I’m your dog but not your pet
—“I Know But I Don’t Know,” Blondie
I’m actually more of a cat person at heart. From my earliest memories what I wanted most—really all I wanted—was a cat. But for some reason my mother was against it, although earlier in their marriage my parents had had one—Felonious Monk—who had a goatee like his sort-of namesake Thelonious. The “Felonious” adaptation was a nod to my father’s job as a federal prosecutor.
When I was eight years old I started calling the Philadelphia ASPC on an almost daily basis. My mother didn’t want a cat in the house. It was too cold in the winter to have one outside. I thought that if someone of authority at the ASPC put a blessing on keeping a cat outdoors my mother would relent and let me have one. But the answer was always no.
When I was in fifth grade at Sacred Heart Academy there was a school fair at the end of the year. My parents were away at the time. My father must have had some sort of conference to attend—my parents never went on solo vacations—and he’d brought my mother along. Mrs. Reilly—a wonderful older woman with blue-white hair who was actually born in Ireland and still had the accent to prove it—was caring for me and my three little brothers and sister.
Coco looked just like this when I won her.
At the school fair there was a raffle for a kitten—an elegantly adorable seal point Siamese. I bought a ticket. I was truly stunned when I won. I remember holding the little cat tight when one of the Powers girls gave me a ride home in her yellow VW convertible.
The Beatles had recently broken up. The universe wasn’t as stable as I’d thought. Anything could happen. Maybe my mother would change her mind.
The biggest hurdle was persuading Mrs. Reilly to let me keep the kitten until my parents came home so I could work on my mother. Somehow I succeeded.
Another hurdle: the kitten clearly needed food and a litter box. I took my lifetime savings out of the white ceramic piggy bank on my dresser and walked to the Acme. It wasn’t too far from our home at 6368 Drexel Road (phone number TRinity 7-0619) but I had to cross busy Lancaster Avenue twice to get there and back. I made it.
Miraculously, when my parents returned they let me keep the kitten, which I had named Coco. I’d actually found a city on a map of Thailand (a.k.a. Siam) that had many syllables but began with “Coco.”
I don’t think I could find that town on a map today.
The next year we moved to Harrisburg. My father had been named attorney general of our state. I had to start at a new school—a public school—for seventh grade: Good Hope Intermediate. It was my first time attending a school without nuns.
I loved Coco but I wasn’t doing a good job of keeping her litter box clean.
When my mother’s friend Rita came up from Philadelphia to visit one day, my mother gave her Coco without telling me. Rita had recently been divorced, a feat without precedence in our Irish Catholic neighborhood back in Philly. She had a daughter also named Rita who they called “Ta.” Ta, who was a year older than I, didn’t go to Catholic school; she was one of the very first girls to attend a previously all-boys private school with no religious affiliation. This all seemed very bohemian to me even though I probably didn’t know the word “bohemian” at the time.
That night, when I discovered that Coco was gone, I ran away from home. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t take a thing with me. I just ran out our back door. I was stunned—completely taken by surprise—when my father tackled me. I was only a few blocks away and still running. It was well after dark. There had been reports of a rapist in the area. I’m sure that my father was worried about me. I didn’t realize he’d even seen me leave.
I was ten years old when I won Coco in that raffle, twelve when my mother gave her to her friend Rita.
I sobbed for days.
When I moved to Manhattan after college I adopted two Siamese kittens even before I had a place to live. It was summer. I was subletting from some Columbia Law School students up in Morningside Heights, sharing their sprawling three-bedroom apartment with two guys I didn’t know. I kept the kittens and their litter in my tiny room. We’d be on the street come September.
Judging by what I had to go through to get Lulu-Belle I don’t think that Bide-a-Wee would let me adopt those kittens today given my then circumstances.
I had Grace for seventeen years. Bosco for fourteen. By the end I had to give Grace a liter of fluid a day; her kidneys were failing. I’d inject her at the back of her neck and hold her tight until all the liquid had drained into her. It reminded me of holding Coco tight in the back seat of that Powers girl’s Volkswagen.
When Bosco was nine she developed a tumor on her thyroid. Rather than put her on the medication—it was tricky to find and maintain the right dosage—I sent her to Cornell where, through nuclear medicine, they zapped the tumor out. She had to stay away so long—three weeks—because we had to wait for the resulting radioactivity to dissipate.
When she finally came home the veterinarian told me to keep her in a separate room for another two weeks because she was still “hot.” I could be exposed to low levels of radiation, which might pose a health hazard.
This was something of a joke since I was living in a studio apartment. There was no other room.
For the record: Bosco never glowed in the dark.
When I started college, soap operas were all the rage. Millions of Americans across the country tuned in every afternoon to All My Children, Days of Our Lives, As the World Turns, Guiding Light.
The only one my mother condoned was Ryan’s Hope because, she said, the characters were Irish.
My freshman class was rich in high school valedictorians (although I had not been one). We were Yalies. No one watched soaps. No one but Juicy Lucy.
Juicy Lucy was a voluptuous freshman from Tennessee. I still don’t know her last name. Everyone I knew referred to her as Juicy Lucy. Freshman year her boyfriend was Dino Bradlee, easily the handsomest guy on campus, not just in our freshman class, a son of Ben Bradlee of Washington Post and Watergate fame.
