Ruby & Me

I remember meeting her for the first time during a visit to my uncle’s house. We pulled up to his house and exited our station wagon: my father, mother, brother, and me, and my uncle’s large pack of prized Dobermans surrounded us and barked fiercely.

I remember meeting her for the first time during a visit to my uncle’s house.

We pulled up to his house and exited our station wagon: my father, mother, brother, and me, and my uncle’s large pack of prized Dobermans surrounded us and barked fiercely. Those dogs always scared me, and I considered myself a dog person. I never took the time to wonder why my uncle required so many guard dogs, but it’s often that life makes sense only in hindsight and when people go to prison.

Out from under the black mass of noisy canine confusion, bounded a little ball of white and brown, faster and peppier than any doberman could ever hope to be. She ran straight to me, ignoring the rest of my family, as I was also wont to do. I couldn’t have been more than six or so, but I was already suspecting that I might have been switched at birth, with these people’s real child, who lived uncomfortably somewhere nearby with my real family, wondering why they didn’t have a taste for NASCAR and catchy ditties like “My Ding-A-Ling”.

My uncle came out to calm the pack, while I sat on the ground, hugging and loving this small creature. He said her name was Ruby and she was a beagle mix. She had short, floppy ears that shot up when she heard her name or the rustle of a bag of dog food, and black skin around her mouth which was covered in white fur, that made her look like she was smiling. My family went inside to visit, the big dogs having scattered once they realized we weren’t lunch, while I stayed out to play with her.

A few days later, my dad told me that Ruby was coming to live with us. Apparently, she hadn’t meshed with the doberman gang as well as my uncle had hoped, and he’d noticed my fondness for her. I was over the moon.

As a girl who preferred the company of nobody, Ruby was the perfect companion. She quietly listened while I told stories, never correcting my often-flawed facts (most frequently skewing things toward the dramatic, if you can believe it). She sat stone-still while I perched naked Barbies on her, like some enormous fur couch, recreating a night at the Playboy Mansion (including what comes later, ifyouknowwhatimean (I didn’t really know what I meant, but naked Barbies laid on top of naked Barbies and there was kissing, which I did know about because, gawd, I wasn’t a baby)). She wagged her tail when I sang loudly and off-key the songs of the seventies, oftentimes using those same naked Barbies as microphones.

When my father was in a devastating car accident, I cried into Ruby’s fur as he clung to life. When I was the only girl to not make the Pop Warner cheer squad (seriously, twelve of us tried out, they took eleven girls, stating that an odd number worked better for routines), she understood my confusion. When boy after boy after boy rejected my awkward advances, she listened to my woes and didn’t judge as I scratched their pictures out of my yearbooks.

Technically, she was the family dog, but there was no question which one of us was her favorite. I fed her (when I remembered) and bathed her (when I felt like it) and she slept with me, every night. My family had each other. I had Ruby.

Ruby aged, I guess, but I didn’t notice. I was off navigating my teen years. I was caught up in boys and bad skin and Kevin Bacon and oh, my god, the future. I came home every night, told her about my day, and petted her as I drifted off to sleep. I didn’t see the day to day. My mom says Ruby had gotten crankier, even growling and snapping at my baby brother (a Johnny-Come-Lately, born when I was 16), occasionally. The time came for me to go to college, and I breezed off, sad to leave her but happy to move on. I knew I’d be back. Ruby was a constant in my life, I had never considered that she might not always be. Until she wasn’t.

During one of my weekly phone calls home, my mom acted strangely. I knew that something was wrong, but I didn’t want to know. She and my dad had been experiencing marital problems for the past few years. “Please let it be that,” I thought, “Please let it be divorce or grandma or anything other than what my heart is telling me.”

It wasn’t. Ruby was dead. She’d followed my dad’s car down the driveway and into the road, where she had been hit. More than a thousand miles away, in a college dorm, I let out a wail. The only one who had ever understood me fully was gone. And I hadn’t been there for her, like she’d been there for me so many times.

77-year-old Italian artist Luciana Matalon recently lost her much-adored 15-year-old cat, Sky. As a tribute to Sky, Luciana took out a full page ad in Italy’s top newspaper Corriere della Sera, featuring a picture of the two of them together, a sketch of the kitty, and a poem, written about her feline companion. The website where I read about Luciana and Sky was a tiny bit sarcastic about the whole thing, good naturedly calling Luciana a “crazy cat lady”, but the commentors came out in droves to say that they, too, loved a pet this much. There are pictures and stories and the whole thing is very touching, which is refreshing for an Internet comment thread.

I’m sobbing as I write this, twenty-two years later. They say that time heals all wounds, but my sadness and guilt are nearly as fresh as they were that day. I have a dog now, and, while I love her, there is still a Ruby-sized hole in my heart. I guess there always will be. Hopefully Ruby and Sky have both found a peaceful place and it’s full of the best kibble and toys and catnip and naked Barbies. Just as dog intended.


photo by Save Piper

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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