Manhattan is not the center of the universe. It only feels that way. But outside of the immense gravitational pull of that small island, there are whole other realms of existence.
For the past year, I’ve been living in the town of Northside, which is two hours from the city but subscribes to an alternate reality. Winter arrives earlier and tests your resourcefulness. The moon is more of a presence. Your regular waitress not only knows exactly what you’re going to order, she also knows how much money you have in the local bank, the status of your divorce negotiations, and your entire medical history, down to the name of the prescription cream you just called in to the pharmacy.
Yet there are also secrets that are easier to conceal here, buffered by trees and mountains and distance. The city may offer a kind of intimate anonymity, but the country permits other freedoms.
The freedom to run around naked in the woods, for example. Which I do about three days a month, when the moon is at its fullest. Having lycanthropy, like having children, forces you to reevaluate the advantages and disadvantages of apartment living. Of course, I’m not talking from personal experience here—I don’t have children.
But even though I accept that I’m better off in the country, it’s been a bit of an adjustment. Before I moved out here, trying to save my doomed marriage, I’d had a coveted slot as a veterinary intern at the Animal Medical Institute on the Upper East Side. And while the education I got there was top of the line, I’ve had to unlearn a fair chunk of it.
In the city, people don’t purchase pets, they adopt substitute children to carry around in big handbags, or rescue surrogate soul mates who will wait uncomplainingly at home all day, then greet each homecoming with frenzied affection. If Basil the basset hound gets cancer, nobody blinks an eyelash at spending thousands of dollars on medical care, physical therapy, a specially designed prosthesis.
Around here, it’s a different story.
Northside dogs are considered animals, and they spend much of their day outside and unattended, having adventures that their humans know nothing about. There are exceptions, of course, but in general, country people love their dogs, though they don’t regard them as quasi-humans covered in fur. Northsiders acknowledge the wolf that resides within the breast of every canine, no matter how outwardly domesticated. “It’s no kind of life for a dog” is the verdict for most serious illness.
Looking at the massive, gore-spattered rottweiler stinking up my examining room, I had to wonder who had it better: the beloved city pets who received constant attention and care, or their country counterparts, who had the freedom to follow their instincts and roll in decomposing deer entrails.
“I don’t see or feel any cuts or abrasions,” I told the dog’s owner, a lean woman with work-roughened hands, leathery skin, and brittle, teased black hair. Her name was Marlene Krauss and she ran a hair salon out of her home. I could feel her sizing up my long brown braid the way a lumberjack sizes up a redwood.
“In fact,” I said, double checking the pads of the rottweiler’s large paws, “I don’t think this is her blood at all. Queenie’s probably just been frolicking in something dead.”
“Oh, I don’t care about that,” said Marlene. “She’s always getting into something.” When she moved, I caught a whiff of stale cigarette smoke and some drugstore version of Chanel No. 5. If I’d been completely human, the combination would have been strong enough to mask the usual vet’s office odors of cat urine, bleach, rubbing alcohol, and frightened dog. If I’d been completely wolf, I wouldn’t have made any olfactory value judgments. As it was, I was smack in the middle of my monthly cycle, which meant that the scent of Marlene was getting up my nose and on my nerves.
“So what was the reason you brought Queenie in today?”
Marlene tapped her manicured fingers impatiently on the steel operating table. “Because I think she’s pregnant.”
“Oh,” I said, momentarily nonplussed. There I was again, making urban assumptions. In Manhattan, most people didn’t know that most dogs’ dearest wish is to roll in a putrid corpse. The experts theorize that dogs do it to disguise their own predator’s scent from potential prey, but watching dogs, you can see that there’s a wild, abandoned joy to be had from rolling around in something truly rank.
Of course, I knew this from personal experience as well.