by Tonya Streeter
(Winner, Carson McCullers Literary Awards, first place, Creative Nonfiction)
I love my dog more than my niece.
Ginger—my little Chihuahua—runs to me shaking, scared, pointy ears back, tail tucked when my noisy niece bumbles around the house, banging pans my mom gives her or crying for food, so I pick Ginger up, close my bedroom door, kiss her head about twenty times before I place her on my bed, lifting the covers; she slides under, burrows deep—safe from the one year old—and I crawl under, joining her in her haven—only I am allowed; no babies because Chihuahuas don’t like children and neither do I, so we hide together, wishing for the days when there wasn’t a baby around, wishing for my niece to go away, to not exist, and I think about how horrible that must sound to God, and I ask him to forgive me because I didn’t mean it; my niece is cute, but she freaks me out, God.
“Happiness is a warm puppy” –Charles M. Schulz
If someone said “happiness is a warm baby,” I would have to disagree. When I hold my niece, which is not often, I can’t wait until someone takes her from me. When I hold my dog, or any dog, I will hold her until someone pries her from my arms or until she wants to be let go, whichever comes first. My sister and my mom don’t understand how I can love an animal more than a human.
Right now, Ginger is sleeping next to me on one of my freshly cleaned pillows—the dog fur is unavoidable. The sound of her snoring and the occasional jerk of her legs keep me calm; I want to hear her snores better, so I turn down my music. Her presence fills me with joy—the same joy, I imagine, my sister gets from her daughter, and the very same joy I hope my mom feels when I’m around—the kind of joy that makes me feel warm inside because this being is mine and loves me and wants to be with me.
“Oh, you’ll change your mind about her!” –Pretty much everyone
Maybe when she learns to read and I can share The Hobbit and other favorites with her, I might like her more. But the main thing I imagine when I think of her getting older is all the annoying things she’s going to do—tantrums, destroying my books with markers, getting sick and contaminating me time and time again—and I can’t make myself love her enough to not dread it.
I hear a knock on my door, and then someone comes in. I’m still staring at my computer, so I don’t know who it is yet.
“There’s Gingy!” I hear from a forced high pitched voice.
“Mary wanted to see Gingy,” he says as he pushes in, kicking my clothes and various books out of his way.
I don’t care.
He puts Mary on my bed with her shoes on. On the inside, I’m screaming. God knows what kind of germs the bottoms of her shoes are carrying. He holds Mary’s tiny hands in the air to help her walk across my clean blankets towards Ginger.
Ginger growls, and gets louder as Mary comes closer. Brother-in-law leans forward, whacks my Ginger’s nose, and yells “I’ll kill you if you keep growling.”
What did this asshole just say?
I stare at him until he gets the message and leaves, taking Mary with him; she opens and closes her hand in a clumsy wave as they go.
I can’t help but smile a little.
Sometimes, when I look at Mary, I am reminded of Ginger.
Her little hands are about the same size as Ginger’s paws. Mary’s grunts and squeaks are similar to Ginger’s whimpers and barks. They both use their mouths to decide if they like something or not.
They aren’t too different.
My dislike for my niece has heightened tensions between me, my sister, and brother-in-law. Not that tensions were ever low.
When they come over with my niece, I stay in my room with Ginger to avoid their gay-bashing and borderline-racism. Usually, they leave me alone, but after they go home my text alert rings and there’s a message from my sister saying “You don’t have to be so rude” or “Why do you hate us so much?” I never reply. Instead, I scoop Ginger up and place her on my stomach where she stays until her radar ears hear food being poured into her bowl.
When my sister was still pregnant, my brother-in-law would boast about how they weren’t going to be like all the liberal sissy parents who don’t spank their kids, and my sister nodded, said, “Yep.”
They have kept their word.
When Mary was five months old, my brother-in-law was holding her on our couch and Mary flailed her arms like babies do and softly whacked him in the face. He immediately spanked her bottom and yelled, “You don’t hit daddy!” I was sitting at the dining room table across the room from him, eating chips, watching this transpire. Ginger was sleeping on my lap, and at the sound of the spank, she jerked and her ears shot up. I stared wide-eyed at him. He looked back at me with a dumb look on his face.
“What?” he said.
I shook my head, looked at my bag of chips, and continued to eat them. I stroked Ginger’s fur with my grease free hand to get her to relax again.
The spanking I remember most vividly was unjust. I was in 1st grade and the whole class was making models of Earth out of papier mache. I was working with a boy named Xavier who was not participating. Halfway through the project, Xavier decided to push me out of the way so he could put on a lone slice of glue-soaked newspaper.
“Stop!” I shouted in a whiney six-year-old voice.
He said, “Shut up. Imma get my big brother to beat you up.”
To which I replied, “Well, my Mom and Dad will beat you up.”
After that, he sat back down, doing nothing. I went back to work, pleased at my victory. A few minutes later, the teacher called me over; Xavier was standing by her pointing at me. When did he go over there? I thought while making my way over. She didn’t waste any time.
