Dog Park Days

23990454-11A1-4AFA-BF78-14368D70CB39The joke started out funny, but then turned bizarre—sad, really, if you thought too hard about it. “This is my littlest boyfriend,” is how I would introduce him. His name was Ernie—named after Hemingway— and he was my 11-week-old Beagle/Basset Hound mix. Most of the time I loved him. Sometimes I wanted to leave him by the side of the road. He would climb on top of my head while I tried to sleep. He would bring me to tears. He was the child of a breakup.

Not only was he my “littlest boyfriend”; he was my replacement boyfriend.

* * *

I have never been dumped in such a clean way. “Things are moving too fast,” he said. “You introduced me to your entire family after one month,” I replied. I wasn’t particularly stunned—he had ignored my calls and texts for 42 hours. “I know,” he said, “and I’m sorry. It’s my fault.” I provided a few more examples of the speed at which he included me in his life, as well as the very uncharacteristic way I tried to slow things down over the previous 9 weeks. I didn’t cry, although I was close. “I’m not one for platitudes,” he said. “But do you want to stay friends?” “Nope,” I said. “Ok.” “I’m not walking you out,” I said. “Fair enough,” he said. He turned to go, having stood up from my bed halfway through the conversation. “You’re an amazing girl and—“ “Just stop,” I said. “Just go.” And he did.

A week later I got the dog.

* * *

It was all part of the breakup plan I had created—one that I had come up with after the first 30 hours of not hearing from him. First, I dyed my hair, which no one noticed because it was a quarter of a shade darker than my original almost-black hair. Second, I rearranged my tiny room in my shared house, including adding a stick-on cherry blossom tree for my wall. I spent too much time staring at the spot where I wanted the tree to go. It took me an hour to arrange the stick-on petals that were meant to be falling off the branches. I placed them instead above the tree, as though they were floating down onto the branches or floating up into the sky. Third was the dog. I asked permission of one of my roommates, and forgot to mention it to the other two. I headed to the sketchy backwoods house that was listed on the Washington Post ad. Ernie was there, waiting for me. When I brought him to my car and he whined until I put him on my lap, I felt that I would survive the breakup. I never stopped to think that I would have survived it without the dog—a three month relationship does not a breakup plan necessitate.

Regardless, here he was.

* * *

And then there I was, three weeks into the whole dog experiment, living at my dad’s house, away from my own home and bed and life. Self-relegated to a couch in a one-bedroom apartment with a puppy as my only companion. My roommates were angry—about the lack of permission, about the whining, about the biting and scratching and jumping and begging. I decided to move out. I was almost thirty and living with my dad. The dog had me by the leash, while I had him by his—at least 6 times a day.

* * *

There are things I love so much about him I want to squeeze him so hard until his head pops. Sometimes it takes months to fall in love with a person. It took me about a day and a half with Ernie. He cocks his head to the side when he looks at me. In the afternoons he sleeps at my feet while I read in bed or he sleeps in my lap while I write. I lift him up onto the couch next to me, his paws dangling. Race-around is our favorite game. The sound of his tail thumping against my mattress is the drum beat that mollifies my anxiety. The green, neon, stuffed Peep is his favorite toy. I know everything about him, and yet he is unable to read me well enough yet. “No!” means “Stop what you’re doing, Ernie.” A light smack on the nose means, “Please don’t draw blood when biting my wrist with your razor sharp puppy teeth.” A gentle push away from my body means “I’m trying to sleep, Ernie. You should too.” A harder push means “I can’t take this anymore.” A shove means “Get the fuck off me or I’m going to leave you by the side of the road.”

* * *

In general, I am a clinger, though I tell myself and others that I’m not. When I like someone, I want to be around him all the time, and I want him to reciprocate. I’m not a date-a-week kind of girl. I obsessed—practically to the point of restraining order—over my first boyfriend, so much so that we were together off and on for ten tumultuous years. I told my second boyfriend that I loved him after a week and a half. It may or may not have been true. I have been single (or alone, as I prefer to call it) for 5 years now, which is a devastating amount of time for someone who loves to love. I have spent that time using up all my shooting-star and fountain-penny wishes on a magical boyfriend who will arrive and save me from myself and the suffocating loneliness that has become the standard of my day-to-day life. I envision him floating down from the sky—Mary Poppins-style—and immediately bending down on one knee holding a vintage art deco ring in a velvet box in his right hand. Instead, I was set up on a blind date, the outcome of which was publicized in a nationally-read newspaper—the eventual outcome of which was Ernie.

