The first pair of ears to hear me say the word ‘gay’ was a canine’s. She was my first dog, Maxie.
Dad had a way of giving our dogs endearing nicknames, and soon Maxie became “Meigou”. In Chinese, that was literally “beautiful dog”. She was a beauty – a coat of shiny black fur from her father, a stray tramp, and the lovely, endearing brown patches on her gentle face just like her mother.
When I was in primary school, we lived in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. In a mostly-Chinese suburb, almost every household owned a dog in the yards to warn off thieves. One could not walk down a street without causing a spirited ripple of barking.
The double-storey bungalow opposite our home stood empty. The previous owners, a childless couple, had vacated the house. A young me was shocked that they left behind their loyal dog Blackie. It seemed the previous owners had arranged for regular feeding, and Blackie faithfully stayed in that yard.
Eventually a shaggy male dog joined Blackie. Blackie gave birth to a single female puppy, and we adopted the puppy. We named her Maxie.
It was the seventies. Dogs were nothing more than useful animals, and pet care was a luxury. There were few vets in town. Maxie ate whatever we ate, never left our yard for a walk and lived with ticks prospering from her blood.
Every afternoon, I would come home to Maxie’s greeting enthusiastically at the gate. She was not allowed into the house (mom’s rule), so she would poke her head between the metal grates of the front door and lay there staring at me with her sad-looking eyes. Mom and dad worked late, so often Maxie was my only companion.
Like her, I was an eager child. I did my best to please parents, teachers and even the custom officers stamping my passport daily. With Meigou, I just had to be present. Mom might be the one who fed and bathed her, but I was her special human. She loved me and I loved her. Life was simple.
During breaks between homework assignments, I plucked the ticks off her. They were engorged with her blood, and I felt great pleasure in bursting the fat, greedy pockets. Meigou sat quietly beside me, listening about my adventures in school or on the bus.
“Today some big stranger pushed me at the bus stop!” I would say, pulling out another tick, “I wished I was bigger and could throw him into the river!” And then I wrapped the tick in a small piece of newspaper and pressed it between my thumb and index finger. The tick popped, its blood seeped through the paper.
My efforts had limited success. The ticks reproduced quickly, laying eggs on my poor dog and replenishing themselves as quickly as I could pull them off her.
At the same time, an itch was growing within my ‘perfect son’ persona.
“Meigou,” I said to her one afternoon, almost in tears, “Something is wrong with me. I think I like guys and not girls.” My dark secret made no difference to her – I was still her special human.
Being gay was an itch I could not scratch. But at least one soul knew my secret. She could not make the discomfort go away, but she made it bearable for the next few years.
Maxie did not have much in life. In our ignorance, we ‘protected’ her by keeping her away from almost all the other dogs, and venturing out in the neighborhood – everything that would make a dog happy. While we tried to correct that later by adopting a male puppy, their age differed too much and Maxie never felt the usual joys of playmates, sex or motherhood.
Years passed. I graduated from secondary school and went off to study in America. Suddenly, Meigou’s special human did not appear at the gate anymore. No one sat with her to ease her tick problem and whisper secrets to her.
She got used to sitting in the yard for long hours on her own. I could only imagine her waiting for me to show day after day in our fortress, and living with the growing disappointment and loneliness.
I only saw Meigou one more time a year later, when I returned for summer.
The next time I saw Meiguo, her age was showing. Mom discovered tick powder and finally relieved the constant scratching. No special human and sans ticks, Meigou grew anti-social.
She became unpredictable. Sometimes, she growled and bared her teeth at us when we approach. Once, she bit mom so badly, mom had to have stitches to close the wound. No one dared to go near Maxie.
In my third year in university, I flew home for summer once more. The perfect boy I was disappeared as I started facing my sexuality. I could not decide if I should tell mom and dad. Meigou was still the guardian of my secret.
Frustrated about hiding and the lack of romance in my life, I turned into a snappy, angry young man.
On the way home from the airport, mom and I got into a quarrel about trivial stuff. I was no longer the meek boy eager to please, and quickly reacted to her conservative ideas which I blamed for my fear of my sexuality. I was eager too to show off newly-acquired knowledge of western philosophy and begin my belated youthful rebellion. The quarrel teed off into sullen silence, my mother no doubt blaming father for sending her son to be corrupted by western values.
When I reached the familiar gates of my childhood home, I forgot my resentment and looked forward to seeing Maxie.
She did not come running.
Dad came out of the house, and took me by the shoulder. Gently he guided me to the back of the house. We stopped under the shade of a large rambutan tree. I saw that portions of the ground had been disturbed.
