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The difference between self-defense and abuse is the difference between a woman hitting a man and a man hitting a woman.
Or, more to the point, it’s the difference between a man hitting a woman and a man hitting a woman back.
The difference between self-defense and abuse is the difference between a man hitting a woman and a man hitting a woman back.
Let me explain. Last summer there was a party two doors down from my house. The whole fucking neighborhood must have been there by the look of it. And, by the sound of it, most of them stayed later and drank more than they’d planned. The predictable rhythm of polite small talk gave way to the sporadic ebb and swell of drunken laughter around the time the sun went down. The radio never got reined in to the property line until nearly midnight. And it was well into the early morning hours before the cackle and hiss of the last guests standing and the last logs in the fire pit finally went silent. In all, it was a hell of a bash.
Or so I assume. I wasn’t there.
My family was one of only two on our block not invited to the party two doors down. The other one lives in the house between us. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. And I really wasn’t particularly upset. The family two doors down from us had parties for everything. No occasion ever went uncelebrated. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I have children of my own, but I don’t see any reason you need to have a party to celebrate a kindergarten graduation. Or a third-place little-league season. Or anything ending in versary that doesn’t involve the passage of a full year. The family two doors down had invited me to every one of these self-congratulatory embarrassments for years and I had long since stopped showing up at them. Eventually I didn’t even bother to RSVP. By the time this one rolled around, I figured they had finally taken the hint.
I just didn’t like them.
They were loud. They were obnoxious. Their trash cans sat at the end of the driveway until at least Wednesday every week when trash day is Monday. On the rare occasions they left the house, their two boys had a habit of cutting through the neighbors’ yards seemingly everywhere they went. Their daughter always rode her bike with her head down, wobbling her way along the middle of the street. And they always had those fucking parties.
There was never just a small crowd, never just some friends sitting around having drinks, never just a few cars in the driveway. It was always everyone they knew. It was always case after case of soda and beer stacked next to the recycling bin the next Monday. It was always a constant parade of people and a ubiquitous line of cars that dotted both sides of the street, at least two of which were always parked on my lawn.
Everything about every party they threw was big. That day was no exception. But it was big in a way that was somehow totally alien in its apparent sameness. It was well into the evening before it finally dawned on me why.
It was the parade. Or the lack thereof.
On an occasion that would normally be commemorated by every family within a five-block radius, there was little more than a slow trickle of people walking the street to the house two doors down. Don’t get me wrong – the party was still packed. That much was obvious. What little of the yard I could see from my upstairs window was no less dense with people than it would normally be, and the idle drumbeat of awkward conversation pattered along just like always. But the line of cars up and down the street was longer than it had ever been before.
What I didn’t find out until later was what they were celebrating that day. And then it all became clear.
Several months ago, the girl two doors down was attacked and bitten by a large dog. Mauled was the way her mother put it. To paraphrase the girl’s dad, that fucking mutt wanted to fucking kill her! Needless to say, an ambulance showed up, then the police, and then animal control. The next day, someone from the local paper was there, followed by a south-suburban reporter, then someone from the Chicago Tribune.
Within a week there were TV cameras and a sixty-second segment on FOX. The girl was interviewed sitting on her living room couch. She was all ruddy face and crocodile tears as she blubbered her way through a brief salvo of cloying questions that never actually probed into the truth.
She hadn’t even bothered to change out of her play clothes for the camera. And apparently no one thought it was worth clearing the dirty dishes or old newspapers from the coffee table before the spotlight was on.
Mother, daughter and father sat in a row on the sofa while the camera rolled. Seated side-by-side and hip-to-hip, they looked startlingly alike. All three of them were grossly overweight, and they shared a complexion that made them look perpetually unwashed.
And they all had the same eyes. They were scornful, damascene eyes that looked through you more than they ever looked at you. Eyes that only really drew you into focus when they came to bear on you as a target.
They were the kind of eyes that I’ve seen altogether too much of in my life.
But that’s not important yet.
What matters is the way they groped at the audience with a story of fear and heartache and raw, savage pain; the way the girl described her shock and awe and terror (my words, not hers); the way her mother described how she came outside to a trail of blood on the lawn and how she found her daughter laying in a simpering heap on the verge of shock (ditto) and how she forced herself not to cry because she knew she had to be strong for her precious angel and had to call 911 with calmness and clearness; and the way her father described how he came home and called the police and how he was not going to rest until his baby girl had justice for her pain and suffering and the dog and his owner were locked up.
