The Definition of Different
I wish I could tell you I have enjoyed the company of a dog or
a cat every day of my life, but it's simply not true. In fact, my
earliest appreciation of pets in any form did not occur until I was
four and, even then, was limited to my grandmothers' dogs.
My mother's mother possessed a white male toy poodle named Marty. From the start, Marty made it abundantly clear that he had no patience for small curious hands, except perhaps as chew toys. Venture into his territory, that is, anywhere within an invisible fifty-yard perimeter of my grandma's house, and he would come at you, bouncing forward as if his legs were little pogo sticks, emitting a bark that could crack bulletproof glass, before scurrying away to safety behind grandma's ankle, only to repeat the process over and over again until he finally ascended into her arms. From this lofty position he could look down at me with an expression that said "If you bother me, I will make you pay in blood and tears."
Marty was not even a year old and his presence had already negated what few pleasures there were after a two-hour car drive to visit my grandma.
"Sit you down while I put the kettle on," Gran would say as everyone rushed for a vacant seat in a game of musical chairs that invariably left me with the sofa where Marty had settled. Curled up on the middle cushion, Marty would emit a throaty, malicious grumble if I so much as inched toward the ends of the couch.
There was also the smell. The entire house reeked of the only food Marty deigned to consume - sausages! I never once saw him eat regular dog food. And I'm not talking about classic British bangers.
Marty's delicate mouth and discriminating palate preferred, no, insisted upon, a small, handcrafted breakfast sausage from a local butcher that had to be fried, allowed to cool, and then carefully chopped into congealed mouth-size pieces. At some point during every visit Gran would excuse herself, go to the kitchen, take up a position next to the stove, and disappear into an oily cloud as she seared sheathed meat that crackled and spat in her direction. I would look over at her and she would smile the smile of old people everywhere, content to check off another comforting chore in her daily routine. Meanwhile Marty might squirm a little on his throne and sigh, not out of boredom, but approval, pleased the hired help was doing his bidding.
Neither my grandma nor my parents ever suggested Marty and I become acquainted or that Marty become socialized around children or that he be reprimanded for his bad manners. Perhaps I couldn't be trusted not to pinch, yank, rip, or snap as I did with most of my toys. Perhaps they didn't want to take any chances. What ever the reason, I kept my distance, painfully curious to discover the feel of his hypoallergenic, steel-wool fur but convinced he would practically explode if I so much as touched him. After a while, I lost all interest in Marty. What was the point? How could I have a relationship with an animal who might as well have been behind bars in a zoo? I couldn't understand what anyone saw in a pet you couldn't, well, pet.
On the other hand, my grandmother on my father's side had a placid female Dalmatian named Cleo and to my delight (and no doubt to the delight of my mother), they occupied a small bungalow next door to our house. In contrast to Marty, Cleo could be completely trusted around children. She was tolerant and forgiving and endowed with seal-pup insulation that possessed a certain... give, similar to a Tempur-Pedic foam mattress. Cleo never tired of me petting her, happy to relinquish her short, fine hairs to my sticky palms, which would soon resemble a pair of black and white mittens. I could fall over her or fall into her and she would either lie there and take it, indifferent to the contact, or rise quickly to her feet and find somewhere else to lie down, as though she was sorry for getting under foot rather than angry at being disturbed. At the time, my little sister, Fiona, was too small to play with me, so I was thrilled to share our backyard with a big old spotty dog who never once regarded me as though I were a tasty hors d'oeuvre.
Excerpted from Ever By My Side by Dr. Nick Trout. Copyright © 2011 by Dr. Nick Trout. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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