My Life with Animals: Nervous Breakdowns and Dingoes

M.E. Evans

June 29th, 2011, Taken from the Short Stories section from my more serious blog DirtyFilthyThings

My Life with Animals: Nervous Breakdowns and Dingoes

I moved to Italy for art school, the calm Italian lifestyle, great coffee, lax smoking laws, inexpensive wine, and beautiful cobblestone streets lined with sophisticated Europeans. That was the imagery I had of Europe from my random vacations over the years. Living in Italy, as with living anywhere, changed the idealistic setting and replaced it with reality: The cobblestone is often covered with excrement, the sophisticated humans have no concept of personal space, and the calm lifestyle is actually just well-dressed laziness, and it’s isolating. Terribly isolating. The loneliness is different than what I had experienced growing up in Utah, but every bit as uncomfortable. I can handle it though, it’s something that I’ve grown used to and developed a lifelong love-hate relationship with because I need to be alone to work, to write, to think, but in it’s in these great flashes of productivity I notice the silence.  The sporadic urge to inform close friends of rare moments of genius is expunged by the fact that I can’t, there isn’t anyone of the same species to call here. And “home” is eight hours behind by phone, or twenty hours of traveling by air.

My boyfriend, Francesco, gave me a midget poodle for my birthday last year and I bonded with the animated mop of fur the way most women might attach to a human baby. Maybe that’s because I’m thirty, and I don’t have an actual human baby and, really, who wants one anyways? I’ve never been a fan of the things that throw up on you during weeks of sleep deprivation. I like to tell myself that I’m set, I have a career and a homeless looking poodle that pisses on his own legs and walks like a drunken iguana. Living in a foreign country, it’s important to have someone who can’t get away from me whom I can depend on.

The poodle, Oliver, started out as my dog, because Francesco had never had a dog before and didn’t believe they had personalities, memories, or the will to live. This is what happens when you have children kill chickens for dinner. However, after a few short months, he changed his mind and began talking with Oliver and carrying him around the house while cleaning and cooking like a schizophrenic Aunt Jemima. Oliver even sleeps between us, head on pillow, tucked under our comforter, we fall asleep turned towards each other with our hands resting on him.

I read somewhere that dogs reduce anxiety and lower blood pressure but that’s probably every dog except for Oliver who can’t even stand still while he poops. Regardless, one day when Francesco announced we had to go to his hometown for a weekend visit, I picked up Oliver and started rubbing him. Hard. Many things make me regress in the world, but parents, especially his parents have me all but sucking my thumb and wetting my pants. I know from life experience that parents are not to be trusted, and the fact that he concedes to their every whim is enough to shut down my frontal lobe. I don’t like to be rude so I tried to lie instead.  Nothing came to me, and the harder I tried, the harder I rubbed his dreaded fur, until it bordered on molestation and Oliver had turned his head and gave me a look like, “are you going to at least buy me dinner first?” I usually had excuses reserved for that: A bladder infection, a yeast infection, a staph infection, syphilis, a plague of some kind but this time there was nothing, my brain was on strike and regardless of the fact my body began objecting with nausea and anxiety my brain wouldn’t respond. I finally accepted my defeat.

“Can Oliver come?” I asked. Oliver, hearing his name, perked up his ears and pawed at the air.

“Yes of course he can.” said Francesco, leaning over and kissing Oliver’s head while making eye contact with me, “Don’t start freaking out.” The intense eye contact is something I’ve always enjoyed about him, it’s creepy, a little invasive, somehow sexy and an excellent momentary distraction; even in the most stressful moments he calms me down and lets my brain drift off to sex. Unfortunately it only lasts as long as a teenager’s hymen.

“I’m not going to freak out. But why the fuck do I have to go!” I whined.

Everything you’ve ever heard about Italian families is entirely true. Well, except for the cool stuff. The sexy mafia men don’t exist; instead it’s a nation of man-children who supplement their diet with breast milk well into their fifties. A psychologist from Milan wrote an article about how the “supervisory, overbearing nature” of the family causes actual emotional impairment of the children who grow into functional vegetables. The same article said the needy relationship is also accountable for the majority of divorces in Italy, probably suicides too. This is something I can’t understand, since I raised myself in my formative years. My boyfriend is much less of a mamma’s boy than most Italians, except for when we are in his parents’ house where he often resembles a menstruating teenage girl instead of an Italian Stallion. I did the only thing I could do: panic, and pout while clinging to Oliver like a baby monkey. Oliver is my only true friend in Italy and, like the children who bear the burden of their mother’s loneliness; it’s entirely against his will. He’d rather be peeing on something or molesting another dog at the park with his “lipstick”.

