I was a terrible best friend in elementary school. My neighborhood bestie Evan and I were very close, but he shouldn’t have put up with the destruction I brought into his life. He didn’t deserve it – he was kind, amiable, and extremely smart, which he would demonstrate by counting off digits of pi while we waited for gym class to start. He and I would race each other to see who could finish their math test first and spent our afternoons hooked on 8-bit Nintendo. Yep, we basically ran that school.
I honestly never meant to hurt him. Our activities just had a tendency to spiral out of control, and I always seemed to be on the side that inflicted the damage. We were truthfully bored of video games one day and moved onto a game of our imagination called Crash Test Dummy. I didn’t mean for the wooden car to fly into Evan’s head, honest. And isn’t it true that head injuries always bleed a lot whether or not they’re actually serious? I thought I read that somewhere. And when we played Action Movie Stuntman on top of the playground tower, the name alone should have warned Evan that injury was part and parcel of the game. When I pushed him off the ledge, I really thought he’d be able to grab onto that fireman’s pole. But I didn’t make him do another take – that’s a truly kind-hearted gesture. But there is one transgression for which I would understand if Evan couldn’t forgive me. I hated his dog.
To be fair, I got along just fine with his first dog Taz. Taz was a docile Dalmatian who would lay at my feet while Evan and I played Monopoly. Taz and I were never overtly warm with one another, but we coexisted happily. Taz got sick and suddenly died, so once they had grieved, Evan and his family adopted another Dalmatian, a dog that could carry on Taz’s legacy of kind-heartedness and pleasantness. Instead, they got Autumn.
I first encountered Autumn at the school bus stop in the early morning – she wore a muzzle over her nose and mouth, fashioned unintentionally (I hope) after Hannibal Lecter’s mask in The Silence of the Lambs. Autumn could smell my fear and knew it paired nicely with fava beans and a nice chianti. Autumn would greet me at the entryway of Evan’s house by ferociously barking and straining to break free of whomever was holding her back. I would cower in the corner of the foyer and tried to hide my fear, but Autumn always knew.
That winter, Evan and I took to the slopes as we always did, by which I mean we went sledding down the best hill in the neighborhood. It was the perfect slope for maximum control and velocity, but more importantly it was hardly ever interrupted by car traffic. As any kid of the suburbs knows, there’s no greater buzz kill than hearing the cry of “CAR!” just as you’re finding your sledding groove.
As I took my turn down the hill, I remember a wave of panic tingles overcoming me, like when you think you left your credit card at a restaurant. I turned my head and saw Autumn barreling down the hill after me, sans muzzle, teeth bared. I screamed as she caught up to me, opened her mouth, and clamped down on my arm.
But that’s all I remember. And a lot of it doesn’t make sense to me. Why don’t I remember anything after the bite? Why wasn’t Autumn wearing her muzzle? I called my mom up to confirm the story, but I have to give her several details before she remembers any similar incident. She somewhat remembers Autumn nipping me one winter, but nothing to the extent of the story I’ve described. The facts and my fears have mixed together in the stew of my brain and produced something that may be less than the truth but still viscerally affecting. Each time I’d meet a new dog, even as recent as a few years ago, I’d stiffen up with a dishonest smile plastered on my face. With maturity came more control over my fear, but I still remain standoffish around the canine species. Adopting a guinea pig with Q was a step in the right direction, but there are few qualities more quintessentially manly than dog ownership. What better way to get over a deep-seated anxiety than to organize a week of dog-sits and visits through a frivolous blog? It’s much cheaper than therapy.
Q and I first stop in Northern Virginia to dog-sit my cousin Kristin and her boyfriend Mark’s dog Zoe. We arrive in their apartment early in the morning and find Zoe hanging out in her crate, emitting a low growl in the direction of us intruders. I’ve spent enough time with Zoe in the past to know this aggressiveness is just a sign of anxiety, but my attempt to allay her fears is ineffective. I kneel down and put my hand on the grate for her to sniff, but her growls continue. Q tells me to get lower to the ground and avoid looking Zoe in the eyes while she does her Dr. Doolittle thing. Zoe alternates between calmness and growls depending on which one of us is interacting with her. I ask Q jokingly, “Is it me?” To which Q replies seriously: “Yes, I think it is.” Like it needed to be said.
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