The first day Nila showed up, she ran through the front door of our house, ambled up the spiraled steps to our bedroom, and then couldn’t get back down. It turns out that short, fat basset hound legs aren’t made to descend steep, slippery steps. She stood at the top of the stairs, her droopy brown eyes full of dopy cheer and sleep gunk, wagged her tail, and waited for me to rescue her.
Her owners (our neighbors, with whom we share a large enclosed yard) were nowhere to be found. And since I had no desire to pick up a dog I had known for less than five minutes, I spent a quarter hour coaxing her back down, one step at a time, by waving cookies in front of her oversize nose and making a treat trail down the steps.
Chaddy, a 10-year-old mix of breeds (above), is our dog. Nila is not. But after living part-time in our house for the better part of four months, I don’t think she knows this. Indeed, much of her time is spent lounging in our living room on Chaddy’s bed, scratching away at nipples large enough to nurse a baby tiger.
Nila’s owners (a Guatemalan-American couple in their twenties) think she’s about two years old. They’ve had her since April, when they took her off the hands of a friend in Guatemala City who no longer had space for her. It would be a nice story except that they’re rarely around, which makes us Nila’s keepers by default. When they’re not home–and even when they are–she comes and goes as she pleases through the front door we leave open for Chaddy.
And that’s fine, except that Nila is not easy to have around. For one thing, she smells like mildew, sour milk, and bad morning breath. Her scent lingers on a good day; when she’s wet, it can clear a room.
She has a voracious appetite and steals Chaddy’s food whenever she can. She drools. She sometimes pees in our house and always craps in our grass (her owners seem quite oblivious to the prodigious piles of poop she produces and never, ever walk her).
She gets up on the couch. She lets out long, exaggerated howls when we leave and arfs like an overzealous seal when we come home. Whether out of stubbornness or stupidity, she rarely responds to her name.
The sound of her incessant scratching, itching, and paw-licking could drive a person mad. Indeed, she has driven me mad–to the point where I’ve kicked her out and closed the front door behind her. It’s a thin metal door, though, and doesn’t block the sound of her high-pitched cries.
All that to say, the day I lost Nila (a few weeks ago) should have felt like a blessing in disguise.
I had taken Chaddy out for a quick evening walk before an impending rain and, in my haste, accidentally left our front gate open. We returned from our stroll to an empty yard. There was no blur of brown-and-white fur to greet us. Nila was nowhere. Nila was gone.
At first, I considered pretending not to notice. “When her owners ask if I’ve seen her, I’ll just play dumb,” I thought.
“She’s not my responsibility, anyway,” I reassured myself.
“And she’s definitely not my dog.”
But something about that didn’t ring quite true. I imagined her fat paws, big brown eyes, and floppy ears lost in the Guatemalan wilds and began to worry. I pictured here under the tire of a bus or in the evil arms of a dognapper and began to panic. I imagined her never returning and began to run. For some insane reason I couldn’t quite explain, I felt the need to find our stinky Nila.
I started out on the main road that leads to the center of Pana, certain Nila had headed this way since she hadn’t passed me on my walk with Chaddy. The thing is, though, I was far from prepared for a chase. I was wearing flimsy flip-flops, short shorts, and was bra-less under my light tee-shirt, as I had just finished a pilates video and was about to shower before I decided to take Chaddy out and beat the rain. I was ill-prepared to run, but even more so when the sky finally opened.
Imagine a gringa in a thunderstorm running awkwardly in slippery flip-flops, up and down hills through mud and puddles on poorly paved roads. Imagine her sweating profusely in the humidity and yelling for a dog named Nila as people stare quizzically. Imagine her running up to a half-dozen people, holding her hands up to the sides of her head to form long basset hound ears, and using a too-loud voice to ask in faulty, panicked Spanish: “THIS DOG?! BROWN AND WHITE. HAVE YOU SEEN? LOST!”
You know what? Forget that image, okay? Let’s just say I ran a half-mile to town, couldn’t find Nila, and ran the half-mile back home to see if she had returned. She hadn’t. And as my search continued, my anger grew.
I was going to have to tell our neighbors that I lost their dog. That they might never see her, again. The fault was mine, but only because Nila had become my responsibility. She was always around, always at my feet, begging for a pet, a kiss, a snack. But that did not make her my dog. I cursed her owners and swore that if I ever found Nila, I would never let her in my house, again. No more treats. No more belly scratches. I would make it clear that she was Not. Mine.
And then suddenly, I looked up the road I was trudging along, and Nila came running towards me. I took one look at her shuffling behind, bright eyes, and wiggling wrinkles and learned that my resolve is weak.
My anger and annoyance melted into relief and then, oddly, joy. I was truly happy to see Nila and not just because I had found the dog that I had lost. Sure, she was dopy, stinky, and insanely annoying, but as she shuffled along, I had to acknowledge that she was also sweet, innocent, and eager to please. I realized that her absence would have left a hole in our daily existence that I was surprisingly happy to have filled.
And so, even when I attempted to direct her back to our front gate, and she would only roll over and do this on the road:
…which meant I had to pick her up and carry her home like a baby, I was happy to have her back. She may not be my dog, but I guess it doesn’t really matter.
Sadly, the story doesn’t end there. We had to say goodbye to Nila this past Saturday, for while she was able to win me over, the house we were living in could not. We had a beautiful view, but the cost for it was too high: It was too buggy, too far from town, too isolated. We moved, and our new house is much nicer, but there is no Nila.