Non-fiction by Tristen Fagg
Just a month or so after my surgery, in 2017, I was living with Taneil and Sadie, my dog, just outside of Baltimore in Reisterstown, MD. I had recently broken my leg and had been struggling with nerve pain for months. I was watching Netflix to relax after a grueling day of heavy depression and emotional exhaustion plus schoolwork. Taneil ran into the kitchen and was intensely panting. She was holding my dog, Sadie, in her arms.
“Why are you holding Sadie? Is that blood? What happened to her, Taneil?” My hands were locked into fists, my eyes focused on the red dots marking Sadie’s fur.
Taneil explained that she’d been at the dog park in our townhouse complex when a husky started barking strangely, but the owner still let go of her collar and she ran up on Sadie and bit her on the ass. “I didn’t know what to do but get her away from the dog, so I grabbed her up by the harness and got the hell outta there. I’m so sorry! I didn’t know the husky was gonna get rough. I hope she’s okay—I don’t know what to do.”
“You didn’t even get the woman’s name? Oh, well. We can leave a note.” I took a deep breath and continued, “We need to call the animal hospital. Tell them we’re running over from the neighborhood right now. Can she wag her tail? Thank God. Okay, I’ve got to get my shoes on. Hurry up and call.”
If there was ever a time for a PTSD flashback it was now, in the middle of a scenario I knew all too well.
My best friend since high school, Katie, and I moved in together in Cedar City my third semester of college in 2010. We also invited my oldest sister Trudi to join us. We only paid $600 a month for the cutest, weirdest house on the block, no pet fees included. This was the first home I made for myself. Trudi had a hoard of “furniture with good bones” from being the kind of woman who wants a truck for the possibilities and yet still looks dreamily into the ring counter at Walmart. And Katie had Poncho and a determined work ethic.
Poncho was a two-year-old Shih Tzu, bright white with a couple of patches of the lightest cappuccino-colored cream. He had come all the way from Texas, with my best friend Katie, to live with me and my sister Trudi in southern Utah, the mountainous desert. With his tiny, eight-pound frame, Poncho was so small, he used to perch on Katie’s shoulder while she drove across the country. He also loved curling up by her feet during the long stretches of the drive when Katie relied on the cruise control setting. And he was always very communicative. His barks varied in tone and pitch depending on the situation. Even when the bark sounded the same to the untrained ear, a well-timed gruff from Poncho could change the I-need-to-go-outside bark to the Give-me-that-treat!-I-know-it’s-mine bark.
I started calling him Pup Pup and he was obsessed with squeaks. He followed me around the house whenever I wore a certain pair of sandals that made a squeaking sound with every step I took. If a toy squeaked, he reveled in the destruction of the thing, then he’d drop the plush or rubber toy like a bad habit as soon as the squeaker was broken or wheezing. He could be an absolute killer.
On a warm day in early October, we walked down the steps from the house, Poncho on his thin purple bedazzled leash, and me with my hair loose in the waning sun.
Poncho and I strolled at a leisurely pace up the street of the college town where I had lived for the past three years, moving from house to house in different neighborhoods that surrounded the 129-acre campus. Poncho’s curled, wispy tail stopped wagging and he lifted a dainty leg to pee on a discarded pack of cigarettes. We made our way around the block, and came upon the yard of a house known to be occupied by dingy basement dwellers—the kind of potheads who squint every time they open the door, their greasy hair lying flat and shiny on their foreheads, and who have random holes in almost everything they wear.
I saw a quick motion out of the corner of my eye and heard a dog barking aggressively as we walked by the waist-high chain link fence that surrounded the side and backyard of the house. This dog was a big, hairy-looking beast, more bear than canine, and I felt unnerved. His bark was threatening, and he shoved his front paws against the latched gate of the fence. I drew Poncho closer to me and we skittered along. Before we were halfway past the property, a man came out and shouted at the dog to shut up, going through the gate to get in the dog’s face. Poncho and I were almost past the next yard when the dog must have slipped past the man’s legs through the gate because the vicious animal scooped up Poncho in his jaws and shook, ripping the leash out of my hand.
All I could do was scream.