“A neighbor,” explained dad, “was using poison to kill rats. One rat crawled to our yard to die. Meigou ate it, along with the poison, and died under our car. When we came home and found her, her body was already stiff.”
He then gently walked away and left me alone.
I stared in disbelief at Maxie’s final resting place. She lived and died like a prisoner. She was separated from her mother as a puppy, brought up knowing only a few square metres of this planet and had few of the joy of being with her own kind. The only human she loved left her to an even lonelier old age. And then she died alone.
The whole neighborhood heard me brawling. I was not sure whether I was just crying for her, or for myself. Her passing held up a mirror to me.
“Now no one knows me,” I thought. The sense of desolation consumed me. One day I would be buried like my dear Maxie, and no one knew the real me.
I could not be a stranger in this life. No matter how difficult it would be, someone must know.
The next day, I told my parents I was gay.
Two decades passed. A thousand other stories happened. I left my teaching job and started working from home. I was building a career in comics and book self-publishing. No longer surrounded by colleagues and students, I found staying home alone all day very much like being back in Johor again. Something was amiss.
One night, I dreamed of Maxie still wandering the old yard. Her eyes looked at me, and I knew what she was telling me.
“I want to see the outside world,” She said, “If you love me, let me go.”
Next day, I told Han I would like to adopt a new dog.
Our search took us to SPCA, where a lovely mixed-breed bitch caught my eyes. Unfortunately, mixed breeds were not allowed in HDB flats. She was soon adopted by someone else. Several visits later, we left empty-handed.
Some weeks later, Han said a friend wanted to give away a one-year-old Jack Russell. We quickly visited the friend and dog.
Mantou greeted us by jumping up high and licking our noses. One of his rear legs was missing three toes, but we did not mind. We liked him immediately as he had a full tail to wag, unlike many Jack Russells whose tails were docked from birth and had only stubs. He was also unneutered.
His name was the only thing left to him by a previous PRC owner, who returned to China. It was adorable, for he must have reminded her of a little white Chinese bun at birth. We did not want to change a thing, and decided to register his original name.
Within a few days of coming home with us, Mantou wanted to sleep on our bed. We adjusted ourselves to give him that space. Soon, he became king of the house.
To give him ample time to roam the neighborhood, I gave up my beloved gym membership (oh those wonderful memories – but that is another story). I never dictated where we walk. Being a natural tracker and fox terrier, Mantou crossed neighborhoods and often led me up Mount Faber. Whenever possible, I let him interact with friendly dogs, and even pimped him out to breed once. He is the proud father of five puppies, has several good playmates, and one of his daughters came live with us for a few days.
“Show us some tricks!” The neighborhood kids often requested, “Can he roll over, shake hand or play dead?”
Mantou ignored them. He only needed one special human, and he did not even have to please me.
“Nope,” I answered proudly, “I don’t teach him tricks.”
Yet, without much training, Mantou knows me well. He knew when to run with me to chase away a bunch of pigeon-torturing kids. He knows when to sit tight and wait for me. And he knows my urgent warnings to stay away from a giant lizard or cat. Of course, like a testosterone-fuelled young man, he was a pain when he picked up the scent of a fertile female.
He is a confident boy, unafraid of any dog he encountered and shamelessly acts on his intentions.
One day, I realized I never knew Mantou.
I knew him as the substitute for Meigou, and everything I did for him was my way of making up for Meigou.
I had yet to fully let Maxie go.
So I had a really good cry, mourning dear Maxie one last time. I promised to love Mantou as himself from then on.
My two dogs are an amazing reflection of myself.
Maxie was my past, eager to please, leaving my life in the hands of others. Her passing warned me about a lifetime of obedience ultimately ending in disappointment and resentment.
Mantou is my present: On my terms, true to myself, and not particularly concerned what others think of me.
One evening, Mantou led us up Mount Faber again. We came to a quiet park where some of the original cable cars served as sheltered park benches. We came across an old gentleman and his bitch.
Mantou sniffed and knew this girl was beyond his interest. He went about his own exploration while the old girl sat contentedly on the bench next to her human.
“She is old,” He explained, “And being around other dogs stresses her out. So I drive her here whenever I can, and let her enjoy the fresh air and open grass field.”
I was convinced I saw a lovely vision of my own future: old, yet content with the life I fully lived. Far from the madding crowd, away from its childish games of morality and power, we are at one with the world in our twilight years.
Then we drive home to Han.


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