Dog Park Encounter, by Sally Basmajian
Dog park people are a chummy bunch. We’re united in our love of all things canine and our hatred of bicyclists with attitude. We reserve a special kind of scorn for dogless people who walk around complaining about our animals running free, even though there are signs to this effect posted everywhere.
The signs don’t actually state that dogs may be exercised off-leash. But, the simplistic pictogram shows a scampering Fido that is untethered and fancy-free. We’re fond of that image and show it to any pedestrians who have voiced objections to our pets’ emancipated gamboling. Those grumbling haters often counter by pointing out the signs’ icon that depicts a person of indeterminate sex following behind, scooping up poorly drawn poop. They tell us what a disgrace it is that the town’s dog-owners are such pigs.
In any case, those of us with dogs are friendly, lovable folks. Hearts of gold. Noble spirits. We’re out there, rain, snow, downwind smog or locust infestation, running our dogs and chatting amongst ourselves. It’s a party in a park, with our pets the spoiled kids and us the indulgent parents.
Nobody dresses themselves up for these excursions. We roll out of bed and throw on one, two, three, or more layers, depending on the season. This swaddling isn’t glam. In some cases, we sport multi-season apparel attached by lots and lots of zippers, and as summer approaches we cast off one layer after another, turning five-in-one jackets into something just a bit more substantial than a T-shirt, and exposing our winter-white legs inch by inch. None of us will win fashion awards out there, but, by golly, are we ever comfortable.
And make-up or shaving? Non-existent. The women don’t primp. The men don’t scrape.
Because it’s all about the dogs. I might look like a sallow-skinned, sleep-deprived, aging hippy woman but my dog Barney looks like the champion he is. His golden coat gleams in the sunlight. His paws are manicured. His tail lofts with aristocratic elegance. As he runs, his grace and athleticism are breathtaking.
That doesn’t mean I don’t clean up well. I do. Scrub me, slap a little make-up on me, and dress me in something that doesn’t zip together five ways and I’m not too bad at all. Just don’t judge me for how I look at the dog park. But of course you won’t, because Barney will catch and hold your attention, dog-lover that you are.
It’s interesting that all of us know the names of the dogs that frequent the park. We call out greetings and are aware of which animals are the most compatible with our own. The owners’ names, though, remain a mystery, for the most part. It’s almost as if we are an anonymous collective of souls, there to serve a higher purpose, that being the care of our pets.
One day, I learned that maybe I wasn’t quite as invisible as I had believed. I was strolling through the wooded area of our off-leash park, with Barney bouncing along by my side. He was hunting squirrels and I was admiring the way the light and shadows played across his fur, and so I was startled when we rounded a corner and ran right into Puffy, the Pekinese, with her nondescript owner, What’s-His-Name.
“Wow, Puffy’s looking good,” I said, when I had time to assess the little dog’s appearance. “Bright-eyed and full of beans.”
“Thanks, yes, she’s just been to the groomer’s,” my dun-clad park buddy replied. “And Barney’s just as gorgeous as always.”
I said nothing. Words weren’t necessary. The guy had just stated the obvious.
We stood in companionable silence watching our dogs cavort. It was a beautiful day and I was wondering if I should zip off a layer or two. My anonymous human companion had already bared an inch of milky-white, hairy ankle and it seemed a good idea but I couldn’t recall if my own, female ankle would be just as hairy.
As I pondered this, around the bend came a sweat-suited woman of indeterminate shape. Automatically, Whoever-He-Was and I glanced around, eager to see her dog. When none appeared, we went back to admiring our own.
“No way! Pete! I haven’t seen you in ages,” trilled the newcomer. “How’ve you been?”
Pete, formerly known to me as What’s-His-Name, looked more closely at the woman. He seemed confused for a moment.
“Marg?” he ventured.
“Of course, you big silly! It’s so great to see you. You’re looking fit.”
“Thanks, Marg. It’s likely all this walking,” Pete said.
“And Betty? How are you?” Marg asked, giving me an up-and-down appraisal.
I didn’t answer. I was stumped, for good reason. My name doesn’t happen to be Betty.
“Well, if you’re doing as well as you look,” the woman continued, “then I declare: you’ve never been better! You’ve lost at least twenty pounds and your hair looks so much prettier than when you had let it go gray.”
“Ummm,” I said. Not the most intelligent response, and I was going to improve upon it but before I could, Pete jumped in.
“Marg, this isn’t Betty. She’s at home, sleeping. This is . . .” Pete stopped. He had no idea who I was. Just some fellow dog-walker. And someone he had not really taken notice of before.
“I’m so sorry,” Marg said, her face the color of the early wild strawberries that lined our path. “I didn’t mean to say that Betty wasn’t, well, you know. She’s always been so charmingly natural. It’s something I admire in her.”
Pete was looking at me more closely. It was one of those moments when a person of the opposite sex actually takes note of you for the first time. I could tell he was considering whether he should be flattered or insulted that we had been taken as spouses.
So awkward. I shuffled my feet on the path.
“No offence taken, Marg,” Pete said. His smile indicated that he meant it. The good thing was that he wasn’t mad or embarrassed. The bad thing was that now he was looking at me in a whole new way. And, it wasn’t a way that made me feel anything but uncomfortable.
Thank goodness for dogs. Mine saved the day, in his usual, no-nonsense way.
In the distance, Barney was humped over, taking his morning poop. Normally, in this densely wooded area, I would have overlooked his action and left nature to nature. But, my heroic dog was giving me an excuse to abandon this fraught and all-too-human interaction. With a flourish, I pulled a bio-degradable bag out of one of my capacious pockets and ran off to do what the stoop-and-scoop sign told me to do.
Over my shoulder, I called, “Nice meeting you, Marg!”
“You, too,” she said.
“And see you and Puffy next time, uhhhh.” For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the man’s name.
And, not liking the way he was looking at me as I chased after Barney, I wasn’t going to ask.
Sally Basmajian is an executive escapee from the corporate world of broadcasting. She has been writing for almost two years, dabbling mostly in fiction and memoir pieces. In 2015 she won prizes in the Rising Spirits Awards and SQ Mag’s Story Quest contest, and had stories pop up in places such as Psychology Tomorrow and the UnCommon Bodies anthology.
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