When the man sang that some enchanted evening, you will see a stranger across a crowded room, he didn’t mention anything about a couple of yappy lap dogs. But on a July night at Grant Street Dance Hall in Lafayette, Louisiana, I was only in town for two more days and wasn’t exactly thinking about the future consequences of current actions. All I knew was that I was talking to this curly-haired blonde who I’d noticed an hour or so earlier — and I hadn’t lost her attention yet.
I already knew her name was Cara, that we had a couple of mutual acquaintances, that she’d dropped a ton of money to go to the Super Bowl earlier in the year and was also a rabid LSU fan. Those things, along with her — how do the French put this, “smoking hotness” — were more than enough to drown out any alarm bells that might have gone off when she whipped out the iPhone and started showing me photos of her “babies,” a couple of small poodles. Sure they were cute, boy they were fascinating, yeah I love dogs, yadda yadda yadda.
Of course, I paid attention — enough, at least, to notice that there was a black one and a white one and that sometimes they wore clothes. But, like I said, in town for a couple of days. If I was lucky, we’d make out and then we’d never see each other again, so a couple of high-maintenance yipsters were of no great concern.
A couple of weeks later, after a string of emails and texts back and forth, I finally mustered up enough courage to actually call Cara. I didn’t know why or what for. I’d sworn off long-distance relationships. I hate talking on the phone. Hate it. And a long distance call to a woman I’d met once might come off as kind of crazy. But I was on my way to meet friends, so I had an out. Just a quick hello and that would be it. She was sitting on the couch watching TV. With her babies. Lucy, the white one. Sylvie, the black one. They were “behaving.” How quaint, I thought. How cute.
Lucy and Sylvie began popping up in emails and texts. Lucy was the white toy, Sylvie the black miniature. Many times, the text or email said something to the equivalent of “My babies were bad last night.” Or, “Lucy puked in the bed.” Not my problem, I figured. Sometimes, there were photos. And in some of these photos, yes, they were wearing clothes. To their credit, in such photos they stood stock still like Ralphie in the pink nightmare from “A Christmas Story,” obviously miserable to be forced into such a situation. Perhaps I’d puke on the bed too if I were forced to play dress up, I thought.
The next time we talked — again, not a long conversation — the babies weren’t so obliging. At random intervals, they’d begin to bark. First one, then the other would join in. At which point Cara would shout at them. “What are they barking at?” I asked. “I have no idea,” she said.
In September of that year, while Cara was packing to come to New York for her first visit, Lucy had a seizure. So the dogs are loud and crazy, I gathered.
Not my problem, I thought.
The first time I met Lucy and Sylvie, things went about as imagined. I rang the door bell and a barrage of barking and yapping burst forth from behind the front door of Cara’s house. I was apprehensive. Strange dogs make me nervous.
Everyone likes to be liked and no one likes to be bit.
Sylvie, the black one, barked some and then sniffed, barked a little more and sniffed and soon enough let me pet her. Lucy barked her fool head off, growled, ran behind a corner and barked some more. A little white fuzz bomb, she’d dart out, bark, retreat to a position of strength, snarl (or as close to a snarl a six-pound poodle can come). She came around, too. Eventually. Kind of. That night, upon returning to the bedroom after going to the bathroom, I was greeted with twin growls and was convinced for a second that I was going to have my fingers and/or toes bitten off if I tried to enter the bed.
This was only a minor annoyance. Besides, I’d be back in Brooklyn, free of poodles, before I knew it.
The next time I was in Louisiana, they barked just as much.
One year gave way to the next and at some point, some how, we’d decided that Cara was moving to Brooklyn. Cara. And Lucy. And Sylvie. Suddenly, the poodles might be my problem. But, like a guy avoiding that small bump on his nose — which I know a little something about — I carried on and pretended the dogs would have no great impact on my life.
That lasted all of five seconds. The reality became impossible to ignore when on the phone with Cara and they began barking like mad.
“What are they barking at?”
“I don’t know. I think the neighbor just got home.”
Mind you, the living room in which she was sitting was at the back of the house. Between this room and the neighbor was a master bedroom bigger than my apartment at the time, a garage, solid brick walls and insulated windows. Which was to say nothing of the central air conditioning and ceiling fan likely humming along.
“Well, if they’re barking at that. … It’s a lot noisier here. People on the street. People in the apartment above. People walking through the apartment hallway.”
“I know. I’m so worried. I’m going to have to get them trained.”
