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Imaginary Dog

What he would be like, if I could have him

Bold forelegs, brave haunches: a cock-eared waggler. Wet nose poking my legs from behind, body sneaking into bed and nestling near my feet, beesty beest. So GOOD. Oh MY GOD he is such a GOOD BOY YES YES YES YES YES! Tongue out in glee, head ajoggle.

So HANDSOME - soak his love up. That breath. Ulgh. Not the tongue! Fine lad, the best boy. Down, down. Okay. Calm. Calm. There. Go get your ball. Ball! Get the ball! Yes. YES!

When he is tired on long walks, when he gets something in his paw, I pick him up and carry him. He rests, docile in my joined arms, a baby, a scoop of dog-ice-cream. I talk to him as we walk, I press my nose into his fur. I squeeze his belly and explain his essential goodness; he is attentive, if uncomprehending. I love you, I say.

Every day is not sweetness. Midnight barking at phantoms on the street, straight into my ear, infuriating my elderly neighbors. Pools of vomit for my unexpecting bare feet on early winter mornings. Occasional lapses into passionate, detached leg-raping, and a moment, not long ago, of thrilled chase over a squirrel, which became a 2-hour journey through a suburb, calling his name. There is some occasional light nipping at the hands and begging at the table, neither of which are acceptable. We work on it. He wants to learn.

One moonless night not long back my girlfriend Florine, who had been seeing me for only a week, was spending her first night at my place - too soon, I know. As she and I slept in an under-blanket cuddle, my boy fetched her used Kotex pad from the bathroom garbage and, with care and diligence, shredded it across the living room throw-rug. She and I came out of the bedroom late the next morning to discover that strange, abstract mess.

I said, “what is all this?” and leaned down to pick up a rust-stained length of fiber. As Florine watched and tried to speak I held it up to my face and, curious, sniffed.

“Oh, no, Paul,” she said, quietly. I looked over to meet her eyes and fathomed what I was holding, and opened my hand to let it fall. The stretched cotton drifted gently to the ground, landing back on the floor with the other strands, and my very fine lad, who had heard me wake and roused himself in expectation of his can-and-bag breakfast, suddenly remembered the delights of last night's treat as he saw the detritus drop from my hand, and leapt forward, grasping it once more in his mouth.

I scolded him, as Florine stood in her pajamas; I commanded him to give the piece of pad up into my hand, which he did after I raised my voice, at first resentful, then contrite.

“I am so sorry,” she said.

“It's not your fault,” I said, as I went for a dustpan and broom. Florine tried to take both items from me, but I refused, and she finally grabbed the dustpan from my hand and knelt. The fibers gripped the little carpet as I swept into the black metal pan, but in a few minutes we had gathered everything up and put it into the kitchen trash, which has a lid.

I made a joke about how she clearly tasted better than any biscuit, and it went over poorly, as most of my jokes would go over with Florine, who was a business communications specialist for a financial firm, and fidgety. We went for breakfast. As I closed the door on the boy he did not, as usual, beg for a walk. He sat reproached, aware that he'd been the cause of the nervousness which was still filling all the rooms.

I felt bad for him as she and I sat, four blocks away, facing each other across a tiny table and discussing something annoying, one of those bullshit cerebral tail-biting topics that come up in my conversations, like McLuhan, or the importance of typography, or career plans, eating stale croissants and drinking coffee from paper cups, while he sat home feeling guilty. How was he to understand a human taboo? The little plastic can next to the toilet must have screamed out to his all-knowing nose, hinted at the excitement of discovery.

So, you see, it is not all love and kitchen-floor wrestling and meat by-products, owning him. But I accept his urgent desires, even when I must correct them, and I throw the ball, and he grabs it in his mouth, and brings it to me, and we do it again, for hours, and I never get bored and neither does he. He is the only entity on this earth, and that includes my computer, who has never tired of knowing me, and I have never tired of him.

The semi-Freudian amateurs in my life say I must want a child, if I care for this animal so much. I don't. But I do love having a lad, this friend. The lines of my life so far all cut off at some point - people who've sailed away, or from whom I've sailed, friends, family, and girlfriends. After months or years of detail and exposition, explaining why I was one way, and listening to why they were another, one day it would all conclude - someone would move, or move out, or someone might decide to stop speaking to someone else, and what's left is only story, and it's a narrative too heavy to carry if I'm going to keep moving; if the other person is not there to help me shoulder the weight of their story, it is too heavy. So I pull into the harbor of my bed and bury it there in the sand, and after a few weeks of lolling sadness, or anger, I start moving again, and forget much of what came before so that there is room for new things.

My boy is the antithesis of this, a pure loyalty from which I cannot be excused, my charge, a 50-pound anchor that holds me in emotional and spiritual port, an anchor with bad breath and soft ears; he is filled with stories, simple ones, like: “love ball run,” “he came home,” “I smell/love this person,” “meat” and “let's pee here.” My stories, for all their self-involved twisting, their nervous obsessions over sex and technology and fear of abandonment, are rarely more complex than his, just more self-involved, reflective, and less fun.

All of this, even his fuss with Florine's kotex, is pure fantasy. But 3 years from now, I think he will become real, with a name. Which means he isn't born yet; he can't be predicted, but I have settled my future pup in my mind and one day the pieces of my life will merge, the travel will stop, I will find a place I want to make a home. I will be working for myself, and single, and I'll go out to meet him at the pound, and after that it will all seem pre-ordained. I'll make his acquaintance with treats and praise, and raise him carefully, stern but loving, and we will have long walks and warm conversations. We will work it out, a compromise between human and dog that goes back, some population biologists promise, 150,000 years. He will try to figure me out, and I will try to figure him.

Once I have raised the puppy, if I have room and resources, I will go to the pound and find an older dog - an abused and abandoned dog, which are always in horrifically great supply, and I will work together with my first pup to help the new resident, to take his fear and sense of suffering and replace it with something stable and consistent, a knowledge that every quick movement will not end in violence, that he will not be kicked, beaten, ignored.

Such dogs take a long time, and for the rest of their lives they will never fully trust humans, but they can trust other dogs. So I'll figure out how to encourage their friendship, and let them figure some of it out themselves.

I intuit - I don't know how - that once I have both dogs at home (and that will make where I live a home), the process of caring for these beasts, of compromising with their instincts as I raise and instruct them, will give me some awareness I don't have today, and which I can't get from my current path. It's an awareness I want. They'll encourage me to climb further into the world, with less of this thick wall of cynical flesh to protect me from strangers, as long as they can come along on their leashes.

Today, Wednesday, I met up with two friends, visiting NYC with their new puppy. 30 lbs of white-fur perfection. Her name was Luna, and she was thrilled by the hundreds of pigeons at Columbus Circle, her head moving back and forth in confused wonder. I brushed the bits of gravel off her black nose, sniffed her furry head, and squeezed her fat pink belly and the pads of her paws. It was heaven.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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