How my mutt helped keep me alive
When I first met my dog, Ickus, he was all extremities. His tail was as long as the rest of him combined, and crooked like it had been slammed in a car door. When he trotted up to me he tripped over his oversized toes and flopped into my lap, mange-ridden feet waving in the air under my nose.
He was a few months old, and I was sixteen, and neither of us had perfected our movement through the world. He suited me just right.
As I curved myself around his warm, fragile body, I decided I would let him save me from the cruelty and the violence that haunted me. I don’t know what happened to him before he came to me, but the way he jumps at certain voices and cowers at raised hands suggests his past has demons, too.
A few months before I found Ickus, I was raped by several people I had considered friends. I have a name for it now but I didn’t then, just wordless rage and shame and endless looping GIFs of memories. It hurt to inhabit a body that so often felt like a prison. Any touch set off an echo of hands grabbing me, pinning me down.
Ickus grew into his body more gracefully than I did into mine; as his paws healed the hair grew back scar-white. He hates when I touch them but sometimes I cup them anyway, breathe in their Frito smell, run my fingers over the tendons and pads.
Like me, he is sensitive about physical contact. Homecoming gets me an effusive greeting, approximately five minutes long; at all other times an unsolicited pet or snuggle must be under two minutes, or he will stand and stretch and flop down a few feet away, eyeing me accusingly.
But for all his reticence to be held, he has always been fiercely loyal. He has guarded me on dark streets and in shitty motels. He has been my copilot across the country twice and lived in four states with me. He has, for eight years, been the only steady presence in a life full of dramatic exits.
After high school I stumbled through a few misfired attempts at adulthood without him, dropping out of college and running away to India briefly before slinking back to my parents’ house. And then I took him away from home with me, to Alphabet City, where we lived together in a two room apartment with an anarchist and endless flies for him to hunt.
One night a drunk man lurched towards me on Avenue A, ranting incoherently, and Ickus stood up against his leash, snarling. The man stumbled away. “Fucking dog,” he said, and though my heart raced some corner of me relaxed for the first time in a long time. Safe.
Then came school in Boston, where Ickus served as an anchor when I might have washed away in the black waters of youthful depravity. I had to be home every night to feed him, and when a broken heart threatened to sink me he literally dragged me out of the house and into the sunlight.
A week after graduation, I strapped Ickus into the front seat of my car and started driving. We sucked up pavement for five days, staying in filthy, cheap motels where Ickus lay Sphinx-like on cigarette-burned carpet and stared at the door, ears perked at the sounds of illicit thrills, the shouts and moans and thumps of escape.
When we hit California I pulled off the highway and took a photograph: a paw and a hand, high-fiving.
There’s something romantic about the notion of leaving it all behind, of shedding your old life and exposing your angry, raw skin to foreign air. But anyone who’s run away knows the truth: You leave a trail of cheap furniture and expensive relationships and take the rest of you along, weaving the new into your old flesh stitch by stitch.
A wise dog owner once told me that labs turn food into hair. When we got to San Francisco our first stop was at a gas station in the Mission, to scrub the seats of my car with a vacuum that sounded like a jet engine. No matter how hard and fast I pressed, some of him was left behind, embedded in the fabric — the shadow of a silent, patient companion.
We bounced around San Francisco for a few months, him racing up the beach or trotting in front of me on steep streets that rolled down to the Bay like ribbons. I wrote my first few real, paid articles with him stretched out beside me. When I was overcome with self-doubt I’d lie on the floor, an arm draped over his back, and let his breath become mine, measured and calm.
That was the summer I noticed his white chin spot spreading, his muzzle turning cobweb grey. He was seven, middle age for a dog. Ever unsentimental, he responded to my panicked affection with an eyeroll and a sigh.
We drove away again. This time we headed south, to grad school. He liked the yard in Santa Cruz, the landlady who spoiled him. I left him with her too often because I’d fallen in love with a boy who couldn’t have pets at his apartment, two hours away on twisting, treacherous highway.
The boy was kind and generous, and when he kissed me the looped movies in my head flickered off. I practiced that until I was strong, until I could turn the dial on my memories down to a manageable level. Our relationship ended but I will never regret him; holding his hand I discovered a new kind of freedom that had nothing to do with roads.
Ickus never faulted me for my absences, never asked where I’d been. At each reunion he expressed his five minutes of joy and retired to the couch he was slowly coating in black fur.
As I approached graduation I realized I needed seasons in my life and a bigger, busier world. So I packed up the car again, sent some emails, letting New York know I was on my way.
We drove again, stopping on the border in South Texas to report a story, staying in any motels I could find whose reviews didn’t include the phrase “blood-stains.” Ickus reprised his role as guardian, stretched out on floors that smelled like piss and cheap cleaning fluid. A few times he woofed quietly at late-night footsteps. Stay away.
We’ve been on the East Coast for four months now, and for the first time in my life I have nothing to escape. I am unafraid of my past: having carted it with me from state to state, I’ve finally found a way to carry it.
Ickus is here next to me, as always, toes twitching as he dreams of running.