My parents are typical Americana: divorced and dysfunctional. Mom hails from Korean immigrants, dad from generic Anglo. A couple generations ago, being a mixed-race child would have me exotic. In modern day San Francisco, no one bats an eye.
Mom re-married when I was ten years old. His name is Gary—a nice coder who built a modest fortune throughout the tech booms. Gary, like my biological dad, is generic Anglo.
If I sound kinda blah, I apologize. I’m kinda blah about everything, I guess. I mean, I’m grateful for my parents—financially, they’re well-off (anywhere else they’d be super-rich, but not in San Francisco), and don’t mind giving me a hand. They pay for my cozy one-bed, give me a small stipend (dependent on grades), and buy food for my dog: Gribbles.
I had to fight for him. My mom’s Americanized, but some old-school Korean came to the fore when I told her I wanted an elderly rescue. She wanted a puppy, a doodle or Frenchie, something people would see as fashionable. At the time, I couldn’t have said why I stuck to my guns, but looking back, I now recognize it as the same primal urge that insisted I sign that damned contract.
Gribbles isn’t fashionable, not by any stretch. His right eye is blind and milky. His left ear is still ragged from a long-ago street fight. His breath sounds like a dying buzzsaw. If I had to guess, I’d say he was a ridgeback daschund mix. He inherited a ridgeback’s trademark back-ridge, but none of the athleticism. He’s wide and squat, not as much as a pureblood daschund, but nowhere near as tall as a ridgeback.
Doesn’t matter—I still love him. He’s the only thing in this gray, mechanical world that still seems bright. He’s too old to sprint around, but whenever I take him for his afternoon walk, he wears a giant grin on his white-muzzled face. He loves snoozing on cushions (or on my lap), and he’s always, always happy for dinner. (That’s where he got his name—when he eats his food it sounds like he’s saying gribble gribble gribble). I’ve often wished I could be a dog, so I could enjoy life as much as Gribbles.
I open the door to my one-bedroom palace (if you live in San Francisco, you know the word palace isn’t an exaggeration). Gribbles waddles up, tail wagging.
“Hey buddy.” I crouch down and scratch his sides. “How you doing? Miss me?”
He wags harder. His back feet lift off the ground, thumping the carpet in alternating time.
“Yeah.” I scratch his ears. “Yeah, you did.” He makes a few of the sounds that inspired his name.
This may sound weird, but Gribbles is the best thing in my entire life. Yeah I’ve got family and cousins and step-siblings, but Gribbles loves me unconditionally. He doesn’t care if I did my chores or gave him money or if I just yelled at him; he still loves me. And to experience unconditional love in a conditional world…well, it gives me hope for something greater. Something bigger than money and likes and a Twitter verification badge.
“You want a treat, huh? Let’s get you a treat.” I rise from my crouch and walk into the kitchen. He immediately starts grunting, circling in place with manic excitement. “Calm down, spaz. You’ve had these before—same menu, different day.” I uncork a cookie jar and grab a small handful of Nommie McGobberYoms, a dog treat made by my neighborhood pet store: ZigZag Zoomies. (For those of you unfamiliar with all things Dog, “zoomies” is slang for Frenetic Random Activity Periods, or when a dog sprints back and forth for no apparent reason).
ZigZag takes pride in selling products with every progressive label in the history of food, the ones that can make or break a sale to a discerning soccer mom. Free trade, gluten free, sustainably grown, wild caught, transnormative, etc. etc. I’m a true San Franciscan, and it shows in my groceries.
None of that matters, not to me anyway. In eighth grade, I went through a brief stretch of social indignation where I would argue heatedly with anyone and everyone about which label belonged where. But as the world turned and the years passed, I cared less and less about siding with tribes and declaring my allegiance. During the virus, I had the brief hope that people would come together and really start caring for each other. (They did, for a little bit.) But people are people—soon enough, we grew back into our collective indifference.
I guess I’m a symptom of it. Call me crazy, but I don’t really care about computerized bubbles on mass-produced scantrons. I don’t really care about a stupid square hat, shaking an uncaring hand and collecting a meaningless diploma, all so I can work for a faceless corporation. Gribbles is the only thing that makes any ounce of sense—he seems to be the only one I know that truly enjoys his earthbound life. Sometimes I wonder—is he wise or ignorant? If I could limit myself, would I willingly do so, if it meant I’d always be happy?
I sit on the couch, watching Gribbles maow down his treats, eyes bugging with clear delight, and I can’t help but smile. For the moment I’m decided—Gribbles is the wisest being I’ve ever known. Screw anyone who says he’s dumb.
He runs up to me, cuts a tight little circle with his stubby little legs, then pops up on his hind feet, placing both paws on my right knee. His eyes fill with urgency and please-gimme-eatos anguish (eatos: dog slang for food, in my mind). How can I resist?
Back to the kitchen. This time, I get him a big ol’ rawhide. I can hear him whining in anticipation.
“Tell me how you really feel,” I say, smiling a little wider.
After I give it to him, savoring the look on his bug-eyed face as he clamps down on it, he trots away and heads for the balcony, where I’ve installed a pet-door attachment that butts up against the sliding glass door. That’s how I know he really loves his treat—if he goes outside to eat it by himself.
But as he slips through the plastic drape, something crazy happens. The open pet-door, instead of giving me a glimpse of dreary, fog-bound San Francisco, flashes with something entirely alien. A blind-folded face: thin, tight-lipped, with a grimness I’ve never seen outside a movie. There’s glowing runes printed across his blindfold—he looks like a World of Warcraft Night Elf, only way cooler.
He flashes across the swinging pet-door for a split-second, then the view pans down and he’s replaced by an intricate, back-curving knife held by a fingerless, leather-gloved hand (I think it’s his but I’m not sure). The hand slips out of view and for a quicksilver moment, I see beyond him into the backdrop. There’s a dark, foreboding fortress atop a craggy jut of rock, surrounded by night-black pits and storm-torn skies.
And then it’s gone.
I run to the door, my eyes wide with disbelief. This little square of plastic, for whatever reason, has become a narrow-viewed camera in an alien world. This is incredible. I can’t believe that—
Wait. I straighten up and close my eyes, hands out as if to say hold on, everyone calm down for just a second. I open my eyes. They tick side to side as I try to make sense of what I just saw.
Rational thinking kicks back in. It wasn’t real. On the heels of that: Maybe you’re sick. You should go see a doctor.
I’m filled with dread as I consider my fate. Pitying looks. Awkward condolences. Prescription meds. Endless tests—evaluation after evaluation after evaluation.
No. I clench my jaw, deciding the issue then and there. I’m not crazy. I can’t be. I won’t be.
I slide the glass door a little to the left, enough to poke my head through to the outside balcony. Gribbles is laying on his belly, chewing on his rawhide. He meets my eyes and gives me a warning growl: Leeme ’lone. Dis bone is MINE.
I’m too rattled to be amused. Instead, I feel an overwhelming wave of relief. Whew. The world is normal and sane, as it should be. Gribbles on the balcony, eating his treat. People down below, going to work or school or seeking distraction. No magic blindfolds, no Lord of the Rings knives, no crevasses with evil-looking strongholds built on their mesas.
The world is normal and sane.
As it should be.