A Need For Companionship Unfolds
At the height of the pandemic, I became a new kind of laborer: a student-teacher, a strange, two-faced role. I at once embodied authority in a classroom (teacher, parent, grader, god) and ate my dignity as a servant (an employee, a minion, a groveler). I had met a pandemic boy and did not want to move across the country to where my MFA was housed — I did not have to yet. It was too dangerous to do a simple thing like move; we “went” online. I was thrilled — I could nest! Though I was only thrilled because I had someone to nest with, in the home we found together. Still, it felt temporary. In the darkest months in his darkest moods, we wept, thinking ahead to the time the plague would “end” and I would have to be “in person,” rendering him alone in our large, COVID-deal apartment in a beautiful neighborhood with warm-bricked townhouses and cutesy bakeries and Chinese groceries. So what I did is I got us a dog.
I’m lying. Strictly speaking, he got us a dog. The story he tells and that we agree upon is a bit different from what I just told you. In that story, he does not weep of his own accord, but is driven to tears by my caterwauling and stress meltdowns after teaching, studying, and generally feeling bad.
I did not know then what I know now, which is that my body was going down the fucking shitter, and my brain was close behind. Something was shifting — my pathologies were closing in on me.
But what I did know then is that my legs were less stable than before. I was a wobbly little thing in a fluffy coat, walking out of my apartment with a big box in the refrozen mud-snow of Queens, looking for a FedEx drop-off after a morning-afternoon of Zoom PST-in-EST teaching, and I slipped. I slipped and trembled and probably looked very vulnerable. A van with two men started following me, a poor, puffy-coated being with a large box and no face but a mask and a hat, and they beckoned for me to enter the van. When I did not enter, they cursed at me, and, I thought, drove off. I had my headphones on, and was yammering away on the phone. The van did not disappear, and the passenger ran out to grab me. I got away and scuttled home as best as I could down snowy sidewalks. My friend on the phone did not notice I had gone silent, and did not understand what had happened when I tried to explain. She kept talking; I did not leave the house for a month. (Later I googled “agoraphobia” and learned that it shares a relationship with poor proprioception.)
At the end of that month, my pandemic boy came home with a dog. We had briefly been “interviewed” over camera just the week before my narrow brush with being sex-trafficked, which is the narrative my brain had created but I know is close to confabulation. We had been vetted, but the “rescue” agency, in positioning itself as a savior, had nothing to prove to us — they were virtuous and we were the ones in desperate need of their largesse. “Rescue” agencies, in conjuring saviors in their identifiers, position themselves as beyond reproach. But in our preoccupation with earning the agency’s approval, we had not realized that when they’d described her as “boisterous” they meant “nutso” or that “energetic” meant “reactive.” I spent the next few weeks oscillating between hatred for the rescue that charged us $600 for an unspayed dog fifteen pounds heavier than promised — and for the dog, now Charly, herself.
In Charly, I experienced a rush of excitement and dashed expectations in quick succession: with a big dog, nobody’ll fuck with me ever again — actually, I cannot walk her, and her pulling and lunging jerks my soft wrists. With a loving dog, I’ll never feel lonely ever again — except when she’s barking and nipping at me to be more interesting. I long to be alone. With a cuddly dog, I’ll feel more regulated forever — except she is less regulated than I.
Charly did not fit the job profile, but I was the one who chose her.
Why did I expect a dog to fix all my problems?
What did I expect from my legal ownership of her one good life on this earth —
Why was I so fixated on “how much I paid” for “such a bad dog,” a dog everyone loved passionately?
Charly was a bad baby, but she became my darling baby nonetheless. She was my darling babydog when she nipped my nose the night I cried because my cousin had just died of COVID. She was my darling babydog even in the week after, when I tried to give her the cold shoulder for not being more comforting. In my cleaving onto her, I found a love that suffused me so that sometimes I could not breathe. She is no comfort animal, but she is my companion.
You ask of my companions. Hills — sir — and the sundown, and a dog as large as myself.
Eight months into our relationship, my lease on this pandemic dreamlife ended, and I was called upon to work in San Diego. My MFA was funded as long as I worked, so I worked, and that is all I did. Writing was no longer the object. I look back on my three-year program and see that everything I’ve written and published since 2020 I had written in the “remote year,” or before. My departure marked the beginning of my shift from writer to teacher. While the identity itself meant little to me, I had no proper understanding of the amount of emotional labor I would have to perform as a feminized subject in class, now in person. It wasn’t just grading, it wasn’t just lectures and prep. It was more. It was students scorning me, perhaps for not dressing in a womanly fashion, or for seeming too young, or being too old. It was being criticized for not being more nurturing and being evaluation-bombed by the vengeful.
