This installment appeared, if I recall correctly, in the December 2000 issue of The Bark Magazine
Rex in the City
New Yorkers have a reputation for being tough customers. They're hard to please, they accept nothing less than the best, and if they are not satisfied with the product, service, or condition upon delivery, they will return the item testily and demand a full refund. But what if the "thing" you want to return has eyes and ears and a full coat of fur and feelings?
Our local animal shelter told us the dog my boyfriend Ted and I chose to adopt in July of '97 was a twelve-month-old French Spaniel. Our vet later said he was more like a six-month-old English Setter. We suspected he was part crocodile--all snapping jaws and bulbous eyelids and a cold, unforgiving stare. But what did we know? Ted and I were clueless about dogs and it wasn't until after we brought one home that we truly realized this.
The first thing Crocodile Rex did when we led him across the proverbial threshhold of our apartment was snap at us. No blood was drawn, but he snapped in such a way as to let us know that he would not tolerate human proximity and that from now on he ruled this roost. Then he tried to wedge his 55-pound body underneath our futon--but in New York City one cannot expect such a thing as unused space. We're talking a three-hundred-square-foot studio here, with crates of winter clothing wedged under the sofas and dozens of shoe boxes Rubix-cubed inside a large trunk, which doubles as a coffee table and triples as a dining table if we ever have guests. Which we don't. Because we're too embarrassed about our apartment. So Rex found refuge under the computer table (which doubles as an ironing board) and hunkered down. He would not let us come within three feet of his bunker without showing his teeth.
"Um, I have, like, work to do on that computer," I said.
"I think it's going to have to wait," Ted said.
When we asked the vet how long she thought it might take Rex to "calm down," she had said, without irony: "about ten years."
Needless to say, we were not prepared for this.
We had come home from the shelter armed with a set of plastic feeding bowls, some dog food, a polyester bed, a book called How to Care for Your Shelter Dog and some nervous but sincere enthusiasm. We had rescued Rex from a life of concrete and cages, we had snatched him willingly from the jaws of death, and frankly we were proud of ourselves. This was the first "couply" thing we had done as a couple, and we hoped to meet each day with that exhilarating sense of togetherness and possibility. But there was one thing missing from the equation: Rex wanted nothing to do with us. Or other dogs. Or other people. Not even houseplants were safe from his wrath as the poor Swedish Ivy learned when it "dared" to brush its leaves against Rex's shoulders. If we so much as looked in that dog's direction his lips would curl and his back would hunch and the soft-looking patch of hair between his shoulder blades would rise and stiffen. "And he doesn't even use hairspray," I would tell my girlfriends, whispering into the telephone so as not to fuel his fire.
It was easy to be flip. Easier, I should say. Because at the other end of the spectrum was the realization that we had made a terrible mistake. But neither Ted nor I was ready or willing to admit that. Yet.
For the first few days, we reminded ourselves that Rex had chosen us-- he had practically begged us to take him home from the pound. And I believed that people came together, not by chance, but by subconscious intentions; I believed that paths crossed for reasons that you had to stick around to understand. Good Ted had come into my life, for example, at a time when I had sworn off all dysfunctional relationships, all poets and rock musicians, all liars and cheats and assholes. But why then had this asshole of a dog chosen me?
When I said I wanted a dog, I guess what I meant was the dog of my childhood. A loving, jolly husky who walked herself, would allow me to dress her up in my brother’s hockey uniform and would eat my unwanted Brussels sprouts. But at a deeper level I also probably wanted unconditional love and the wonderful, rejuvenating proximity to a high-spirited and happy being. How then had we ended up with the only dog on the planet whose love was conditional?
“It’s your fault,” Ted would say. We argued a lot those first few days. Hatefully. “You’re the one who insisted on getting a dog.”
“You picked him out!” I’d say back. “I wanted a puppy.”
“Oh, sure, a puppy that wasn’t house trained?”
Rex at least had that going for him.
"Well," I said. "At least a puppy wouldn't grind his teeth every night in his sleep as if he were sharpening them. At least a puppy might make eye contact and maybe give us a kiss once in a while. At least a puppy wouldn't pull my arm out of its socket every time we went out for a so-called walk!"
