By Megha Nayar -
I drive Vaana to the animal shelter because she has been hankering for a dog. She doesn’t seem too happy en route. Why can’t we buy one of our choice from the breeder, she asks. It isn’t very nice to buy a living being, I say.
She goes quiet after that. Her face is downcast. She stares resolutely out the window, unwilling to expose her disappointment for my viewing pleasure.
The shelter owner is delighted to see us. She takes us to meet her fur babies. There are all kinds: small and big, pedigreed and local, baby paws and greying snoots. Some in fine shape, some sickly and bent. Each of them a flesh-and-blood creation of God, each in need of a loving home. Adopt, don’t shop, exhorts a poster outside one of the cages. Don’t buy, breeders make bitches cry, says another. My heart, usually quite stoic, is a puddle right now. I blink furiously to bat away the oncoming tears.
A small black mongrel takes a shine to us. He sees us and promptly toddles over, his tail wagging like a windscreen wiper. I coo at him, and in response, he thrusts his little face between my knees, as if asking to belong with me. I scratch his little head and caress his ears. He responds with a wide smile, wider than any I have seen on a dog. The shelter lady is astonished. This is Oreo, she says. He is notoriously introverted. He’s never been known to mingle with strangers. He must have felt some sort of connection with you, otherwise he would have slunk away as always.
For me, the decision is made. Oreo has made the decision for me. There isn’t much to deliberate here, because he has everything going for him. He is healthy, with no disabilities. At just six months old, he has his whole life ahead of him. The only reason he hasn’t been homed yet, the lady says, is that he resolutely avoids human contact – which, miraculously, does not seem to be a problem in our case.
I turn to Vaana. Should we take him home, I smile.
She frowns. Her gaze shifts from me to the shelter lady and then back at me. I can tell that she has something to say but it is stuck in the back of her tongue.
Can you excuse us for a moment, I say to the lady, and take Vaana aside.
What is the matter, I ask.
She hesitates. Cracks her fingers nervously. Looks all around before returning to meet my eyes. Oreo is great, she says finally, but I’m not too happy with the colour of his fur. Can’t we check out some more options before we finalize him?
At first, her request makes no sense to me. Why would the colour of his coat matter? Oreo is a shiny, glossy black. But even if he weren’t – even if he were pink or green or purple – how would that change anything?
I stare confusedly at her, entangled in her words, not recognizing the sentiments behind them.
A little distance from us, another couple is waiting outside one of the cages. They seem to have selected their pet already; a worker is fetching her for them. A tiny, doe-eyed Chihuahua with a limp. She is brought out and placed in the arms of the man. His partner, squealing with excitement, pulls out her phone and positions it for a picture. She then leans into the man and places her other hand gently on the dog’s head, going in for a family selfie.
That is when it dawns on me.
Are you concerned that Oreo isn’t photogenic, I blurt out at Vaana. It sounds like an accusation, which is never a good strategy while dealing with her, but I couldn’t have helped it. It is a likely explanation. Like most people of our generation, my girlfriend is obsessed with taking photos. Is she in two minds about adopting this dog now because he might appear as an undefined black blob in pictures?
She responds to my question with an indignant stare, her eyes bulging like the Chihuahua’s. She opens her mouth to say something, then changes her mind. She shakes her head instead, scornfully, as if I’m being ridiculous and an idiot, and looks away. A whole minute passes where I’m still waiting for her answer, while she is unwilling to let the words slip, and the shelter lady is watching us uncomfortably from behind, wondering perhaps if we’re one of those couples who like to communicate in angry silences.
I’m just saying, she replies finally, that if I’m not getting to pick a breed or shape of my choice, I should at least be allowed to select the colour. It’s only fair.
And then, like a customer rejecting both the product and the salesman, she turns around and walks away, leaving me to make what I can of her half-stated, half-withheld euphemism.
Fifteen years later, when I’m lowering Oreo into the backyard of my house – a house that I have shared with no one but him – I am reminded of that day when I almost let him go, because a woman I dearly loved thought he wasn’t the right shade. I reminisce, now, about the happy adventures my dog-pal and I have had over the past decade and a half, and I think about the piercing pall of loneliness that is set to descend upon the rest of my life, and the dam of my heart breaks, overflows. I return my Oreo to the elements, say a little prayer for him to cross the rainbow bridge safely, and then, no longer having someone to cuddle by the fireplace with, I spend the rest of the evening sitting at his grave, under the cold moon, a bottle of Scotch by my side, grateful yet sobbing.
Megha Nayar is a communications consultant and fiction writer from India. She teaches English and French for a living, and writes stories to remain sane. She was long-listed for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020. One of her stories was showcased at India's prestigious Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2021. She is currently a mentee-in-training on the British Council's Write Beyond Borders programme. Her work has appeared in several lit mags, among them Trampset, Bending Genres, Rejection Letters, Out of Print, Gulmohur Quarterly, Bengaluru Review, Kalopsia Lit, Burnt Breakfast, Brown Sugar, The Sock Drawer, Deathcap, Ayaskala, Marias at Sampaguitas, Harpy Hybrid Review, Cauldron Anthology, Potato Soup Journal, Cape Mag, Interpret Mag, Postscript Mag and The Daily Drunk Mag. You can find her on Twitter @meghasnatter.