He was a beautiful creature, his black fur gleaming silken and silvery in northern New Mexico’s bright morning sun. His cappuccino-colored eyes could take me from sorrowful to serene in an instant.
I was a freshman at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico and more than a little estranged from my family. My father’s death when I was five had begun my mother’s slow and irretrievable slip into the grip of depression, which left school authorities the delicate task of asking another family to take me in by the time I was fifteen.
I never again returned to my childhood home before going off to college, where a little slip of paper placed in a student’s mailbox would announce the arrival of a care package, almost always from someone’s mother, aunt or grandmother. Nearly every day I would watch the ritualistic dance of students swinging their impatient hands over the switchboard counter to take eager possession of boxes stuffed with all sorts of treats, and greedily tucking them under protective arms before madly dashing off to their dorm rooms to unwrap their loot in private.
But while my own sense of personal disenfranchisement tended to increase on the days when I was all too aware of the absence of a slip of paper in my own mailbox, the truth was that virtually every student, no matter their personal family circumstances, felt more than a little estranged from one thing or another.
The country was immersed in the VietNam war, and everywhere young men my age were either being drafted into it or figuring out a way to get out of it. The uninhibited ’67 Summer of Love just a few short years prior to my freshwoman year at St. John’s had given way to paroxysms of angry protests over the war. My college years were loudly bracketed by massive anti-war demonstrations in the Spring of 1971 and the Fall of Saigon just before graduation in 1975. Mine was a class conflicted by a multitude of opposing realities: those who could afford the hefty tuition that allowed one a very good liberal arts education, and those of us who had to work our way through school. Those young men who were able to return to classes in the Fall of 1972, unfettered by fear and sure of a stable future, and those who had chosen to take refuge in Canada as conscientious objectors because their very lives were at stake.
The safe, warm and expensive privilege of being able to pursue a higher education at a time when so many young people our age were losing their lives left my classmates and I rife with an amalgam of intellectual curiosity, anti-authoritarian cockiness, protective denial, self-righteous pride, guilt, doubt, and studious resolve.
It was a lonely and confusing time for all of us, but we showed up for classes anyway, freshly scrubbed, the boys’ hair frequently as long as the girls’, most of us bedecked in a near daily costume of blue jeans and denim shirts. I was acutely self-conscious about being on financial aid in a school with so many affluent students, an emotional state I mitigated as best I could by some fairly decent sewing skills acquired under the tutelage of my Aunt Mabel, which made it difficult for others to see, at superficial glance at least, the truth of my financial circumstances.
But my hopelessly evident vulnerability nonetheless seemed appealing to a young man’s desire to be needed, and all too soon I had caught the attention of a confident and rather cocky upperclassman, born in New York City like my father had been. Crazy for New York City and still missing my father after nearly 12 years, it proved impossible to resist the charms of a sophisticated student from my father’s native city.
I wanted to know what he knew, to experience what he had experienced, to erase my past and be anyone but me. My suitor, on the other hand, was a sucker for cowboy mythology and fantasized about a life in dangerous open spaces. He thought my rural upbringing in the North Valley of Albuquerque was exotic, wild even, with a kind of untamed purity that he envied and found sexy. He wanted a sun-kissed blond-haired girlfriend, who had grown up riding her Indian paint horse bareback down the rapidly churning waters of the Rio Grande River. He wanted to experience the freedom that represented, while all I wanted was to disappear into a city so huge it would make me forget my childhood, the desolation of the desert and the phantom parent my widowed mother had become.
We moved off campus to a little one-bedroom adobe house tucked off Chavez, sort of a main drag up to the campus. Although I have no doubt that he would recall this story in a completely different emotional way than I do – Rashamon style – I remember him thinking he could heal my loneliness, keep me with him, and protect me after he graduated by buying me a dog.
Never mind the thinking that leads a man to believe that a pet could possibly be a substitute for his own companionship, chivalry was not something I was prone to arguing with on the rare occasion when it showed up at my door. So he brought home a Black Labrador puppy and we named him Jason.
In the mind of my energetically idealistic suitor, Jason would be my companion as I sought happiness and contentment in the learned halls of St. John’s College. Our yard had just enough room for Jason to play in and get out from under our feet when we needed to study. But all too soon the disparity between my boyfriend’s well to do New York City upbringing and the reality of my own childhood – most morning’s of which had begun with feeding the horses and milking the goats – reared its argumentative head.
I may well have felt estranged at college, but for the first time in my life I had been blissfully free of household chores. When I enrolled, it was the first time in my life when I had only myself, and my studies, to think about.
And so the love affair between the tanned, blond coed and her beautiful dog was sadly fleeting. My boyfriend graduated and I moved briefly to a one-room apartment nearer to campus with a park across the street for Jason to play in. I had my classes and I had my financial aid job and I couldn’t stay in our little house on Chavez. I naively thought Jason could live in my dorm room, eagerly looked after by my dorm mates should I be in class. Ah, the blissful ignorance of wishful thinking.
Coming back from seminar nights to a devoted dog reads well in a storybook, but the truth was that we were both miserable. Consumed with guilt at not taking care of him properly, I had inadvertently become irresponsible and self-involved, just like my mother, and Jason had inadvertently become depressed and lonely, just like me. Feeling abandoned, Jason would cry helplessly whenever I left him behind in my room to attend class. I was angry – at myself, at my boyfriend, at my innocent, hapless dog.
