Issue 203, Winter 2012
Before the dinner, my wife told me that her boss’s daughter was obsessed by dogs. Her parents were worried about it, more than worried. In fact, they had asked whether I might be able to help. I remarked that I had never heard that a love for animals constituted a pathology. My wife sighed and explained that the young woman, Eleonora, had a job teaching biology in a local school, but couldn’t be persuaded to leave home, claiming she needed all her extra money for her dogs.
“How many does she have?”
“Only two of her own. It seems she’s a dog savior. She drives all over Europe saving dogs.”
My wife had finally returned to work after many years as a housewife and mother. I was anxious that the job go well and that she be happy there. Our marriage had run out of steam many years ago, the last child was leaving home, and there was the prospect that we would be able to separate without too much trauma. A good job—she was PA to the director of a busy pharmaceutical concern—could only facilitate this, giving my wife something to rebuild her life around. Hence, when she said her boss had invited us to dinner, I agreed at once, hoping this indicated an investment on both sides in their new work relationship.
“I think he partly invited us so as to talk to you about her. He seemed very interested when I said you were a therapist.”
We had arrived at the house, an attractive villa on the hills to the north of town. The automatic gate swung open, a yellow light flashing above one of the posts.
“What do you mean, ‘saving dogs’?” I asked.
“It seems people alert her when they hear of a dog being mistreated, and she goes and rescues the creature and finds it a good home.”
“Sounds rather noble,” I said.
“Think if one of our kids were doing that,” my wife snapped back. “Be serious.” It was a while since we had spent an evening together.
Signor Fanna was a tall, bulky man, rather sloppy by Italian standards, but he greeted us energetically and with evident pleasure, rather as if he might be a big playful dog himself. Behind him, his wife leaned forward from a wheelchair; in her early sixties, she was dryly polite and wore an elegant green silk blouse. “Buona sera, Dr. Clarke,” she greeted me. I was struck by her lean wrists, braceleted in gold but evidently powerful as she spun her wheelchair around and led the way to the dining room.
We went through the usual social rigmaroles, drinking something white and sharp. I was pleased to see that Signor Fanna was on easy and respectful terms with my wife, and she, too, seemed to have the measure of him, coming across as both sociable and sensible. For a few moments they talked about work and the arrangements for a conference in Germany that he was to be attending the following week.
“At which point I shall be left alone with the mad dog woman,” his wife remarked coolly to me.
It seemed a curious thing to say for someone who must rely heavily on domestic help. Shouldn’t Signora Fanna be glad to have her daughter around? I noticed that they did have an elderly Asian maid doing the cooking. Wearing a simple black dress that may or may not have been a uniform, this small, quiet woman brought in a plate of mixed hors d’oeuvres and laid it on the glass table.
“I hear your daughter is something of an activist,” I smiled.
“A terrorist, Dr. Clarke.”
I laughed. “I see no bomb damage.”
“Because we clean up afterward.”
Swallowing a vol-au-vent, Signor Fanna turned toward us and sighed. “You’ve studied psychology, Dr. Clarke. Perhaps you could tell us what would induce a young woman to sacrifice everything to dogs. Is there anything we can do?”
It is one of the comedies of being a mental-health therapist that people imagine you have magical powers of divination.
“Evidently she likes her dogs more than the things she is supposedly giving up,” I said. “Why is it such a worry for you?”
“Honestly, she’s driving us crazy,” Signor Fanna began, but stopped. “You tell him, Elvira.”
The woman in the wheelchair, who must have been a beauty in her day, pursed her lips and frowned. “Five or six years ago, we were expecting Eleonora to marry and leave home. She had a nice boyfriend she’d been seeing for some time. They’d lived together on and off. A young lawyer. Then it fell through because he couldn’t put up with having dogs constantly lodged in his flat and even sleeping on his bed. It was sad—we’d actually become good friends with his parents, excellent people from Bologna. After the breakup, she started bringing the dogs here. Every weekend she’s off in the car, driving hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers, either to fetch dogs who’ve been abandoned or to take the strays she’s gathered to some new home. Every afternoon after school all she does is feed and walk the dogs, then get on the Internet to plan her next ‘raid.’ That’s what she calls them.”
