I've had several best friend over the years, but today I'm remembering one in particular. Jenny.
Jenny was the Dalmatian who lived with the retired couple next door.
At one point in my childhood, my dad rented and moved us into a house in Pendleton, SC. This was the first house that I had lived in as my own home. Not stayed, not spent the night, but lived. Before that, when we lived with my dad, we had been in a single-wide trailer, then an apartment. Houses were what mama's other family members had, and where they would let us stay for a little while sometimes when mama was fed up and scared. But now I was living in a house with my mama and my father, in a neighborhood with other houses, with a drive-way, on a street. I had a street address that didn't have a lot or apartment number. It was very simple to find me. There were trees and grass - a lawn, a yard. My dad staked out and planted a garden in the back - corn, tomatoes, watermelon. The watermelon were really something. Who knew they could be so tiny at the start? He planted marigolds around the perimeter, a trick to keep the pests out. My mother laid out in the backyard, near the garden, in a patch of sunlight, and sunbathed. I remember she followed the patch of sunlight around the whole backyard throughout the day, picking up and moving, even though the chair she had was difficult to deal with. It was one of those that unfolded, and you had to lean up then push it back, seemingly over and over again, endlessly, to get it into the right position.
Once, she was out there sunbathing, completely surrendered to the sun, maybe in a moment of peace, certainly of vulnerability, because my dad was able to get right up to her and throw a heavy ring of keys at her before she could move. I saw her jump up, her feet and hands in the air, then topple over in the rickety chair when the keys hit her. What he did left a big bruise on her thigh.
So I'm not saying that I was happy in this house on Elm Street, but it was the first time I ever lived in a house, and despite what was going on behind closed doors, I felt some sense of normalcy - the kind of normalcy that living in a house - not a trailer, not an apartment - brings. There really is something to it. A stabilizing effect, even in the midst of chaos and near-constant fear.
There was a tree that my dad told me was called a "Weeping Willow" in the backyard and it took me all of five seconds to fall in love with it, and with all willows of the weeping variety, for the rest of my life up to this day. Living on Elm Street, I spent many hours under that willow, even after it got too dark, or too cold. And even though I sat on the dirt underneath it instead of in any constructed place up in its branches, I considered it my tree house, a child's own home away from home. You don't get those living in trailers, or apartments.
I had a friend at school, Lauren, who was sort of like a best friend, but I had a feeling I couldn't really trust her. I had a feeling she didn't really like me, and besides, there was no one who could beat Jenny.
Jenny and I were separated by a fence that outlined the neighbors' property, but I would go to the fence and pet her, sticking as much of myself - my fingers, then careful up to my wrist - as I could get through the fence.
I wanted her to come hang out with me underneath the willow (don't we always invite our closest friends to our homes?), and because the willow was so close to the neighbor's property that it literally wept into their backyard, it was possible that she could. If she wanted to. Lord, did I ever try to encourage her! I shouted and shouted and shouted in the sweetest, most sing-song voice I could from underneath the willow, already with my books and sheets of paper, my favorite pencils for writing stories. But she had her own spot, a little indention that she dug near the fence where she could fit and be cool in the summertime, and it was not anywhere near the willow.
If I met her where she liked to stay at the fence, sat quietly and talked to her for a while, petted her slowly, then eventually went down to the willow when neither of us had anything else to update the other on after I had been at school all day and she had been in the backyard all day, eventually she would walk down there and sit near me to find out what I was up to. This was the routine we developed.
I don't know how long we lived there - not long, but long enough that she got to know the sound of my voice, and when I would come out into the backyard and holler, she'd pop up and come out to where I could see her, wagging her tail because she knew I meant good news and tenderness.
My mama bought a big red box of multi-colored dog biscuits and hid them from my dad under the kitchen sink for me to sneak and give Jenny. I thought they smelled curious and delicious. Just the way dog biscuits are supposed to smell. Dog biscuits don't smell like that anymore. I don't know why she hid them. I don't think my dad would've minded, but then again he might've. You couldn't predict things. I couldn't. That's what made it so scary. Maybe that's why I'm so skittish now? I'm always trying to feel out anger. I've got very sensitive antenna.
Jenny never got angry. She never gnarled her teeth, not even when I tried - nervously, panicked - to pull off ticks. God, those were the worst things in the world. A tick was an emergency. I sweated bullets until it was gone. I couldn't bare for anything to hurt, to suck blood!, from something I loved.
I loved Jenny.
A couple times, the neighbors let me come over into their backyard and play with her. These were brief excursions because, without the fence, Jenny got very rambunctious and I found out that she was actually very much taller than me. She liked to put her paws up on either of my shoulders and dance. She was very heavy.
The neighbors were a nice older couple. They told me about their daughter who had gone to college and I knew within about five seconds that college was definitely something I wanted to do. Their daughter seemed mysterious, grown, impossible. I didn't think at the time of her petting Jenny, of Jenny being a dog another girl loved, too. She left behind an old sweatshirt, and they gave it to me. They said I was sweet. They told my mama I was sweet. They said I could pet Jenny any time I wanted. They said Jenny had a heart condition.
I'm sure both Jenny and my neighbors are long passed by now.
Jenny was my best friend. She was a respite from my fears, a touchstone for peace, and I could tell her my secrets telepathically. She is the bar I have set by which to judge all other friendships.
If you need a peaceful moment, if you need quiet reflection and to touch fur, if you are scared and alone and need to love something other than yourself, I'd suggest a friend like Jenny.