JANUARY THROUGH MARCH, 2010
Arguments around the dinner table are not our family’s modus operandi. More akin to a debate team, we parry details and minutiae, until we realize we’re preaching to the choir. Then we laugh. Arguing is a scholarly endeavor. We leave the messy emotional disagreements for discussions.
Tempers do not usually flare in so stereotypical an arena, either: the dinner table argument, a conceit utilized by movies and novels to illustrate the failure of the suburban dream. Anyway, this was not us. Not unless you added one dose of Stanley.
Stanley. My love.
My first encounter with Stanley was in the classifieds, which seemed an unlikely location to meet anyone I fell in love with. Looking for a “Friend with Benefits,” maybe, an afternoon assignation while out of town on business. But this was love.
He was not classically handsome. Face like a rugby player, wide-set eyes, underbite. Muscles for days, but small. Bow-legged. Looked like he got hit with the ugly stick over and over again.
Except for his smile; that was pure gold. And the sad, thoughtful look in his eyes that spoke of great love and the desire to share his personal joys and sorrows with someone. Someone who would love him despite the ugly stick, despite the rugby-player build and his oafish manner.
I drove several miles out of town to the cell where he was being held. Everyone else was cat-calling and howling when I walked in; I was nervous, didn’t know quite where to go. After all, I was new at this. I had never gone out of my way to meet anyone so unlike myself, from such a different background. Would he like me? Would he see my charms the way I saw his? Was I crazy? One photo does not indicate love, merely the potential for love. But like anything with potential, there is its opposite: the reality that it won’t work, that there is not really any common ground.
But Stanley stood up silently to greet me when I walked in, a perfect gentleman. No howls and hoots, no rude, brash hollers. His eyes met mine and betrayed a little of his nervousness, but also his calm acceptance of me. I met the potential, and he did too.
Our meeting was brief, but it was clear that we had something. Stanley and I had that spark of recognition that only happens once in a while, sometimes never.
But Stanley and I were not meant to be....
Being a parent, despite the fact that parents like to complain, a lot, is the best thing on earth. No amount of sleeplessness, poop, puke, weird interests, illness, or chaos theory personified can take away the fact that you love the little dickens beyond any amount you ever conceived. But when Lars and I considered the question “One or More Than One?” we were tired. Skull crushingly, crazy-making, profoundly tired. Do we have the one remarkably awesome kid, and carry forward in our happy little triad, lovey and schmoopy and trinity-ish? Or would we take the chance on the sperm roulette wheel and see what happened? We discussed this when we were tired, as I said, but also in the realm of the expiration date: I was in my late thirties and Lars was in the brilliant age of sagacity.
But we never made any plans. Time passed. We slept little. Suddenly we had an older boy, and it seemed we had made our decision by not making any decision at all: Milo was going to be a singleton, an only child, and we would remain our little triad. He was six, and amazingly more amazing than when he started.
We were a nice group, us three, sleeplessness and all.
I'd been trawling the pet listings at the Humane Society website for a couple of years. It was casual, like browsing a bookstore when I’m not really looking for anything in particular: old, arthritic pooches with seizure disorders, spastic pups who would terrorize my family within a week. Really sweet looking dogs who looked like they needed to catch a break.
I would have liked to give them that break, but I’ve never been a dog person. I grew up with cats, every last one of them strays until our last two girls, which we picked up from the pound after Milo had experienced the death of our two cats within five weeks of each other. I felt we couldn’t wait for new cats to stumble into our lives like all the other ones had; Milo should be exposed to the lively, fun beginning of cats, not the depressing, sickly end of kidney failure. I was finished with having a pet at the time, but the house was lonely without our critters, and we felt disconnected without them.
Lars wasn’t really interested in the pet thing, either: no cat was going to measure up to the one he had just lost. Mini was his cat made in heaven, one of the weirdest animals we’d had the pleasure of knowing. So he tolerated my reasoning for getting new pets, and agreed to it because he’s indulgent of both me and the boy, but he could have just as easily not had any for a while.
I guess I’d been trawling the pet pages on the sly. It’s not like I announced that I was stalking pooches in my off-hours. I noncommittally cruise Amazon too, when I’ve already exhausted all the other stupid internet novelties I’m accustomed to, and just need to fill in that last half hour before bed when I’m watching some crappy police procedural out of one eye.
