“And how do you feel about it?” I asked, hoping Michael would make this moment about us, not his dog. Michael turned and whispered something to Ruby.
Going into our relationship, I knew that Michael was a big dog guy. On our first date, he talked more about Ruby — an 11-year-old poodle he’d adopted from an animal rescue organization — than about himself. He described her the way you’d hear a parent talk about their 5-year-old child, showing off photos of them in the park and gushing, “You wouldn’t believe how smart she is!”
I smiled and humored him, yet thought, “I sure hope this man has friends who aren’t on four legs.”
Knowing that Michael and Ruby came as a pair, I was more nervous to meet her than I was to meet Michael’s parents and friends. The night of our first encounter, I changed my clothes three times and watched multiple episodes of “Dog Whisperer” for tips.
“I’m sure she’ll love you,” Michael told me. “But if she doesn’t, we’re through.” He’d meant it as a joke, but I suspected he wasn’t kidding.
To ensure Ruby and I got off to a good start, I brought her a squeaky toy that looked like a fire hydrant and some bacon-flavored treats, putting both at her feet. When she didn’t touch either, I panicked.
“She just needs to get used to you,” Michael said. He gave me one of Ruby’s “special” treats — a carrot — and urged me to try again.
“Here you go, sweetheart,” I said, feeling like an idiot. Ruby let the vegetable fall to the floor, then turned her back and waddled away. “Well-played, you manipulative mutt,” I thought.
Ruby continued to express her disapproval of our relationship. When I’d come over, she turned up her nose and walked right past me. The first night I stayed over, she peed on the floor. Afterward, Ruby wedged herself between me and Michael in bed; and when I got up in the middle of the night I’d return to find Ruby sprawled out on my pillow. I found Michael’s behavior equally off-putting. I hated how he coddled her, carrying her when she refused to walk and feeling guilty when we went out and she was home by herself. It drove me crazy when Michael asked if a social outing was dog-friendly, and I was really taken aback when he suggested we bring Ruby along on our first vacation. “Great, now I have to find a hotel nice enough for my boyfriend and his dog — how romantic,” I thought.
Maybe he was far into his dog, but I wanted to make it work. Michael had so many great qualities. He made pumpkin soup when I was sick (because chicken soup was too cliche), and read me Dickens and other classics in a Kermit the Frog voice. He put up with my playwright mood swings and was always the first one in the audience at my shows.
The biggest test came when Michael had to go on a work trip and asked me to take care of Ruby for a few days. She sulked in a corner and didn’t eat her food. On our walks, she planted herself on the sidewalk and refused to budge. I didn’t take that one personally because I’d seen her do that to Michael, too. When she acted out, Michael simply loosened Ruby’s leash until she found herself. I followed suit, but Ruby got loose. Then, she bolted. I had a heart-attack thinking about her running into the street and getting hit by a car. What if she got mauled by a bigger dog? I also feared what Michael would do to me if any of that happened. I managed to grab Ruby before she was harmed, but I noticed she was now walking with a limp.
I took Ruby to the vet and was relieved that she wasn’t seriously injured. She even started walking fine within a day. Yet, when Michael came home and I told him what happened, Ruby started limping again. “What a little faker,” I said. “She was fine an hour ago.” It was the first time I’d call out Ruby’s bad behavior, and it felt great. Meanwhile, Michael was too busy rocking her in his arms like a baby to hear me out. Frustrated, I asked Michael if we could go out for a nice dinner.
“Can we order in?” he asked. “I should spend some time with Ruby.”
“Fine, I’ll just go home,” I snapped.
“Is something wrong?” he wondered.
“I’m tired of coming in second,” I said. “It’s like I don’t even count sometimes.”
I was being dramatic, but I didn’t want to keep playing this game of emotional chicken with a canine — especially if she’d always win.
My next plan was a bit desperate: I borrowed a friend’s dog in an effort to get Ruby to like me. She always got extra clingy when Michael would pet other pups in the park, so I imagined she’d react the same way when I was affectionate with another animal in front of her. However, my plan backfired when the dog took to Michael and Ruby but wanted nothing to do with me.
Sensing my hesitation about moving in, Michael took my hand and said: “You don’t have to decide tonight. I know it’s a lot to think about.”
I wrestled with the decision for days. I wanted to make it work but didn’t see how I could cohabit with Michael when I had so many reservations about living with Ruby.
Then something unexpected happened: My father was rushed to the hospital with a massive infection, complete with a high fever, hallucinations and alarmingly low blood counts. My dad and I are very close, and I was terrified he was going to die. Michael was a great comfort, driving me to the hospital and holding my hand in the waiting room for hours at a time. I stayed at his place for nights on end.
At night, when Michael was asleep, I crept into the living room and cried. To my surprise, Ruby got out of bed and joined me on the couch. She licked my face, cuddled up next to me and even let me rub her belly. It was the first time we’d gotten this close, and now her affection was all I wanted. I appreciated that instead of giving me a hard time, Ruby was helping me through a difficult situation.
After another long day at the hospital, Michael, Ruby and I were on his couch like three sloths. She, of course, needed to be in the middle, but I no longer minded. I thought it was kind of nice, actually, and it made me feel at home.
“I’d love to move in with you,” I said.
“Really? Are you sure?” Michael asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “But I was talking to the dog.”