Those were his exact words. I can still hear them ringing in my head, fading beneath the echoes of another story that was screaming to be heard but ultimately left untold.
I knew what really happened.
And that’s why I wasn’t invited to the party.
It was summertime. The daughter – the youngest of the three kids – had gotten a job dogsitting an old Rottweiler during the day. I knew the dog a little bit and had introduced myself to him while he was out walking with his owners. Once I even found him alone and missing his collar outside the grocery store. He followed me as I led him back home that day and let me pet him while we waited for his owners.
On his good days he could still muster some of the puppy in him. And even on his bad days his eyes beamed with absolute love and adoration.
He was one of those dogs whose lips always curled into a smile, whose tongue always lolled out of his mouth, and whose teeth had never once been borne in anger. His white muzzle did nothing to detract from his joy and devotion, instead giving him a dignified sophistication as he sat in the sun.
He could still walk. He could still chase in short bursts. He could still melt your heart with one cock of his head.
But he couldn’t make it through the work day anymore without pissing in his crate.
So he had a sitter.
I knew there was trouble the first time I saw them together. The dog that barely knew me but had followed dutifully at my heel on the walk home from the store was the picture of rebellion following the girl’s lead. He veered in wide arcs behind her, wrenching her arms back and forth as he went. He dashed ahead of her and doubled back, tangling her in the leash. He stopped and started at his leisure, and he didn’t listen to a word the girl said.
I wouldn’t have either.
Her commands were shrill, nonsensical whines. She spent more time complaining at the dog than commanding him. And her behavior was just as erratic as his. Maybe even more so. She smashed sticks against the sides of mailboxes, kicked blindly at rocks and litter in the street, and periodically threw her arms to the sky and moaned unintelligible curses at the sheer iniquity of her plight.
Long story short, our white-faced friend really wasn’t being difficult. He was just following his sitter’s lead. How was he supposed to know that he was following an idiot?
I was outside that afternoon. I first noticed the two of them when I heard the near-silence of our sleepy block split open by a high, guttural wail of snarling protest. Hers, not his. She was frustrated and had hit her limit. And she was obviously clueless about how to handle a dog.
I walked out into the street and called for him. The Rottweiler trotted toward me amiably enough, his head bobbing in time with his semi-arthritic gait and his tongue swinging freely around his gray beard. It was a good day and he had some spring in his step.
I could hear the girl biting back another outburst as she loped after the dog. I think she was willing to concede that I had called him over. And, to tell you the truth, I think she was relieved that someone else was volunteering to deal with him.
I gave the dog a firm sit and he dropped his ass and gazed up at me for approval. I told him he was a good dog – he was, he really was – and I gave him a quick scratch behind the ears. His eyes seemed to plead with me for more, lots more, a little more, any more, please.
If you’re a dog person, you understand.
The girl caught her breath, and reached out with one gruff, uncertain hand to give the Rottweiler an aimless pat on the head. He craned his neck to inspect her, showing me the expanse of his brown chest before turning back to look at me with those same pleading eyes. He seemed confused by the girl and was obviously desperate for reassurance. I stroked his head and gave him another scratch behind the ear. I met his gaze with one of my own, one that told him everything was going to be fine.
I showed the girl how to handle the dog, demonstrated the firmness and sharp resonance of my voice and the ringing snap I used to punctuate my commands when they weren’t immediately followed. She listened with a practiced inattentiveness, nodding and okaying on cue and uh–huhing during the silences, always facing the right way but never really focusing her eyes on anything.
I showed her how to take a good strong hold of the lead and told her she should keep it short until she knew she could trust the dog. I gave him just enough slack to sit comfortably beside me, then showed her how to walk with him properly.
My strides were even, my pace was fair, and my aura was confident. I was the master, he was the dog, and we were old friends. I coached the girl as we walked the length of the yard, the dog again dutifully following at my heel with an open-mouthed, tongue-drooping pant that sounded like a mix of laughter and contented sighs. For those few minutes, I was the fucking neighborhood Cesar Milan.
I was so high on myself that I didn’t even notice we’d already crossed the neighboring yard and were walking in front of the house two doors down. Her house.
I asked her if she wanted to take the lead for a while. She didn’t say a word, but she snatched at the leash with a territorial aggression that made it clear how much she appreciated my advice. This was her job, dammit, and she was going to do it her way. The leash fell from my hand as she gave the dog a stiff jerk and pulled him to her side. Instead of heel, all he got was C’MON.
I stopped the girl with a touch on the arm and reached for the long end of the leash.
That was when it got ugly.