It went in stages. Months of no dog trawling went by, and then something would tap my inner dog alarm. This particular time it was set off on the beaches in Sayulita, Mexico, where tons of Americans were walking though the little village with their dogs. Imagine! Trotting down the beach in a foreign country, and you’ve got your buddy, your pal! Not that I thought I was the sort of dog owner (in the hypothetical, of course) who was going to pack a dog in a box and bring him to a foreign country.
And then there were the frail, stray dogs of Sayulita, the wanderers and beggars who made themselves at home wherever, whenever, and with whoever. One sweet terrier adopted us on our patio (we resisted feeding her, because we knew she’d never leave) and then walked with us through the town, until some other person caught her fancy and she left as unromantically and pragmatically as she came. But we walked three whole blocks together, and I thought it was pretty cool.
Once we returned from Mexico—I can’t say with 100 percent accuracy but a pretty good educated guess—the first dog I looked at was a Pomeranian named Baby Carrot. I’ll admit I’m partial to the name.
But soon I was hitting the dog listings on the Humane Society website pretty often, and then cruising PetFinder.com to widen the search parameters. I researched breeds to see what types (in the hypothetical, of course) might suit our family: No herding dogs, because to break them of their herding instinct around our flock of chickens would be cruel to all parties involved. Papillons were an ancient breed that looked like bats, which was a plus, but I worried about their fragility around Milo, who, though a gentle soul, was still six. I considered the importance of training. I didn’t want a Jack Russell terrier because I thought they were smarter than me.
I mentioned in passing to Lars that I had been thinking about a dog.
Seriously, he should have known.
We’d been together long enough that he should have known that if I’m bothering to say it aloud, something was in play. Something big, like an iceberg. Something not particularly interesting on the surface, but huge and ponderous underneath, the relatively benign sentence, “I’ve been thinking about a dog” deceptively innocent, while there’s this lurking, hulking beast waiting quietly, submerged in a placid open sea.
Lars made clear in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want a dog. He did not want a dog. He told me many times, itemized all the reasons thoroughly and completely, in triplicate, and delivered the message to all parties. No dog.
So what had I been doing for two years?
Milo was a kid who had an uncanny ability to absorb historical and geographical facts and recite them as if he was writing a book. If you wanted to know about the sinking of the Lusitania or the Titanic, their similarities versus their differences, he could tell you. He’d throw in the sinking of the Mary Rose if you’d like. He once used this stunning ability for car facts and figures, but he tapped out after we took him to the LA Auto Show, after which he decided he was ready to move on to disasters on the high seas. That was it. He was done.
He fit in our bookish family well. But he was only six, and we couldn’t debate the finer points of history all the time. There were plenty of opportunities for him to mouth off, be a pain, jump on us like a monkey, run into us like a tiny Brahma bull, and smack our butts as hard as he could because he was completely impressed with all the other kids at school who did it to their parents. Lars and I had the onerous job of correcting his behavior and trying to foster membership in the world, detracting from a descent into complete incivility. Milo had friends to tumble with, to smack their butts while they chased him and dragged him through the dirt—but he had to wait for play dates to do it: all the stuff he wanted to do with us, but were too old and boring to get behind it.
Many of his friends had siblings, who not only channeled all their six-year-old exuberance toward my kid, but toward each other in this super-sibling-y way that I’d never experienced. Milo might be a unifying force between siblings, or he’d bond with one and then the other in an interesting exchange. But siblings so clearly had each other that even when they were ready to kill each other, it made me sad for Milo, who only had us, the grumps who didn’t want their butts smacked.
And Lars and I are intense. We’re interested in things in deep, intense ways, we love intensely, we debate intensely, we laugh intensely. We don’t mean to, but we protect Milo intensely too. We probably have intense expectations because the little dickens is so damned smart. But there are two of us grown-ups, and one of him. Sometimes all our intensity is focused on him alone, two beams of parental interest impossible to divert.
It must be rough staring up at us sometimes, feel a little lonely.
We went to a birthday party for our best friend’s son who turned one. Their big, dopey dog Otis played endlessly with Milo, tossing a slobbery, disgusting ball back and forth, back and forth, Milo giddily happy to have the undivided attention of someone so energetic, someone so easily pleased to do exactly what he wanted to do. Otis never tired of the game, and neither did Milo.
I told Lars that I had in no way set this up ahead of time.
