Sometimes I think the dog was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Larry.
I had not turned out the way my ex husband wanted. I didn’t like being ignored and lied to and appeased. I wouldn’t host parties. I never did sell a screenplay so that he could dine with hotshots in the Hollywood Hills. I stopped wanting to shower him with generous sexual attention. And then there was that buzzkill menopause.
He woke up one day and realized he deserved more. There were other women out there, and all of them had vaginas. If only leaving me could somehow be neatly arranged.
But how could he get rid of a woman who hadn’t earned a dime in 14 years? Of course I was a miserable harridan, and his friends deeply sympathized, but he didn’t want to be that jerk. After all, he was the perfect guy.
Forgive me, gentle readers. I have to interrupt this thrilling narrative to explain something you need to know in order to make sense of what I am about to say. Young, affluent cities like Austin have developed their own code of ethics. While you might be passionate about issues like health care and the quality of public education, they care deeply about whiskey infused bacon and vinyl records.
And rescue dogs.
Larry wanted me to adopt a dog from a shelter. He did not want to deal with any shade the hipster chicks he was surreptitiously eyeing might throw his way.
I defied him and bought an AKC registered standard poodle from a breeder several states away.
From the very beginning, the dog was a lightning rod for Larry’s pent up frustration and anger at being put in the caddish role of the abandoning spouse. He flung the pup through the air, dragged him by the neck across the floor, kicked him in the ribs, and grabbed his muzzle so hard that Gizmo yelped in pain. He is, or was, an animal lover, so this behavior was truly alarming.
It felt like what it was, a proxy attack.
Little did I realize it then, but Gizmo was to play a pivotal role in my journey back to the old normal. You have to understand. I had become a woman who hid my stash of books on covert aggression so that Larry wouldn’t see them and get mad at me for thinking he was abusive. That’s how weak I was.
Here’s how the dog helped me regain my strength.
1. He got me to stand up to my ex.
My marriage was one long fantasy. In the fantasy, I got everything I wanted and was spoiled, and Larry was an indulgent Prince Charming. The reality was, I read Larry’s mind and made sacrifices so that his priorities and needs would always be met.
Buying Gizmo is the first significant thing I did to thwart his unspoken wishes. I was turning fifty that year, and I wanted something that was not a compromise, not a version of what I wanted made over to suit the convenience of someone else.
Every time I look at my dog, I am happy. He is exactly what I want. I think about how my marriage might have ended sooner — or been more successful — had I asserted my needs sooner, and I do have regrets. But I also have the rest of my life to do things differently.
2. He pushed me out of my comfort zone.
I can’t even begin to explain how demoralized I was in the weeks and months after Larry left the house. Just putting Gizmo in the car some days to take him to the dog park felt arduous. Walking on the trails near downtown Austin amidst young, trim men and women and happy families made me feel like a pariah.
Honestly, I don’t think I could have gotten out of the house on Larry’s visitation days without Gizmo. It turns out many people love poodles, had them as kids, didn’t know they could get so big. I had a lot of conversations I would never have had without him, and I know it helped to get me out of my perpetual funk, if only for a few minutes at a time.
3. He helped me set priorities.
A dog is a big responsibility, which is why some people prefer to have cats or goldfish. As broke as I was when I first started to work, I spent some of my money on doggie day care for Gizmo so that he would not be alone for long stretches. As tired or busy as I was, I’d hoist myself off the sofa to give him the daily exercise he needed.
He was the one creature who depended on me, and me alone, and this increased my sense of competence and self worth.
4. He gave me and C a way to reconnect.
My relationship with my daughter was hurt both by the divorce and by the deterioration of my marriage in the final years. I was angry most of the time, and she clung to Larry as a safe haven, which made him feel good about himself. He cultivated a “special” relationship with her. It was probably not done deliberately, but it contributed to the damage. She was devastated when he moved out, and she blamed me.
I was left with the task of restoring faith in a child whose heart was broken while being stressed and scared myself. Our shared love for Gizmo, our desire to care for him, the birthday treats we’ve made for him, his presence in our daily life — those things have been a way for us to be a family again.
5. He made me feel secure and loved.
He’s not much of a guard dog to look at. But Gizmo’s bark is deep and loud, and he is protective. He once pushed through the door and followed a strange man who rang my doorbell five houses down the street. He had sensed something he didn’t like, and he was (in his amiable way) escorting this man out of my life.
Although he’s gracious enough to sleep with C half the nights she’s here with me, Gizmo’s love for me is unconditional. Every night after I let him out, he runs inside, grabs a stuffed animal, and jumps up on my bed to settle down for the night, making his preference known.
Maybe it’s petty. It probably is. But it feels good to be his chosen one.
The cover image is from Jacopo Bassano’s “Two Hunting Dogs Tied to a Tree Stump.”
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