Rex clearly had never been trained on a leash before. Picture a large hill with an unmanned SUV resting at its top. Now, release the parking break and allow said SUV to roll unmanned down the hill. Now, try to stop the car from rolling by attaching to the bumper a six-foot leash of nylon. That's what trying to walk Rex was like. Plus, he seemed to be trying to escape all the time. "Part Houdini, part Crocodile," Ted would say when passersby asked what kind of dog Rex was. Escape was in his eyes every time we took him out of the apartment. It was in the way he looked frantically down every alley, through every doorway, into every window—is that my paradise? Is that my way home? Is it there? Is it there?
I have since heard many stories of newly adopted dogs running away. So much so that I now wonder if wanderlust isn’t part of these dogs’ personalities to begin with—if they, in human form, would have been the artists, the poets, the tortured souls. But where do they go, these runaway dogs? Is there an island off the coast of Maryland that they know of, run for and by dogs? Is there a Mecca inspired by a doggie guru, a wise old Schnauzer who could offer to Rex and his imbalanced cronies the meaning of Dog Life? Oh, I wanted so badly to help this dog, to help him find his Mecca, his inner peace. Because he was driving us out of my minds.
Every time we opened the door a crack Rex would try to wedge his way through it. Every time we removed our attention from him for one second, even just to glance at my wristwatch (Has it been ten years yet?), Rex would try to lunge out of his collar. Once, Ted unsnapped Rex's shackles at the entrance to our apartment building and Rex bolted, right onto Suffolk Street. We watched in horror as a one car skidded and another swerved and for a second I honestly wished that Rex would get hit by a car, because then our time with him would have been over, and we could have said we tried. And failed. But at least all this failure would come to an end.
Rex was not hit. We captured him and leashed him and led him defeatedly back to our apartment. Once inside, Rex turned his back to us and began to savagely hump his bed. He humped with the same look of urgency and need with which I used to smoke cigarettes. And chew gum. And drink wine. I realized that Rex was trying to erase something within himself; he was trying to dull some undullable pain, and I watched him with empathy as I dialled the phone.
We decided we should call the shelter and find out some specifics. If we knew where he had come from, we thought, and where he had been, and what kind of parenting he had had, we might be better able to work with him. But the shelter wouldn't tell us anything. Policy, they said. People tend not to adopt an animal if they know its history, the said. “But we already adopted him," I said. "We want to know so that we can keep him."
“Sorry,” I was told.
That night, Ted and I cried. We cried because we were tired and overwhelmed. We cried because we knew we were failures at responsibility and it was time to admit it. We finally knew that, if pressed, we were the types who would not meet challenges head on, or embrace them as they say; no, we were the ones who would back off in the face of challenge, tail between our legs, and run away. We were cowards.
And we even went so far as to ask ourselves if it weren’t in some way a sign of maturity to admit one's cowardice. If accepting ones limitations weren't in itself a sign of progress, a step forward. We were at a crossroads, Ted and I; at two paths diverged in a wood. And we were ready to take road cowards traveled. And Rex would go back to the pound.
“But I love him,” Ted said plaintively. It’s what he said whenever I said I wanted to call it quits and move out on him, because it should be pointed out that I was more neurotic than Rex. But I love you. Ted believed that love was the foundation on which all things—good and bad—rested. I believed love was light as a feather, something that could be swiftly blown away by the growl of a Hell Hound or the force of an unkind word.
“I just wish there was a sign,” I said, “some guarantee that it’s not always going to be like this.”
Rex at the moment was licking his penis. He glanced at me suspiciously, belched, and then went back to his licking.
“There’s your sign,” Ted said. “Nothing comes between a male and his penis.”
It was summer time, remember--one of the hottest summers on record. And in our neighborhood, the sidewalks absorbed the heat and the windows of the buildings beamed rays of sunlight right back at you. It was like being inside a tanning booth all the time. The heat made it harder to think clearly; to rationalize. So how could one make a logical decision when one's brain is liquefied?
Over the next few days I kept calling the shelter, thinking if I could just connect with the right person I could find out Rex's history. But they were firm in their refusal to offer me any information. One person did tell me that Rex had come from Sharon, Connecticut. But then she added: “If you can’t handle him, then why don’t you just bring him back?"
Bring him back? Of course this is what we had kind of decided, but to hear someone else voice this option was another matter. This shelter worker was lumping me in with all the other inadequate, ill-prepared, selfish, clueless people who callously adopt an animal, thinking only of their own shallow, selfish needs. Suddenly I was insulted.
"We'll give him a month," Ted said. "Okay? One month. And if he doesn't show any progress by then, well…"
Neither of us could say it.