“She was so smart at school,” Signor Fanna said. “Got an excellent degree in molecular biology from Milan. We had expected her to go into research. Instead, she settled for work as a replacement teacher on the local school circuit. Now she’s thirty-four and seems to have no plans beyond saving dogs.”
“Last week she brought back a three-legged, leprous creature from Bari or thereabouts. It cost a fortune just in petrol. Then there are veterinary expenses.”
“Not to mention problems with the law. If she sees a dog kept on a short chain, she simply steals it. Goes at night with a chain cutter. There’ve been two summonses. We had to put down bail.”
My wife said to me, “Think if one of ours started doing that kind of thing, Ted!”
I looked around. “There are no dogs in here,” I observed.
“Because we’ve insisted that this side of the house be kept dog-free.”
“But if we took you round the back, you’d need a gas mask. I’ve set up a firewall of air fresheners,” Signora Elvira explained with a pained smile.
I thought about it. “I must say, I rather like dogs. They’re always friendly. And hardwired for obedience.”
“We all like dogs,” both of them wailed rather louder than was necessary. “Everybody does, but not scores of them, and not dogs with sores and wounded paws and pus in their eyes.”
As I wondered what to say next, my wife shot me a glance to remind me that these were not any old friends, and certainly not my clients. People want a therapist’s advice for their nearest and dearest but are not eager to find their own assumptions under scrutiny. Fortunately, a tureen of smooth asparagus soup was served, and we sat at table to eat. A fifth place had been set, I noticed—at the head of the table, too—but no attempt had been made to call Eleonora. Perhaps the couple wanted the benefit of my advice before she arrived. Rather deliberately, I changed the subject to pharmaceuticals, and Signor Fanna, a jowly, expansive man, spoke happily of his work and the rather special situation, as he put it, in Italy, where the industry faced the combined problems of a certain level of anarchy, a lot of petty corruption, and of course the Church doing everything possible to hinder the distribution of all products connected with contraception.
Signora Elvira seemed bored and left half her soup in her bowl.
“I’ve been given special instructions for how to speak to right-to-life lobbyists,” my wife confirmed cheerfully.
Then Eleonora walked in, and the evening got interesting.
I had expected a loser, the dog craze covering up a young woman’s fear of starting her own life away from home. Or a polemical young woman playing committed radical to her parents’ bourgeois complacency; a do-gooder, a bore. Instead, Eleonora banged open the door and strode in smiling, apologizing for being late. “I never make it anywhere on time,” she laughed. She was wearing a gray wool dress on a shapely, freshly showered body of medium height, feminine but healthily solid, and if her face was on the plain side, it nevertheless had plenty of character and presence. “No, don’t get up,” she protested. “You must be Marta, and you’re the English husband.”
“Right, the shrink.”
Why had the girl been told that?
We talked for twenty minutes or so without any mention of dogs. The main dishes were brought by the discreet maid, who seemed to be from the Philippines or thereabouts, and I noticed that Eleonora’s plate did not have meat on it, though she made no attempt to draw attention to her vegetarianism. She was a confident, outgoing young woman happy to discuss the school she worked in and her attitude to her teacher’s role: “I try to give Papà a hand,” she laughed, “telling the girls to get on the pill and the boys to use condoms.”
Yet her parents were evidently unhappy with her. The mother in particular frowned constantly. Perhaps Signora Elvira was a devout Catholic, I reflected, and didn’t approve of these allusions to sex and contraception. Her husband had become cautious after his daughter’s arrival, as if picking his way through a minefield. I suspected he could have got on with her if the mother were not present. As it was, all his attentions seemed aimed at getting my wife and his to talk together, about recipes and clothes and shopping centers. Perhaps her PA’s responsibilities were to include keeping the boss’s invalid wife company while he was away.
“I hear you are a dog lover,” I said as the tiramisu was placed before us.
“That’s right,” Eleonora agreed amiably. She concentrated on spooning up the mascarpone.
