I’m at my friend K’s apartment, crying and drinking whatever Trader Joe’s wine she happens to have on hand. “We just can’t stop fighting,” I mumble. “We just have different ideas as to how he should be raised. He wants me to stay home more; he doesn’t want us to put him in day care.”
K nods. I can see her analytical, lawyer-brain quickly equating my relationship and its issues with the one she left a year or so ago. “This is totally déjà vu,” she says. She’s silently thinking my long-term boyfriend and I are destined for the same fate as her and her ex – and her ex-cat.
Across the room, my six-month-old puppy sniffs a pile of junk belonging to K’s annoying roommate, blithely unaware of the drama he’s created. I flash forward to images of my life as a single mother. A dog walker. A tiny studio apartment or a strange, annoying roommate of my very own. Girlish glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and giggles over failed relationships and the pets that pushed them to the brink. How did it come to this?
We acquired Jules from a reputable French Bulldog breeder in Connecticut on a sunny day in early April. He had one ear that flopped to the side and a bulging belly that gave his body the shape of a light bulb. As we pulled our rental car onto a country lane on the way to pick him up, I was suddenly consumed by fear. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?” I asked my boyfriend. “We could turn back now.”
I can’t recall if he told me I was crazy or just looked at me as if I were. For no less than half-a-dozen years, I’d wanted a dog. I’d applied for, and failed to get, needy pups from rescue organizations. I stayed up late into the night browsing breeder websites. I babysat friend’s animals. I’d insisted we live in a dog-friendly building long before we had one of our own. I was ready to be a mother. To a dog at least.
Now, it was all finally happening, and rather than brimming with maternal joy, my instinct was to turn our reliable Japanese auto around and high-tail it back to Brooklyn and the last vestiges of youthful irresponsibility.
The boyfriend laughed off my neurotic, ill-timed inquiries (par for the dating-me course), and we pressed on. We took home a puppy. For all those years of preparation, all my research into pet insurance policies, and several hundred dollars dropped at PETCO on supplies, I felt like a wide-eyed teen on that MTV show 16 and Pregnant, naively bringing home a new baby, utterly unprepared for the fact that my life – and my relationship – were about to change, while a chorus of off-key “I told you sos” waited just offstage.
We laid out pee pads and cleaned up poo. We cuddled, and were nibbled and nipped. We documented exhaustively. We Facebook-ed and Flickr-ed our new bundle of joy. We threw a puppy shower in retaliation for any and all baby showers we’d ever attended, and ever would attend. We went to the park. We potty trained. We befriended strangers who took no interest in us, only in what was at the end of our leash. We oooohed and ahhhhhed at our adorable new arrival, but less at each other. We awakened in the middle of the night to clean up accidents, but not to have sex.
I began to wonder if love, like time, might be a finite quantity. If we poured all of our affection onto this new creature, who all too easily won over hearts and minds with his tiny, wrinkled face and clumsy limbs, would we have anything left for each other? As we fought over polarizing issues like table scraps and crate training, it sure didn’t seem like it.
Our conflicting parenting styles had quickly emerged. I was eager to crate-train and raise an obedient, upstanding young canine citizen who would quietly watch his humans eat dinner or peck on their laptops from the sidelines. The boyfriend talked of not wanting to break our puppy’s spirit, as if he weren’t so much a dog, but a great artist waiting to bloom. I started to worry, fairly incessantly, about what our different puppy-rearing techniques might mean if and when a human child ever entered the picture. And, I was working outside the house after months of freelancing at home. The boyfriend became a stay at-home dad, and I was a harried, neglectful working mother. We were clichéd characters in a sitcom, only there was a dog – and not a rascally toddler – at home.
The more we fought, the guiltier I felt, but also, the less I wanted to rush home from work to wallow in said guilt. I packed my schedule with after-work dinner and drink dates with friends, the better to avoid/assuage my own guilt at not being home with cute pup and resentful boyfriend, who, not surprisingly, grew more and more resentful the later I came home.
Then I was offered a work trip to South Africa. The timing was bad – we’d had our puppy less than a month. But it was a free trip to a far-off land that I feared I may not otherwise see until retirement. I begged the boyfriend for his blessing. He responded with a “you’re just going to do whatever you want anyway,” and so, I did. Off I went, and no matter how many souvenirs I brought back with me, I couldn’t quite make up for my extended absence. Partly in retaliation, the boyfriend booked a nearly two-week trip abroad of his own home to see his family. He was angry, and I was angry at him for being angry, and that, it seems, is how we went from puppy dreams to a near break-up in approximately the time it took our little miracle to grow a full set of adult teeth and learn how to defecate outside.
But this story doesn’t end with Sauvignon Blanc and singledom. Nor does it end with an easy platitude about how much work a puppy is. (Duh.) Maybe it ends with me realizing that I was at times selfish and immature and irresponsible and insecure and all those lovely things. (Duh.) This story ends with the boyfriend and me, figuring it out. It ends on a weeknight, when I walk in after work, not too late. The boyfriend is lying on the sofa, his iPad in hand, a sleeping dog next to him. I suppress a wave of nausea over the the scene’s eerie resemblance to a CB2 catalog spread, and I smile. I am home.