Apparently my subconscious had been chewing on the great sibling debate in the dog listings, because it was clear we were never going to get a dog. Lars made sure I knew that he was not interested at all. It was a hobby of mine.
But this is probably akin to people being curious about seeing a real live hooker for the first time in person, not to, you know, do that, but just because, like, it’s so interesting. So you ask someone where you can find the red light district, to drive by the streetwalkers to gawk. Then maybe you sneak a peek on Craigslist, just because, you know, you’re intrigued. And some of the ads are really, like, super-specific. And, wow. Just…wow. It’s all right there in front of you, all the weirdness you never knew existed explained in vivid detail; not only that, ON OFFER. So, like, um. Why not?
Yeah, that’s me.
So when I mentioned to Lars that I was thinking about a dog, he had no idea of the enormity of the iceberg underneath the surface. He didn’t know that I knew more facts and figures about dogs than many people who own dogs, that I had narrowed down breeds. That I had found a number of very interesting possibilities. That I was particularly fond of a dog named Stanley, who won me over with his under-bite, pricked ears, and two pictures which worked their way into my heart like a flesh-boring-insect, one in which he was lying down, looking up at the camera as if waiting for me specifically to come to his rescue; the next in which he hopped up to greet me, so excited that he was finally going home.
I realized that I was planning on going to the Humane Society just to, like, you know, visit. I also discovered that I had not even discussed this with myself much less Lars; I had been operating on the purest instinctual level. I had been searching and trawling and looking high and low for a companion for Milo for two years, for a sibling analog, an animal who would unconditionally love Milo no matter what. Who wouldn’t reprimand him about his potty talk, who would hang out with him when everyone was tired, who would play catch with him and run with him for hours, with whom he could find solace when Dad and Mom were just being too damned intense.
I finally showed Lars the depth of the iceberg that he was unwittingly bearing down upon. He was completely taken off guard, since he thought I also didn’t want a dog. We’re cat people, right?
Stanley was a Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
He was one meaty dog. Tan with a white blaze on his chest, golden eyes, little pricked ears, he was a hamburger on legs. But when I walked into the kennels he stood up silently, placed his paws on the gate and waited for me. He didn’t bark, didn’t whine, didn’t holler. All the other dogs rose in a chorus of cacophony around him, but Stanley was like a brick wall, so still and calm was he. He was one solid muscle on squat legs, but he stood there delicately, posing like a dancer.
When I approached the pen, he wiggled and writhed in expectation. But for all that meatiness, he was pure gentle affection. There was a bucket of kibble on the gate so that people like myself could have a little meet-and-greet, a breaking of the proverbial bread. I grabbed a couple of nuggets. “Sit,” I said said gently, and he sat. I held the kibble down toward the floor, “Lie down,” and he hunched down, gazing at me with his funny, squinty golden eyes checking to make sure he doing what I was asking him to do. I gave him the kibble and he took it gently from me, barely using his teeth at all. Almost a kiss. He tried to squeeze his muzzle through the chain link to meet me more officially, though it was clear to both of us that we were each other’s, and that he wanted to go home now, and what took me so long anyway?
I asked the woman at the front desk if I could meet Stanley more personally, and she looked up his paperwork. She asked me a couple basic questions about whether we owned or rented our house, did we have pets, did we have children. Stanley was a young boy, with no obedience lessons to speak of; classes were a requirement for taking Stanley home. Which was fine with me; any dog I wanted was going to be a good dog, and we would learn how to be each other’s allies in cooperation.
“How old is your child?” she asked.
“We can’t let you adopt Stanley,” she said. “We’ll only let Stanley go home with someone ten or older.”
I asked if this was ironclad, if there was any room for negotiation, but she was adamant: rules were rules.
I met a couple other dogs who were sadly wanting and went back to say goodbye to Stanley. I sat on the floor in front of his kennel feeding him kibble bits, him gently taking them from me, trying to impress me with his worthiness. He didn’t need to; I knew how amazing he was.
I sat in the parking lot for a long time before I drove off without Stanley.
I discovered in Stanley the Staffie my perfect dog. What I also found was Lars’s antithesis: a muscle on four legs with huge jaws, a gigantic appetite and a high likelihood of drool. He probably smelled very much like a dog. He might even be a crotch sniffer, or worse, a dog who displayed affection with a giant tongue in the face. In Lars’ eyes, I could not have picked a worse candidate.