We set out for his parents that following weekend. Oliver sat on my lap, readjusting himself every three seconds bored out of his mind, sitting, lying down, sitting, growling at me, and lying down. I stared out the window trying to imagine possible conversations to mentally translate so I’d be ready to slaughter the Italian language in front of his family. I do this often, but the problem is that I can never think of something I could actually say out loud to anyone. “How was your weekend?” Turns into, “It was fine. I saw a man masturbating at the park. Another time a man chased me with his penis in the center near a grocery store. Speaking of, is everyone in Europe really uncircumcised? Or, would I love to see the church again? Of course I would! Say, do you think Mary was REALLY a virgin or do you think she just didn’t want to get in trouble for getting knocked up?” This is yet another reason why I prefer the company of Oliver, or animals in general. They don’t have expectations, they don’t care if you talk with them or not, and they’re not particularly judgmental. It’s nice to be loved and needed without fear of disappointment or abandonment.

My boyfriend’s hometown, Cassino, despite its name, which I think means “mess” or something, is an objectively beautiful place resting between Rome and Naples, surrounded by mountains and vineyards. The city is famous for the Abbey of Monte Cassino, and the Battle of Monte Cassino where both allies and Germans suffered massive losses during WWII when the original city was destroyed or so I’m told.

After four hours of driving-because of my newborn sized bladder-twenty-five pee stops later, both in public off to the side of the freeway and in tangible bathrooms, we made it to his parent’s apartment. I stalled at the front door as always pretending to converse with Oliver about how to behave. “Now these people are insane so you have to be extra good okay honey,” while Francesco rolled his eyes, anxious to get inside. We entered their home and gave the customary kiss on both cheeks before going into the kitchen for dinner. We all took our places and sat silently, as usual, while the mom scurried around the kitchen adding the final ingredients to a creamy pasta dish and pulling a fish with its head still intact out of the oven. Francesco’s father, surely to piss off his wife, pulled Oliver onto his lap and fed him bread and cheese.

“Mimmo no! Metta il cane giù!!!!” Squawked the mother, shaking her hands the way someone might to expel water, nobody turned in her direction since they’d grown accustomed to disregarding her. “Mimmo, the dog you put down,” a literal translation into English sounds like she is learning disabled, or wants to euthanize him. Like most women she’s a pain in the ass, but then again, I’d probably be the same if I’d spent my life as an underappreciated servant. How tolerable could she possibly be at this point? Mental note: Never do anything nice for Francesco lest I end up like her.

His mom is a notable chef but I can’t handle the quantity in my stomach or on my thighs. She brought course after course of food while I reminded myself that I put bulimia behind me in college and I had to resist throwing up, difficult after eighteen courses. I kept one hand on Oliver under the table to make sure he didn’t get into any mischief and to give me something to do so I seemed too busy to communicate. Francesco’s father was the first to break the silence in his dialect which doesn’t resemble Italian at all, but instead sounds like musical Russian.

“You resemble someone who made free from Auschwitz. You have the need to eat more!” He said to me. I would take him more seriously if he wasn’t the size of a tall midget.

The mom quickly jumped in.

“She has the need to drink more wine. To put color in her the face!” said the mom, “And she has the need to put more of the eye makeup!”

I looked around as though I were alone in a restaurant examining bad wall-paper while absent-mindedly picking through my food. Strange, I thought, I’m sitting right here.

“Oliver it is dirty.” His father said with a crinkled face like a dehydrated fruit.

“You make the brush on him more, and make a slap on him more.” His mother chimed in, “the dog upstairs it is better than Oliver because with her they are more serious!”

I tried to respond back in Italian,

“We don’t make the hitted Oliver. They made him washed. He makes to play. He like. A lot,” but I sounded like an idiot, so they ignored me.

“He plays too much. And for me it’s like this!” She waved her hands like she’d cast a spell ending the argument.

The only thing his mom and dad can agree on is that Oliver and I are a hot mess; I’d like to think that it’s their mutual distaste for our lazy appearance that keeps them together. I deliberated on how long it has been since they’ve had sex…with each other. I watched Francesco quietly stare at his plate. Something about being in the south changes him, and it scares the shit out of me. In a less severe way it reminds me of that film, “Not Without My Daughter,” where an Iranian man marries an American in the United States. They have a perfect marriage for ten years before he takes her to Iran for vacation. Once they arrive he turns into a real asshole and starts beating her and his daughter refusing to let them leave the country. My mom made me watch it when I was a kid to make me fearful of my father, which didn’t work because my dad is a huge push-over when it comes to daughters plus he’s a scary lesbian-level feminist. Instead, she made me weary of Francesco. Humans are inconsistent and weak because of their constant need for approval. A life spent desperately seeking a gold star destroys their character and makes them unpredictable. In the mistrust I felt unaided, In their home it was just me and Oliver against the judgments of Francesco and his family.

The next day we went to see his sister Laura to take a break from his parents-or more importantly-to give them a break from me. She lives near Gaeta, close to the coast. Most of the time I like her because she’s really bitchy and in a lot of ways reminds me of a black girl from the Bronx, which I love; however, she still has this obnoxious traditional side that makes her seem like a freak. Always waiting on her husband despite the fact that they both work which in my mind means, “both work, both cook, both clean or hire a Spanish servant.” She yells while she waits on him and calls him an idiot regularly to my amusement, but she still does everything for him.  Another note to self: Do not clean or cook.

