‘Serbs and the City: On Dogs’, by Sofija Stefanovic

Photograph by the author.

This is the fourth instalment of ‘Serbs and the City’, Sofija Stefanovic’s column about her experiences as a Serbian-Australian living ambivalently in New York. Read the first instalment, ‘This is a Mistake’, the second, 'Rats’, and the third, 'Ring a Ding’.

Two things I appreciate about dogs are that they are always happy, and that they don’t have plans. My dogs are delighted by everything. When I feed them, of course. When I come home. When I come out of the bathroom. When I wake them up for no reason. They wag their tails and jump high into the air, their little bodies corkscrewing like it’s party time. My dogs are built like meerkats, so they can dance on two feet if they want, and they do. They behave like someone having a manic episode – their excitement comes across mad, irrational, but it’s also endearing and infectious. Happy dogs are especially useful if you’re a brooding type of person. You can rely on them to lift you up.

The other reliable thing about dogs is they have no plans for the future. I was able to uproot them from their beachy St Kilda home and take them across the world without any complaints. My dogs are sisters, born in Australia on a hot Christmas day, and they lived there until I decided to drag them to the northern hemisphere, where they would spend their fifth birthday in itchy, snowflake-patterned turtlenecks.

To get to New York, my dogs were put in crates and shoved into the cargo hold of a plane bound for LA. They were not allowed a sedative because of the low air pressure within the hold, but this rule did not apply to me, and I was still woozy when I went to pick them up. I found them in a warehouse with other freighted goods. A man in a forklift went to get them. He drove to the end of the warehouse and got the crates down from a high shelf. One crate had a big red sign on it, and I panicked, assuming one of the dogs was dead. As the forklift came towards me, light flashing, I couldn’t hear any sounds coming from the crates.

When I cut away the cable ties and released the small soggy bodies, I cried from pride, emotion and Valium.

But when I cut away the cable ties and released the small soggy bodies, I cried from pride, emotion and Valium. The dogs were alive, and they hadn’t even pooed in the crates during their 24-hour ordeal. Even though they had been splashed by water and wee and smelt sour, they were still the happiest dogs in the world. They jumped all over me, pissing with abandon on the Los Angeles airport grass. ‘Of course,’ I thought: they don’t realise I’m responsible for their torture. As far as they’re concerned, I’ve saved them.

After a few days of jetlag, during which they asked to be walked at 5 am with insistent paws on the bedroom door, they were back to normal. Never once did they complain about snow. They embraced the dirty streets, savouring the delicacies of discarded chicken and pizza. They found new enemies to replace the possums of old: squirrels and rats, strangling themselves with their leads in response to these foes.

The dogs and I were waiting outside the Russ & Daughters bagel shop for my boyfriend, Michael, when a man sat on the bench beside me. He was Hispanic, in his forties or fifties, very small, and wearing an ancient leather jacket. He had a tiny, patchy moustache. He communicated with me through a combination of small hooting sounds, elaborate body language, and shaping specific words with his mouth. I assumed he was deaf. Your dogs, he said, pointing to me, then the dogs, are beautiful! he said, demonstrating ‘beautiful’ by running his hand across his face and making the sound ‘boo-foo’. I love them he said, hugging a pretend dog to his chest, demonstrating a beating heart. One of the actual dogs jumped into his arms and he repeated the action of holding her to his chest. Beautiful face, he said, somehow transforming his own face so it looked like my dog’s, miming her pointy snout, her big eyes and cute moustache.

I used to have a dog, he said, pointing behind him to indicate the past.

I used to have a dog, he said, pointing behind him to indicate the past. He put his hands up in a fighting stance. ‘A boxer?’, I asked, and he agreed with a thumbs-up. But not a fat boxer, he claimed. Some boxers are fat. His boxer was trim, with a large, muscular chest. Then he remembered something important. Don’t let your dogs eat from the street, he told me. His boxer had eaten something with metal inside it. It tore up her insides and she died. He showed me tears running down his face. He threw his arms up in the air in frustration, anger. I wondered if he blamed himself.

A New Yorker walked past and bumped one of the dogs with his bag. Outraged, my companion flapped his arms at the man, stuck his finger up, and hooted angrily. Of course, the businessman didn’t turn or apologise.

Soon afterwards, an old guy in big brown pants walked by. He and my friend waved to each other half-heartedly. You know what’s sad? He said, showing the tears running down his face again. Dogs can’t go to heaven. He hugged the dogs again, picking them both up in an embrace. ‘Heaven’ he mimed by pointing to the sky, showing me a halo above his head. It’s a good thing dogs don’t have any plans, I thought, looking down at them as they rubbed their faces into this man’s legs, as comfortable with him as if he was their owner, their god.

Michael finally came out with the bagels and my friend jumped up. He bowed to me, shook Michael’s hand and walked off. He had a limp. And once again, the dogs danced before me on two legs, not thinking about where that man had come from, or where he was going. They didn’t think about whether his home was dirty or clean, whether he had a home at all, whether he’d had a mother, who had taught him to communicate, how he would die, or whether he’d go to heaven. There were bagels here, the dogs reminded me, and so we turned our focus on them, the dogs waiting for bits of cream cheese and salmon to fall and make this day, like every other, a great one.

Sofija Stefanovic now lives in New York. She hosts the literary salon Women of Letters New York and she is the author of You’re Just Too Good To Be True (Penguin). She tweets at @sstefanovic.