That night we looked up Rex’s alleged breed on the internet. The Spaniel and Setter and Crocodile sites all stated that it was cruel to keep this type of exuberant hunting dog in an apartment. The word "cruel" really struck me. Rex had no more hair around his neck, because the choke collar had pinched it all away (think Epilady). He had to walk backwards out of the bathroom, because there was no room for him to turn around. Outside, our neighborhood was littered with chicken bones and junkie needles. Not even sleep could offer this poor puppy refuge. Instead of flexing his toes and woofing happily in his dreams like the normal dogs do, Rex would growl and grind his teeth.
"Maybe we should move out of the City," I said to Ted. "Or give the dog to someone who had a country house."
"Let's take him camping," Ted said. "Some fresh air will do us all some good."
That weekend, we drove to the Catskills, with Rex howling in protest the entire way. He did not stop until we had almost reached the campground and were passing Silver Lake. Suddenly it was as if all of us in the car saw in that lake the solution to all our needs: the need to be cool, the need to relax, the need to start anew. I could feel on my skin the calming sensation of the water and I could see myself swimming with Rex, his little doggie head bobbing above the surface. We headed to this lake as soon as we had set up the campsite: Ted and I in flip-flops, Rex on his Epilady leash. The sun was high and beamed off the water electrically. There were a few fisherman paddling in from an early morning trip. They nodded at us as we led the dog cheerfully into the water. It was a false cheer, in many ways--our voices were high-pitched, and hyperly enthusiastic, but we wanted so badly for Rex to swim. To prove to us that he could be doglike. And lo and behold he swam--a few frantic paddles that became more confident as he got used to it, as he realized he could float, and I said to Ted; "He's swimming! Look! He swims!" And as we hugged each other I let go of Rex's leash, thinking he'd continue to paddle.
But no. Rex saw an opportunity for escape and he took it. He took off. Like lightening, as they say.
Ted and I scrambled to pursue him, but in flip flops this was hard. Rex was gone a good twenty minutes before I spotted him in some far-off woods. He ran downhill, toward a creek and I ran after him barefoot, like an Indian brave. He zigged, I zagged, I shouted at Ted to head him off at the top of the hill, where both were now heading, and I saw, in a flash, as Rex disappeared over the hilltop, that he had a look on his face that I had not seen to date. It was a smile. A doggie smile.
Eventually Ted tackled the dog and literally scooped him up in his arms. He brought Rex to me as a farmer would bring a lamb to slaughter. Rex looked defeated and a little, well embarrassed, as if he had been emasculated somehow (edogulated). Ted deposited the dog on top of a large flat rock (a la the Balto statue in Central Park), leashed him, and told me to get the camera out of his backpack. "I want to take some pictures of him to remember him by," he said. "Because I can't take this anymore. On Monday we're taking him back."
I nodded. Ted was limping from having re-activated an old knee injury. I was limping from weeks of trying to stop the proverbial SUV from rolling down the hill. And then there was Rex's dog-smile. That got me thinking maybe he knew what was best for him more than we did. We are only human after all. He is Dog.
And so, sadly, we took pictures, and you can see in hindsight in these photos how unhappy we were. The three of us--young couple, young dog--posed with our hard stares aimed away from one another, locked in private disappointments. We looked like an album cover.
On the way back to the campsite, we walked along the road. Rex pooped on the pavement, which made me realize he hadn't done so on naked ground. "He must have been trained to go on a sidewalk or a street, don't you think?"
"He must have had that training beaten into him," Ted said. "Poor guy."
That night, in our tent, we slept fitfully. Rex was outside, tied up (we'd invited him inside the tent but he'd declined ferociously) and he paced around like, well, like a wild animal. "Who's ever heard of a dog insomniac?" Ted said, snuggling close to me, but I couldn't laugh. It seemed to me Rex was doing some serious thinking. I could feel it, the way you can feel a storm coming, or the moment you conceive a child. And as I dozed off, I could only hope that Rex, in some moment of truth, would realize that we kept chasing after him because we cared for him. Despite him. Despite ourselves.
And in the morning, as the sun poked through the tent screens and the swallows chirped, I felt a strange pressure against the right side of my body. The pressure of something large and warm. It was Rex, who had decided at some time in the night to lie against me. We were separated by a thin wall of nylon. "Ted," I whispered. "Give me your hand." Sleepily he complied and I took his hand and pressed it up against the outline of Rex's body. Ted smiled. And outside we heard a thump-thump-thump. "What's that?" Ted said, and I said, "I think it's a dog. A dog wagging his tail."
It was the best sound we ever heard.