I pick up another Wee Wee Pad, its pale yellow circle of success still warm.
"Good potty! Good potty!" I coo with the enthusiasm of deranged children, the feeble-minded, and those pleading for their lives.
Lady Isabella Cosette Flora Wilhelmina von Matternhaus the Only and Ever sits pertly at my feet, receiving her due praise with aplomb. She is almost 12 weeks old, and she is so darling and so vulnerable I could weep. She is teetering on the brink of death just by being near my feet. This is why we do not keep newborn babies on the floor.
My heart twists with violent despair and terrible love. This is fairly routine, so I stay standing.
I know Isabella's age because she is the only dog I have ever had here whose birth was witnessed and documented: October 15, 2012. She is a Libra, a peacemaker, a lover of beauty and music, ruled by Venus.
Her perfect button ears (considered a severe penalty in the show ring, proving that the human race's ability to find fault everywhere, even at ankle height, makes us the most flawed breed of all) are sweetly inverted triangles, tipped over her hazel eyes (light eyes will also be penalized in the ring).
I like her ambiguously colored eyes very much. Right now, they are fixed on me. She waits patiently for a treat. She peed very nicely on her Wee Wee Pad and the Tall Human is a little slow on the uptake. I have not had my coffee yet. I scramble for the treat baggie.
She waits some more. She is a forgiving little soul.
"Here you go, baby," I say finally, handing her one-fourth of an already impossibly small tidbit. All those years of cutting hot dog circles into eighths to save my children's lives have paid off. I can make small things very, very, very much smaller, when this skill is needed.
Isabella takes the morsel gently but eagerly, then helps herself to an additional single miniscule piece of Small Breed Puppy kibble from her bowl.
She is learning fast, far faster than I had expected. She learned "sit" in two days, confines most of her toilette to Wee Wee Pad acreage, and is already getting the hang of "wait" and "drop it."
I don't know where she gets it. I am terrible at both "wait" and "drop it."
I feel a pang of guilt for having underestimated her. Little Girlfriend has got it together. She is absurdly reasonable about conveying her needs. She is also absurdly reasonable about accepting my awkward attempts to fulfill those needs.
If either of my children had been this reasonable as newborns, I would have twelve children by now.
Lady Isabella is an Italian Greyhound. This does not mean she drives a Ferrari or shops Versace or has a difficult time managing her lady whiskers. She is simply a miniature greyhound, the whole sleek package shrunk to snack-size proportions. The Italian Greyhound likely originated in Turkey or Greece, but it seems the Italians took a particular shine to them. Random royals across Europe then got wind of this Italiano dog sensation and began breeding oodles of them and gifting them to each other so everyone could keep their laps warm in chilly palaces.
Technically, Italian Greyhounds are a toy breed, but they are fully hound in mind and design. The Italian greyhound is the tiniest of an array of sniffers and sighters and coursers and finders and lurchers. All hounds are notorious for their singlemindedness, willpower and independence. They want what they want, and they go after it.
This is why I would not be a hound, if I were a dog. Don't get me wrong: it sounds like a nice way to live. I just think God would laugh in my face if I ever asked to be one.
I do not know what I want anymore, so I have no idea how to go about getting it. I can't smell it or see it. I would make a very terrible hound. Useless, even.
If I were a dog, I would be a cooped-up border collie with anxious eyes and an overactive imagination. Which is why I have a cooped-up border collie with anxious eyes and an overactive imagination. We are co-dependent, Fanny and I, but we understand each other. Surely that must count for something. Our bowels are also overactive, like our imaginations. Pretend I did not tell you this.
Not to belabor the point, but I swore on my life that I would never, ever have a hound. Like, I made a blood pact with myself, except without the blood part.
Working dogs, herding dogs, please--that is what I know best. Ferf, Nina, Eli, Fanny, Sir James: all five shepherd or collie-ish mixes, maybe a bit of husky or chow thrown in for good fluffy measure. I dig that double coat, the tufts that float around like dandelion wishes.
I have been reading about dogs all my life. My parents would not let me have a dog. My mother did not like the thought of an animal that roamed the halls by night like Hamlet's dead father. So I read dog book after dog book with my parakeet sitting on top of my head, or a guinea pig asleep on my chest, or a gerbil squirming inside my shirt.
