It was Christmas Eve, so my mother was killing lobsters in our kitchen sink. I stood mesmerized by their slow, balletic movements as though they were still underwater. Their antennas searched the air for clues while their dark claws, bound by thick blue rubber bands, clacked against metal.
My mother plunged her knife into the back of the first victim. Dragging the blade slowly from sternum to tail, she split him in half to make room for the crab-meat stuffing that would go in the center. No boiling here. She preferred this quicker method so both the stuffing and the lobster could bake in the oven at the same time.
“Don’t you dare tell anyone I’m doing this,” she said to me, holding the knife aloft, while the second lobster flashed her a B-movie look of horror.
“I’m telling everyone,” I said.
I was as far away as I could get from the massacre happening at the other end of the kitchen but ultimately could not bring myself to leave the room, a conflicted adolescent witness to this one-sided battle of woman versus beast. The least she could do was take off the rubber bands and make it a fair fight.
The eels she had purchased to recreate the Italian seafood feast of her childhood rested on the counter nearby. Coiled in a clear plastic bag, they writhed over each other’s slimy bodies, trying to escape. After all, they had a clear view of my mother doing to the lobsters what she would soon do to them. I had seen her prepare the eels many times before. With cold-blooded indifference, she chopped off their heads, before using a paring knife to cut a large slit down the length of their bodies. They continued to squirm long after decapitation.
“How can you do that? Look, they’re in pain. You’re not even flinching!” I squealed, now cowering now in the far corner of the room, watching the bloodbath through a pasta colander.
She was too focused to look up as she nonchalantly replied, “Go do your homework.”
The small Italian village where my mother was raised is not in the romantic part of the country that E.M. Forster and Ernest Hemingway wrote about in their novels. In my mother’s hometown, water dribbles from the showerhead as if from a punctured hose, underwear is hung to dry on the line and animals are either eaten or put to work.
Prior to that summer before high school, I had never been somewhere so small and frozen in time. Only two miles across, the village sat high on a hill surrounded by farmland and was packed with rustic dwellings and humble facades, its streets scattered with small European cars and everywhere a pervasive feeling that no one ever came or left. Old women in black, shapeless mourning dresses sat in the shade of their porches in the afternoons, whispering as we walked by. They seemed to know who we were before we met them and every time my mother said hello, they eagerly told us how we were related to them, punctuating each sentence with an animated gesture.
Among the many relatives we visited were my mother’s uncle and aunt. He was an older man with tense shoulders who towered over me while his wife was the smallest woman I had ever met. When we approached their tiny farmhouse, I paused to watch a slew of chickens poking around the yard, thick clouds of flies buzzing around their heads. I had never seen a farm up close.
After a lunch of bread, cheese and homemade sausage we began to say our goodbyes, at which point my mother’s uncle handed her one of his chickens, unceremoniously tied up in a plastic grocery bag with its head sticking out of the top. Walking to the car with her new prize, my mother looked like one of those women in Beverly Hills who carry tiny emotional support dogs, their heads protruding from ornate, bejeweled purses. She placed the chicken in the trunk, but from the backseat I could still hear its uneasy rustling as we made our way back to town.
Almost immediately after we arrived home at the top of the hill, my mother instructed me to take my little brother upstairs and stay there until she called us back down. She didn’t give a reason, but I was old enough to know what she and my aunt were up to. As I sat in front of the TV, I imagined my mother stretching out the chicken’s neck on the wooden countertop while my aunt separated its head from its body with one decisive chop of her butcher’s knife.
One could easily conclude that my mother felt the need to hide this from me because she knew I would become squeamish and begin hurling judgements like I did every Christmas Eve when she brought home the lobsters. But I suspect there was something else which told her to protect me from the firsthand experience of such a blatant slaughter. If I had been raised Italy, in a small town stuck in time, butchering a chicken would have probably been part of my school’s curriculum. But we were Americans now and that sort of thing had come to seem just a bit barbaric. Perhaps it had been part of the citizenship test when my parents were naturalized as Americans.
1. Who is in charge of the executive branch? The President
2. Senators are elected for how many years? Six.
3. When is it appropriate to murder an animal in cold blood in front of your loved ones? Never!
Because in America, you’re supposed to forget meat has been killed, focusing instead on the attractive packaging it comes wrapped in, so you don’t have to feel guilty for eating so much of it. My mother would not stop practicing her cultural traditions just because Americans refused to face reality, but she understood it was unacceptable to advertise them.
The chicken made one final appearance that evening on the dining room table, cooked to perfection and swimming in a thick tomato sauce that smelled so delicious I did not think twice about digging in. We all complimented the meal, and no one made any mention of the carnage which had occurred earlier that day, mere feet from where we now sat helping ourselves to seconds.
