The Writing Disorder


melanie henderson


New Nonfiction


by Melanie L. Henderson

                                  Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid
                                    and durable happiness there is in our lives. —C.S. Lewis

      What I really wanted was a lion, but I wasn’t unreasonable. I was willing to start small.
      Even when I was shorter than a yardstick, I was happiest with some small, beating heart to care for. On picnics and camping trips I’d gather a nursery of ladybugs or find a puddle of tadpoles to tend. But live creatures weren’t always available, so I was committed to caring for my personal zoo of stuffed animals, a diverse group I arranged around myself in bed at night—every last bear, hedgehog and duck—so no one would feel left out. Nested down with my animal family, we could all sleep well.
      There were also two actual, living cats in the house, but my attempts to include them in my Benetton-of-the-animal-kingdom bed routinely failed. Knowing that cats didn’t respond well to forcible containment didn’t stop me from trying. The unlucky feline I’d dragged under the covers to squeeze against my chest would wait, taut and alert, for the slightest reduction in hug-pressure—then spring away as if I’d delayed the pursuit of a gazelle. I didn’t blame the cats; they were grown-ups and probably didn’t get scared at night. Or maybe they couldn’t get any sleep surrounded by an almost complete depiction of the food chain, brightly rendered in plush.
      The cats were pleasant and pretty, and like other cats before and since, these ones found us—so I never understood why people bought kittens from a pet store. In my experience, cats were free and readily available. The eagerness of cats to impose their presence was a gesture I took as a great compliment, but my parents took feline impositions somewhat differently. To me, a cat arriving on the doorstep was a gentle visitor who hoped only to share a meal with a kind face. To Mom and Dad, a cat arriving on the doorstep would probably drop a litter of illegitimate kittens in that one, odd, humanly inaccessible nook behind the garage cabinets. Again.
       I lavished affection on our cats, unselfconsciously aware that while I adored them, they tolerated me. I suspected that if cats could talk, they probably wouldn’t. Cats communicate so effectively with so little exertion; how many times had I thoughtlessly barged into a room (already claimed by a cat) and inadvertently disturbed him? He’d stop licking something just long enough to register distaste for the intrusion and to deliver a look that says, You again?
      The harder I tried to envelop the cats with maternal doting, the more they avoided me—but their indifference didn’t stifle my affection. I didn’t want to give up. I hadn’t figured out yet if I was failing to make my true devotion clear, or failing to earn their affection in kind. It didn’t occur to me that cats may not share all of my needs.

                                                As every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat.
                                                                        —Ellen Perry Berkeley

