their names were dmitri, valerie, ivan, eugene, and sasha. when they came to us, they were like puppies straight from the puppy mill. full of energy, mischief, and intestinal parasites.
my dad woke me up in the early hours of the morning. i felt like i hadn't seen his face in so long, i should have had trouble recognizing him. the sun had not yet risen, and my bare feet were icy cold striking against the wood floor. nothing about my first encounter with the boys felt real. i could have easily returned to sleep and convinced myself when i awoke that the whole thing had been nothing but a dream.
over the course of the eighteen years i lived in her care, i would get used to the fact that my mom was always pregnant. or, to be more accurate, she was always either working on losing the baby weight or putting it on. for whatever reason, maybe something to do with the explosion of hormones coursing through my mom's endocrine system at these times, her pregnancy always meant puppies. rocky and whiskers, both yorkshire terriers, were part of the family before i was born, possibly making their debut while the golden child was but an embryo. when mom was pregnant with one sister we got chewbacca the pomeranian. when another sister was on the way we got bailey the finish spitz. alaska the papillon and mocha the min pin poo and bella the chihuahua and nikki the yorkie were all accompaniments to my youngest two sisters growing in my mom's exceptionally fertile womb. the major exception to this rule was when my mom was pregnant with my youngest brother. we didn't get a puppy that time. instead we got five imported human pets.
none of our puppies lasted very long. that's not to say we killed them, at least not physically. either rocky or whiskers did die, but at a boarding facility while my parents were traveling, and the other simply pined away from loneliness without his friend. if my memory serves, chewbacca didn't make it to six months while under our roof. bailey barely scraped out a year before his bags were packed for him. mocha was another casualty before her second birthday. alaska lasted a highly impressive five years. for all i know, bella and nikki may still hang their hats in my mom's house. then again, maybe not. either way, their days are numbered, and i'm willing to bet that they know it.
really, the year benchmark meant nothing. i told myself that if i could make a puppy last a whole year with us, then maybe we'd be allowed to keep it forever. but i could feel the end looming over me even on the first days of newness. bella was so small when she curled up on a towel in my lap on the way home from the mall pet store. more than anything i wanted to hold her to my heart and breath in her puppy smell. i think i had stress dreams, with bailey, over and over again all night long, the worry that i wouldn't wake up early enough to take him on his walk and he would shit everywhere playing in my head perpetually like a broken record. but it is difficult to separate these dreams from reality, because when the morning did come i awoke to a fresh nightmare, of sickly sweet diarrhea like black tar all over the house and my parents voices raging, always directed at me because i was the one who had wanted a puppy. in the wake of one of these episodes, my mom noticed while brushing out my thin, scraggly, always matted hair that my entire body was shaking like a leaf. i don't remember her exact words, but they were something to the effect of, "it's alright. it's over. you don't need to let it ruin your whole day." but it wasn't really over until the night i wore my favorite purple dress to a restaurant that had an indoor fountain and gorged myself on carnitas, sweet golden corn cakes, quacamole and molten chocolate lava. that was how my mom decided to ease the pain of transition for me, because, while the whole family had traveled to grandma's house for a visit that day, bailey wouldn't be returning home with the rest of us.
luckily, at this point in my life, i didn't know how to love anyone or anything, not even myself. so there was no real heartbreak to overwhelm my sneaking sense of relief.
alaska came to us from nebraska, from a breeder. fresh from the plane she was a brown and white teddy bear, with fuzzy hair sticking up in all directions. a tiny voice in my head made much of the fact that this was the puppy i'd specifically picked out, so of course she was round and chubby, not delicate like the others.
i wanted to love her but i did not know how. we had never been able to potty train a dog to the point of perfection, so while working on her housebreaking my mom taught me to "spank" alaska hard enough to make an impact. you knew you were doing it well enough if she screamed. this wasn't really a novel concept to me, since i didn't have to dig far into my memory to conjure up images of my mom grimly carrying away a young sibling who wasn't behaving properly during mass. the door that lead to the yellow tile hallway preluding the sacristy and restrooms swung shut behind them. then after a while the sound of my mom's hand finding its target would break through, so loud and clear it continuously baffles me that nobody at church ever said anything about it. screams would ensue, warnings for silence that at least weren't audible to the congregation would be issued. the distraught cries would continue a bit too long, then would be broken by another thunder of blows. this sequence would repeat itself, the spankings increasing in severity, until all wailing had subsided. after a while of this treatment, my puppy didn't come when called. she flinched away from touch and avoided people and her velvety brown eyes didn't focus on anything.
i will always remember the time i was taking my youngest brother to the potty and spanked him to make him shut up. he needed my help because he was too young to lift himself up onto the toilet without assistance, and because he couldn't wipe himself after he'd gone. i was annoyed by this chore and resentful, and when for some reason or another he started to cry, maybe because he hadn't been able to push anything out but i wouldn't let him down from the porcelain throne because i didn't want to have made a wasted trip and to have to take him again five minutes later when he'd say he really felt it coming now, i slapped him. probably more as a result of shock than anything else, he stopped crying.
what my family did to our canine visitors was the same thing it did to the boys from russia. it deliberately and brutally crushed their spirits.