How I labored for the children — the undergraduates I taught mandatory writing and research classes to — how I stopped laboring for myself. Cooking was exhausting. Eating was exhausting. I owned a car I could not drive. I begged for rides to Trader Joe’s where I loaded up on frozen meals that invariably upset my stomach. I never went anywhere else, not this body of pain. My brain filled with fog whenever I was away from the classroom. It turned on only for money — the most banal relationship, labor-for-wages, emerging as my priority. My classmates were off in their own silos, a social paranoia filling our program where camaraderie could have existed. I dreamt of Charly, but mostly, of strange landscapes. How I felt utterly alone as my body turned on me. How my body is me: how I was sick.
Seeking Wellness, Stalking Dogs
The short version of this story is that I got sicker. I was sick already, but now I was being wracked.
I lived in graduate housing off a slow trolley and several bus lines. I was in the last class to be grandfathered into the more affordable rate; my peers had to pay 50 percent more for a studio smaller than my bedroom in New York City. Some rents went up by 85 percent. The early 2020 protests organizing around cost of living adjustments at the UCs were rewarded with more costs. Our rent burdens at either rate were whopping. And what for? The graduate housing complex resembled the Simcity of a poor imagination and a budget Googleplex. Buildings were tall, dingy, gray with highlight colors as hideous as orange, neon green, electric blue. Despite it being “on campus,” I walked 45 minutes to teach students in a sliver of a classroom crammed with huge rolling chairs that I tripped over. As if it were complicated math or an epic journey, I bravely figured out a combination bus+walk route.
One by one, every aspect of my once-adequate, if not great, body blurred and transformed. I found myself working with a growing understanding of what I cannot versus what I can do. Until this point, I had found my body to be remarkably springy, to find its way back to a base level of strength. I was able to sit at desks and type for hours and then do makeshift PT at home. I could avoid the long waits at the clinics that take Medicaid. I was fine.
Disability … is the attribution of corporeal deviance — not so much a property of bodies as a product of cultural rules about what bodies should be or do.
The short version of this story is that I am incapable of telling a story the short way. Would you like to read it any other way, though? Summary: Failing writer joins MFA program in last-ditch attempt to rejuvenate career but weakens during a sedentary quarantine mandated by a global pandemic, and gets one dog hoping to fix the problem. Failed writer leaves home and dog, falls sicker somewhere else. What can fix it? Another dog, this time, selected for service. Now they wonder about the moral implications of that choice.
Now you know the story, you can choose to stop reading. Let me proceed.
I had been imported to San Diego to inhabit the god-minion dialectic of a student-teacher, and something was breaking me. Was it the air — was it the invasive species that coated the hilly landscapes? Was it the stench of rich settler colonialism so close to the Mexican land border? Was it my writing program? Was it my longing for Charly? I was being rent apart.
A new era of my body’s responses to my surroundings, a strange era of my body-mind connection flow becoming a one-way track. I was a writer, but now all I wrote was lists of functional limitations. Now I had to make my body legible. That was my calling: to essay the body.
As soon as I arrived, I went to the health center, and was expeditiously sent off to specialists. The specialists probed me. I forgot words frequently. I did not know how much work went into advocating for yourself. I wept often. I was being taken seriously, which was nice, but it was serious, and that wasn’t so nice. I went home alone to my little studio, which was above a highly chlorinated hot tub that wafted noxious vapor and irritating party sounds into my room every night. I called the “self-administered auxiliary enterprise” that wasn’t really the university that administered graduate housing — the one that jacked our rents up because they had to meet “market rate” for La Jolla as if anyone else in La Jolla lived like we did. I castigated the “enterprise” which at the time, I thought was a university department, for putting me in such a horrific room, for not closing the hot tub at a reasonable hour. I was given a new room the next week, over Thanksgiving, preemptively an ADA-accessible room that was marginally wider because a wheelchair did not fit into the standard studios. I had a shower bar, and two windows. I looked out at the mesas in the distance, and the medical complex next to me.