      House cats were nice, but patently unoriginal. Everybody had cats. Some people even had cats without knowing they had cats. But I had dreams of one day raising my own lion cub, and I blame my first-grade teacher: she read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to our enraptured class. When the book ended and we had to exit the land of Narnia, I was so upset that I startled myself. I had been drawing pictures of Aslan in Narnia, pictures of Aslan as a baby, pictures of other lions and lionesses, and even sketching the bunk bed where my own lion would one day sleep beneath me. I rallied some classmates and led the charge to persuade our teacher to read the book to us again—Please-please-pleaaase, Miss Taylor?—Miss Taylor did. God bless Miss Taylors everywhere.
      In the meantime, I knew I needed to practice being a pet owner. I learned all I could about cats and thought I’d like to be a veterinarian when I grow up. By the third grade I was certain I was ready for a new animal stewardship, but the trick was convincing my parents and I had my work cut out for me there: I was a born animal lover with a mother and a father who both denied responsibility for the trait. Dad grew up on a farm and believed humans and beasts should only share living space as a last resort—when your four-legged food would otherwise freeze to death. Mom grew up in a large European city and attended private school; she could appreciate “elegant” animals, like horses and jaguars (and some housecats—as long as they were pretty and thus aesthetically self-justifying). And then there was me: a child who wept the tears of a widow to see a squirrel flattened on the highway.
      Dad always described me as bright, energetic, and a joy. That said, I’m told I could also be a bright, energetic, intense, demanding kid. Whatever. At one point, under the heady influence of Beverly Cleary, I somehow persuaded my parents to let me have two white mice. (Dad didn’t understand why he was buying mice from a pet store; in his experience, mice were free and readily available.) Dad didn’t leave the store until he had confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that both mice were female—and thus incapable of spawning—as long as neither escaped to find a rogue rodent boyfriend.
      One of the mice had two brown spots on her back, so I named her “Cookies.” Naturally, then, the albino one would be “Cream.” My resourceful big brother helped me make a sophisticated tunnel maze for the mice out of empty toilet paper tubes and masking tape. This was intended to entertain the mice, but it really entertained us. We’d lay the maze on the floor and put each mouse into one of several tunnel entrances, then listen intently to their tiny scurrying claws against the brown paperboard to try to guess where each mouse would emerge. Occasionally, a mouse boycotted the event and refused to run through the tunnels, just parking herself somewhere inside the darkened expanse of the maze. The only way to get her out was to shake her loose—a maneuver that invariably peppered the brown, camouflage-like carpet with mouse turds (which alarms me now and would have horrified Mom at the time, so we thoughtfully protected her from this information). Eventually, given enough shaking and spinning, the mouse was ejected from the maze—which I imagined was a lot like getting shot out of a cannon. I hoped she loved it, but I felt guilty for not providing a helmet.
      But the foremost achievement of my mouse-keeping career is how I successfully trained them—so I believed and so I professed—to stay on top of my dresser when I let them out of their cage to play. After hours of catching falling mice and returning them to the dresser top, they actually seemed to recognize and avoid the edge. I never contemplated the possibility that raising free-range mice in my bedroom might be ill-advised. Dad feared that Cookies and Cream would escape in search of illicit sex, but those fears proved unfounded. Instead, my delusions of being the Mouse Whisperer ended abruptly and tragically, because—well, we had cats.
      After indulging a nine year-old rage (what kind of cat just takes a mouse who is minding her own business from a little girl’s bedroom?), I calmed down enough to confront the cat, who naturally denied all wrongdoing. From that day on, he pretended to relish my neglect.
      I observed a brief mourning period, followed by a not-so-brief period of staggering self-doubt. This was undeniable evidence of colossally misguided caretaking on my part. Maybe I wasn’t the sort of person who should be trusted with cats—or mice. Or even ladybugs or tadpoles. But my dad explained that the cat was just doing what cats do, which I understood to mean, “ . . . So when the time comes for you to have your own lion, it would be best to not have mice at the same time.” My longing to be the caretaker of a lion cub returned with fresh vigor.
      I still nested down at bedtime with my plush menagerie, and I (sometimes) still tried to snuggle with resistant (lying, criminal, sadistic) cats. But I only got truly excited about the future when I had dreamed about my lion so long and so hard that I was bold enough to say it out loud: It was time to turn my wish for lion cub ownership into a serious quest.