I was correcting her and trying to re-affirm the points I’d made earlier when her mother bellowed from inside the house. I can still hear her elephantine wail.
Get your goddamn hands off of her, you son of a bitch!
Don’t you ever lay a hand on my daughter again, do you hear me!?!
I will have you arrested if I ever see you near my daughter again. Do you understand me, Goddammit!?!
I was frozen by panic and embarrassment.
Fortunately it was daytime, and it was summer. No one was home to hear her tirade. And no one would be around to hear me tear her fucking head off about what a piece of shit her daughter was and how if her own mother wouldn’t teach her how to do her job, then somebody had to.
I wanted to take her apart. I wanted to fucking blast her.
But I didn’t.
I took it.
I was quiet. I was polite. And I tried to explain the situation as rationally as I could.
I can still feel the humiliation smoldering at the base of my neck. When I think too long about it, my fists clench and the veins in my arms writhe. I can still feel that ludicrous sensation of head floating away from body and feet floating away from ground that only seems to come when you’re being railed on for something you didn’t do. It’s the last resort of the powerless, the instinct to try to get out of body and let the soul escape while the flesh stands impotent in the face of so much anger.
And I can still hear myself saying everything I wanted to say, that to this day I wish I would have said.
Maybe I could have kept it from happening. Maybe I could have prevented so much misery and so much wasted innocence.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered, though. I suppose I know that now.
When my initial polite explanation and concerned pleas went unheeded, I gave up.
But I knew she’d heard me. She could never deny that. And her words are the reason I’m telling you this story now. She had the balls – the kind of fucking balls that only angry fat women have, I swear to God – to actually say the thing that her daughter told me without having to utter a word.
It’s her goddamn job and she’ll do it however she wants to.
With that, she yanked the leash away from her daughter and almost pulled the dog off his feet as she turned and stalked away.
I would die for a second chance to point out the irony to her.
The daughter waddled after her mother, obviously relieved that she was no longer responsible for the Rottweiler and – I’m sure – that she no longer had to put up with my dog-whispering ass.
As they walked away, the dog paused and peered back over his shoulder at me. Our eyes met for a fleeting moment that’s since burned itself into my memory. To this day, those eyes haunt me in the dark. They glare at me in my nightmares. When we studied Freud and The Interpretation of Dreams in Psych 100, the professor said that dreams about hiding in forests and fleeing from people we can’t outrun are classic indicators of guilt, messages from our subconscious that we’re living with shame, sorrow and embarrassment that we simply cannot escape.
Do you know how I know I’m racked with guilt? I dream about those eyes. They pervade my midnight hours, they wake me in cold sweats and convulsive gasps, and they continue to bore through me long after I wake up. In those eyes, in that dog’s gaze in that too-short moment, I saw a very different plea.
I would see it again soon enough.
It’s probably the same helpless, mute plea he gave his owners right before he was put down.
The next time I saw those eyes was several days later. I could hear the girl from the other end of the block. She was yelling at the poor dog as she led him down the street on the final leg of their walk. I watched from my living room this time, kneeling at the window and peering through the curtains as the pair of them crossed in front of the house. The dog was walking slowly, hanging his head and dragging his feet like a little boy. But instead of the stiff yet compassionate hand of a loving mother, there was only screaming. And pulling. And dragging. And every time the girl stopped to adjust her grip on the leash, the dog flopped his butt onto his haunches. He would dig in and lean his weight back as she pulled him forward.
But the battle was lost before it started.
In a true tug-of-war, in a fair battle, he could have had his way with her. He could have toyed with her then paraded her around the neighborhood as his prize. He was old and she easily outweighed him. But aside from her infamous, listing bicycle rides in traffic, these two walks were the only exercise I’d ever seen her get in her life. She was soft. Advantage: Dog.
But it wasn’t a fair battle, and it wasn’t a level playing field. He wasn’t just pulling against her. He was fighting more than a decade of firm but loving training and a lifetime of obedience. And in the end, that’s what moved him forward, whether he wanted to go or not. He was a good dog.
He deserved better than this. And he knew it.
He looked up at me as she led him away from the house. Somehow he knew I was watching.
And there were those eyes. There was that plea. He knew I understood and I sympathized. He knew that I knew better.
And he knew that I wasn’t going to do anything. Somehow he knew.
But what was I supposed to do? Her mother had made it very clear how she felt about my advice and my interference. And I knew – I just knew – that another altercation between me, her, and her daughter really was going to end in her calling the cops. And it was the middle of the week again. No one was home. So when the police showed up to start asking me questions about a possible assault charge, it was going to be my word against hers.
