We didn’t have any pets. We had full ashtrays and empty gin bottles. The walls were bare. There was a crack in the bay window where the glass had been caulked cheaply; the cold slithered through with a sardonic whistle that we pretended not to hear. My mother bought us a snake plant. She repotted it and said it needed water once a week, but we never gave it any water. It became a cactus. It was the closest thing to life in our apartment. We were addicted to everything, so there was no life left in us. I woke up one afternoon and looked at my girl. This needs to change, I thought.
I left, and bought us a dog.
New Jersey separates its tax brackets with highways, and we lived on the wrong side of the tracks. There were a plethora of dogs for sale, but the basements and shelters were full of Pit bulls, Dobermans. “High Risk Dogs” our apartment complex wouldn’t allow.
I drove to a derelict town whose name backwards sounds like “Grub-Snake.” In the 1950s, it had been America’s premier bay town, but now it was a place teenagers moved when they accidentally knocked up their girlfriends. I saw a sign nailed to a telephone pole that said “boxer pups for sale.” I found the address and emptied our bank account.
I parked in front of a trailer with tires half-buried in the front yard. I tucked most of the money into my sock. An old couple opened the door and showed me the only dog left: a little red boxer, maybe 15 pounds, chewing on a sneaker.
“She’s the last one”, the woman said. “We’ve been calling her Bambi.”
I ignored that.
The woman called her over. Bambi stood up, yawned, and took a piss right there on the floor. I handed the woman $200.
“I like her style,” I smiled. “I’ll take her”.
As I drove home, I pictured the mascara on my girlfriend’s face. How it was probably running freely down the deep indentures of her cheeks and chin, the aftermath of another bad night.
When we had been introduced, her mouth made a half-smile. Like there could be something more to all of it. Like I didn’t deserve it all yet, but maybe someday, I’d get to see the whole thing. I knew I would appreciate it the way a smile from a woman should always be appreciated (but so often isn’t), and I wouldn’t take for granted something I’d worked to earn.
I hadn’t seen one on her face in a long time.
When she opened the door and saw the dog, she laughed.
“Well done,” I said to Bambi, “You’re already doing your job.”
That night we sat on the couch, the dog asleep between us, and watched Moulin Rouge. The dog was Satine after that.
We didn’t have any money, but my girlfriend had a collection of shoes with French names. Our dog shared a similar taste for high fashion. Her $200 value quickly spiked. Every time we went out, or to the bathroom, we’d return to find the dog shredding leather and gnawing on YSL heels. My girlfriend began to hate the dog. She became “my dog” every time something was destroyed. I spent most nights sleeping with Satine on a love seat that sagged in the middle. Something needs to change, I thought. I went out and bought a fish tank full of fancy guppies.
She didn’t laugh that time, but I slept in our bed.
Housebreaking the dog was impossible. She tried. She’d soak the floor and then run to me and apologize. I’d take her outside and point at things and say “good dog.” Her tail beat around like a helicopter. We’d go inside and wrestle. I’d throw a ball across the room and in mid-run, she would piss. Then she’d stop and look at it, her ears would pull back, her eyes would go wide. If she could cry, I’m sure she would have. I was the United Nations between the dog and my girlfriend. Satine and I went outside to do the whole routine again, but I didn’t clean up the mess. My girlfriend came out and slipped on it and fell through the coffee table. “That dog has to go,” she said. “I hate it.” I held the dog and explained how hard she was trying.
“Get rid of it,” she said. “And don’t come back with any more pets”.
My girlfriend was a cat person. I’m not. I looked at the empty walls and decided to do the next best thing. I went to an antique store and bought a painting of a really ugly cat whose eyes followed you around the room. I spent a whole weeks rent, but I bought the stupid painting.
She didn’t laugh and I didn’t get to sleep in our bed.
But I was allowed to keep the dog.
Satine started to get brave. I opened the door to take her out and she ran away.
“I don’t know why you’re wasting your time,” my girlfriend said, “The dog’s a nightmare.”
I chased the dog around the apartment complex, across a highway. She’d let me get within a few feet and then take off running again. Finally, I caught her and dragged her back home by her neck. My girlfriend just sat in the corner, laughing. And since I couldn’t hit my girlfriend, I hit the dog. She didn’t flinch, but I saw her eyes dim a little.
I took her innocence with that hit. I broke our bond.
I spent the whole night cuddled on the dog bed with her. Apologizing. Smoking cigarettes. Crying. And since dogs are better than people, she forgave me. But I never forgot.
I had to buy a crate to put Satine in while I went to work. The dog could not be housebroken, and I didn’t want to give my girlfriend any more ammunition. Boxers have severe separation anxiety. We came home, and she had broken out of the indestructible cage. There were blood stains on everything. A lamp was broken. Feces were on the floor. It looked like a liquidation had happened in our absence.
I ran to Satine and found two of her teeth had been ripped out.
“I’m so sorry”, I said to her.
“You’re apologizing to the dog?” My girlfriend screamed.
“She’s just a baby! She didn’t know we were coming back.”
My girlfriend gave the ultimatum.
“Get rid of the dog,” she said. “Or get rid of me.”
Satine would usually slink off to her blanket when we fought. She knew this was about her, though. She sat right next to me and pushed her red nose against my hand.
I didn’t have to think about it, but I knew it was one of those moments that would live in our memories forever. I wanted to get it just right.
“Fine”, I said. “Let’s figure out who gets what.”
I looked around the apartment. A TV. An acoustic guitar. Some books.
“Take everything,” I said. “I just want the dog.”
I went outside to call somebody for a place to crash. I took Satine with me. The sun set and I watched the grey crawl in from the east. I was waiting for a sign, but the sky was blank with indifference. If there were a desert nearby, I would have walked us into it. But there was nothing brutal or wild, it had all been tamed. The only madness left in the world is going on in our own brains. I thought about my dog’s brain and how the only direction it moved was toward me. I thought about the progress of mankind. About how many chances people have been given to do the right thing, and how often we actually do. Why did God ever let evolution go any further than the dog?