Robert & Napoleon

Clinton, Maryland

Conducted by Kenneth Crab

This is the third interview in what will eventually become an oral history called WOOF: Americans Talk About Their Dogs, edited by John Bowe. The goal of the project is to interview as radically diverse a group of people as possible, to get them to talk about dogs from every angle possible, and, in so doing, to describe what it means to be a human living in the United States at this moment in history. If you’d like to interview, transcribe, edit, or find subjects, please contact John Bowe at johnfbowe (at) gmail (dot) com. Interview subjects can choose to remain anonymous if they prefer.

The first time I saw Napoleon he was chained to a shed in a dirty, junk-filled backyard in Washington, DC. He didn’t look like any dog I had seen. He was really wild-looking. He saw me and went crazy, jumping and pulling at the chain. It was obvious he’d been abused. 

He was originally my uncle’s dog. My uncle was in the military and basically vanished. First he moved to Texas with my aunt Melody and my cousin, but then he completely disappeared. I think he had issues that surfaced after leaving the military. Anyway, when he took off, he left the dog behind. My Aunt Cheryl called my mom and told her to go get him. 

That summer, I was probably eleven, and I went off to a Mennonite camp in Pennsylvania.  When I came home, my mom picked me up, and right there in the back seat was the same dog. My mom had decided to take him in.

I had always wanted a dog. Our neighborhood was in the suburbs of Maryland. There was a creek, and all these woods. My friends and I spent our time outside, building forts. If we found somebody’s dog roaming through the woods, we would adopt it. I remember tying up some stranger’s dog in my back yard and then being really sad when the dog got away. So for me to actually have my own dog was incredible. From the beginning, he slept in my room and I was responsible for him.

Napoleon was a Cairn terrier. Cairn terriers basically look like Toto, Dorothy’s dog in The Wizard of Oz, but Napoleon was a sandy, tannish color with blond highlights. He was tiny, but he lived up to his name because he had so much attitude. If you said “Go to your room!,” and he didn’t want to go, he would growl. We slept in the same bed. He had his side, I had mine. One night, he fell asleep on my pillow. When I tried to push him over, he wouldn’t budge. I slept on the other side of the bed! 

He was really like a person in a dog’s body.  We acted like siblings. One day I was drawing on my floor and he lifted his leg and started to pee on me. And I was like, “I can’t believe he just did that to me!!!!” So I literally dropped my shorts and peed on him. And then I gave him a bath. But that’s the type of relationship we ended up having: “You do something to me, I’m gonna do something to you.” 

My family started to study in the Jehovah’s Witnesses when I was in middle school. By 8th grade kids in school were calling me Moses because I was always talking about the Bible. I had always been spiritual, and in the beginning I was naïve, because I thought that anything seemingly spiritual was good, and I wanted to be a part of it. But as I grew up, it began to feel very controlling.

I knew I was gay since second grade, I never really thought that who I was was wrong. But it was really hard to be a kid, surrounded by this church, with people throwing scripture at you about homosexuality and making comments on how sinful and unnatural it was. I would sink down in my chair hearing the moans and grunts of disgust from the people around me, and just wonder, “Oh Lord, how am I going to fight this?” Even if someone in the Church came up to me and was kind, I knew their kindness and love were conditional; everything around me was conditional.

My parents, being very strict and religious, believed in spanking and things of that nature. My dad didn’t like that I was a sissy boy. I would get smacked in the back of the head. Sometimes he’d drag me down the stairs, or switch me until I bled.  And then I would be upset. And then I would take it out on my dog. The truth is that I was actually quite abusive to him. I was horrible. I used to kick him out the door, hit him. 

I remember going outside to play with my friends, and they were like, “Was that you screaming yesterday?” There was nothing abnormal about any of it, unfortunately. This was how we all lived in this strange suburban neighborhood. Our generation had to figure it out, every man for himself, even the dogs. My neighbor, Kevin, ended up going to military school and raping some girl. He had a BB gun and I think it happened multiple times where he would use my dog for target practice. These kids, their dogs were a mess–matted skin, they had worms. I think that’s how one dog died. He had worms and was getting skinnier and skinnier and skinnier, but they just left him outside. After he died, we saw the skull.I don’t know if pets were the best thing for some of us.

