Helen is draped across my lap, her head lolling over my left hip while her ribcage rests gently on my thighs and her back end drapes at my right knee. It’s 3:30 am and I’m on the couch encouraging Harley to go back to sleep as his stomach medicine starts its work.
This is a familiar routine. As he’s aged, his digestive system has slowed to a crawl. This tortoise-like progression is uncomfortable for all of us. For him, the excess gases and acid will lead to anxiety and pacing, for me a lack of sleep will lead to a long slog through tomorrow. I know my best chance to get us both some rest is to get him settled on the couch and to sit beside him quietly.
I’ve convinced Harley that the middle of the couch is a great place to curl up. He’s stepped up onto the middle cushion with his front paws and coaxed his back legs up under him. Satisfied with his relative position, he slowly tucks his right back leg underneath him and lets gravity do the rest. He’s down, head resting on the inside of his front paw, jowls dripping over the side.
I’ve snuggled under my lofty brown blanket in the corner of the sectional, his head and paws a few inches away. As always, Helen has joined us tonight. I’m thankful that she’s let Harley claim his territory before she sprawls. Old man that he is, Harley needs a wide berth for mounting, turning and flopping into place. Helen has a way of lithely springing onto the couch, turning, tucking front paws and legs as she drops to the cushion in one smooth motion—all of this in the space where Harley needs to be. Adorable at 3:30pm. Frustrating at 3:30am.
Tonight, she secures me in place, a thick, warm lap belt, her head buckled into the cushion below my hip. I’ve worked a long day today, gone for more than 12 hours. She’s making sure I stay put for a while.
As I melt down into the buttery red leather, I’m calmed by her deep, even breathing and the gentle rise and fall of her powerful and elastic ribcage. Her heart beats strong and steady on my thigh—I can almost feel the blood rushing into the chambers then being flushed back into her body, life flowing in and out of the pump.
I feel the telltale twinge of her flew, followed by a twitch and a clinching of her jaw. Helen’s spotted something. Her front paws dangle to the side, hinges swinging open and closed as she gallops toward the object of her attention. Her breathing accelerates as her shoulders and core engage now, thrusting forward. Her hips and quads, firing rapidly and with the precision of a sports car engine, launch her body toward the focus of the pursuit. Her spine flexes, smoothly swinging her torso back and forth as she follows in winding pursuit.
In a full run now, Helen’s entire body is in a fit of motion, muscles contracting, throwing limbs and paws in controlled chaos. Not wanting her to wake Harley, I firmly hug her ribs, calling her back to us. She takes a deep breath, turns from her chase and trots back to us, her movements slowed and breathing easy.
Helen unclenches her jaw, extricates her tongue from the roof of her mouth and takes a few tastes of her morning breath. She lifts her head sleepily and opens her mouth wide for a deep yawn. She turns back to me with a drowsy look, then re-nestles her head into the crook at the side of my hip. Within moments, her breathing is steady and even, pressing her ribcage into my thighs.
Harley rises unsteadily, carefully placing each paw on the soft couch to execute a 180-degree turn. He succeeds and lands like a lump in his favorite position: shoulder pressing into the bolster of the couch, front and back legs extended forward in a full pike, tail dangling like a rope off the edge of the couch.
It’s Harley’s turn. I hear the thump of his tail on the side of the couch. It flips up, tossing the white tip high above his hip then sails right back down into place. He’s off. I think I’ll sit back and enjoy the chase, safe and warm under Helen’s sash.