The Muslim Lady with a Dog

Neutering Champ was probably the right call, since testosterone unnerved him. When Champ wasn’t around I would hug Dadi-ma and sneak her my kisses. If he spotted me touching Dadi-ma in any way, I had to deal with his barking, and then if he got close enough, his biting. But Dadi-ma never scolded Champ. She’d look on with affection whenever he tormented me, as a mother does with her two bickering sons.

At least I have Champ, she’d say, what do they have? Fat and lazy husbands?

Maia Cruz Palileo, Dog Pillow. 2013, oil on canvas over panel. 33 × 48".

Just days before I turned 12 Dadi-ma got Champ. I didn’t have a say in the matter, but I remember it well. A sign read Lakeview Animal Shelter in white, a red cross squeezed between a cat and a dog. The sky was the color of my sweater.

Dad and I followed Dadi-ma, passing kennel after kennel of dogs—big, shaggy, pipsqueak, and hairless. Dadi-ma was the granddaughter of an imam, a man who, in all likelihood, preached that living with dogs was a sin. My parents spent less time picking out your Dada, Dadi-ma laughed, at least I get to pick now!

Dad, her only son, thought a dog could keep her company, though Dadi-ma wasn’t alone. She lived in Chicago, near Devon Avenue, where children in colorful scarves and shalwars played hopscotch, and teenagers cruised by in their used Toyotas blasting Bollywood songs. She had plenty of friends who spoke her mother tongue, Urdu. She lived in an adopted motherland, only colder, with gangsters of select ethnicities running things.

I remember how Dadi-ma became smitten by a maltese. We should call him Champ, Dad said, like short for Champ-ion. He pointed at my sweater, which read Champion in red letters. I crouched down to look at the little guy. Come here Champ, I whistled, and Champ barked and barked and the chocolate lab to the right started barking, and then the chihuahua to the left. He very much is a Champ-ion, said Dadi-ma, smiling. She signed the papers and walked out a proud woman.

Champ strutted around like a little lion, growling at bicycles, runners, elderly folk on canes, everything and everyone that seemed to threaten Dadi-ma. He played this game where he pulled the slippers off her feet, violently shaking his head and growling with her slippers in his mouth. He did this with her socks, too. When it came time for his nightly treat, he turned into an obedient son, waiting, whimpering at Dadi-ma’s hem, as she lorded over him with a fist full of kibble. Behave beta, she’d say, addressing him as son.

Before Champ, Dadi-ma spent her days with Syeda or Mehjabeen or Nazneen. Dadi-ma and her friends would stroll Devon Avenue and grab coffee at the McDonald’s, chatting for hours and splitting an apple pie or a packet of fries. When Champ arrived, Dadi-ma started to neglect these outings. One time he lunged at Nazneen’s scarf, almost unraveling it in broad daylight (the bee circling her head was enough to set him off). Syeda was allergic to him (she once sneezed uncontrollably and her throat started to close, which left her gasping for air). And poor Mehjabeen, the scent of her son’s cologne on her clothes had triggered something in Champ, leading him to chase her down Devon Avenue (I had to run after him and grab him by the belly). One by one, Syeda, Mehjabeen, and Nazneen, began to refuse Dadi-ma’s invitations to hang out. A nephew’s wedding would pop up, or an important call from Pakistan at a moment’s notice. Dadi-ma got the hint. At least I have Champ, she’d say, what do they have? Fat and lazy husbands?

On the off chance I ran into Syeda, Mehjabeen, or Nazneen on the street, they would ask about Dadi-ma: Is she still taking care of that little devil? And I’d politely say yes, though what I really wanted to say was that Champ was taking care of Dadi-ma, not the other way around.

Champ was the one who saved Dadi-ma when she slipped and fell in the bathtub. If he hadn’t barked to alert me, I wouldn’t have removed my headphones to rush into the bathroom. I couldn’t deal with Dadi-ma’s nakedness. She was silent and still. I remember my lanky 15-year-old body, incapable of holding her up. She howled when I took her right arm and placed it across my shoulders. I thought she would burst into tears when I bent down and hooked my arm around her knees. When I picked her up off the ground, my back throbbing, my mind froze over her pale flesh. She kept saying sorry as Champ followed us out of the bathroom, as if ready to spot me in case I couldn’t hold Dadi-ma up. We stumbled into her bedroom and I laid her on the bed. I plopped down right next to her. She held my hands. She was wet and I could only stare at the ceiling. Shukriya beta, she told me. It’s nothing, Dadi-ma, I remember saying. At some point I closed my eyes and fell asleep. Champ stood on his legs the entire time, barking. He must have felt left out.

