The Ties that Bind

Goofy Pug Photo The open window brings a rush of cool breeze and warm laughter into the parked car. A gaggle of kids play while screaming “shotgun” for the front seat of the gray SUV beside me. I think they may leave, but they stay, providing ambient company while I wait for my friends to arrive.

Our pugs bind us together. Even after nine years we know only a little about each other, casual details like where we work, family members’ names, an anecdote or two. We’ve picked up more snippets along the way and even shared some serious stuff such as money problems and health scares. But the thing we really know a lot about is each other’s dogs – their likes and dislikes, the food they eat, the funny places they hide their toys, even their bathroom habits. We store these details in our memories because when puppies leave Pugdom, my friend Joan’s house, and go to new homes, they go with invisible strings attached. The ties stay strong through Christmas cards and phone calls, friendly chatter over dinner, and roadside visits such as this one.

I study the family in the SUV next to me. Lean, leggy children of all ages pool in and out it like a clown car. Two men and one woman stand chatting outside. They are dark skinned and dark-haired, Italian maybe, and as huge as the children are spare. The kids periodically whine to “Dad” to handle a dispute, but I’m not sure if they are referring to the man with the mustache and beard or the beefier guy beside him. Doesn’t matter, just mindless entertainment for me until Charlie and Sue arrive.

I glance back down at my cell phone, 2:45 p.m. They called at 2:30 from Montpelier and it will be another 15 to 20 minutes before they meet me at the Mobil station just off the Bethel exit. I am pleased they agreed to take a detour on their trip home from their condo just to let me see Goofy, a.k.a. Trump, one of Joan’s latest litter of puppies that had gone to his new home with them almost a month ago. I hadn’t been able to make it to the reunion meeting between them and Joan and Goofy’s mom and remaining sibling earlier in the day because of a family luncheon, so I suggested the rendezvous at the gas station for a glimpse and photo op – gotta commemorate his growth for the annual scrapbook.

Fortunately, the Damitzes were quick to agree. “We won’t be back until May,” Sue reasoned, informing me of this again later when she arrives. Goofy’s not the only one of Joan’s clan belonging to the couple and all the rest will also be in the car. Jerry, the nine-year-old fawn female, whose sale led Charlie and Sue to meet Joan and me, and our becoming fast friends; Chunky, Jerry’s handsome son, who in my mind will be a perpetual puppy although he is getting on up there in years; and Truffles, Goofy’s aunt, my own Waffle’s sister, a big, beautiful, black female. Family reunion. That’s what these visits are for the pugs, and for us as well. It feels like we are family even if the actual day-to-day knowledge of each other’s lives is sparse.

The sun beams in the car, it’s glow matching the warmth of my thoughts – I am happy my friends wanted to see me as much as I wanted to see them. I think they are as proud as any new parents to show off Goofy and I am as eager as any aunt to see him.

The Damitzes are probably my parents’ age, maybe a little older, maybe a little younger – it’s hard to tell nowadays. They have grown children, Charlie, a veterinary practice. He also writes on the side, children’s books. Sue works in the medical field. One child on the North Shore of Oahu with triplets, another closer by. Do they have two kids or three? I never seem to remember, just like Sue seems surprised when I tell her later that I have three brothers. “Really? I always thought it was two,” she says.

She has little reason to know. We ask each other all the right questions: How’s your son? How’s the writing coming? How’s your health, and we truly listen, but certain details slip through the sieves of our memories and wash up again later like shells on a sandy beach. We more readily recite back details of Chunkey’s latest surgery, the funny thing Waffles did this morning, and how much more Jerry is sleeping. Dogs are not the same as children, but perhaps when you have no children or your children are all grown, they fill a gap and fill a life – the trivia of their existence becoming the soft, warm, stuffing that pads your own.

I glance down at my cellphone again, now oblivious to the noise of the neighboring children, and look back up just in time to see Charlie and Sue pull in. They are driving a small silver car and even from a distance I can see that the back seat is down to accommodate the pugs. I grab my camera and hop out – because as eager as we are to see each other, we all know that what this is really about is snapping some pictures of Goofy.

Before Charlie can roll down the window I am peering in the rear, where Truffles large, black head and equally black eyes stare back at me, unblinking. She is hard to read, quieter than Waffles, less a lovebug than Griffles. The Damitzes claim she is playful, but whenever she sees me lately, she strikes a sedate and subdued pose. I look in the front where I see Charlie futzing with the window and Goofy in his lap. It has only been a few short weeks, but he is significantly bigger, no longer a cute, cuddly puppy, but a teenager, lanky and long and hinting at the promise of the man he will become.

Something in his face has always spoken of sophistication. Even as a baby he had the soulful eyes of an old man and the distinguished wrinkles of a gentleman. But his ears are askew, his expression comical, his body not yet proportional. To be fair to the Damitzes, who changed his name, there is something decidedly goofy about his demeanor. He is quick to conjure a smile and a laugh.