We met her and her four year old daughter, Leila, out front of a pizzeria in a long line of locals to take something to go. While waiting, Oliver barked himself into a high-pitched frenzy at a dog across the road.  The dog, a small, Lassie looking creature had fur the color of wood paneling wagged his tail and tap-danced with his front paws. I picked up Oliver when he patted across the street to come see us because Oliver has a tendency to pee on other dogs out of jealousy. I pet the dog and talked into his big brown eyes. A young boy with a huge ass and Hanes sticking out of both the top and bottom of his booty shorts explained that the dog had been abandoned a week prior. The tenants simply moved away and left him outside, the way one might a broken stove or an old bookshelf. I wanted to take him home, so I tried to think of the fastest possible solution to make it happen. I turned to Francesco,

“I want him” I said.

“No. I’m sorry, but no.”

“Asshole” I said.

“That’s fine, still no.”

“What can we do!?” I begged.

“Nothing, honey.” He said as though it were the most obvious answer in the world.

“What? Why? Can’t we give him to your dad? He likes dogs.”

Francesco looked at me as if I’d just announced I’d once had a penis.

“But I love him. This is bullshit!” I cried.

“You just met him honey,” he mumbled and rubbed my arm.

He stopped listening at this point and was more focused on removing me from the situation by standing in front of me, so I couldn’t see the stray dog. I stepped side-to-side trying to see around him, while Francesco mimicked my movements to conceal him. Francesco’s sister caught on and tried to shoo the dog away.

As he politely shoved me towards the SUV with our pizzas and without Lassie, I could feel it building. I tried to think about something else to avoid the embarrassment that was to come, but I could hear his pitter patter footsteps behind us, wood-paneled Lassie, and I imagined him thinking, “A new family! Someone loves me again!” My stomach ached, and I felt light headed. I could understand him, because I could understand me. Just as we reached the door, I let out this hideous “gaaaaah” and started howling like Mary while Jesus was being hoisted up on the cross. Saliva and snot were all over my face while I climbed into her car. Francesco and his sister remained silent, exchanging a few uncomfortable glances. It was not the proudest moment of my life, but it wasn’t the first time I’d cried over a stray dog. I felt guilty for making everyone uncomfortable. Then again when did humans start feeling guilty for being sympathetic? This is how I spare my pride: telling myself that I’m exactly like Joan of Arc. I felt as though I deserved to be sainted, “I’m amazing,” I thought. “If only everyone were like me.” And then I realized that being sympathetic isn’t that impressive when it only extends to certain non-human species. Thinking back throughout my life, I’ve always had an “unhealthy” attachment to dogs.

Years ago during university, my medically ordered psychologist had a lot of notions about my “animal issue.” One was that I should never speak to my parents again, primarily my father who my therapist called a “lunatic.”, his other theory was that I should work on my bond with humans and stop using animals as a crutch. This was the same therapist who said, “Well you won’t die so, so what!” after everything I said. Next to death nothing really matters, according to him.

This guy is nuts, I thought; here I am for a nervous breakdown, and he can’t stop talking about animals as though I told him I was in love with a goat, or fucked a horse. All of this for telling him I’d recently smacked a blind person.

I was sitting on a bench reading The Hollow Men, on campus, when I saw a young man outfitted like Mr. Rogers punch his seeing-eye dog, a wheat-field-in-the-sunshine colored golden retriever. I thought that was pretty low considering the dog spent all day putting up with his bad outfit. I had to do something. I figured he couldn’t identify me unless I wore a ring with brail so I ran over and slapped him a couple of times growling, “You can’t be a jerk just because you’re blind.” In my mind, I was the one in the right, because I was defending something that couldn’t protect itself. Though I was never perfect myself, was I?

There was a point at age eight where I had a rabbit (an actual animal, the pink and pearled, elongated rubber version I wouldn’t purchase until college), twelve hamsters, a dog, a cat, six rats, a hermit crab, sea monkeys, and frogs I’d dug a pool for in the back yard. I spent most of my time tending to my animals, or at least trying my best to do it. I wasn’t always perfect. There was a time when my hamsters ate each other, because while I remembered to play with them, I forgot to feed them. I accidentally baked my rabbit in the July sun because I thought he would want to enjoy the fun of the summer sun too I boiled my sea monkeys in a similar fashion. Then following my mother’s divorce, she let my rats go in a field nearby, euthanized my dog (but told me she’d given it to a neighbor), and gave my hamsters to our carpet cleaner guy. I was devastated. I vouched I would never forgive her. Of course a few days later, I moved on from it in my own way, remaining only slighter bitter.

At age ten I started an environmental group that was featured in various newspapers because I was a freak demanding an end to littering, and animal cruelty at city hall meetings. I’d also taken up the habit of calling the humane society of Utah thirty times per week on every neighbor with a pet for neglect, brutality, or tail docking which I associated (and still do) with cutting off a leg, arm, or penis.