Reluctant to get a dog of any kind, when he noted the feverish glow of obsession and the depth of heartache Stanley inspired, Lars realized that he was cornered: he would have to help select a dog he could live with so that he wouldn’t be forced to live with his worst nightmare. When my heart bled giant pools where Stanley was supposed to be, Lars stopped ignoring the links I sent of this pup or that pooch.
I had met another dog, a little beagle/dachshund mix named Kate, and thought that maybe she would be a good dog for us. Affectionate, energetic. She was neither timid or overwhelming, just a nice dog. I had met her myself; now that Stanley had been removed from the list of possibilities, I told Milo we should go meet Kate.
Kate was nice, perky, friendly. But she was completely non-selective about us in particular. She was as interested in the walls as she was in me. Our son liked her, I liked her, she was nice. A nice dog.
The last person that had to meet Kate was Lars, who couldn’t come with us until the following day.
That’s okay, I thought, since we have to go to dinner at Mom’s tonight.
Mom had pulled out all the stops. She made a multi-course Chinese meal, soup, salads, two main dishes. It was difficult to maintain any discipline in not eating too much of one dish, but all the rest promised to be just as delicious. It was punctuated by our usual jocular conversation, bad puns peppering salty stories.
In recapping our lives over dinner, I mentioned our bizarre and unexpected quest for a dog. Mom was surprised, because she, like everyone else in my life, had no idea that I’d been cruising dog websites for years. But she agreed that dogs are great, especially for kids, and wondered what kinds we had been looking at.
I told her I had been looking at a ton of different dogs, almost all of them small, but that I had met a Staffordshire Bull Terrier which hadn’t worked out. Plus he was too big, and Lars would only tolerate a small one.
She leaned towards me and told me that under no circumstances would I get a Staffordshire. “I won’t come to your house anymore, I promise you, not unless you chain him up and keep it far from me.” No pit bulls! she admonished, with a patronizing superiority that instantly enraged me.
“Why?” I asked. He isn’t a pit bull, I told her, though he is a bull terrier.
“Do you know how many people those dogs kill?” she asked. “Those dogs are a menace! You should know better!” she snarled.
I was pretty hot under the collar as well. “Any dog can be trained into violence; that’s the fault of the shitty owners!” I retorted. “People who abuse their dogs, train them to be fighters, or starve them because they suck don’t deserve to have dogs themselves!”
“My father got me a vicious dog when I was a kid!” she insisted.
“Your father was a complete psycho who reveled in cruelty!” I spat. It’s true; everything he did was tainted by bitterness, sadism, cruel humor or just plain meanness. He was a real bastard.
Lars, Milo, Dad and Bob were stunned, our happy little family meal disrupted in a flash by intense, uncharacteristic anger. We had gone zero to sixty in a hair’s breath over a dog I didn’t have, and wasn’t going to get.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about,” Mom said.
“You haven’t had a dog in fifty years! What are you basing your knowledge on? Your shitty experience with a dog your insane father got you and archaic thinking about dog training?”
Lars knew that I was in no condition to be having this conversation. I had met my dream dog and had to leave him in the kennel, walk away from Stanley. I was frayed. “I can promise you that Quenby would never put any of us in danger. She would never do that,” he told everyone. Mom stared at me with a grumpy half-smile, and I stared with fury at my plate. “And if she did, I would turn around and take that dog right back,” he insisted.
Silence fell. “It’s irrelevant, since I can’t have Stanley anyway,” I said. “We’re meeting a beagle named Kate.”
“That’s for the best,” my mother said.
I was more dangerous than Stanley could ever be, so livid was I.
Bulldogs and Mastiffs are strong, tightly muscled dogs originally bred to bait bulls or bears, so it’s no surprise that they’re built like tanks. But that was hundreds of years ago, and several breeds have evolved out of the original bulldogs. Crossbreeding bulldogs with terriers produced a smaller fighting dog called the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and from them, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the notorious American Pit Bull were developed.
But Staffordshires (Staffie’s, Staffs, or simply “the Nanny Dog”) had long since left their fighting days behind after dogfighting as sport was banned in England, and Staffies became one of the most reliable family dogs, known for extreme loyalty, courage and love of children. The English don’t call Staffie’s "the Nanny Dog" for nothing.
