Dogs

On Having a Puppy Out of Wedlock

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When people hear that I’m the only obstacle between my boyfriend and the dog of his dreams, their judging faces speak as loudly as a 100 PETA protesters chanting outside my window. For the majority of the five years we’ve been together, Dan has been more than subtly hinting that a dog would bring him unending joy. As a former subscriber to Dog Fancy magazine, my reluctance may seem incongruous. I treated my childhood pooch as a brother from another mother. And my love for dogs hasn’t waned since then. But loving dogs is entirely different from living with them.

I can’t pinpoint the moment when Dan’s love for English Bulldogs was conceived. It’s not just any dog he wants to bring into our family, but specifically the stubby-legged, smash-faced, snorting potato of a dog so ugly it manages to be cute. These days, I think of my life in terms of Before Kevin and After Kevin. Kevin, you see, is the imaginary Bulldog that will someday take my place in bed. Dan talks about him like a pregnant woman who has begun referring to her fetus by name.

“It’s too bad we don’t live closer to a dog park for Kevin to run around in.”

“If we had Kevin the kitchen floor would be spotless.”

“I’m not sure if we should get a new dining room table because Kevin might chew the legs.”

Kevin is our ghostly third, defined by his absence from our lives. The pitter-patter of feet that don’t scamper to greet us at the door. The bristly hairs that don’t mottle our charcoal couch. Where Dan envisions a Purina commercial, I see waking up at five in the morning, cleaning yellow stains from the carpet, and listening to Darth Vader-level heavy breathing. Every time he broaches Kevin’s dreams of becoming a real boy, my cold practicality silences his hopeful tune.

This is not the story of Dan’s descent into dog-addled insanity, and it’s not the story of my icy heart and its quest to quash dreams. It’s the story of what happens when you can’t bring yourself to give the person you love the one thing — besides, of course, yourself — that would truly make them happy.

To Dan, talking about getting a dog was a literal conversation about getting a dog. He wanted another cuddle buddy to share in the pleasures of “Family Guy.” To me, the dog was a proxy for something more profound. The words we strung together were about a dog, but in between the words were questions about our relationship, its longevity, its capacity to nurture another being. To me, the dog meant committing to each other for another decade, which was like committing to one pair of jeans for perpetuity: they fit now, but will they fit after years of replacing my already intermittent runs with snail-paced Bulldog strolls?

As our relationship solidified, the deliberation became more concretely about the dog itself. Dan readily answered my litany of protestations. When I told him my bank account couldn’t handle the blow, he promised to cover Kevin’s bills. When I told him Kevin would keep us homebound, he rattled off dog walkers and puppy hotels. The five a.m. wake-up calls? He’d take Kevin out. Complaining neighbors? Bulldogs lie around in a silent, lazy stupor all day.

The conversation recurred more or less monthly. On good days, I reacted by telling Dan that I’d think about it. And I did. I imagined picking Kevin out of a burlap sack and introducing him to the apartment he’d soon destroy. I imagined the flash of yellow as he chased down tennis balls. On bad days, I reacted by compounding visions of responsibility — for keeping another living thing alive — with all my anxieties about keeping my own self sane. I was contemplating a major career change and I felt, much of the time, like I was flailing about. It’s hard to walk a dog when your arms are flailing.

One of my biggest reservations, and one to which Dan could fully relate, was a burgeoning desire to take a hiatus and do some major globetrotting. When, after months of deliberation, we decided to quit our jobs and travel for half a year, we talked about what it meant for Kevin.

“Well, I suppose we’ll scratch the travel itch,” I said.

“And when we get back, we’ll be unemployed with plenty of time to housetrain a puppy.” This he asked more than stated.

I spoke without thinking. I was tired of thinking, and I was tired of the person I was during these conversations.  “If we survive our travels, and we come back with all our limbs and our relationship intact…then we can get a dog.” There had been a barking in my ears for years: from friends who didn’t understand my resistance, from Dan who wanted this so badly, and most of all from myself, for not just loosening up. As soon as I said it, all that barking was finally, mercifully, silenced.

We packed up our apartment and drove 12,000 miles and flew across oceans. And then I did a bad thing: I recanted. The fewer miles that remained between us and that dog, the more anxious I became about the commitment I had made. I didn’t even have health insurance, and here I was about to devote myself to a delicate, football-sized baby. I realized I’d become inept at separating what I really wanted from what I desperately wanted to want. I didn’t need to say it aloud. I’ve never had much of a poker face, and Dan has always been able to read my thoughts.

One of the greatest joys in life is to make the person you love happy. I’ve known for years what would make the person I love happy. But I haven’t been able to give it to him, because the very thing that would make him happy might make me as bonkers as the dad in Beethoven. There’s a line between selflessness and self-sabotage, and I haven’t been willing to cross it. Despite his years of canine deprivation, Dan understands this, and I am grateful for his patience every day.

I am not one to break a promise, at least more than once. We’ll get Kevin in the not-too-distant future, and the years-long debate that led to his adoption will have made us all the more ready for him. His name, I can say with certainty, will most definitely not be Kevin. Kevin will forever be a ghost, a name too loaded for a real dog to bear. His name will have to represent the fresh start he deserves, and after all these years of waiting, I’m going to let Dan do the honors.