I was somewhere around eight-years-old when I learned that fear does, in fact, have a scent. Around the corner from my house in the middle of quiet, 1980s suburbia there lived a killer. To be honest, we’re not sure if he ever actually killed anyone, but his name was Killer and that was enough for us kids in the neighborhood to feel his threat and sense his stare every time we turned onto Friar Tuck Drive.
Killer was a stocky, brown and black, shepherd/rottweiler mix. Killer was also inarguably pissed off ninety percent of the time and guarded the territory surrounding his yellow brick ranch house with the authority of a full swat team. We kids, terrified by Killer’s exposed teeth (dripping with drool that we could spot on the other side of the street), knew precisely when our casual stroll should turn into a life-saving sprint when rounding the corner in his direction. (This is the exact reason I took to roller skates so quickly.) Should we come bounding around the corner, Killer would tear after us immediately. But if we pretended to not notice him, he would generally ignore us right up until we were opposite his post, at which point, he’d slowly meet our eyes and we’d break into a heart pounding sprint, not looking back, until we busted through the front door of our friend’s house, who unfortunately resided catty-corner from Killer.
I’m not sure what became of Killer, how long he lived, and if he continued to watch his post until his last day. Somewhere between junior high and college, I stopped worrying about him. I was too old for games and too busy to wander. Nowadays, however, I think of Killer often. Though a quarter of Killer’s size, and honestly more of a threat to squirrels than rowdy children, my Schweenie (that’s part shih tzu, part long haired dachshund for those unfamiliar with this truly bizarre breed) rules my block like the crowned sovereign she sees when reflected in the glass of our front window, a throne of sorts where she lets her presence be known to anyone who dares walk past her kingdom. The little general, as she is often referred, begins each day thumping down one stair at a time and scampering to her post at the window in a flurry of barks.
“I’m here, suckers! Let the tyranny commence!” she seems to tell the neighborhood.
She returns to her post dutifully throughout the day until nightfall when, well, she can’t see much. But I know without having to ask that each and every child in and around my house knows of this most ferocious beast, lurking behind the window of the two story orange brick house with the missing shutter.
When I was a kid, Killer was as bad as it could get -- the biggest threat to my seemingly sheltered childhood. Beyond Killer, there would eventually be others: rude, obnoxious boys in junior high, who tugged on my braids and mocked me when I answered the teacher’s questions. In high school, the director of a high school musical for which I was auditioning quite audibly expressed his dissatisfaction with my eight bars, igniting a rippling of murmurs and giggles in the theater that ran me off the stage and far away from musical theater for years. Then there were the frat boys in college, who did little to raise my ego, and eventually early adulthood would present me with bosses who made me so angry that I swear my body began producing venom. But the interesting thing about all of them is that I needed them.
My basic impulse in response to most of the animosity in life has been to get the hell away from it -- as far as I could get. I ran from Killer, avoided the boys, quit singing, and quit jobs. But I’ve learned that animosity just has this way of finding us. We are imperfect people to begin with, so why should we expect life to be without imperfect treatment? And it wasn’t until I couldn’t run anymore that I realized that the best thing I can do when threatened is ask why I’m so threatened. Often, the answer is an inside job.
The other day, The Girl was in a full puddle of tears over Middle Man’s latest antics. The two coexist in an on-again, off-again test of wits, pranks, and insults. Middle Man knows exactly which buttons to press to make The Girl reach that ear piercing shriek that means he got her good, and she knows exactly when to time her tattle in order for the maximum punishment to be laid upon him. It is a feud that I feared would worsen before they realized that all along they actually had a best friend living in the same house.
“Why do you get so angry when he teases you?” I recently asked The Girl.
“Because he smiles when I get annoyed,” she answered.
Little boys literally never change. How did I end up parenting the same kid who pulled my braids in the eighties?
I remembered how Killer would start to growl the minute he smelled our fear. I’m not saying that twelve-year-old boys are the same as a territorial shepherd/rottweiler mix, but I do think there’s something worth reading between the lines.
So I asked Middle Man, “Why do you laugh when your sister gets frustrated with you?”
“Because she always gets mad on cue every time. It’s kind of funny how predictable she is.”
I proceeded with a lecture, mother to rascal, about respect, bullying, and the question of what he would do if he caught another boy teasing his sister the way he does. A question to which he immediately responded, “One of us would have a bloody nose and it wouldn’t be me.”
But I was also pleasantly surprised to see his rigid security measures already in place. He likes her! He really likes her!
Back to the girl I went. I’m no fool. I know she does plenty to annoy her brother, yet he doesn’t emit nearly the same high-pitched shriek that I’m pretty sure Killer hears all the way from his grave (may he rest in peace) when my daughter yells. There was something Middle Man understood that she didn’t. Maybe it was their age gap? Maybe it was a gender thing? Or maybe, The Girl hadn’t yet learned how to outsmart Killer with a strength she hides inside.
“What if the next time he teases you, you don’t scream. What if you, instead, surprise him by being as calm as he thinks you can’t be?”
The Girl’s lips turned into a wicked, grinchy grin. “That would really piss him off,” she schemed.
“Or bore him,” I said, amused by her spunk. “Either will work.”
I’m not sure we ever completely outsmarted Killer, not if we continued to run for our lives from him. But we did manage to coexist with Killer. And for a bunch of kids, I think that’s pretty empowering. As for the boys and all the other people who would challenge me well into adulthood, I can’t say that I ever outsmarted them either. If anything, they outwitted me. But I’m also keenly aware of their presence in my life having a greater purpose than frustration. I might have run from my enemies, but I didn’t forget how they made me feel -- responses that I now draw from when I’m scared, angry, embarrassed, or challenged. If we were shaped only by that which is lovely, we wouldn’t form an edge of our own. It is that edge that gives us the advantage we need to be able to see our enemies for who they are, to seek to understand them, to maybe even love them one day, and also, to see the strength we do have and love ourselves for what we can do more than loathe ourselves for what we can’t.
Like Killer, my dog will likely be legendary. And also like Killer, my dog will one day be remembered by the kids in my neighborhood with a certain fondness, a nostalgia for a simpler time when the biggest obstacle of the day was “don’t wake the dog!” The Girl will eventually surprise the rascals by boring them to tears or challenging them for a change. And like her Mom, she may even marry a rascal and raise one of her own. Whatever the outcome, I know enough to know that the people who hurt us often help us to become who we will be. We can’t see that while we’re running away from dogs, nasty boys, mean directors, and infuriating bosses. But eventually, if we look inside, we see that we’re made of thicker matter and that at the end of the day, dogs retire to their beds and we are stronger than we think.