Call it what you will—fate, kismet, la forza del Destino—but Fernando and I were meant to be. It was Maureen who got me out of the house that night. She was going to the animal shelter for her boyfriend, but I had no such excuse and as we drove, a feeling of "pregret"—the regret you have knowing that you're going to do something you already know is stupid—filled my heart.
When we got there, it was too loud, as these places usually are on weekends. Maureen was giggly with excitement.
"Oooh, he's so cute! Wow, look at that face," she gushed. "I wouldn't mind coming home to that!"
I kept my eyes almost squinted shut and aimed at the ceiling. When I finally lowered my gaze, I was staring at a gigantic dog with a glad face and large, brown, heart-melting eyes. His name tag read "Fruit Basket."
Not for me. But next to Fruit Basket was a sadder, deeper-looking male. He was mostly bald, downcast and when he dared to look hopefully up at me, I could see that he only had four front teeth. Then that thing that happened to Michael Corleone when he met the woman who would die in 18 minutes—the Thunderbolt—struck me. It was Fernando and it always would be Fernando.
I quickly filled out the Humane Society's paperwork (Maureen never found a suitable dog for her boyfriend) after which, Ferd and I were officially a couple. We already had nicknames for each other: his was "Ferd" and mine was "Oh hell, she wants to play ball again."
I took an extra moment to ask the attendant how Fruit Basket got his name and she explained that school children get to name the new animals as they came in. I originally had my heart set on naming him "Laughing Gravy" from an old Laurel and Hardy movie, but he looked like he'd been through enough. He was bald from laying on concrete for years and his front teeth were gone from chewing hopelessly on the bars of cages. Laughing Gravy, he was not.
For many months after, he cowered or lay in a corner, avoiding contact. He barely ate. But ever so slowly he began to come around. He had a fear of crossing thresholds and was terrified by the sound of a cigarette lighter (which doesn't bear thinking about). His hair grew back a lovely strawberry blond and he revealed himself as a Benji-type of mutt, a scrappy terrier mix who, if not for a slight clouding in one eye, would pass for a puppy.
I forgave him for being a Hollywood cliche and, in exchange, promised I'd never make him wear a bandana. He in turn promised not to kill his new roommate—a vintage, one-eyed, miniature dachshund named Olivia, who'd welcomed him by way of peeing in my bed—and not to chase Kitty-Kitty, unless she really wanted him to.
Love is different when you're older. When it turned out that Fernando had no bad habits that I didn't have myself, I let him be. The serenity and affectionate disinterest I had hitherto been unable to achieve in a human relationship was established easily with Fernando. When he wanted to go out, I let him out, no questions asked. To demand that Ferd "sit" or "come" was an affront to his hard-earned dignity. And, as in my case, "stay" came as naturally to him as it did to The Alps, so there was no trouble there.
He had a breakthrough at about 7 months, when I came home from work one day and he broke into a Snoopy-like happy dance. I did everything you can do to spoil a dog just to see that happy dance again and again. I fed him from the table, let him on the furniture, encouraged him to howl at the moon and scratch the woodwork—I was enthralled.
A full year later, not only does he have a happy dance, but he's got an attitude. It didn't take long for him to establish the upper hand in our relationship: he barks once for dinner, once to go out and 62 times if someone comes within ballistic missle range of the front door. I love his 22 pounds of macho and it thrills me as he herds me around the neighborhood by leash and then demands treats after he's convinced that he's done something very, very good, albeit invisible.
Other days, when I come home, I'm greeted with ecstatic indifference, which is what I like best. After all this time, he has love and a safe place to take for granted.