I didn’t smoke when I moved into the little blue house, but after going on a few short tours with my band, the habit returned. I never smoked inside, but was never fully comfortable outside either, alone, in the dark and snow, just a short fence between myself and the back lane. (Oh, the fabled back lane, source of car-window-smashers and generic trouble.)
I was afraid of the night, and afraid of being out alone, but I wanted to smoke. I’d huddle as close as I could reasonably get to the stairs and the shack of a back porch, hustle through my Benson & Hedges, and scurry back inside.
That all changed when Shadow came to live with me.
She had a sense of loyalty that confounded my initial indifference to her plight. She was the family dog from my dad’s side, my sister’s dog, really. She always loved me unconditionally but I was Not A Dog Person then and they never even asked me to take her when they were planning the move.
When they mentioned that they were considering bringing her to the humane society I sighed and said, “Well, if it’s gotten to that, I’ll take her.” My dad asked me a few times if I was sure. He was doubtful, rightfully. “Of course”, I said, more out of a general sense of duty to animals than to this one in particular.
So she moved in to a new and unfamiliar home, with an unfamiliar cat who never returned her affections. I inherited all of the Dog Things: leash, kibble bin, kibble and water bowl, and a book about dogs. She wagged her tail, she tried to lick me, and I recoiled. But she knew me, and in her eyes, she was already My Dog.
If I went inside, she’d run back inside with me, even if she’d just gone out. When I went out for a smoke, she couldn’t stand to be on the other side of the door. Her desperate bark cracked the cold shell of my Not A Dog Person heart. Inevitably, we became smoking buddies. I took to asking her, jokingly, as if she was a friend at the bar, “Hey Shadow, wanna go for a smoke?” and she’d wag her tail and lead me to the back door.
I felt safer, guarded, less alone, when she came out for smoke breaks with me. Her bark feigned fierceness. We developed a routine – I’d smoke and she’d inspect the snow. We’d go back in and she’d diligently lift each paw so I could pull out the miniature snowballs that grew from her paw tufts. One of my towels became the Dog Paw Wiping Towel. She became My Dog.
Then I quit smoking again, but it was too late to change the invitation. I didn’t want to go for a smoke anymore, but for Shadow, there was no other sentence that held the same promise. I tried all the variations.
“Shadow, wanna go outside?”
“Shadow, wanna play in the yard?”
“Shadow, wanna go out back?”
I’d stand outside with her and say the words over and over again, “Outside! Yard! Out Back!” but these odd sounds meant nothing to her. It was especially confusing when my mom casually dropped a “Yeah, I had to pick up some smokes” in the middle of a conversation; Well-trained Shadow would stretch, stand up, and wait patiently at the door, staring back at me over her shoulder with a look that read, “Smoke, she said. Smokes? Smokes!”
I had softened slightly in the presence of this big-hearted old hound, and figured, eventually, if Shadow wants to go out for a smoke, why can’t she just go out for a smoke? She’s never cared whether I suck on cigarettes or not. She just needed to go outside, and preferred my company while being there. She just wanted what she knew would follow the question, “Shadow, wanna go for a smoke?”.
And sure, I had some explaining to do when friends and guests heard me inviting Shadow out for a smoke long after I’d quit. “Smoke means outside”, I’d explain, and they’d shake their heads at my strange dog and her verbal accommodations. But it always gave me a small sense of satisfaction. I’d kicked the habit, and regardless of the human meaning of the word, I’d also learned to speak Shadow.