I had to confirm my functional limitations to hold onto my newfound fortune. I took myself on exploratory walks, noting how many steps before I felt pain or dizzy. I asked my PCP for help. I copied language from provider notes from my dozens of appointments. I took comfort in that “patient appeared normal” and noted which providers made patient appear “hyperactive,” “distressed,” or “incoherent.” Often, it had nothing to do with my pain levels and I never was truly “confused”; it was more about how the provider was treating me, how I was expected to perform disability to be taken seriously by medical providers who probably would have diagnosed me with “conversion disorder” or “malingering” if I did not have the full support of my education and ability to research, repeat, and contextualize medical terminology. A specialist asked me if I was a student at the medical school: I lapped that up. My demeanor changed; any softer, creative thinking transmorphed into harder, scientific language. Some of my students didn’t know I was in a fine arts graduate program at all. The project of making myself a pitiable, legible subject became a full-fledged effort as I tried to make the most of my unanticipated access to (and need of) supreme healthcare. No other MFA would have given me such access: I could see my doctors’ offices as I fell asleep watching the orange sky turn purple and then black.
Uncharacteristically, I began to wake up early to plan my lessons. It was all that anchored me to normalcy: education was business as usual. I was teaching in a “collaborative learning” program which meant grading was based on effort and self-evaluation and not subjective decisions of what constituted “good writing”; I was teaching students how to write about climate change. Surely I was doing something good in the world? Surely this was all worth it? I came back to my studio and videochatted with the pandemic boy, and watched Charly act nutso, all pixelated. The purple sky filled my room with peace. I slept early.
But I still dreamt, especially in the earlier months of denial. The alien landscapes of my dreams were vivid, rocky, capacious — I ran at speed over them. Running felt like flying.
I dreamt of things my past self coveted. I took a screenwriting class, because at one point that had been a lofty goal of mine. I found myself caring very little about the writing, but more about the topic: the non-human subject. We watched FIRST COW and read Donna Haraway. I began to stalk the dogs who lived in graduate housing. I videotaped dogs from my hot tub apartment window, and later would sit on drooping, threadbare hammocks on the green to stare at them. I made a video essay about getting to know my coworker’s purebred Shibas, willful, brattish cuties who somehow know they deserve the good life. I showed it in class. A classmate said she was reminded of the five-year-old she babysat who takes close-up pictures of dogs. I was only just getting used to how I would be treated in this new city, where I was god/minion in the classes I taught, and professional writer/idiot freelancer to some of the more experimental writers in my program. Apparently to members of the visual arts department, I was a writer/child.
These were not the binaries that mattered to me any more. I live in the strange shadowland between hot-accomplished/disabled-pitiful. I did not know this then but I know it now, like many things I write about as if I knew it at the time. At the time, all I cared about was dogs and making appointments around my flights back to New York. Merging my concerns: I needed a dog to help me with my project of becoming less sickly, but I had to perform sickliness in order to get a dog. I needed to be less sickly in order to work in order to have insurance to check into why I was so sickly and to approve documentation of the ways I was limited so I could have housing that would let me go to work. Like all sick people I know, I was flailing in the grips of the ghastly conundrum of falling ill in the United States, but I did not know that this process would be worth it.
My functional limitations would lead me to love.
To Labor is to Love
If they hadn’t been already, some students in my cohort had slowly become obsessed with dogs. One had started helping a woman in Tijuana whose house and lot were seething with dogs, a hundred dogs. My classmate called me in excitement one morning: he had with him two pitty puppies who had been abandoned by their mother. Did I want to foster? I said yes despite not even owning a pair of scissors; my apartment had only the barest of necessities. The informality was dazzling — no vetting procedures, just two dogs of Tijuana’s thousands in need. I could not believe my eyes when I met them in the middle of the night in what felt like a dramatic, heroic act of L bringing them across the land border and into the dismal 1-hour parking lot of my building. Their eyes were so small and barely open; they were maybe three weeks old. Their teeth felt like small needles, and they couldn’t eat a thing. I was their teacher/mother. I showed them how to eat, giving them little snacks on my travel cutting board. I cleaned their little poop accidents and broke up fights between the rowdy one (Wilbur, black-and-white, feisty like Charly, only wanted play), and the sweet one (Todd, brown, looks like Charly, only wanted love). Todd fit in my camo Jansport fanny pack, but Wilbur was a little too fat. They were both runts. I showed this to some friends on a night I was stricken by the panic of living alone, cooking alone, cleaning liquid dog shit alone, and I begged for help. They did not seem like “dog-people” but then, suddenly they were. It went the same way it had with me.
Before Charly, I never gave myself without reserve to anyone, not without giving them a piece of my mind. Before Charly, I was deeply skeptical of pet culture. I had an array of annoying encounters with “pet people” and their spoiled pets in unpaid petsitting gigs or with roommates whose pet care was foisted on me.