Dadi-ma had to get her hip replaced and soon after, Isabel came to live with her and Champ. Isabel was a twenty-something Peruvian who cooked and cleaned and watched over Dadi-ma and suggested that we neuter Champ. What a cruel and evil thing to do! my Dadi-ma cried. She moped about this for days and Champ, sensing that something had disturbed the balance in the house, lashed out at Isabel, barking at her every move. No matter what she did or didn’t do—left the house or entered, turned off the lights or turned them back on—he would interrogate her constantly. When the three of them sat at the dinner table, Champ would stand on his legs, his paws holding him up and his head drooped low over his bowl. His eyes stayed fixed at Isabel the entire time. Together they ate their meals of boiled rice and chicken, a multiethnic, interspecies family.

Neutering Champ was probably the right call, since testosterone unnerved him. When Champ wasn’t around I would hug Dadi-ma and sneak her my kisses. If he spotted me touching Dadi-ma in any way, I had to deal with his barking, and then if he got close enough, his biting. But Dadi-ma never scolded Champ. She’d look on with affection whenever he tormented me, as a mother does with her two bickering sons. Her own son, Dad, traveled constantly doing consulting. He would always stay in either a La Quinta Inn or a Hilton (depending on the market, according to him). When he was out of town I stayed in the suburbs in Wilmette with Maura, my Mom, stopping by Dadi-ma’s every weekend for Sunday school and samosas. She called my Dad neglectful whenever I was around, hoping I would pass on the message.

Dadi-ma straight up didn’t like Maura. She didn’t like how Maura wanted me to call her Maura instead of Mom or Am-ma. You should seriously teach the boy some respect—I don’t want my grandson turning into an entitled little American, Dadi-ma had said to Maura after school one day. I want him to think of us as equals, as friends, even, I remember Maura saying, which left Dadi-ma muttering under her breath and cursing in Urdu. I had miscalculated the gravity of this when I jokingly asked Dadi-ma what her real name was, and she slapped me. Don’t you dare treat me like your mother, that ghaddi who left you and your father, Dadi-ma said. When I asked Maura what ghaddi meant, she laughed and told me it was a female donkey, a tamer version of a female dog.

Isabel left when Dadi-ma recovered enough to take care of herself and Champ all alone. I stopped by Dadi-Ma’s less often as high school started filling my days and I spent more time hanging out with my friends. I had heard from Maura that Dadi-ma’s neighbors wanted to get rid of Champ. And it’s a Muslim thing, it’s one of their many, many rules—no dogs, Maura would say.

I didn’t ask Dadi-ma about Champ until I read the Desi Times one morning. The imam of Devon Avenue wrote an op-ed about the little devil taunting the neighborhood. When Dadi-ma opened up, I learned that one summer day Champ attacked the imam’s wife, who was wearing the niqab, all in black. Wanting to give her salaams, she approached Dadi-ma. I imagine the specter of a hooded unknown was too much for Champ to handle, so he must have attacked the imam’s wife, biting her waves of black fabric. I read that she unleashed a piercing scream that caught the attention of two police officers nearby. One of them wrested Champ away. The other officer, much to the horror of the imam’s wife, held her and tried to console her with his arm around her shoulders. The imam accused Champ of inviting shame upon his wife and cursed Dadi-ma for putting her in the hands of an unrelated male.

Word spread. People on the street whispered to each other when Dadi-ma and Champ passed by. Children screamed at the sight of him. I was pulled aside by some older folks at the mosque after Friday prayers. We need to talk about Dadi-ma, they commanded. The three men took me to the IHOP behind the masjid, telling me to order whatever I wanted. I wanted to mess with them by ordering bacon with waffles, but no, I thought, I’ll be civil and calm about this. Instead I ordered some red velvet pancakes. As I stuffed my face, the men took turns scolding Dadi-ma for terrorizing the community with Champ: Do you know it’s a sin to have a dog in your house? Is it true that she lets the dog eat off her plate? Do you know it must be washed seven times?

I told Dadi-ma about the men at the masjid, how they asked about Champ’s living situation with her. The people who say that about Champ are dirtier than Champ, she said, her eyes growing large with concern. I agreed. I started losing my faith in the masjid, in Islam. It was around that time that I dug up a record player in Dadi-ma’s basement and spent the little money she gave me on Dylan, Lou Reed, Patti Smith. They seemed fresh and rebellious to me. I didn’t care that they were from a time I couldn’t have known. They weren’t my parents’ generation either, and I bet Dadi-ma would have listened to their records had she been young in America.