      I was in the fourth grade, but I knew convincing my parents would require some preliminary research. My mother raised us not to settle for ignorance. You’re surrounded by books. You want to know something? Go find out. So I did. I hunted down everything I could find about humans raising lion cubs—and also tiger and bear cubs—from infancy. In case a lion cub was even harder to get than I feared, I it was smart to have a plan B and C.
      I read every book I could find on wild animals in my elementary school library and saved my money to build my personal library from the book order flyers they sent home from school—titles like The Gentle Jungle and Born Free. My bedroom was wallpapered with animal posters, wild and domestic. I watched Grizzly Adams and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom every week. I was actively, conscientiously fortifying my knowledge base, just like I’d been taught. It was important to have all the facts before I brought home a cute little fur ball that would become a muscled, 600-pound predator.
      I shared what I was learning with my parents. Their heads bobbed above their dinner plates with polite interest to hear that a lioness gives birth to up to four cubs at one time though a litter of two is most common. But whenever I tried to direct the discussion to specifics (there is an animal trainer in California that I saw on TV who has a lioness that just had cubs—can we call him?), Mom or Dad would hijack the conversation with peripheral concerns, like wondering if there is a city ordinance that says you can’t have a pet carnivore the size of a sofa if you live within a mile of an elementary school.
      But I was tenacious. Dad was a born teacher who planned to burst my bubble gently. His strategy was to offer questions to inspire my own deductive reasoning, certain that I’d conclude on my own that raising a baby lion was impractical. Have you ever seen this done? I mean, here, in our town? I admitted I hadn’t. Nobody I knew was that interesting. Then I asked if he wanted me to limit my goals in life to just those things I had seen others do. He was briefly speechless. Maybe even a little proud.
      But Dad was tenacious, too. Lions are hunters, honey. Does it worry you that they’ve been known to kill people? I presented hard data illustrating that it is possible for giant cats to cohabit peaceably with humans, if raised correctly from infancy. (An assertion hotly contested by most experts, but I dismissed all faithless critics—regardless of credentials.) Wouldn’t a lion be expensive to feed? I knew this was a legitimate point, so I was already saving my money, and I’d found out that lions raised in captivity don’t have to eat nearly as much zebra or wildebeests as they do on the savannah. So that’s good news.
      Dad was undaunted. How would a lion living in a house get all the exercise he needs? I was glad he asked: I would ride my lion to school every day—maybe even taking the long way, just for fun—after which my lion would walk straight back home. Because, of course, that is what I will have trained him to do. I had perfect confidence in my ability to train wild animals. Previous misadventures of the Mouse Whisperer notwithstanding.
      Dad’s approach, while admirably Socratic, was ineffective because it always left me with a scrap of hope. His questions were simply obstacles an astute teacher was challenging me to overcome, and I was knocking every pitch out of the park.
      Conversely, Mom was a born anti-sugar-coater. Her strategy was to smother hope before the seed ever germinated. When I told her I wanted to raise a lion cub, her exact, un-minced words were, “Don’t be ridiculous.” She often reminded me that when I’m the mom, I can have all the lions and monkeys and baboons I want in my own house. And I silently rolled my eyes, because—hellooo—who would put carnivores and primates under the same roof? (It had escaped my bright, energetic awareness that I, of course, am also a primate.)
      It was hard not to get discouraged when my constant appeals went unheeded, no matter how aggressive. Almost daily, Dad would chuckle politely and wave me off, saying he needs a few minutes to decompress after work. The brush-off was disconcerting, but the chuckle was insulting. I was dead serious. It’s not like I thought I would die if I didn’t get a unicorn with pink ribbons in its mane. In my case, chuckling was unaccountably rude.
      I had to face the facts: I had made zero progress in my pursuit of a lion cub. It was time to re-evaluate my strategy. I identified and grudgingly admitted my rookie mistake: my primary target was just too ambitious. (What was I thinking? My parents would never agree to drive all the way to California just to pick up a pet!) I cursed my wasted time. What I needed to do was close the gap between a housecat and a lion with some intermediate steps. I needed a pet that was natural to our locale, something manageable and low-profile—something that didn’t raise questions about city ordinances. And I desperately wanted my next adventure in pet ownership to succeed. I wanted proof that I was not, deep down, an inadvertent animal-killer by way of mismanagement.
      After careful consideration, I embraced the first step in a multi-year protocol for getting a lion cub: I would pursue a dog. My research commenced at once.