In the meantime, Staff’s were being bred to become the American Staffordshire and the American Pit Bull, where as usual bigger is better. And then the pit bulls became singularly famous for vicious attacks on children, strangers, owners, other dogs. Bad press was the only press that pit bulls managed to procure for themselves, and sadly the poor Staffie got pulled down in the campaign.
But like any dog, bred in conditions which train for killing, they will become a successful killer. Smaller dogs left in horrible conditions or trained to violence will become violent, or terrified, dysfunctional and broken. That they don’t have the sheer force of the bull terriers doesn’t make then any less susceptible to horrible treatment.
People forget that dogs are creatures created and honed by man. A vicious dog attack does not incriminate the breed, it incriminates the people who have trained it, abused it or raised it. Poor old Stanley looked like a thug, but he was just a big galoot. He wanted to go home. And I hoped that if he couldn’t go home with me that he went home with someone who could see the heart of sheer warmth under the massive mug.
When we got home, I was still seething, but as I explained it to Lars, sadness welled up and flooded the kitchen: Stanley was this sweet ox, but people were going to assume, based on his face and sheer muscle mass that he was a weapon with fur, a ticking time bomb in a dog’s body who was going to snap at any given time.
But my grief was also the realization that our ship had sailed, and it was without a sibling for Milo. Lars and I never marked the passage of that milestone; we were too tired and we let time decide for us. We hadn’t realized the importance of bringing our son a companion into this world, a friend and adversary, a partner to rumble with, a person with whom he could collaborate against the two bigger people running the show, even if it was just under the covers at night, giggling. An adult in the future who Milo could bond with during the struggles of dealing with their nutty parents when we were too damned old or sick to be anything but a pain in the ass. Now, no sibling.
We were the trinity: The Father, A Loon and Holy Smokes. But I wished we had the foresight to realize that quadrangles are more stable.
Sometimes a thing is just a thing, and sometimes it’s some other thing altogether.
I sent Lars a link to a dog who looked directly in the camera, staring with his nose pressed almost to the lens. His ears rested flat against his neck, folded back like he was apologizing for something. He was small, red, and short-haired. Looked like a large dog, but was only 11 skinny pounds, a large dog run through the dryer too many times. Not a chihuahua, not anything else. Oddball. Lars agreed he was an option and so we went to meet him.
Lars couldn’t escape the fact that he was absurdly cute. His legs were long—so long that they looked like they belonged on a fawn, spindly and knobby. His tail was a tightly curled corn chip, wagging with fury. And his ears, folded back in contrition in the photo, were more like Gizmo’s ears, the gremlin from the movie of the same name: expressive, upright and twitchy, they moved like radar dishes with every sound. He really liked us, he sniffed us without shoving his snoot in our crotches, he clearly wasn’t a drooler, and though his legs were too long to call him a pocket dog, he was certainly slight.
Lars didn’t hate him.
Moxie—who had plenty of it—was the fastest dog we ever saw. An Italian sports car at the dog park, we dubbed him “The Rabbit” because he led a chain of dogs behind him, all trying and failing to catch him as he bobbed and weaved with an agility we envied. Lars admitted a grudging pride in his sheer athleticism.
I took Moxie to obedience classes where he was a fast learner and eager pupil; I had to make him the best dog in the entire history of dogs because Lars was so grumpy about the whole canine thing in the first place. I was grateful that Moxie was up to the task.
Moxie, for his part, learned that I was in the position of training, love, beef lung treats and general go-to dog attention, but that didn’t stop him from identifying Lars as someone who he would force into loving him by sheer persistence. On the sofa Moxie put his head in Lars’ lap, mooning with devotion, as Lars cursorily patted his head while rolling his eyes. Moxie followed him around the house like a shadow, Lars would trip over him, bark “Dammit!” and Moxie would dart into his crate. But a couple minutes would pass, and Moxie would delicately follow in his footsteps again.
And, in the way that siblings are both a blessing and a curse, Moxie kept Milo company, even when Milo didn’t want it. When Milo sat on the sofa, Moxie sat on him. When Milo forgot our advice: “Put your toys away or Moxie will eat them,” sure enough, just like a sibling trashing your favorite action figure, Moxie would sneak off with the Star Wars AT-AT Commander into his crate, leaving behind little but a foot and a disfigured helmet. A peacenik, he disarmed Nerf guns with dexterity and sharp incisors.
I wanted a dog, but Moxie represented so many things.
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