'Spooning with the Dog' by Iris J. Melton
Men are needy.
My mother used to say that. But she said it with an ironic tenderness and an inclusive affection, for both my father and I. Since Mom first pronounced that truth to me, I’ve heard it many times from feminine lips, but it’s not often said with affection or tenderness. It’s said with ingenuous despair, or sudden exasperation, or worst of all, contempt and bitterness.
I was a lucky boy. I never knew how lucky until I was in my twenties, and barraged with the catalogues of parental cruelties and neglect that my friends recited; a sadness fueled with adult beverages or other controlled substances. That sadness was worse when recalled under the influence of nothing more than pain and remorse.
My mom and dad were happy. Mom was a generous soul, and she mostly loved and sometimes tolerated Dad. Him? He just wanted to be with her. No matter what. Like one of those old romantic songs. In the backyard in summer, he’d suddenly pull her from a nylon folding chair into his arms and two-step her through the spray of the hose watering the lawn, singing “Our Love is Here to Stay.” Once when we had an unexpected snowfall, he danced her out onto the porch with no warning, or coat, while singing “You’re the Top.” He was always like that, humorous and spontaneous. He was only serious watching a baseball game. Any baseball game, from major leagues to little leagues.
When they were older, Mom’s patience would sometimes slip, and she’d utter a terse “Not now, Carl!” to whatever it was he was doing. But then she’d relent and gently take his hand in hers, or stroke him affectionately on the shoulder. A good model for relationships.
So from my dad, (in addition to an appreciation for baseball), I learned the words to a lot of jazz standards, and I also learned that women were to be respected and loved. The way he treated my mom.
Or did I just learn to be needy?
I was a good-looking boy in high school (Mom’s dramatic coloring of pale blue eyes and dark hair, and Dad’s height and athletic build) and I got a reasonable amount of attention from the girls. Not so much that I was full of myself, but enough that I could talk to them without collapsing into a puddle of abject terror. Girls liked me, because I liked them and treated them like my dad treated my mom, as if they said and thought the most interesting things. And most of them did, so I wasn’t faking.
In my twenties and thirties, there were many women interested in me, some as lovers and some as friends. I won’t bore you with a recital of my relationships, not even the really big, life-changing ones, because now I’m in my forties, and so far, I have not been able to re-create that model that Mom and Dad led me to expect. I wonder sometimes if this insidious need for love motivates everything I do. When I’m not aspiring to the model in my personal life, I spend my working hours helping other people find homes. At the conclusion of every sale, I pause for a moment and make a silent wish that my clients will have the happiness that Mom and Dad had. And yet, I’m a real estate broker who rents a studio apartment. Like the delusional oncologist who smokes, or the perpetually single wedding planner. Still, the dream eludes me.
The consensus of the women who have left me, and of the ones with whom I fashioned a mutual détente, is always the same: you’re just so needy. My friend Emily, who has gently consoled me with patient listening and good whiskey on many occasions after break-ups (that is, before she loses all patience, and shoves me out her door with a pronouncement that I should just stop-fucking-tear-jerking-off-get-over-it-and-stop-being-so-fucking-needy), apparently agrees.
After my most recent break-up, Emily said that I-need-to-stop-this-stupid-fucking-insane-search-for-perfect-love-and-get-a-fucking-dog! (Emily is a lovely person who works with disabled children so, understandably, she loses patience with those of us who have lesser challenges in life. Also, she compartmentalizes quite well, and only swears like a sailor in her private life, otherwise behaving like a patient saint. She has never given me bad advice and has been a loyal friend since childhood.)
Walter is a ninety-five pound Labrador mix (the other component is likely Buick) with a head like a cinder block. His fur is black without even a hint of brown, his feet are as big as my bunched fists, and he needs a home. This is not exactly the description that the rescue organization published, but it’s an accurate one. Walter is four years old, and after an intensive examination of my habits, my circumstances, and my intentions, the rescue organization has decided that I may have full custody. Emily approves. (Except she says what-kind-of-fucking-name-is-Walter-for-a-dog?)
We go to the vet, Walter and I. We go to the pet store. After an appalling amount of research, I decide which vaccinations, which pet food, which sort of bed (and placement in my apartment), and what kind of exercise regimen Walter needs. We get along famously. Walter seems grateful for everything. Although initially I sense a definite lack of enthusiasm on his part, I chalk this up to the parental neglect or cruelty that those friends without my luck suffered and Walter may have suffered from human counterparts. Walter is over-joyed to see me when I come home. Walter is happy watching baseball games on Sunday afternoons. He likes me whether or not I shave, or eat over the sink, or really need to cut my toenails. Walter enriches my life. I feel loved. I feel needed. I feel accepted just the way I am.
I am having a great relationship. At last.
Emily says there-are-no-fucking-guarantees. I say Walter will always love me, no matter what. Dogs are guaranteed to love you. That’s why so many people have dogs. For the unconditional love. I also realize that Walter is needy.
