I got my first pet at a preschool carnival. He was a goldfish just like all the other goldfish, bobbing benignly in his plastic bag. His was arranged third from the back among the slouching rows of identical plastic bags on a folding table near the cake walk. I’d like to say that something drew me to him — that I just knew that he was the right fish for me. I searched my four-year-old heart for that type of intuitive, love-at-first sight feeling I felt I should have, but came up empty. In the end, I just grabbed one of the bags and hoped for the best.
Holding him in my lap on the car ride home, I named him “Prince”. It seemed like a good name for a pet. Masculine, yet still comely. I imagined a personality for him that fit with the name, and even manufactured some feeling for the unblinking alien in his plastic containment bubble. We put him in a fishbowl on the kitchen table, complete with green pebbles and tiny sunken pirate ship, and he was mine.
But not for long. A few mornings later, my Mom, adjusting her chair before digging in to a breakfast of blueberry waffles and corn syrup, felt a dull thump under one of the legs. The chair sat uneven for a moment before sliding level with a muted thud. Looking down, my mother discovered Prince — most likely already dead for quite some time — now crushed into an orange, scaly pancake on the dining room floor.
I don’t know what drives a goldfish to suicide. Most likely it’s an instinctual firing of synapses that lead to a sudden explosion of upward energy, the likes of which would be harmless in the wild, if there even are “wild” goldfish. Maybe it’s even this type of acrobatic feat that proves their fishy masculinity to prospective mates. But it’s a trait that proves less advantageous when living in fishbowl with a tapered four-inch mouth.
It would make for a better story to claim some lasting psychological damage from being the owner of a goldfish so promptly driven to suicide. But the truth is, I never really got attached to the thing, and his death didn’t mean much more to me than a spider pinched in a kleenex. If it did have any effect, it was to further emotionally distance me from the animal kingdom.
Now, a quarter century into this life, I find myself with a dog.
And not just any dog. No. I say with complete objectivity that he is the cutest dog currently in existence. I have watched cars pass by, drivers’ necks craning to capture one more second of his inimitable cuteness. Drivers stop in the middle of the road to strike up conversations with me as I untangle myself from his leash on the sidewalk.
It’s amazing the social world that a dog opens up: Casual conversations with complete strangers, the curtain of polite indifference parted by a common fascination with this small, furry animal. We humans carry on whole conversations, not making eye contact with each other, just staring down at Oz as he shuffles, oblivious, on the ground below.
And when it’s over, they walk away, not a single pleasantry having been exchanged. It’s a strange phenomenon — almost as if, for the course of that conversation, I cease to exist as a person. I am simply the medium by which this dog was transported, briefly, into their lives.
We have both entered into a (to me) completely new type of social transaction, in which cuteness is received and I am supposed to feel some oblique compliment from the mere fact that people seem to want to pet my dog. I always feel a bit used after these interactions, having been rendered next-to-nonexistent by a creature who can spend hours swatting an orange plastic cup through a puddle of his own urine.
On one level, it’s offensive to be so patently ignored — to so obviously take a backseat to these people’s fascination with Oz. But at the same time, I’m not interested in them either, so who am I to complain? For the time being, I’ll just content myself with playing the mute dog owner as people fawn over my indifferent pup, completely ignoring the human at the other end of the leash.
Photo by Ricky Romero