Friday, February 12, 2010

Tears At The Counter

She was older than I and taller. Her hair was perfect and cropped short and stroked with silver as if from an ancient Chinaman's ink brush. She wore sweats--nicer ones. Her carriage was confident and edgy, as if she were set for a fight.

I was in Florida on vacation. At the supermarket the day before, a similarly confident woman dressed down the seafood counter clerk for the way he cut their swordfish. I was next in line.

“I’m from Connecticut,” she said to me. “They know how to cut their fish.”

I’m from Michigan, I thought. This is the only way I’ve seen swordfish cut.

“And I can’t believe you charge for your lemons,” she said to him and looked at me for approval.

“They’re free at Rhodes,” she said to me.

I snuck a wink to the clerk. “But the prices are higher there.”

The humble man simply thanked her for the observation and wrapped her purchase.

Now this woman at the vet threw back her shoulders and lifted her chin.

"What kind of dog is that?” she asked the clerk, pointing to the fluff of fur on my lap.

“Havanese,” the young girl said. “Isn’t she sweet?”

“She’s quite large for a Havanese,” the woman said and my eyes narrowed because the tone she used was sharp--just like the seafood customer’s--and I hoped I wasn’t going to witness another dressing down of a helpless sales clerk.

Because my Phoebe was actually small for her breed I looked at the woman a second time hoping for more reasons to dislike her. Her pants were the kind yoga students wear to the Y, not nice health clubs. And she was heavier than me. Huh, I thought.

The vet appeared from behind the counter and the phrases, “parvo,” “eleven weeks,” “kennel,” and “I’m so sorry,” pricked my ears. Huh, I thought.

The woman glanced over my head to a quietly distinguished man, maybe five years older, sitting in the corner holding a stack of printouts and an American Express card on his lap. She walked over to him and they passed these glances back and forth--glances of resignation and sadness. Then she handed him yet another printout.

“This is all about parvo,” she said. “In case we want to read it.”

Another series of silent glances.

“You need to go pay,” she said. “It's $800."

He walked to the counter and she turned to my dog.

“She’s very large for a Havanese.”

Still annoyed I said, “Actually she’s not.”

Discomfort passed between us. I didn't feel like being nice to her. Besides, I sensed asking about her dog would be even more awkward so I looked down at my Phoebe and scratched her ears.

“We had a cockapoo,” she said after a moment. “They just put her down.”

It was true.

That’s when I noticed that her fingers worked the handle of her purse clutched to her chest. Then I saw her eyes fill and suddenly this stranger and I were soul mates in the gentle cosmos of those who love our animals.

“How old?” I said.

“Eleven weeks.”

I thought about the puppy I'd lost a few years back. I'm a breeder and he was two days old. Cleft palate. Congenital, not contagious.

“I’m so very sorry,” I said.

Could she tell I was as sorry about my first impressions of her as I was about her loss?

“Thank you,” she said and I hugged Phoebe.

What did it matter if someone thought she was too big or too small?

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