“I got your back, bro.”
I had only ever heard that in the movies, never in real life. There are a lot of things that only happen in the movies, but one would expect to have had at least one good friend in childhood. That never happened to me.
No one had ever had my back. My parents had been too busy with their own drama. Their addictions and their love/hate relationship took up all of their time. I had no siblings to share my traumatic childhood. There were a few classmate acquaintances growing up and a handful of friendly work colleagues as an adult, but no close friends. I shared no deep bonding experiences with anyone. I had spent no nights talking to a friend until dawn. No one much was interested in getting to know me and, truth be told, I wasn’t a fan of other people, either. I don’t want to play the “poor me” card here. The lack of friends in my life was partially my fault and most of the time, it didn’t feel like a lack at all. I was comfortable being alone.
But, every once in a while, I’d wonder what it would be like to have a relationship where you’d be willing to literally die for each other. I’d wonder what it would be like to be loved so much by someone that they would put their life at risk for you.
Ever since I was five or six, I’d wanted a dog, but my parents both worked and said that a dog was too much trouble. When I graduated from university, I had a job for several years where I traveled extensively. A dog was out of the question.
A few years ago, my company promoted me to a management position. It didn’t require travel and my hours were more flexible. It was the perfect time to get a dog.
I didn’t really know anything about dogs, so I did a lot of research before deciding that I would have to start with a puppy. If I had had any prior experience with dogs, I would have gone to a shelter, but I didn’t trust myself to know how to handle a dog with potential problems from having had a rough life. Also, having had no experience with canines meant I needed a breed that was known for being easy-going and easy to train. I needed a dog who could be tolerant of any newbie mistakes I might make. I ended up with a golden retriever.
She was a working line Goldie, which meant she had shorter hair and a sleeker body. It also meant that she had boundless energy. That was fine. I enjoyed walking in the local forest and along the river near my house. I’d walk her in the morning before work and after I got home in the evening. She spent weekdays at a doggie daycare where there were other dogs for her to play with. She got plenty of exercise.
She was also the love of my life. A funny and lively pup who grew into a beautiful and affectionate dog. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect companion than Freddie.
Freddie didn’t have a name when I first brought her home. I felt like I should get to know her first before giving her a name. Within a few days, though, she made her name known. I was listening to a playlist of 70s and 80s music as I cleaned the house while the puppy scampered around my feet. Every time a Queen song came on, the puppy would sit and listen attentively while Freddie Mercury sang.
I looked down at her and said, “Freddie?”
She yipped in response.
“Freddie it is,” I said, and that was that.
Freddie was happy to do anything with me. She loved our daily walks, but she also liked to follow me around while I cleaned the house. She would lie on the kitchen floor as I cooked, and she’d lie in the grass as I mulched flower beds. I’d sit on the patio and drink a beer while throwing a ball over and over for her to fetch. We would watch movies together in the evening or I’d read a book as she snoozed at my feet. She slept every night on a braided rug beside my bed.
Freddie was a good watchdog, too, at least on the surface. She barked a warning whenever anyone rang the bell. She’d run to the door and bark her resounding woofs. The sound of her barking would scare anyone on the other side of the door who might have evil on their mind. As long as they couldn’t see her standing there, her entire back side wiggling in barely contained glee. She never barked at visitors once I opened the door and let them in.
Freddie was the closest thing to a genuine friend I had ever had. There weren’t any deep, sleepless nights of conversation, and I wasn’t sure if she’d have my back in a dangerous situation. I often wondered what she would do if someone ever broke in. Would she know the person was unwanted? How could she know that? Would her mere existence and her barking behind closed doors be enough to deter a burglar? Or would she stand there wagging her tail at the intruder or try to kill him by licking him to death?
No matter. I was happy enough just having such a loyal companion.
Last December, when Freddie was about two years old, we went out for our morning walk a bit earlier than usual. The sun was barely up. We headed down the street toward the woods like we often did. It was so early, the street lights were still lit. It was darker in the woods than out on the streets. I hesitated, but figured that it would lighten up as we walked.
Wildlife filled the woods, of course, but you see little of it. The animals in the forest aren’t fond of people and they keep themselves to themselves. I’ve seen rabbits, of course, and the occasional deer in the distance. Once I saw the tail of a fox as he slipped down into his den. There are also wild boars in these woods, but since they are nocturnal and live deep in the forest, I’ve never worried about them. Freddie and I stick to the outskirts of the woods, nearer to roads, and I always go walking in the woods during the day.
But today wasn’t quite daytime enough and a lone boar had wandered out from the deep forest to within a hundred yards of the main street.
I had just unclipped Freddie’s leash, and we were walking along the dirt path when the boar stepped out from the brush and stood blocking the way. He was a big one. The length of him spanned the entire path. Freddie and I both stopped dead in our tracks. She was standing beside me. Regret flowed through me at having unleashed her. What would she do if we had to run? I wanted her to run with me if it came to that. I tried not to breathe.
The boar also stood still. Then he sniffed the air and turned his heavy head to look at us. For an eternity, or possibly only a few seconds, we stood looking at each other.
Then a low growl started, and it shocked me to realize that it was coming from Freddie. The growl was menacing, almost evil-sounding. I had only ever heard a sound like that in a nature show when I was a kid, in a stand-off between two dangerous creatures, just before the fight-to-the-death that inevitably follows such a sound.
As Freddie made this sound, she took two deliberate steps forward diagonally, planting herself between the boar and me. Her hackles standing straight up, she lowered her head in preparation to charge and she intensified her growl. She was deadly serious, and that boar knew it.
The boar lifted his head a bit, turned and ran into the brush on the other side of the path. Freddie’s hackles lowered, and she turned, wagging her tail and looking at me for approval.
“Good girl,” I whispered. “Let’s go walk by the river this morning, okay?” I led her out of the woods.
On the street, I petted her head, and she stepped on my foot and leaned against me with all her weight, as if to say, “I got your back, bro.”
© 2019 Liza Cameron Wasser