I have never abused my dog. I’ve never beaten her with a stick, but she’s afraid of sticks. Nor have I hit her with the empty box to a printer cartridge, a large woolen throw pillow, an iPhone stylus, an asthma inhaler, a bra or an Ikea lapdesk. And yet these, too, are things that cause her to curve her body into a little beige comma and creep backward, eyes down, as though each item is laced with explosives. The only things she’s not afraid of are food, piles of warm laundry and her dog bed, which she occupies approximately 23 hours a day.Despite knowing this about my dog, I recently took her to a doggy daycare in the suburbs for a chihuahua meetup. Please don’t ask me how I arrived at such a pass; suffice to say it happened and now I have to live with myself. (I mistakenly told my best friend, who prides himself on his frankness, that I was going. He said, “You always say unemployment makes you feel like a loser. That doesn’t make you a loser. Going to a chihuahua meetup makes you a loser.”)
Traveling to the suburbs always makes me anxious. So many streets without trash and mayhem. It’s unnatural. I get lost almost immediately. The daycare was in a strip mall; another source of stress. If I’m not driving on a crowded Colonial-era potholed street with a miniature bike lane and drivers giving me the finger, I simply can’t function. Strip malls give me agita. Hannah sensed my mood.
We were the first mother-daughter pair there. Half an indoor room was fenced off and covered in interlocking rubber squares. There were no chairs except for one—well, it wasn’t a chair, really, it was a mesh-enclosed enclosed stroller with four chihuahuas in it. One of them, the short-haired Spencer, was barking loudly. The organizer told Spencer to cut it out, but he found her reasoning baroque. He continued to protest our arrival while his companions—regal long-haired chihuahuas, beautifully groomed show dogs—sat stoicly, blinking their long eyelashes, staring at us through the mesh.
My dog—Hannah, 11 years old, 7 pounds—was in panic mode. Even more so as the other chihuahuas scampered in, all dressed in holiday finery—green woolen sweaters, candy cane harnesses, little gold bows with jingle bells. (I hadn’t gotten the holiday-dress memo, so Hannah was naked.) The other dogs all looked freshly groomed, as though if you sniffed them they’d smell like flowers. Hannah’s recent “organic” flea bath made her smell like the inside of a Dow Chemical treatment plant. These well-adjusted dogs had short, trimmed nails—a key sign of good husbandry. But the last time I tried to cut Hannah’s nails she shreaked in a hysterical human-baby way and, for the first time ever, bit me. I bet she’d been working up to that moment for a good nine years.
The other dogs were hilarious—buoyant, acrobatic, gregarious. They were thrilled to be off-leash in a big space, thrilled to see new people, thrilled to see each other. It was like a family reunion picnic—the only thing missing was the barbecue. The humans were chuckling because it’s funny to be surrounded by so many ankle-high delighted creatures. Oh, and one sulking dog sniffing in a corner: my dog.
When people tried to pet her, she cowered in preparation for the executioner’s axe. “She’s shy,” I heard myself say. Then: “You’d think I’d abused her. Ha ha.” The forced laughter was an especially nice touch.
Someone asked me what that “thing” was on her side. “Oh, that’s a hair tumor,” I said, in reference to the unsightly bulge of fur. “It’s benign.” “I’ve never seen that before,” the other owner said mistrustfully. I felt like I’d brought my child to preschool with cigarette burns on her face and said she slipped in the tub.
Then I was asked how old she was. “She’s 11,” I said brightly, as though it were completely normal to wait a decade before socializing your dog.
I was feeling embarrassed by my attempts to interact with the humans. But I got on swimmingly with the dogs—the bronze-colored, kiss-bestowing Cookie; the oddly brave two-pound Sailor; the calm, swanny Lucy; and the needy and frenetic Ellie Mae. I was happier with the dogs than with the humans, frankly. And that’s when it occurred to me: Hannah is a wallflower because I am a wallflower. It’s all my fault.
Suddenly, I heard someone say, “Who did that?” And I knew before I looked up from Sailor’s walnut-sized skull that it was Hannah. She had peed. This was, apparently, not good form—I should’ve had her go before she came in. I apologized as someone else cleaned it up because it was too toxic to wait. Minutes later, I chanced to tilt my face away from Cookie’s licking and spotted Hannah, in the center of the room, “doing her business.” Dear god. I ran over with a tissue and then wrapped the offending material in a plastic bag and then another plastic bag. If I could have deposited it in a metal canister and shipped it into space, I would have done so readily.
More apologies. Just as things seemed to even out, a chorus of barks was heard—one of them suspiciously familiar, like a human baby shrieking. I turned to see Hannah and Ellie May chomping at each other’s faces—a moment that would be highly dangerous between big dogs but with chihuahuas is like a little-girl slap fight. I picked Hannah up and asked the crowd, “Who started it? Who started it?” hoping against hope that it wasn’t my kid. “She’s never done that before,” I said, holding her in my arms and feeling her heart pound wildly. Poor thing. It was time to go.
On our way home to comfort and safety—the trash and mayhem of Philadelphia—Hannah thrust her head out the window and let the wind blow her ears. To me, she seemed triumphant. So what if she wasn’t the belle of the ball. She survived! Tail wagging, she zoomed upstairs and into the safety of our apartment with a happy bounce—that is, until she saw the woolen throw pillow. Then life, with all its troubles, began again.