Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Original Rex and the City series, coming at you!

Given that I have no time to write any new blogs (the novel is due in 3 weeks!), I thought I would post some old materials—The original Rex and the City columns, to be precise. These started appearing in the Bark magazine back in August of 2000—before the Bark had a website even. So none of these columns have appeared online.

As many of you know, these columns eventually led to the publication of my best-selling memoir (basically a fleshed-out version of the columns). But some readers have expressed interest in seeing the ‘originals.’ So for the next three months, I’ll be posting one column per week, in order of their appearance in the Bark.

Rex and the City –
Part 1): The Decision

On this particular summer Saturday, on this last day of life as I knew it without a dog, my first thought was: what to wear. I had planned to wear a pink linen dress, with a matching pink hat, but when I pulled said dress out of the closet I saw that there was a big stain on its backside. Gum or something. From sitting on the subway, no doubt. One of the great risks you take, in New York City, is sitting down.

“Find something else to wear,” Ted said. “And hurry. We’re supposed to be at Chad’s by noon.”

Ted was the live in boyfriend. Chad was our friend from Long Island friend who had been promising for months to take up to Lloyd Neck Country Club, one of the most exclusive clubs in the area to which he belonged. And finally, today, we were going!

But what to wear? Most New York girls in such crises will produce the old standby: the little black dress. I paired mine with a Wonder bra and platform shoes.

“Okay, let’s go,” I said to Ted. We lived together for the same reasons most couples cohabitated in New York City: because it saved us money and we got instant sex. Marriage, I suppose, was a p-p-possibility, if only another M-word could enter the equation on my behalf: Maturity.

“You can’t wear that,” Ted announced.

“Why not?”

“You can’t wear black to Lloyd Neck.”

“I can.”

“I’m telling you, you can’t. Just put on a polo shirt and those white shorts.”

“I don’t want to look dowdy.” I was twenty-seven and already terrified of such things.

“Who’s going to care?”

“I’ll care.” Deep down, I knew that Ted was right. But something in me that day didn’t want him to know I knew he was right. “Besides. This is the only thing I have.”

“You have a whole closet full of clothes.”

“This is the only thing that fits.” My voice rose a little at the end, and cracked, and Ted must have sensed that I was headed beyond reason, so black dress it was.

But when we got to Chad’s he, Chad, took one look at my get-up and said we wouldn’t be going to the Club. “I know of a great place in Bayville. It’s a clam shack right on the beach.”
On the way there, I stared out the window and sulked. We passed mansion after fabulous mansion, with stately oak trees and the fine green lawns. It seemed that most of the wealth of the world could be found on this slender, riotous island (one can’t help but make Gatsby references in these parts) and the fact that I was so close to and yet so far from it made me sulk. I had done it all wrong. And I cursed myself for not heeding the #1 rule of WASPdom: no cleavage. No black.
Later, Ted said I was being paranoid. That Chad simply didn’t feel like going to the club that day. “He’s like that. He changes his mind constantly.” But I knew better. Some people have gay-dar; I have snob-dar.
Lunch was a disappointment. The crabs tasted as if they had been soaked in formaldehyde and above our heads was a giant banner that said, WET T-SHIRT CONTESTS THURSDAY NIGHTS. Ted and Chad talked about old friends from college, but I wasn’t listening. I was too busy staring in horror at the sad, haggard-looking woman drinking margaritas by herself at the bar. She was smoking Kools and wearing—black.
It’s strange how the small, petty moments can be the ones that change your life. It was because of that woman, and because of my convictions that my life was closer to hers than it was to, say, Daisy Buchanan’s, that I decided, on the way back to the City, that Ted and I should stop at the animal shelter and look at—just look at—dogs. “We drove all the way out here,” I reasoned. “We might as well do something productive with this day.”
Dogs were something Ted and I had talked about haphazardly, in those moments when we got along so well we could giddily envision a future together. In our two years, we’d also talked about travelling, and moving to a bigger apartment, and getting a new computer, a new mattress, new careers, new lives, but so far none of those things had materialized. And so suddenly, there in that hot car, I decided I was tired of being an all-talk-no-action kind of person. I want to call myself on something. And call Ted on it, too.
“Let’s do it,” I said. “Let’s look at dogs.”
At the shelter, we headed straight for the puppy section, but in doing so we walked past the adult dogs first. Thus we saw Rex. I want to say that there was a moment of Knowing, an instant bond, but, with me at least, this was not the case. He was a beautiful specimen, a white and brown spaniel, like one of those proud, haughty sporting dogs you see in English paintings. But a puppy he was not.