The man tackled his monstrous dog and pounded him with his fists until he released Poncho’s slim, white body. The man pushed his dog towards the yard and tried to apologize, but I don’t remember if I could even hear him. Poncho’s eyes were red. Bloody veins streaked and burst in bright clouds around his chocolatey irises. He looked at me and his tail wagged, shaking with convulsive tremors.
I could see the smears of blood soaking through his fur as he lay on the ground where he’d been dropped. I remember feeling like a hummingbird, shaking and flapping my hands helplessly, anxious to comfort him and terrified to cause him more pain in the same instant. I knelt down and tried to calm him with the tone of my voice as his body shuddered and the red spots grew. His eyes never left mine.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I have no idea what came over him!” the man panted.
“He’s new and we haven’t seen him act like this before,” a woman said.
“Can someone get him a towel or blanket? I live four houses up, but I can’t leave him.”
“If there’s anything else you need—” she got me the towel.
“A ride to the animal hospital?” I used the towel to swaddle him, knowing that pressure would help stop the bleeding. I kept eye contact with him—watching to make sure his eyes didn’t glaze over. I cried on his head, my tears wetting his ears as the woman drove.
I called Katie from the back seat and left her a voicemail. I knew she’d recognize an emergency while at her desk at work. I texted her three exclamation marks. I called the animal hospital’s emergency line from the road and agreed to pay the after-hours fee. Whatever I had to save this dog—I didn’t care how much it was going to cost, even though I didn’t have much. He wasn’t even mine, but I would’ve done anything to save him.
The vet took him back as soon as I arrived, and the technician gave me some forms and sat with me for just a moment. Katie soon arrived (it only took 15 minutes to get from one side of the city to the other) and took over the forms while I distracted myself with reading every poster and brochure in the office.
Another dog had been injured in a hit-and-run accident and both Katie and the person who brought in the injured retriever split the cost of the after-hours fee. For no logical reason, I regretted even agreeing to the charge before speaking to her and told her I’d pay it for her; she batted away my debit card and my profuse apologies.
A couple of days later, Katie and I drove to the animal hospital to visit Poncho. Katie’s insistent phone calls to local animal control had spurred immediate action. The dog/bear hybrid had broken Poncho’s spinal column, punctured one of his lungs, and left him alive but paralyzed from the middle of the spine to the tip of his tail. It had been removed from the neighborhood. I was the last person to ever see Poncho’s tail wisp up and wag. I saw it in my dreams right before the nightmares of blood and teeth, fear and helplessness started every night, saw it in my memory a thousand times a day. I could not be distracted from it.
As Katie pulled into the parking lot, I asked her, “Can you ever forgive me?”
She put the car in park. She sat quietly for a moment and then said, “How can you think this is your fault? You didn’t bite him. You didn’t invite that thing to attack Poncho.”
The stoic structure that had been struggling to hold up the weight of my despair shuddered. Her logic almost pierced me.
“You just took the dog for a walk, Tristen. That’s all.”
I swallowed. Without her accusations, without my own self-blame, I would completely fall apart. The self-hate feelings were oh so familiar. Feelings that dated back to the times I actually listened to what my father grunted as he beat me, before he apologized with a hug. Her forgiveness did not mean I was off the hook. I felt ashamed for being weak, for not acting fast enough (“What kind of soldier are you? The quick or the dead?”), for not being cautious enough to avoid that dog, that guy, that house, that street in the first place. The shame was becoming a thing with teeth that would turn on itself, and I couldn’t avoid anymore.
In the animal hospital, Poncho’s ears perked up as Katie and I turned the corner and he saw us from the small, raised kennel. He was wrapped up in a dingy pink towel, and there were bandages still binding his torso. He lifted himself up onto his front legs and whined a little, panting excitedly and doing a nervous two-step. Katie and I cried with relief to see that this tragedy had not broken his precious spirit even though it had decimated his body forever.
I shook my head of the memories and I shuffled around with my walker as fast as I could to find my shoes, grabbing a kitchen towel to hold to the holes in Sadie’s hip. There were three puncture wounds.
She just shivered and looked around anxiously. She was moving so much more than Poncho had. She must be better off, I thought. But she was licking her face and yawning repeatedly. She was worried, in pain, and I hoped she didn’t think she was in trouble because of our seriousness.
