Let me say at the outset, it wasn’t my idea. Nor was it Rohan’s. Upon such an enterprise, both of us looked with amusement, derision and a little scorn. We’re a modern couple. That goes without saying, as these are modern times, and we’re a couple. But we’re modern modern, or that’s how we’ve thought of ourselves, at the forefront, in the thick of the new, bare-knuckled brawlers, if you will, in the arena of the cutting edge, freedom is the sea we swim in, the air we breathe on a daily basis.
I’ll give you one example.
The month before a certain hypersonically famous Hollywood couple decided to switch names (he became she, and she he), calling it an act of guerilla gender sabotage, touching off a maelstrom of publicity, good, bad, ugly, fawning, indifferent, snooze-inducing, re-instilling in the public mind a certain habit of engaged catatonia in regards to their relationship to the outsized lives and personalities of the ultra-ultra-famous who live among us like invisible colossi straddling the peaks of our collective unconscious, setting off an avalanche of copycat name somersaults, burying us in Amandas who were previously Jonathans, Willards who were only the day before known of as Rebeccas, etc., the majority of whom missed the purportedly subversive original motive and announced their transformations as indicative of an ultimate desire for the dissolution of self into commingled, boundary-free couplehood — the month before all this happened, we did it, I became Shilpa, Shilpa became Rohan.
Our reason was more elegant. We saw it coming. Change accelerates, names drift, a century from now there will no longer be any Sanjays or Marie-Frances or Kimberlys or Sergeis or Roberts or Hildas or Claudes or Dimples or Marios, this despite that a century previous there were plenty of the above and are today equally plenty; no, we concluded that an age will soon arrive that will unhinge not only name from gender, but name from history, name from family, name from meaning; we will drift untethered from a lifetime of associations that pile upon a name, able to invent ourselves at will; one day I might be Theodora, the next Abhishek, the one after, Heinrich Xanthus Gum Catheter III. Our only legal designation will be pegged to, say, our Social Security Number, which like secret names in ancient times no one will know, yet with the aid of a smartphone app, or its future equivalent, we will transmit our daily name change to one and all, or at least to anyone on our encrypted Government-Secured Friends’ List.
So, the future being another country, Shilpa and I decided to pay a visit, and when we returned we had become Rohan and I.
One more example of our remorseless up-to-dateness. We were among the very first adopters of a Jeffrey: the Jeffrey 1.0, First Production Run, the much-maligned Dandie Dinmont model itself, of which only one hundred and sixty-seven were produced. The Jeffrey 1.1 was that ubiquitous crowd pleaser the Jack Russell and considerably more popular.
Early on, it was obvious that there were problems with the Dandie Dinmont model. The manufacturer, Psychozoologics, Inc., in an effort to prevent a collapse of previously positive consumer sentiment and deflation of what was almost a sexual frenzy among hedge fund money managers, and a consequent crash of the stock price to below its once heady post-IPO valuation, moved quickly to issue recalls and assuage public anxiety. The problem was the interface. The promised ability to communicate directly with your Jeffrey through human speech, transmitted telepathically, proved, in the rough and tumble of real-life situations, too great a computing burden for the processor-starved Dandie Dinmont, and instead an aura of suggestion was created between owner and telepathic dog.
To understand fully the needs of the dog, and for the dog to understand fully the thoughts of the owner, the two would sit together in silent meditation, allowing their complex neurologic processes to mingle until finally an emotion, though more rarely, a single word, would appear simultaneously in the minds of both. My first such experience with this extraordinary process lasted two hours; at the end of it, as if magically, the solitary word YES materialized in my mind, a sort of floating, glowing presence, bouncing gently up and down, as if propelled by a soft breeze. I watched the word for many hours, pondering its possibilities, and all this time, Jeffrey sat facing me, doing precisely the same, gazing fondly at the word in his digitally-enhanced dog consciousness, pondering the many connections it forged between us.