Dadi-ma would let me borrow her basement to practice with my band. I remember the first night that Robbie, Ari, Mustafa, and Andre came over to practice. Champ had lost it with Andre. Looks like you have a racist dog, Andre joked. I remember Champ following Andre around like a store attendant afraid of a young black kid stealing a new pair of shoes. Dadi-ma’s preferences for people rubbed off on Champ.

Once, a black woman had held a knife to my Dada’s throat from the back seat of his cab, robbing my Dada of his day’s wages. Over the years, Dadi-ma spoke of roving packs of young black men descending on Devon Avenue searching for people to mug and scare. I didn’t believe it. But she insisted that many Pakistanis were unwilling to go to the cops for fear of being deported (if they were illegal) or being investigated after September 11 (for seeming too Muslim). She spoke of gold chains being snatched from the necks of aunties and gas station owners carrying guns to protect themselves. At least I’m lucky, Dadi-ma would say, to have Champ by my side.

Soon after the incident with the imam’s wife, much of the neighborhood was torn down to make way for Section 8 housing. Dadi-ma started staying indoors a lot. Her only activity seemed to be Champ’s daily walks. By then I’d left for college in the Pacific Northwest. Soon after I got there I overdosed and had to be admitted to the hospital. Only Maura knew. It wasn’t like I was going to die or anything, but she cried and cried and slapped me. Your Dadi-ma would’ve killed me, she wailed. After the incident I decided to take a break from my private school, with its all-too-permissive drug culture, and moved back to live with Maura in the suburbs. A month later, I found at a job at an indie bookstore in the city and moved into Dadi-ma’s.

She never knew what happened, but she was angry with me anyway. She said I had abandoned the most important thing in a young man’s life—an education. When she asked me why I quit, I gave her an answer that I hadn’t really thought about. I don’t like myself very much, Dadi-ma, I said. Looking back this must have depressed her, but it was true. I never really saw myself with anyone. I deserved to be alone. College was just getting in the way of my eventual lonely existence. I was turning into one of those guys you feel sorry for, the kind whole books and movies are dedicated to studying, guys diagnosed as being stricken with the malaise of the young, American male.

Dadi-ma softened—she liked that I was working—but to Champ all my presence meant was that another man was now vying for Dadi-ma’s attention. He followed me everywhere, to the bathroom, to my bedroom, always looking at me with those intense eyes. I’m watching you, you free-loading bastard, they seemed to say. I couldn’t live in the house the way I wanted to. I wasn’t ever comfortable. If I placed my bike helmet on the dining table, he would bark until I removed it. If I left the toilet lid up, he would crouch down in the bathroom and growl until I put the lid down. He respected Dadi-ma’s place in a way I didn’t, he seemed to be saying.

A year into living with Dadi-ma I was hanging around the West Side a lot with Andre and his friends (he’d stayed in the city for school). We would catch a show at the Empty Bottle up on Western, moshing or crossing our arms in hipster apathy, ending the night at Little Polonia, loud and drunk, strolling through the aisles, filling up on the stench of raw pig. That’s where I met Martina.

Martina ran the deli counter at Little Polonia, while her father cut and packaged pork products. Posters of Europop stars lined the walls alongside ads for international calling cards to the various motherlands: 10 cents a minute for India, 12 for Pakistan, 6 for Poland, and so on. I would notice her late on Saturday nights in the middle of the winter, texting and twirling a lazy blond strand. I felt creepy at first, observing her like that. She wore orange high tops and a navy varsity jacket and gold hoop earrings so large they nearly brushed her shoulders. She had a thick neck and short arms and a long face. Andre and I would always grab some combination of cheese puffs, slim jims, cigarettes and Red Bull. Maaaaar-teeeeenah, her father would beckon as soon as we walked in. Martina would sashay out from behind the deli counter and ring us up with the efficiency of a grocer’s daughter, a second for each item, her small fingers violently tapping the keys.

I usually snuck home around three in the morning, slipping through the back door after a smoke on the porch. Champ slept with Dadi-ma in her bedroom upstairs, and I would tip-toe into the basement, where I slept. I did this every weekend. On weekdays I came home and helped Dadi-ma with errands: buying light bulbs, hauling groceries, calling our electric company to pay bills, that kind of thing. On Sundays I met up with Maura, and we would go to a museum or somewhere with fancy brunch. You could be a journalist, she advised. You write well, you’re good with people, she would say, looking worried. Let me know if you need money, OK honey? And with that, we would part ways for the week.

Dad had since remarried and now had a 2-year old. He refused to speak to me until I went back to college. I didn’t care. It wasn’t all that different from when I was younger and he was away so often, at work and out dating, trying to restart his family life. He failed spectacularly the first time, and he didn’t want my presence reminding him of that. So I let him be. And he left me to Dadi-ma, as if the work of finding her life’s companion was now over, all thanks to him, leaving him free of us all.

