I spent a good chunk of my holiday hours with Rocket, an Australian shepherd/chow mix belonging to Ryan and Lori. I like almost all animals (I am completely, unfairly prejudiced against cockroaches, and I have to admit I was a slow sell on monkeys), but I come from a cat family, and I don’t quite get dogs. They don’t bend right. My dad has been known to look at dogs and say, “Purr. Come on, purr. How am I supposed to know if you’re happy?” While I’m hip to the tail-wagging thing, my own knowledge doesn’t go much farther.
Rocket doesn’t purr, and he’s not really a licker (fine with me) or a cuddler. When I unlocked Ryan and Lori’s front door on my first night of house- and dog-sitting, I entered very carefully, with the story of how Rocket tried to bite the exterminator fresh in my mind. He barked a couple of times, and issued a half-hearted growl, then just stood in the living room and stared at me.
This was our M.O. for the first evening. I patted him on the head periodically and talked cheerfully about Ryan and Lori in an attempt to prove I really did know his people and had not just broken in to steal the stereo, but I think Rocket knew I was faking this Dog Person thing.
But by the next morning, when Rocket and I set out for a stroll around Mar Vista, we were beginning to form a gentle, respectful friendship. Ryan had described the act of sniffing shrubs and telephone poles as the canine equivalent of reading the community newspaper: who’s been where, who’s in heat, who’s switched to Purina Healthy Weight Formula. I quickly discovered that Rocket was not just an avid reader of the Mar Vista Who-Peed-On-This Times, he was a regular columnist.
I enjoyed watching him click along ahead of me, brown ears bouncing. Sometimes a dog behind a fence would start barking and yowling, but Rocket was fairly oblivious, even to other dogs out for their morning walks. He was much more interested in the historical, spending minutes at a time with his nose buried in a tangle of ivy or a discarded cardboard box.
I wondered if we were alike in that way—sometimes we’d rather observe from afar than deal face to face with our peers.
Christmas Eve and Day, I braced myself for my relatives’ breakup consolations. There were a few whose mere presence made me want to lay down on the couch and pour my heart out, but with others, I wished we could just forgo the mutual awkwardness. Couldn’t we somehow silently acknowledge the fact that they barely know me, let alone B, and that I’d be just as well off without the words of wisdom they found so difficult to compose?
That was what I braced myself for, but of course I spent most of Christmas coasting semi-happily under the radar: one of those two interchangeable sisters who eat a lot of dessert.
This morning I took Rocket on my second-to-last walk before heading off to work. The morning was rainy-misty, and he left fat wet paw prints on the sidewalk. A few neighbors called, “Hi, Rocket!” from across the street. Rocket didn’t say hi back. He just walked and sniffed, and I moved through the fog like a ghost.