It was around seven o'clock; the sun was pouring down the avenue. A naked woman across the street was leaning out of her window smoking a long brown cigarette. Unexpectedly, a Schnauzer the size of my left boob dove through the pigeon cluster, driving them up into the sky and away down the next block. The Schnauzer ran like he could fly too. His owner jogged after him liked a distressed father at Disneyland; the smoking woman cackled and shut her window. I really got a kick out of the whole thing - even now, days later, it makes me chuckle.
I think Monte would have liked that.