The first time I beat him, Napoleon had pooped in my sister’s room and my mom made me put a leash on him, and get a belt and spank him. That was how my parents thought was the best way to teach a pet. So I attached a leash to his collar, put his nose toward the poop as my mom instructed, said “bad dog,” and took the belt to spank him. He jumped up, latched on to my nose, and was actually dangling off my face, just riding his body back and forth. My nose was cut all the way through from the inside to the out. 

I wasn’t upset with him. I actually thought it was funny that he pooped in my sister’s room, because my sister hated him, so any time he did anything towards my sister, I loved it. I remember we went to a restaurant and she brought home some rolls, one really crushed and the other one really nice. And she wanted the nice one for herself and was like “Oh, I’ll give the really crushed one to Napoleon!” And then she went into her room and left the rolls behind, and without her knowing it, he went in and took the really nice roll and left her the crushed one.

Anything like that I enjoyed, because my sister used to beat up on me constantly. Like, I would get in the car and she would close the car door on my leg. 

It wasn’t necessarily the most loving household to grow up in. It was actually pretty violent. As I got older, I grew more aware and unhappy with where I was. I got punished more and became more abusive to Napoleon. I would do stupid stuff, like lock him in the closet. And he would try to get out and I would make sure he couldn’t. Or I would put a clothes hamper over him and put books on it and leave him imprisoned in there.

I would come home from school and get angry with him for pooping, even though he had been locked up all day.. As an adult, that’s the dumbest thing in the world, like what do you expect if you leave your dog locked up in a room all day? But as a kid, all you know is that the rules say “You have to stay in my room. You pooped on my floor. You’re not supposed to do that. You know better. So now I’m gonna take it out on you.”

I was just upset and angry with the world. It wasn’t about him. He was definitely my closest friend, and he was the one thing I expected love from. After a while I didn’t even expect love from my parents. I didn’t expect them to understand me. I gave up on that. But all the aggression and frustration I felt inside of me was expressed and taken out on him, because he was the only thing I had power and control over. So. I loved him, but it wasn’t a healthy love. I needed someone to love me, and I thought “Well, a dog is supposed to love you.”

There were moments when he rejected me. He’d run out of my room, or run away for a day. I remember chasing him in the front yard once when he was running away, and I fell down into the gutter. I remember looking up at the sky, crying, because the one thing I loved didn’t even love me back. I wasn’t thinking, “Well, maybe he’s not loving me back because I’m beating him.”

In middle school, I started going more and more inside myself, into my own fantasy world. I just wanted to disappear.  I would still go out and play with Napoleon, but not as much. I became more violent towards him. It got to the point that he didn’t even want to stay in my room anymore because he just knew he was going to be tortured. I remember one day watching TV. I had done nothing to him that day, and he actually crawled up on the bed and attacked me. 

In sophomore year of high school I fell in love with a student. It was not reciprocated, but that was the beginning of chaos, because when you fall in love, that’s all you can think about and that’s all you want. I started backing out of church activities. In my junior year, I came out to my parents, hoping that by telling them I was gay, the church would say “You’re kicked out.” But instead they started watching me all the time. I would go out on field ministry – that’s when we go door to door –  and the elder would walk next to me, wanting to discuss the Bible, so that was even more pressure. They were surrounding me more and more.

I was going further and further into depression, and I don’t think anyone really noticed or cared that I was becoming suicidal. Their attitude was very this unquestioning, continual attempt to fix me, when in fact, they were destroying me. I really came close to losing myself.

I had always always had it in the back of my head as a possibility. My father committed suicide when I was 4. He jumped off a bridge. So I always thought, Well, my father did it, so I can do it.

One day I came home after school when no one was around, and I tried to cut myself in the kitchen. I took a steak knife and I had it in my hand and was slowly putting it across my wrist. I tried. At first I stopped because I was afraid of the pain. I was like, oh my God, what is this going to do? How much is this going to hurt?”

I was sitting there, daring myself to go ahead and cut, and I heard the tick-tick-tick-tick of Napoleon’s claws on the back porch. He was walking back and forth, right outside the door. And there was something about that sound, about the idea of letting go and letting go of him. He knew I was in there. It gave me pause to realize I wasn’t alone. And in the pause, I stopped and asked, “What am I doing? Do I really want to do this?” 

