This isn’t a travel story per se, but like many stories it is a journey from then to now.
I am a cat person. Grew up with them, relate to them, even combined with one and became a silly defense attorney. My first cat, or the first cat that was most associated as being under my care and responsibility, was CJ, a female runt of the litter all black save for bits of white on the feet, chin, and chest. She was my graduation from rodents, she came into my life around the same time I was entering my teenhood. We had a connection of some kind. I knew so because she only wanted to be pet by me, she only slept in my bed at night.
When CJ went outside one Halloween and never returned, I wondered for a minute what happened. Was it a simple car accident or did some disturbed youth pick her up and torture/murder her because of superstition? I was too young to deal with it so I did what human beings do to survive. I moved on.
I got another cat when I moved to Portland, a pet shop 21st birthday present to myself. She was one of the forgotten ones. Her siblings had been purchased weeks earlier and she was left alone to grow in a cage too small for her size. Her anxiety took on a physical form in scratch wounds she gave herself. The pet store gave me free nail clippers to help stem the scratching and a free visit to the vet for antibiotics she’d need to keep from getting an infection.
I named her Kali Laksha, literally translated from Hindi it means “black goddess white rose”, after her bicolored long fur. The first time I picked her up she climbed onto my shoulder and perched there, earning herself the nickname Tiya, meaning “parrot” in Hindi. When my girlfriend of 3 years and I were breaking up in 2007, I decided to leave Tiya in the care of her as I knew I would be traveling in the future. I am happy to say that Tiya, now 8 years old, is still alive and perching pretty in Seattle.
I haven’t owned another pet since.
In 2012 I began a relationship in Hawaii with a woman who is nothing like me. Her name for the purposes of this story is Wife #2. We were married under nonstandard conditions at the 2012 National Rainbow Gathering (She is called “#2” because I am still married to Wife #1, but that’s a story for another time). I say she is nothing like me because she is a dog person, highly emotional where I am pragmatic, and worst case scenario while I’m best case scenario. We are perfect for each other.
Wife #2 still lives at home with her parents. She goes to college and is about to graduate with a degree in Veterinary Technology. Besides her mom and stepdad, there also resides 7 fish, 4 cats, 3 dogs, 2 tortoises, 1 turtle, 1 chicken, and a myriad of wild birds that enjoy the bird seed left out for them. Wife #2 has a special connection with one of the dogs.
Opium, or Opi, was a rescue dog from the Humane Society. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s a Cattle dog mixed with some sort of Terrier. His balls were lopped off too early, which stunted his growth and turned him into one of goofiest looking creatures man has ever created. An unfortunate side effect of his abnormal development was that it caused his dog-equivalent ACLs to tear in both back legs. There is only one person on the islands who can do the surgery to correct this issue, and the prick charges $4500 a leg. That said, Opium will probably live with this condition the rest of his life. It doesn’t keep him from running and playing for now, but he can look forward to arthritis and possibly a wheelchair in his future.
Wife #2’s then boyfriend was the adopter. He was a dragon chaser who lived under a bridge with other junkies. This was Opium’s first home. How well he was cared for can only be speculated upon, but Wife #2 assures me it wasn’t very well. Often times her boyfriend would get high and zone out, long enough for the dog to run off. One time he was lost for weeks. They thought he was dead. Then he showed back up at the Humane Society and Wife #2 was called to pick him up.
I think it was about that time that she stole him from her boyfriend and he gradually became her ex-boyfriend. Opi quickly integrated himself into the new pack. He found he was pretty low in the pecking order, even two of the cats trumped him in the hierarchy created by his human masters and their preferential behavior toward their animals. It didn’t matter to him, he’s too smart for their mind games. In fact he has proven himself smarter than his human masters many times, somehow sneaking out of a fully fenced yard to go visit his dog girlfriend next door or have a sniff around the block.
When I met Opi, I wasn’t into dogs. I had met several throughout my life by way of neighbors, friends, and family members, but never got to know any of them. I never spent enough time with one to understand them. Early on in the relationship, Wife #2 told me it was important that her lover accept her dog, but early on in the relationship I didn’t think there was a future for us so I largely ignored him.
I didn’t like his behavior, still don’t to a degree. He appeared extremely needy, and to me it looked like his role in Wife #2’s life was to fill the emotional void left from divorced parents. A year passed of me having little to do with Opi, but I was still attached to Wife #2 and planning to return to live with her semi-permanently. If I was going to get serious about the relationship, I had to get serious about the dog.
I took it as a challenge at first. I had to figure out the rules of this new game and then beat the game so I could reinvent it to suit my needs.
Opi’s routine bothered me. He didn’t have one. I started walking/jogging him daily. I put him on a new feeding schedule. I taught him to sit, stay, and how to shake for treats. I was vocally dominant when I told him he couldn’t beg or bark, or eat the chicken feces in the backyard. For whatever reasons, he listened.
He lost weight, his gas problem lessened, he was strong and full of energy. He still had attention problems (always wanting it and never giving it), but he was making progress.
