Her Life as a Dog
Posted by Panio Gianopoulos on Monday, April 23, 2007
“I’m a tramp!”
Since January this has been Mathilda’s standard greeting. It doesn’t matter whether she’s meeting friends, family, strangers, grocery baggers–they all get that Child Welfare Services-summoner of an introduction.
“Like Lady and the Tramp,” I hastily attempt to explain, while pointing to her delicately folded hands (her “paws”) and her overall posture, straight-backed as if begging at the dinner table. It’s an awkward moment, and can range anywhere from a few confused seconds to a full “okay, where are her real parents?” minute. Once the canine declaration has finally been understood, however–usually right after Mathilda licks the side of my face–the next question, always, without fail, is a puzzled: “But why aren’t you Lady?”
Apparently it’s okay to pretend to be a dog when you’re a little girl, just so long as it’s not a boy dog. A boy dog is cause for bewilderment and concern. Most adults simply will not let it go–especially elderly women. I’ve witnessed the following conversation at least a dozen times:
Stranger: “You mean you’re Lady, sweetheart.”
Mathilda: “I’m Tramp!”
Stranger: “Lady is a girl dog. You’re a pretty girl dog.”
Mathilda: “No I’m not! I’m a tramp!”
Stranger: “But Lady is such a sweet dog–”
At this point, Mathilda starts to growl.
I usually stay out of the argument. Not just because it’s a hopeless cause–no amount of coercing will de-Tramp her–but since I spent a year of my childhood insisting that I was Spider-Man, it seems a little unfair to weigh in on which imaginary identities are okay.
And yet, while we were in Baltimore last week I found my leniency put to the test. One afternoon, Mathilda and I met up with Julian, a friend from New York who was in town visiting his mother. We took Julian’s dog, Larry, for a walk down by the Inner Harbor. Larry is a sweet dog, shaggy and affectionate, but I have never heard anything as loud as his bark. If you’re not ready for it (and who’s ever ready to have his eardrums punctured?) you’ll think someone just got fired upon with a shotgun at close range. It is an exceedingly difficult stimulus to inure oneself to. Especially when in Baltimore, where even the traffic cones look homicidal.
After an hour of dog walking, Mathilda managed to get her instinctive Larry-bark fear response down to a slight twitch. But she picked up a new, troubling behavior just as we were leaving Christopher Columbus park.
The leg raise.
Children often complain that their parents embarrass them, but I’d like to go on record right now and state that it can’t be nearly as embarrassing as your child racing around a park and pretending to urinate on every object. (I’d also like to extend my sympathies to the mother in Tompkins Square Park whose daughter, one afternoon, impulsively dropped her pants and defecated on a paper plate. Don’t blame yourself. Nobody could have seen that coming.)
“I’m peeing!” Mathilda shouted, and suddenly I longed for the good old days of “I’m a Tramp!” She howled and chased after Larry, her cheeks flushed from the sun. She sprinted to the trimmed hedges, to the red maple tree, to the waterless fountain and the temporary fence and, yes, even to the fire hydrant. At each destination, she swung her leg up to the side with such gusto that she resembled not so much a dog but a Sumo wrestler stamping the ground before a match.
It could have been worse, I told myself. At least she wasn’t dropping me off at the mall where all my friends might see us.