I sat in the wheelchair Taneil had bought for me and Sadie sat on my lap. Taneil pushed us out of the complex, around the first group of buildings attached to the parking lot, past the second group of buildings and around the corner of the third. We coasted the rest of the way to Advanced Veterinary Complex. The doctor met us in the lobby and ushered us into her exam room.
Adjusting over the next few weeks strained everyone in the house. Poncho’s recovery did not go smoothly, because it’s very hard to reason with a suffering puppy about why they shouldn’t move so much or wouldn’t it be better if they stayed in the basket with the pillow and why can’t they just stop whining and go to sleep? He was so stressed and irritated, as his medications ran out, that he bit at the hand of anyone who reached to lift him—except me. He never tried to bite me. I was the only person he trusted to hold him. I was the only one who could change the diapers he had to wear. For months I let his pain feel like my fault.
I couldn’t focus on classes. I dropped out of college and spent a semester writing terrible poetry about how anger and violence had raised me, about how fear had educated me to be hyper-aware of my surroundings and to avoid the pain of my memories at all cost.
I registered my name with the Psychological and Counseling Services office on campus. A kind-looking man with a round face and somber eyes confirmed what I had believed for nearly a year. I had PTSD because of the attack. It was causing some painful childhood memories of trauma and molestation to rise up and if I continued to deny myself a stress relief, I would be at risk for a mental breakdown. I sobbed in his office and accepted that I was more damaged than I knew.
During that time, life looked very different for me than it did for Katie. She loved on Poncho, trained him how to walk in a doggy wheelchair, got serious with her boyfriend and asked me to be the Maid of Honor at her wedding. By the time she was married, I was ready to fight for a future that did not mirror the pain of my past.
I sat in the exam room while the doctor shifted Sadie’s body around and measured how deep the muscle was damaged. “I can already tell it’s not too damaging. She already has hip issues, but her joints feel fine. Her muscle was punctured but no more than 3cm, so stitches wouldn’t be very useful. They’ll close right up on their own.”
Sadie was taken into the back and her wounds were cleaned. We waited by the counter while they filled the prescription for pain meds. Sadie cuddled up in Taneil’s arms while I sighed and kept my mind focused on breathing. At least she’s coming home tonight, I thought.
Just after ending my sabbatical from college, I was at work with my class of teenagers with special needs and disabilities when my coworker brought in a puppy she was touring around the city. She needed to give her away as her daughter had abandoned her after becoming mysteriously engaged in a foreign country. This woman breezed right over and dropped the little runt right on my desk before turning to speak with another teacher. I picked her up, it was definitely a “her,” and while my coworkers talked, my attention was fully captivated by this little innocent puppy.
She was only as big as my two hands cupped together. She had ruddy fur, with traces of a dark face that showed signs of a pug parent in the gene pool. There was a shadowed stripe down her back where her fur was standing on end. She looked up at me as I held her against my chest, and she grunted like a piglet when she licked the skin of my sternum with a surprisingly large tongue. She had met my careful awe with a powerful sense of security and trust, even though I had done nothing to earn it.
The students had all gravitated towards the wriggly little thing and wanted a turn holding her, but she seemed nervous whenever she was away from my chest. I suggested we leave the classroom and go into the larger recreational room where we watched films and played games on Fridays. Once I released her, the puppy sniffed the carpet the length of the longest wall, ran some laps around the beanbag chairs, and then some more around the foosball table. Then suddenly she was peeing in the corner near the TV stand. As the students broke into juvenile laughter, I went to grab some paper towels from the bathroom where I caught my reflection in the mirror.
Frozen, I looked into my own eyes and acknowledged the new softness that had grown in my heart after holding the soft little puppy, seeing her unfiltered joy as she ran, even her cute curly tail. I thought of how I had probably once been that happy as a child.
I realized I needed to do more of what Little Tristen wanted to do. I felt the reluctant letting go of pain and the exposed and vulnerable place that the memory of pain had been protecting. Hope.
I think I want that dog.
But what if I started loving her and she gets attacked?
What if she was killed?
What if I had to watch her get killed?
I forced my gaze away from my suddenly tear-streaked cheeks and made myself busy cleaning up after the puppy who had since been nibbling on the tender fingers of a student with Down syndrome while he giggled in a very uncharacteristic manner.