Pet culture felt like a way of avoiding owing anything to other humans. It felt like a rich person thing. It felt exploitative of non-human creatures. I wasted my late 20s thinking about stupid shit like that. In the last year of my 20s, I found my way to a party but the party was next week. The hosts let me in anyway and we pretended we were the party. I said something snarky about pet culture. People just love to use animals to feel better. I characterized it as something to do with late-stage capitalism invading all of our relations. Safety blankets with heartbeats. Then the media studies scholar who was making his playlist for the real party told me that dogs were bred and evolved alongside humans. How had I not put this together yet, in all my preoccupations with pet culture? We carry centuries of interdependence into our individual relationships with domesticated animals. There is memory deep in our tissues of relations outside of the constraints of exploitation and legal ownership. We comfort each other because we are intertwined with one another.
Back to San Diego, 2022. My friends took Todd and Wilbur to relieve me of my panic. I had friends now, and dogs. The dogs clung for warmth, sleeping on my chest during my daily, frequent naps. My friends set them up in a playpen and other classmates sojourned to visit the small princes. After they became strong and less runty, we sent them off — mostly because we were exhausted. Though all communication with the dog-lady was translated and spotty, we gathered that the dogs had been adopted immediately, together.
Would we like to come see what other dogs they have? I had a mind to foster one, maybe see if “it” could become “my” service animal. Perhaps this would be my do-over, now that I was without my tornado-canine, maybe I could train up a dog to do the important work Charly just wasn’t up for. (If anything, I am Charly’s service animal.) Even more subconscious, I realize now, was a plot to drag a dog back to New York and force it to become Charly’s friend, Charly who had no friends.
So we went, about six of us in two cars. The road there was rocky, unpaved and dusty. The lot, cased in by corrugated tin sheets and covered in tarp, was filled with dogs and they were all cute. Some fought over empty cans of food that kicked around the dirt floors. A volunteer swept up dog shit constantly; the piles of it never ended. Cages with rowdy and reactive big dogs lined the open playground. A large corgi-retriever obnoxiously tried to get our attention by attacking other dogs who dared come close.
The uncanny knowledge of a dog: they all seemed to know what we were doing there! Dozens of dogs assailed us for pets, nipping at our pants and bare hands, while meeker ones cowered at the commotion, some of them still making eye contact through the onslaught. How their desperation to leave with us still breaks my heart.
I picked out a few and clawed off the rest to leave on a test-walk with a cadre of eager dogs, including an especially loving one that looked like a tiny German Shepherd, when I stopped. I saw a fluffy butt strutting away, the rest of the body obscured by other animals falling over themselves to get the last smidgeon of attention from us humans before we left. The butt, in how round and nonchalant it was, spoke highly of the rest of the dog — someone who could keep calm and carry on in the thicket of chaos. I demanded to meet that butt and L dove back in. She was all scruffy, puffy fluff, about twenty pounds, and she immediately put her paw on me.
It was a done deal then, but I walked the others and felt badly for the loving one. She was so eager to please me but did not know how. I took both of them. My friends took an injured, tripod dog who was covered in (other dogs’) diarrhea and fresh wounds — I shrank from the stinky, bleeding dog in what I can only characterize now as ableist disgust. They also scooped up a light-colored fluffy dog that looked a lot like the one I selected, but lankier. We were leaving with four new dogs, and in total, were traveling back with seven dogs.
The dog-lady handed my friend medication for the injured dog as we prepared to drive off; the dog had been hit by a car, a high risk for the street dogs of Tijuana, but also was subject to bullying and biting from the other dogs.
Suddenly my meet-cute turned into an action thriller.
Cops descend out of nowhere: big, armed forces, maybe something other than regular police, with huge American-supplied rifles. They point their death machines at us and ask us to produce our passports and explain ourselves. What were those drugs they saw being passed to us? “What’s in the car?” they ask in Spanish, and my friend says, “There’s dogs in the car.” They translate it for us into English — “what the hell, dogs?” — and we repeat: there are dogs in the car. The dogs are decidedly in the car, luxuriating in the backseat. They know something good is happening, even if the gun guys are outside. They’re a little anxious for us, but they’re ready to go. The gun guys look in and see dogs and a bag of pills. After some deliberation, they leave, confused; they don’t even ask us for a bribe. We head home. We wait for hours at the government checkpoint, a shorter wait than the workers who have to come every day, imported to Southern California as cheap labor. In the backseat of the car, I dub the dogs Happy (the fluffy one) and Silvy (the silky one), and put collars on them. Now they are “owned.” The dogs nestle on me and the border officers do not ask a thing. What would I have shown anyway, to prove their “legal” status? They had been to the vet, but I did not hold their vet papers. They did not have passports. They were coming for an unspecified length of time. They were mine tonight, but could be anyone’s tomorrow, even their own person. I bathe the dogs and afterwards, their good mood is gone; they cower in a closet in my carpeted studio apartment. I call them by their names and they quickly adjust. They seem to understand that my talking to them is a good thing.