* * *

Date Lab is a weekly column that runs in the Washington Post magazine. When I first moved back to the east coast from Seattle, I had applied on a whim. One year later, the Post contacted me. “Are you still single?” read the email. “Yup,” I thought. “Indeed I am.” They wanted to set me up on a blind date. I agreed. They provided me with my date’s first name, and the time and restaurant at which we would meet. I was nervous and excited, being a notoriously queasy dater, often needing to take a shot or pill to calm my wits. I arrived twenty minutes early; he arrived ten. He was cute, not my type per se, but cute. We ended up spending six and a half hours together, holding hands while we crossed the street from one bar to the next. The next day, when the Post interviewer asked me to give her the rundown and rate the date on a scale of 1–5, I gushed uncontrollably even though I had practiced being cool and slightly aloof. “He had beautiful blue eyes,” I said. (They were green, I would come to realize.) I rated the date a 4.5, even though I wanted to rate it a 5.

When the article came out three weeks later/9 dates later, we read it together over brunch. He had rated the date a 4. I should have known then that it would never work. My grandmother and mother had told me: “The man should always love the woman more than the woman loves the man.” I too will reveal that truth to my future daughter.

* * *

I can’t take Ernie anywhere without being stopped every three minutes by a gaggle of girls or some elderly folk riding in motorized Rascals cooing over him. It’s true, he is exceptionally adorable, with big brown eyes, floppy ears, and beautiful chocolate and caramel coloring. “He’s precious. Just precious,” an old lady said to me the other day. “He’s brightened my whole day.” Geez, I thought. I wish I had the ability to do that.

* * *

I’ve been in therapy for years and have worked really hard to get something out of it. I’ve made some major changes and shifted my perception about a lot of things. Yet I still can’t help but feel overly self-indulgent. I like talking about myself, who doesn’t? But I don’t like being a broken record player. Which I am. Which is what therapy requires of you. Say it aloud so many times that you exorcise it from your soul.

* * *

The other night, I was up with Ernie while he gagged for ten straight minutes. Eventually, a tiny bit of stomach acid came out of him. I rocked him to sleep, stroked his back and scratched behind his ears. He fell asleep next to me and awoke the next day full of wide-mouthed yawns and big, contented stretches.

* * *

“You’re gonna meet a guy this way,” my friend told me as we walked Ernie down the bustling main street of my town. Moments later we ran into a guy I had briefly dated, a guy who really had never been my type; a courtship I dragged on for too long. “Cute dog,” he said. Maybe I can make this work somehow, I thought. He wasn’t so bad, was he? I went to his house a week later to hang out and promptly remembered that it was his roommate, the one who ignored me, that I had the massive crush on. “Congrats on the dog,” the roommate said as he walked into his room and shut the door. Moments later, I was bored. “I gotta run,” I told the other guy. It would never have worked; he liked me too much.

* * *

The beginning of the end with the Date Lab guy was the night I got food poisoning. I threw up three times in the fifteen minutes we were at the bar having after-dinner drinks. On the 5-block walk back to his house, I hunched over in four different alleyways, my body bent and heaving as I struggled to get the badness out of me so that I could have even a brief relief until the next round. By the time we reached his house, I couldn’t go up the stairs, not even to the stoop. “I’ll go get your bag and then drive you home,” he said. I nodded, and lay down on my belly, my head hanging over the curb, the cold pavement momentarily soothing my insides. “Are you okay, honey,” a woman’s voice asked. I looked up to see a concerned citizen, her dog’s expression equally concerned, his brow furrowed. “I have food poisoning,” I managed to say. “My boyfriend ran up to get my things and then he’s driving me home.” It was the first time I used the word “boyfriend” in casual conversation (the question of whether he was my boyfriend or not-boyfriend had been thoroughly dissected by me and my girl friends during the previous several weeks). As he drove me home in my car (while I threw up into my hand and out the window) and deposited me safely—if detachedly—into my bed, I somehow instinctively knew I would probably never refer to him as boyfriend or not-boyfriend again. Soon enough I’d not refer to him at all.

* * *

I call this the Ernie phase of my life now. He falls asleep next to me, his eyelids fluttering as he dreams, nestled in the space between the couch cushion and my thigh. This phase is different than past phases. The highlights of this phase include things like roadtrips with my grandmother and my great aunt. We visit my mother in Delaware, and we decide to take a trip to Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania—a massive property containing an abundance of blooms and trees. We rent a wheelchair for my grandmother, and give my great aunt a cane, and we walk around the gardens for hours, admiring the fragrant and colorful blossoms that stand in contrast to the grey and misting day.

