Can You Have a Meaningful Long-Distance Relationship with a Dog?
Xuan Juliana Wang on Ella, a Very Good Dog
The year my parents brought home a golden retriever puppy from a neighbor’s backyard, we still used flip phones. I drove home from my college dorms and remember my dad showing me a pixelated photo of the puppy’s father. I named her Ella. She was six weeks old and our very first puppy. I always had a great time taking her on an assisting dog sling around the village when she got a bit bigger as she was very curious with anything along our walks. Our Pekingese was much older than her at that time, but they got along immediately. That night we put Ella in various pots around the kitchen and pretended we were going to eat her.
I drove back to college that night and my mom slept with Ella on an office chair, because she whimpered if she didn’t get eye contact. It was like that for a while, and then Ella got bigger and bigger and we put her in a dog house outside. Then one night, my mom and I decided she must have been so scared out there, only three months old, so she took her back in. And then Ella was a house dog after that.
When my parents were getting divorced and my mom moved out, it was just my dad and the two dogs. He watched TV and shelled peanuts for dinner. He ate one. He threw one at Ella, who caught it in the air, and he chewed up the other one and gave it to the old Pekingese whose teeth had fallen out.
I forgot when exactly Ella moved into the new house with my mom, but it was like she was always supposed to be there, queen of the mountain. Sometimes she would chase entire packs of coyotes around the hills and return covered in ticks and mud. She’d always be so ashamed, trying to hide her muddy paws under her, and waiting outside until someone let her inside. We were very charmed by her tendency to feel shame. She was a Chinese dog that way.
My grandmother started watching TV for eight hours a day and she’d curl up her feet so Ella could sit next to her. Then, once my grandmother became even less mobile, she would lay flat on the couch and give Ella at least half of anything she was eating, usually these flakey pastries we bought fresh for her at bakeries. Ella would only go outside whenever my grandfather went into the yard, as she never liked to be far away from people. But she never went upstairs, even when we tried to bribe her into coming up. I suppose she felt guilty and couldn’t enjoy the privilege of carpet.
Once, at a party my mom threw, I saw three little boys taking turns putting her head in a chokehold and she just let them. She was bigger and older than they were. And even though the new dog my dad got after he remarried is a terrible little asshole who bites everyone, Ella always protected him. Even when he was wrong, which he always was. This alone made my dad so happy.
Ella learned Mandarin but she never learned how to walk on a leash. She never learned how to fetch. In her first year she tore apart some furniture with her teeth and ran outside onto the street into some neighbor’s garage. Once I tried to bring her back and she jerked so hard I fell on my hands and got scars on both my knees. But such is an adolescence, I guess. After she turned five, maybe after she turned seven, her eyes grew very thoughtful. We basically took her to be a fluffy quiet person.
The year she turned ten I bought her a fancy dog bed that was so comfortable even I wanted to sleep in it. We put it underneath my grandpa’s calligraphy table, where he practiced for hours every day. After he took a second fall, we had to send him to a nursing home, but the table we still kept there. Sometimes I’d walk through the door and my mom would be laying in the dog bed with Ella, holding her paws and pretending to have a conversation. Just two old ladies entertaining each other. I often think Ella was the best thing to have happened to my family, even as it changed and broke apart, and grew and dwindled, and got old and weak.
Does Ella still count as my dog even though our relationship was technically long-distance? In the 13 years of Ella’s life I’ve never spent more than a month at home with her, during this time I lived in Beijing, Paris, San Francisco and New York. I was trying to be a writer and I craved distance so badly it was easier not to think too deeply about the reasons why. Now I could see that those years allowed me to feel an enormous freedom. It created a space where I could use this gift of a language that no one else in my family could read, and write a book with it. In my first collection of stories I wrote about alienation, sex and marriage, about China, about America, about God and the limits of the universe. My characters were punk rockers, Olympic athletes, computer scientists, architects, and a one time-traveling cat.
But I never wrote about Ella, because she already had a roll to play. Back home, she was being the active stand-in for me.
This is the part of the story where I tell you Ella died last year. One morning she just couldn’t get out of bed and my Mom sent me voice recordings, only after it was all over. She had been driving home from the pet hospital where they put her down. She said it was very peaceful. Afterwards my family sent text messages to each other. Because we’re all crying in our own corners and didn’t want to set each other off, or we were all pretending to be tougher than we were.
That same year I finally moved home. In many ways Ella shouldered the responsibility of being the only child in all the years I wasn’t around and now it’s my turn again. I can only hope, that as a human woman, I can do as good a job.
Xuan Julian Wang’s Home Remedies: Stories is out now from Hogarth.