Wednesday, May 30, 2007

something beautiful

Fly and Solo at Crissy Field, summer 2006. Nikon D70s, 55-200mm AF-S DX kit lens.

Fly came “over the water” to live with me and Solo in February 2002. I wanted a trained sheepdog, one who could teach me, a novice and enthusiastic handler with one green and hardheaded dog, to handle. Solo, my green, hardheaded, and psychologically disturbed dog, needed a friend, and I decided that after living with me for two years, he was ready to share me with one. Fly arrived in a big wooden crate on a Continental Cargo flight, with her neat tidy white stripe, her great brown eyes and large, upstanding, white-flecked ears, surprised at her new circumstances, unsuspecting. I expected so much of Fly. Could she possibly measure up?

Fly was born in Wales, honed her trade in North Yorkshire, and came to live with me in downtown Philadelphia, the city that, several years ago, was declared “The Most Hostile City in America” by USA Today. She had to take a crash course in traffic, crowds, large expanses of concrete, walking on lead, and CSX freight trains that periodically thundered through the local park. She had everything pretty much under control right away – with the one exception that she apparently considered the area within a two-mile radius of my apartment building to be unacceptable for peeing. I spent those first few days wandering the streets with Fly on an extending lead, chanting, “Please pee. Please pee. For the love of God, Fly, please pee.”

Because of Fly’s little problem, I found myself taking her and Solo to the fenced dog run near my apartment during the wee hours one night. It probably isn’t advisable to wander around the city after midnight, but with two dogs, and at least one who certainly would attack anyone who tried to harm us, I felt pretty safe. I hoped Fly would empty herself so she could sleep loose instead of crated.

We had the place to ourselves, of course. I stood in a corner of the run looking determinedly nonchalant, hoping that Fly would eventually wander off and pee somewhere. Solo was (and still is) not used to unstructured outside time – we’re usually doing something like playing ball, or doing fake agility on playground equipment – so it took him a while to stop staring expectantly at me and wander off as well.

It was a cold night, with a dim, hideaway moon and a couple of yellowish streetlights casting long shadows over the dry, flyaway mulch that served as footing in the run. Solo and Fly made white puffs in the air as they panted. Fly trotted purposefully back and forth, sniffing everything, but not peeing. Dammit. My feet drifted off to sleep. Slowly, Solo left his independent trajectory, and began to follow Fly. What she sniffed, he sniffed. When she walked, he walked, she trotted, he trotted. Both of them carried their tails in easygoing Cs up in the air, over their backs.

Solo spied a deflated, abandoned basketball and leapt to snatch it from the ground. He tossed it into the air to get a better grip on it and then surged off with his prize, hindquarters tucked for extra speed, white teeth clenched on the flapping rubber, eyes wild with that Crazy Running Look that dogs get. (You know the one I’m talking about.) He left a cloud of mulch dust behind him and I thought about all the little pieces of wood I’d have to pull from the plume of his tail when we got home. (Solo has quite a magnificent tail – it resembles a flag, or one of those big fuzzy things people dust window blinds with. Debris loves to hide in it.) It dragged on the ground as Solo continued his butt-tucked run.

Fly wheeled and sped after Solo, a compact, efficient, black and white blur. Solo skidded to a halt, dropped his deflated basketball and spun to face Fly, startled, clearly believing that he’d offended her somehow and ready to defend his toy. I held my breath. But Fly danced like a cat. She tucked her chin demurely, pranced before Solo, and dropped into a low curtsy.

Solo just stared at Fly in blank confusion. He all but looked around behind him for whoever she was really talking to and then cocked his head. You mean me? Really?

Fly grinned, waggled her tongue, and smacked Solo gently on the shoulder with one of her oversized white forepaws. Then she curtsied again. After a stunned second, with an expression of pleasant disbelief, Solo returned the favor, and dropped into a low, formal play bow. If he’d had a hat, he would have whipped it off for more effect. Fly flipped her tail, and ran off, daring Solo to chase her. He did.

They played for almost an hour, a pair of dark shadows with white flashes flying back and forth, laughing, growling, wrestling, tackling, hip-checking, and I stood there watching, thinking, I did the right thing! I did! I got Solo a friend! I was so happy to see them playing together, I started to cry. Embarrassing, huh? It was so beautiful, you see? So normal.

The thing you have to understand is, no one ever wants to play with Solo. Other dogs think he’s weird, unpleasant, “not from around here,” wherever “here” is, he is an outcast. Solo is diffident with other dogs one on one, and worse around groups of dogs. Even mixing with dogs he knows well, he is always on the outside of the scrum while everyone else plays with preferred partners that are never him, his eyes blazing, circling, stiff, awkward, trying to dart in and being rebuffed. When the other dogs get sick of playing with each other, they never decide, “Hey, why not play with Solo?” They just leave the field, while Solo stands there like the last kid to get picked for the kickball team, the hopeful grin dying on his face and his gallant tail tentatively waving back and forth, watching them trot away.

But Fly – she sees the Solo I see. A big, handsome, sweet boy, just a little rough around the edges maybe, standing over in the corner. And she, the forward little minx, thinks nothing at all of asking him to dance. I would love Fly anyway, but I love her for this.

Some of my friends wondered why I would go through the trouble of getting a trained bitch and flying her all the way from Britain. They teased me and referred to Fly as Solo’s “mail order bride.” It would have been simpler to fall for the girl next door, it’s true, but nothing Solo and I do is simple. He fell for the gal with the Welsh accent and bless her heart, she fell for him. I fell for her too.

Solo and Fly at Fort Funston, summer 2006. Olympus 35 SP, Tri-X 400.