Eye Of The Tiger
Sometimes in life what feels (in the moment) like the worst thing that could ever happen turns out to be the best thing that could ever happen (in a much later moment.) This is one of those times.
These are our favorite kinds of stories; stories where someone needs something but they don’t know it. Then something crazy or seemingly awful happens and the person is terribly unhappy. Then, it turns out to be exactly what they needed.
Because this is life, right? We’re all doing our best but we’re all screwing up constantly in the process of getting to wherever we’re going. And, if the outcome is what you needed, then, did you really screw up in the first place? Maybe we’re just trying to make ourselves feel better about our endless mistakes and wrong turns and mix-ups. Or maybe this is all just the name of the game. Who knows? We promised not to make you think. Sorry.
So here’s tonight’s story:
Anna didn’t think she had any issues whatsoever until she left home. Raised on a cul-de-sac with a peeling brown picket fence, she spent her childhood riding bikes, competing on the swim team, and perfecting her perfectionism in everything she did. Anna learned how to use her iron when she was seven and hasn’t worn a wrinkled item of clothing since. She’s rocked an Anna Wintour hairstyle since she was old enough to cut her bangs with a ruler and buy a hair straightener with her newspaper-route money. One time she got an A- and had to spend a week in bed.
Anna is stressed out just by the idea of a junk drawer in her kitchen.
These obsessive-compulsive tendencies have served Anna well in life. She graduated from her university at the top of the class and turned 22 without ever having to go the ER for anything. It wasn’t until she was unceremoniously fired from her first entry-level job that her fastidious personality needed some help. Anna knew that she needed to find a therapist.
It took her six tries to find a doctor who’s office was clean enough for her standards. She was not going to pour her heart out to someone with stacks of paper on their desk. Or empty coffee cups. Or a cluttered desktop on their computer. She told herself that her standards were fair. How was someone going to help her organize her brain if they couldn’t organize their work space?
Anna knew she needed counseling to figure out her self-sabotaging habits. According to the counselor with the Lysol-ed desk, what Anna needed was a dog.
“Explain this to me again?” Anna wrote neatly in the notebook that she brought to her session. She would record her thoughts as the counselor recorded hers, each of them questioning each other and writing down the answer in eerily similar outfits.
Only one of them was getting paid for this.
“A dog. You can rescue one from the shelter on Mulberry,” the counselor wasn’t offering a suggestion. She was overtly clear that adding a four-legged furry creature into Anna’s life was exactly what her client needed. She wrote something on her pad with a flick of her gel pen. Anna did the same.
“You have to take your dog out at lease twice a day. You need the fresh air, you’re already getting your steps in. You need to get out of your head and, you will learn by taking care of a pet, that you have value as a person without being perfect.
Anna furrowed her brow.
“What if it poops?”
The counselor smiled.
“You will potty train it in your apartment. There will probably be a few accidents.”
Anna gasped at the word ‘accidents.’
“A dog is the definition of unconditional love. I want you to experience this. The dog doesn’t care if your breath stinks or if your bed isn’t perfectly made-“
Anna gasped again at the idea of an unmade bed.
“You deserve this kind of love. You have space, you work from home, you need the company and the distraction. I’m not insisting but please consider the idea.”
Anna thought she could ‘consider.’
That night, in bed, after her nine-step skincare routine, Anna looked at her ‘To Do” list and pulled out her laptop, googling the Mulberry Street Dog Shelter. To her acute surprise, sitting in her freshly ironed bed, she fell in immediate love with a 3 year-old wire-haired terrier name “Spunky.” She pulled her monitor close to her face to inspect every inch of Spunky. Spunky looked timid and kind and like he would be very happy if someone just rubbed his stomach and called him a good boy. She was right.
Anna was on the steps of the Animal Adoption Center before they opened. She held a new collar and leash and a sense of purpose. She filled out the application while sitting on an un-sanitized folding chair, glancing up at Spunky through the plastic fence each time she answered a question. She handed her paperwork over to the woman behind the counter and walked to the play area to wait for her new family member.
The second Spunky was unleashed, he leaped into Anna’s arms. He squealed and cried and wagged his tail so hard that a little bit of pee splattered on her leg. Anna winced at the bodily fluid but felt so overcome with love for this ecstatic, wiggly creature that she forced herself to ignore the pee. If seemed that if, almost immediately, therapy was paying off.
