The last pets my family owned as a family were a pair of Cairn terriers named Chief and Charlie.
We got Chief when I was in the eighth grade, in the spring of 2002. We got Charlie from the same pet store two years later. In total, we had Chief for just under eight years, until 2009, when my parents put both dogs up for adoption while sorting through their divorce. I was away at college, my little brother was soon to follow, and it didn’t seem fair to the dogs to have no one around to care for them. Both were sent to a breeder somewhere in New Jersey, and my mom would receive updates on how they were doing as they waited to be placed with new families.
Chief was the first to find a new home. The more docile of the two, he was adopted by a gay couple living in New York City. The breeder told us of their apartment on the Upper East Side, their professional dog walker, their vacation home in the Hamptons. I was devastated — he had been my dog, after all — but I understood that this was for the best. And besides, since I was an overwhelmed college student who had only recently come out of the closet and in love with a boy who would never get his act together, Chief being adopted by two homosexuals felt right—a future version of my own life saying hello.
When I moved to New York four years ago, I would often wonder, half-seriously, if I was going to bump into Chief. Never being on the Upper East Side seemed to be the only hurdle standing between our reunion, not the astronomical number of nearly identical terriers living in the city.
I knew he was out there living his best life, a life I knew I still couldn’t give him but was glad to imagine one of us getting to partake in it.
One morning, late this August, I got an email from a man asking if a small terrier named Chief he had adopted with his partner in the spring of 2009 from a breeder in New Jersey had been mine.
I sat up in bed, clutching my phone, and sobbed. It had actually happened after all our years apart. We were being reunited.
My mom has always thought that pets are better off in pairs. I’ve never asked, but I’m sure that this explains why she had two sons.
The first pair of dogs we had as a family were a matching set of dalmatians named Buddy and Betty.
We purchased Buddy from a breeder and brought him home in a paper grocery bag. I remember my dad throwing blue racquetball balls down the length of the hallway, the dog slamming the whole heft of his body against the front door of our suburban townhouse in his desperation to catch them.
Betty had been a rescue. From a dental exam, they could tell that she had been abused. According to her tags, she had been living in Maryland and had likely made her way on foot over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and into Virginia. A classmate’s mother — she owned a dog walking service — had found Betty one morning while out jogging alongside the half-dozen dogs she looked after. We were the only family she knew of with a dalmatian.
Buddy was eventually put up for adoption when my parents temporarily separated. I don’t remember very much about the decision to put Buddy up for adoption and not Betty, but looking back on it now, it fits the narrative of my parents and their relationship. Buddy had been the more aggressive of the two, a sometimes overwhelming force in our narrow townhouse. Betty was skittish but easier to manage, despite her frequent attempts at running away. My dad had moved into a small apartment on a nearby military base, and there was no way to bring Buddy along. Betty stayed with the three of us as we moved into a new home across town in an attempt to start over.
We didn’t have Betty for much longer. She got out during my little brother’s eighth-birthday sleepover and quickly disappeared. I will never forget searching a nearby unfinished subdivision, the front lawns still raw red clay from the ongoing construction, screaming Betty’s name along with every kid attending the sleepover. We never found her.
Around this time we also got a pair of goldfish.
My goldfish was black with purple fins and unapologetically named Batman. My brother’s, named Christopher Robin, was a standard goldfish, which made him easier to replace when Batman ate its fins and left it to die. This happened several times. Each of his successors was also named Christopher Robin.
Neither fish was replaced after we returned from a family trip to find that Buddy had knocked their tank over and devoured them both.
Two years after Betty ran away, we adopted a beagle named Shiloh. My dad was stationed in Afghanistan at the time, leaving the three of us to make a home without him, which to us meant getting a dog. Shiloh had been a rescue who, within a few weeks of adoption, bit into my arm while we were playing together in the backyard. A few days later, he snarled at my mom after a Beggin’ Strip slid beneath the living room couch. We had Shiloh for less than a month. We don’t talk about him.
Which brings us back to Chief and Charlie.
Chief was mine, while Charlie — the more hyperactive of the two — was my brother Logan’s. He would bark for hours at the large inflatable snowman our neighbors put on their front lawn each holiday season. I’m sure Chief barked too, but Charlie was the one who got reprimanded for it, not unlike my relationship with my brother.
