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The 'intruder' in his emotional fortress is really his best friend

Amnesty InternationalAnna Karenina (movie)People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

"God," Julie said, "you're so cold. You don't care about anyone, or anything, except your animals."

I cared about her. I just didn't know how to say it. I'm a veterinarian. Julie was a colleague. I followed her to a green Jeep Cherokee in my building's parking structure. She started her engine, then sat there with her hands on the steering wheel. Tears were streaming down her red cheeks.

I wanted to tell her how great her auburn hair looked in the morning sun. I wanted to tell her it didn't have to be over.

"So, do you wanna do something next week?" I asked.

"I'm moving to Santa Cruz, you idiot," she replied. "For good."

I had helped to clean out her house and move all her stuff but balked when it came to moving mine. How would I move all my books? Would I be able to throw away the cracked plastic food bowl my cat, Valentine, had used as a kitten 13 years earlier, the one with the yellow stripes and the circus kitties on it? As a hoarder, would I ever be able to move in with anyone? Would there ever be enough room for my pets and possessions and human love?

"Can I call you?" I finally said.

"No!" she yelled as she turned her key in the ignition, stepped on the gas, and drove away.

After Julie left, I worried that there would be no human love in my life.

Then I met Ruth. She was the only client who ever insisted that she be with her cat the moment I put him under for a dental procedure. Weird, I thought, but dedicated. I liked that.

Ruth was this Bohemian-dressed, French-speaking woman who wasn't French. She was Icelandic. She wore orange sweaters with knit green scarves and red beads. When her cat developed a urinary problem, she came by once a week with lab samples. After several emails about her cat, she sent one asking if I would like to meet for coffee. The header of my reply was, "Coffee, tea, or pee?" She said that made her laugh.

Over coffee at the 17th Street Café on Montana Avenue, I learned that French was the third language Ruth spoke. Icelandic was the first and German was the second. She worked as a doula. She said she was opposed to unnecessary C-sections and hated the death penalty. She belonged to Amnesty International and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. I asked her out to dinner the next week, and to a movie the week after that.

Ruth showed me films in French, in German and in Icelandic. I dragged her to see "Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer." She didn't complain. But she did say I drank too much Coke. And that I ate too much bread. All those comic books and action figures I had lying around were unlikely to help me in my goal to write books someday, she said.

When Ruth moved in with me, it took her months to convince me to get rid of eight of my nine copies each of "Frankenstein," "Pride and Prejudice," "Dracula," "Anna Karenina," and "The Call of the Wild." I didn't need them all, she said, even if I did like the different covers, the different introductions and the different translations.

Then one day, while helping me clean up, Ruth dropped Valentine's plastic food bowl and shattered it. I was devastated. If the loss of Valentine's bowl made me so upset, what would happen when I had to lose Valentine himself?

I was 43, living with a woman for the first time in my life, and terrified. Ruth said Valentine's time on Earth was very limited, that's why it was important for me to show him that I loved him. Everybody's time here is limited, she said.

The seven years that I've been with Ruth are a record for me. Her complaints that I am distant and cold and care more about things and animals than about people are not so much an assault as they are an attempt to break through the frozen lake of my hoarding. Sometimes I'll sneak a plastic bag of books home from the thrift store.

"Robert? What are those?" Ruth will ask.

"Nothing," I'll say. I never expect her to understand.

It takes practice for me to understand that Ruth is not a threat. I often want to retreat, again and again, into solitude. So far she is the only woman unwilling to leave me there.

When Ruth gets upset with me, her Icelandic accent comes out.

"I didn't seenk I was doing anything wrong," she says, through tears, in a recent fight when she talks of leaving me.

"What? Sink? What sink?" I say.

"Seenk!"

"See what?"

Ruth starts to sob.

"Oh, think," I say.

Suddenly I realize that this intruder into my fortress, this crusading Viking, is my best friend. This is the voice I hear through the tears and the accent. This is my best friend.

"Don't go," I say.

L.A. Affairs chronicles romance and relationships. Past columns are archived at latimes.com/laaffairs. If you have comments to share or a story to tell, write us at home@latimes.com.

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Amnesty InternationalAnna Karenina (movie)People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
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