I stepped into the role voluntarily, as I had a skewed perspective going in. I thought the dog was unequivocally Wife #2’s, that she was his primary caretaker and totally responsible for him, and that due to school/work obligations she was too busy to give Opi the full amount of attention he desired.
It wasn’t until a few weeks into my transition from nomad to housed that I realized Wife #2 was basically Opi’s owner in name only. Everything related to his upkeep, from what he eats and where he shits to which medicine he needs next, was taken care of by the her mother. I confronted Wife #2 about this issue immediately, but it was met with derisive counterargument and financial excuses.
I got turned off to the thing. I was caught between what Wife #2 wanted for Opi versus what her mother wanted. I thought the mother was to blame at first, of course your gut instincts want to take your lover’s side, but I gradually discovered that rather than an abundance, the problem was more a lack of responsibility and communication on both sides.
My frustration stemmed not only from the amount of stubbornness I was observing in regards to a single creature that mostly just does whatever it’s told, but also at the idea that it seemed like a simple enough solution to just force the burden of responsibility, financial or otherwise, solely on Wife #2. She’d gain some maturity for it and prepare her for her eventual jump to an independent life outside the house.
My idea was not favored as far as I could tell. More weeks passed and I grew angrier. I became sick over the whole affair. I decided I wanted to be done with it. How I planned to be done with it when I lived in the very house it was happening in was terrible.
I stopped walking Opi, stopped training him, stopped petting or acknowledging him (and the other two dogs as well). Soon I stopped letting him come into the bedroom where Wife #2 and I slept. Eventually I was ordering him out of any room in the house I was occupying. Any reminder of him came to represent my failures with the dog, the girlfriend, or the family.
It was frightening. Wife #2 hated my behavior toward him and it strained our already tumultuous relationship. He began removing himself automatically when I came around, hiding behind people and furniture. The mother became worried about the long-term. I hated everything.
I think my change of mind about the dog came about gradually after I learned to tune out the preconceived notions from both Wife #2 and her mother about who Opi was. I had been watching intently, sure, but I hadn’t tried listening to him. What he told me completely reinvented my perceptions of what he was.
He wasn’t dumb, just not well trained. He wasn’t weak, he was capable. In fact, he’s incredibly resilient and a fine example of life flippin’ a dog-shaped bird at death. I could sense his yearnings for liberty, and I trusted that his senses were enough to keep him healthy because, fuck, he survived over a month on his own in a major urban center with most likely little to no help from humanity.
I also noticed how heavy he takes staying alert, sometimes sufferingly so. When seized by loud noises on a walk, he’ll focus so hard on them that he won’t look where he’s walking and try to walk into the street or, sometimes, a trash bin.
When I finally got around to reflecting on the whole mess, What truly amazed me was that in the few short weeks I did try retraining him I noticed a vast improvement of not only his athletic ability but his mental capacities as well. He learned a simple maneuver like shake in minutes, something no one had done with him before. Conditioning movement to where my hands directed had him sidewinding between traffic cones, jumping over large rocks, crawling through sewer tunnels, and funambuling concrete walls more quickly than I had expected. Turned out, he loved the attention and focusing of his energy. Being a creative/manipulative type, I loved it, too.
He reminds me of myself.
I remember this one night I brought Opi to a birthday barbeque for a friend. I arrived early and got my first real observation of him outside the home environment, interacting with a larger group of people, some of whom brought their own dogs. I noticed he took on a “guard” role voluntarily, like it was his job to do so. Probably it was earlier conditioning from his under-the-bridge days when he would lay as sentry at night for his original junkie master.
He was the first to notice and greet partygoers as they arrived, ever on the lookout for shadow strangers and transparent trespassers. Even as I got more intoxicated on liquor and marijuana over the course of the night, I never worried about him running off or getting into trouble. He earned my respect, something many people haven’t done.
The shift came sudden. The total acceptance of how to move forward in this one dimension. A sort of cheat, hack, or trick to realign broken perceptions. If I’m going to be with Wife #2 then, like it or not, Opi becomes one of my fold. Moving forward for me was to do the opposite thing. I let him lead, and I followed. He told me when he wanted to play, walk, or eat, and the rest of the time he just was.
Yeah, his pesky old habits are still there, and will be forever unless his home environment changes. Wife #2 desires to live with both of us together in our own place, and if he is to be a part of my life then he’ll have to endure a few of those changes. I move a lot, but honestly it’s not him I’m worried about. You see, I’m leaving next month. Hawaii has had enough of me for the time being and in order to grow, I have to move. And with moving comes uncertainty.
This is the only time in my life I’ve ever experienced it so dog-conscious and it’s truly fucked with me in ways I never imagined. I don’t know if it’ll happen again, if the chance to connect with the dog will happen again. Wife #2 and I are supposed to join up again next year, but she could always change her mind. We may never get the chance to reconnect or be a happy family together with that strong, intelligent, stolen/rescued child of ours, Opium.
This was never really about a dog, was it?
J.W. Wargo is a Nomadic Bizarro Storyteller originally from Boise, Idaho. His travels have taken him from Budapest to Honolulu and all points in between. He has a Bizarro fiction novella out called Avoiding Mortimer.