Hopefully this will not destroy my credibility as either a friend or a decent human being, but I have a confession to make: Until several weeks into our friendships freshman year, I didn’t know some of the most basic and vital information about my suitemates, the girls who would become two of my best friends at Yale.
Because the split was amicable and they’d come to move-in week together, I had absolutely no idea that one of my friend’s parents were divorced. I thought, “What is wrong with me? How could I miss this important feature of her family life?”
But this offense, to me, was nothing compared to the glaring knowledge gap I had in respect of my other friend. She has two dogs, which I was completely unaware of until reading week first semester. Not knowing that one suitie went home to two houses was an oversight I could deal with; not knowing that the other went home to two Cockapoos was totally inexcusable.
Am I crazy?
Probably. But I’m not unique. There is something about pets.
I did not even grow up in one of those fabulous childhood menagerie houses. My best friend in second grade had seven brothers and sisters, two dogs, three cats, several birds and an endless stream of rodentia and lizards that turned me gecko-green with envy. Yes, theirs was a life of shared bedrooms, perpetual funereal proceedings in the backyard pet cemetery and one very grizzly incident involving a guinea pig amputation. But even so, I was jealous. We only had a dog.
Evidently, though, that was enough.
Technically I’m my parents’ oldest child, but this is not quite true. Murphy, a demented-looking mutt rescued from a Brooklyn shelter, preceded me by five years, and I single-pawedly credit him with my parents’ subsequent decision to venture into the realm of human offspring. Their love for this hound was tremendous, and I learned as a child to state in earnest, “I have a sister and two brothers — but one’s a dog.”
Just as I, eldest sapiens sibling, have a large presence in the others’ baby pictures, Murphy is all over mine. There is an extensive sequence of photos from my first summer in which the dog and I are posed alike and wearing the same expressions. It’s adorable, but maybe sick. And not only did our family hire the same artist who did our baby portraits to draw Murphy but, as the only dog, he has his own wall in the living room while the three of us, mere mini-people, have to share.
The most dramatic moment of dog-as-family-member for me was on a weekday morning when I was in fourth grade. My mother does not make breakfast — I spent my grade school years traipsing to school just before the tardy bell with a cold Pop Tart in my mittened hand. Imagine my surprise one morning when I came downstairs and saw the madre making eggs. It turned out she was making a dog food omelet for poor Murphy, whose old age and various cancers had turned his appetite from all other options.
Although The Murph outlived the vet’s initial diagnoses by half a dozen years (and that’s forty-odd dog years), we couldn’t hang onto him forever. Enter Kibbles.
We procured Kibbles one St. Patrick’s Day from a breeder in rural Illinois whose dilapidated house was suspiciously close to a ravwine where police exhumed several decaying human bodies a few weeks later. Supposedly a purebred miniature poodle, we ignored his mottled coloring and the fact that his birth mother is listed as “Tootis Roll” on the pedigree, which may or may not have been written in crayon. He was fuzzy, black-brown, with an adorable face and a convenient inability to ascend or descend stairs. He was the perfect addition to the Minkus family. To this day, my best friend describes him as “half dog, half reptile” — which is basically a fitting description for everybody in our house. Kib’s hyperactive puppy existence demanded all the love, attention and anthropomorphization we had to give.
As the self-proclaimed most creative (and, objectively, most destructive) family member, I took it upon myself to really run with this. The dog rejects most of my attempts to clothe him, but enjoys a wide variety of people foods, watches television attentively and often sleeps in a bed just like a human would — head on the pillow, lying on his back, furry little paws tucked on the outside of the blankets covering his body. My primary psycho-anthropomorphic accomplishment, however, was accidental: a sort of canine gender dysphoria that has confused friends and family members for years and years.
As a “poodle,” Kibbles needs regular haircuts. Noting that Kib was neither nice to professional groomers nor attractive with the ridiculous frou-frou haircuts, my father mail-ordered clippers and now personally disfigures the poor animal every couple months in a hellish attempt at canine topiary, missing some spots entirely and shaving other patches down to the soft pink skin. One thing my dad cannot manage, even with Kibbles’s cooperation, is to adequately trim his beautiful doggie face. So, Kibbles is left with a gracefully sculpted nose and obscenely long eyelashes. Years ago, I took to calling him “Gloria” post-haircut, since his beauty and elegance are reminiscent of Gloria Swanson, film star of the 1920s. The name stuck. Now the dog is confused, gorgeous and people cannot remember whether he is male or female. Yes: pet ownership at its finest.
Obviously, I’m attached to my pets and my memories of them. But why? What is it about pets?
To this day pets remain, for me, one of few critical divisions between college life and real life. I know that people have suite hamsters and goldfish and even the occasional snake, but REAL PETS are still in that domestic domain alongside showering barefoot and having mail come to your house that makes campus living somehow not quite “home” for me. Not knowing about my suitemate’s pets was like not knowing about her siblings; to learn about her cohabitating creatures was to understand what made her the person she was before she moved into Vanderbilt Hall.
I’ve been defined by our dogs as much, if not more, than they’ve been defined by me. And, in all honesty, while most of my life goals are cliched and vague (be a good person, give back to society, etc.), “own two dogs with a size difference great enough that the little one can walk under the big one without bumping its head” is disturbingly well-defined, not to mention sincere.
When I achieve that goal, I’ll know I’m home.
Sarah Minkus showed scene some very charming cell phone pix of Kibbles.