One night when seminar ran until 11:00pm, I left the building to a concerned friend telling me that Jason was running helter skelter looking for me. When I found him, he was panicked and distraught, alternating between the eager full body wag saved for greeting his mistress and the pathetic tail-between-his-legs apologetic stance he took when he was afraid he had done something wrong. Soon enough our collective anxiety escalated to the point of no return, when late one day after classes I found the door to my room ajar and Jason missing. Frantic, I ran the expanse of the campus calling out his name, followed by friends who combed the neighboring sagebrush-overrun gullies and arroyos for hours. The campus was majestically tucked under the saddle of Monte Luna and Monte Sol, where Jason and I would frequently go on long walks. Everyone assumed he naturally would look for me there if he could not find me on campus. But no one found him.
I long suspected – prayed, rather – that a fellow student, rightly pegging me as too irresponsible to be Jason’s caretaker, had taken mercy on him and found him a home with someone who would love him the way he deserved to be loved. That night Jason disappeared from my life forever, and what ultimately became of him would never be discovered.
Whatever feelings of guilt I had were exacerbated by the lack of stability in my life, the fact that I was alone again and, most palpably, rage at my now former boyfriend, giddily wandering around Europe on his father’s dime, for having fallen more in love with the image of a seventeen-year old girl and her dog on his arm, than with the reality of truly loving her. Had he cared about me, I told myself, he would never have gotten me a dog, because he would have realized that my life was not set up to accept such responsibility.
I was a financial aid student and I could barely afford my books, an occasional hamburger in the coffee shop, new shoes and a haircut, let alone dog food and veterinary bills.
From that day on it I vowed never to have a pet again. And I never did, until the autumn of 2007. I had rented an apartment in Bologna, Italy for the month of June so that I could research a book I had begun writing on my father’s Italian heritage. On Friday, June 22nd a train strike prevented me from getting to the State Archive an hour north in Parma, so I went to Zanarini on Piazza Galvani for a cappuccino. Suddenly my BlackBerry buzzed with a random email from the oldest brother of the classmate whose family had taken me in when I was fifteen. We had not been in touch in thirty-six years, but the open, humorous and welcoming energy of his message soon had me spending whatever time was not reserved for the Archivio exchanging electronic missives with this long lost person from my past. He had become an orthopedic surgeon like his father, had been married and divorced, and largely raised two girls and a boy as a single parent. I was impressed by his naked honesty, curiosity, and single status.
By then I had been living in my father’s native New York City since 1978, and before I returned to New York on the Fourth of July, we agreed to meet in Manhattan, where he had gone to medical school and where he frequently took his teenaged son for weekends of musical theatre and steak dinners. He practiced medicine in a small town in mid-central Pennsylvania, and soon I was invited to meet his son and his dog – coincidentally or not, depending on if you believe in karma – a Black Labrador Retriever.
His girls were all grown up, and his son, a senior in high school, had begged for a dog. Out of the many cages of the local ASPCA they soon rescued a rambunctious pup and appropriately named him Gatsby, after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous character who spent his life wanting something he could not have.
Although I had long before declared my life pet-free, I loved animals and was eager to meet this seventeen-year old boy and his dog, all too aware of the undeniable emotional power of that all too familiar imagery. However, I was not prepared for the flood of conflicting emotions that would wash over me on meeting Gatsby, who was a dead ringer for Jason. He was gorgeous, but incorrigible – thoroughly untrained, jumping all over me, incessantly sniffing and licking whatever bare skin was left exposed, not to mention my clothes and handbag, the trash, beds, countertops, moldings and floor, tearing up the carpets, chewing electrical cords and destroying virtually everything, including heirloom furniture, with which he came into contact.
Father and son, happily indifferent to the destruction and disarray, openly made fun of me when I wondered aloud, “Is this a doghouse, or a human house?” “Anarchy! Anarchy!” they gleefully shouted, Gatsby bounding around like a kangaroo.
As weekends in Pennsylvania became a part of my life, so too did the recalcitrant Gatsby. Yet father and son were no more paying proper attention to their Black Lab than I had paid to mine many years before. Fearing Gatsby would meet Jason’s unfortunate fate, I swooped to the beast’s – and my own – rescue, suggesting his youthful shenanigans might be better suited to another family. “Give him away? But we saved his life!” Father and Son thundered. I persuasively parried with the name of a serious dog trainer, knowing that it was they – the three of us, really – who needed obedience training.
Six weeks later Gatsby the Rogue emerged as Gatsby the Regal. The nervous twitches and devilish trickery that had been fallout from benign neglect and lack of discipline were replaced with confidence, sweetness and nobility, his translucent cappuccino-colored eyes inducing the same calm I first encountered thirty-seven years before when Jason would sit by my side as I gently stroked his head.
I am now stepmother to Kevin, wife to his father, and willing caretaker of his beloved dog while he is away, interestingly, at the Eastern campus of St. John’s College. My husband practices surgery in Virginia now, and from the outdoor patio that is perfectly suited to a 7:00am mug of coffee, Gatsby the Great stretches out on the grass beside me, scanning the sky for hawks and sniffing the air for evidence of creatures from which to protect me.
He is a beautiful creature, his black fur gleaming silken and silvery in northern Virginia’s bright morning sun. And his cappuccino-colored eyes regularly take me from sorrowful to serene in an instant.