Years later I met Ben Bradlee at a cocktail party in Washington, D.C. given for my author, News Hour and NPR contributor Anne Taylor Fleming. I told him that I’d been in Dino’s class and, without thinking, casually referred to Juicy Lucy, forgetting it was a nickname and a derogatory one at that. Ben Bradlee guffawed so hard he spilled his drink on me.
Rumor had it that Juicy Lucy watched soaps all afternoon in the “psycho single” Dino had finagled for himself almost immediately upon arrival at Yale. His room was in Old Campus on the ground floor of McClellan. He and his pals—a fast boarding school types that included the son of a cabinet member, the grandson of a U.S. president, and a Kennedy cousin—always came in and out a window; none of them were conventional enough to take advantage of something as mundane as a door.
By senior year, despite my sneering at Juicy Lucy from afar since we were freshman—I’d never actually met her—I was watching General Hospital, the most popular soap of all, every weekday just like her.
Rick Springfield as Dr. Noah Drake on General Hospital.
I’d joined one of Yale’s popular a capella singing groups by then: The New Blue—“Yale’s Women of Note.”
General Hospital was particularly popular among our alto sections. At 3:00 pm every weekday we rendezvoused in the TV room in the basement of Calhoun College. We’d watch and gossip and sometimes sing. Everyone but me went by their last names: Cortes, Eisenhauer, Nocca. Sometimes we were joined by a token second soprano–Anne Herbst–who possessed the most radiantly gorgeous voice I’ve ever heard. When the New Blue was performing and she was the soloist sometimes I’d forget to sing.
I was a second alto. It’s possible that I am the least musically talented person ever to make a Yale singing group. I don’t have much of a voice. I can’t read music. But I can hit very low notes.
I can’t say that I had a “thing” for Rick Springfield but I liked his hit “Jessie’s Girl”—who could resist a pop song about jealousy and unattainable love featuring the lyric the point is probably moot?
And I admit that he was easy on the eyes.
I would not have predicted that thirty-four years hence I’d be attending a Rick Springfield fan retreat at a Florida Club Med with a little blind dog for a roommate.
But then, I wouldn’t have predicted a lot of things.
My mother is now eighty-three. My father died two years ago; she’s been on her own since then.
Fading memory runs in her family. It is what I fear most.
She is not as bad as my grandmother was at her age but she has forgotten entirely about Coco. I referenced the sore subject in passing recently. My mother’s eyes were genuinely innocent. As blank as her memory. I think that her eyes have gotten clearer with age, while her recollection has gone cloudy. She blinked a few times, as if those butterfly-wing-like taps might jostle her brain and dislodge the memory in question so that it might be accessed. But nothing turned up. Nothing was released.
She hasn’t forgotten everything. When I go to visit she brings up the same five anecdotes three times apiece.
For some reason, one of the items that has lodged in her rotation is the idea that my ex and I are getting back together. I can pour my heart out to her, confide in her in a way I never did when I was a kid, tell her how bone-deep sad I am, that I worry that this leaden mourning will never lift.
Not three minutes later she will suddenly brighten. I now know what it means to say that someone’s face has lit up. The idea makes her happy all over again every time it occurs to her. “I’m so glad that you and Stuart are getting back together.” She smiles at me like a mother pleased by something her child has unexpectedly accomplished, in this case: that I’ve worked magic and my ex will be moving back in. “I always liked him.”
Me, too, I want to say. Me, too.
There is no point in getting angry with her any more than there is a point to holding a grudge about Coco. But I still do.
I just don’t express it.
Instead, in the same soft tone I’ve developed for Lulu-Belle, I say, “No, Mamma. No. We aren’t getting back together again. Remember?”
But she does not.
Blondie’s album Parallel Lines came out my sophomore year. I played it endlessly, so much so that I had to buy it again. It’s the only album I’ve had to buy twice due to—I won’t say “overplaying.” This is an album I don’t think you can play enough.
One of the few songs on it not to become a hit is “I Know But I Don’t Know.” My favorite Blondie lyric is in it:
I’m your dog but not your pet
Blondie’s “Parallel Lines” album cover.
Thirty-seven years after I listened to this album so incessantly, Lulu-Belle reminds me of this lyric. She is definitely my puppy but she’s nobody’s pet. Not even mine. She often seems more feral than tame. When I walk her she nips at my heels until she draws blood. The backs of my calves were so scabbed in Florida, Rick’s wife Barbie told me that she and Rick thought that I had been doing a lot of cupping, that eastern practice involving the application of a round glass and drawing pinpricks of blood. But it was all Lulu’s doing.
Lulu-Belle is still not house broken, despite my best efforts.
Often she gets into the trash. I come home and it looks as though there’s been a ticker-tape parade in my kitchen.
And yet I anticipate her looking up at me with her unseeing eyes. I wait for her signature quizzical head tilt—part Stevie Wonder, part Longstreet—with unabashed longing.
My best two moments of any day are to see her when I utter her favorite words: breakfast in the morning and dinner in the evening.
She is my only dog to have a tail to wag, and wag it she does: when I feed her, when she meets another dog, and anytime I come in her proximity.
There’s not a thing I wouldn’t do for her.
Lulu-Belle may not be my pet but maybe I’m hers.