It happened like this: after a walk in the park, Karl and I saw a young woman sitting in a car talking to a dog. Even from a distance, through the hard glass of the windshield, we could tell this was an exceptional animal. Karl, never shy, tapped on the window to ask her what kind of dog it was. We live in Nashville, where people do things like this and no one is frightened or surprised. The young woman told us the sad story: the dog – who was on closer viewing nothing but a mere slip of a puppy – had been dumped in a parking lot, rescued, and then passed among several well-intentioned friends, none of whom were allowed to have dogs in their apartments. The dog had finally landed with the young woman in the car, who had been explaining to said dog that the day had come to look cute and find a permanent home.
The puppy was doing a knockout job at being cute. She was small and sleek and white. The sun came through her disproportionally large ears and showed them to be as pink and translucent as a Limoges teacup held up to the light. We petted. She licked. We went off to think it all over. In the end we came back for the dog.
I didn’t think it would be this way. I thought when the time was right I would make a decision, consider breeds, look around. The truth is, I too was a woman who lived in an apartment that didn’t allow dogs. But when fate knocks on the door, you’d better answer. “Let’s call her Rose,” Karl said.
I was breathless, besotted. My puppy tucked her nose under my arm and the hundred clever dog names I had dreamed up over a lifetime vanished. “Sure,” I said. “Rose.”
All I had ever wanted was a dog. Other girls grew up dreaming of homes and children, true love and financial security; I envisioned shepherds and terriers, fields of happy, bounding mutts. Part of my childhood was spent on a farm where I lived in a sea of pets: horses and chickens; half a dozen sturdy, mouse-killing cats; rabbits; one pig; and many, many dogs – Rumble and Tumble and Sam and Lucy and especially Cuddles, who did justice to his name. Ever since that time I have believed that happiness and true adulthood would be mine at the moment of dog ownership. I would stop traveling so much. I would live someplace with a nice lawn. There would be plenty of money for vet bills.
At home, the puppy Rose played with balls, struggled with the stairs, and slept behind my knees while we watched in adoration. It’s not that I was unhappy in what I now think of as ‘the dogless years’, but I suspected things could be better. What I never could have imagined was how much better they would be. Whatever holes I had in my life, in my character, were suddenly filled. I had entered into my first adult relationship of mutual, unconditional love. I immediately found a much nicer apartment, one that allowed dogs for a ridiculously large, nonrefundable deposit. Since I work at home, Rose was able to spend her days in my lap, where she was most comfortable. We bonded in a way that some people looked upon as suspicious. I took Rose into stores like the rich ladies at Bergdorf’s do. I took her to dinner parties. I took her to the Cape for vacation. As I have almost no ability to leave her alone, when I had to go someplace that foolishly did not allow dogs, I’d drive her across town and leave her with my grandmother.
“Look at that,” people said, looking at me and not Rose. “Look how badly she wants a baby.”
A baby? I held up my dog for them to see, my bright, beautiful dog. “A dog,” I said. “I’ve always wanted a dog.” The truth is, I have no memory of ever wanting a baby. I have never peered longingly into someone else’s stroller. I have, on occasions too numerous to list, bent down on the sidewalk to rub the ears of strange dogs, to whisper to them about their limpid eyes.
“Maybe you don’t even realize it,” strangers said, friends said, my family said. “Clearly, you want a baby.”
“Look at the way you’re holding that dog,” my grandmother said. “Just like it’s a baby.”
People began to raise the issue with Karl, insisting that he open his eyes to the pathetic state of maternal want I was so clearly in. Being a very accommodating fellow, he took my hand. With his other hand he rubbed Rose’s ears. Part of my love for Karl is his love for Rose. Her favorite game is to be draped over the back of his neck like a fox-fur stole, two legs dangling on either shoulder. “Ann,” he said. “If you want to have a baby . . .”
When did the mammals get confusing? Who can’t look at a baby and a puppy and see the differences? You can’t leave babies at home alone with a chew toy when you go to the movies. Babies will not shimmy under the covers to sleep on your feet when you’re cold. Babies, for all their many unarguable charms, will not run with you in the park, or wait by the door for your return, and, as far as I can tell, they know absolutely nothing of unconditional love.
Being a childless woman of childbearing age, I am a walking target for people’s concerned analysis. No one looks at a single man with a Labrador retriever and says, “Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog? Now there’s a guy who wants to have a son.” A dog, after all, is man’s best friend, a comrade, a pal. But give a dog to a woman and people will say she is sublimating. If she says that she, in fact, doesn’t want children, they will nod understandingly and say, “You just wait.” For the record, I do not speak to my dog in baby talk, nor when calling her do I say, “Come to Mama.”
“You were always my most normal friend,” my friend Elizabeth told me, “until you got this dog.”
