by Rica Keenum
Before we met, I lived in a steel cage on a slab of concrete, with the sound of twenty-something rowdy mutts like a kindergarten chorus. But at night there was silence. No clanging fences or desperate yelps. No shelter staff to pat our necks or push bowls of food into our cages. No visitors shuffling by with eyebrows high, asking which ones might be housebroken, which ones were good with kids or cats.
Before we met, I didn’t know what it meant to ride shotgun with the window down in your red Tacoma. The smell of sunshine wafting on the breeze. Didn’t know about the sacred golden arches, the drive-through window, the smell of salt and grease, the cold, sweet splat of ice cream on my tongue as you held out a cone and let me lick and lick and lick while you poked a straw in your Coke and sipped.
Before we met, I didn’t know about sofas and countertops and house rules. About manners and etiquette and “down, girl.” About flower beds not being actual beds and toilet water not being drinking water.
Before we met, I didn’t know about baby pools in the backyard on sweltering days. How you’d fill the plastic drum with cool hose water and urge me to wade inside, your camera aimed in my direction.
Before we met, I didn’t know about mail carriers and package delivery personnel, the great joy of making a ruckus. The great joy of so many sounds: the metal ting of kibble being poured into my bowl, the whoosh of the patio doors as they opened for afternoon play in the yard.
Before we met, I didn’t know the smell of you, the familiar scent of your work clothes, your gym clothes, your just-went-out-for-dinner clothes. How I’d love them all, although sniffing crotches would be frowned upon.
Before we met, I didn’t know that chewing markers, book spines, entire boxes of Girl Scout cookies (packaging and all), would not be an acceptable pastime. Nor would chasing and bucking the vacuum cleaner, that rumbling maniac, but I would do this one thing anyway. I couldn’t help myself. Eventually, you’d laugh.
Before we met, I didn’t know you’d be the one to kneel on the closet floor with me at night, shutting the door to shield me from the terrifying pops and blasts of Fourth of July fireworks. You would be the one to sleep there too, your head on my chest to steady my breathing. You, the one who previously didn’t like dogs all that much, and preferred cats in fact. But I was your wife’s idea.
Before we met, I didn’t know that three days before my arrival in your home, you’d told the family there’d be no dog on the bed, no dog on the sofa — these were the rules. But within the first week, you’d be the one to hoist me up on your king-sized mattress for a Sunday afternoon nap, forgetting everything you’d vowed before. And that when your wife would come home to find us, she would laugh at the sight of us — nose to snout, limbs entangled, snoring. Your wife would cling to this memory and love you more because of your change of heart.
Before we met, I’d never had anesthesia for a surgery, never labored to your truck with a drug-addled body, feeling your hands beneath me lifting me as I staggered. How the world spun, my tongue like dusty chalk. The bump of the road as we made our way home. The soothing sound of your voice as you leaned in and kissed my head. “Poor baby. It’s going to be okay.”
Before we met, I didn’t know the sound of your keys, your footsteps in the hall, the thrill of your arrival, the bliss of a life with chicken jerky and evening walks, the rhythm of our days. I wore a dirty, nondescript collar. Now my name is etched in my pink leather collar beside two stamped hearts and my phone number.
Before we met, I didn’t know it would end too soon. At 8 years old, a brain tumor would take my life, but I’d leave my love behind. Sweet memories, like the fragrant smoke from a snuffed-out candle.