I never thought I would have a dog. After my parents gave away the family dog when I was three (and my brother tormented me with the Pretend Puppy), I begged Santa for a puppy every year, with no results. At some point, I decided that perhaps if I aimed higher and asked for a horse instead, Santa would compromise and get me a dog. Santa never did see the logic of this. Sometime around high school, long after I'd stopped writing Christmas Eve letters to the North Pole, I decided that I was instead a cat person, and I longed for the day that I could have a cat of my very own.
In January 2001, a friend of mine rescued a wee kitten from the Dumpster behind his building on the Lower East Side; he'd been watching football and kept hearing this yowling from the alley below, so at the urging of his girlfriend he clambered over trash and mountains of snow (we'd had a record-breaking blizzard) and found this ball of fur -- a very loud, angry ball of fur -- huddled in a snowdrift, shivering and soaking wet. I leapt at the chance to take the cat. I didn't even bother to consult my then-boyfriend, who was less than enthused with my unilateral decision (although he'd have been even less so if it had been a dog -- he was definitely a cat person). I named the cat Atticus.
He's very cat-like. Very love-withholding and somewhat ornery, and for the first couple of years I had him, he would frequently try to bite the living hell out of your arm. You'd be reading the paper, and all of a sudden you'd have this cat hanging from your wrist, his teeth sinking into your flesh. He made up for the random attacks by meowing at all hours of the day and night and scratching up every fabric surface in the apartment. Oh, and vomiting profusely whenever possible.
We got him back good, though.
When I was in law school, I saw an episode of "Frasier" in which Niles brings home an Italian greyhound -- the joke was that he had to get rid of it because Maris could not stand to have anything in their home that was thinner than she was. When they showed the dog, I practically shot up off the couch and said, "THAT IS THE DOG FOR ME." A year or two later, I saw one at Newark Airport, his paws stretched up on his owner's legs, tail wagging furiously. For some reason, those dogs made me giddy, all sleek and skinny and doe-eyed. I occasionally searched for breeders on the Internet, just to look at them, and when I ditched the ex and my husband and I got together -- he being staunchly a dog person -- I would sometimes send him links to particularly cute puppies. I never thought seriously that we would get one, though, and I still didn't think I was that into dogs as a general matter.
When I had designated myself a cat person, you see, I had aligned myself with the view that dogs are messy and a little desperate. They slobber, have bad breath, and demand attention all the time. They're needy. And needy was bad; kind of desperate, really. No, a cat was for me, only receiving affection on his own terms (in Atticus's case, he will put his paws around my neck in a kitty-hug, but ONLY in the bathroom -- that's the only place he will nuzzle and be nuzzled), needing humans only to refill the food bowl and turn on the sink for sips of water from the faucet.
And then that Saturday in August 2003, out of nowhere in our newlywed newly-weddedness, my husband suggested we get a dog, and, as though driven by a force outside of myself, I sprang into action. We went straight to Barnes & Noble and pored through dog books, and when we got home I immediately emailed several area breeders of Italian greyhounds (I know, I know; my next dog will be a rescue, I swear). One wrote back that she had a 12-week old boy puppy, red with white markings. I made an appointment to see her that Friday. When I got to her apartment, she had me sit in the living room while she went to get the pup (which goes against everything the books tell you, about how you should see all of the dogs and where they live and so on, but...yeah) and when she brought him in, I almost cried. Or peed in my pants. Or both.
I mean, come on.
She put him in my lap and he reached his little paws up onto my face (and scratched the bejesus out of me), his tail whooshing back and forth at the speed of light, and he licked me and made little whimpery noises and I would have done ANYTHING for him at that moment. I would have sold my soul, given up an appendage, or listened to Broadway music every day for the rest of my life for that puppy. It was, to put it mildly, an easy sale.
I brought him home and as I entered the apartment with Miles under my arm, Atticus puffed up into a blowfish-like ball and hissed and did the sideways dance of a cat that is very, very pissed off. (Bwah-ha-HA, cat! Not so cocky now, are you?) (He's still pissed off about it, in fact.) That first night, Miles slept in a crate next to our bed. He whimpered a little bit, but soon fell asleep, the day's events having drained him of the ability to protest. The second night, he whimpered for about two seconds, and I opened the crate and held up the covers, and he curled up against my legs, and we've slept that way ever since.
To be honest, having a puppy was kind of a pain in the butt -- he was constantly destroying stuff and getting stuck under the bed and he couldn't sleep through the night without getting up to pee. And then there was the time he broke his leg, and for six months I had to take him to the medical center THREE TIMES A WEEK for bandage changes and checkups and to clean out our bank account. Even so, as I carried him outside and into a cab and sat with him in the waiting room (FOR HOURS ON END), I would kiss the top of his head and sniff the supersoft spot on his neck and talk quietly into his ear, trying to keep him calm and reassured, and at night as we fell asleep I'd hold his cast to keep from licking at it. The love I felt for him was startling.
The dog didn't have to do much to build this relationship, is the funny thing. The thing about dogs is that you love them just for being there, for being the tail that wags when you get home and the warm body that curls up with you while you read on the couch. I haven't the faintest idea what goes on Miles's head or what, if anything, he feels toward us -- other than gratitude, maybe, for keeping him fed and walked and warm -- but it turns out that doesn't matter. What he does for me is he allows me to love him to the ends of the earth and back. He happily accepts all the kisses I want to give him, all the snuggles and pets that I have, all the goofy songs I like to sing to him and about him. He goes along with our daily routine and knows his role in it -- to poke his nose against the bedroom door when I ask, "Are you ready to go to bed?", to run to the foyer when he hears the velcro of my husband's mandals, which signals an impending walk. There's nothing desperate or needy about that, and there's nothing messy about him (well, dog breath, maybe, but lo and behold that doesn't bother me too much). He just is; but in that simple act of being, he returns everything we give a thousandfold, by being there, being what he is, which is beautiful and funny and up for anything. And that's enough.
It turns out I'm a dog person, after all. Happy fourth anniversary, Miles!