I was dreaming about my friend Ana this morning. She was touching my head, lightly pushing down the half-inch shock of new hair and watching it spring away from my scalp. So it’s true, she said. Your hair sticks straight out like that naturally. Dream Ana started laughing and I started laughing and the next thing you know, I was scissor-kicking my way up from the depths of my subconscious, breaking through the surface of a new day and when I woke, Duchess Monkey had her head on my pillow and she was staring straight into my blue-green eyes with her golden-hazel ones. I coughed; I laughed and I touched my warm nose to her wet nose and she blinked,; she sighed, letting the sigh rumble up from her chest— I never know whether I am being given the gift of her canine tolerance for my unpredictable Courtenay-ness or whether that’s the rumble-sigh of a settled dog-girl who is laying down for a long nap.
When Monkey was a puppy, the couple that owned her pushed her out of a car onto a busy street right in front of a policeman. The cop pulled his vehicle over, put the abandoned Monkey into his squad car, and drove her straight to the local no-kill Humane Society Shelter. The cop himself told me all about it when I was playing with Monkey in one of the grassy pens behind the Humane Society buildings. It turns out he volunteered for the shelter. He’s the guy who takes the most high-octane rescued dogs to the pens, where he throws a ball for those dogs for hours— the wildest dogs lean up against him like he’s Nature’s own son and the biggest dogs flip-flop down at his feet when they are tired. And then he stands there in the pen and looks down at those tired and happy dogs, and smiles to himself that secret smile people with the hardest jobs keep tucked away for a private moment, unobserved; then you and me, clumsy voyeurs that we are, turn our faces in shame for seeing something sweetly private that we don’t deserve to see.
Duchess Monkey had her head on my pillow and she was staring straight into my blue-green eyes with her golden-hazel ones.
This Humane Society makes you apply to adopt for a pet; they interview you and everything— not everyone walks out of The Humane Society Shelter with a dog or a cat because not everyone knows what’s required of them to take care of a companion animal. The day I applied to adopt Duchess Monkey, there was a family already filling out an adoption application in the hopes of taking Monkey home. They were picturesque, this family, a man and a woman, and their three-year-old blonde, laughing daughter— and they would have first consideration to adopt. I was sad that I was behind this couple by a couple of minutes and that I might not be able to adopt her, but what I wanted was for Monkey to go home with a good family who would let her sleep on the bed and give her those good dental chews— she’d had an awful time of it somewhere and anybody could see that. But when the family and I were filling out our application forms at the tables in the big lobby, we chatted with each other. Both of us had lost a dog— mine died from a heart attack due to a heart condition the vet hadn’t caught on her last visit. Then this the man related me how their last dog died, and my bright, sad and friendly smile faded into a thin, judgmental line. Their pet died due to that family’s direct neglect; this man was too ignorant to realize no good shelter was going to give him a second chance to take home a dog for a long, long time.
Monkey came home with me the following Monday, woozy from her Humane Society spay surgery. She had never been inside a house, so the first thing I did was walk her through the rooms on a leash showing her the good things that first-time indoor dogs find marvelous, like the shock of cold air that comes out of the refrigerator (A cold box with food in it! Who would’ve thunk it?) and the amazing softness of a couch (so much nicer than the floor!) and the cool tile of the bathroom (where your nails will click and the tile will feel cool under your pads on a hot day) and the big backyard where you can go anytime you want and yell your head off (those stupid squirrels! Hey, who’s that dog in the next yard? Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!); some human will always let you back inside the house all day, every day. There was the big bed where you can have your own pillow if you want (in the room that’s just for sleeping— people are so crazy!) and the toys she could keep (Mine really? Really mine? No kidding?)— When she picked up the vet-approved chew bone and ran past the couch with her eyes big and wild and her smile easy on her face, I took a picture with that old point-and-shoot digital camera that I hated, and I laughed because she was happy, which is all I wanted for her.
And then he… smiles to himself that secret smile people with the hardest jobs keep tucked away for a private moment, unobserved…
Today when I woke to Monkey’s golden-hazel eyes and I touched my nose to hers, I was thinking of that day seven Julys ago when Monkey woke up on the bed that very first morning and she looked at me in surprise to find herself sleeping on something so soft as a mattress. Her surprise to find herself awake on a bed instead of the concrete floor of the boisterous shelter spilled into joy like sunshine spills across every bedroom everywhere I’ve ever lived. In her surprise, her joy, you could almost, almost hear her awe to wake in such a strange, safe place as a house. And right there was this excitable human girl, me, waking up to her waking up and we were waking up together and she looked at me and I looked at her. Life is very long without a good dog to show you how good you’ve both got it. And she smiled and then I smiled; then I sighed and she sighed. And all at once, I sat up in the bed to greet a new day where I could wear my old grief in a tarnished silver locket around my neck and feel it brush against my throat as I coughed, as I hummed, as I heard my own warm voice in that silent morning room: Hey there, new dog— good morning, pretty girl! This is home. You are home. Yes, it’s real.