                     If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you.
                       This is the principal difference between a dog and a man. —Mark Twain

      At the library, I checked out a fat, authoritative volume on dogs. I loved the syrupy introduction touting the near-sainthood of the canine, applauding the noble species’ unconditional love and loyalty. The book contained a pictorial directory of all the recognized breeds with a detailed description of size, proportion, substance, ideal physical characteristics, temperament, life expectancy, and need for exercise and companionship. It also indicated the country of origin—where the breed had “emerged.”
      I was awe-struck. To my nine year-old sensibilities, the magnificent “emergence” of wondrous dog varieties was miraculous—like the emergence of butterflies—except with dogs, it was even more astonishing: no stray mongrel puppy ever curled into a cocoon and emerged weeks later as a vibrant golden retriever.
      I had formulated my own theory, and I believed it was sound: I had seen a mother dog who had puppies that didn’t look like her at all; in fact, the puppies in her litter barely even looked like each other. It stood to reason that once in a magical while, a very special new dog would arrive amid a litter of ordinary puppies. If providence was smiling, somebody who was smart and qualified—a specially certified dog-ologist—would be present to witness the birth, examine the exceptional puppy, and declare to the world: Huzzah! A new breed has emerged!
      One evening during my season of dog research, my dad noticed there was some sort of documentary on TV that had something to do with dogs. Maybe I’d enjoy it, he said. I readied my pencil and a notebook and parked in front of the TV, innocent of the fact that my notion of the beauty of spontaneous dog breed emergence was about to be blown into disturbing little fragments. (I should mention that my shock was not due to ignorance of the basic birds and bees; my mother’s supreme value was education, her favorite setting was “matter-of-fact,” and her pet peeve was “silly hang-ups.” Hence, when she says that at age four, I told my pediatrician how his reproductive anatomy differs from my own, I have to believe her. This may be the line where “precocious” crosses into “yikes,” but let’s return to the documentary.)
      In simplest terms, the documentary told the story of how a particular breed of dog—I don’t recall which—originated overseas in the laboratory of a certain down-on-his-luck dog-ologist, a man with a name I couldn’t pronounce, and when he brought the breed to the United States, he enjoyed a brief season of celebrity in the American dog world. The end.
      However, the way I experienced the documentary was something entirely different. My education that night plays in my memory more like this:
      Sometime after World War II, a disenfranchised former military surgeon from an Eastern Bloc country took up shop with his exiled assistant, a former nuclear physicist (whose name documentarians agreed to conceal) in a muddy, goat-herding border village, where they labored for decades to roll the dice just right in a twisted game of genetic Yahtzee. Tirelessly mating various existing breeds, they kept at their sordid game of mix-n-match in pursuit of combinations that yielded offspring that not only survived but were free of major heart, neurological, and musculoskeletal defects, were aesthetically pleasing, had a temperament conducive to human companionship—and most of all, could viably reproduce puppies of approximately the same physical health and mental capacity for at least three generations. As long as a dog wasn’t born missing his kidneys or his frontal cortex, these creeps in their dirty lab coats were in the gold zone. They went to America, got rich, yada yada. The end.
      I was horrified. Aghast didn’t begin to cover it.
      My giant book of dogs lost all its charm and the magnificent African cat looked all the more wholesome: creatures not easily manipulated by the machinations of greedy humans deserved respect. I looked at a picture of two frolicking, fox-faced Pomeranians and wondered, What did you guys used to be, before people like that messed with your family? I studied a glossy Irish setter and was comforted to think he looked less “invented.” Maybe his family had been around for a long time already. When I came to a picture of a smiling veterinarian in a white lab coat, I snorted and snapped the page over. Wipe that smirk off your face, Mister. Dog-ologists can’t be trusted.
      I became a self-appointed, indignant, canine-ethics cop. Suddenly, everywhere I looked, suspicious-looking people were lording over dogs. On the way to school, I was sure the number of paunchy, retired men walking fluffy dogs they obviously didn’t choose themselves had doubled, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I noticed more Labradors confined to the backs of pickup trucks and more Malteses pleading for their release from Lincoln Town Cars. There were more fashionistas exploiting Chihuahuas and Yorkies in their Chanel bags and more boxers jogging alongside suspiciously muscled masters than I’d ever seen before.
      I paid abnormally close attention, but soon, I had to stop. I had to admit it: with a couple rare and explainable exceptions, almost no dog exhibited any discernible sign of depression. No dog was bent by the dark, sober aura that marks a survivor of an oppressive regime; no dog groaned beneath the twisted burden of the muddy border village’s legacy. In fact, almost every dog—regardless of breed—was inexplicably happy. Maybe as long as a dog was fed, loved, and got to ride in a car once in a while, he didn’t care where he came from. I was denied my justification for being repulsed at how dogs got here.
      But the good news was that I could in good conscience start dog shopping again. I embraced it.
      I admired the pair of glossy, black Scottish terriers that passed the house on their red leashes every morning. I loved to pet the neighbor’s dachshund; its fawn-colored coat was so short and soft it was like petting a baby deer. I was smitten by how consistently my teacher’s golden retriever acted like it was Christmas morning, every single time the woman stepped into view. I wanted a dog to do that, to be in love with me. I fell in love with so many different kinds and sizes and colors of dogs that I decided it might not matter what I ended up with. This, as things turned out, would be a good thing.
      I was relentless in my pursuit of dog ownership until my parents caved—which was, fortuitously, just in time for my eleventh birthday. I was allowed to adopt a three year-old, pedigreed, overweight, male toy poodle. He became available when a friend’s grandmother found out her new condo organization didn’t allow poodles. It’s possible that Dad was persuaded partly by the dog’s obesity and the attendant likelihood of a heart condition; a pet might be more attractive if its days were numbered. But the greater appeal, I’m sure, was getting the dog for free.
       His name was Taco, and I was ecstatic. He was much smaller than a lion, of course. To a lion, a poodle is popcorn. But my dream was coming true: a poodle today, maybe a lion cub tomorrow. In home video shot on my 11th birthday, I’m joyfully cuddling an unkempt, moppish creature, unsanitarily close to a birthday cake. I was beaming as if I’d given birth to him myself.