Soon after we returned from that trip, my father brought home an empty fish tank which had been abandoned near the dumpster behind our restaurant. It was so big I could have sat inside with extra room to splash around. Having never owned a pet before, I was overjoyed at the prospect of naming all the fish we would fill it with and begged him to take me to get some as soon as possible.
I lingered in the narrow aisles of the fish store, which was kept so dark that the multicolored lights in the tanks cast a watery glow across my face as I watched the bright fish dart to and fro. I ran from tank to tank choosing clownfish, little blue fish with yellow fins and sleek shimmery fish that reflected the light bouncing off the colored rocks.
But the one I prized above all others was a navy-blue seahorse whom I named Hamlet. He was the most elegant creature in the store, mysterious and broody like his namesake. After we brought him home, I would stand in front of our tank and watch him glide gracefully through the water using only the delicate fins on his head and sides, punctuating his movements every so often with a quick thrust of his curly tail.
But Hamlet had an enemy: Marilyn Monroe, a yellow tang who loathed him for reasons unknown. Perhaps she was jealous of his quiet dignity, which she could never replicate, unrefined and flashy as she was. She would sneak up on him several times a day and snap at his fins, picking them apart bit by bit over the course of the week until they were no longer fins but mere scraps of fish skin sticking out of his body, frayed and useless. I often found him pressed against the tank’s pump, no longer able to fight against its pull.
Watching him in anguish, I knew I was responsible for this daily torture and cursed the day my father brought the tank home. I wondered what Hamlet was thinking, flattened there up against the pump. What must it feel like to be an animal, trapped in a cycle of eat-or-be-eaten with no way to break free, no way to swim against the current? My heart ached to watch this beautiful creature mangled by such thoughtless cruelty and any desire I had to own another pet evaporated.
My father would not join me in my pet boycott. Years later, after I had finished college and moved away, he left the house one morning for work to find his beloved black F150 King Ranch pickup truck resting on cinder blocks instead of tires. Thieves had come in the middle of the night and stolen the wheels right off his baby without anyone noticing. After the police report was filed, and after he had exhausted every expletive he knew in both English and Italian, he decided he needed an extra alarm system.
The dog he brought home was rescued by a woman my parents knew who was always fostering animals and then foisting them onto her acquaintances.
“You’re not going to heat it up for her?” she cried when she saw my mother mixing cold shredded chicken in with the dog food. My mother blushed and placed the food in the microwave. When it was ready, she emptied the chicken pieces onto a paper plate, a stand-in for the soon to be purchased plastic dog bowl.
“Just use one of your own plates,” the woman said.
My mother responded firmly, “That’s where I draw the line.”
My parents had no idea what kind of dog she gave them because it didn’t look like any particular breed. The dog was large and thick around the middle with short, straight honey-colored hair, a big snout, sad eyes and a weak leg that made her waddle like she was perpetually about to give birth. Not very intimidating for an attack dog, I thought. My father named her Stella and awkwardly referred to her as our “pet” because, in America, that’s what people call it when they let an animal live inside. But ours was an Italian household, and if this animal was not going to be food, then she was going to have a job, which she carried out with obnoxious enthusiasm.
Whenever I returned home for holidays, her vicious barking rattled the windows as I tried to hug my parents, while my teenage brother struggled to hold her back. He locked her in her crate and covered it with a blanket so she couldn’t see me, an intruder she obviously thought needed to be banished for the good of the household. The feeling was mutual. During my visits, I avoided all the duties that came with caring for a pet and refused to call her by her name, offering instead an icy “Hi dog,” not even looking up as she toddled into the room, hoping she would get the message and seek work elsewhere.
I wasn’t the only one who was annoyed. Despite developing a soft spot for the only other female in the house, my mother was extremely intolerant of shedding. “I can’t stand all these friggin’ hairs everywhere!” she often shouted, speaking to no one in particular. And my brother resented having to take her for walks. After my mother would beg, and eventually demand, he take the dog out, he would emerge from his room moving slower than someone learning to walk again after a horrible accident.
“You know, I never asked for this,” he’d lament. “If dad wanted a dog, then he should walk her.”
“Then call him up and tell him to come home from work, where he’s earning money so you can eat and have a roof over your head. I dare you,” my mother would say.
While everyone else was at work and school, Stella was stuck at home all day with nothing to do and no one to play with, living with people who ultimately cared for her, but for the most part merely tolerated her. I began to feel sorry for her. She was so vehement in her mission to protect my family, and in some way, prove her worth, that she took her job too seriously. After she cracked the glass of our front window trying to scare the mailman, my parents put her in their room whenever guests came to the house, rendering her isolation from the outside world all but complete.
