Yesterday, I took my rescue terrier, Leah the Wonder Dog, to the dog park at Greenbury Point—the site of one small victory for mankind, one giant loss for the Man. Congress just ruled that the Navy could not commandeer Greenbury Point to create another private golf course. Greenbury will remain open to the public that loves it. The riverside trails are a great place to restore your soul beside still waters or to walk a dog.
Off-leash in the play yard enclosure, Leah ran like the wind—flying across the grass like a pilot practicing touch-and-go landings. I ran too, to encourage her to exercise, but as she flew joyously toward me, I flashed back to a similar scenario running in Southsea Commons, Portsmouth, England, last spring.
I ran through a nearly empty park—broad grassy areas defined by tree-lined avenues are bordered by hotels and restaurants on one side and the sparkling Solent on the other. As I passed Southsea Castle, I noticed a woman walking a smallish white-and-gold dog off-leash on the far side of the Commons. It was against the law, but I understood the temptation–there were no other dogs and few people around.
I was deeply into my playlist, air pods in, listening to Ed Sheeran—imagining myself beautiful, not ordinary, fast, not a 12-minute-miler, hair loose in the wind, not in a ponytail—oh stop it, at least I admit it—and for an instant, as the dog turned away from his owner and began to run toward me, I had a vision of two lovers running through an empty field toward each other in slow motion, arms opened to embrace.
Taylor Swift came on as I passed the D-Day Memorial, and now I was Shakin’ it Off, running faster, getting cooler and quite possibly younger by the minute as the dog closed in. As he approached, I could see he had the square head of a Scottie, the wide jaw of a Pit, and probably weighed 40 pounds. Missing my own dog, I sent the pup bounding exuberantly over the grass a surge of goodwill. When you can’t be with the dog you love….
On a runner’s high, the dog yards from me now, I realized we were going to intersect, and I beamed my affection at this white and gold missile, my Leah stand-in whom I loved by proxy. I slowed so we could greet each other just as he hurtled himself forward and sunk his teeth into my calf.
I shrieked, stopped by the 40 pounds of dog attached to my right leg like an anchor, and shocked at pain’s intrusion into my romanticized moment. At this point, his owner, a British woman about my age, huffed up, calling out, “Oh Toasty, don’t do that.”
“Oh. My. Gosh! I exclaimed. “Your dog just bit me!” I stood there in shock, a bit disoriented, mano-a-mano with a panting Toasty, who looked a bit malevolent up close. “Heh-heh-heh-Who’s toast now?” he seemed to say.
“He bit me!” I repeated somewhat stupidly, balancing my weight on my left leg. The owner looked at me calmly.
“No, he didn’t,” she said. We stared at each other. “Toasty doesn’t bite.”
“Like hell, he doesn’t,” I said, still balancing on my good leg. Then I said something worse. A lot worse.
“Oh. You’re American.” She bent down to pet the Toaster.
“That’s right,” I said, suddenly insanely and inappropriately proud for no reason at all except, and I’ll just say it, who was first to the moon?
“You don’t have to be crude,” she admonished. “Show me.”
Pain, fear, and injustice broke down a lifetime of propriety, and I exclaimed, “What?? I don’t have to prove it to you! Your freaking dog just sunk his teeth into my calf.” But I canted my leg toward her so we could both inspect the perfect crescent of canine teeth marks eight inches above my ankle. She glanced down, then looked directly back at my face.
“No, he didn’t,” she repeated.
Now I was in a small rural town where the cops plant evidence and the judge is corrupt. Where all the citizens are in on the creepy conspiracy to convince you of an altered state of reality, and they’ve impounded your car.
“How about this?” I said, shaking now and wondering why my own anger was scary. She was as calm as the queen.
“How about we find a policeman and ask him what he thinks?” I looked pointedly at a sign requiring dogs to be leashed.
She glanced around the empty park and said, in her British accent, “Well, darling, you can try.” But she turned away quickly and, with Toasty by her side, set off down the avenue in the opposite direction. I had no recourse but to limp along after them with my burgeoning case of rabies and onset of hydrophobia or continue my run home where I could scrounge for hydrogen peroxide.
Why hadn’t I taken a picture of the perpetrator? I had my phone! I could have posted his little mugshot on every telephone pole in Southsea. “Toasty. Bites!” Instead, I took a photo of my leg with its rainbow arc of punctures and progressively purpling bruise, as what? Proof to myself I’d been victimized?
It’s shocking how little it took for me to lose my manners. I’m a bit alarmed at how fast I devolved. How thin the veneer was between tourist and well, gunslinger.
She didn’t look back as she hurried away, clearly the more culturally composed of the two of us, but could she also have been as scared as I was angry? Or scared because I was angry? I’m still looking for a point of empathy. A story I can imagine that will make this okay.
I tell myself an Englishwoman and I both love Southsea Commons. And we both love dogs. And from that I can extrapolate that we both love our kids, and our friends. In fact, in another era we might have been handmaid to gentlewoman, servants at the same court. In another circumstance, there alongside the ancient Solent, we might have been friends.
But. I read a book lately with a whole chapter on it being okay not to like someone. That learning to love everyone is not a requirement of the universe.
Although I think it is.
This is why I’m still trying not to feel like a colonial upstart victimized by a subject of the queen.
Is it really okay not to like someone and to leave it at that? Surely the answer is just to try harder! Isn’t that the American way?
I may be laughing now, but as she disappeared near Southsea Castle, I was still spoiling for a fight. I wanted to yell after her, Hey! Toasty’s Mom!
Forget the moon.
Who won the Revolution, darling?
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.