“Did you threaten Xavier? Did you tell him that you would have him beat up?” I was shocked. I looked at Xavier who was standing slightly behind the teacher now, smirking.
I pointed at him, shaking my head, “He said he was going to get his brother to beat me up first!” She didn’t listen.
Three minutes later, I was sitting in the principal’s office, listening to his side of the conversation with my mom. A minute after he hung up the phone with her, the principal was lifting me up from my stomach over his arm and spanking me repeatedly. I cried for an hour after my mom picked me up and took me home.
My dad got home late that night. I remember he still had on his postman hat when he came to my room.
He said, “What’s this I hear of you getting sent to the principal’s office?” He didn’t give me time to answer or explain before he grabbed me and spanked me until I was crying so hard I couldn’t breathe. I walked into class the next day and Xavier was smiling.
He said, “My big brother is still going to beat you up.”
The adults didn’t believe me or give me a chance to explain or to learn—in a non-violent way—that violence, even in words, is wrong. They were so eager to punish me that they didn’t even consider that there might be another way of doing it or that there might be more to the story than they knew. It made me feel unimportant and ridiculous; I don’t want anyone feeling like that, especially Ginger
June 26, 2015; same sex marriage is legal in all 50 states. My family is having dinner together. I know what’s coming. It starts with my brother-in-law.
“So, it looks like we’re going to have to leave the United States.” Go ahead, I think, I can’t fucking wait.
“Yeah,” my sister agrees, “Soon, we’ll have to. Christians ain’t going to have a choice.” She follows that with an obnoxious laugh like it’s a joke.
“I know one thing,” brother-in-law says, then pauses to stuff his face with meatloaf, “if Mary or any of my children tell me they’re gay, I’m going to beat it out of them.”
It takes everything I have not to take a spoon full of mashed potatoes and fling it at him. Instead, I get up, grab my plate, and head to my room; Ginger follows, her nails clicking against the hardwood floor. I’ve got to protect that child, I think, sharing my mashed potatoes with Ginger.
My sister isn’t as willing to spank Mary as her husband, but she will.
It is not so much as the spankings that I’m afraid will damage Mary but the emotional abuse she is bound to face.
My sister has always been verbally judgmental. She pointed out all of my flaws when I was growing up, like my increasing chubbiness, my unibrow, and the blackheads that peppered my nose no matter what facial treatments I tried.
She was, and still is, vicious.
I hoped that becoming a mother would change her. There is still time, but she is already telling Mary to stop eating the food my mom gives her because if she doesn’t, she’ll get fat.
I’m sure Mary doesn’t understand what she’s saying yet, but she will.
Ginger was a stray who showed up in our backyard in October of 2012. When we would walk outside, she would start barking at us. I took it upon myself to befriend her.
I started with cheese, taking a slice from the fridge and sitting in the middle of the yard, tossing a piece to her to get her to trust me. I did that every day.
Two months later, she would run to me whenever I walked outside. I didn’t even need to have food, but I always did. My vet and I determined that she had been abused at some point. She had had an owner because she was fixed; he could see the scar.
“Nervousness is natural in Chihuahua’s,” he told me, “but yours seems to have had traumatic experiences because any sudden sounds and fast movements freak her out.”
I had noticed that too. Even though she trusted me more than anyone else, she would book it to the other side of the room if I got up from a chair too fast.
Now, she is much calmer. The only time she acts scared is when it’s storming or when brother- in-law and sister come over. This week, I noticed that as soon as she heard them leave, she went to my door wanting out.
“Ginger, you don’t want out. The baby is still here,” I told her.
She kept sitting at the door even though the baby was making noise in the living room. I got up and let her out, followed her because I was hungry and it was safe to raid the kitchen.
She walked to the living room cautious, as if she was scared that a big ugly man might jump out at her.
My mom heard her clicking nails and said, “It’s Gingy!” I stopped and watched in the middle of the kitchen as Ginger continued to walk towards the baby. When she got to her, she stayed still and let Mary pet her.
She was rough at first, but mom said gently, “Be nice, Mary,” and she was; she petted Ginger more softly and laughed when Ginger started to wag her curled tail.
I’m sitting at the dinner table with the rest of my family—mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law, and Mary. Ginger is under the table, looking up at us. I look at my sister and brother-in-law hoping to feel love and loved.
I don’t feel it.
I look at Mary; she looks at me. She stares for a while, and I smile at her. And I think I feel—not deep—but growing affection for her, even though she is covered with germs and cries a lot. I keep my eyes on her and pretend to communicate to her telepathically: Don’t worry, I’m going to make sure you don’t turn out like them.
I look back at my plate.
I pick off a piece of chicken skin that I have especially to feed Ginger, and I drop it for her. My heart feels like it will explode with the love I feel for her as she gobbles her chicken, smacking her lips.