I don’t like animals. Okay? I’m allergic to most of them. I mean, I don’t mind them. I have nothing against them. But the bond I see between my friends and their pets is something that I don’t really grasp. However, I’d be lying if I said I always felt this way.
We had one family pet when I was a child. I don’t remember when we got him but his name was Alex and he was a little gray schnauzer with what looked like a white goatee. As a puppy he already looked like a little old man, the Benjamin Button of dogs. There’s a picture of me holding him with my Big Bird lunchbox on what I think was a first day of school, possibly kindergarten. A boy and his dog. A quintessential little picture.
Alex was awesome. He was energetic and smart and made faces and had a very distinct personality. And that poor animal had to deal with me and my learning about life and pain and power and what it does and doesn’t mean to be a boy. I tortured poor little Alex. I don’t remember harming him, but I remember becoming aware that I had the power to do so.
I threw slices of baloney against our fridge so that they’d stick which made him sprint for the treat only to slide headfirst on the linoleum into the refrigerator door. I’d hold a sock up for him to bite at, pulling it out of reach as he’d jump, before letting him get it, laughing as he coughed and choked. I remember getting his leash and rattling it so he’d come running into the room thinking he was going for a walk, only to find me sitting with no leash in sight. I remember making like I was going to swat him and watching him cower at the threat, then hugging him close and comforting him, playing out some warped little mind game of a play or TV scene in my young head.
I didn’t ever hit him.
While Alex was technically the “family dog” his care rested mostly on my big sister’s shoulders. She’s seven years older than me and I’m sure that we must have begged my mom for a pet. And I can also assume that my mom conceded only on the condition that she herself never had to take care of him. My mom wasn’t (and still isn’t) a pet person.
Things went fine for a few years and Alex was with us through a move from Texas to Alabama. I was in the second grade and my sister started high school. Gradually, Alex wasn’t being walked often enough and he started pooping on the carpet, much to my mother’s disgust. “I knew this would happen,” she’d say, rubbing the carpet with a sponge. “If you kids won’t take care of Alex, I’ll find someone who will.” My sister didn’t bathe him enough and he started to stink. I remember him scratching like crazy at the fleas that tormented him.
One day, my sister and I came home to find that my mom had made good on her threat. Alex was gone. I ran from room to room, sobbing, calling out his name, waiting for him to come. But he was gone and I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. My mom had found a family who was on the market for a new pet and she’d given Alex away. My sister and I were in shock. We embraced each other tightly, both sobbing at the loss of our pet. And even while crying with her, I blamed her. I was just a kid. She was a teenager. She was supposed to be more mature than me and she’d gotten too busy with her stupid social life and school and driving the family suburban to do god-knows-what with guys to take care of Alex and now Alex was gone. As it turned out, this would be the first of many times that my sister would disappoint me. And ever since that day I’ve had a bad habit of keeping track of every single mess-up. Flunking out of school, every horrible boyfriend, lost jobs. It started with Alex. Looking back, I understand that my mom did the right thing under the circumstances. Alex wasn’t being cared for properly. I just didn’t know how much I truly loved him until he was gone. Isn’t that the way it goes.
That’s my version of the story.
Cut to a few weeks ago at a Saltgrass Steakhouse in Arlington, Texas right off the interstate. I’m having dinner with my sister and her new husband. We’re having a good time catching up, but I’m a little tense. Nothing in particular. There’s always just a slight tension when I’m with my sister. Even though we’re both adults now and happily married and living our own separate lives, I still feel myself clench when I see her. It’s that resentment. That keeping score that I’ve done my whole life. We talk about our food, my kids, our jobs (though I’m delicate when I mention work, always losing track of whether she has a job.) I ask how their pets are doing. She has a dog that she’s had for a few years that she adores. His name is Boots. Then out of nowhere she asks melodramatically, “Do you remember Alex?” I smile and nod, annoyed by the question. Of course I remember Alex. And she proceeds to tell the story to her husband. She tells how we got Alex, how cute he was, how I used to torment him. Then she says, “And I was home for the weekend when mom gave him away…”
I stop her and say, “Are you sure?” That’s a question I ask my sister a lot because she has a habit of changing the facts to make herself the victim. Nothing has ever been her fault. So instead of coming right out and saying “you’re wrong about that” I take a more family friendly passive-aggressive approach and say, “Are you sure?” It drives her nuts.
“Yes, I’m sure,” she says emphatically, already defensive.
And I correct her, “I don’t think so. You were still living at home, still in high school. We both came home from school that day.”
She clenches her teeth as I make a point not to clench mine, refusing to give ground or power or something else that doesn’t really matter at the end of the day.
I let it go and we finish the meal, but as I merge onto I-35 it starts to bug me the more I think about it. It’s a minor detail, perhaps, but if she was already out of the house like she said, already in college, then I was the one who was supposed to be taking care of Alex. It means that I wasn’t as young as I thought. I was thirteen, making me more than capable of walking, feeding, and bathing a dog. It means that my negligence, not hers, was the reason Alex had to be shipped off to a better home. A better family. A better friend. “There’s no way that can be true,” I think.
I immediately called my mom to bitch about it even though I know my mother is exhausted from years of being the family’s mediator.
“Do you remember Alex? The dog?” I ask.
“Yesss,” my mom says, with an exasperated tone. “I know, I know, I’m the worst mother in the world.”
“No, it’s not that,” I say. “It’s Stefani. She says she was in college when you gave him away.”
There’s a pause before she says, “she was.”
“She was? Are you sure?” Another desperate pause.
And now I have to change my memory to fit the facts. What I remember isn’t what happened. Over time, I’ve conveniently constructed the story of Alex to make me the victim. Not him. Not my sister. Me. Poor little me. And that just ain’t the truth. I’m like my sister in a lot of ways. The flaws I continue to inventory, immaturely and unfairly, in her are becoming more apparent to be mine as well. But I’ll tell you one thing: she loves her dog. And she cares for her animals the way they should be cared for. The way I did not care for Alex.
I really don’t think I ever hit him.
But lately a voice has been echoing in my head like a whisper:
“Are you sure?”