I found out later that the dog rescue volunteers had been calling Happy “allegria” which essentially means the same thing. There is just something about her.
The Making of a Service Animal
I want to say it was smooth sailing after that.
We had spent a glorious few weeks cuddling. Both dogs quickly became house-trained. We even went on dog-dates; I had friends I saw regularly because of them. I was loved and loved in return. But:
Silvy, who was an angel when I was present, made Charly seem like a chill dog; she tried to rip up my walls and chew all the lamp cords whenever I left her unattended. She yelped and cried and my neighbor quickly reported me to the campus police. A noise complaint or a dog abuse report, I’m not sure. Days before my birthday, the cops showed up. I had been gone for 45 minutes, having taken the rare opportunity to get a ride to the grocery store. Silvy cried the whole time; I had crated her, which made it worse.
The cop was nicer than my neighbor, which is saying a lot. He told me some things that worked for his dog, and he did not enter my apartment without my permission. That was for the best — when I entered, I saw that Silvy had shat all over her crate and the bathroom and was clawing her way out, injuring herself in the process. Happy was quaking in a corner but immediately became playful and lighthearted when I entered. My friend, whose genteel Shibas would never, smelled the wreckage. “Sorry,” he said, and ran off in panic.
I was barely keeping it together. I could not do more for her. I needed someone to do something for me. I was tired of taking care of myself. There was never any peace, never any reprieve. I never even allowed myself to order UberEats, not on my salary of $24k a year!
The next morning I was served with an eviction notice for having an illegal dog. I expected a warning, maybe an email. I never met my neighbor, the rat snitch asshole, but I hypothesized it was a rich graduate student who might own one of the Maseratis that I saw next to my rusted Mazda 3 that never moved (and which in fact had died due to my never driving it).
I thought my documentation was adequate. Earlier that quarter, around the time of my pittypuppy fostering, I had preempted a dog’s arrival, I thought, in my documenting of functional limitations. A therapist’s note was more easily accessible, and the dog — they thought it was Charly, my boss Charly! — was not required to be anything more than an Emotional Support Animal. I just had to be moderately mentally ill, a little bit cray, to need a bit of creature comfort. The Office of Student Disabilities was satisfied, I thought; they hadn’t pressed the matter. But the eviction notice proved otherwise: the private company/nanny landlords had not received paperwork saying I was “allowed” to have a dog at all. I implored the student disabilities office to expedite the paperwork. My eviction notice was revoked.
But the problem remained. I could not foster Silvy anymore, and at the time, nobody else wanted to either. If I, the person who could handle the irascible Charly Barley, couldn’t handle this dog, neither could they. The ones who could, had their own handful of dogs. Suddenly we all had dogs. I was about to have one fewer. I would keep the useful one, the level-headed one, the Happy one. I gave Silvy up.
The housing office “approved” of Happy, my new tenant. It seemed so simple. Now it was on record a dog lived there, a dog employed in my service. Still I did not trust the landlord company not to change its mind. As long as Happy helped me with my work she would be tolerated — but what if I became sicker? What if I couldn’t work? — would I be kicked out of the university, and thus housing, and thus my medical network?
Why was I here? In my adversary interactions with the administration of the housing and the university, I began to understand my own position. A STEM PhD I met boasted of their high six-figure salary potential in a few years, seemingly unaware that the humanities graduate students they organized with had no such potential. Others were more blatant about it: many STEM PhDs were disengaged from union work because their low pay, and much lower teaching load (if any), was only a temporary hurdle before “industry.” Multiple people repeated the adage of the upwardly mobile: you could earn a lot of money too if you just studied the right thing.
We were just labor on contracts, promised something more at the end, but it was unclear what that was. In the arts, the official promise was only ever intangible — “you’ll improve your craft” — and so sadly, for many of us, our stipends and the work were the promise. Who cares if I was barely a student? I needed that work. I needed that apartment. I needed to know I could walk five minutes to see a rheumatologist.
