“How do you feel about drums?” he asks, his voice quiet and calm and steady, elbows on his knees, hands loosely clasped together and hanging down, his eyes looking into her small face. She looks up at my husband with her steady gaze, sweetly and patiently, her tail wagging ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly, as if she will nearly burst trying not to let it wag any faster, as if to say yes, yes, I’m fine with them, I’m fine with whatever, trumpets, bullhorns, just take me home with you. “We’ll go for walks when he plays the drums,” I whisper to the Corgi-Spaniel mix the shelter has named Jenny.
The three of us are in a big, sterile, empty room at the animal shelter and we are all quiet and subdued, each for our own reasons. She seems to know this is some kind of test, some kind of threshold she needs to get over, a different kind of obstacle course she needs to navigate. She is not quite submissive as she makes her way over to him in a half-sit, her little rear end hovering and twitching near, but not on, the smooth, painted concrete floor, her front paws pulling her forward in tiny, excited movements, even while she is remarkably restrained and quiet. She is incredibly gentle and just a tiny bit hesitant when she puts her chin on his thigh. She is paying little attention to me, like she knows she’s already successfully presented her case and it’s my husband she needs to convince now.
He is subdued too. Our beautiful lab mix Henry has been gone five weeks to the day, having left the world two months before his 15th birthday and six days after our cat Bella’s rather traumatic exit. Five weeks is a pitifully short time to mourn the best dog in the world, six days between deaths is barely enough time to catch your breath. But I know it’s more than that. It’s our music, our song writing, and how it has been relegated these past five years to something we do when we can squeeze it in, something that gets sandwiched in between jobs and chores and animal care and housekeeping and bill paying. Something we knew we would get back to when the burden of animal hospice care was no longer weighing us down, when an aging dog wasn’t making traveling increasingly more difficult. Just like we knew we would someday welcome another dog into our home. Someday, but not this soon.
I know he does not trust me, does not trust my commitment to our so-called career. And so I am subdued, too. I am subdued because I know this dog is working her way into our lives because of me. Because I caved first, because I thought I could volunteer at an animal shelter and not want to take every dog home with me. (Which is true; I don’t want to take every dog home with me, I only want to take this dog.) But I am also subdued because, really, I don’t trust myself. I don’t trust myself not to get distracted by a million other things so I don’t have to face my art, face my failures and rejections, face the possibility of success, face the laziness and weariness at the thought of driving hours and hours to another opportunity to lay the contents of my heart on some dirty beer-stained stage, for all the sinners and dreamers and poets and drunks to embrace or reject as they see fit.
So as we sit in this cavernous room, one door leading to the lobby and the exit door, the opposite door leading back to the kennels, I watch the dance between my husband and this perfect little dog I have already claimed as mine. He has not removed his charcoal wool coat or his grey Fedora, so he looks bigger and darker, scarier maybe, than he usually might. She is undeterred and keeps her gaze on him. My heart is beating hard and my chest is tight. It’s as though the very air in the room is holding its breath.
It is into this silence that I fall as I watch them test each other out, watch her plead with her eyes and dare him not to fall in love with her. I am quiet as I watch him look back at her and feel his slow, reluctant acceptance, quiet as I try not to doubt my own sanity, my own resolve to stay free of pets for at least a little tiny sliver of my life. “Those eyes. What do those eyes know,” he states more than asks, in a voice barely above a whisper, not taking his own eyes from her.
When he asks her about the drums, I do not acknowledge what that means. When he asks me what we do next, never looking at me, always keeping his gaze on her, I pretend he’s asking me how we make this decision, instead of what I know he’s asking. Which is, how do we go about getting the adoption process going. I try not to face that this is a done deal and stuff down any vestiges of doubt that are rattling around in my own head.
Earlier in the day, when I came home from my first day volunteering at the shelter (yes, my first day), the conviction I felt while I was there wavered the second I got out of the car. I heard the drums through the sealed up March house before I even shut the car door, the cymbals and bass drum unrestrained by my presence in the house, and I knew he’d probably been up there from the second I’d walked out that morning. Unlike me, my husband’s conviction never waivers. His brain is hardwired towards commitment and action, towards, as he likes to say, getting shit done, whereas mine seems to live in an ever rolling sea of pondering and indecision and anxiety, all leading to the very opposite result, inaction.
