To believe any animal could act as a family pet requires self-delusion. As with humans, no pet devotes itself to an entire family. A pet can embrace the family, true, but its soul belongs only to one. The how and why behind this bond of exclusive loyalty remains an utter, even treacherous mystery.
So I began to learn when Herschel entered my eight-year-old world. One June morning, my mother awakened me by pulling my sodden thumb from my mouth, planting a soft kiss to my cheek, and prompting, “Honey, go upstairs to John and Dave’s room. John wants to share his eighth-grade graduation gift with you.”
In a heartbeat I slipped from my bed, my mind swirling in wondrous entrancement over my oldest brother deigning to share something with me. Bolting up the stairs, I bounced into my brothers’ bedroom and froze—as did time, it seemed, the milliseconds proceeding with taffy-slow agony. John was baby talking to a kitten-sized, orange-white ball of fur cupped to his face, “You’re so cute, yes, you are.”
-No, they didn’t. They wouldn’t, would they? Why John and not me?- It had been my cat Ginger they had given away a year ago, she with her twelve kittens chucked into an acquaintance’s barn for rodent control. A month later on a promised visit, anticipating Ginger’s purring licks to my chin, I faced cold, far-off eyes, a hunter’s eyes. Ginger endured my hands on her head instead of leaping into my arms. I knew she was lost to me. Had she had ever been mine?
Disoriented and bewildered, I felt anew the fissure of betrayal from then and now: betrayed by Ginger, my parents, John so enthralled with his pet. Share with me, indeed. I felt duped. I dared not look at anyone, determined to hold my ground. -No, I wouldn’t let them win, not John, not my parents, and not even John’s present that somehow, my mother prattled, was also to be our family pet.-
Then the fur barked a tiny arf of sharp excitement. -Not a cat.- Once my mind had grasped that concept, I then pondered -A dog.- I forcefully swallowed thick saliva salted with unshed tears and knew I should feel relief, perhaps even guilt for the tornado of repercussions my whole being had been arrowing wordlessly about the room, though the only one wounded was I. Rather than a reprieve, however, I felt a bitterly fierce anger ignite, a drear sputter of once-agains and not-fairs.
“What’s wrong, Kay? He won’t bite you. He’s just a little thing,” my mom ventured with puzzlement at my wooden face.
“You’re not scared, are you?” John teased. His face was without guile, innocently gleeful, but I saw a sneer, a gauntlet thrown.
“Of course, not,” I trilled. “He’s so cute. What’s his name?”
“Regts’s Prince of Orange, from a line of champion Pomeranians,” my dad declared. “That’s his registered name, but we’ll just call him Herschel. Come and pet him.”
Stiffly I forced my icy-hot feet toward the squirming, panting, licking fur-bundle. John handed the pup over, or perhaps Herschel’s wild vibrations moved him into my arms that clasped his shivering softness from which a pointed, pert nose sniffed and snuffled, snorting bubbles of exhilaration. Did I fall in love then, or merely plummet into a cavernous well of unquenchable yearning, desperately desiring that Herschel would choose me, not John?
Even as my resolve cemented to make this dog mine, Herschel danced to John’s chest. His move, I now realize, forecast certain defeat, a choice this dog would make time and time again, no matter that with high school, sports, girlfriends, jobs, college, and finally marriage, John was rarely home. No matter that for the next nine years I fed Herschel micro-waved dog food speckled with meat left-over from our dinners, bathed and brushed him, tossed him chirping with anticipation into my bike basket for another wind-in-the-face ride. No matter that I adored him. Though he could not know he was John’s gift and though he had been in John’s arms only short minutes before I arrived—in those moments I lost him; he would never be mine. Though he lapped us all with joyful affection, the sterling model of a family pet, his heart forever belonged to John, their scattered reunions marked by a sparkling joy reserved only for the other.
Still, the myth of a family pet persists, and I ask, Who is the believer?
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