Spunky and Anna turned out to be an incredible team. They walked 5,000 steps twice a day Monday through Friday with an afternoon trip to the dog park. Weekends were for hiking and the discovery of something at Starbucks called a “Pup-a-cino” which turned out to be a free squiggle of whip cream in a small cup that made Spunky wild. Anna began to introduce herself to other dog-owners on these outings which made her therapist very happy. And Spunky was a perfectly clean dog who had arrived at Anna’s apartment totally potty trained.
“No accidents?” The therapist looked up from her notebook with a raised eyebrow, “not a single one?”
Anna shook her head proudly. Therapists weren’t always right. This woman was convinced that adopting a shelter dog would improve Anna’s life and it certainly had - just not in the way that the therapist had suggested. Anna was now spending a huge amount of time outside and exercising and meeting new people. But she wasn’t embracing dirt or accidents or lack of control. Spunky was a perfectly controllable dog. Except for one minor behavioral tick…
Spunky liked to hump anything that was about three feet tall. Anna tried bribing and more bribing and disciplining but found that the simplest solution to this issue was to keep her new pup away from children and stumps. He didn’t hump other dogs or furniture, just the occasional unsuspecting leg. She saw no reason to bring this up in her session as it would only pique her shrink’s interest. Anna was committed to improving her mental health but also, very, very sincerely committed to being right. And the Autumn flew by.
The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving had thrown Anna into a bit of a tailspin for most of her adult life. Thanksgiving always took place at her mother’s. The house would be filled with family and food and noise and crying babies. Anna didn’t mind as most people were too preoccupied with their own lives to pay too much attention to hers. Almost everyone, that is. Her brother, Mitch, always had time for his little sister.
Mitch was all the things that Anna was not. He was kind of a mess. He freelanced as a graphic design artist and spent an entire year couch surfing through the country while designing logos for the burgeoning marijuana market. He often had at least one girlfriend, a shaggy beard, and laughed hard at anything. Despite her fierce opposition to all of the attributes that made Mitch Mitch, he dearly loved his sister. He also loved his one-man-game of trying to make her loosen up.
“Do you need to ask permission to bring Spunky to Thanksgiving?” Asked the therapist while sitting in their session, wearing an identical Ann Taylor cardigan to Anna’s.
Anna paused for a moment. She hadn’t thought of bringing Spunky but of course she couldn’t leave him at home overnight. She had not yet tempted her mental state with relinquishing that level of control. She imagined the plaid-wallpapered room over the garage where she slept when she went home and pictured Spunky curled up on an afghan at her feet. She smiled.
“Of course I’ll bring him with me.”
The therapist wrote a note. Anna strained to make out the words. The therapist pulled her notepad closer to her chest. Anna retaliated by writing some gibberish in her own book.
“Now, its important to remember that both family and the holidays can be triggering. You need to pay attention to your boundaries and be vocal about them. And you can always use Spunky as an excuse to remove yourself from the situation. Go for a nice walk.”
Anna made a face and then a note about how every mental health professional seemed to think that ‘going for a nice walk’ would solve most immediate problems.
She and Spunky took an uneventful train ride the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Her mom picked them both up at the station and made a big scene fussing over her new “grand-dog” with treats and an ill-fitting dog sweater from TJ Maxx. Anna felt relaxed. Maybe this dog was the answer to her obsessive controlling behavior? Maybe a ‘nice walk’ really did fix a lot of her problems? Maybe there was an upside to going with the flow? She felt confident and ready to test this theory. That was, until she saw Mitch.
Enveloping her in a way too-tight and way too-long hug smelling of weed and air freshener, he met them at the front door. Much to Anna’s chagrin, Spunky fell immediately… in love. Mitch lifted up the little terrier, letting him lick his shaggy face for way too long.
“What a cute little guy!” Mitch exclaimed, “I’m so happy for you, Anna,”
And, with that, Mitch fed little Spunky the last bite of his sandwich, a speck of mustard just hanging out of his beard. Anna cringed.
She managed to maintain her sanity throughout their annual pre-Thanksgiving dinner of Chinese take-out and did her best to keep Spunky away from Mitch and his leg. It was an all-consuming job.
“He likes your brother. That’s wonderful,” her mother commented while placing three leftover lo-mein noodles into a Tupperware to shove into a fridge that was already at capacity.
Anna begrudgingly agreed.
