…A Love Story
I’ve always been a cat person. Cats are me: slinky, mysterious, independent, opinionated, friendly if they feel like it, cranky when crossed, lovers of the night. I’ve had a wonderful long line of serial relationships with cats—mostly black—ever since college. Our current cat is one my son, then 12, brought home as a little Manx kitten from the litter next door and named Darkfire after a ninja from a favorite book.
Then about three years ago, a neighbor of ours had a sudden life-changing issue and had to return home to Italy. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to take the Rhodesian Ridgeback/pit bull/mutt mix he’d rescued a few years before from an abusive situation in Abiquiú. I was over with some other neighbors helping Luca move the day before his flight when he learned that the home he thought he’d found in Madrid for Arancio had fallen through. One of the friends asked him, “What’s your Plan B?” and Luca said, “I don’t have one. But I’m not worried. The right person will appear.” And that’s when I opened my mouth and heard myself say, “We’ll take him!”
Immediately afterwards, I thought, “What the hell did I say that for?” It’s not that I disliked dogs, I just thought of them as slobbery and excitable, the Jim Carreys of the animal world. I felt about dogs kind of like grandparents feel about their grandkids: glad to spend time with them, happy at the end of the day to wave goodbye. But it was, of course, too late for me to take back my offer. And, knowing what I know now, I think it was Arancio himself who put those words in my mouth. He’s a Trickster crossed with the Dalai Lama. “Arancio” means orange in Italian—Luca, an artist, sees the world in colors. I asked him how Arancio got along with cats. “Oh, no problem,” Luca assured me. “You will see.”
Sure enough, as soon as Arancio stepped in the door, nails clicking loudly, Darkfire sprang from sound sleep to warrior stance, his back arched, face contorted with fury, hissing. Whereupon Arancio, looking both worried and also inordinately sad at being so badly misunderstood, turned around, sat with his back to the bristly cat and stared fixedly at the opposite corner of the room.
This “what cat?” attitude plus keeping a wide birth were Arancio’s strategies for months to come. But Darkfire at his best is the quintessential Clown. So, as time went on and the dog remained a happy, calm presence no matter what, Darkfire relaxed back into himself. His whole appearance is comical. Being a Manx means he’s tailless, so he’s built like a sumo wrestler to compensate for lack of balance; he also has double-jointed hips, allowing him to lie on his belly with his back legs stretched straight out behind him. His fur is white with a few grey spots, including one on the top of his head resembling a center-parted toupée that’s slipping slightly, and he often sits upright, human-style, looking over his belly at you, complacent as a couch potato.
They could’ve reached a simple coexistence status and left it at that, but Darkfire wanted more. Arancio is his hero. Darkfire now thinks of himself as a dog, too. If Arancio gets a treat, Darkfire wants one; when Arancio goes out with me for walks, Darkfire comes, too. And Darkfire began, little by little, to ease closer to Arancio, lying next to the wood stove. Now Darkfire snugs right up against “his” dog, both of them with their front paws crossed.
And, I have to say, Darkfire has impeccable taste. Arancio, that handsome gent, is, in my totally unbiased opinion, an evolved being. A happy dog, a Wonder Dog. Master of a multitude of subtle facial expressions, a lover of people. But not all people, just the ones he’s chosen. For them, he races up, doing an excited dance around their knees and feet, his whole big triangular pit bull head exuding grin. He dances with his best dog buddies, too, both of them leaping into the air when they meet, exuberantly clapping paws. When he’s out for a walk or a hike, he trots lightly on his feet, à la Fred Astaire, his ears bouncing. He has the greatest sense of humor, too, sensing when it’s too cold out and I’ve had enough and reversing direction in mid-stride, charging right at me, grinning, so I’ll turn back around, too. And when the occasion calls for calm, he’s the essence of zen.
Of course, both Arancio and Darkfire also have their faults. Arancio, the prince of diplomacy when encountering a canine enemy on foot, barks like some fierce junkyard dog when he’s safely inside the car. He’s also so terrified of thunder, he shakes uncontrollably, running to escape it. And he’s a whore for food, any food, whatever you’ve got. And Darkfire? He pees on the kitchen rug to punish me when I’m away for extended periods; once, to register his supreme displeasure about our move to our new house, he craftily waited until I’d finished making up the bed that first night, then squatted on my pillow, soaking it completely through the middle. And he’s an inveterate whiner, in an earsplitting Siamese-like voice.
But all of this just reminds me of that bumper sticker, “God, please help me be the person my dog thinks I am.” Before, when I was dog-less, I assumed what that meant was that dogs, being not exactly the brightest animals on the ark, were incapable of seeing their humans realistically, beyond the idealized version they pledge their doggy allegiance to. But animals don’t lie, especially to themselves. Animals know who exactly who we are.
What I think that bumper sticker really is saying is, “Please help me see myself the way my dog—and my cat—see me.” That is, without judgment. It’s the judgment that’s so hard for us humans to shake. Arancio and Darkfire know I’m lazy. They know I’m selfish, I get mad, I’m afraid no one likes me, I’m afraid I’m no fun. They know that sometimes life just totally overwhelms me. They don’t have opinions about any of that. Because they also know my best sides, including the parts that I’m too self-conscious to show most other humans, like laughing at my own corny jokes, making up embarrassing love songs to sing to them at the top of my voice or dancing goofily around them and chasing them through the house. Crying against their fur when I’m feeling hurt, streaming snot and getting red in the face, till I’m all cried out.
To paraphrase poet Mary Oliver, all we have to do, my dog, my cat and me, is “let the soft animal of our body love what it loves.” There’s enormous grace in that, as well as the allowance to be all of who we potentially—really—are. Treasure the deepening of your own animal relationships this Valentine’s Day as you move forward, unwinding together the mystery of the profound love you share.
This story is dedicated to Michelle’s beloved Pearl.
Story by Gail Snyder