In those hours, Jeffrey became mine, I became Jeffrey’s. We were no longer owner and newly purchased cyborg pet, we had entered a different territory of relation altogether, a psychogenic bond had formed, and in a manner I cannot fully describe, we knew each other’s thoughts even if we could not readily articulate them with words.
Shilpa was immediately jealous of my new relationship (she was Shilpa, I still Rohan then), furious I hadn’t waited for her to come home, and told me that we should have bonded as a couple with the Jeffrey. It was an act bordering on marital betrayal that I chose to bond alone with the dog, leaving her entirely out of the psychogenic aura of suggestion that now existed between the two of us.
I won’t deny a touch of cruelty. No marriage is complete without it. Shilpa (before she was Rohan) was an adept at inflicting it when she chose. Should I mention the incident of the Greek pastry chef? Or the so-called Taiwanese exchange student who appeared without notice one afternoon and disappeared as mysteriously a week later, not once having cracked a book, and who devoted himself, while I was home, to lounging seductively almost naked by the pool? I’m a tolerant man, I’ve learned not to ask questions of Shilpa’s (now Rohan’s) adventures, the paths they lead me along are too often fruitless as she is a master of the conversational parry. Should my interrogations touch a nerve, she swiftly turns, thrusts and cuts. Our marriage exists in a state of terrifying balance.
The recall of the Jeffrey 1.0, the Dandie Dinmont, was hugely successful. The replacement Jack Russell functioned as promised, and soon, all across the nation, owners were having conversations with their pets as vapid as the conversations they daily carried on with their spouses, colleagues, their alleged relations of various sorts, etc. I was the sole holdout, the owner of the last of the Dandie Dinmonts, and refused to trade up. Earnest and enthusiastic representatives of Psychozoologics, Inc. offered every sort of inducement. What they perceived as the failures of the Dandie Dinmont remained an embarrassment to the corporate image. To me those very failures were its greatest success.
Often, for whole afternoons stretching long into the night, the Jeffrey and I, or Jeffrey, as that’s what I chose to name him, sat together in absolute silence, enjoying the cloudy pleasure and strangeness of our interconnected zone of suggestion, a state of pure communication, Zen-like in its simplicity, an unfettered co-existence of the mind. We sank into a pool of stillness, only to emerge hours later, not dazed, and not refreshed, but feeling like explorers returning from an arduous day’s trek, exhilarated, exhausted, sensing in our limbs the cold extremes to which we ascended. Some days, if we were lucky, a word or phrase appeared: IMPERFECTABILITY AS NORM, PAVEMENT, REMONSTRATIVE, BUICK LESABRE. It glowed softly white, floating up and down in our conjoined consciousness, and we considered together the near endless permutations of meaning and association. Rohan (then Shilpa) was not wholly excluded from our fraternal little club, there were times she joined us, sitting silently, a little sullenly, attempting to penetrate the bond between myself and Jeffrey. We allowed her in, but only so far, and I enjoyed her spark of outrage each time she struck the wall of her corral.
Was that why we swapped names? It happened at this time, our switch, which struck us both as so forward-looking, but in hindsight may have been more about damage repair. I will add that Jeffrey played a small role, subtly hinting, during our daily psychic sessions, at the need to mollify Rohan (then Shilpa). It worked, briefly. Rohan was her old self, I felt renewed as Shilpa, transformed yet exactly the same, as if we had stepped through a mirror only to find ourselves and not ourselves, a translation whose terms were both elemental yet obscure. At times, as I sat in silent communion, I heard Rohan’s attractive laugh along with a man’s, the sound of a champagne cork shooting out of a bottle, the clink of glasses and even, once, a great crash, as something large and fragile was dashed violently to the ground. I never learned what the object was, for always and without fail, when I emerged from my daily session, the house was as I left it, a clear, sparkling, almost glowing chamber, whose simple white walls shimmered, reveling in their near cube-like perfection.
