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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

I had a wonderful experience this week. I joined a writers group. Those two words used to make me itch; I'd avoided such things for a very long time, harboring all sorts of misconceptions about them (prime among these the idea that I didn't "need" one). But as I'm lately discovering about pretty much everything, we condescend to or sneer at only that which scares us. I had been frightened. But that night, in the company of some very smart, very fine writers (two of whose literary reputations and book sales both I would have to live to a hundred to ever hope to approach), I found some of what I'd been needing. Very badly. Also, some truly great photography; just a lagniappe.

But that's not the wonderful experience I wish to report. It's that I brought Nelly with me, and there were no disasters! She did not snark at the two resident pugs; she did not guard me--by sitting in my lap and making ugly faces, the doggy equivalent of sticking out your tongue or giving out a raspberry--against the two resident labs. Instead, she wandered around the house (must check to see where cat is), sniffed things, made a brief effort to see if she could get on top of the table to see if the fuss over hummus and Terra chips had any implications for her, and then fell calmly asleep on the rug by my feet as we all read from new work.

Hallelujah! Another longstanding dream of mine coming true. --To have a dog I can take places. A normal dog. (That's "normal" by the wishful standards of a person, that is.) You don't know how much I wanted this--or how impossible it seemed in the early years of Nelly's life. I believe I've informed you that Nelly is a screamer. All it took was going indoors (the effrontery!) somewhere new, and she'd start whining, whining, escalating all the way up to a piercing shriek that froze the room, all heads swiveling in stunned (and pained) silence to see whence such an unholy sound came.

Nelly, of course.

Once upon a time, Nelly was going to be a European dog. The kind that lies patiently under the cafe table, oblivious to the fact that butter-laden pastry products are being consumed by mouths other than hers right above her head. The kind that's content to move on whenever her family pays the bill and decides where to next, without consulting Rover. She would walk carefully down the Parisian sidewalk, minding her own business, no other agenda than to exist at the end of a six-foot lead. On occasion she could visit a hilly simulacrum of nature in one of the great city's estimable parks, and perhaps we'd let her off leash to discuss matters with squirrels. Of course, this means she might end up like the dog of the Parisian woman we met one dusk in a park, frantically searching for the dog we had seen five minutes earlier tear by us, personless, frantically looking for her. It didn't look good on either side. Of course, if it was Nelly, she wouldn't be looking for me. She would be desperately searching for baguette ends.

After thinking that Europe represented the dog-owning ideal--people took their dogs everywhere, into restaurants and public buildings and on the trains!--seeing the reality changed the fantasy perception. Dogs were entirely incidental to their people's lives: they stopped and stayed stopped when friends met on the street to chat; they lay under tables whether or not they were hungry themselves or would have preferred napping on something softer. Their needs did not rise above the visible horizon. I don't believe Paris has many dog parks.

So maybe it doesn't matter if I can't take Nelly with me when I go out for brunch. I must be careful not to bring her to friends' houses that also harbor cats or guinea pigs. Or low cocktail tables. Mustn't forget that. Yet she is a member of my family, and my heart always sinks to receive an invitation to go places that exclude her. My mother does not understand: she thinks my dog is an obligation that prevents me from going on vacations to spas (ha!) and by airplane. She thinks Nelly "holds me back." But I believe Nelly propels me forward, toward inclusion and togetherness and comprehending the nature of borders. I would rather be in those places, psychic and real, than staying back--"back" meaning the same place I've already been. Although I do admit that hot-stone treatments are quite something.

Any time I bring Nelly someplace where she does not scream, or launch herself like a stealth missile into unsuspecting diners' laps in order to be closer to the butter plates, or pin the resident pooch with a fearsome growl, I feel like we are one step closer to the world I want: anyplace that is not the past; anyplace that resembles an integrated Melissa-Nelly world. The cross-species, cross-purposes gap bridged by togetherness. In my dreams.

Nelly and Platypus in togetherness heaven: photo (c) Andrew Garn. Thanks, Andrew!