* * *

Once every few months, I pick out the clothes in my closet that have had the least rotation—the button downs, the Tory Burch flats, flattering sun dresses. I straighten my hair. I practice specific conversation points—What do you do? What was your alma mater? I look in the mirror and pout my lips, bat my lashes. This is who you will be 80% of the time, I tell myself. I go out, convinced I will meet my husband. The next morning my feet hurt, my button down shirt is wrinkled and stained, my conversation from the night before has ended in overly excited musings on my favorite short stories or my belief in ghosts. By noon I’m back in torn spandex leggings with stars on them, my Blues Brothers shirt, and the mascara I have yet to clean off from my failed experiment—the remnants of my failed attempt at rerouting.

* * *

The dog park was both comforting and depressing. Much like my tendency to take unnecessary trips to the grocery store, it was a way to talk to people, a way to connect. We all had an immediate bond—we were pet owners, and more than that, pet owners whose dogs were in our closest orbit. Talk of fecal oddities and training advice would give way to conversations about careers and families. The casual conversation made me feel like a grown-up. Having a living thing I was responsible for made me feel less stunted—I wasn’t just some kid who had the freedom to go out every night and take weekend trips on a whim (not that I ever did that anyway), but a sort of parent with a sort of child who depended on me for food, water, and love. He was my replacement son until the real one came along. He was my replacement everything.

* * *

I tell everyone that I go to sleep at 8:30, since I wake up at 5:30 most days. It’s not entirely true; I attempt to sleep at that time, my body and mind thoroughly exhausted from a day of work, walking the dog, doing chores. The truth is that I am an awful sleeper. I lay in bed at night, wondering when I’ll fall asleep. And when I do fall asleep, I will wake up every hour until dawn. Ernie is happy with this schedule—he needs to be taken out two or three times in the middle of the night, and he likes to play for fifteen minutes then fall back asleep. Take sleeping pills, everyone tells me (my family is too quick with the pills, and they wonder where I get it from). I tell them sleeping pills make me hallucinate, which was the case one time, but that one time sufficiently terrified me enough to never feel comfortable taking another Ambien or Lunesta.

I was 22 or so, and living at my mom’s house. She was out of town, and I was sleeping in her bed, as I liked to do when she was away because she had a TV in her room. She’d given me an Ambien “just in case.” After a few hours of turning the TV on, then off, then opening a book, then turning the TV back on again, I decided to try the Ambien. I fell asleep. And I awoke some time later (minutes? hours?) to a large, lumbering man standing at the foot of my bed. He just stood there, a black dark mass, not moving, towering over me—a shadowy menace. I started to scream. I screamed and screamed and there he remained—unfazed. I continued to scream for I don’t know how long (minutes? hours?). I don’t know when the shift happened, but all of a sudden he was gone. I didn’t sleep the rest of the night, or the next, or the next. The man at the foot of my bed stayed with me for months, months of dragging my exhausted body out of bed at 2 am, heading downstairs to the couch to watch reruns until the sun came up. The man wasn’t real, and neither were my screams—I don’t think. But I almost wish he was. The fact that the world can produce terrifying lumbering men who come to harm you is less terrifying to me than a terrifying lumbering man sent by my own mind to come harm me.

* * *

I don’t really have a fear of being like the dog park ladies—I care too much about my image and appearance and actively refuse to revisit my days of being 40 pounds overweight. But there is something sad and familiar there. A need for company and camaraderie, perhaps. One day, a few of the ladies approached Ernie and me. “What is the little angel?” one asked. “Half Beagle, half Basset.” I said. She shrieked and yelled across the park to her friend, “Mary! Mary! Come look—it’s a Bagel. Look at the Bagel puppy.” I did not care for this term but couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. Later at home, I thought about Bagel and realized it bothered me so much because it belonged to the language of the dog park ladies, the same ones who scheduled Santa to visit the park so they could take pictures with him and their dogs. I guess there are many manifestations of losing touch with reality. I can be bizarre too, and the idea that someone could regard me in the same light as I regarded the dog park ladies was troubling.

* * *

Ernie has chewed up multiple articles of clothing. I still wear most of it. “You can see your butt cheek through that hole in your pants,” a friend said to me. “I’m punk rock,” I responded. “I think you’re just lazy.” “I don’t care about that kind of thing,” I said. “Yes you do. Maybe not that particular thing, but a thing nonetheless.”

* * *

When I saw how much strangers loved him, and how good he was with children, I thought about what a wonderful thing it would be to register Ernie with Therapy Dogs International. I imagined myself taking him to hospitals to visit sick kids and old people, how much joy he would bring, and how good it would make me feel.