On paper, working dogs and herding dogs sound like this: Smart, eager to please. Sensitive. Independent, but seeking direction from a wise, kind mistress. Even as a child, reading my very first Book of Dog Breeds, I knew. I would be that mistress! To hell with the spaniels and setters and retrievers and hounds and toys and terriers! I would have WORKING DOGS! I would be wise and kind and quick with SIT STAY DROP IT GET THE FRISBEE NO BITE TAKE IT HEEL DOWN NO GET BACK HERE I MEAN IT AND THE SHEEP NEED TO BE SHEARED BY SUNDOWN I'LL GET DINNER READY. My working dogs would gaze lovingly and intently into my eyes and read my mind before I spoke.
They would save my children from wells, and your children, too.
They would also poop in my mother's slippers and need anti-anxiety medication, in lieu of sheep.
Isabella makes little squabblegrunty Snoopy noises, the sort of sounds Snoopy makes when he is disgruntled about an empty dish or a thwarted wish. I have never heard an actual dog make Snoopy sounds. It is as if she has watched Snoopy on YouTube many times. The noises she makes cannot be real, but they are. I know because I stare down her throat whenever she yawns and there is no machinery or anything out of the ordinary.
Isabella Cosette Flora Wilhelmina von Matternhaus has been here since Christmas Eve.
Every morning, I awake expecting to find some sort of holy terror unleashed, some sign that bringing her to our home was a terrible error in judgment. Every morning, I search for a sign that I must find her the perfect home, immediately.
Every morning, I find her delicately high-stepping beside her Sleepy Crate inside her GoGo Pen, tap-dancing on her Wee Wee Pads (less mess than my children make overnight). Every morning, she is delighted to see me, flawed human that I am, with smallish ears (fault in the ring), small head (penalized by milliners here and in Europe), thin lank hair (poor breeding), blotchy skin (judges recommend skin scraping for mange), and unwieldy, lumbering conformation (do not overfeed, fat is unsightly on a purebred human and will obscure its long, lean lines, such a situation is unhealthy for the human and unpleasant for those who must look upon it).
Every morning, I am saying, she looks at me. She whines a little, but she does not yip, yap, or bark. She looks at me and I look at her and we begin our day, without fuss or fanfare, as whatever we are to each other.
I have played it over and over in my mind.
My mistake was being in the absolute wrong place. The problem is, I was there at the right time, or what was possibly the right time. The thing about wrong is that it is obvious. Right is always up for debate, which is an even bigger problem.
The too-long story is ten times too long. Even the short version is too long. You've noticed.
So here is what I will tell you never, ever to do on Christmas Eve:
Do not look for stocking stuffers in the only mall within 200 miles that has an establishment that you despise and advocate against on a regular basis.
Do not walk past that establishment, which traffics frail puppies shipped in dark crates from undercover puppy mills in the Deep South. DO NOT DO THIS. Even if you save one puppy, you are perpetuating a terrible cycle. At this instant, the puppy's mother is likely suffering in a filthy cage with other bereft, traumatized mother dogs, many with swollen, painful teats from having their pups snatched away too soon. Truth: There is no happy ending for these dogs, not as long as people breed dogs for profit. The photographs would make you cry and hang your head.
So here is what you especially must not do:
Especially do not notice that the frailest-looking puppy of all -- a dainty and doe-eyed Italian Greyhound -- has feet so petite that they keep slipping through the holes in the wire bottom of her square cage set in the Big Wall of Sad and Depressing and Listless Puppies.
Do not notice that one leg has become stuck. Do not notice that the puppy is in distress. Do not remember everything you know about this breed from memorizing your childhood dog books (very fragile bones, leg breaks are common and even likely).
Do not get the attention of the college-age salesgirl. Do not warn her about the puppy's leg. Do not tell her that the miniature greyhounds are very sensitive and get cold easily and that you are a little worried about the little fawn female and maybe you could just warm her up and give her a little snuggle and some socialization on Christmas Eve, because after all, it is Christmas Eve.
DO NOT DO ANY OF THE AFOREMENTIONED THINGS, I BEG YOU.
In my mind, I could still get out alive, with my lofty morals intact. I would simply cuddle the puppy for a little while. I would give her some loving human contact. I would rub her sore paw. I would whisper sweet hopeful things into her floppy satin ears about the wonderful life she would find. I would say, Merry Christmas, little one, and some part of her hummingbird heart would remember that bit of goodness, long after the salesgirl plucked her from my arms and returned her to her wire-grate cell.
I would do those things, and then I would go to the airport as planned, to pick up my boyfriend.
Where's the EYE-TALIAN Greyhound? I called and you said you had it in stock. I drove here 45 minutes to get it so you better get it for me.
It is a terrible voice. A woman, harsh and angry and a little insane.