Honestly I had nothing better to do, and nobody to do it with. Apart from being really poor, my mom had me when she was only eighteen, and regardless of how hard she tried she was simply far too young.  We all have our own ways of dealing with humans and mine was by dealing with animals. For a very long time I’d coped with loneliness and lack of control by drinking entirely too much, which I started at nine, or caring for someone else instead, be it a dog, the world or a friend. It’s difficult to think about yourself when you’re worried about someone else. It was a coping device I learned as a child with my first dog and my mother’s first clinically insane boyfriend.

When I was four years old there was a period when pet rocks were the closest thing I had to friends, and my mother was still making, “shit on a shingle” for dinner. It was her favorite food, and required minimum ingredients: White toast, and gravy. I hadn’t started school yet and I was still an only child so my social circle consisted of my mother and me and even that was about to change. One morning I roamed around our apartment in northern Utah wondering why my mother wasn’t up smoking, and drinking Folgers. I could breathe real air, so I assumed she’d left me.

On my way to her bedroom I lingered on a picture stuck to the fridge with a Christmas magnet of a self-portrait I’d drawn, me, in stick figure form, fishing in a small pond with the title, “I’m Phishing Fer My Mommy.” I’d drawn it with a green Crayola two weeks prior when she’d left me with a babysitter a bit longer than expected. Melissa, the sitter, was great and much better than the previous baby-sitter who made me sit in my room so she could watch porn with her friends. Melissa was around fourteen and handled the situation pretty well for someone pre-pubescent. “I don’t want to call the cops, but I’m not old enough to keep you either, don’t worry I won’t leave you alone. I don’t want you to end up like that other girl. I just don’t know what to do, your mom is over twenty-four hours late.”

I’d drawn it for revenge, making the little girl as sad and pathetic as possible with an upside-down “U” mouth bolded for emphasis. When my mom finally strolled in later that night, I didn’t even bother to say hello. I marched the drawing up to her before taking my seat in our over-sized brown recliner.  I waited for the waterworks. I’d fantasized about her dying from guilt and heartache, falling to the floor in remorse when she realized how distraught I’d been. She took the picture and examined it in one hand while holding a cigarette in the other: “I thought I told you I was taking a road trip with some friends. No? Strange I thought I did. Well, I tried to call,” she said, “and at least you made some extra money this weekend.”  She stuck the picture to the fridge, “I really like the picture sweetie” then turning to the babysitter, “she’s really good at drawing.” The baby sitter shot me an “I’m sorry” look before leaving the apartment.

Lingering on the picture, I tried to accept that I might be alone. My mom had never slept longer than me, being the kind of woman who runs on jet fuel, coca-cola and three packs of cigarettes per day. I pushed her bedroom door open expecting an empty room when two figures shot up from her waterbed; I screamed and jumped back. A man with brown hair, short but somehow disheveled with a shit-eating grin on his face, had his arm around my mother, “I’m Kevin,” he said, resting up on one elbow. His eyes twinkled like tap-water. My mother was smiling too. They both smiled awkwardly at me as they floated and bobbed like two hung-over rubber duckies.

“Are you my dad?” I walked towards him to get a closer look.

“No honey! MISTY! Oh my god! I’m so sorry!”

My mom squealed like someone shoved a hot iron up her ass. He smiled as though he’d just been nominated for some kind of hillbilly Grammy,

“I sure can be if ya wanna.”

I shrugged and left the room to make a packet of Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal and watch He-Man. I’d been collecting Skeletor toys and was a proud owner of Castle Gray Skull, where I stuffed all of the Barbie gifts from grandma.

“That’s what you get,” I’d tell them, “for waltzing around naked like a hussy and crashing your sports car,” either before or after burning their hair off.

For the next two years Kevin took on the role of my father. Both my mom and Kevin actually told me he was my father, as though I were a goldfish and couldn’t remember meeting him. In the two years that they were together they made a little boy named Mitch. Then one day when I was around six and Mitch was around one year old, Kevin stood my mom up at the alter and just as they’d told me Kevin was my father they told me he wasn’t. My mom was taking a bubble bath and I was sitting on the laundry hamper as usual bouncing my heels off of the white weave. She blew bubbles and slumped down into her four inches of water.

“Misty, I have-ta tell you somethin’.”

“What?” I looked down at my hands.

“Kevin isn’t your dad.”

“I know that,” I smiled. “It’s okay mom; don’t worry.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do. I mean, I don’t even look like him.”

She sat up in the water and stared at the bubbles in her hand for a minute.

“Your real dad lives in Salt Lake. He’s Persian from Iran, and you look like him. But he doesn’t want you even though the DNA test was 99.9% positive. Men are so full of shit.”

“Why doesn’t he want me? Did I do something?” I asked.

“He thinks you’re not his because we never had sex.” Just what I always wanted: God status. I popped into her womb just like Jesus.