I visited the Therapy Dogs International website to see how to register him. There was an official evaluator who would have to evaluate and sign-off on him. No big deal: when the evaluator saw how sweet a disposition he had, I was sure Ernie would be approved. I found the requirements for passing the test. As I read through each step of the testing process, I realized this would not bring the immediate satisfaction I had thought it would.

TEST 2: CHECK-IN AND OUT OF SIGHT

The handler is asked to complete the paperwork and check in. At that time a helper will ask the handler if he/she can help by holding the dog. If the handler prefers he/she can go with the helper and places the dog with a stay command. The dog will be out of sight of the handler. Another helper will take charge of the dog. The helper can talk to and pet the dog. The dog can sit, lie down, stand or walk around within the confine of the leash.

Okay… Ernie could do all of that.

TEST 6: RECALL ON A 20 FT. LEASH

All handlers will be seated. Three dogs at a time will be fitted with a long line. One handler at a time will take the dog to a designated area and downs the dog. Upon the command from the evaluator the handler will tell the dog to stay. The handler will walk to the end of the 20 ft. line, turn around and upon a command from the evaluator will recall the dog. For all practical purposes the recall is one of the most important obedience exercises for the dog to master. If a dog does not come when called the dog is not obedient and cannot be trusted in public.

“Not to be trusted in public”… that sounded pretty harsh. I thought back to all the times I would call him, get down on my haunches and sing his name sweetly. “Come on boy, come on Ernie.” About 70% of the time he would stare at me for several seconds, then run in the other direction. No matter, I thought. I could work with him in the house and the park, train him to heed my calls. It wouldn’t be too difficult.

TEST 10: LEAVE IT; PHASE TWO

The dog handler will resume walking in a straight line with the dog at heel. There will be a piece of food in the path of the dog. The dog must leave it. [i]

Ernie’s favorite treat was any piece of garbage on the road. Once he had taken hold of a piece of plastic, a crumpled up McDonald’s bag, a piece of a dead bird’s wing in his mouth, I couldn’t pry it out no matter how hard I tried. I began to rethink the therapy dog idea.

Twenty minutes later, and after he successfully stayed off the bed with my “Stay” command, my optimism returned. I researched dog obedience classes in my area. A puppy boot camp was $200 for seven total hours of training and covered the basics. Seven hours. It had taken 4 months to house-train him. Four months of taking him out several times a day, rewarding him with treats, punishing him with nose rubs in his pee, going to sleep with the dread of being awoken two or three times in the middle of the night by the light tinkling of a stream of urine. During the time in which I contemplated the cost of dog school for a means to the end of a still very low possibility of registering him as a therapy dog, Ernie peed in the bathroom, then ran away from me when I tried to grab him, then bit me when I finally caught him.

* * *

I’m either being left behind or I’m on a whole different trajectory. My therapist made me take a Myers-Briggs test, and I was an ENFP, a creative idealist, one of the more rare personality types. I felt a sense of pride; perhaps I was destined for greater things than a house in the suburbs with a husband and 2–3 kids, a 9–5 job where I worked from home 2 days a week so I could devote extra attention to my family, a dinner with other couple family friends every few weeks, play dates with young moms like myself, a crossover SUV, special Sunday breakfast, Friday night takeout, monthly date night dinner and a movie. But that was all I wanted. “I’d give up doing great things for feeling secure,” I told my therapist. “It’s too bad neither one is guaranteed,” he’d responded. “But I should probably choose one path to focus on, to expend my energy on. I’ll force myself down one—down the white picket fence one,” I said. “Good luck,” he said. “You can’t not be you even for a day.”

One of the other reasons my therapist suggested I take the test was to learn more about my nature, and more importantly, recognize that some of the qualities I loathed in myself were just a part of my type, and could be harnessed into something powerful and wonderful:

ENFPs are warm, enthusiastic people, typically very bright and full of potential. They live in the world of possibilities, and can become very passionate and excited about things. Their enthusiasm lends them the ability to inspire and motivate others,

To onlookers, the ENFP may seem directionless and without purpose, but ENFPs are actually quite consistent, in that they have a strong sense of values which they live with throughout their lives. Everything that they do must be in line with their values. An ENFP needs to feel that they are living their lives as their true Self, walking in step with what they believe is right. They see meaning in everything, and are on a continuous quest to adapt their lives and values to achieve inner peace. They’re constantly aware and somewhat fearful of losing touch with themselves. Since emotional excitement is usually an important part of the ENFP’s life, and because they are focused on keeping “centered”, the ENFP is usually an intense individual, with highly evolved values.

ENFPs who remain centered will usually be quite successful at their endeavors. Others may fall into the habit of dropping a project when they become excited about a new possibility, and thus they never achieve the great accomplishments which they are capable of achieving.