Amelia is a one hundred thirty-five pound Mediterranean mongrel (human) with eyes the color of Sicilian olives, who moves like she always hears music. We meet in a small bar in Hanover Square, where the mirrored surfaces reflect the light like a thousand candles burning, and the bartenders wear tight black tee shirts. Both men and women bartenders have beautiful biceps and mix cocktails in glass beakers like they‘re performing alchemical experiments. I love this place for the strange mix of dissipation and elitism that I feel whenever I come here. (The beautiful young people make me feel old, and yet I feel so far beyond their concerns with personal appearances. It amuses me that they have no idea that none of it lasts).
Amelia is of an age with me, and she seems comfortable in her own skin. She orders a perfect rye Manhattan and we begin to chat about what we’re drinking.
“Do you think people order drinks that reflect their personalities?” I ask.
“I’m not a New Yorker, and have no aspirations to be one,” she says. “Or to emulate that casual confessional trendiness. I just like rye.”
“I’m drinking beer,” I counter.
“But I’d wager it’s either a cask beer, or something from a small craft brewery, right?”
“OK, that’s true, but I just like the taste of good beer.”
She turns her eyes to me without turning her head and slightly raises her left eyebrow. This is a gesture I will see again, and I later learn it signifies that 1) I am an idiot, or 2) I should have by now grasped what is so incredibly obvious to anyone who is actually paying attention, or 3) both. We talk for a long time, and I’m feeling a strong connection to this woman. There’s a long, comfortable pause in the conversation when we’re just looking at each other, and then she says, “Listen, I like you. But there’s something you should know. I won’t tell you everything, and only some of it will be true. Does that seem dishonest?”
“You’re already one of the most honest people I know,” I say.
She absently runs her finger around the rim of her cocktail glass and says, “You know, there are no guarantees.”
When Amelia and Walter meet, he wags his tail with enthusiasm, plants his big blocky head on her knee, and stares into her eyes like he’s met his long lost soul mate. She loves that I have a dog. She says it means that I’m capable of taking emotional risks. What!? I think.
Emily says this-is-really-fucking-good-don’t-screw-it-up-and-call-me-when-you-come-out-of-the-lavender-fucking-bubble. I won’t bore you with all the lovely moments spent in the lavender bubble. You’ve probably been there and you know the torture and delight of love in the initial phases. But I will say the whole world just seems to work better when you’re in love: work is easier, people respond to you in a more positive way, and everything seems so easy (except for those moments of unreasoning panic when you wonder if it’s real).
Eight months later, Amelia, Walter, and I are living together. I buy a huge empty loft in a slightly run-down part of town. Finally. It needs some work, but it has good bones and the ceiling height is sufficient to assuage any “space issues.” (Amelia says she has “space issues.”) The ten-foot tall windows overlook the river. This is my favorite part. I feel confident and secure, now that I know she’s in it for the long haul, but we still have so much to learn about each other. There’s security, but there’s also mystery.
I ask Amelia, “Tell me something about yourself you’ve never told anyone else?”
She says, “Why on earth would I do that?”
I tell Amelia, “I sometimes wonder if my parents’ happiness ruined me, and made me expect too much from romantic relationships.”
She says, “Hmmm.”
I ask Amelia, “Tell me something that happened to you as a child that made you sad?”
She says, “No.”
I tell her, “I really love Walter, but sometimes when I’m in the middle of something, or when I’m sick, and I have to take him out for a walk, and take care of him, I feel like he’s controlling my life and I resent him.”
She says nothing, but she turns her eyes to me without turning her head and raises her left eyebrow.
A couple of months after we move in together, I notice that Walter’s behavior is changing. I’ve always been an early riser, and Walter and I are out the door for our morning walk by 7:00 AM. But now, when I grab the leash and call for him, he’s not enthusiastic and it seems to be taking longer and longer for him to appear. I start to wonder if he’s sick, or getting old. So instead of calling to him, I walk back to the bedroom area to see what he’s doing.
Amelia is still sleeping, on her side in the middle of the bed, her hair a reddish storm in the morning light. Walter is lying on the edge of the bed, his head on my pillow and his broad back towards Amelia. Her arm is draped over him, and he opens one eye and looks at me. He wags his tail one thump. I flash on my mother’s impatient “Not now, Carl!”
I call Emily.
Emily says I-can’t-fucking-believe-you’re-jealous-of-Walter-what-if-Amelia-hated-him-wouldn’t-that-be-a-bigger-problem?-Why-can’t-you-fucking-believe-you-deserve-happiness?-I-told-you-there-were-no-fucking-guarantees-not-even-with-a-dog-and-stop-being-so-fucking-needy-I-love-you.
I ask Amelia, “Do you love Walter more than you love me?”
She says, “If I did, I wouldn’t be stupid enough to tell you so.”
I tell Amelia, “When my mother died, my dad was so lost. He used to tell her he couldn’t live without her, and I thought he was just being romantic, but maybe it was true. He died three months later. Sometimes I think I’ll die if you stop loving me.”
She says nothing, but she turns her eyes to me without turning her head and raises her left eyebrow.
