After living our separate lives in the United States for much of the year, Tom and I had rendezvoused in Costa Rica for the season. Our homes are just one mountain away from each other overlooking the Pacific Ocean, but we frequently share our days, meals, beds and entertainment. A strange relationship, but it’s worked for the better part of a decade.
We’re drinking coffee on Tom’s patio one morning when a raggedy-looking dog wanders in, droopy dugs swinging as she walks. She has the color and wiry thinness of a Doberman, but her legs are too short. Long in face, ears bigger than her head, eyes bulging behind her nose, she looks more like a rat than a mutt.
“Why where did you come from, Mama? You looking for food? And your pups? Where are they?” She cowers at the sound of Tom’s voice and looks for quick escape.
“Come on, I’m not gonna hurt you.” He squats down to make his tall athletic form less imposing, and reaches out to pet her trembling back. “Let me find you something to eat, you skinny little thing.”
“Let me try,” I say rubbing the back of her head. “She’s all skin and bones, poor thing,” My voice and touch sooth her while Tom brings her some leftovers. She devours the food and slinks off.
During the following week she returns to Tom’s each day to be lavished with delicious tidbits, kind words, gentle petting. Each day she stays a little longer. By day four she’s basically living there but no puppies have appeared. She’s still skinny.
I stop in for coffee. Giving him a hug I ask, “So how’re you and mama doing? Don’t you think it’s time to give her a name?”
“If I name her I’ll have to keep her,” Tom says, looking a bit guilty. “I don’t want one of these pathetic yappy dogs tripping me up and peeing on everything. I can’t anyway,” he excuses himself, “I’m leaving soon.”
“I hear that new vet, Fernando, will take strays and find homes for them,” I say.
“I need to take her there anyway to get her milk dried up. We’ll never know what happened to the pups.
In less than a week after the procedure, the dog has wandered into the jungle and returned trailing three puppies that she can no longer feed. Weaned by default, they are old enough and lucky enough to have survived this far. Mama’s way smarter than she’s beautiful and knows a savior in Tom when she sees one.
I’ve brought my six-year-old grandson Diego over to play with the puppies. One looks like her bug-eyed ratty mom, the large male is champagne brown in soft white socks, but it’s the furry black girl in white boots, white blaze above her sweet black face both he and Tom fall in love with.
Diego’s face lights with angelic joy at the sight of them as he picks up the black one and cuddles her. I laugh with them as they all romp on the floor together, a big burly bald guy, a skinny livewire kid, and three tiny fluffballs. When it’s time to go home Diego grabs the little blaze. “I want this one. I’m calling her Fluffy.”
“That wouldn’t work,” I laugh. “Since you call me Fufi,” (the best he could do with Fifi), “if you name her Fluffy, neither of us will know who you were calling.”
“Then how about Sunshine?”
Tom grins. “Well, I think I’m going to keep one after all. How about this, buddy? If it’s okay with your grandmother, the two of you could take care of Sunshine for me until I get back from Tennessee.”
Diego leaps into the air, corn-silk hair an electrified crown, yelling, “Yes, yes, yes!” with his whole body. He’s smitten the way children are – giving total love, receiving total joy. “I’ll feed her and play with her all day long.” Old enough to know that if he keeps this pup he must take some responsibility for her.
They both look at me. I hesitate, then nod. I already have three dogs, including the car-chasing Lucy, that Tom has agreed over and over again to take, but never has.
After watching Diego’s joy, I see Tom wavering. How could he possibly take the pup away from this kid? Rolling his eyes at me he says, “Okay, I’ll take Lucy in trade when I come back,” knowing it would break my grandson’s heart to give up Sunshine when he returned. “But will you share her with me when I come back?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Diego repeats. “I’ll let you play with us whenever you want.”
On his way home to Tennessee Tom clicks off a quickie email from the airplane.
Oh, Fifi darling, I miss you and the puppy so much. Diego too. While I wing away, watching a penguin surfer movie without sound my thoughts meander to you and the smell of puppy in your hair. I know I have lost her to Diego in exchange for Lucy. I WAS HER FIRST LOVE, YOU KNOW! I took the whole litter in my lap and leaned over them, warming them from above and below. Sunshine was always my favorite. They’re all gone now except little Sunshine. You have her all to yourself until Friday when Diego comes back. I wish that I could be with you for the morning frenzy. Tom
Diego’s family lives in the city during the week for work and school, then returns to my house for surf weekends. He’s not happy that I’ll have Sunshine longer than he will, but reconciled that weekends are better than nothing. That leaves me with the training, but I’ve fallen in love with the little fluffball. Tom has already paper-trained her. She’s not yippy, sleeps a lot in my arms, plays daintily, and feels so damn good.