Most ENFPs have great people skills. They are genuinely warm and interested in people, and place great importance on their inter-personal relationships. ENFPs almost always have a strong need to be liked. They have an exceptional ability to intuitively understand a person after a very short period of time, and use their intuition and flexibility to relate to others on their own level.

ENFPs sometimes make serious errors in judgment.

ENFPs may become unhappy when they are confined to strict schedules or mundane tasks. Consequently, ENFPs work best in situations where they have a lot of flexibility, and where they can work with people and ideas.

They have a strong need to be independent, and resist being controlled or labeled.

ENFPs are charming, ingenuous, risk-taking, sensitive, people-oriented individuals with capabilities ranging across a broad spectrum. They have many gifts which they will use to fulfill themselves and those near them, if they are able to remain centered and master the ability of following through.”[ii]

I hoped this new information would allow me to accept certain attributes as intrinsic to my type, and not fight against that so much. Of course the very nature of my personality made that an almost unattainable goal—an idealist, always striving for what could be, the possibilities. The possibilities within me. What would the best me look like? Of course it was just so rich—the best me would be the one who could accept myself, but I would always strive and struggle to be that best me, and not accept anything less.

Many consider those personality tests to be bullshit anyways. Maybe we just need something to hang our hats on.

* * *

Sometimes I hoped I would get called into a meeting that would last into the afternoon because I wanted to avoid spending more than an hour with the dog. Other days I would start talking to myself on my walk from the car to my apartment, whispering sweetly in that dog voice we all tend to use, to no one in particular—just in rising excitement to see “my sweet smallest guy.”

* * *

Ernie doesn’t let me sleep. I had a friend spending the night in my studio apartment and he jumped off my bed, onto the guest bed, then down again. I watched him pulling carpet up and chewing the corner of it. I gave him a stern look, since I couldn’t use my voice for fear of waking up my houseguest. He looked at me for a minute, then went back to what he was doing. He trotted to the kitchen and picked up his food bowl, brought it over to me. JUST STARVE, I thought. At that moment, I hated him. I took him on a walk, hoping he would do his business then calm down. My anger mounted as he sniffed every blade of grass, tried to eat every piece of mulch. I yanked him along on his leash, demonstrating my irritation. But he just kept trotting along, happy to be jerked around violently, happy to just be outside and be with me.

* * *

Ernie pushes me out of my own life sometimes. He literally pushes me off the bed. He wants to be so near to me that he curls up as close as possible, at times right on top of me. Throughout the night he will push and push, scooting closer and closer until my body is half off the bed. It’s what I always wanted, I guess—someone who wants to be so close to me that they practically engulf me. My life is partially his now.

* * *

Ernie was the toast of the dog park. He played with everyone, was jovial, and let everything slide off his back. Dogs would bark at him, try to jump on him, hump him, roll him—he took it all in stride. He was always racing from one end of the park to the other, always had a big doggy grin on his face. It wasn’t that I was jealous—absurd to be jealous of a dog—but I felt something akin to longing. I wanted what he had. I wanted to be who he was.

I always get more upset by dogs humping Ernie than he does. See that’s the good thing about Ernie, he never takes anything too seriously. What’s a little butt hump or face hump when the rest of the time you get to run around in circles and wrestle? Even when I leave in the morning, sure, he’s somewhat forlorn. But when I get home in the afternoon, he looks at me from his curled up position on the day bed, and his tail starts wagging, first slow, then fast. He knows I will be coming back. He doesn’t seem surprised to see me. I walk over to him, and he stretches out, ready for his baby belly rubs. He’s been waiting patiently for them all day. He knows they’re coming.

* * *

I did meet a guy at the dog park—many of them. One of them was an older man, Phil, in his late 60s. His Chihuahua, Minnie, was Ernie’s girlfriend for a while, when they were still about the same size. We always spoke. He had daughters a little younger than me. He told me about when he lived in San Francisco; he had had a Bichon and had found an ad in the paper placed by a gay couple looking to mate their own Bichon (“a real priss of a gal”). So they set up a date. Phil and his wife dropped off their Bichon at the gay couples’ house. “When they opened the door,” Phil said, “the little female Bichon was wearing a bow in her hair.” Phil left his dog there for the weekend, to make sure the two pups had enough time to consummate their love. I imagined them eating strawberries and lying on a bearskin rug in front of a fireplace. I didn’t like to think about Phil coming to take his Bichon away, the pink bow long gone from the female Bichon’s head, her babies growing in her belly, soon to be taken away as well.

