I watched him cross the room to ask me to dance. When the bar closed, he wrote my phone number on his hand and swore he would remember me. I looked into his blue-green eyes and hoped he would call.
He didn’t have to tell me that Max was a one-person dog. Max was a chow, a fierce breed, and he was loyal to a fault. But I didn’t care; I believed I could win both of them over if I worked at it hard enough.
It was more work than I anticipated: My boyfriend’s female roommate left screaming messages on my answering machine, telling me they were sleeping together. He would deny it, saying she was crazy. I found him kissing the bartender at the place we met, and he called me the next day, pleading for forgiveness. He had too many shots of liquor and told me I was stupid and worthless. Even his friends shook their heads, wondering why I stayed.
I didn’t have an answer; something about this stray, motherless man and his snappy, territorial dog made me believe that I was what they needed to heal. I thought I could love them enough to change them.
Max and I were constantly cautious of each other, a man’s dog and his girlfriend. We learned acceptance; he of my trying to get him to love me, and me of him pretending that he did. In time, I realized the dog was much like his owner — temperamental, mercurial and without the capability to love me as much as I wished he would.
Six years into our relationship, my boyfriend punched me in the left side of my jaw; it was the most serious injury I had sustained at his hands, and the most serious injury I’d ever had. But at this point, I was deeply embedded in his life and could not extract myself from the cycle of abuse. Both the dog and the man were unhealthy forces, yet I couldn’t walk away. My view of love was so warped from years of mental and physical jabs — and the gradual breakdown of my confidence — that I believed that this was the best I could get.
When I heard that a colleague was looking for a home for a year-old golden lab puppy named Bailey, I volunteered to take him.
But we can’t take in another dog, a little voice hissed in my mind. Are you insane? You can barely breathe as it is. One more time, I shut the voice down.
When we met Bailey, he was all paws and exuberance; upon meeting me, he knocked me over onto the dusty ground. I fell in love with him and hoped a new puppy would bring more happiness into our home.
Bailey smothered me in the love I never received from Max. For a while, it was enough to sustain me through the rips and tears that were forming in my human relationship. For several years, we lived together, this man, these two dogs and me. We moved them from address to address as we chased the contentment we couldn’t find in each other.
We married and bought a house, which gave us a yard for the dogs and more space for us to parry and dodge each other. I shuttered myself in the master bedroom in the wintertime when there was no fresh air coming inside, a prisoner with a medical mask and an expensive air filter keeping me alive. Although I knew that ER visits and frequent steroid doses to manage the asthma that was set off by my dog allergy wasn’t the best way for me to live, I could not give up. I knew that if I breathed a whisper about giving up the dogs, I would lose the man, too.
Doesn’t he care that your health suffers with these dogs? friends would say, shaking their heads.
You don’t know the half of it, I would think to myself.
The dogs heard the yelling reverberating off the walls when my husband raged and hurled obscenities at me, the anger spilling into every inch of the house. Max and Bailey would lie next to me on the floor as I cried.
As he approached 10 years old, Max started to slow down. Each morning, it took him a little longer to get up. In his elder years, he allowed me closer than I had ever been to him — just as my husband and I were falling apart. I had never wanted a dog — or two of them. I wanted a husband, I wanted a life, and Max and Bailey were what kept me going. Bailey’s love for me was unconditional as only a Labrador could offer. Max’s was deep and hard-earned.
My husband came home one day and told me that he thought we should date other people. All I could say was, “… but we’re married.”
Two weeks later, he moved out and took the dogs with him; with my travel schedule, I wouldn’t be able to take good care of them. On the morning of the move-out, I woke up early to say goodbye to the dogs before I left for work.
Taking their faces in my hands, one at a time, I looked into their eyes. I told them how much they were loved and that I wouldn’t see them again. Then I buried my face in their fur and let the tears fall. Would they wonder what happened to me? Would they feel the sting of abandonment? I took a deep breath and I recognized I was about to be free — that was what mattered most.
After the divorce, I put myself back together alone — no fur or paws or exuberant barking to soothe my pain. I learned how to breathe without steroids or air filters or fear. I found the unconditional love I needed in a new pet-free home with my second husband, who gave away his beloved cat because he realized I was worth the sacrifice. We have a little boy who is also allergic to dogs, so someday we might get a fish.