Most of us, like me, were only tolerated for two years in graduate housing unless we had a compelling reason to stay. Only a few were guaranteed housing all years of their graduate studies — those savvy enough to threaten not to accept their offers early on. Despite my documentation, my attempts to secure my accessible, affordable housing was brushed off; I was told I had to wait til the last month of my lease to file the documentation again, as if my current circumstances were not permanent enough to warrant a degree of stability. It didn’t matter if I came or went; there would always be labor coming in. The graduate housing complex was a transient campus, a hub for us to gather and sleep in, necessary to sustain ourselves through to last the school year so we could teach and research. The “family friendly” design of the graduate housing, with its cheery playgrounds and oddly clinical lounges, drew into sharp relief the precarity of our lives on this campus and perhaps in this world. This was not home.
Yet I was so grateful for all that I had, because what I had was Happy, who quickly became my whole heart.
The Defining of a Service Animal
What is Happy to me? It was my job now to define hers. My body, striped with tender spots, next to her body, whose internal workings were not my immediate concern. I was more worried about why I felt better when she was around. Was I “really” disabled, that is, physically so? Was I making it up?
The actual question shaking my moral universe: is it really Happy’s job to take care of me?
I was given unalienable rights by my birth in this country to sign a contract. I begrudgingly chose to return to my Canvas page to arrange icons for the students every day…Did Happy have a choice of having to deal with me and my crapola? I did not dare extrapolate these moral concerns, even in the intangible nascent stage, to other disabled people; I had seen and heard of the remarkable ways that service animals improve the lives of disabled people. I was disinclined to engage in the moral panic of “fake” service animals except for the sake of preserving the rights of “real” service animals; any quiver of doubt instigated by general moral panic would make the lives of those who rely on their service animals that much harder. More documentation, more labor at the cost of executive and body function.
I did not want Happy to be “fake” but I was not interested in making her “real” — who was to say what was real or not? If only she could just be an ESA, allowed to bark and sniff, to defend her boundaries and engage her curiosity. But a service animal has to be on. A service animal must rise above their natural instincts and be only devoted to their human — which, practically, makes sense as a person’s disability is also 24/7 — but a being cannot work overtime perpetually, can they?
Service animals are fetishised: they are so valuable, so ‘smart', because they help us – because we can use them to remediate clearly-defined human deficiencies. We appreciate them. Does this make us appreciate other animals (those without training certificates) less? Are service animals the exceptions that prove the rule, that most animals do not seem to help us all that much?
I admired another dog, from the same spot in Tijuana, who took to home training readily, and out of necessity, went through a certification process. That dog is now “real,” official, and can be taken places; meanwhile, her human has found a way to mark her work time with a vest. When the vest comes off, she is “off.” I wonder if I could do something like that with Happy, if I should have done that when I had the chance. But I am just getting to the point of this essay: Happy is no longer my service animal.
She could have been. The person at the office overseeing workers and accommodations clapped her hands — literally — when she heard how Happy was “naturally” a service animal. She nurtured and comforted me, this little Happy; when I was dizzy she would look up at me, she would predict my falls before I could and turn around rapidly to catch my attention. Had I ever been given this kind of attention before? Probably not since I was very little, very helpless. My mind-body connection extended outwards, enveloping hers; together, we pooped well, ate well, and kissed a lot. She slept in the curve of my C-shaped pillow in my arms every night. My being hummed with this new sense of love and caring; something I had never quite received or achieved myself.
We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand.
We are, constitutively, companion species.
But remember: Happy wasn’t just for me. She had many tasks ahead of her, and the biggest one, the incorrigible Charlens.
This was incongruent with my project of having a service animal: why would I be selecting the animal based on friendship-compatibility with another being? A service animal cannot have their attention stolen by someone else.
Furthermore: had I made some sort of necropolitical decision on the worth of Happy’s life — what if Charly attacked her, hurt her? Was it okay, because she was the sacrificial lamb, the second child, the fostered orphan who wasn’t properly adopted through legal pathways but smuggled across, a secret, a less valuable dog? If she became a legitimate service animal, would she become more “valuable” than Charly?
Whereas [Haraway’s] previous works questioned the epistemological and ontological assumptions behind categorically dividing the human from “nature” and/or the cyborgic, [Companion Species Manifesto…] curiously sets self-critical capacities aside to argue that working dogs are so superior in intelligence (“other” dogs are mere pets) that they constitute a special category of “subject”; humans who successfully interact with such dogs (in her case, in the context of agility training), engage in a heightened form of intersubjectivity. Such dog subjects represent “significant otherness”...