I wouldn’t have stood a chance.
I don’t know how many days passed before the next and last time I saw them together, the last time I saw that weary supplication in the Rottweiler’s eyes. But I do know that I was in my front yard again and that I didn’t even realize they were walking past me until they were almost in front of the next house. I remember being impressed at first by how much progress the girl had made and by how obediently the dog was following at her heels. I tried to tell her so, but she just kept walking, her nose in the air and her glare unbroken.
That was when he gave me those eyes. He gazed mournfully at me long enough to know that I was returning his same gaze, long enough to know for certain that I recognized something in his eyes that I’d seen all too many times before.
He locked eyes with me just long enough to know that he had a kindred spirit somewhere in the world, someone to tell him that eventually this was going to be over and that in the end he could come out of it all right.
Then he put his head down and walked on.
That’s when I noticed his undocked tail between his legs.
By then, they were in her yard. What could I do?
It happened a few days later.
I didn’t see it. I heard it.
And I knew.
The windows were open and I could hear the screams. I couldn’t make out what she was saying, but I could tell it was aimed at the dog. The screaming got louder, and as it grew in volume it got less intelligible.
Then there was the all-too-familiar percussion of flesh striking flesh.
I heard a whelp.
Then all hell broke loose.
The snarling torrent of high, guttural barks pierced the frozen summer air like gun fire. These weren’t the barks of a good dog. This was the growl of a hunter, the cries of a beast. This was the report of a Rottweiler who had finally told his sitter that he had had enough.
There was thrashing, then ripping, then shrieking.
I ran outside and I could see her in a convulsing heap on the front lawn. I could hear her wailing in utter terror and agony.
And I could see the blood.
For one fleeting moment, I felt sorry for her. Bile crawled into the back of my throat and my legs went weak. My eyes stung and I nearly wept for her.
I ran to her.
Then her mother stormed out of the house.
I skidded to a stop at the property line and watched her rush to her baby girl. I don’t remember what she said that day, but I remember the volume. I remember the pitch and intensity. I remember it was vile, angry, and accusatory.
And I remember her daughter wailing even louder as a result.
She hauled the girl up unsteadily from the ground and led her into the house. As she walked away, she met my eyes with an incendiary glare. This was my fault. If I hadn’t interfered. If I had just let her daughter handle the damn dog. If I had just known what the fuck I was talking about that day, none of this would have happened.
Someone was going to pay for this.
And someone did. With his life.
After she went inside, I went looking for the dog. I found him cowering on the back stoop of the house next door. His white muzzle was stained red. His tail was curled so tight to his body I thought it might disappear into the flesh of his rump and his belly. He was quivering with abject terror. It was in his eyes. And in those eyes I saw his third and final plea.
But what could I do?
I called his owners at work and stayed with him until they got home. By then the police were there waiting for them. Animal control arrived a few minutes later.
Justice was slow, but vengeance was swift. The criminal charges and civil suit were both filed within twenty-four hours. A few weeks later, the owners of the house next door had to say goodbye to a member of their family and begin budgeting to pay putative damages.
And now I live with the memory of those eyes. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to escape the plea the Rottweiler gave me as his sitter led him away that last time. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be man enough to stare down that final tempestuous glare the girl’s mother gave me after it was all over.
I have to live with the fact that this all could have been prevented.
I could have saved him.
It’s ok to go back and reread that sentence. Make sure you read it right.
Did you think this was her story?
The girl two doors down was cruel. She was hateful. She was violent.
She was abusive.
And he wasn’t going to take it.
In the end, she got what she deserved and I hope she learned a lesson from it. But her kind never does. Her kind puts a banner in the front yard and chalk on the sidewalk to announce her victory. Her kind swells with pride that justice has been served, that her attacker has been punished, and that the precedent has been set: You do not fuck with her.
Her kind just doesn’t know any better.
So why should we expect him to?
He stood up to her, and he did it the only way he knew how. But he didn’t want to do it. Believe me when I say that. I could see it in his eyes. I could spot that look anywhere. Just like I could tell that he was trapped. He was desperate for any way out, any way to make it all stop. And he knew that the best response, the most logical one, the most righteous one, was also going to be the wrong one.
Because he was the dog. He had claws. He had teeth. He was the animal.
She was just a girl.
Do you understand now? The difference between self-defense and abuse is the difference between a woman hitting a man and a man hitting a woman.
Or, more to the point, it’s the difference between a man hitting a woman and a man hitting a woman back.
And that is where my story begins.