Think back to a year ago. There’s a 40-pound black and tan puppy sleeping peacefully on the floor at your feet. You have the sickening feeling this dog is going to be The End of your relationship. But you pray it won’t be. You hope that a year from now, you can laugh about this.
It’s been more than a year and you will never laugh about this.
Your boyfriend comes home one night making doggie baby talk for an hour. You know something is up. For a couple of months he’s been pouncing on you, nuzzling and sniffing your neck and saying “I want a doggiiiieeee!” and you’ve giggled every time. You had never owned a dog before, but you loved him, and you wanted whatever he wanted. You were nervous, but you knew he would teach you how to become a Dog Person, as he had taught you other things you had never experienced before.
You thought your first dog should be a medium sized dog. “What is your definition of a medium sized dog?” he shot back. You did not know. He had wanted a Rhodesian, a dog so big people took them on safari hunts to keep lions at bay. His friends had big dogs they brought to the beach, and girlfriends in tiny bikinis who loved their big dogs. This was the fantasy.
But you had this conversation weeks ago. For reasons including being broke, you both had agreed to wait a few more months. You thought this is how your life would be, making decisions together, like choosing your first dog together.
But this night he presents you with a video on his phone. It’s him and the coonhound frolicking in a 30-second love fest. He had taken her for a test drive in his Jeep. Wasn’t she pretty, babe? Didn’t we want a good doggie? Technically, he asked you if it was okay. What could you say? You would not have crushed him. It was done. You had a dog.
You watch him through the big picture windows as he fortifies the shaky pickets in your fence, one by one. He has the big hole in your backyard filled over, and he sows and tends to grass so the dog can have a playground. You feel pride.
The dog is so attached to your boyfriend. She whines incessantly when he shuts the bathroom door. She panics unbearably when he leaves the house. She appreciates him in that unconditional way that you can’t compete with.
You’re overwhelmed by what it entails to own a dog. To housetrain her. To listen to her squeal in the cage at night. To patrol her so she doesn’t chew the remote, the pillows, your phone. Your house becomes a cacophony of tonal variations on the word “no.” You hate the dog smell. You get nervous when she ambles toward you. You feel petty for feeling all of these things. What is wrong with you? How can you not love a dog? Doesn’t everyone love dogs? You are the only one in the world who feels this way. You are a selfish, high-maintenance bitch. You are a puppy-hater. The sweet dog doesn’t deserve this. You hate yourself.
You try telling a few people how you feel, but you are not even sure how you feel. People say the first three months will be hard but then you will come around. But the more time passes, the more you feel as if you are failing your boyfriend’s test. To his credit, he feels awful that you are miserable, that you spend too much time upstairs in bed crying. But he’s baffled. “I thought the dog would bring us together,” he says, hanging his head. He tries to make you feel better by chirping things like “Aw babe, she loves you!” whenever the dog comes near you. “Who adopted you?!” he says. “Mommy adopted you! Yes she did!”
Most of all you miss your boyfriend. He assures you that his attention on the dog will be short-lived. “Babe, this is just to reinforce her training,” he says. Your jealousy grows.
He offers to return the dog to the rescue shelter. This makes you feel horrible. He’ll resent you for the rest of your time together. Deep down, you no longer believe it will be “for the rest of your lives.” You can’t believe this is happening. You will not lose the man you love over a dog.
So you try. You try really hard. Everyone was right. You come around. You start to feel comfortable in your house again. You are amazed to read the feelings on the dog’s face, and she reads yours, which makes you feel understood. You are communicating. You pick the ticks off her when she comes inside. You throw the tennis balls to her in the yard. You let her drag you on walks through the neighborhood. Then one day she begins to yield to you.
You report these silly victories to your boyfriend, but it feels to both of you that you are pandering. How hard can it be to walk a dog? He listens patiently, but always has a critique for you, never praise like he has for the dog. He must be right, you think, when he said you can’t handle anything. His eyes increasingly stop meeting yours. He cannot hide his disappointment that you do not have the innate ability to care for a dog. This is something you cannot change about yourself. All you can do is learn.
You stop caring about the dog smell. It smells like home. A friend comes over and retreats when the dog jumps to greet her. “Your dog almost killed me,” she says. Oh please, you think. She says, “I would never let my man get a dog.” You think how lucky your boyfriend has it with you, a girl who will do anything to make him happy.
When you are home alone with the dog, you share secrets. You feed her forbidden Cheetos and ice cubes. You sit on the couch and talk to her and she gnaws on your wrist. You take videos of her snoring on your lap. But when Daddy comes home, he is only excited to see one of his girls. The other one feels invisible.