There was an expectant silence. I couldn’t decide whether the Fannas wanted me to make some kind of effort to explore the dog thing or not. I was trying to be helpful.
With a dour smile, Signora Elvira said, “Eleonora’s going up to Holland this weekend, aren’t you, love?”
The “love” was unexpected, and unexpectedly respectful. Eleonora nodded. “I thought we’d agreed not to talk about dogs anymore, Mamma.”
“It’s not every weekend one drives to Holland,” Signor Fanna said.
My wife threw in a few enthusiastic remarks about Amsterdam in the spring and what wonderful people the Dutch were. “So liberal. No problems selling pharmaceuticals there!”
Eleonora put her spoon down. “Too liberal sometimes.”
“How so?” I asked.
She hesitated, shot a glance at her parents. “There are no laws against deviant sexual behavior in Holland. They let men rape dogs. This usually leads to the animals’ death, through internal bleeding.”
“God!” My wife raised her napkin to her lips.
Signora Elvira’s face was a mask of severity.
“Special brothels exist to provide dogs to an international clientele. Like the cafés where you can smoke dope. This weekend there will be a big animal-rights demonstration. We’re planning to free as many dogs as we can.” She turned to her father who was looking a little queasy: “Do you mind if I take the SUV, Papà?”
Some time later, as we were preparing to leave, I said, “I’d love to see your dogs, Eleonora.”
We were standing in the hallway. Signor Fanna had gone to get some papers he wanted my wife to deal with first thing the following morning. Signora Elvira had cheered up as the evening drew to a close and was evidently enjoying my wife’s company. Perhaps Signor Fanna always introduced his PAs and their husbands to his wife to prevent suspicion that there might be any illicit intimacy developing.
Eleonora assented readily enough and led the way down the hallway, through a door that crossed a spacious kitchen, then another door that led to a generous extension on the back of the house. At once there was a strong doggy smell, but nothing excessive, or not for those of us who’ve been brought up with dogs. The girl crouched down to greet a fine Border collie that came scampering up to her, then stretched an arm to welcome a pretty beagle waggling behind. As she crouched, her wool dress tightened. The collie licked her face, which she turned smilingly from side to side under his long, wet tongue. Her thighs were strong and her back pleasantly full. The beagle yelped and pawed. Both dogs were beautifully glossy, in the pink of canine health, and the more Eleonora played with them, the more attractive her youth and evident good nature became.
“What my parents wanted you to pronounce on, though,” she broke off, “is this.”
Suddenly businesslike, she stood up and led me through the extension and out of a back door into the garden. Immediately, from a low building at the far side of the lawn, an excited barking began. It was no more than a large garden shed, half-hidden behind low bushes. Eleonora took a flashlight hanging under the eaves and pointed it through the window. Here, there were ten or a dozen dogs all falling over one another to thrust their snouts against the window, yapping and snuffling and scratching. I could see at once that these were not such healthy specimens. One had an eye missing. One limped and whimpered.
“I always find homes for them in the end. It just takes a little time.”
“That’s very impressive,” I said. “It must be hard work.”
“There’s a group of us, called Puppy Love.”
She turned toward me. Because we had been peering in at the small window, we were quite close to each other. It was impossible not to be aware of her body in the fresh dark, her lips faintly illuminated by the flashlight.
“Maybe you’d like to make a donation. We’re not a registered charity yet, but I can guarantee that every cent would be spent on the dogs’ welfare.”
We began to walk back to the house.
“I’ve worked out that each dog I save and rehouse costs on average around four hundred euros, just over a quarter of my monthly salary.”
“Let me think about it.”
“Of course. Take your time. I ask everybody I meet. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.”
I felt excited.
“How would I contact you, if I did decide to give?”
She mentioned a Web site. The name was easy to remember. There was a contact box. But before we crossed the threshold back into the house, she stopped me. “Tell me something, though. I mean, you being a shrink. Why does it bother my parents so much? Especially Mamma. Why is she so hostile?”
I took a deep breath. This was tempting; an alliance against her parents would be an easy way to intimacy. I resisted.