If Stella thought I was a threat at 5’6”, then I fully expected her to lose her mind when my husband entered her territory. Kyle is 6’4” with a deep, resonant voice and a heavy footfall. Visions flashed through my brain of her chewing out the steel bars of her crate and pinning him to the ground before quickly devouring his heart like the homemade meatballs my mother served her.
“Remember, you have to ignore her to establish your dominance,” I told him. “We’ll keep her in my parents’ room most of the time, but she has to feel like you don’t really care about her or else she’ll know you’re weak. Let her come to you.”
“Relax,” he said, apparently unaware of the very real and imminent danger he was in.
Kyle was used to animals. His parents have been serial dog owners for as long as he can remember. When one dog would get too old and have to be put down, the soil was barely packed over a fresh backyard grave before his father marched through the door with a new puppy—or two.
In fact, their golden retrievers are treated better than many people treat their children. They receive stockings full of toys at Christmas from Santa. They are given free range to roam around the property, chasing animals and eating fresh fruit that falls from the trees to their hearts’ delight. Every time my father-in-law goes anywhere, even just a quick trip to the general store at the bottom of the hill, he yells “C’mon kids!” and piles the dogs into the backseat of his truck, taking them along so they won’t be lonely.
“Tom, why don’t you take your real kid with you?” my mother-in-law called to him once while Kyle watched from the house as his four-footed brothers and sisters lumbered up into the backseat.
They are the sweetest dogs I have ever met, but I have no point of reference from my childhood for treating dogs like members of the family. Their dogs are unemployed and are thus, in my eyes, extravagant, like an expensive pair of shoes worn only once a year.
When Kyle and I finally arrived at my house, I held my breath, ready to lay my life on the line and throw myself between my husband and Stella when she inevitably attacked. But there was no need for such heroics. Kyle knelt on the ground and held out his hand. Stella paused, sizing him up. Then she waddled slowly over to him, sniffed his fingers, and allowed him to rub behind her ears, lying down after a few moments and exposing her belly to let him know he could continue as long as he wanted.
“See? She’s a sweet girl, isn’t she?” he said in that voice people use to talk to dogs. He looked at me in a way that made me feel cruel for having described her with such disdain and fear when she was just a normal dog who needed some love.
The feeling didn’t last long. Kyle thought he had won her over, but I knew she was the one pulling the strings. While he scratched her belly, Stella’s eyes met mine, filled with the triumph of making me seem like the animal instead of her.
Well played dog, I thought. Well played.
I am sitting outside a cafe with a coworker, staring down a dog straining against his leash, practically asphyxiating himself to get to the bagel I’m holding. His owner is standing engrossed in her phone, without even a sideways glance to see what’s creating the tension at the other end of the leash she’s holding.
“Why would you spend all that money on kibble, toys, visits to the vet and doggie-daycare just so you could ignore it?” I murmur aloud.
“Oh, but it’s so rewarding,” my coworker gasps. She has a bumper sticker in the shape of a paw print that says Who saved who? and two dogs waiting for her at home. “Pets need us.”
Do they? I wonder. Hamlet had certainly needed me while he was pinned up against that tank, immobile. I put him in harm’s way and then could not save him. Or rather, it would be more accurate to say that I did not even think to save him. Why had I not simply moved Marilyn Monroe to a different container or returned her to the store? Inexplicably, the thought had not even crossed my mind. I saw no other option than to sit idly by. In a way, I was brought up to think that this was inevitable: some animals eat other animals and there is nothing I can do about it. There is a part of me that believes I would have been tampering with nature if I had altered the course of events.
Perhaps then it is not animals who need us, but we who need animals. We use them for food and labor, as tangible proof of our wealth, as emotional support, as distractions in moments of boredom. The way my family treats animals is straightforward and practical, rooted in centuries-deep traditions of survival. But are those reasons really any better than the more superfluous, yet apparently fulfilling reasons why others have pets? I have seen close friends stave off crippling loneliness simply by having a puppy or kitten in the house to provide solace and comfort. And why shouldn’t they do so if no one is the worse for it? These needs are not invalid, but they have certainly been created by us and we have commandeered pets to satisfy them, so much so that owning a pet has become as common a cultural milestone as getting married or having a child. It’s just what we do.
My coworker is watching me now with expectant eyes, practically begging me to confirm her assertion that pets do, indeed, need us. I can tell she doesn’t actually have the time or desire to hear my full thoughts on the matter. And I have absorbed my mother’s assimilation method of believing what I was taught but saying what is acceptable. Returning her smile, I settle on a compromise. “I guess we need each other,” I say, before tearing off a piece of my bagel and throwing it to the desperate dog, straining at the end of his rope.