I was an obsessive know-it-all who once had aspirations to be a pastor but was slowly loosening up despite an ever-growing collection of sweater vests. I founded a history club at my middle school (we had three members, including me). I didn’t have my first beer until the end of my freshman year of college, and even then I was terrified of what a single drink could make me become. I didn’t have my first kiss until I was nearly 21, though not for lack of trying.
Logan had been a chubby preteen goth turned reformed choir star turned lead vocalist for a noisecore band called I Love You But This Is A Robbery. While I was away at college, he held punk shows in the basement of our parent’s suburban home. He dedicated a song to his then-girlfriend at his school’s talent show during his senior year of high school. He won. Every girl swooned. Logan was once caught shoplifting at Target.
So when Charlie was adopted by a family with six kids and a pool, we thought that was perfect for him, in much the same way Chief’s adoption made sense for my life.
When I ask how Chief’s adopted owners, M. and R., found me, they say that his adoption paperwork listed a woman’s name—my mom’s—but with her last name pre-divorce, Sorese.
The rest of the document had been redacted with a Sharpie, rendering their hunt for answers difficult.
Googling the name led them to my mom’s Facebook profile, where they found a photo of her alongside her two boys. They followed the tags to our respective pages, which led them to Google my name and find my work online. Eventually they stumbled across my LiveJournal, which hadn’t been updated since 2010.
Back when the terriers had been put up for adoption, I had made a drawing of Chief living in New York City being greeted by a doorman as he walked inside his new apartment building.
Looking at photos of Chief — who has his own Instagram hashtag, #chiefster — I was overwhelmed with emotion. There he was, living the life I’d always imagined.
Walking on a beach out in the Hamptons. Curled up on an expensive throw rug in a tastefully minimal, white-walled apartment. Being doted on by a circle of affluent homosexuals who hashtagged their Instagram photos of his birthday gifts. I learned that Chief and I had barely been separated at all; illustrators I’ve met at professional functions had commented on photos of him, swooning over how lovely he is.
I learned of Chief’s life in the eight years he’d been away from me and my family. An anxious friend of M.’s had Chief listed as her official emotional support animal, allowing him to fly seated on her lap at 30,000 feet. He had been to Mexico City. All over California. The Dan Flavin Art Institute in Bridgehampton, which I had also gone to with a boyfriend a few years back.
The joyous reunion was, unfortunately, short-lived. M. reached out because Chief had recently passed. I had accepted years before that I would never see him again, but now, knowing that we had been so close and yet just missed one another is deeply painful. M. apologizes for having not reached out sooner, but I understand that this renewed searching for Chief’s previous life had been prompted by their loss.
I remember the Sunday back in 2009 when I realized, for the first time, that there was no barking to be heard while talking with my mom on the phone. Since I’d last spoken to her, she had driven the dogs to the breeder, alone.
Talking to my mom now, as I tell her all that I’ve learned about Chief and the life he led after us, she chokes up.
That time in her life is so wrapped up in the pain of an impending divorce, of a life suddenly in question. She confesses that she still feels incredibly guilty about making that decision. How she waffled at the end, thinking she could maybe keep one.
My brother and his wife recently rescued a dog from a shelter in Las Vegas, where they now live. Her name is Maude, named after the movie Harold and Maude, which they watched together on their first date.
If Charlie was my brother as a rambunctious teenager, Maude is my brother as a maturing married man. He frets over Maude like a parent, anxious about her getting hurt or being too loud. On walks, Maude’s lithe body trots, her head alert, prancing large meandering arcs across the empty Las Vegas side streets.
Even my mom has a new pet.
My stepdad had a beloved cat named Eloise, a large, graceful creature who I knew only briefly from house-sitting. When she passed on, my mom wanted a replacement and purchased a small gray tabby she named Daisy.
Daisy had been one of three kittens found behind the old post office near where we used to live.
Daisy’s meow sounds more like sobbing than purring. It’s desperate and searching, a cry for something unknown, which my mom attributes to her being separated from her family. She often mentions getting another cat, maybe even a dog, but my stepdad refuses again and again. Eloise will forever be his cat.