What were we after in those days, before Paavo Laht arrived? Oh, how we pressed our noses against the picture window of the tirelessly new, like children at the mall! A truth without restriction or consequence perhaps, a map whose borders ran on into an endless blank, thus unframed and as yet undreamt, a life unheedful of the prospect of its own satiation. All of this, yes, and more. I remember Rohan (then Shilpa) saying to me that what it was she wanted most in life was to skim across the surface, like light on a pond in summer, real yet ineffable, an artifact of perception and position, whose beauty was wholly in the eye of the beholder. I fell in love with her that night, how could I not, and soon after we agreed to marry, to hold hands, as it were, and stride forward together, a pair of glittering, ever shifting surfaces, lighting the gloom in the eyes of passersby. I suppose everyone has lovely thoughts, thinks our lives add color to those around us, and maybe once in a while they do, that on rare occasions we break through the mask, assuage the deeper unease, and hold back, for a moment, our natural element, tears.
If you find me hinting at the outline of a crisis, I am, yet what exactly that crisis was is still a mystery. Nothing definitive happened. There was no break between myself and Rohan, no cataclysmic arguments, and neither was there a shuddering cold, we did not freeze each other out. We carried on, as interested in the other as we had always been, a sort of aesthetic interest, yes, but not wholly limited to the form of the other’s life; and at night, when we slipped together into bed, it was almost always a surprise that what, during the day, had seemed to each of us an object was, in fact, warm flesh, and I found myself lying there thinking, She is alive.
The crisis, such as it was, was a continuation, a lack of a definitive moment; as if the crisis itself was Rohan and I holding our breaths, waiting for the crisis to crash upon us. Dogs, better than humans, understand such moments, and Jeffrey, being a dog and telepathic, was acutely aware. One day, during a particularly difficult session, and after many hours of exhaustingly fruitless communion, he produced something he had never done before, a quite lengthy phrase: HIRSUTE ESTONIAN BUTCHER OF A CERTAIN AGE. It was almost a sentence! Well, we both collapsed from the exertion, and left it at that. I assumed I would never see the phrase again, but there it was, on the following day, and the day after, HIRSUTE ESTONIAN BUTCHER OF A CERTAIN AGE. Soon Jeffrey allowed me to think of nothing else. When I attempted telepathically to change the subject, his rebuke was instantaneous!
It was on one such day, immediately after Jeffrey rebuked me, that a great psychic howl filled my head. Jeffrey sat immobile as he always did, staring impassively ahead, but screaming nonetheless inside my head. I feared the worst, that the repetition of the phrase was indicative of a larger problem I had ignored: my Jeffrey 1.0 First Production Run was succumbing to the limits of its processing power, and that the original manufacturing flaws had finally compounded into something more serious.
A certified member of the Psychozoologics Rapid Response Lazarus Squad left me in no doubt. A critical failure in one of a dozen core logic boards, the so-called ‘Dream’ circuit, had caused a cascading failure. He had weeks left, no more. Jeffrey was mute in the living room, wires issuing from his cracked open skull and leading to several devices, each blinking and making faint wheezing sounds, like the coos of mourning doves. I should have called the Lazarus Squad earlier, the young man in white overalls castigated me, there might have been something they could have done. Under the circumstances, he recommended full neural shutdown and an upgrade to the 1.1 Jack Russell. The procedure was painless, he assured, but I was already in tears, abject and lost. I punched him with an uppercut to the jaw and watched him drop in shock, and reeled back, my hand singing in pain.
The next day we received a curt communication from the General Manager of our local branch of the Psychozoologics Rapid Response Lazarus Squad informing us that any further attempts to utilize the Squad’s unique resources would be instantly rebuffed, and any repeat of what they called my performance would result in either criminal or civil charges being brought. I could care less, I knew what to do. Jeffrey had understood his own predicament better than any of us and squandered something of his dying strength to communicate a last wish.
