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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

photo: Mark Friedman

Nelly is hosting her boyfriend Playtpus the setter this week. (As my son hastens to tell everyone, Nelly has three boyfriends. He does not yet know to apply the term, but he does know that dogs are polyamorous. He believes in his gut that people are not.) Platypus is beloved--of her, of his owner, and now, of me.

I am recalling some of the wonderful, and mysterious, behaviors that emerge when two dogs live together. (There are plenty of even more mysterious behaviors that come out in humans when they live together--Can you not throw your socks into the hamper? What about that is so hard?--and if I allow my living-alone state to persist much longer, I don't know that I could ever stand to share a roof with someone else again. The years make of one a calcifying control freak, and I find myself wondering if such things as love, companionship, assistance, and warmth could ever offset the terrible difficulties engendered by discovering yet again too late the toilet seat has been left up.)

Dogs who live together send invisible (to us, that is) signals to each other. The most fascinating concerns the trade-off of empty dinner dishes: as soon as both are through, they switch places and lick out each others' bowls. This practice is invariable, from what I have experienced of multi-dog households. Another, similar, communication concerns who is to take care of that poor sot, the human, on a walk: "OK, it's my turn to stay within ten feet of her--you can go disappear for a while. But be sure to come back, because you'll have to take care of her next." Then they trade off, but I have never been able to locate the semaphore they wave in order to signal it's time.

Then they love. They love by playing at aggression and control--they roll around on the floor in the most X-rated of fashions, growling, taking hold of each others' ears and legs in fearsome-looking, but factually gentle, teeth. This is my gift, watching this pure, animal energy of affection. I could watch it for weeks.

Taking care of another person's beloved animal also brings with it a heavy weight of responsibility. You don't know this dog as you know yours--the sound of the breath, the habits of sleep, when things are just right and when they are ever so slightly off. I love Platypus, but I am on edge. I will be happy when his owner is back, and I can sigh with relief as I hand back the reins. "It was lovely having him here! [Which is true, but it's lovelier having you take him back, safe and unharmed.]"

On Monday night, though, all of it--the love, the worry, the desire for another body in the night--came together at once.

I stayed up late working; I have developed bad habits that are in part born of necessity, in part my inability to deal with things like blank pages on which I am supposed to write something partway readable. I wait. Or I am blindsided by weeks in which all at once there are school holidays, costumes to make, other assignments to do, friends' visits, social events, homework to monitor and soccer practice to go to, and the next thing I know it's 10 p.m. and I haven't started to write the chapter that was due two blown deadlines ago. So I sit down then and start. The next thing I know it's past 2 a.m., and I need to be up by 7.

I lay there in bed, awake. My heart has been hurting for weeks, my mind roiling. And now my heart is beating erratically, not only figuratively, but actually. In my chest. Ah, perfect. The literary theorist heart. It manifests its metaphors literally. And gives me something else to worry about.

In a way, I feel as though my world is breaking apart. That is how things can feel in the dark of the night at 3 a.m. when you are also wondering if you should drive yourself to the ER now, before you start getting the paralyzing pain in the left arm. I don't know what to do, in any way. That is when Platypus starts up the stairs, and I hear him fall. Finally he makes it, jumps up and curls himself up at the foot of the bed, next to his dear Nelly.

My foot feels something. He is shivering. A rhythmic, episodic shivering that gets stronger and stronger until it shakes the whole bed. Now the two of us are beyond help, lying awake in the middle of the night. I try to hold him tightly, but not too, knowing that sometimes some firm weight around us when we are frightened gives the apprehension of solidity. He is afraid of something, I am afraid of something, and now I am afraid I did something that will kill this other person's beloved. Was it the lamb bone he ate tonight? Ach, I shouldn't have given him that lamb bone. Did he break his leg on the stairs when he fell? Should I take him to the ER too? If so, which one of us should go first?

I pulled him up to one side of me, so I could curl myself around him and stroke him, to try to calm him down. Then I pulled Nelly on the other side of me, so I could stroke her to try to calm me down. I recalled that she has been with me through some of the direst nights of my life, always steady, always there. She did not know how much I needed her then, or how much I needed her now.

At some point, we fell asleep. All three of us, into whatever dream worlds were there waiting. In the morning, Platypus jumped off the bed, tail wagging. When Nelly moved to jump off too, he showed his teeth to her--Grrr! I'm fierce! You will not pass by me, you rapscallion!--which is one of those things dogs do to one another when they live together. When they share what they mean what we call love.