Heidi J. Nast
At the end of the school year, she was still my service animal “in training.” She was interning for me. She was growing into her job. We had had a glorious few months in San Diego, where I taught Happy to walk on a leash — and off of it, to great success — and it was just the two of us. But in New York, I had a boyfriend and a dishwasher (separate beings, though sometimes, the same). I had better public transportation and I had a Charly who needed to be kissed daily, and the pandemic boy does not kiss her enough. I needed to head back to New York for my last summer of graduate school. But we had to get there.
I first tried to verify Happy in the Department of Transportation’s Service Animal system. I went through the project of listing my functional limitations again, and then came to the section where I had to write who trained her. Despite it being completely legal to train your own service animal — buying a pre-trained service animal running tens of thousands of dollars — I was not allowed to self-certify. Unlike many other countries, it is legal to train your own service animal, but there is no central database, so airlines can choose if they will relegate the process of securing legitimacy to a mysterious system administered by DOT to verify animals individually. I was allowed to identify a person as a trainer, so I wrote in a friend’s name with his permission — but whoever certified dogs on the other end could not find “evidence” of my friend running a service animal training center online. I was denied. We had to go through channels of commerce, exchanging handsome sums, for legitimacy. Only money would transform Happy’s efforts into recognizable service. Commerce would make her Real. Her service would have to be documented by SEO and keywords, and be perceived as a continuation of system-permitted documentation that a human trainer would have. She was not satisfactory on her own, or with my say-so.
What was I to do? I could not walk with a cane and two suitcases and a dog on a leash, not without falling or being clumsy. With not a small amount of trepidation, I bundled Happy into a carrier for dogs under twenty pounds. As a short but round dog, she bulged out of the soft synthetic fabric but could also stand and turn around. On my last night, a weepy friend left me and Happy at San Diego’s small airport that does have a disability fast-track line — a service that even airports like JFK in New York do not have. (JFK, where I once was shamed by an airport worker for needing a wheelchair and then shoved along the a long line so I could be amply stared at while the worker harrumphed and snidely talked about how “even young people are doing it these days.”)
I did not know what to do with Happy: do I let her out at security? Do I have to show documentation — an ID? My concerns about my own documentation and visibility — I have been searched, patted down, probed at every airport for the last few years — were now projected onto Happy, a light-furred fluffy dog who all white people like. Only recently had the San Diego TSA patted down my hair, circling me with their angry faces and rough hands. I did not know if my own difficulties as a racialized person at borders would make this business of Happy being a flight-worthy animal — much less service — animal also difficult.
Before I entered security, I promised the airline workers that she was indeed a service animal in training and performs valuable services for me, but the System rejected Us. The workers understood and advised me I should have just called before. They showed no signs of moral panic about fake service animals. Happy stuck her nose out of the little bit of un-zip I had left her, and everyone cooed. Happy would quell, counter, or negate my otherness, I realized — she made me more legible, more harmless. It wasn’t that I would render her ferocious and brown and evil, but that she could transfigure me into a soft, cuddly, lovable being. Yet another thing she did for me. We had no problems at security, or on the plane, where two young Asian men sat next to me and asked me questions about grad school — they had just finished undergrad— and pet Happy’s audaciously round and black nose that stuck out of the carrier at regular intervals for a little bit of comfort.
The rest is a blur: I arrive in New York, and my partner rushes to pick us up. I introduce him to Happy, who immediately takes to him. He is overjoyed; he had been wanting to meet her for months. Now we are united, a three-being unit. We are nervous about Charly: would Charly bite and possibly murder my Happy? Will I have to give her up to my friends? Will I not be able to give her up, given my growing love for her, and will I have to move out? Would I be single and without a dishwasher and looking for summer housing in my old city for no reason at all? We arrive at our townhouse in Queens. On the second floor is our little apartment, and down a hallway that Charly cannot access is a 7’x9’ room the former tenants who were possibly richer than us used as a walk-in closet. (I use it as an office and a guest room, and have spent thousands of hours Zoom-teaching there.) I deposit Happy on the little daybed in there and rush to meet Charly. Charly is screaming, screaming and barking, she is so thrilled to see me: but she senses another being. How could it be?
For days, we kept them separate. At night, when the streets are empty, we took them on parallel walks across the street from each other, so that they could look at one another. The initial introduction was slow — and successful.