I set up a little bed for her outside on the balcony, but separated from the three other dogs by a bamboo fence. They’ve all met, but need a little more daytime bonding before I throw her into the pack. She wakes up sometime during the night, realizes she’s alone in an unfamiliar place, finds the door to my bedroom and starts whining. Sunshine has gotten used to snuggling with her family. Ignoring her doesn’t work. I get up, put her out with the other dogs to sink or swim. She immediately shuts up. I watch for a minute. They sniff each other and settle down together – her new surrogate family.
At daybreak I open the big doors and she’s back in the house. Small enough to enter at will through the bamboo slats, she eats up the human attention and her extra puppy breakfast then exits for the more rough-and tumble of a dog’s life. The big dogs, Mata and Jake and little Lucy, accept her into the pack. Sunshine explores the dogs, the house and yard: chasing the ball, sniffing the corners, sliding on the slick tiles of the balcony. After assuaging the itch of her erupting teeth on the chewy electric cords, she flops under my chair for a long nap.
At dinnertime Jake waits by the front door where he eats. Lucy’s under the house. Her main interest is car-chasing not food. Sunshine’s hanging out with Mata on the kitchen balcony where he and Lucy get fed. Sunshine will eat in the house separated from the other dogs until she learns the pecking order. I whistle a little tune as I stir up a combo of rice, scraps and dog food in their bowls, thinking what fun it is to have a new puppy in the house. But the dogs know the sound of that spoon.
A sharp predatory roar shocks my heart. The loud crack of breaking bones and a screeching yelp makes it pound. Then silence. “Oh my God!” I fall over myself racing for the open door. Mata sits totally silent on his haunches. My eyes follow his to Sunshine, lying like a discarded ragdoll on the tile. “Noooo!” I scream. She is in her death throes. Her neck is twisted at an impossible angle, the gash spewing more blood than any puppy could have. Her little paws twitch in the air. I grab her for the last few jerks. Then it’s over. No heartbeat. Neck slashed and broken, the expanding puddle of blood already coagulating as it drains off the balcony. I hug her to me, wailing, pacing, horrified. Jesus Christ! What the fuck!! I raise my fist and scream at him, “You murderer! What’s wrong with you?” Mata just sits there, head cocked to the side, so innocent. I’ve lost a baby, a sweet furry cuddly one that we’d all immediately loved.
Oh Diego, you’re going to be devastated. This is nothing like your favorite Animal Planet predator/prey sequence of a scratchy rat becoming a snake’s meal. Sunshine is your own baby that sleeps in your arms and warms your soul.
I wrap her still-warm body in soft India gauze, the green colors scarlet with her blood. I must bury her quickly. This is the tropics. If the scavengers don’t get her the ants will. I find Diego’s bug-collecting shoebox, tuck her in, get the shovel out of the bodega, and head for the pet cemetery. The still-fresh grave of our last cat, Brisa, makes digging easy. There’ll be no marker. This story is best altered for my softhearted grandson, the truth being way too ugly.
I call my daughter Guiselle, voice cracking. “Mata killed Sunshine! I’m so sorry. It was a horrible accident.”
“Oh my God! What happened?” she asks.
I tell her quickly. “How are we going to break the news to Diego?” It’s Tuesday. They’ll drive him back to my place on Friday for the weekend. Sunshine’s disappearance will be hard enough for him to stomach without making Mata the killer.
We agree to save him from the anger he would feel for Mata by telling him a lie. “Tell him the puppy disappeared. Give him a little time to digest the news. He’s going to be crushed.” Tears clog my voice. I hang up and write the dreaded email to Tom:
I’m so sad. Mata killed the puppy yesterday right in front of my eyes. I guess it was because of food. His mean streak is getting worse. Thank God it was instantaneous. Quickly slit and broke her neck. Diego doesn’t know yet. I cry for him. It’s made me think about life – so quick, so short, so unpredictable. We’re going to have Mata fixed asap. I miss you already. Little Sunshine too. Life’s lessons are sometimes very hard. I love you, Fifi
My heart is in my throat as Guiselle turns up the driveway on Friday. The car door opens and Diego stands before me, eyes cutting into mine, “What d’you mean, Fufi, you can’t find Sunshine?” his face full of reproach.