My childhood was sprinkled with feminism regularly, but during this time, after the Kevin relationship, she was at her peak. I was taught to never trust anyone, and to never need anyone because more likely than not people wouldn’t stick around. Unfortunately this had a lasting impression, and regardless of how many times Francesco asks me to marry him I refuse to accept the idea, because in my mind men can’t be trusted, and nobody could possibly like me long-term. Her intentions were good; she wanted to protect me from the evils of the world, both men and hell so every night she lectured about both subjects together as if to show they were on par with each other. She’d sit on the side of my bed after reading a Dr. Seuss book and tell me about life while she smoked or I played with her hair.

“Where do babies come from?” I asked after watching a cartoon with a stork. It conflicted with my mother’s pregnancy, and the fact my mom told me my brother was in her stomach, which explained why she ate so much: he was swimming in her food and stealing it.

“Babies come from sex; you should never have sex, because men can’t be trusted.”

“And sex is with your privates?” I asked horrified.

“Yes. After you turn eighteen.”

For a long time I believed neither the penis nor vagina could function until after a person turned eighteen.
“Who is God? Everyone at school talks about him” I asked.

“The nicest man in the world”

“What is h-e-l-l?” I spelled because I knew it was a swear word and I didn’t want to risk my mother’s belt.

“Lying will make you go to hell where the devil lives. He’s the meanest man in the world, and he skins babies alive.”

That little piece of information she could have kept to herself. It took me a few months to be able to sleep in the dark after her vivid description of some asshole named, “devil.”

As disturbing as these talks were they somehow paled in comparison to her “stranger danger” drills, inspired by the rise in child abductions and violent crime that year. The eighties were a dangerous time in America, and we lived in government housing, in Utah, a state known for its repression and astonishingly high rate of sexual offenses. Her stranger danger drills came randomly throughout the week in an effort to protect my vagina from foreign objects.  She’d read a book called, “Never Talk to Strangers,” and then we’d discuss what to do in case of emergency. If anyone touches you, tell me. If anyone looks at you, tell me. If anyone breathes air by you please tell me. Then we would hide.

“If anyone breaks into the house to kill us, hide in the laundry basket and don’t come out, no matter how much I scream and cry and even if there is blood everywhere.”

Then she’d stuff me in the basket to make sure I fit. Dying from lack of oxygen was second to sexual violation. For years every time someone would accidentally bump into me, or pat me on the back, I’d wonder, “Was I just molested?” and scary noises at night would prompt me to roll onto the floor and crawl like a war veteran towards my dirty laundry.

All of her seemingly useless, often disturbing information proved useful at Kevin’s house where a cesspool of degenerates congregated daily. Despite the fact that my mother dumped Kevin and he wasn’t my real dad, she would occasionally leave my baby brother and me with him for weekend visits. On the way I’d stare out the window and watch the fields blur by while my mother belted out country top-forty hits between cigarette drags, occasionally singing to me. She always had a lovely voice.

Kevin was in his early twenties and still lived with his mother, Lorraine, out in the country in the middle of nowhere. His father died when he was young and because Lorraine worked full time her kids were more or less raised without any discipline. All three of his brothers and sister still lived at home.

Lorraine was an older woman, who for some unknown reason refused to kick her drug addicted brood from her home. She was what she called a “good Mormon” and went to church every Sunday. She came home, complained about her bunions, and hung her Sunday pantyhose in the hallway talking about how tired she was. She worked for the IRS and spent a lot of time running between offices. Every few minutes the smell of old, tired feet would waft into the living room.

I loved Lorraine, but honestly if we had lived in ancient Rome all of her children would have been left to die on a cliff.  And I think she knew that, but being a good person, she tried really hard to love them in spite of themselves. I, however, avoided them as much as possible and knew they were not to be trusted.

On a few occasions she took me to church with her, but I wasn’t good at it. I couldn’t sit still, and asked, inappropriately, if it was “time to eat Jesus,” my favorite part was when they handed out bread and water. She also tried to teach me to play the piano, but quickly resigned after my tenth attempt at, “Mary had a little lamb,” still sounded like, “Mary beat the lamb to death and ate it raw” two months in. I felt bad for her, despite being a woman of god, she was obviously being punished for something.

I spent a lot of time in the fields with the horses, or sitting on the back porch. There weren’t any children in the area my age not that it would have mattered since I was, I am, and will always be socially retarded. One thing I can’t say about that house was that it was boring. Kevin was as emotionally mature as a pine tree, he felt victimized by everyone, cried over everything, and drank incessantly. Lorraine would yell “unjustly” for the way he left beer cans piled higher than tee-pees in front of the house, or for his porn magazines being too visible from the hallway, which were stacked in ten piles, waist-high around his bed and visible from Montana. My two-year-old brother had randomly developed a habit of humping pillows, and furniture. Don’t do that! We’d say, when guests from the church were over, Lorraine had to pry him off of the sofa arm with a broomstick, “Where in the heavens did he learn that!?” She’d holler. I had a few ideas, and all of them were bound, and glossy with titles like, “Hustler.”