“I suppose they wanted something different for you. As parents tend to do. They no doubt have some more conventional narrative of their daughter, happy in her middle-class marriage with a professional career that they can talk to their friends about.” I hesitated. “Probably what makes it harder is that what you’re doing is obviously generous and good. I mean, if one has to choose between dog rapists and dog rescuers, one plumps for the rescuers. On the other hand, we’d all be happier not to think about such disturbing things at all. I suspect you confuse them. They’re not sure how to behave. And of course,” I smiled, “they could probably do without the barking in the garden. And the dog shit, no doubt.”
As I spoke and she watched me, standing a fraction closer than people ordinarily stand to each other, I sensed that very soon we would become lovers and I would be dedicating substantial sums of money to the salvation of Europe’s abused dogs.
So it was. Eleonora was arrested in Holland. My wife told me that Signor Fanna had canceled his trip to Germany to go to the Italian consulate in The Hague. Signora Elvira, on the other hand, had kept her, my wife, on the phone for hours, expressing her indignation that her husband had allowed his daughter to get in the way of his work; she was all for leaving the girl to languish in a police cell. That way, she’d be forced to wake up and take life seriously.
I wondered who fed and walked the dogs while Eleonora was away. My wife said she had no idea.
She looked puzzled. “Why?”
“Just curious. I find the whole setup rather intriguing.”
“I thought you’d come to the conclusion that she was a nice girl with a good cause and the parents were making too much fuss.”
“Just curious,” I repeated. “By the way, do you know how Signora Elvira ended up in the wheelchair?”
My wife had no idea. Signor Fanna had never talked about it.
“He’s extremely devoted to her,” she said with a hint of bitterness.
The following week, Eleonora appeared on the regional TV news. She had been released with a caution. Quizzed by an interviewer on her return to Verona, she said, “I just don’t like to think of animals being mistreated. Especially not to satisfy perverts. It’s ugly and I want the world to be beautiful.”
Watching, I was struck by how at ease she was with the questions and the camera; there was no shrillness, no preaching or proselytizing. As someone who spends hours every day in conversation with conflicted and unhappy people, I rarely see this: a young woman entirely at home with herself and her choices. It made her extremely desirable. The closing shots showed Eleonora crouching down to greet her collie and beagle on arriving home. It was a replay of the scene I had witnessed after our dinner, except that now she was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. The collie pushed its wet nose into her breasts.
I would send her four hundred euros a month, I wrote in the Web site contact box, on the condition that I be allowed to see the dogs my money was helping. A few days later we met outside her school, and she took me to a veterinary clinic where an obese black Labrador was sedated on a drip. He had been found half-dead in a ditch.
The vet, in his late forties, greeted Eleonora with a warm embrace; she ruffled his hair, he tweaked her nose, and I understood at once that they had been lovers and that this was why he was willing to offer her his services for no more than the cost of the drugs. He greeted me and smiled, explaining that it was a daily occurrence in Verona for dogs to be found poisoned, either by dog haters who left spiked meatballs around or by their owners who were fed up with them. In Italy it is illegal to put a healthy animal down. “So they fake a poisoning and take care to remove the dog’s collar and identification, in case it survives.”
Eleonora stroked the creature, which was stretched out on a surgical table. “Come and say hello, Ted,” she said in a low voice. I went to stand beside her and put a hand on the dog’s matted fur. It twitched and a muscle shifted under the skin. She put her hand next to mine. It was actually quite strange to feel this threatened animal life beneath my fingers; the Labrador’s bulk and odorous canine presence took on an unexpected solemnity—here were fifty kilos of sensitive suffering flesh that could not easily be ignored—and I knew it was the woman beside me who had made me feel this. Her hand invited mine to linger and to get to know the creature. Sitting in the car again we looked at each other and kissed.
Signora Elvira had fallen off a horse, my wife told me. “Twenty years ago.”
I wondered aloud what her husband did about sex.
“Trust you,” she grumbled, “it is possible for people to love each other without constant sex, you know.”
It went unspoken that my wife and I hadn’t made love for months, if not years.