* * *

My biggest fear is growing old alone. Intellectually I know it is ridiculous—I am only 30, and have plenty of people I love who love me. But I considered “un-aloneness” as being in a relationship. A man to hold me. The feminists would burn me at the stake.

* * *

I met another guy at the dog park, one closer to my age. We chatted for 20 minutes. He was cute, talkative, not at all what I had grown accustomed to, living in DC. I came to find out he was from Detroit. I told him about a festival that night at the town square. “Maybe I’ll see you there,” he said. “Maybe,” I replied. I thought for certain he would get my number but he didn’t. He and his dog left and I watched them drive off. He stopped at the end of the gravel road for about 6 minutes. He’s probably debating on whether or not to come back and ask for my number, I told myself. Really he was probably changing songs on his iPod or adjusting his dog’s position in the back seat. I didn’t see him at the festival, but the next morning, after a disastrous attempt at brunch with my family, I sat in my car and sobbed for a full 20 minutes. For whatever reason that gave me the impetus to contact the dog park guy. I had enough details about him to find his contact information by Googling him. I found his email address and sent what I thought was a cute and very self-aware email (“I know this seems stalkery, but…”). He responded! Within the hour! He called me attractive! He gave me his number and told me to “solicit texts and chatter”! I grinned the rest of the day every time I walked Ernie and thought about the dog park guy. We texted for two days while he was out of town, and made plans to meet up for a drink. I was so proud of myself for taking a chance and going against my shy nature. It paid off, I thought to myself. It actually paid off. One night in bed I decided to Google him again, this time using his last name which he had told me a day earlier. I clicked on the first listing that came up. It took me to his wedding engagement page, where I learned that he and his fiancé met on Match.com, they got engaged at a Starbucks, the best man was the groom’s childhood friend, the maid of honor was the bride’s sister, their venue was in a small Virginia town, and they had hired a band, not a DJ. The countdown on the site: “Only 173 days to go!”

* * *

Because I’m cool with boys ribbing and poking at me, it makes me an unsuitable girlfriend or wife material. You’re a cool chick, I hear time after time. A) I’m not that cool. B) I don’t want to be cool. I want to be loved.

* * *

I needed an “after-school activity” so I volunteered at an assisted living facility. It was a really nice one, a private one that cost several thousands of dollars a month. The volunteer coordinator liked me immediately. Most of the residents did too.

One of the most common activities at the home was bingo. They loved bingo, though it seemed to be a source of frustration for some of the residents. “You’re the best bingo card reader we’ve ever had,” said a lady with perfectly coiffed hair and a crisp white button-down shirt secured with a brooch. “Thank you,” I said, with a smile. “She’s not that good,” another lady muttered.

Another common game, which wasn’t really a game, was to think of a topical phrase, usually having to do with the holiday that month, and have the residents create as many words as they could using the letters in the phrase. “Happy Valentine’s Day” yielded many words. “Stay,” yelled out a resident. “Slave,” yelled another. “Love,” said one. “No, sorry, Carl,” I said, “You can’t have love. No O.” A few minutes later, someone would call out love again, then another person. “Anna,” said one lady who was constantly shifting her dentures in and out of her mouth. Sometimes she would have a conversation with you while her teeth hung out of her mouth. “You can’t do names,” I said. “My name is Anna,” she said. “I know Anna,” I said. “Write it down,” she said. “You can’t do names,” shouted Carl from across the room. “Now this is just ridiculous,” said Anna, and stuck her teeth out. A few minutes later, Anna yelled out “Anna” again. “Write it down, I said,” she said, “Just write it down.” So I wrote it down, in small letters, on the corner of the page, with a box around it so it wouldn’t appear in the final word count at the end of the game. “It’s too small,” Anna said. “A-N-N-A,” she said. I pointed to it on the page. “See, I wrote it down, just like you said.” She stared at the flipchart paper. “That’s my name,” she said, and pointed at Anna in the corner of the page. “That’s me.” “Sure is,” I said. She sat quietly for the rest of the game.

The Alzheimer Care Unit was something else entirely. Most of the residents were very far-gone. There was a French lady who screamed until you held her hand, a Vet who tried to kiss every woman on the lips, countless others whose fingers and joints had frozen like petrified wood. They enjoyed being sung to—old classic Americana songs, like Yankee Doodle Dandy and My Country Tis of Thee. Sometimes their eyes would well up with tears. I tried to get them to clap along to the faster songs—any participation was a positive thing. Most of the time they sat there, in a circle, either mumbling to themselves (talking to phantom husbands, wives, children, parents) or looking into nothingness while I sang to no one.