My mom never really knew the extent of weird shit that went on over there because I never told her anything about Kevin’s after my first attempt failed. One random weekend I caught him buying cocaine, which I knew was bad, illegal, and not something children should be around thanks to Twenty-One Jump Street. If I would have been twenty-four however, I would have made him my best friend and it would have been a different story. Still, I wasn’t twenty-four and I tried to do what I thought was right to remedy the situation.

“Mom. What’s an eight ball of coke?”  I asked when we arrived home one Sunday.

I tugged her shirt. She whirled around and glared at me mouthing, “I’m on the fucking phone with grandma!”

“What’s an eight ball of coke?”

“Hold on mom. What? Where did you hear that? You probably saw that on T.V.” She exhaled smoke, which acted as a curtain between us.

“No, Kevin bought it. So what is it? He was acting really weird and he tried to spell it, like I can’t read,” which was very insulting because at the time I assumed that everyone learned to read at three years old, not realizing it was actually an insight to my future as either a librarian or a serial killer.

“You think everyone is weird. Don’t be so dramatic. I’ll talk to ‘im. He better not be doin’ that shit.”

She turned her back, giving a full ass view of her favorite jeans, where the zipper started at her crotch and ran all the way under and up to her butt crack so one leg could be removed at a time. She shooed me away with her hand and continued talking on the phone with my grandmother,

“Oh it’s just Misty saying something about Kevin.”

“Yeah I agree he’s a piece of shit mom. I know…they all are.”

“Well, I think she just watches too much T.V. at daycare.”

I bring up Kevin’s house when I want to win “worst childhood” contests. My time there was also responsible for the so-called-compliment, “Despite your childhood you turned out okay,” which is like telling someone that despite their cleft lip and peg leg they’re really not so bad looking after all. Although, I have to admit, though my family wasn’t even remotely ideal the chaos taught me how to be self-sufficient, empathetic, and determined, which is something that I see lost in families where the children are spoiled. I wouldn’t call Francesco spoiled, but I don’t understand their need to still make decisions for him, or govern his plans. For me it’s also damaging, just in a different way, or maybe it’s simply so foreign I can’t make sense of it.

Though I didn’t like going to Kevin’s house I didn’t really object because they had horses that I could ride and a dog they kept in a dog house on the side of the yard that I took naps with, plus I never really objected to things that would stress out my mom. Since I didn’t have friends my own age at my mother’s house either, the animals were at least something to interact with and they weren’t crazy like the people were. Plus, once in a while Kevin could act like a normal human being, or at least his interpretation of a normal human being.

On one of Kevin’s Saturdays, I hopped out of my mom’s car with my chubby brother, whose blond ringlets had been put into barrettes. He resembled a cross-dressed midget. My mom dressed him like a girl because, “He looked good that way, and barrettes never hurt anyone.” I couldn’t remember the last time anyone died from hair decorations so I let it go. I walked to the front of the small brick house where Kevin waited at the screen door, handing over my tranny brother. Kevin smiled at me from under his cowboy hat, itched his balls through his dirty wranglers, and said, “Frog-legs I’ve got somethin’ for you in the barn. It’s early, but it’s for your birthday. Go see it.”

He spoke a destroyed version of English common in Utah where consonants are left out as if it would be too much work to leave it in, “moun-in” instead of “mountain.” I stood there staring up at him. The last time he said, “I’ve got somethin in the barn” he’d managed to plug up the rat holes, laid a twenty-two next to the barn and told me to sit at the other end of the rat tunnel to shoot them when they emerged.

“It’s a gift” he added. “Well what are ya starin at? Go, look!”

I ran around the back of the house and through the field that led to the barn, trying my best to dodge horseshit and horses. The grass was up to my waist, and it took effort to get through it. When I finally arrived at the barn gate, there he was, sitting calmly behind the chicken wire as though he were waiting for me; I threw open the gate. He was brownish-red, the size of a loaf of bread. I scooped him up and squeezed him. He wiggled around breathing puppy breathe into my face.

“What’s his name?” I asked Kevin who had caught up with me.

“You hafta name him” Kevin ruffed up the top of my head.

“What kind of a dog is it?” I nuzzled the puppy and kissed his face.

“A dingo pup.”

“Okay, I’ll name him Dingo then.”

We spent all day and night together doing nothing much. I found blankets for his doghouse, fed him and gave him water. He teetered around and slept, I talked to him and tried to explain what the horses were and what was expected of him. He began following me, and coming to his name. It gave me something to do, and someone to talk with. Generally on hot afternoons, Kevin would kick us out of the house to have, “adult time” where his friends Boyd, or Lloyd came over to circle jerk to the porn channel, or smoke pot in the living room before his mom came home from work. During those times, I would swim in the irrigation ditch, care for my brother, look for grasshoppers, or collect beer cans to sell to the aluminum plant. I was allowed to keep any money I personally earned, unless it was over five dollars. Then that would go to Kevin for what he referred to as, “booze tax.” Because of booze tax, I stopped filling them with dirt to make them heavier.

