My foster dog has a black snout and paws the size of baseball gloves. Until a month ago he was a stray and when we go on walks he strains longingly toward other dogs, adoring, eager to learn how to be a dog. Sometimes when I look at him, I say “hold my beer” and he doesn’t respond. He is my first dog: we are both learning.
The dog is what dog blogs call “high energy.” Three weeks into the quarantine-slash-fostering and I feel frantic from lost sleep. He is relentless. There is nothing in my house that does not have a half-moon crater from dog mouth on it. He cannot be left alone in a room alone without fucking something up. Recently, he’s been on a walk strike and lies down in the middle of the sidewalk, often when we’re crossing a street, so that I have to carry his fifty-two-pound body. He is on high-alert for terrible wrappers. I understand now that my neighborhood is not what I had thought it to be but, rather, an infinite slot machine of rotten banana peels and beef jerky wrap.
The shelter says he will be upwards of eighty pounds.
It is a beautiful April and everything is in bloom. Walking around the neighborhood has become my chief joy, my calling. On a long road trip, once, my friends and I made up a pretty simple game called “barn” where you say barn” whenever you see one. (Similar: “horse”). The dog and I play this but with small, low neighborhood sheds. We pass blocks and blocks, miles then more miles, of pastel mill houses with porches that lip against dirt. I feel lucky when I take these walks, and I am.
Quick math suggests that I have met, from a distance, about 45 neighbors since getting the dog. Children, including one named after a local river, love him. Birds flock down, precariously close. Neighborhood cats flirt. Is he Jesus?? On Sundays, my neighbors make cocktails and sit on their porch, heckling him like frat boys. Recently, a city council member ran by and said “BIG PAWS” and kept running.
On our first walk, we pass a yellow house four doors down that new neighbors are remodeling. They also praise his large paws. When I get back to the house, I check my email and find an adoption application from them. Perfect, I think, though with a pang: he will be four doors down.
What I love about being with him is that when I am thinking about his behavioral issues, which are many, I am not thinking about the virus. I am not thinking about getting laid off, or the development of a vaccine, or the stimulus package, or my aging parents, or my sister, who lives in a remote town with three ICU beds. I’m not feeling afraid of being alone, although obviously I am. The dog’s destruction of my clogs is immediate, as is the act of him gently nudging his snout to rest on my leg.
He learns sit, then, lay down. I melt. Although he has not exhibited much progress, I am confident he understands the emotional contours of wait.
Shake feels a long way off, but doesn’t everything?
He meets the adoption applicant’s other dog, and we take a wary walk around the neighborhood with the two animals. It doesn’t go well. My foster dog is an angel, this once. But the other dog lunges, baring his teeth. The foster dog and I are both afraid.
The dog and I go on more walks and note weekly changes: the two lanky teenage girls, both with the same cropped cut and sneakers, walk past my house three times daily, reliably apart. One day they walk past wearing masks and then after that, every day. Suddenly, the neighborhood blooms with masks.
Another day, through a sunny daze, I see two friends from New York walking toward me. The last time I saw them, it was in our neighborhood bar, and they weren’t expecting a baby. But now she is eight months pregnant and the hospitals in New York are too full of dead bodies so now, somehow, they are here, two blocks away from me.
Another time I am walking home from a rare social interaction—I brought a flask to my friend’s porch and had a meltdown—and I’m a little tipsy. A cleansing thunderstorm has rolled through. At first I don’t notice that the dog has stopped and someone is moving through the dark toward us: It’s the neighbor from the yellow house.
She sits on the ground and the dog rolls around in the grass in front of her. We can’t see each other; there are no street lamps. John Prine has just died and Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign and everything feels awful and without a lifeline—but, as usual, there is a story with a deeper, more specific cut than the broad strokes that I happen to be feeling. She tells me that someone broke into her house the night before and stole hundreds of dollars of tools. Her husband is sleeping in the unfinished house. We talk about animals being able to read human stress and make a plan to get the dogs together again.
When I get home and go into the kitchen to fry an egg, my subletter, who is also my friend, is waiting for me. We’ve been having conflict, which feels petty but super painful in the middle of all the outside chaos. Two different kinds of righteousness radiate like a wire between us. I could feel him beginning to leave, days ago, but now it’s official. The conversation is difficult and the next morning, when the dog and I come back from our morning walk, my housemate is gone and I am alone.
I had intended, when I got the dog, to write a piece about having a foster dog for the newspaper that I work for. It would follow a classic script in one of two ways: I would fall in love with the dog and keep it, or, right as the stay-at-home orders eased, I would say goodbye and write a gentle page-turner about “letting go.”
I now understand that this script was dumb, very classic “Q1 Quarantine Optimism” in that I expected a month-long timeline with a resolution that felt emotionally manageable. The dog will not be with me forever, but he is now; I don’t know when we’ll say goodbye. I haven’t done much reckoning.
I think that this dog diary can only end with the two of us taking a late night walk, as we do every night, both of us catching the smell of wisteria, nearby, somewhere. And in this scene I want to keep walking and listening to my celebrity podcast but the dog face-plants into a cove of violets. He rolls around for a beat too long and I am frustrated and utterly uncertain and I am okay; all three things at once.