That’s when I realized that I couldn’t harm myself, that I had to make it out of that house. I had to find something or someone to love and hopefully get love in return. It was the beginning of me starting to appreciate Napoleon more. 

I started to go online and go into the chat rooms and meet other gay people. I ended up meeting a 49-year-old government worker in DC. Now it’s kind of gross to think about. He called me his butterfly and all that stuff. We ended up going to his apartment and having sex. My parents found out. There was a trial in my church. I knew it was my out.

The church people were like, “Do you repent? Are you sorry for what you did?”  And I was like “No! I’m sorry I wasn’t in love with him, but I’m not sorry I had sex with him. And some day, I will have sex with another guy that I’m actually in love with!” It just came out. They were like, “Fine, you’re being dis-fellowshipped, you’re being removed from the congregation,” and I said “Ok. Is that it?” And walked out the door. That was the first moment I felt I was actually free.

Now all of that anger and frustration went from my dog to the proper source, to the church and my parents. It allowed me to try to make it up to Napoleon as best as possible, and try to show him that I really did love him and care for him.

One day, after he hadn’t pooped in my room for a while, I came home from school, and he had pooped. And I was just like, “Oh no, it’s my fault. I should have gotten home earlier.” I was finally able to take a more honest sense of responsibility. “It’s my fault.”

I called him, but he didn’t come from under the bed. I looked at him, and he was frightened. I don’t know if he was shaking, but I knew he was frightened. And I realized in that moment of clarity, “Oh my God, what have I done to you?” I called his name as gently as possible, “Okay Napoleon, come on.” As sweet as I could, I patted the floor and he slowly made his way out. I petted him and I said ‘I’m so, so sorry. What have I done to you all these years? I’m so sorry. It wasn’t your fault.” 

He definitely responded. That’s the amazing thing about a dog. I don’t believe you can ever take certain things back. But I think dogs are very forgiving. I don’t know if they forget, but I think they can forgive.  I was abusive to him, but he was was the one who taught me how to love. I’d started out with a pretty limited outlook on what a great life looked like. Probably the same is true for my parents. Napoleon broke that out of me. If it hadn’t been for him, I would still be doing what my parents taught me.

For the last six months of high school he slept on my stomach. And then two days after graduation, I left home to go live with my aunt. I couldn’t afford to take care of myself at first, so I didn’t take him along. When I left, he was so nervous, he licked the back of his tail and it went raw and scabbed and pink. 

But later, I got a job, and when my grandfather died, I got a truck. And then I would go visit Napoleon. At first I wouldn’t go into the house. I wasn’t going there to see my parents, it was to spend time with my dog. My mom yelled at me a few times because if they were gone, I’d take him without asking.

That was when I actually got to do normal stuff with my dog. He’d jump into the truck, and I’d take him for joy rides through the country with his head sticking out of the window. We’d go play in the cornfields. Sometimes I’d get lost and we’d have to stop at a little mom-and-pop shop and ask for directions. It was like I was living the life with him that we never had.

I remember coming back to my parents’ house one day while they were gone, and lying on my bed, and he jumped up and put his head on my stomach. I don’t remember him ever doing that before. He was literally rolling on top of my stomach, as if he was trying to go back into the womb, trying to get as much of himself on me as possible, like if he could dig and rest himself inside of my body he would have. It felt like his heart beat had come into my hand, and I looked at him and he looked at me, and it felt like both of us knew what we had gone through. It’s hard to explain how you know and a dog knows, and you’re sharing this moment, but he was almost telling me he still remembered all of those years.

Something in me was smart enough to be aware, “You know, he’s not always going to be here.” So while he was lying there, I tried as hard as I could to memorize everything. His little brown birthmarks. The way his hair looked. His eyes, his teeth, his nails. Every detail. His nose had little bumps on it, and it was wet. I tried to remember the pink of his stomach and the softness of his skin there, like this beautiful newborn baby, this perfect pink. This was the soft side of him, the underbelly, the vulnerable part, and I just sat there, watching how his body moved up and down with his breath.