It was no easy task finding a hairy, middle-aged Estonian butcher, and as the weeks passed, Jeffrey visibly declined and I became more disheartened. I sent urgent messages to any and all, contacting artisanal butcher committees, Friends of Estonia groups, and even recording a psychogram for an alternative Baltic dating site, hoping someone might have a lead. Finally, I received an ether-text from a young woman in a town in Alberta, Canada, who said she had one. The words glowed in hot pink and floated holographically in the center of my living room. If I wanted, he as all mine, she was glad to be rid of him.
I was electrified with joy, so was Jeffrey. For the first time in days, he raised his piteous head and looked at me with a glimmer of real life. Rohan had followed the whole escapade with scorn, but even she was touched by the sudden improvement in Jeffrey’s disposition. She agreed to join me at the airport to meet the new member of our family, which is exactly what I had advertised for, nothing less. Jeffrey looked at me with dreamy, happy eyes, and I set off, knowing my life was about to change again.
The figure who emerged and walked toward my simple handwritten sign was a short, powerfully-built man in his early sixties, with graying hair and thick lips and great, bushy eyebrows. He greeted me with a large, expressionless face and wore a musty-smelling jacket some fifty years out of date. His hover trolley suspended only a single suitcase. It was really ancient, with actual locks that required keys, and I marveled at it as much as I marveled at him. He looked as if he had stepped out of a time machine.
When I offered my hand, instead of taking it, he reached into his pocket and produced a small package, which he handed to me. His fingers were as thick as sausages.
I opened the package immediately. It contained a letter and an Estonian-English phrasebook. The letter read, “He’s my father. He was a real butcher all his life and then he stopped. He doesn’t speak English. Never tried, never learned. He raised me and my brother after Mom died, so I suppose I should be grateful. At least now I’ll be able to put a tanning bed in his old room. Even with global warming, Alberta summers are still shit.” That was all, not even a signature. There was, however, a PS. “His name is Paavo Laht.” I realized then that, in my brief communications with this man’s daughter, I had forgotten to ask his name.
He grinned as I read the letter, nodded his head rapidly up and down, then stopped, and I sensed a deep sadness in his eyes. On the drive home, he sat in the back, having insisted on this through a series of violent gestures when I tried to usher him into the front passenger seat, and Rohan and I sat in the front, none of us saying a word.
That first day was no less strange than the silent drive, for once he entered the house, he marched into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and freezer, and made several loud exclamations in his own language, which seemed to suggest he was frustrated by the lack of meat that required chopping. And, when he finally unlocked his suitcase, rather than its containing treasured family mementoes or items of clothing, it was filled with knives wrapped in lengths of ancient, bloody cloth, all as old as the suitcase itself, some worn down to their stubs, and from the bottom he pulled out a great wooden chopping board, also stained with blood, its center scored into a depression by all the blows struck against it. He arranged the knives in several of our drawers, found a suitable place for his chopping board, and, after he declared himself to be what I assumed was satisfied, he made a small cup of herbal tea. He carried this into the living room and drank it as he watched a holo-screen show on the struggles of infant polar bears in the newly ice-free north. Each time one of the beautiful little baby bears skidded and lost its footing and tumbled comically into the freezing water, he clapped his hands jubilantly and turned to me with a contented grin on his face.
I decided to show him a page from the phrasebook, hoping to discover a basis for communication, but as soon as I did, he grabbed the book from my hands and started paging madly through it. He held it right side up, then upside down, then sideways as if he was looking at a centerfold, guffawing in derision, and finally flung it across the room. It struck the wall and dropped into the fish tank. At this, he furrowed his brow and curled his lower lip out over his upper and sat there sulking, his great, powerful shoulders pressed forward into his chest. He showed no more interest in the antics of the baby polar bears. Throughout, Jeffrey sat in the corner, watching everything, beaming with delight. The arrival of the butcher had given him renewed life, and for this I was thankful, but what exactly were we supposed to do with him? It was beyond me. The dog had already lost the power of psychic speech, and every day, his physical strength continued to wane. Total neural collapse was imminent, yet here he was, sending out bright, sharp notes of enthusiasm and encouragement, as if telling us not to worry, that it would all somehow explain itself.