Which may very well be why I have a tendency to respond to questions of “what should we do” with “whatever, I’m flexible”. And I am, until I’m not, and then I’m silent (and drifting towards sullen) in my failure to be clear about what I want. And because I know I only have myself to blame, I attempt to shove aside this brooding and just move forward, with all sorts of rationalizations of how it’s all okay, everything is okay, to help pave the way. My breezy go-the-way-the-wind-blows attitude is really just a cover up, one more way I choose not to commit, to damn near anything.
And so. When my husband heard me come in that morning and responded with his customary call of “is that you?” I straightened my shoulders, took a deep breath, and prepared myself to tell him about this dog. He came down the stairs from our attic studio, still wearing his flannel pajama pants, having gone straight to work upon waking. Within seconds of seeing my face, the look on his changed. When I said, I need to talk to you, he just sat at the bottom of the stairs and looked at me.
What we had that morning was a perfect picture of two desires colliding. In my years on this earthly plane I’ve learned that there are so many ways we can find to bend and move and come to a place in the middle, to learn to let go a little, to find common ground. But there is no compromise with do we or don’t we get a dog. I know of more than one relationship that has ended because of a similar unworkable impasse around do we or don’t we want children, and while I didn’t fear that, I knew there actually was no middle ground here. There was no workable compromise.
I spoke with this fact in mind, spoke knowing that my habit has been to let go of what I want only to end up on the losing side of the non-compromise. Who knows why I have so often chosen to step aside in deference to others (female, Catholic, middle sister, Gemini?), but it’s a tough habit to unlearn. I told him that if it were just me, I would have filled out the paper work right there at the shelter, that I was that certain I wanted to bring this little dog into my life. But it wasn’t just me, so I had two choices: walk away and let it go or at least tell him about her, at least present the option.
He said exactly what I knew he would say. “We said a year.” I know, I told him. After an uncomfortable silence, while I watched him let this new piece of information sink in, we talked about how he missed having a dog too, but how the distractions in our lives (code for the ways in which his wife gets distracted) and the failure to get traction with our music were on the verge of driving him mad. And I knew that, knew those things before I made the decision to go volunteer and tempt fate. Hell, I might as well have gone and auditioned to star in my very own Sarah McLachlan commercial.
So I told him all the reasons it would be different than the last year and a half had been: she wasn’t a puppy, but she was still young; she was, by all available signs, housebroken; we were established here now and had friends who could take her, if necessary, when we traveled; she was small and would be easier to travel with; she was small and would be cheaper to feed; she was small, she was small, she was small. Looking back, I realize I must have thought the fact that she was small would lessen her impact, like she could slip into our lives practically unnoticed, sneak in like a mouse coming in in the dark of night, barely leaving a trace.
When he asked me how I would feel if we didn’t get this dog, I told him I would be heartbroken but I would get over it. And I really meant it, because the other thing I’ve been trying desperately to learn is how to practice non-attachment. She was a great dog and surely would find a good home before very long and even though I had already fallen in love with her, I don’t really cotton to the idea of fate and definitive statements of it was meant to be. But he didn’t take me up on letting it go; instead, he sighed and said, why don’t I meet her, and I said, do you want to see her picture, and he said no, let’s just go.
Which is why less than three hours after my first volunteer stint we are here at the shelter and he is asking her about the drums and soon we will be filling out the paper work. I’m a wreck, truthfully. Perhaps somewhere deep inside I thought this was just an exercise in me speaking up for myself, that his level head would prevail. But I am also nearly busting in delicious anticipation of bringing her home, the two crazed and conflicted twins of terror and excitement living just below the surface of my skin. I keep both locked up inside me and am mostly silent as we work out the mundane details. Breathing normally is taking a concerted effort.
And then it is done. She will be spayed the next day and we will pick her up the following day. The whole process, meeting her, my desire to adopt her, convincing my husband, declaring our intent to the shelter that our home will be her forever home, is startling quick. But we are in. She is coming home with us.
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How about you, lovely readers? Have you ever felt caught in a clash of desires with a loved one in regards to getting a pet? Which side of the fence were you on and how did you navigate the waters? Have you ever worried about how your animal companion might cause difficulty in the pursuit of your dreams and visions for your life? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.