That night, in the plaid bedroom with her dog at her feet exactly as she’d imagined, Anna’s anxiety began to spiral. Why did she have to change who she was? Why did everyone give her such a hard time about her controlling tendencies and perfectionism? What was so bad about having a good job and a clean apartment and not winding up in a random drunk tank on a Tuesday night like Mitch? Why was everyone so accepting of his bonehead way of life and so critical of hers?
She lay in bed, wide awake, having dozens of silent, one-sided conversations, winding herself up more and more.
Needless to say, she was not in the greatest mood when she came downstairs to the smell of coffee and very burnt toast the next morning. She grumbled through breakfast, took Spunky on a very, very long walk, and then came back to cook sides and set the table and help her disorganized mother prepare for fifteen guests.
That late afternoon, after a few too many hugs and two glasses of wine, Anna felt herself relax a bit into the evening. Seated between the two cousins who most had their shit together, Anna allowed herself to chill a bit and even talk about herself. The turkey was great, everyone seemed mostly under control, and her mother hadn’t forgotten anything in the oven. That’s when Mitch pulled up a folding chair next to her. Spunky yelped, jumping into his lap.
“Mitch, put the dog down at the table,” called their mother who chose that moment to be that kind of mom. Mitch gave Spunky a tummy rub and then placed him on the floor.
“So, Mitch, how’s the design world treating you?” Asked the cousin with the MBA and condo in Seattle.
As Mitch began to explain his work and couch-surfing life, Anna noticed Spunky begin to hump his leg. She grabbed her little dog up and moved him away from the enticing limb. Spunky ran right back. She tried it again. And again. Now Mitch and the cousins had noticed and were laughing.
“Spunky’s my new best friend,” Mitch said, chuckling at the dog making love to his calf.
“Don’t let him do that!” Anna exclaimed. The shit-together cousins chuckled, not sure of the right response between the two of the siblings.
Anna tried to grab Spunky again. Her heart beat faster. Her palms got sweaty. This was the lack of control that she hated. She felt her panic rising. She picked up her dog and brought him onto the porch, commanding him to stay. Which, he did.
Anna marched back to the table flustered, her face a bit red. She was embarrassed and pretty pissed off at Mitch.
“Hey, where’s my buddy?” Mitch asked upon her return. At the sound of his new friend’s voice, Spunky came careening back, latching himself right back onto his uncle’s leg.
“Don’t let him do that!” Anna cried. But, again, Mitch, who never took anything seriously, just looked at the dog and chuckled.
“Why can’t he have any fun just because you don’t like to?”
This set Anna off. The anger in her stomach boiled, her body heated up to a hundred degree sright there. The rest of the guests turned to give their full attention to the latest bit of family drama ensuing on the borrowed folding table.
“ENOUGH, MITCH!” Anna cried, scooping up Spunky by his armpits, turning her little ToTo dog around to face her. This was terrible timing. Or, maybe, kind of amazing.
Because, this is when, having had his fill of Uncle Mitch’s leg, Spunky’s body let go… squirting… spunk… right into Anna’s eye.
The room fell silent in sheer horror. Anna placed her dog down on the ground, grabbing one of her mother’s nice napkins to wipe her face. Spunky let out a very happy yelp. The tension in the room was as thick as the gravy on the table. The guests side-eyed each other, gripping their silverware, many reaching for their cocktails, everyone sharply holding their breath.
And then, more to her surprise than anyone else’s… Anna…laughed?
When she tells this story, she will say that it was the best laugh of her life. She chuckled and wailed and wheezed till she sneezed. And, of course, her family joined her. People coughed and choked and hugged. Aunts shuffled over with Kleenex and wet cloths, each taking their turn at dabbing Anna’s eye. She excused herself from the table, startled by this newfound lightheartedness but also desperate for a sanitizing shower. And that’s when Mitch stood up as well.
He gave her the biggest smile of his life, outstretching his arms. She looked at him through her one good eye. (The other one kind of burned) And, for the first time in her adult life, she actually hugged him back.
And did Anna tell her therapist about the eye jizz situation? No. Because she fired her. She realized that the woman had all of the same issues that she did and was not going to be any more mental help now that she had her dog. Now she goes to a man who wears Birkenstocks with socks and often has a bagel in the middle of her session. He’s much more helpful. And she stopped taking her own notes. Because now she has something else to do with her hands. She brings her dog. And makes sure to keep him away from everyone’s legs.