Dingo was a fast learner, which I appreciated because I didn’t have the patience or know-how to train him to do anything special. He was also able to ignore my blabbering and decipher between commands and me talking about my favorite movie. By the third or fourth week he could already come, sit, stay, lie down, and do a number of other things he’d learned with ease, such as avoid everyone besides me. He was smarter than my brother who just sat, drooled and shit his pants. I hated leaving him and tried to bring him to my mother’s as well, but I wasn’t allowed. During the week, I would draw pictures of Dingo in between watching cartoons and wandering in the apple orchard next door. I’d moved schools twice already that year and didn’t have any friends with the exception of a little boy across the way that I’d kicked in the balls and, consequently, stopped speaking to me.

After six months had gone by, Dingo was almost as big as me, around seventy pounds. When I’d arrive I’d run to the barn, and he would run out and meet me half way. I’d turn my back to him while he ran circles around me until he calmed down enough to hug him. I’d share my ice cream with him convinced that things couldn’t get any better for me.

One of my last weekends at Kevin’s that all changed. My mom dropped us off in the same fashion as always, I waved goodbye and ran full speed towards the barn. This time, Kevin stepped out from behind the house and nearly clothes-lined me. “Frog-legs,” he said, “we’ve had an accident, and Dingo was hit by a car an died.” I stared at the ground and tried not to cry.

“You need time alone,” he said, as he headed to the barn with some friends to smoke a joint he was rotating between his fingers.

“Don’t worry, we’ll git-ya another dog” he called over his shoulder.

A half hour later, I stumbled across Dingo’s corpse near a ditch on the side of the house, next to the road. For one reason or another, they didn’t bother to bury him. There wasn’t anyone else to talk with, so I sat down next to him and, while rubbing his head, I told him that I was sad. It was strangely comforting. It wasn’t like when he was alive, but it was nice to have someone there. And so I continued that way for the rest of the summer; me, Dingo, and the ditch every other weekend.  When it got to the point where I couldn’t stand the smell anymore, I sprayed Old Spice inside of my shirt and pulled it up over my nose. When the maggots finally came, I turned my back to him and talked straight ahead. This carried on until snow finally covered his bones and what was left of his brown and red fur.

For Ari.
This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a whimper. -T.S. Elliot

36 thoughts on “My Life with Animals: Nervous Breakdowns and Dingoes

  1. That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever read. Horrible as it sounds, I understand the child neglect part because that’s my story, too, but that they couldn’t even bother to bury Dingo for you. Somehow that last show of disrespect to him and to you is worse to me than losing your only friend. I’m so sorry.

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  4. I can’t be sure yet but I think I have writer’s envy… this is so bloody long I’m gonna hafta come back and read it properly when I’ve cleared my schedule for an afternoon, or three. I definitely have Italy envy though, so I can hate you for that in the meantime😉

    • Thank you? lol. Yes, it seems that you have picked the longest story on the blog. I read that in a public reading here once and by the time I finished I was completely wasted drunk and faint from lack of oxygen. The poor audience members were impressed with it, though I think more so for my ability to talk for a continuous 45 minutes only pausing long enough to gulp my vodka. I’d love feedback though if you are able to finish it one day. I’m editing it for my book and want to know if it sucks and I should leave it out or put it in or burn it.

  5. Greetings from a bloke all the way from South Africa. You have a most captivating manner of describing some incredibly unhappy parts of your past. I’ve read a few of your posts (including the ‘Life With Animals’ chapter) – during which I both laughed and wept, sometimes giggled through the tears – and I’m hooked. I’ll be back – often.

    Best wishes

  6. Pardon my tardiness, but I finally finished reading this. Cripes woman. Fark. Ohhh. Poor Dingo. Poor you. Anyhoo, I’ve gotta start by saying that I’m terrible with grammar and style and I have no skills whatsoever in the way of editorial opinion, so I’m not gonna comment on that side of things, but you asked me to tell you what I thought… so… in my amateur opinion… this shite is great mate! Everybody loves a good fucked up childhood story (Running with Scissors anyone?) and jaysus christ, you’ve got just the right amount of sharing and withholding to entice people to want to know more. I want to know more, I want to know the whoooooole story. And then I want them to make a movie of it. I think part of this reaction is the fact that I got a kitten a year ago and have turned into a giant, sloppy lush whenever there’s an animal involved in anything I read/see/hear, but it’s also the fact that you’re a great writer. This piece is maybe a bit long for a blog post, if we’re talking about appealing to the short attention spans of the masses (moi for example), but in a book it’s just right. And that’s about all I have to say about it. Ok wait, no it’s not. I think what appeals to me the most is that you’re so nakedly honest here – erm, bravo for having the guts to say that stuff about your boyfriend’s (who I assume is now your husband) family. I’d be worried about the fallout – kudos to you. Oh and I’ll read some more… before Xmas maybe… no promises.