So she did. Or tried to. The training, as they say, didn’t exactly stick.
The training was her problem. I had a bigger one: finding an apartment. I loved my little place on Court Street in Cobble Hill, but even before meeting Cara I’d decided to move out of it. Great neighborhood, but the place was 500 square feet at the top of four flights of stairs across the street from the CVS, which restocked every damn night at midnight. And there was the small matter of all those many ghosts of a failed marriage floating around. But most important, I wanted a damn yard. Or at least a bit of balcony where I could put a barbecue or smoker — a charcoal or wood-burning one, something massive and impractical.
So I set out looking for something in Cobble Hill or Carrol Gardens or Park Slope that had outdoor space and rent I could afford. Preferably two bedrooms. Some closets for the lady. Oh, and dog friendly. I didn’t worry too much about it. Brooklyn was infested with dogs. Besides, if an apartment had outdoor space, it would almost by default be dog friendly, right? Wrong.
Finding apartments with outdoor space I could afford was easier than I’d thought it would be. Finding one that was dog friendly was much harder. Panic began to set in. Standing in one apartment that reeked of cat piss and litter box, I asked one real estate guy — whose own eyes were practically bleeding from an allergic reaction — why so many places allowed smelly-ass, furniture destroying cats, but not dogs.
“Oh,” he said, “it’s not the smell or anything. It’s the noise. People go to work, leave the dog in the apartment and it barks all day. Or it barks at night.”
Well then! Cursed dogs were standing between me and barbecue!
But find an apartment, I did. Indeed, it was the apartment that formerly housed the smelly cats.
So we were set. All we had to do was move.
The first time I fantasized about opening the door and letting the dogs run out into the night was in a hotel outside of Roanoke, Virginia. That’s right. We hadn’t even made it to New York and I was about thisclose to a melt down. Much to my surprise, Lucy and Sylvie had been fine in the car. Put them in a little collapsible crate and they just lay there. We were pulling a Uhaul so I was doing all of the driving, and I’d put in something like 16 hours that day.
It was 1 in the damn morning. Because we had to return the Uhaul by five the next afternoon, we had to wake up at about 5 in the damn morning, if not earlier. I was exhausted — the kind of exhaustion that makes it difficult to fall asleep. But I was going to try. Just close my eyes and …
“LUCY SHUT UP.” This was Cara, cranky and perhaps afraid I’d sneak off with her keys and her car, leaving the three of them in the middle of nowhere.
“SYLVIE! GODDAMNIT! SHUT UP!”
I’m not the smartest man in the world, but I knew enough to clamp down tight, keep my eyes closed and, more important, my mouth. Because were I to open it at that moment, I didn’t know what would come out …
But I didn’t. And we all arrived in Brooklyn and settled into our little apartment in Park Slope.
Lucy and Sylvie didn’t live up to my worst nightmares when it came to barking at all hours at anything that moved. Then again, they didn’t beat expectations, either — in fact, numerous times while typing this they’ve defended the old homestead by barking at the maintenance guys dealing with the trash outside.
And as they are too small for shock collars, we purchased a couple of collars that squirt citronella when the dogs bark. Dogs, like mosquitoes, don’t much care for citronella. The collars worked. Sort of. Theoretically, they’re supposed to train the dogs never to bark at minor everyday annoyances. Basically, they train the dogs not to bark when they’re wearing the collars. But that’s good enough for us. And it keeps the apartment smelling fresh and out-doorsy.
Our first walks in Brooklyn definitely went better than planned. Neither dog tried to hide in the bushes or run off at the site of every person — though Sylvie is terrified of street sweepers. And while they did try to murder every other dog they saw, we had the excuse that they were new to the city. The walks had a huge benefit as well. Because Lucy and Sylvie were such house dogs in Louisiana, a 30-minute summertime walk was enough to exhaust them for the rest of the day. They’d get back to the apartment and flop down on the couch in a coma.
They took to me rather quickly. They no longer barked at me for no reason. They sat in my lap. They even seemed to want attention from me almost as much as they wanted it from Cara.
Eventually, Cara started work at a job that had her leaving the house at 7 in the morning. I don’t leave until 9 and many mornings don’t get out of bed until after 8. The dogs decided my way was the better way. And soon enough, when I returned home before Cara did, the dogs went just as insane to see me as they did her.
