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It's Nelly's World

Beauty/Beholder's Eye

alec vanderboom

Once upon a time there was a young woman who was searching. Everywhere she went--Fifth Avenue at lunchtime; the grocery; that bar on the corner of B and 7th--she felt that something was about to appear to her. And sometimes, it did: brown eyes visible only for a second under a hat bill pulled low; the revelation of a face as the motorcycle helmet was pulled upward. In that moment, an entire story was written. Always, it contained depths, and the promise of prizes the girl dreamed of most heavily: startling intelligence, striving for the heights of art, gentleness and compassion and the ability to love.

Often, the story turned out considerably shorter than imagined. Barely had the first beer gone down than the hopefully posited qualities evaporated. In their place, the dreaded shallowness of all sorts. Just as quickly as the story had been written, the words fell off the page, tinkling on the ground like ice. But the strangest thing was that as this happened, the men changed shape. No longer handsome, the source of such arching desire it would become invisible in the clouds, they became rather plain. Ugly, even.

This is yet another of these weird human dramas our dogs rescue us from. Because I don't believe this really ever happened: a handsome dog, once taken in under roof, became unappealing because it is discovered that, intellectually, he is no border collie. Instead, it only works this way: that love transforms the homeliest of beasts into the subject of a Stubbs painting, reflecting shards of light off its surface. You may not be able to see the dog's dopey eyes, but to her owner she is beauty in four-legged form. And is gazed at rapturously for hours, during which she becomes even more gorgeous.

I wonder if dogs are susceptible to beauty in other dogs, or if it's all about the scents that emanate from glands placed (for us) altogether too near an uninviting place. Well, guess what, folks: to us, beauty can be far less in the eye of the beholder than in the nostrils of the pheromone-smeller, too. [Have I mentioned that I am a biological determinist?] As well as in the give-and-take of possibility and desire, or what is doomed to remain unfulfilled even as we (think) we want it.

Dogs are creatures of opportunity, and take their beauty where they find it, which is largely in front of them.

I wrote, at the beginning of this series, about how Nelly was not what I intended at all. She was not my ideal of beauty in a dog.

One day, a long time ago in another life, we were walking past the town green in Delhi, New York (an ideally beautiful town, it happens). A couple was walking toward us, engaged in mild but vigorous debate. As we neared, it became apparent that the man was arguing with his girlfriend about the physical attractiveness of her dog, who was absent. The girl protested, naturally: her dog, she said, was indeed quite handsome. No, he countered. And as they drew abreast of us, he suddenly saw Mercy. He took her arm and pointed. "Now that's a beautiful dog."

Indeed she was. And my love for Nelly has made her beautiful too. So it passes into fact. Because I have framed this particular picture. Nothing can change that.