* * *

I frequently deleted half the numbers in my phone. Anyone who hadn’t responded to a text or phone call from me in a timely or favorable manner was gone. But I always found a way to find the numbers again—they were either stored in my email inbox or I had written them down somewhere knowing my tendency to cut off everyone in my life for 24–72 hour spurts of time.

* * *

Weekend mornings are rough. Especially when I don’t go out the night before. I wake up fresh and alert, hyper aware. With no work or hangover to distract me, my mind focuses on the happy couples around me, walking hand-in-hand to brunch, laughing together, recalling the previous night’s events or making plans for the expanse of day ahead. In my mind, they are perfect. They have lovely one-bedroom apartments in modern high-rises, dogs who don’t eat trash off the ground, they get cocktails at fancy bars, and spend Memorial Day weekend at their parents’ beach houses. They don’t wear torn t-shirts or lose their credit cards or drink to the point of sloppy oblivion. Those weekend mornings I want to be them. But those weekend nights, when I’m buzzing and crackling and spinning like a pinwheel, I remember myself, and think who the fuck wants a juicer anyway?

But one walk past Williams-Sonoma reminds me that oh yea, I want a juicer. I want to make fancy juice drinks with vitamin-rich kale and serve them on the terrace. I want to talk about our upcoming vacation to the Caribbean.

* * *

My therapist told me that perhaps I was a swan amongst ducks. Sometimes I believed that and sometimes I didn’t. Whether I believed it or not, I thought it grandiose and self-centered to think that way, and it didn’t align with the humble and modest girl I fancied myself. I didn’t really believe I was a swan amongst ducks. Or if I was, I wanted nothing more than to be a duck amongst ducks, and feel “normal” and happy floating around in a pond, as opposed to being fiercely protective of my uniqueness, my “specialness.” How did it benefit me to feel grander, more majestic than others? Just because my wingspan may have been broader, or my feathers brighter, didn’t make me any happier. It was just a larger plane in which to get hurt, a lighter hue to sully.

* * *

My therapist often repeated to me The Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. I liked hearing it at times. Other times it just annoyed me. Wisdom in the face of unhappiness is overrated.

* * *

I joined a Bocce ball league and when I told my friends and family about it, most responded: isn’t that the game with those heavy balls that old Italian men play? It was, so I stopped telling people. Especially given that I’d joined it to meet fun, young people.

* * *

I claimed and believed that routine and stability were what I wanted. In theory, routine may have been my desire, but my nature wanted to bend the other way. Anytime I settled into a routine, something shook it up. But gym, dog, work, family wasn’t a bad life. It was a quiet one though, and I was a loud person. I couldn’t be contained, a quiet life couldn’t hold me, and that wasn’t a good thing. I wasn’t some caricature who was the life of the party and a free spirit and spontaneous and a winged fairy flitting about. At times, yes, I was a burst of energy, charming and charmed. But most of the time, I was just an extremely unhappy person, discontent, caught up in a stormy inner world which often seeped into my outer world. The only constant was the oscillation between those two states.

* * *

DC is an unfriendly town. Keep your head down when walking, don’t make eye contact. Definitely don’t try and start a conversation with the person standing in line next to you at the coffee shop. I tried to give someone my metered parking ticket the other day—I had about an hour of time left on it. “Scuse me, I’ve got about an hour of time left on this, would you like it?” The guy looked at me like I was trying to sell him magazine subscriptions. “No… thanks.” I wanted to crumple it up and throw it at his face. Instead I turned and walked away and threw the ticket on the ground. I got into my car, then felt bad for taking my frustration out on the earth, so I went back and picked up the ticket and threw it instead on the floor of my car next to the empty box of cigarettes, the half-drank seltzer bottles, the rumpled receipts for coffee.

* * *

I spent so much time being stuck in my own head that I began to ascribe meaning to things that had none. Sometime lighting a candle isn’t a metaphor for a larger theme of your life. Sometimes a blade of grass is just a blade of grass. It’s not the saddest thing in the world that Ernie can’t operate with the same consciousness as me. It felt like the more I ascribed meaning to ordinary things, the more power my powerlessness had. Nothing made any sense, so if one small thing did, then that was enough to hold onto for a few minutes.

* * *

He likes to chew up the Persian rug my grandmother gave me. I finally had to spray sour apple spray on it to make him stop. It was too late—the fringe and even some of the actual silk was gnawed off. He tears through the fabric of my life with little regard. Like mother, like son.

* * *

I’m uncertain of who I am, or rather I’m certain that it’s not who I want to be. I’ve tried on a lot of skins, even if only temporary ones. None of them work. Nothing works. I tell myself that so that expectation is gone. Then I think, no that’s defeatist, be positive. Then I tell myself, something/someone good will come soon, but then I’m trying too hard. Be open, but not too eager/not too open. Be mysterious but not too aloof. A person just can’t win, it seems. A person just can’t be.

