“What’s wrong with that one?” demanded the smug-looking guy with the good-looking girlfriend, pointing at my terrier mix, Frankie. He had just rejoined the line that had formed outside El Mirasol, a popular Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs. My friend Clare had gone in to put our names on the list for the dog-friendly terrace, leaving her dog, Archie, with Frankie and me to scope out the scene.
In his typically outgoing fashion, Archie had nuzzled up to Mr. Smug, who responded, as anyone with a pulse tends to do, by scratching Archie’s head. And in his typically shy, retiring fashion, Frankie had hidden behind my leg — prompting the aforementioned question.
“Asshole,” pronounced Clare, when I reported the incident to her half an hour later between mouthfuls of excellent carne adovado, identifying the offender who was now sitting a few tables away. She wasn’t just defending Frankie, although that’s part of her job description as my best friend. No, it turned out that the guy had elbowed in front of her when she was looking for the terrace sign-up sheet, grabbing it off the bar literally under her nose. And when she finally got hold of the list, she saw he’d prefixed “Dr.” to his name, thereby alerting the harried hostess to his need for priority seating (in case, Clare and I agreed, he was summoned to a Botox emergency).
Clearly, Mr. – excuse me, Dr. — Smug was a jerk. So why did his remark about Frankie rankle?
It had hit a nerve.
I’d adopted Frankie, a six-year-old terrier mix, less than a year earlier, and it had taken ages to earn his trust. Even after he’d superglued himself to me, he’d remained wary of other people and other dogs. Until, that is, he met Archie. On an Arizona road trip that Clare and I devised to introduce our guys a few months earlier, Frankie had followed Archie everywhere, a devoted entourage of one.
Hoping to nurture Frankie’s newfound bonding skills, I pressed Clare for a quick reunion. We chose Palm Springs for its dramatic desert setting and reasonable distance from my home (Tucson) and hers (Santa Barbara) and for Caliente Tropics, a revamped 1960s motor court, for its pet-welcome policies and low-for-So-Cal prices.
Caliente Tropics’ tiki-chic rooms, generous pool, and thatch-roof bar born to serve umbrella drinks were everything we could have hoped for. But there was trouble in paradise. Although I was loath to admit it at first, even to myself, Frankie wasn’t especially excited to see Archie again. Polite but distant, he was enthused about having a canine roommate only at mealtimes, when he would try to steal food from Archie’s bowl.
Archie, who got plenty of attention from Clare and me, not to mention from random strangers at the ice machine, barely noticed Frankie’s indifference. I suspect Clare was initially disappointed by it — only natural when the adulation due one’s darling is withdrawn — but she soon followed Archie’s lead and forgave Frankie his defection. As for Frankie, he seemed perfectly happy. He was, after all, with me.
I was the sole troubled soul of the group. I wanted Frankie to be all the dog that he could be. His fling with Archie had led me to believe that he was simply discriminating. Now I worried that he was a social misfit, a hound with overextended personal boundaries.
Why couldn’t Frankie have Archie’s easy bonding skills, I wondered enviously. On the motel lawn, for example, Archie had introduced himself to Joey, a dashing Brussels Griffon. This, in turn, led to a lively discussion between Clare and Joey’s owner about California leash laws. I had to turn my back on them all in order to keep an eye on Frankie, who was prancing proudly across the thick grass like a tiny Lipizzaner stallion — okay, gelding — in the opposite direction.
It was the same story on Palm Canyon Drive, downtown’s main drag: Archie made friends with everyone, from name-tagged conventioneers to a dread-locked camera man shooting a sitcom, while Frankie avoided all interaction with strangers. In the dog park behind City Hall, he refused to leave my side for a second. And in Cold Nose, Warm Heart, a pet-oriented gift shop, he nearly knocked down a display of tongue-wagging clocks, backing up sharply when a gray-haired matron gently attempted to pet him.
By the time we got to El Mirasol on the final evening of our long weekend together, my concern was a constant, nagging undercurrent. So, annoying as the source was, I took Dr. Smug’s question about Frankie’s shrinking violet behavior to heart. It had brought all my fears that Frankie wasn’t behaving in a species-appropriate fashion to the forefront.
Before going our separate ways the next day, Clare and I decided to have a farewell lunch at Spencer’s, a stylish New American dining room named for the owner’s Chow (“huge like a werewolf,” our waiter informed us), who was a frequent guest.
The maitre d’ seemed happy to escort our 12-legged party to the patio. But we soon wondered if we hadn’t made a mistake in coming here. This was a lhasas-who-lunch kind of place, and there wasn’t a pedigree among us. I’m not just talking about Frankie and Archie. Surrounded by Prada and perfect hairdos, Clare and I felt out of our element, two schleppers in a sea of socialites. Doubtless picking up on our discomfort, even Archie was subdued. He lounged quietly by Clare’s side, showing little of his usual propensity to meet and greet.
But our Niçoise salads were perfect, and a little chilled Chardonnay took the edge off our unease. And on our way out of Spencer’s, Archie reverted to type, bestowing his shaggy charms on a well-groomed mother and daughter sipping cappuccinos. Frankie — no slouch in the shaggy cute department, I hasten to add – stuck to his MO, using my calf as a shield against the unfamiliar duo while Clare chatted with them about the daughter’s upcoming term at University of Chicago, where Clare had gone to grad school.
Bored, I used Frankie’s xenophobia as an excuse to retreat to the restaurant’s gardens for a walk. Sometimes, I had to concede, having a pooch with a personality disorder had its advantages.
We ambled along, Frankie contentedly sniffing dirt, until I spotted a bench. Settling in at my feet, Frankie looked up adoringly at the only friend he really wanted. Suddenly it struck me: I was the one with the personality disorder. I had not only claimed Frankie’s need for canine closeness as an excuse to spend time with Clare again, but had expected Frankie to serve as a social lubricant. Worse, I had confused my irritation that he hadn’t gone along with the program with concern. I was as big a jerk as Dr. Smug – bigger, because I’d deluded myself into believing I had only Frankie’s best interests at heart.
Chastened, I lifted my little dog into my lap and let him lick the cherry-flavored Chapstick from my lips. At least I had one source of solace: As long as I gave him a loving home, Frankie would never know I was an asshole.
Note: I wrote this story in 2006, when I was a travel writer. I’m posting it now because Frankie and I are leaving soon to meet Clare and Archie in San Diego to attend the Surf Dog festival and I wanted to introduce the cast of characters. I promise to take better pictures on this trip.