“But you… you’re not a cat person, are you?”

The question thudded like a judge’s gavel. Conversations at the going-away party for my friend Gui stopped; heads turned to stare at me, people ready to tear into me should I produce the wrong answer. The wind sighed through the pine trees, and waves rippled on Lake Wanaka.

“Uhh… You see…” I stuttered.

Normally a kind, jesting Kiwi who always called me “Beean,” Michelle’s eyes hardened. She had two small dogs named Winston and… something else, both of which had long ears and the most melancholy, pleading look in their eyes.

To answer the cat/dog question is almost like choosing your side in a war or saying what political party you favor—there’s really no going back. Whatever you say is going to be held against you from that moment on; every word you speak is going to be haunted by the knowledge that you are a [whisper very evilly] cat lover.

One of the dogs had chosen me as his desired petter and plopped his butt down in such an uncompromising position that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had somehow glued his little keister to the ground. He gazed up at me with doleful eyes—he wasn’t leaving without some sort of recognition. Under Michelle’s severe stare, I took a deep breath and hesitantly patted him on the head, hoping he and Michelle would be satisfied with my feeble gesture.

I looked back up at Michelle with a hopeful glance—I had done it; I had completed what was required of me. I sighed and then hunched over on the bench like Gollum and stared at the lake.

I don’t mind dogs; I really don’t—if they’re well-behaved and don’t shove their mucus-y nose in my crotch, bark or yip, chase after me, bite me, shed on me, lick me, shit on the lawn where I happen to step, eat my food, jump on me, get in my way, pee on me or something I own, or want me to pet them. It’s just a shame that some dogs utterly fail within ten seconds of meeting them.

So no, I can’t say without a doubt that I hate every dog in existence and that I would be much better off if they were Fedexed to some remote location with billions of tennis balls. I like some dogs. I’ve lost count of the amount of dogs that I have a very cordial relationship with; they dash past me while I’m jogging on a path, intent something behind me, and I issue a “beautiful morning, eh?” while they ignore me.

My gaze drifted back from the lake to the canine, which seemed more in need of a pet now than when I started. See it’s this sort of obdurate behavior that will lead to me petting this dog until my hand is raw and bleeding, and Winston’s (or the other one’s) hair starts coming off in big clumps.

“Oh come on Ben,” Michelle said strictly. “He doesn’t have diseases.”

Please, I wanted to say in a whining tone, I’ve done my task. Have mercy on me. I gave another tentative pat.

“Nope,” she said. “You’re definitely a cat person.”

Eck. All my effort for nothing. I never say that I’m a cat person, but people draw the connection in their head faster than I can spout finely tuned arguments and reasons why I don’t hate all dogs or like all cats. Evincing an argument for neither side is like saying you’re “independent” in regards to political party or “undecided” about what major you want to choose in college. People lean in a little closer, maybe nudge you in the side a little, “come on… what are you interested in?” or “would you say you approve of gun control or not?” as if by doing so they can eke the answer out of you, even when you’ve clearly told them you don’t know.

Michelle had clearly decided that she wanted a convert to “caninity” (we’ll make that a word), and I was too intimidated by her frosty eyes to say different. And I have had positive experiences with dogs, nothing too ground-breaking like the seven-year-old with brain cancer who’s brought back to health by the personal administering of Rover (to say nothing of the nurses, doctors, parents, or modern medicine).

“Who’s ready for some food?” Gui said from behind the barbeque where brats and chicken sizzled.

With that, I was drawn back into reality, and the attention turned to satisfying our collective gaping maw; the dog vs. cat conversation was abandoned. Michelle wasn’t the person to forget such things, and I knew I would have to deal with this for the rest of my life. But inwardly I heaved a big sigh of contentment; for the moment, I was in the clear.

I looked down at Winston (or the other one), who still looked up at me pleadingly. He hadn’t moved an inch, even though there were about fifteen other willing petters around him, and he seemed to be more doleful than when this whole process started.

“Oh go find some else to pet you,” I muttered.

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