I now live with two pets: an ancient chihuahua named Sosa and a long orange tabby cat named Hobbes.
Hobbes was rescued from a friend’s backyard years before I moved in with my roommates, Melissa and Maritsa. They had shared ownership of Hobbes until Maritsa moved out, at which point I was made honorary Cat Dad. As a kitten, Hobbes would fall asleep perched around someone’s neck like a living mink stole. Now, as a fully grown cat, he still tries to do this, climbing me like a tree each morning to perch on my shoulders.
I didn’t think I was a cat person — whatever that means — before knowing Hobbes, but I’ve since come around. When a massive fire tore through the apartment below ours this summer and we were unable to find him in our scramble to get to safety, it wasn’t the years of work I left behind that caused me to break down on the sidewalk — it was Hobbes.
Sosa used to be half of a pair of chihuahuas.
Mulberry, his sibling, was put down last summer after complications from a heart defect. Melissa is shocked that of the two dogs, Sosa is the one still living. Last spring, a larger dog attacked Sosa while out on a walk, leaving behind teeth marks on either side of his hind legs.
Melissa got the Chihuahuas as puppies, exactly half her life ago. He’s 14 years old now.
One eye has gone milky white like a witch who can see the future. When Sosa snarls at me, I can see that his teeth are now nothing more than small gray hills of plaque. While we cook in the kitchen, he paces underfoot, licking the floor to find anything that may have fallen. Sosa doesn’t like house guests, and he doesn’t like to be touched.
Sosa is technically not my dog, but that doesn’t change the way I care for him. I carry him to the park on his daily walks, one of the few instances he lets me touch him. The concrete is too cold in winter for his tiny, chicken-like feet, so I present him, as if he were royalty, to our neighbors. When the kids on our block look too eager to pet him, I speak for him and apologize on his behalf, telling them that he’s 14 and blind and tired, concepts they cannot fathom.
When I show Melissa photos of Chief, as we scroll through his Instagram hashtag together on the day I first learn about his new life, there’s a moment of realization.
I laughed but agreed. Our beloved childhood pets will never meet, but we’re writing the fan-fiction of our friendship together like two sitcom characters whose fictional children create a spinoff series of their own. They would be friends because we are friends.
It’s all too easy to see our pets as extensions of ourselves.
In the loss of a pet, we lose not only the object of our affection but also the version of us that they knew us to be. They lived as we once lived, reflecting the good and the bad of that moment in our lives to the world around us. You could even say that for the duration of time when they are our pets, they are just a smaller version of us, imbued with the qualities we see in ourselves. Melissa will often claim that Sosa shares her temperament — distant with strangers but secretly tender — despite Sosa having no real understanding of what goes into forming a complex human relationship.
There’s no evidence that Chief was gay, for instance, but it was a narrative that felt right, even now. He was undoubtably an ally, but then again what dog isn’t? (When I speak to M. and R. about adopting Chief, they tell me that they almost adopted Charlie, but he was a little too much for them.) Even the false binary of Cat People vs. Dog People tries to grab at some arbitrary personality distinction. We want our choice of pet to get at some deeper truth about who we are as people. Whether we actually look or act like our pets doesn’t matter — it’s a truth we want to be true, and therefore it just is.
I may not live on the Upper East Side or in Chelsea or have a home in the Hamptons, but my life often seems unimaginable to me. I work as a full-time cartoonist. I teach kids how to draw after school. I’ve lived in France as an artist. I’m a published author. I’ve loved and been loved in return. I’m living a phase of my life that I will undoubtedly look back on fondly, something I often find myself doing even as I live it.
I do wonder, though, who I would’ve been to Chief after our eight years apart. I can’t imagine any of the changes I’ve experienced would have mattered to him—he was just a dog, after all. But I would’ve felt those differences, that gentle reassurance of time passing, the way I felt it that morning opening M.’s email.
It’s not just Chief I wish I could see again, but the boy who once owned him. If only I could reach back through these past eight years to reassure him. To tell him just how loved he would feel and how worthy of that love he already was.
Because I remember when he didn’t know that.
He couldn’t have known.
But Chief did.