But another introduction: Charly showed Happy the good life. The life of the unemployable, the lowlife scumbag life. Charlen, of the lumpenproletariat, spread the social contagion of career criminality to Happy, and together, they both went on strike. Considered the “dangerous” class by Marx and Engels, the lumpenproletariat are “social scum…thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society,” and are susceptible to being “swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution.” The pandemic boy made the connection: Happy was content with the way I set the conditions of her life until she met Charly. Happy went from ardently obeying anything I said to second-guessing it, and then eventually, resisting learning commands altogether. Charly is not a Working Dog, that I was reconciled to ages ago…but now Happy, too, was inducted into the doctrine of Anti-Work.
Summer became fall, and I took a quarter off school. A strike was fomenting, one “authorized” by my union. After some earnest campaigning, walking out, and protesting, we would settle for a small raise and plenty of backstabbing. And indifference. Participating in the strike “remotely,” I watched all legal proceedings, including the one where a lawyer screenshared a browser with a tab labeled with a porn website’s logo and some incriminating text. When would workers’ rights be taken seriously? Somehow, the strike ended just as we had momentum, representatives mysteriously folding. Low pay aside, I was deeply exhausted by the command to give, to nurture, to shape the students who seemed to share a cynical, pragmatic understanding of education as merely a pathway to a paycheck, and my writing class, a hurdle in their aims. I resented that the courses that should have been taught by faculty were offloaded onto me in classes I taught by myself, but with the title of “TA.” How soon TA positions would be cut to balance out our “pay hike,” limiting avenues graduate students had for pay on campus. How my prospects after this were just the continuation of this inequity as an adjunct. I disliked the little instruction I received as a student, how little time I had for the education I felt others took for granted. I was chilled by the cavalier attitude, the gossip about my condition I heard tell of. I was annoyed that I had thought my tiny corner apartment a boon. I hated my doctors, who still had no final answers for me, and never would. My healthcare, and thus, my wellness, was predicated on my ability to work. If one fell apart, the other would. Who would want to work under such conditions?
Other beings, such as assistance dogs and companion animals, are caught up in this neoliberal dragnet. ‘Pets’ tend to be relegated a similar (but still lesser) status afforded unpaid women carers, with the care work that they do ignored and/or assumed to be natural or instinctual. In contrast, service dogs may be attributed more value, given it costs an estimated [$15,000-30,000 USD] to train a guide dog and that the market for service dogs is growing.
…Similar to paid human caregivers, they are often expected to be self-sacrificing, if not self-abnegating…
Fraser, Taylor, and Morley
The Happy ending of this story is that Happy doesn’t work for me, not officially, and she seems to love that. That Silvy returned to graduate housing a year and a day later, and found her own place in a mutually comforting relationship. That last week I heard of how she played with the Shibas. That Charly, sensing that my periods have become more painful, has begun to dote on me, even alerting me when my period is about to start, making me second-guess the entire premise of this essay. Happy’s shirking of her service animal duties could be blamed on me. I could have trained her more, been stricter in curbing her activities and limiting her life and concerns to me, and me alone. I could have broken her puckish spirit. I could have done it if I wanted it more, if I were richer or stronger — I would have done it if I needed her more. But her foibles, and her dislikes overwhelm my executive function. I find it so compelling, her wants, the ways she marks her territory in the apartment under beds and chairs, how she has love for everyone, but in different measures.
Happy is her own Happy, she has carved a life out for herself. How I admire her for her spunk and self-determination. How I am still regulated by her presence. How if I have a dog, she has a human, in Haraway’s words. How if I need Happy to serve me, I am also to serve Happy. How all three beings in my house comprise my caregiving team; how I am essential to their lives too. How lucky I am for that. How just last week, when the pandemic boy had COVID — what a pandemic boy he is — Happy pressed her body on him, and took care of him too.
How I just want to go and kiss her right now.
How it is Happy’s nature to care, but that does not have to be her whole destiny.
Dickinson, Emily. Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. 25 April 1862.
Fraser, Heather, Taylor, Nik, and Morley, Christine. “Critical social work and cross-species care.” Critical Ethics of Care in Social Work (2017)
Haraway, Donna J. The companion species manifesto: Dogs, people, and significant otherness. (2003)
Ha, Andrew. “HDH Dramatically Increases Graduate Housing Costs.” The UCSD Guardian. 5 April 2021.
Malamud, Randy. "Service Animals: Serve us animals: Serve us, animals." Social Alternatives 32.4 (2013)
Nast, Heidi J. "Critical pet studies?" Antipode 38.5 (2006)
Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. (2017)