No no no, I think. The puppy burrows deeper into my coat in our little Get Acquainted Closet with the half-door. I instinctively pull my coat around her, around my belly.
THE EYE-TALIAN GREYHOUND. Don't you tell me it's gone. I called ahead. I drove 45 minutes in traffic and I'm here to get it. Now. Where is it? The one with papers. I saw the sign you had, it had champions in the line. I'm gonna hang the papers on the wall.
I hear the salesgirls' thin voices, faintly pleading: She's with a nice woman right now. She's being held right now.
Where? It's mine. Where is it?
The woman's head appears over the half-door. She glares at me. Behind her sulk two pimpled, sullen teen boys.
There it is, boys. That's it. We're gonna take it home when she puts it down.
The boys snigger. One protests, It's too small, I don't want it. The other says, It's so small, I could kick it.
The bottom drops out. I decide that as far as my mistakes go, 2012 has gotten off easy. 2012 owes me one.
I stand up. I hold the puppy to my heart. "Talk to me about financing," I say.
The woman explodes. She makes a scene, complaining to everyone who will listen. She shoves another woman. You cannot make this stuff up.
During the kerfuffle, I quietly ask the salesgirls if they have the right to refuse a customer, the way a bartender can cut someone off if he thinks they can't handle their liquor. Surely, I say, they can refuse? She can't go home with those people. She can't.
They shake their heads grimly. It's awful, says one. You don't even know.
I pull out five credit cards, including the emergency credit card from my mother.
"This may take some doing," I tell them. I apologize in advance for whichever ones will be declined.
They hurriedly assure me that no apologies are necessary. Thank God, one says.
I am not thanking God, personally, not yet.
A kind woman who has watched the entire drama unfold gently strokes the puppy's ears.
I don't know what the hell I am doing, I say.
Maybe every dog is a rescued dog, she says, and smiles like the Mona Lisa.
Forty-five minutes and one faux military discount later, there is a blinking, shivering Italian Greyhound in my purse, the contents of which I have dumped into the backseat of my car. I have lined the purse with a Wee Wee Pad. My heart is racing and I am ready to vomit. This is dumb. This is really dumb. This is one of the dumbest dumb things I have ever done, and that is quite possibly saying a lot. I can barely afford heating oil. I do not believe in pet stores, in puppy mills. I have two cats and two dogs and two daughters. I know nothing about tiny dogs who need sweaters and raincoats and have bones like glass swizzle sticks.
I drive to the airport, with the puppy on my lap. I go through the same tollbooth twice. I am lost. I am in so much trouble with all the humans in my life, I know it. I break out in a cold sweat, steeling myself.
I make it to the airport. In my purse, wrapped in my striped scarf and the Wee Wee Pad, the puppy shakes and shivers when we exit the car and cross the windy parking lot to the terminal.
Oh my, exclaims a woman in the waiting area. Is this a Christmas surprise?
Yes, yes, it is, I say.
It'll be a good surprise, I hope, she says.
I'm not sure, I say.
I am sure I am going to vomit. But I can't vomit into my purse, which would have been my go-to place. The puppy nuzzles my nose.
I know, honey, I say. I know. Hi. Bella.
When he gets off the plane and sees the puppy tucked in my purse, he just shakes his head. I was already married to this, he says.
This is not a happy statement, but I do not blame him. I am a swirling conflicted panicking mess. I now owe an absurd amount of money for a creature that may break her legs in my purse on the way home. She may contract pneumonia from a chill in the parking lot and be dead by Christmas morning.
I can make it right, I will say later. You have to let me make it right. This is my mistake and I will make it right.
I would like to tell you that this story has a happy ending. The ending is really up to you. It depends on what you are: a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty or please-fill-my-glass-or-I-will-cut-you kind of person.
I don't know how it ends, myself.
Fast forward: the holidays are over. We are at the beginning of a new year, and back at the beginning of this story. I am the only human in the house at the moment. I chase away my sadness by tending to my creatures, I know I do. Of course I do. The poo, the pee, the medicines, the routine: I trust it, all of it.
I am grateful for this. I am grateful for them. This is simple. And I am hungry for simple. I enjoy the honest work of caring for animals. I understand it. Understanding something in your life: this can not be underestimated. This keeps me whole, it protects what I have left.
Sometimes, I think there is not much left. I am not being dramatic. There are holes now, dark corners that you would not want to visit.
Sometimes, I feel something wiggly in the vicinity of my heart, squirmy like this puppy. It could be fear, it could be hope.
She looks at me. I look at her. We begin another day, again.