    • Natalie! Thank you so much for taking the time to read this! I’m surprised! I didn’t think you’d really have time for it! Thank you even more for the wonderful feedback! You’re so sweet and it really, really means a lot to me and helps me push on with the book.

      It’s very strange how having a pet completely changes your perception of animals. I think it’s because until we’re really attached to one we don’t take the time to notice their little personalities etc. My husband really had no idea that dogs even HAD personalities. Now he can read our Oliver like a book and he knows from every subtle movement what he wants to communicate. Interesting, isn’t it?

      I am actually worried about backlash should a book be published but I’m a nonfiction writer and for me the truth is the most interesting. In the book I have some more stories that balance it all out so there are some good stories mixed with some not so flattering ones.

  7. I have been reading your blog all day while snowed in in Massachusetts. I too spent some years living in Italy and in Florence specifically. You have made me laugh and cry with your wit, candor and frankness. This particular entry touched me and I loved the way you wound several stories into one cohesive piece on your love of animals.

    • Elizabeth, thank you so much. It means a lot to me that you enjoyed this piece and that you were willing to spend a full day here on this blog. I can’t thank you enough for the kind words! -ME

  8. I’ve read most of your blog and really enjoyed your stories. This one was so sad. I have so many thoughts and questions.

  9. Whatever you write, when it is published, I will buy in bulk. I just think you have the most perfect writing style – while I was saddened by the story I also cracked up multiple times despite myself – in particular your alleged immaculate conception. I am in awe of you. From Australia – the country of the Dingo…xx

    • Thank you. It’s readers like you that remind me why I write. I really appreciate you taking the time to read something so long and for the kind words. I’ll let you know when something makes its way out into the world!

  10. A wonderful read …. I was surprised that it was so long for a blog but enjoyed it immensely. Happy and sad, telling and touching. Thankyou from a new follower in Australia.

    • Anette, thank you for taking the time to read such an incredibly long post. Seriously, thank you. I’m really glad that you enjoyed the story. Any feedback is always appreciated (so if you think it could be improved, let me know). Here’s to Australia!

  11. What a great read. Seriously, don’t have any doubts where your writing is concerned! I am half asleep, searching the internet…it’s 1am here in Wisconsin….I typed ‘Fuck it, let’s move to Italy’ and somehow came across your blog via Pinterest. I have literally sat here for over an hour reading through your posts. Not only is your writing great, but you seem to have so many interesting things to write about….good and bad. Coming from a crazy, single mother, no money, moved 10000 times, lonely kind of childhood myself, I can relate to much of what you wrote. I am someone who doesn’t talk about my past just because I feel so singled out, or that people judge me. It’s refreshing….almost healing without sounding too corny, to read what you’ve gone through as well. I will def be following your posts in the future.

    • Samantha, thank you so much for the kind words and I’m so happy that the story resonated with you. You’re definitely not alone in your difficult childhood. There is a large group of us (and I think we all somehow find each other). Thank you a million times for taking time to read through such a long post and the blog. It means more to me than you know.

  12. This is the second post by you that I have read. Italy the Hard Way was the first one and I read that yesterday. I really like your writing style and your irreverent sense of humor which resonates with me. I find myself laughing out loud… continuously. I can visualize the scenes in Italy having spent time there and having made many friends in Italy over the last 12 years. I have dual citizenship and relatives in Northern Italy. I can really picture the interactions you describe with your boyfriend’s parents. If you write a book I will read it. Now its on to your other posts. Thanks.

    • Mark, thank you so much for taking the time to read such a long post. I’m so glad that you enjoy my writing style (it can scare the shit out of some people). LOL. I hope that I’ll see you around here often.

  13. Dear God! I’m disturbed but amazed. Traumatized by reading it and hopeful that one day I can write just as well.

    Pretty sure therapy would help or perhaps the therapist will end up necking herself!

  14. Hi ME, I just spent the last week completely captivated by your blog. I read all the way through from the newest post to oldest. Your writing completely captures me into your world and always leaves me wanting more. Thank you for sharing your stories and I hope a book is forth coming!

  15. As a new mum of a third boy this is hard to read!!! Too many hormones and emotions but I LOVE your writing style it’s very intriguing! keeps me reading when it’s past my bedtime ;0) I look forward to hearing the book title.. Greetings from Ulla, a Dane living in Sydney, two days another Dane, living in Italy! will come and keep me entertained for a few days..

    • The little boy said that the people living on the street would keep feeding him and giving him water, etc. Sigh. That still makes me sad. There are a lot of these dogs in Southern Italy. I’d like to find a way to help them if possible. If a dog goes to a shelter in Italy, it will often stay there for the rest of it’s life because nobody adopts shelter dogs. They need an awesome shelter dog campaign, among other things.

  16. I think I might be one of those spoiled kids who grew up and had to learn sympathy and empathy and the like. That story touched me…not what I was expecting at all. My mum had a dog called Mick which got run over by a car; she had the neglectful childhood your story helped me learn a little more about her. Thanks. Oh, great blog by the way.

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