The pet hospital gives tours for humans. Humans who are people. Humans who are not pets. My ex-wife and I took it once before she got stuck with the prefix. I said it would be therapeutic. Good, clean fun, I told her, at a couple's rate.
"So then it's settled," she said. "Download the directions."
We thought this is what happy couples do to make themselves think they are happy. Cute kittens, fluffy puppies, tweety birds, ant farms, hamster wheels, mice for snakes. At the entrance to the hospital, situated in the foothills to a genuine range outside of our community, we drove beneath its sign, Saint Loretta's Home for Individuals Disabled by the Loss of Animals, in the compact still under both our names. The sign did strike me as a touch odd. Was there ever a saint called Loretta?
On payment for the tour, twelve dollars for a single, twenty dollars for a double, we were introduced to our guide, Mandy or Tandy or Sandy, who was dressed in the sharp A-line of a 1940s army nurse. "There will be no touching of the patients," Mandy said. "There will be no snapshots of the patients," Tandy said. "This is an actual facility and these are actual people," Sandy said. "You have been given the privilege of witnessing their pain." She led us down the hall. Her heels sounded like the Third Reich.
The main ward of Saint Loretta's Home for Individuals Disabled by the Loss of Animals was half the size of a field not meant for football. My ex-wife doesn't like me to talk sports. She and I held lower wrists as we walked down the aisles. It came as no surprise to my wife after looking around the ward that I had been mistaken about the pet hospital. It was not a place for animals. On top of the rows and rows of beds, separated by curtains of gauze not unlike a mental fog, lay people afflicted with various degrees of mutilation.
My wife and I walked past a woman with her bottom lip so torn in two it seemed the wilting petals of a tulip. She stared into the distance, her hands stroking the air above her lap, while cooing, "Who's a good boy? Huh? Who's mommy's good boy? Yes, you are. Yes, yes, yes." Down the aisle lay a man with only one arm. At sight of us, he began a speech that seemed rehearsed for the camera, saying, "Bears are in fact very gentle creatures. The media should be ashamed of itself for portraying them as man-eating monsters. This one here wouldn't hurt a fly. Not a single wing on its thorax." He was not the only patient missing something of his body. Ears just holes. Knobs instead of knees. Right eye patch. Left hook. Left eye patch. Right hook. Chests smooth as Barbies. Crotches slick as Kens. Four toes. Only a shoulder. We could have made an invisible man with all those amputations.
"Please prepare yourselves both in spirit and corpus," our polynomial guide said, "for what you will now see of the inner ward."
At her command, she led us clickety-clack through doors above which a sign read, "Experimental Treatment." It was chilly in there. The air conditioner must have been going over half tilt. All throughout the inner ward, patients sat in folding chairs while being tended, some aggressively and some passively, by nurses of every gender. My ex-wife had the look from back when she still cared about us. We tried to avoid seeming like we were trying to avoid seeing them. To one side of us, a man with a contraption on his face stared at a photo of a shorthair kitten, and whenever tears began to fall down his cheeks, the contraption would close down airflow to his nose, forcing him to look away. His nails were blued to the quick. To another side of us, a man with electrodes stuck to his nipples watched a video screen of flickering images, and every time a hamster emerged from the montage, he would convulse from electric shock while moaning with shy curtness, a teenager ruining his underwear. My wife thought it was a gerbil.
I begged to differ or I differed to beg. Doesn't matter which. My wife pantomimed a shrug, flipping out each hand, a routine for some studio audience. "You say tomato," she said. "I say go fuck yourself."
That was not the beginning of the end. The end had started at the beginning. "Thus concludes our tour of the hospital," Tandy said or Sandy said or Mandy said. "You can follow me back to the main lobby." My wife's nails dug at the calluses of my palm as we rewound our way through the pet hospital.
Pet is a thing and a verb, the first of which we do to the other. Pet is two kinds of things, one that we love and one that we hate.
In the main lobby, well lit from every angle by panes in the walls, my wife and I noticed a cemetery hidden towards the back of Saint Loretta's Home for Individuals Disabled by the Loss of Animals. We asked our guide. "It's just a replica," she said. "The gravestones are legitimate enough, but there are no bodies underneath," she said. "We find that mock burials can be comforting to our patients." That was all we needed to hear before leaving such a place.
There are two sentences every man wants to say—"Follow that cab" and "Stop the presses"—but there are only three words every man wants to hear. They are not what you might think. Outside the hospital, my ex-wife said, "Take me home."