A volunteer approached us. She struck me as a perky high school student who hoped someday to be a perky vet. She carried a clipboard and wanted to know if we were interested in adopting today. “Oh, we’re kind of just looking around today,” I said, but Ted stopped and asked her about the Spaniel: how old was he was? Where’s he from?
She said Rex was rescued from a pound in Connecticut. He was about to be put down when North Shore showed up. “He’s only been here three days. Do you like him? Do you want to try him out?”
“Try him out?”
“Walk him. We have a walking room. We call it the bonding room.”
“Not yet,” Ted said. “Maybe later.”
We made the rounds of the adult section and fell in love a dozen times. There was Dudley, a sad black hound with an eye infection. And Scooter, a harlequin Great Dane. The volunteer followed us and told us how we should feel about each dog before we’d even had a chance to shake paws with them. “Oh, you won’t like her,” she said of a sweet-looking Border-Collie. “Too much work.” Then she pulled me by the arm and told me I had to meet Missy. “She’s epileptic!”
I didn’t want to see Missy but I went along anyway, helpless. “Missy’s owner loved her” she said, “but unfortunately she couldn’t keep her because she was allergic.”
We stood outside Missy’s pen. She was a sweet dog, yes, a sad, shivering mixture of shepherd and lab, but I didn’t see why I had been singled out as her potential owner. The volunteer hadn’t asked us any questions about our wants or needs, about our lifestyle.
“Do you want to walk her?”
I looked over at Ted, who was back at Rex’s pen. I muttered something about puppies.
“Puppies are different,” she said. “They’re so much work. You can’t bring them outside for eight weeks, they have weak immune systems, you have to be prepared. Missy’s --”
“Excuse me,” I said.
Ted decided he wanted to walk Rex, so the volunteer led us to the walking area, a glassed-in room of lacquered concrete. Once there Rex became frantic. He scrambled on the slippery floor and jumped up on every window, as if to see if escape lay beyond. Ted struggled to control him. He tried to get the dog to sit or heel, but Rex didn’t speak this language. Meanwhile, the volunteer took notes.
“He’s so nervous and skittish,” I said. “Is he okay?”
“All dogs are like that at first,” she said.
“Let me try,” I said to Ted, and the volunteer looked at my platform shoes. “Are you sure you know how to walk a dog?”
Yes, I knew how to walk a dog. During grad school I was a dog walker, thank you. And I grew up with dogs. This last part I told her haughtily. “Huskies,” I said. “My father mushed them.”
“Where are they now?”
“What do you mean?”
“What happened to the dogs?”
“My father’s dogs? From when I was a child?”
“Yes, yes. Where are the huskies?”
“We gave them away,” I said. Ted started to pinch me.
“What do you mean ‘you got rid of them’?”
“My mother died. We had a new born baby in the house. My stepmother was afraid of dogs.”
She made another notation on her pad. “We normally don’t adopt out to people with a history of getting rid of animals.”
I was about to tell her that no one cared for animals more than I did, and how dare she, but Ted pulled me away, saying, “Puppy time!”
In the puppy room, I brought each heavenly one to my face, whispering sweet nothings, giving and receiving kisses. “I really like Rex,” Ted kept saying distractedly. “I mean it, I really do.”
Ms. Aggressive Sales Pitch came in as if on cue and told us someone else was interested in our Spaniel. “We’re thinking,” Ted said. “Can’t we think?”
“You have three minutes,” she said, and literally spun on her heels.
Ted followed her. He asked her if it would be okay, if we decided we wanted Rex, to come back pick him up on Wednesday. He something about wanted to get the apartment prepared.
“This is not a boarding house,” she snapped.
“We know it’s not a boarding house,” I said. “We’re simply not familiar with the procedures.”
“Look, do you want him or not? A dog like him will be gone by Wednesday, so you need to decide now.”
I was about to tell this girl to just, just, Gatsby off when something happened. Rex started barking. He barked as if he knew we were about to give up on him. He barked as if he knew he was meant for us, even though we didn’t know yet we were meant for him. Ted looked at me and said, “Should we do it?” And I said, “I guess,” and started to cry. It was like saying “I do.”
In the “processing center” we had to fill out more forms, swear on the Holy Bible that we were who we said we were, and promise that we had no intentions of selling the dog. We had to stand at the counter while they confirmed our address and called our three references, and then we were asked to sit in the waiting room for twenty minutes, ostensibly for them to fill out paperwork but really, we thought, to give us one last chance to change our minds. There, about three dozen other people waited. The room was filled with the smell of worry and second thoughts and fear. No wonder all the dogs were howling! Behind us, a Lloyd Neck-ish woman was called back to the interview area. As she stood, a cloud of expensive perfume rose with her. Minutes later she came out screaming. “I’m a donor! How dare you refuse me that cat? I’ve given hundreds, thousands of dollars to this place.” She told her husband to get his coat. “We’re leaving! They’re not giving us the kitten. Because they think it’s my fault Tuna got hit by a car! You’ll hear about this!” she shouted to the room in parting. And she left us all with the sickly feeling that we, too, would be denied.
“I wish I hadn’t told them about the huskies,” I whispered.
“I’m rethinking puppies,” Ted said. “Rex seems pretty messed up.”
But then they were calling our names and delivering the good news—we’re parents! And then they were giving us Rex, who pulled us out into the parking lot and tried to run away, and we pulled the dog toward the car, and he resisted, oh, how he resisted. God knew where he’d be taken this time, but he would not have it. No, he would not! As we wrestled him into the car, he literally howled the words, No, No, No and threw himself against the windows. I got in the back seat with him, to try to calm him down, but still he howled and scratched and hurled himself against the doors, trying to get out. As we got closer to the City, his brays got louder, more intense, as if he were saying: don’t take me into your nightmare existence! Don’t take me to where there is glass on the sidewalks and needles in the park! Don’t take me to your studio apartment—you don’t have enough space! Your windows face airshafts! No! No! Nooooooo!!
Ted kept looking at us in the rearview mirror. His eyes were disbelieving, glazed. “Are you okay back there?” he said.
“How could he have barked at us like that inside if he didn’t really want us after all?”
“He must have seen the future.” Ted said.
Ah, the future. In which Rex would be taken on four-hour hikes in the Catskills. In which a French baker who would treat him each day to the end of a baguette. In which I, who never cook, would be sauteeing him ground beef and potatoes, and tenderly analyzing the quality of his stool.
“But then why is he howling? Should we be worried, too?”
“I was kidding,” Ted said. “Don’t worry. We’ll make the best of this.”
And what did we know? We were just a young couple, trying to our best to conquer—or at least meet—the indomitable force of New York City. And now we were three. So we just drove on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the next day.

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