                                    My little dog—a heartbeat at my feet. —Edith Wharton

      Taco came with a few quirks: spoiled by his first owner’s cooking, he turned his nose up at actual dog food. When he lifted a leg to mark a tree, he’d lift and point both rear feet high, walking in a graceful handstand worthy of the Cirque du Soleil. But his most memorable quality was his most troublesome one: Taco had the unmitigated libido of a dozen randy sailors. (Today, I confess to some shameless hyperbole on this point. In truth, it was more like a half dozen.)
      Nobody escaped Taco’s affections entirely, but he had a particular affinity for one special person—a shy and excruciatingly proper man who had visited our home faithfully once a month as a visitor from church. Taco must have known he’d see his crush only rarely, because he always gave this gentleman his most earnest attention.
      I remember the strain in my father’s voice as he called for me to “get the dog out of here, please . . . quickly . . . please . . .” as I rushed to extricate Taco’s trembling, iron grip from a woolen pant leg and isolate him behind a closed door—denying his sexual freedom. This “rush-extricate-isolate” process would recur when a younger child unwittingly opened the door and unwittingly released the hound, who would run full-bore again for the object of his affections.
      The visitor never stayed long. He’d deliver a brief message, bestow a plate of brownies or lemon bars, and head for the door. We’d thank him and apologize for the dog, say our goodbyes, and apologize for the dog again. After the door closed, we’d try to put the whole debacle out of our minds by relaxing with a treat and a glass of milk in the kitchen. The dog relaxed on the patio with a cigarette.
      It was only a matter of time before Dad had had enough of the canine libertine. He made a call to the nearby university’s animal sciences program and offered up the dog to be neutered in student practice. (The greater appeal, I suspect, was getting the dog neutered for free.) I wasn’t eager for Taco to go under the knife, but I couldn’t deny the need. The amorous madness had to stop. On a rainy autumn day, Taco the Wonder Stud became Taco the Poodle Eunuch.
      It was heartbreaking to watch a decommissioned lothario struggle with anatomical confusion. For at least a month, all of Taco’s licking activity was broken up by long, pensive pauses, some ear scratching, then a return to lick-pause-lick. After passing through a brief depression, it was clear that although the testosterone was gone, most of the raw aggression remained. Taco would muster all his ferocity to try to chase off anyone but me, with or without just cause, including my harmless little sisters. A misguided attempt to recapture his stolen poodle manhood, perhaps. His selective decency was ungentlemanly, and I wasn’t proud of that. But as my devoted little buddy, he lived up to all the syrupy hype about a dog’s unconditional love and loyalty. He terrified the neighbor boy who liked to tease me, he acted like it was Christmas every time I came home from school, he slept on my bed (and in my bed), and when I cuddled him, he snuggled me back. I loved the crazy little beast and he loved me. This, I congratulated myself, was pet ownership success.
      I never got to raise my lion cub, but I never stopped wanting to. When I had to give an oral report on a non-fiction book of my choice in seventh grade, I chose Born Free, the story of Joy and George Adamson, game wardens in Kenya in the '50s who raised an orphaned lioness cub they named Elsa. (The pictures were the best part. An image search of “Elsa the lioness” will leave anyone smitten.) My hands shook as I stood in front of my English class, but I soldiered through the summary, cautiously pleased that my voice wasn’t betraying my nerves. Yet. When I told about Joy and George returning Elsa to the wild, my composure collapsed. I hated that part of the book; it killed me to imagine climbing back into the jeep and driving away. But as I pushed back my embarrassed tears and finished my report, I caught a glimpse—just a wink—of understanding that part. It was much, much harder and braver to love Elsa the way she needed to be loved. They gave Elsa what she needed, not what they wanted her to need.
      As for my own relationship success with a socially maladjusted poodle, it really is pure happiness when all your love and affection come back to you as naturally as breathing in and out—even if that love is just from a pet. But the chance that I could get affection back from my pets wasn’t the reason I loved them. The ladybugs were beautiful and fascinating; I loved them just to love them. And children, at least for a while, are loyal to the mission of loving, even when there is nothing to gain by it. Maybe joyful surrender to that purpose is what victory really feels like.
      I never did win the housecats over completely. Being rejected by an animal is disappointing, but it doesn’t have the power to batter and drain the heart. Animals probably taught me some resilience before life delivered the kinds of things that do batter and drain. Even being denied my beloved lion probably helped. The most dangerous thing in the world is not something wild, like a lion. It is the fear that stretches like an invisible wire between two people, sensitive to every vibration—even the whisper of air that draws back when an almost-gesture of affection is reconsidered and withheld. No lion can tear a person up like that invisible wire. It’s harder and braver, but even acts of fear can be reversed and turned into festivals of resilience. Maybe I learned that in Narnia.
      What I really want is to love like a lion. But I’m not unreasonable. I’m willing to start small.

Melanie L. Henderson stubbornly avoids narrowing her creative focus, opting to write in every direction she loves: Creative non-fiction is a delight, she is working on a fictional memoir project for her creative writing Master’s thesis, she is presently co-writer on two different film projects (the one for a cable network begins shooting August 2012), and she is finishing a children’s book specifically commissioned to feature in the cable film.

Henderson lives in Utah with her husband Dave, her three sons, dozens of fish, and one small, socially maladjusted dog.

She is still hopeful that the cat will come back.

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