When Andre and his buddies took me out, my inventory for the night was usually some combination of tequila, a joint, PBRs, and a shot of Malört. One time we went to a club and I spotted Martina in a purple dress that saran-wrapped her body, baring her shoulders and thighs. She was with a young man and another woman at the bar, slouching just like she did every Saturday night behind the deli counter. But that one night she was out and about, just like every other red-blooded American I knew.

I locked eyes with her from across the room and smiled. She looked away. I chugged a glass of water and walked over to the bar. Hello, Martina? I asked, smiling, pointing at her with a ridiculous finger gun. Hello, she said, looking down at the floor. The young man came close to Martina and they started chatting in Polish. The young woman introduced herself as Patricia, Martina’s cousin. Are you guys enjoying yourself tonight? I asked in earnest. Yes, Patricia said, and that’s when Martina grabbed my hand, leading me to the dance floor.

I was too drunk to remember exactly how things progressed, but before I knew it Martina was gyrating on my thigh and I couldn’t respond. I ran my fingers through her hair, and tried to twirl her old-fashioned-style, but she had other ideas. She grabbed my butt and moved to the techno beat. I grew sweaty and hard. She asked me if I had my own place, so I took her hand and went outside into the February air. The winter mist cooled my horny face. She hailed a cab and the cabbie, a bearded man named Mohammed, asked where to? I was about to say Dadi-ma’s ghar, but I didn’t want to invite the man’s judgment, so I simply gave him the address. He drove fast. No one was on the road and Martina and I were making out in the back seat. Mohammed kept his eyes ahead.

When we arrived at Dadi-ma’s, I shhhh-ed at Martina and tip-toed to the back. Martina followed, placing her hands on my shoulders. I opened the back door, slowly, and there was Champ, panting, waiting for us. I went in first and Champ started barking. It was a familiar bark, the kind of bark that Dadi-ma had learned to ignore and probably couldn’t hear deep into her sleep. I picked up Champ and looked straight into his eyes, man to man. Don’t you ever tell Dadi-ma okay?

I don’t know why Martina came home with me that night, or why I wanted to bring her home, to Dadi-ma’s home. I sensed in Martina the same loneliness—young, vaguely ethnic and adrift in this city. When I came I didn’t say anything. I held onto her in silence. Her eyes were closed, her mouth open the entire time. She also stayed silent, as if she knew the protocol of having sex in a grandmother’s home.

Martina and I snuck around for a few months. I never met her father, even though I saw him all the time. She never met Dadi-ma. We didn’t have to bring it up. The arrangement was understood. Every other weekend we gave our bodies to each other and slept until just before day broke. Only Champ knew.

I don’t know why I broke it off. I sensed that time was closing in, and I feared the prospect of sleeping next to someone I didn’t really care for. It felt worse than sleeping alone. It felt like sleeping on a highway, the concrete cold against your skin, a creeping fear that at any moment a semi could flatten you.

I went back to school shortly after I left Martina. She took it well but cut me off completely. The break had done wonders for my self-discipline and concentration. I wasn’t happier, but I was more driven. I read a lot, wrote papers, did some of my own writing. I got excellent grades. I was even selected for a prestigious internship with a reputable magazine in New York. I had sex with women in my classes. I only stayed in touch with Andre, Maura and Dadi-ma and put off the hard work of learning to like myself.

I still remember graduation. Dad came, and so did Maura. Dadi-ma did, too, along with Champ, but the two of them didn’t see me graduate. Dogs and small babies were not allowed in the graduation tent. She chose Champ over me and stayed outside the entire time as I waited until my name was called and walked to the stage to receive my diploma.

I was at my internship in New York when I got a call from Maura that Dadi-ma had fallen in the bathroom again, re-fracturing her hip. I took the first flight back home and rushed straight to the hospital. I don’t remember any visitors apart from Maura, Dad, and Champ, who didn’t even bark at the sight of me.

This is how I remember it: I make my way to Dadi-ma’s bedside and take her hands in mine. I hold them close to my eyes. I start sobbing. I want to crawl in next to her, next to her body. I say the only prayer I know after years of Sunday school, those years I spent with Dadi-ma and Champ and our meals of boiled rice and chicken. Please stay, Dadi-ma tells me. The doctor says something about an infection. Dad starts crying, then Maura starts crying, and I stand still holding Champ. When it hits him, he whimpers and buries his face in my arms, refusing to face the world. I look out the window. It’s snowing and I see my reflection. I keep looking at myself. I don’t recognize this guy, clutching his grandmother’s tiny dog.

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