One day, with a twinkle in his eye, he tells you that he loves this dog so much, he would fuck her if he could. You can’t bear to put this in quotation marks when you write about it later. He’s joking. It’s a joke. The kind that you would normally find very funny. But now you can only pretend to laugh.
You and your boyfriend stop ending your days together. He stretches out on the couch snuggling face to face with the dog. You feel like a voyeur, so you go to bed. He makes sure you are asleep before he comes upstairs. But you are not asleep. He would rather jerk off than have sex with you. You remember there was a time not long ago when he could not fall asleep unless your hand was pressed against his back.
Some friends recommend hiring an expensive dog trainer. They say it will be the best $2500 you ever spend. But your boyfriend must spend it, because you have no money. You are unemployed, as you have been for months. This is another reason why you feel unworthy. So you keep quiet. The trainer takes the dog away for a few weeks and she comes back as the most obedient dog ever. You are both so excited to see her. You feel as if you have turned a corner. But it is the wrong corner. Your boyfriend is stressed about money. He tells you that he only hired the trainer because you couldn’t handle the dog. You think this is a lie, because you know he wanted a dog he could let off the leash, and he trusted his friends’ advice. But you know it makes him feel better to blame it on you, and you are already in the doghouse, so you don’t argue. Later, you will vow to pay him back.
One night when things are really bad and his friends are over, you accidentally let the dog out of the house. He does not believe it is an accident. “Fuck you,” he says, standing and pointing a finger. “FUCK. YOU.” You feel as if you’ve been slammed against a concrete wall, because everything inside you breaks. His friends continue to drink beer in your living room. You feel like you’re a big joke.
The next day, as if to apologize, he takes you and the dog to the beach. You feel him struggling to want to be there with you. He flinches when you make a connection with the dog. His dog. The more pathetic you feel, the more pathetic you become, and the more pathetic you seem to him. Pathetic feeds itself and grows and grows and grows.
The two of you sit on the couch with the dog. She chews your blue dress and you tell her to stop. Your boyfriend tells her to bite you. “Bite her, bite her,” he whispers, too many times. You stand up and say, “I am a human,” and he laughs at you. You don’t know what’s funny anymore. His mom, who is there too, says to him, “That’s not very nice.” You’re grateful for this validation, but embarrassed that she witnessed this.
On his birthday, after he barely speaks to you at the party, you drag the dog upstairs for the first time to sleep in your bed. You are so desperate to prove how much you have changed. You are willing to compete with the dog for his affection.
You will lose.
You will leave for three weeks and return. But then you will have to leave again. It is decided for you. It’s been six months since the dog arrived. She now sleeps on your side of the bed. On the day it all ends, he will angrily say, “I don’t understand how somebody can get so upset about getting a pet.” This will be one of the many things he will say that will break your heart. He will say he has lost his spark. He will tell you it’s not just about the dog. If that’s true, then you think he is a coward for using the dog to drive a bigger wedge between you.
You will say, “You know I love her, don’t you?”
“How ironic,” he will snap back.
The dog creeps through the maze of your moving boxes. She knows. When she sees you both crying, she will go to him first, and it will kill you. But then, she will turn and come to you. You are grateful for this. She is both comfort and anguish.
You will move to another state, to the only place you know where to go. At night, you will crave the feeling of being in his arms, and you will wonder if he misses holding you, like he said he would. Then you will remember that he has the dog. He does not need you to hold.
When you feel alone, you will realize this is why people have dogs. But your landlord does not allow pets. Someday, you think, you will get another dog. How ironic.
When you make money in this new place, you send him a check, like you vowed you would, for half of the dog’s training expense. He refuses to accept it. You insist, but he quietly says, “Maybe it was unfair of me to blame it on you.” You silently accept this as an apology, and you think, this is why you fell in love with him in the first place. He tells you that he is drinking too much, which you take to mean that he feels the void of your absence. You think you might talk again. Maybe there is something still there. But then, weeks later, on the day before Valentine’s Day, you will receive a simple email asking you if he can still cash the check. You do not think it’s true that he really wants to take money from you. But you cannot figure out what other motive there is, and you will always wonder about it. You realize your motives were impure for sending him the money in the first place. It was a test, and you set him up to fail. But now, at least, he’s a loser too.
You will notice every dog you see now, the same way you notice every Jeep like the one he drove. You will stop, kneel down to the ground and scratch other people’s pets. You will scan their faces, looking for some kind of forgiveness, as if befriending a random dog for ten seconds could make up for what you could not do right. You are trying to change the past, like a fool. You cannot bring yourself to delete the video of his dog snoring in your lap.