There’s a photo of me at 10-months-old, bundled-up, Russian style, propped up in my Seventies plaid pram. I’m being guarded by a large German Shepherd named Alfeek. He was the first dog in my life and I don’t remember him but suspect he scarred me in some traumatic way, because until the age of 12, I had a terrible fear of dogs.
My 12th birthday present was a puppy. We had just moved into our house on the dead-end block across the street from the golf course in Staten Island. My father’s best friend, Misha, was a dog trainer in Russia and he accompanied my parents to select a dog. Misha explained to them that the dog is supposed to pick you. A pointer came running over towards my mother and while she was instantly enamored, my dad his eye on a unique dog that sat in the cage by itself, a mastiff. She was beige (to match the rest of the new house) with a black, perpetually-sad face. Her wrinkled forehead seemed to indicate her disappointment for life overall.
They didn’t take me with them to pick out the dog – even though it was supposed to be MY DOG. (They said they wanted to make it a surprise.) I was in the backyard when they got home and they told me to get something from the backseat of the car. I knew where they were going so it wasn’t THAT MUCH of a surprise. I braced myself. I thought it would be a Golden Retriever puppy. It was, after all, Daisy, Misha’s 12-week-old Golden Retriever, who won me over and successfully quelled my fear of dogs. But instead of a Daisy look-alike, here I was face-to-face, with this pathetic-looking dog hunched over in the back seat of the Mazda. Let me tell you, it wasn’t loved at first sight. But very soon, I fell in love with this Marmaduke-ian dog.
I named her Sandy, for her color, not after Annie’s dog. Her jowls were notorious and a trail of drool followed her wherever she went. When she shook her head, drool would go flying around the house like a flying assault and we’d all duck while the drool strings landed on the TV. Sometimes we were too lazy to wipe them off, and eventually there were dried-up drool strings across the screen.
As a direct contradiction to how you’d anticipate a dog this size to act, she was mellow and quiet. She didn’t bark. My father thought she can be a guard dog and he decided he would teach her to bark. “Golas,” he would say; it was Russian for “voice” and it was the command for her to bark. He would kneel on all fours in front of the sliding glass doors facing our front yard, channeling his Alpha dog, and marking deep, baritone barking noises, hoping Sandy would copy him. Eventually, she would muster all her energy and give us one big woof. Following Misha’s direction, we spoke to the big dog in Russian commands; he was the dog trainer and we listened to him as our personal Dog God. (Ironic palindrome.) What did we know about dogs? We didn’t even know female dogs got their periods, all over the cream-colored carpet. As if the drool souvenirs weren’t enough, now we had red droplets that the bitch left behind like a fertility wake.
I became known as the girl walking the huge dog in the neighborhood, but she quickly became our normal. In her first year, she ate my science project (sorry Lorin), the bottoms of all our new Italian lacquer chairs, at least seven (or seventeen) pairs of shoes and at least four whole cooked chickens. (Sandwiches for dinner, anyone?)
This was way before Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer and we really could have used his help. Sandy was a beast to walk; she pulled me HARD, even with a choke collar and even at my fattest high school days, she still outweighed me at 160 pounds. The walks became so exhausting that we eventually just let her out into our very small backyard.
You can imagine the shit that came from a pony-sized pooch.The winter was better for cleaning dog poop than the summer. In the summer, I couldn’t let the shit accumulate because guests came over to use the pool and it wouldn’t be very hospitable to give them a shit minefield to walk through. Secondly, the heat cooked the shit and the foul smell drew in dozens of flies. Summer poop cleaning entailed holding my breath and swatting flies as the melting poop left smears on my shovel and the ground. In the winter, I could go weeks at a time without cleaning. My mother would eventually leave me a note on the kitchen table to “clean up the sheet from the backyard.” Cleaning was much easier once the shit was frozen solid, but so much heavier. I would use an industrial-sized winter snow shovel to scoop the shit rocks into ShopRite yellow plastic bags. Best present ever!
After four years, Sandy rivaled me as my father’s favorite child, but unlike me who has his blood, the dog always seemed to have some medical problems. Later on, everyone told us that getting a pure breed was an absolute no-no. When I was 16 years old, Sandy needed some mild surgery. It was a Sunday evening and she was coming off of the doggy anesthesia, and she came into my room and took my silly putty egg. I followed her into my parents’ room where I proceeded to do what I had done a million times before then. I pried her huge black jaw apart, unhinging it, and took back my egg. She just sat there, but I could not let it go. I started to hit her with the red plastic egg container over the bridge of her nose, yelling at her for what she had done.
I never listened to my mother the thousand other times she said, “Get your face out of the dog’s face.” I didn’t listen this time either, but I should have.
Sandy got annoyed so she barked really loudly at me, just like my dad taught her, only this time my face got in the way. Her canine tooth split my upper lip in half, starting at my philtrum. I put my hand to my face instantly and immediately felt the need to hold my lip together. I ran to the bathroom and started running cold water to wash my face and then I looked in the mirror. Fuck! I had never seen anything like that – especially on my own body. Eek. My mother was standing over my shoulder staring back at me in the mirror.
“We have to go to the emergency room. We need a plastic surgeon.” She said in the most commanding calm way that sounded completely foreign to me. My mother is not typically this “take charge when shit gets real” kind of woman. By 16, I was accustomed to handling myself (and her sometimes). But now, I needed her, and she was right there in my reflection.
When we got to the hospital, as promised, my mother instantly demanded a plastic surgeon. When the time came to go get sewed back together, they told me I could only pick one parent. I had been a daddy’s girl my whole life. He was the calmer one and I knew he would be better at keeping me sane, but I knew if I picked my father, my mother would never forgive me. So I picked my mother. She stood over me as the plastic surgeon gave me numbing injections directly into my split lip. She hovered over him, as his little hook and thread went in and out, sutchering me back together. When he was done, my mother said, “I think she needs one more stitch on top, closest to the nose.”
“Really?” he said. “I think we’re good. I did two inside stitches that will dissolve and 12 to close up the lip.”
“Well, let’s just do a lucky 13th then. Trust me, my younger daughter had her forehead stitched up when she was three and they only put three stitches and now she has such a pronounced scar. I learned that she needed more stitches; it makes a better scar.” My mother was teaching the plastic surgeon.
“OK,” he said, “You want another stitch? I’ll give her another stitch.”
But he hadn’t numbed me high enough for number 13 and so I felt that last stitch; a little gift from my mother.
I didn’t go to school for a week. When I went back to work at the donut shop, the grown men made comments about my swollen lip and made jokes that I pretended to understand.
We didn’t get rid of the dog; we agreed it really wasn’t her fault. As it turns out big dogs don’t have long lifespans, and she only lived seven years. Instead, I am left with a souvenir that has long outlived her.
Moral of the story – if a kid is scared of dogs for the first 12 years of her life, she’s probably psychic. Get her a cat.