My therapist had said to trust more. He had said I shouldn’t be so afraid of the world, that I was stronger than I thought, and that there was never going to be a point of no return from feeling sad—that there could always be hope for a happier tomorrow.
In the moments that followed, I held this little pug and beagle mix rascal, she licked the web of my thumb, and I decided it was safe to fall in love with her.
But I was still scared. I told myself that I could change my mind if the reality of her didn’t fit into the hopeful healing I was stepping into.
It took a whole two weeks for me to settle on calling her Sadie May. I tried to ease myself into the relationship by claiming she was a house dog, but no one listened to me. She was mine and even if I was unsure, Poncho was completely sold on having a friend.
Whenever Sadie came into the room, Poncho would launch himself from the couch cushions and fly to the floor, his little limp legs and tail stained from trailing along the grimy hardwood floors. He would bounce around, popping up on his front legs and accidentally let loose a couple of uncontrolled poop kernels in excitement. Sadie would respond by roughhousing with him, pulling his tail in her teeth until he rolled around to avoid her mouth, and she’d even take his diaper off from around his hips.
That night after returning home from the vet, we discovered that Sadie was a determined red-laser dot hunter. She chased the light as if it was a tasty bug or a tricky squirrel. We both laughed and wiped away riotous tears.
At one point our laughter devolved into tears and I held Taneil and told her she did the right thing.
I knew that panic in her eyes. It left a tremor in my gut I’ll never fully shake. I let her cry on my shoulder, knowing that was what I had wanted when I blamed myself for Poncho’s attack.
Sadie became the greatest part of living. She became mine in stages so that I fully acclimated to the responsibility of her life. This was my first experience having a pet that was only mine and I had very high standards others couldn’t meet. Every decision I made would affect her somehow. I couldn’t leave in the morning until I had taken her for a long walk to ensure she pooped. I couldn’t focus on the lectures in classes unless she had been fed and was most likely sleeping in her bed while I was gone. I started hoarding coupons from pet stores and country feed stores. I bought in bulk, I haggled down the cost of her vaccinations, I even got a state grant to pay for her to be spayed. I had to really budget now that I was paying for vet bills and poop bags. And pretty soon, I couldn’t stay out for more than a few hours without thinking, I wish Sadie were here. I found myself looking forward to the routine and maturity of it all.
The same thing happened with my self-care. I worked harder and harder at recognizing when I was feeling fear and questioning it. I used new logic to understand why I pushed people away, why I was so afraid of disappointment, why I had been so attached to perfectionism. These issues are not related to my dog, but Sadie and my therapist may as well have been in cahoots together. Pretty soon I felt like a whole new future was open to me.
I enrolled in a fine arts program and moved across the country. Because of my budget, I was forced to leave Sadie with Trudi in Cedar City for a year. She got unbearably fat and I worried about her. Eventually, I got a call from good ol’ Taneil, my Irish twin. She’d paid for Sadie to be transported to me, using an app called U-Ship. A stranger heading to Baltimore from Utah agreed to have Sadie on board for the journey and Sadie arrived in Baltimore, MD, happily obese, and we’ve never parted since.
Sadie saved me, but she also helped me save myself. Because of her, I made different choices than I had before, especially the choice to shed my fear and put down my pain, and before Sadie, I hadn’t realized that that was my choice to make. Sadie made me trust again. She made me get over the powerful fear of loving an innocent, fragile creature, even one as fragile as myself.
Sadie yipped and sat up like a gopher, her tail actually quaking like an Aspen leaf, the miniscule pumping of a hummingbird’s wings. I took the laser in my hand and shined the light on the opposite wall, shouting, “There, Sadie! Get it!” The wounds forgotten as she raced and pounced, pivoted, stopped, and panted with her whole mouth making a huge, sloppy smile.
A published poet and freelance editor, Tristen Fagg received a MFA degree from the University of Baltimore in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts. Raised in Las Vegas, Tristen was educated at Southern Utah University in English and Sociology, and is the youngest of eleven children. As a modern Mormon feminist, and using a West coast cultural background, faith, and wit, they navigate social issues, current events, body politics, personal healing, and teaching writing and rhetoric. Tristen is the sole proprietor of Thicker Ink Press, an indie publishing company specializing in family histories, fatness, and queer culture.