As I try to size him up the squealing begins and in a flash a pink arm reaches toward the window. “Ooohh, a pug,” a child’s voice murmurs.

“Look at the puppies,” comes a series of cries from the SUV. Charlie rolls the window down and the chubby child’s arm reaches in, begging to touch. “May I pet the puppy?” she asks. Charlie holds Goofy up, and soon the mother approaches, checking in to see what her daughter is doing. “Mom, a puppy,” the girl says.

“Aww, the mother says. “I used to raise pugs,” she says.

Pug people get used to these interruptions and coincidences. Pug puppies, probably all puppies, elicit squeaks and squeals and once you’re focused on it there always seems to be less than six degrees of separation between any random person you talk to and a pug or pug owner they’ve known.

“You did?” I ask. “Are you from around here?” The mother takes her head out of the car and looks at me, her eyes as dark as Truffles. “No, from Burlington,” she says. The little girl pets and squeals some more before her mother pulls her away and the family fades from the scene, revealing a bright flash of sunlight like a white highway through the window of the car.

The sun turns Charlie and Sue into glaring white figurines, but I make out Chunky in the shadows at Charlie’s feet. Jerry sits tucked beneath Sue on the passenger’s side.

“You gotta let me hold him,” I say about Goofy, while simultaneously cooing at Chunky. Charlie and Sue both move to get out of the car. Now, I can see them fully. Charlie, tall and blonde with the rugged and weathered skin and coloring of an aged Robert Redford and Sue, elfin and petite with pixie hair and warm, expressive eyes. Charlie wears a neon running jacket and he leans against my car as he plops Goofy into my arms.

“Hi, baby,” I say, holding him up so I can see him better.  I’m not sure if he remembers me, but he stretches his neck to slather me with puppy kisses.

“You’re so big,” I gush. “How are you?” I say to the humans, not taking my eyes off Goofy.

“We’re fine, you?” Sue says, as she cranes her neck to look in my vehicle. “Did you bring Waffles?”

I tell her no and witness a brief shadow of disappointment slide over her face. “I’m so glad you were willing to stop,” I say.

“We had to, we won’t be back until May,” she says.

That’s how these things often go. Long stretches between visits allowing important life events to tick away and pugs and puppies to age and grow. Charlie and Sue will travel to Hawaii for the holidays and rent out their condo in Sugarbush through the spring. “We’ll have to come down to Massachusetts and visit you,” I say, noting to myself that I’ll have to propose the idea to Joan. “Joan will think it’s far away, unless I can find a more interesting route than the highway,” I say. “She prefers road trips with interesting detours.”

These are the things I can say to the Damitzes because they know Joan, too and all her idiosyncrasies. Each of us has been through the mill trying to get a pug from her, even though we know her, even though we’ve owned one from her before and even though we’re among a handful of her best friends. When it comes to relinquishing one of her cherished pugs, she’s tough. We tease her about this and appease her when necessary, but we orbit her world because we are pug people and she is one of its grand dames.

“What did Joan think of him?” I ask. “Did she call him Goofy?”

“She still calls him Trump,” Sue offers.

I laugh. “She probably always will.”

We segue into chatter. I ask Charlie about his writing, he in turn asks me about mine. We launch into details about our respective projects and share funny anecdotes about the pugs. The conversation turns to the holidays, where their pugs will stay during the Damitzes’ vacation, and updates on Charlie’s veterinary practice. We periodically stop to stare and smile at Goofy before starting up again. We reminisce about the first time we met and mention the dogs we owned then with the fondness that one recalls a deceased grandparent – sweet, loyal Buffy, handsome, furry Ben, Vader, my little gentleman. We touch each bead on our string of memories as the sun sets low in the sky.

Some things aren’t mentioned this go-around -- my presence at their puppies’ births, their support when Vader died, our bonding treks around the Beaver Pond, quick, stolen reunions such as this one– yet, these things serve as the glue between us.

The sun dims as our conversation fades. Charlie stifles a yawn and suggests to Sue that they grab a cup of coffee for the road. He looks tired and I know I shouldn’t keep them long. I give Goofy one last hug and a peck on the nose before setting him back in the car then frown as I realize it really will be months before I see them again. I reach out to embrace Sue and then Charlie. “I’ll send you a Christmas letter,” I offer as small consolation and I know they’ll email me photos of Goofy. They’ll likely call Joan and I’ll hear secondhand updates.

I wave goodbye as I pull out into the remaining sun.  When I see them again I will ask them about their work and their children. They will ask me about my writing and my health. We will goggle over Goofy and Truffles, Waffles and Alfie. Some friends know all the particulars of each other’s day-to-day lives, but they never navigate each other’s hearts. We, on the other hand, know that landscape well. For each of us, it is pug-shaped.