* * *

I like to find excuses to drive. Sometimes it’s to get away from the dog, other times, it’s because I want to smoke in the car, at dusk, with the window rolled down, listening to classic rock. I need to have the ability to take off at a moment’s notice, not that I would, not that I am brave enough to. My arm is stretched out the window, the cool air weaves through my fingers. I blare the music, and sing really loud to it. Sometimes it’s a good song, sometimes an awful one, sometimes I sing on key, sometimes off. When I pause at a stoplight, I don’t stop singing and my arm is still out the window. I feel like the people on the corner waiting to cross the street are judging me, internally laughing. But they’re probably not. They probably don’t care, and you know what? Neither do I. We do what we have to. We do what brings us little respites of joy.

* * *

I asked my therapist one day, am I ever going to be happy? “Depends,” he said. It was not what I was hoping to hear, and yet the answer I had expected. “It depends on your definition of happiness—husband, kids, home, all by the age of 35? Probably not. You’re a creative type, your life probably won’t follow the normal arc, you can’t fit a circular peg into a square hole.” “But that’s what I want,” I said. “I know,” he said. “That’s the thing: your personality type, you’re an idealistic romantic—you value human connection above all.” I began to shake my head and look up at the ceiling. “What’s with the –“ and he shook his head to imitate me. “It’s just absurd,” I said. “The thing that makes me who I am, one of my defining traits, is the thing that’s so far out of reach.”

He would often say to me that people like me have a mandated mission—something they are meant to accomplish and they don’t feel whole until they do. I don’t want my mandated mission. I just want happiness. There are weeds—they grow anywhere, they need very little tending, but they are strong and sturdy and plentiful and very little can uproot them. And then there are orchids. Only the perfect combination of soil, sunlight, water can allow them to reach their greatest potential. If the pH of their soil is off even a bit, they die. One in how many becomes a thing of beauty? Weed or orchid—who’s to say which is better? Also: how fucking elitist am I? Orchid… really? Truthfully, I mostly feel like a droopy sunflower.

* * *

I have to remind myself to smile when I’m out in public so people don’t think I’m unhappy, even though I am. I’ve got a scowly homeostasis face, and people tell me I look intense and angry. No one likes a frowny girl. Even if she’s frowning on the inside, she should be smiling on the outside.

* * *

You keep telling yourself life’s not working out and you’re lonely and no one likes you because you’re too special. “No one can appreciate my unique brand of person,” I repeat like mantra, like pathetic self-help-book mantra. You have to believe it or else each small rejection leads to a gaping wound.

* * *

I met a girl on one of my trips to the dog park. She was cute, and although she was young, she was married. She and her husband had just moved to the area. Their dog was a Dachshund, he was very shy, and his name was Ace (at the dog park, you always remembered the pet’s name but never the owner’s). Ernie kept trying to play with him but Ace hid between her legs—she told me he hadn’t been socialized as a puppy. We saw each other a couple times and always chatted. She gave me her number and got mine and said we should hang out. She barley knew anyone in this strange place that was so different from her hometown in Iowa. She texted me every so often and asked if I wanted to go to the movies, or get coffee, or attend a girly sleepover she was trying to organize. I always came up with excuses not to go. After a while, she stopped texting me and when we saw each other at the dog park, we’d say hi and that was that.

I am my own deterrent. I am my own barrier. I do like I am done to.

* * *

When do you give up on the vision you had for how you thought your life would turn out and begin to accept that marriage doesn’t necessarily come after love, and kids don’t necessarily come after marriage? Maybe my kids will be test tube babies (is that even a thing anymore?) or I’ll be one of those oddball single-till-I’m-fifty women who wear lots of scarves and beaded craft-fair jewelry. It’s not such a bad life, is it? And wouldn’t I be selling out if I married a government contractor and bought a colonial and had two kids spaced 3 years apart. Part of me can’t give it up. The other part thinks if everyone did that, we’d all lose something invaluable. And the other other part of me tells part 2 to shut up and stop trying to justify not having the life I really want, a life that seems a distant, unattainable dream. A life that was meant for the version of me that never made a Pez dispenser necklace in 8th grade and wore it proudly like a queen’s torque.

* * *

Ernie is terrible at walking on a leash. He still pulls me from side to side, yanks me all over the place. He zigs and zags and stops abruptly and then jolts forward.

Like mother, like son.

[i] http://www.tdi-dog.org/

[ii] http://www.personalitypage.com/ENFP.html


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