While I’m sure I would have enjoyed the company of many different dogs, I believe that the depth of my feeling for Rose comes from the fact that she is, in matters of intelligence, loyalty, and affection, an extraordinary animal. In the evenings, Karl and I drive Rose across town to a large open field where people come together to let their dogs off their leashes and play. As she bounds through the grass with the Great Danes and the Bernese mountain dogs, I believe that there was never a dog so popular and well adjusted as mine (and yet realize at the same time that this is the height of my own particular brand of insanity). The other dog owners want to talk about identifying her lineage, perhaps in hopes that one of her cousins might be located. It is not enough for Rose to be a good dog, she must be a particular breed of dog. She has been, depending on how one holds her in the light, a small Jack Russell, a large Chihuahua, a rat terrier, a fox terrier, and a Corgi with legs. Currently, she is a Portuguese Podengo, a dog that to the best of my knowledge was previously unknown in Tennessee. It is the picture she most closely resembles in our Encyclopedia of Dogs. We now say things like “Where is the Podengo?” and “Has the Podengo been outside yet?” to give her a sense of heritage. But really, she is a Parking Lot Dog, dropped off in a snowstorm to meet her fate.
When a dog devotes so much of her energies to your happiness, it only stands to reason you would want to make that dog happy in return. Things that would seem unreasonably extravagant for yourself are nothing less than a necessity.”
I watch the other dog owners in the park, married people and single people and people with children. The relationship each one has with his or her dog is very personal and distinct. But what I see again and again is that people are proud of their pets, proud of the way that they run, proud of how they nose around with the other dogs, proud that they are brave enough to go into the water or smart enough to stay out of it. People seem able to love their dogs with an unabashed acceptance that they rarely demonstrate with family or friends. The dogs do not disappoint them, or if they do, the owners manage to forget about it quickly. I want to learn to love people like this, the way I love my dog, with pride and enthusiasm and a complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way my dog loves me.
When a dog devotes so much of her energies to your happiness, it only stands to reason you would want to make that dog happy in return. Things that would seem unreasonably extravagant for yourself are nothing less than a necessity for your dog, so Karl and I hired a personal trainer for Rose. We had dreams of obedience, of sit and stay and come, maybe a few simple tricks. (She didn’t really seem big enough to drag the paper inside.) I was nervous about finding the right trainer and called my friend Erica for moral support, but she was too busy trying to get her four-year-old son into a top Manhattan preschool to be sympathetic to my worry about finding the right trainer for my puppy. The trainer we ultimately went with was the very embodiment of a dog authority figure. After a few minutes of pleasant conversation, during which Rose jumped on his shoulder and licked the top of his head, he laid out the fundamentals of his regime.
Number one: The dog doesn’t get on the furniture.
We blinked. We smiled nervously. “But she likes the furniture,” we said. “We like her on the furniture.”
He explained to us the basic principles of dog training. She has to learn to listen. She must learn parameters and the concept of no. He tied a piece of cotton rope to her collar and demonstrated how we were to yank her off the sofa with a sharp tug. Our dog went flying through the air. She looked up at us from the floor, more bewildered than offended. “She doesn’t sleep with you, does she?” the trainer asked.
“Sure,” I said, reaching down to rub her neck reassuringly. She slept under the covers, her head on my pillow, her muzzle on my shoulder. “What’s the point of having a twelve-pound dog if it doesn’t sleep with you?”
He made a note in a folder. “You’ll have to stop that.”
I considered this for all of five seconds. “No,” I said. “I’ll do anything else, but the dog sleeps with me.”
After some back-and-forth on this subject, he relented, making it clear that it was against his better judgment. For the duration of the ten-week program, I either sat on the floor with Rose or Rose and I stayed in bed. We celebrated graduation by letting her back up on the sofa.
I went to see my friend Warren, who, conveniently, happens to be a psychologist, to ask him if he thought things had gotten out of hand. Maybe I had an obsessive-compulsive disorder concerning my dog.
“You have to be doing something to be obsessive-compulsive,” he said. “Are you washing her all the time? Or do you think about washing her all the time?”
I shook my head.
“It could be codependency, then. Animals are by nature very codependent.”
I wasn’t sure I liked this. Codependency felt too trendy. Warren’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Kate, came in, and I asked her if she wanted to see the studio portraits I’d had taken of Rose for my Christmas cards. She studied the pictures from my wallet for a minute and then handed them back to me. “Gee,” she said. “You really want to have a baby, don’t you?”
I went home to my dog. I rubbed her pink belly until we were both sleepy. I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren’t other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog. We’ve had Rose a year now and there has never been a cold and rainy night when I’ve resented having to take her outside. I have never wished I didn’t have a dog, this dog, while she sniffed at each individual blade of grass, even as my hands were freezing up around the leash. I have never minded picking the endless white hairs off my dark clothes. All I had ever wanted was a dog who would sleep in my lap while I read and lick my neck and bring me the ball to throw eighty-seven times in a row. I thought a dog would be the key to perfect happiness. And I was right. We are perfectly happy.
From the collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, published in hardback and eBook by Bloomsbury. First published in Vogue, March 1997. Read more
“Electrically entertaining… Each of these essays feels fresh and bright and, just as importantly, they seem to fit together to achieve a fascinating whole… Funny, generous, spirited and kind.”
Julie Myerson, The Times
Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of non-fiction. She has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction three times; with The Magician’s Assistant in 1998, winning the prize with Bel Canto in 2002, and was most recently shortlisted with State of Wonder in 2012. She is also the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She is the co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, Karl, and their dog Sparky.