Rohan had disappeared when she spotted the butcher’s frustration in the kitchen and now returned, an hour later, leading behind her two men dressed in fastidious white butcher’s coats. They carried on their shoulders the carcass of one half of a large-sized cow. When Paavo Laht set his eyes on this, he jumped to his feet, his face astonished, and stood there for a whole minute, trembling with joy, and finally started shouting and led the men forcefully into the kitchen, where they deposited the carcass and left Paavo to his task. The remainder of the day we didn’t see him, only heard him. He chopped and cut and sliced, and issued great exclamations of happiness and sang to himself in his own language, love songs and dirges and happy ditties, one after the other in an almost unbroken medley.
By evening, we smelled meat cooking, and as night set in he ushered us into the dining room, without theatricality but with obvious pride. He had set out plates, and in the center, a great platter filled with steaks and ribs and every sort of cut of meat, all of it cooked and steaming. There was even a small setting for Jeffrey, who took up his perch on a thick cushion, obviously weak, yet giddy at the sight of our new friend’s handiwork. Paavo had not changed his clothes, and his old jacket was spattered in fresh blood. At one point, trying to persuade me of something, he thrust a bloodied lapel into my face and let out a hoary laugh. He also cut off strips of steak and fed them to Jeffrey. The poor dog did his best to rise up on his hind legs, but most often settled for chewing the meat after Paavo had dropped it into his plate. The butcher was enraptured by our dog, and I wondered if he understood something of Jeffrey’s role in his own arrival. Each time Jeffrey barked, Paavo nodded his head thoughtfully and considered for a moment and said something in his language, alien to me but which Jeffrey appreciated. Paavo was almost already part of the family.
But as dinner came to an end, Jeffrey’s skull started producing odd clicking noises and his head began to move in uncharacteristic quick jerks back and forth. The excitement had been too much for him. He was fading fast. Rohan and I cleared the table and washed the dishes. A great deal of meat was left over. It had to be refrigerated. Much else that wasn’t cooked needed freezing. We carried out these chores in mournful silence. When we finished, it was late and time for bed.
Jeffrey was asleep on top of the covers at Paavo’s feet. The butcher had found a pair of my pajamas, eggshell blue ones dotted with little anchors and sailing ships. They were too small for him, but he didn’t seem to mind, and lay in the center of the bed, breathing softly through his mouth and staring up at the ceiling. Rohan took one side of him, and I the other, and I remember curling my body around that great hulking mass and thinking that it reminded me of something, of a memory from long ago. For the first time in a very long while, a sense of serenity washed over me, and I wondered at my ceaseless need for up-to-dateness and being on the cutting edge. Pressed against a strange bear of a man, a man who was as much teddy bear as he was human, seemed another kind of freedom, and considerably less taxing. I could hear Rohan on the far side of Paavo. She was cooing softly to herself. I knew her well enough to know she was thinking the same thought I was, and later she would confess this to me, how easy that first night seemed, how undemanding. She felt like a little girl again, she said. She had forgotten how that felt.
Paavo Laht would stay with us for many years, and as his daughter warned, never learned a word of English, never so much as tried, and much of what he said and did remained forever a mystery. He had few interests outside of butchery and meat, and spent his afternoons, when there was no fresh carcass to dismember, sitting in front of the holo-screen immersed in animal shows. Yet if anyone asked me, and many did, why I continued to tolerate his presence, I would answer that I could not imagine living without him. Rohan felt the same.
I still remember that first night he slept with us as Jeffrey’s dying head clicked away, growing quieter and quieter. I woke an hour before dawn to find Paavo sitting bolt upright, his face buried in his hands, weeping. When he noticed me he pointed to his feet. There, motionless and silent, lay my dog.
Originally published in The Happy Hypocrite. Republished with permission.
About the author:
Ranbir Sidhu is the award-winning author of Deep Singh Blue, Good Indian Girls, and Object Lessons. Hacking Trump, his first book-length work of non-fiction, will be published in January 2018.