I had a few minutes to kill and was trying to get out of the rain, so I went into one of those stores where the cotton is organic and everything is made by local artisans, and the people who work there are almost required to have dreadlocks. In fact, the woman behind the counter said she'd never been to a hair salon in her life (after I told her where I was heading) and that she'd been maintaining her long, waist-length blond dreads herself, for the past seventeen years.
"It just kind of goes that way naturally now," she said. "I wash it, but I never brush it, and it stays like this."
Then I had a conversation with this woman's poodle, Java. Java had dreadlocks too, of a kind. She was a little ragamuffin of a pup: one of the sweetest, shyest dogs I've ever met.
Java spends each day with her person right in the store, lounging in front of the cash register in a plaid, fleece-lined dog bed. She is the soft gray of a February cloud, and she wears a big red satin bow, the kind the certificate would come with if you won first prize at a spelling bee. Her eyes are a rheumy charcoal and she is so gentle and still--almost eerily so--that I knew her person had a story to tell.
Java is about seven, but no one knows for sure. She was rescued two years ago by her human companion's grandmother: a 90-year-old animal-lover who busted up the puppy mill where Java had bred litter after litter after litter--five batches or more. Then Grandma took her in and gave this terrified little breeder the only good life she had ever known. But Grandma did not get out much, so the dog remained petrified of strangers and for a long time she just cowered in the corner of the apartment. She didn't know what it meant to be looked after--couldn't quite believe that the water and food in the bowls were for her, only her. Finally, when Grandma needed to be looked after herself, someone else had to take Java.
Enter our heroine. I wish I knew her name. She gave me a glimmer, in her manner, of what Java will become in time: shy by nature, but unaffected, friendly, curious, and loving.
"Everything was scary for Java in the beginning," her person said. "She'd never done anything but breed puppies. She'd never been anywhere. The whole world was a shock to her. Other dogs, people, traffic, sounds. Smells. Everything was new and strange and terrifying."
But her new companion made it her mission to socialize this dog. She took Java everywhere she went. To parks, and friends' apartments. On city pavement, on the hunt for other dogs. The two were soon inseparable and as Java learned to trust her new companion, she learned to trust life. And slowly, over time, Java became accustomed to the world. To Ottawa, at least, which is the capital of a vast North American country, if you please. For any species to thrive in a capitol city is no small feat.
When I'd gone into the store, Java hadn't barked, and she stayed in her bed looking demure, letting me make the first move. Zoe was like this when I met her as a puppy at the pound. I asked if I could pet Java, and the answer was a resounding yes. Oh yes. Somehow, after all this deprivation, Java had learned to love the love. When I scratched her ears, she seemed to be purring.
"You should see her with the cat," Java's person said. "She imitates the way the cat stretches now. She acts more cat-like than dog-like half the time."
Java has never been groomed to look like a poodle as we know poodles, and when her person picked her up and held her against her breast, the two creatures, human and canine, one with long, blond dreads and the other with long, gray, corkscrew-like dreads, looked emphatically like they belonged together. But it was more than their hair, of course. They both vibrated with the same kind of tenderness; they exuded the same vibration. It's like they were, for each other, both tuning fork and perfect pitch.
"I feel so lucky, so blessed, since Java came into my life," she said, and her eyes misted over, and mine did too.
Of course I bought a T-shirt from her.
I so wish I'd brought a functioning camera to Ottawa, so you could see this woman and her poodle who were indisputably made for each other. You'll just have to settle for a picture of Zoe and me.
Last week, one of my students came to see me during my last office hours of the semester. I'd brought Zoe that day. The student, just before she was leaving, said "It's obvious that you and Zoe go together. You're . . . the same. This is such a peaceful room. It's like you have the same personality."
I told her that Zoe used to be a bit more shy and skittish, but with the potential to be this calm and easy, and I used to be more hyper, and that for someone to compare me to her was probably one of the nicest things anyone could say.
Did I become more like Zoe over time, as age mellowed me, or did she become more like me?
Or did we just socialize each other?