“I’m so terribly sorry, Diego. Maybe she’ll find her way back,” I stutter.
Diego starts to wail, “My puppy, my Sunshine, she has to come back. Oh no, she can’t be lost. I just got her. I love her too much.”
The sorrow on his face is a stake through my heart. Of course I can’t hold back my tears either. Looking at Guiselle’s and my sad faces, his shoulders droop. He turns and climbs the stairs not even asking if we can hunt for her.
Without conviction Guiselle calls up to him, “We can get you another puppy.”
He doesn’t react or answer and goes off to his room alone. I cry for him.
Tom hasn’t answered my email. I knew he’d be upset remembering his last email intertwining his love for me with that of Sunshine. I call him, figuring I owe him that. “Tom?”
“I wanted to talk to you. I know how hard it is to lose that pup.”
“It was horrible! To see her killed like that in front of my eyes. And by Mata.”
“One day. She lasted one day in your care.”
“What? You’re blaming me? You know it wasn’t my fault. It just happened.”
Silence on the other end confirms the accusation.
“Obviously, this isn’t a good time to talk.”
“Okay. Email me when you’re feeling better. Bye.” Why’d I say that? Why does it still take me so long to react, assess, and respond? So I wait. Two weeks later I receive his email.
I feel like writing a little today. I am still upset the pup only lasted a day in your care. It was all too fresh. I bonded with the jungle pups, loved them, remembered them needing me, the feel of fur, smell, all of it. The morning after getting your message I took your photo off the fridge and ripped it into pieces. My horoscope said lay off the send button. Used the anger to do work. Sorry doll, but I was depressed. Gloomy weather. The economy tanking. The Republicans looting us more than normal at the end of their term. But now I’m feeling better and forgive you for whatever. My return is Apr 3rd. Love, Tom
He forgives me? Asshole. He thinks highly of himself, a positive trait, but when depressed, only of himself. When things get tough, he’s simply not there. I’ve learned independence, and like my time alone to read, dance, laugh, fart, scream out loud, or just stare in space, but this is going too far. I’m pissed. If this is the email he sent, how hurtful was the one he didn’t send? Tore up my photo? I take his lead and furiously start typing a reply. Don’t know if I’ll send it, but at least it’ll vent my own anger and hurt. Each day I embellish, add and subtract, as I think of more ways to skewer him. It makes me feel better just to get it out, but I lay off the send button.
His silence gives me time to think. While listening to Odetta sing “Can’t Afford To Lose My Man” it all becomes clear. Yes, I can afford to lose him. I’ve let fear overcome my well-being and freedom. It’s time to prune that thing called love. Time to take the risk. Either the roots will die or it will sprout in a new form.
When Tom returns to Costa Rica he calls to tell me he’ll meet me at the farmers’ market – a very public place – and he can’t wait to see me. He greets me with, “Hi doll, I’ve missed you,” as if nothing has happened.
On the contrary, I’m bubbling over with confrontation. I half smile and wait until we walk to the car. “I know you get into these funks. I’m so sorry this happened, but you know, I bonded with that little Sunshine too. Cuddled her close, felt her warm nose tickling my hand.”
“I forgave you.”
“Forgave me? For what? For taking on a fourth dog? For keeping an eye on her? For losing sleep when she whined and whined in the night to go out and sleep with the other dogs? Do you think I expected something like that? It was a lightning strike! Not my fault.” I take a deep breath.
Surprised at the anger in me, he says meekly, “I was depressed.”
“You were depressed. Yea, well I was horrified. And I had to take care of her. Don’t you think I cried and hated Mata?”
“Sunshine was the last slip in a series of slides down the tube for me.” He shrugged away his guilt. “Burglary, bad weather, then bloody murder.”
“Remember you gave the dog to Diego. I had to tell him the bad news. He was crushed, but didn’t blame me for his loss. We were as sad to lose her as you were.”
“You never said you were sorry.”
“I was devastated.”
“But you never said.”
“It’s a great image – ripping up my photo. So symbolic. Just like Mata ripping off Sunshine’s head? What kind of boyfriend are you? Of course I was sorry, not just for me, but especially for you and Diego.”
“Why?” I repeat, stung. Uneasy laughter masks my hurt. I shrug my shoulders, give him a sad little kiss on the cheek, turn and walk away.