Nancy then Cindy
When I was small, I had an imaginary friend named Nancy. She was, in essence, me when I was my least shy. And I was a painfully shy child. But Nancy was a character, as my mother would say, meaning that Nancy was eccentric. That is, if "eccentric" were ever a term used to describe children, which it never is. A child is not eccentric-- she's just boldly odd, peculiar or different. You only become eccentric when you have agency over yourself so that it's clear your oddities are of your own choosing. Only adults get to be eccentric, and not even all adults... But I digress. Nancy was my freewheeling alto ego, she was that part of me that was not inhibited by my Catholic guilt or my fear of my father's arched brow. She was able to free-think and do. She was allowed the kind of full expression that eludes real flesh-and-blood children who can feel a spanking on their flesh-and-blood hind parts.
It was Nancy's idea, for example, to paint my room bright shamrock green. And her suggestion that we adopt a pet worm. She was the one who thought it wise and necessary to meet in the linen closet for planning sessions by the dim light of match sticks, lit one at a time. She came up with the details of the secret raids we made on my big brother's bedroom. You see? She was fearless and dangerous. Who lights matches when they are surrounded by blankets and sheets? And who ventures into the den of the devil?
I was very devoted to Nancy and she to me. Ours was as committed as these imaginary friend relationships tend to be. One does not, after all, befriend a spirit unless one really needs her. We were inseparable and dependent. We were dependent and inseparable, that is, until Cindy showed up.
Cindy was a little miniature black poodle. She was not imaginary. She was a flesh-and-blood canine given to my family to care for when her previous owner, a young woman, unexpectedly passed away. Cindy was already fully grown. My mother brought her home the same week that Nancy and I were away at summer camp. When Cindy arrived at our house, she was sad, angry, and not about to take shit from anybody. Her former family was very similar to ours-- a mother, father, older boy and younger girl. The two kids were teenagers, and the now-deceased girl was Cindy's favorite person in that family. But when Cindy got to our house there was only a boy. And that boy, my brother, had to tread very, very carefully. If he rushed up on her, she would retreat, growl, bare her teeth and snap back. So my brother offered her food every day, and spoke sweetly to her. By the end of that first week, my brother was her new person.
I came home from camp knowing, from my mother's letters, that a new dog was waiting. I was so excited. I'd been wanting a dog for some time--- years really. My family had been unlucky with our previous dog experiences. (There are many stories, many dogs--each one deserving his/her own time.) Suffice it to say, we had a poor record and my parents only agreed to Cindy as a favor to a grieving friend.
On the day I returned from camp, I was exuberant. I was happy to be home and ecstatic about the new dog. I burst through the front door and run to my new puppy. Well, Cindy was not a puppy and she was not having it. She ran and hid behind my brother and then came at me baring her fangs and preparing to bite. I jumped up onto the kitchen counter to avoid certain death by mangulation (new word?).
My brother started to laugh heartily. He knew this scene would unfold exactly as it did. Once Cindy chased me onto the kitchen counter and he recovered from his laughing fit, my brother scooped up the dog, cradled her sweetly, turned and walked away. (Did I mention that he was the devil? ) My mother explained to me Cindy's traumatic loss and her neuroses about "meeting" new people. She assured me that if my brother could win Cindy over, so could I.
I saw this as a challenge. As soon as I found out that Cindy's former "person" was the girl, I knew I would steal her heart.
Nancy was not impressed with Cindy. "Tell me again why you want to befriend that beast?" she asked. "We don't need her. She is dangerous and we have each other," Nancy added.
But I already had my eye on the prize. "We want her because she is beautiful, because she is a girl, and because we cannot let the devil win," I said.
And so, it was on. I took over feeding Cindy. It was a hostile takeover only requiring that I rise early in the morning to feed her before my brother could. I let her sleep in my bed. I played with her in the yard. I snuck her table scraps. And she began to love me. The truth is, I was a mini version of her previous girl-person, she wanted to love me. We all knew the transition was fully complete when, on one occasion near the end of the summer, my brother and I were horsing around. I tagged him by hitting him in the back of the head and running away. He gave chase. Cindy was barking fiercely, clearly not enjoying this game of aggression. When my brother caught up and reached to grab me, Cindy closed in with her tell-tale teeth bared and started to bite my brother on the ankle.
Cindy was protecting her person. My brother did not take his defeat well, and I didn't help.
"I am so sorry," I taunted, "I think she loves me more."
"Forget that crazy dog," the devil said.
"Payback is bitch," I wish I had been clever enough to say then, but I wasn't.
What I did do was scoop up my dog, cradle her sweetly, turn and walk away.
Nancy, to her credit, saw the writing on the wall, as well. I had Cindy, now. I was her person. She was my dog. She was warm and real. She was dangerous and quirky. She was my confidante and my protector. And she kept the devil at bay.