It wasn’t long before I was taking the dogs on walks by myself. Somehow at some point, I’d gone from the type of guy who’d point and laugh at a dude waking a lap dog to the type of guy who was walking not one but two lap dogs down the streets of Brooklyn. I told myself that bad-ass bros up in Harlem walked their little Chihuahuas. And old Cajun men liked their little terriers, too. But most of the attention I received walking down the street was from little girls and older gay men walking their own dogs.
On a day off from work, while Cara wasn’t home, I got particularly ambitious. I’d walk the dogs to Prospect Park. It’s about a half-mile walk and it was a hot day, so I figured that would exhaust them enough to allow me to spread out a blanket and the three of us would chill in the grass, watching the day go by. That didn’t go so well. While they don’t bark at people while walking, apparently the mere fact of putting a blanket on the ground made it territory they had to protect. Barking ensued. So I moved to the middle of a field. This seemed to calm them. Enough that I could wrap the leashes tightly around my person and snap a picture of Sylvie who … was gone.
She’s slipped out of the harness and set off like a black rocket aimed at a little girl crossing the field about 100 yards away. Visions of a bleeding child and animal control and outraged Park Slope parents and law suits flashed through my mind. But Sylvie only wanted to play. The child, while frightened, was fine. And, much to my surprise, the parents were cool about it. We left the park immediately and that particular harness was retired.
Cara had told me early on that her mom gave the dogs people food. Indeed, she sometimes cooked meals for them.
“That’s crossing the line,” I said. “That shit will never happen in my house,” I added.
Now, when I’m eating chicken or cheese, the dogs circle me as if they were hyenas. For some strange reason.
I’m not becoming one of those people. I’m not. Really, I’m not.
I’ve already become one of those people. I no longer say “Cara’s dogs” or “My girlfriend’s dogs.” I say “my dogs” or “our dogs.” Well, unless I’m talking to one of the brawny, black guys on our block and I want to seem a little more manly than I actually am.
I joke that if she tries to leave me, I’m fighting her for the dogs. Or that if she does leave me, she can take only one of them, that she’d have to choose.
And which would she choose? I don’t know. I couldn’t do it.
Lucy, the white one, gets most of the attention. Partly because she’s smaller. Partly because she’s the more difficult one to win over. She’s like the crazy chick that you know you shouldn’t even try to impress, but you just can’t help yourself. She eats funny. By this I mean, she grabs three pieces of food from the bowl, hops up on the couch, then eats them. She goes back to the bowl, grabs three more pieces, etc. She will also drop pieces of food into your shoes or into your bag. Cara thinks this is a sign of affection. I think she’s just hiding it for later. Lucy is also oddly protective of her bigger sister. She doesn’t much care about getting strapped with the citranella collar but she became agitated when the collar was first placed on Sylvie. And when Sylvie is whisked away to the vet, Lucy sits by the door, waiting and whining. All that said, even a master of anthropomorphism could look into Lucy’s eyes and get much more than, “She’s kinda crazy, isn’t she.”
Sylvie, on the other hand, has text-book puppy dog eyes. You can’t always see them because her black hair hides her face pretty good, but they’re in there. And she uses them. When morning comes, she’ll wake up, pad over to me, place her paws on my chest and give ’em to me. Then she’ll make a noise that’s almost like a cat’s purr. And while I do feel special, the fact is Sylvie will let anyone love up on her. When we have an apartment full of people, she’s the one who’s going to befriend everyone first — even if they don’t give her a plate full of people food (cough, cough Sheila Dougherty and Judy Pollack cough, cough). Sometimes, she comes off as downright needy and neurotic. She’ll bark like crazy if I’m paying too much attention to my phone or computer. She goes nuts when Cara and I kiss in front of her. Then again, she’s the one who will just go lie down on the floor or is happy to go for a walk alone, the one who doesn’t whine when her sister is at the vet. She’s the one who is content to sleep at the foot of the bed, whereas Lucy will find a place as close to me as possible to curl up at night, often between my legs.
People go on and on about the power of animals. How they can be good for you. Me, I don’t see it. They’re dogs. Cute little poodles, sure, but at the end of the day, animals. It’s not like I talk to them or make up songs about them or bribe them with treats. I certainly wouldn’t take their side if Cara yelled at them for something. And I’m definitely not happy when the dogs seem to pick me over Cara when we call them. Not at all.
And I’ll always refuse to put them in clothes. Unless it’s cold outside and I have to take them for a walk. Then, maybe, a sweater is okay.