Small Talk

The sky is a pale blue and the air is warm on this March afternoon, but I’m lamenting that I can’t run after work. My running partner has an injury and I’m taking him to the doctor. During the post-work hours, I know the wait time will be long, and it’ll be too dark for even my solitary run once we return home.

Sighing as I grab the leash, Joffrey performs jump-turns in the air toward the front door. Hearing the word “ride” he chirp-barks his assent and eagerly hops into the car. Despite his excitement about all car destinations, going to the vet is an ordeal with this goldendoodle. I must tightly hold his leash at arm’s length as we check in, restraining him from hissing cats and scar-faced pit bulls. Then I’ll have to scan the room for our safest harbor, avoiding proximity with other big dogs as Joffrey reacts to them with barking bravado.

Today we settle in between a beagle mix and a Scottish terrier. Being amongst so many dog-people would usually be an instant ice breaker, easily drawing me into conversation. However, I’m also strongly averse to small talk. When it’s clear that a relationship will be limited to a 20 minute wait, my introversion calculator warns me against the investment. Avoiding eye contact, I twist Joffrey’s white spiral curls between my thumb and index finger as I stare at my phone.

“Rusty? Copper? Mittens?” Each name called moves us one step closer to getting out of this room. Finally, it’s “Joffrey?” and we’re off to the exam room. Joffrey is unusually cooperative as the young veterinarian examines the rusty-colored fur on his white paw.  A round of antibiotics is prescribed, and I’m cautioned to give my running buddy a week off from hitting the pavement. We head to the check-out line, which seems to have doubled since our arrival, and I sigh as I pull the leash tighter and join the queue.

High-pitched howls and whines fill the air as two large puppies swarm around their seated owner. Her pre-teen daughter waits in line, glancing awkwardly back at her struggling mother. The woman directly ahead of me strikes a contrast in our scene. Dressed in black pants and a red velvet blouse, she calmly watches this play out with a small smile on her face. She leans toward me and compliments my dog’s comparatively good behavior, and I feel a guilty and rare sense of pride, as Joffrey is not famous for his calm demeanor. We both agree that this mom has her hands full, quite literally, and more prudent planning would have included a pair of leashes. The daughter leaves her position in line to help her mother, and they each grab a puppy and head out the door.

The line shortens, and the woman says she and her husband have always had dogs, but today is she here to “pick up” her dog. My mind processes her sad tone, and I meet her eyes as she tells me that she is picking up the dog’s ashes. They’ve always had dogs, but this one is the last one. Travel. Grandchildren.  And perhaps a few unspoken reasons—such as other trips like this one.  I tell her about taking my pug a few years ago, and how we got Joffrey soon after that. She opens her phone to show me a picture of her recent loss—a coppery brown retriever mix looking up from his blue cushion dog bed. He was adorable. Yes, she agrees, and such a good dog.

The clinic phone has been ceaselessly ringing. Intermittently one of the clerks will answer it with a curt and rehearsed line imploring the caller to hold. There’s a good deal of eye rolling and terse responses as one of the clerks tells a caller that they have “a line out the door.” Even as I understand her ire—she’s not getting paid enough for this—I silently pray she will muster some compassion in her voice for this woman ahead of me.

“Can I help who’s next?” We exchange polite goodbyes as she moves to the head of the line, and I am grateful that she is swiftly moved through the process and is out the door so that she can grieve privately. We’re making our own exit as the mother returns with only one puppy in tow. She’s figuring it out. Some day she’ll be the one in line with the “good” dog. Some day she’ll be the one on a more somber visit. Right now, she’s just getting started.

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