I guess you know what’s coming. Just as Emily predicted: I-fucking-screwed-it-up.
I was too needy or maybe I did what I always do, and alienated the person I loved the most by being so-fucking-needy. Amelia left me. And she took Walter!
The note says, “I really love you, but there are some things you need to work out on your own. You seem angry with me most of the time. Write to me at the address below, but don’t come. Let’s take some time and think about what we both want and what we both have to give. I don’t want anyone else. I just want you. I’ll come back to you in time. Meanwhile, I’ll be spooning with the dog. Love, Amelia”
I pace the loft and scream abusive adjectives at her. I cannot believe she took my fucking dog! How could she be so incredibly brazen and thoughtless? Walter is mine! Not only did she leave me for no reason, it’s like she stole from me! I break things: cups, saucers, plates, lamps. My head gets hot and I feel like my body is going to explode.
I start angry running at 7:00 AM when I used to walk Walter. I slam my feet on the pavement and pump my lungs until I’m in physical pain. It helps. I break fewer things.
And then I deflate like a sad day-after birthday balloon. I cannot get out of bed. The bed where Amelia slept in my arms. The bed where she spooned with Walter. It’s like when my mom died and left my dad. I’m going to die. I know it. I cannot live without Amelia. I cannot live without Walter.
The office calls. I stop going to work. I stop bathing. I stop shaving. The office calls. I stop cutting my toenails. And Walter isn’t even here to condone my lack of personal hygiene. I cannot live without Walter.
I call Emily.
I say, “She told me from the beginning that she had secrets. What if she’s married? What if she’s in the witness protection program hiding from the mob? What if she’s an assassin? I should have listened. I was being stupid and trusting and now I have no one to blame but myself. This never had to happen.” Emily says an-assasin-witness-fucking-protection?-You-just-want-to-blame-someone-or-something-don’t-go-down-this-fucking-road-I-love-you-call-me-when-you’ve-recovered-your-fucking-mind-and-go-back-to-the-angry-running.-And-call-your-fucking-office!
I start to think about all the things we did together, all the things we said, the lavender bubble. I start to think this is the last relationship I will ever have. It’s over. I gave it my best, and now I’m destined to always be alone. I sing “But Not For Me” and cry into the pillowcases (which still smell of Amelia and Walter and I will never wash them). I will be a lonely, bitter old man. If only she had left me the dog, I could be a lonely, bitter old man with a lonely, bitter old dog.
I ask Emily if I should get a cat.
Emily says Jesus-fucking-Christ-with-a-crutch! (I know she is really upset with me because, although Emily habitually uses obscene adjectival intensifiers, she never, ever blasphemes, not in any religion). After an incredibly long pause, and at least two deep breaths, Emily says, very slowly and without any obscene intensifiers, you know when you talk about your parents, it’s all rainbows and lollipops, but you were a child and there are things that happened between them that you were not aware of? You know when you first got Walter, you were in love with him and then when you realized he was needy, you resented his control over your life? Remember when both Amelia and I told you there were no guarantees? Stop-worrying-about-locking-it-down-and-open-your-fucking-heart! (I knew the conversation was over when she resumed the obscene intensifiers.)
I resume the angry running. But it becomes less angry, a little at a time. It becomes contemplative running. I think about all the things Emily said, and all the things Amelia said, and I think about Walter’s reproachful stares, and I begin to realize that maybe there’s a different perspective on all of this. I resume bathing and shaving, and go back to the office. I’m kinder to my agents and calmer in a crisis. Maybe it’s too much to expect one person to fulfill all your needs all the time (not sure how Walter fits into that paradigm). Maybe I begin to feel angry that I can’t control everything when I need someone or something and it’s my anger rather than my need that pushes them away. Maybe Mom and Dad had an adult relationship that had ups and downs, sorrow and joys, anger and tears, and the happiness that I saw was not the process, but the success of making it work and last. (“Not now, Carl!”)
Maybe I can have an adult relationship and stop-being-so-fucking-needy.
I wash the pillowcases. I run and think. I write to Amelia. Long soulful letters without the agenda of getting her back. I talk to Emily about my thoughts and feelings (without-self-pity-and-tear-jerking-off). I no longer contemplate getting a cat.
I miss Walter.
I begin to think I can be a better man. A less needy, more accepting man. A more patient man.
Amelia does come back to me. One day in late spring, she and Walter are in the loft when I come back from my-no-longer-angry-running. Walter wags his tail enthusiastically and I hug him before I hug Amelia.
Amelia says, “Do you love Walter more than you love me?”
I say, “I love you both, more than you will ever know.”
A couple of months later, I ask Amelia, “Tell me something you’ve never told anyone else before?”
She says, “I was born with a tail.”
What!? I think.
I say, “You do have a scar on your butt…”
She turns her eyes to me without turning her head and slightly raises her left eyebrow.
Copyright. Iris J. Melton.
Iris J. Melton is a former attorney/waitress living in the mountains of West Virginia. She learned to swim from a book and harbors a perverse affection for the Oxford comma.