Sunday, November 12, 1995

Two men and a poodle


Some dogs, I'm told, like to stick around when their owners are making love. They'll sit stone still and watch the proceedings with deadpan intensity, as if collecting evidence for some evil congressional subcommittee. Not Willie. As soon as human passion rears its ugly head -- and he has an uncanny eye for the precise moment -- he flings himself off the bed and skulks away to another room. This is jealousy, I suppose, mingled with mortification, though I'd like to believe there's an element of courtesy involved as well. In any event, he comes rocketing back only seconds after the deed is done, reclaiming his rightful place between us with breathless little yelps of relief and celebration. You'd think we'd just returned from a month in Europe.

Kissing is another matter entirely. If Willie finds us smooching in the kitchen before dinner, he'll proceed to bark indignantly until we've stopped. "Break it up, you jerks," he seems to be saying. "There are three of us here, remember?" I'm sure the late Mrs. Woodhouse would have found something deeply disturbing about this behavior, but Terry and I are rather charmed by it. We've even named it, I'm loathe to admit -- the Kiss Patrol -- and have come to accept these yapping sessions as the poodle's only viable way of asserting his place in the family.

Yes, he's a poodle. We don't broadcast that fact widely, since there are all those lingering stereotypes about homos and their Fifi-dogs. Willie's not a Fifi-dog; he's butch in the way that short men sometimes are, tight as a bedspring and buoyantly scrappy. His color is officially red, the rich brick red of an Irish setter, and since we've never abused him with a topiary haircut, most people see him as a sort of animated Teddy bear, a living Steiff creature. He's quite a manly little dog, really.

Willie and I have been together two years longer than Terry and I have. I bought him 12 years ago from a man who had a serious fixation on Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. Poor Willie -- who's a miniature, not a sturdy standard like Charley -- had spent the first six months of his life touring America in the back of a van, an experience that left him with a lifelong distaste for vehicular travel. His previous owner had called him K-Y, a lame joke I might have retained for the sake of continuity had I not all too vividly pictured myself in Dolores Park yelling out the name of the popular lubricant. So I rechristened him Willie, in part because I Iiked the simplicity of it, in part because the Princess of Wales had recently given birth to a son named William.

The new moniker was fine by him, though of course we never fully obliterated the old one. For a while I would meet strangers on the street, people from Willie's Steinbeckian past, who would recognize that auburn coat and blurt out his maiden name, and he'd be all over them like a cheap suit. Sometimes even today, just for drill, Terry will utter a soft "K-Y" while Willie lies snoozing on the sofa, and Willie will look up and hoist his ears in befuddled recognition, like an old man hearing the nickname his buddies used to call him in the army.

As fate would have it, I met Terry on Willie's third birthday, though I didn't take note of this oddity until a year or so later, when I was studying the dog's family tree. Now October 16 is a big deal at our house, the only high holy day we still observe with any degree of regularity -- our mutual anniversary/birthday. I know this is way too cute for most people to handle, but what the hell. When the universe sends you such a blazingly obvious sign, such a cornball bolt out of the blue, there's not much you can do but acknowledge it.

When Terry moved from Atlanta into my three-room cottage above the Castro, the dog was as thrilled about it as I was. After all, this new guy brought him treats and rubbed the insides of his ears and engaged him in long, intimate conversation. And Willie showed his gratitude by learning a stunning array of new tricks: how to circle the block off the leash, how to sit, how to wait dutifully at the curb until Terry gave the signal to cross the street. It was a new era suddenly, rife with possibilities. A certain easy symmetry had come to our household, and Willie knew it.

We've moved twice since then, first to a walk-up penthouse in the Mission District, where Willie entered middle-age and began to write his memoirs on the upholstery. Then, last year, Terry and I bought a house on the edge of Sutro Forest, thereby adding dirt and shrubbery to Willie's growing roster of urinary pleasures. He's become grumpier with age, I'm afraid. The little Pit Poodle can't walk to the mail-box without attempting, however unsuccessfully, to terrorize the neighbors. At home, though his ursine charm remains intact, he's grown ever more demanding, never satisfied with a two-handed backrub when a four-handed one is possible.

Who knows what's behind all this need? I suspect he never fully recovered from a time in the early '90s when Terry and I spent our winters away from him. On a larky impulse at the end of a long book tour we'd bought a farmhouse on the South Island of New Zealand. Since Willie would never have endured the brutal six-month quarantine required by that country, we decided to leave him home with our friend Steve, who, in spite of serious concerns of his own, had sweetly agreed to house-sit.

Willie adored Steve, and enjoyed his company immensely, but the dog pined for us nightly, Steve said, waiting solemnly at the top of the stairs for our imminent return. We were gone five months the first year, three the second, building our nest on a golden slope above the South Pacific. And though we strung a rope hammock and planted a lemon tree and left saucers of milk for the hedgehogs, the place never seemed completely ours without Willie there. A portrait of our absent companion, sent to us by our artist friend Darryl, became the chief icon of our Kiwi house. In the style of a hokey '50s postcard, its message read: "GREETINGS FROM WILLIE, POODLE OF ENCHANTMENT."

So maybe Willie has a right to be nervous. He knows how much it hurts to be left behind and doesn't plan on letting it happen again. Though we sold the place in New Zealand almost two years ago, Willie still keeps a wary eye on the hall closet, where the dreaded black nylon luggage is stored. And when Terry heads on off on his frequent day-long rounds of shops and doctors and drugstores, and doesn't return by nightfall, the dog will sit anxiously by the door, inventing scenarios.

At times like those, I wish we had a common language. I would tell Willie not to worry, that Terry will be home any minute now, no worse for wear, that the evening will still be ours to share. But I would also have to tell him, as best I could, about the dark constancy that has shaped our lives for the decade the three of us have been together. I would explain why Steve never comes to visit anymore and why, in spite of all the good things we both feel about Terry, we might not always have him with us in the bed.

"Kiss Patrol" is reprinted from Dog People: Writers and Artists on Canine Companionship, recently published by Artisan. © 1995 Armistead Maupin.

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