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  • Writer's pictureKayleigh Willis

'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.)

Enter Walter.

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.

Enter Amelia.

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.”