In July in New York City, all your hopes and dreams and desires boil down to one thing: air conditioning. But Ted
and I didn’t have an air conditioner at the time because we weren’t yet fully committed to each other, and appliances are the sort of purchases real couples make.
Getting a dog four months earlier was as much domesticity as we could take for the time being, so all we could do was sit on the fire escape of our tenement apartment and pray for a thunderstorm or an El Niño—anything that would stave off the heat.
It was worse if you were a hyper Setter/Spaniel with awhite fur coat. Poor Wallace.
The Department of Health had issued a warning to stay indoors because of poor air quality, so I could only take Wallace on the briefest of walks. Here was a dog who had just gotten used to a maniacal routine of one-and-a-half-hours off-leash in the morning, two or three half-hour walks throughout the day, and another hour off-leash at night. And now that routine was being dropped like a vacuum-sealed bag into a pot of boiling water. I’d take him for short relief walks, and we’d stagger around the block like geriatrics, panting, one labored step at a time. There was the heat to contend with, plus the humidity, plus the fact that the sun’s rays bounced right off the concrete onto your eyeballs, blinding you with a searing white light.
It was so hot that summer the gum on the sidewalks—those ubiquitous black patches that had been pockmarking the streets for centuries—had turned molten and pink and was starting to ooze like a Dreamworks special effect. I worried that the same thing would happen to Wallace’s feet. So we
stayed inside as much as we could.
But inside was only slightly better. After our walks, Wallace would lie on the floor of the kitchen and pant. When he
panted his whole body heaved, and his tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth at twice its normal length. My reference book, The Hypochondriac’s Guide to Overprotective Dog Care,
spoke of things like heat stroke and heart attacks, and advised me to keep cold washcloths on Wallace’s belly and give him baths.
But don’t make the bathwater too cold, the book advised me, or you might send the dog into shock. Another book warned that most dogs hated baths; that they saw them as a sign of
dominance, but Wallace seemed to love having expensive organic shampoo massaged into his neck and shoulders. As I knelt next to him and rubbed in the lavender conditioning rinse, he’d get a little gleam in his eye—a gleam of appreciation of pleasure—and I knew he knew I was trying my best.
But then the temperature climbed to 800 degrees, and all the garbage on the streets began to smell. Great vats of urine, rotten milk, spoiled meat—you name it—stewed in puddles and alleys and at the bottom of metal garbage cans, and filled the air with a noxious haze that turned the entire city brown.
It seemed to be worst in our own courtyard, where our neighbors threw, from their windows, used diapers, carcasses of chickens and empty bottles of Colt 45. The stench rose up
from this courtyard and went straight into our living room window. And the only thing I could do about this, other than slit my wrists, was keep all the windows closed. It was like I could either die of heat stroke or die of chemical warfare, so I chose the former. Besides, I reasoned, it could be like a sauna. The heat would steam open my pores.
But I worried about Wallace. The smell from the courtyard made him sneeze and pace with the hunched up, no-exit look of a zoo animal. And the heat from the closed windows made him lie on the kitchen floor and pant. I did what I could to help him. I served him ice cubes made of chicken bouillon. I froze
a dozen washcloths. I even showed him pictures of Belgian cart dogs, all tethered and muzzled and forced to work in the heat. “These are your ancestors,” I told him. “See how lucky
you are to be living in New York City?” But Wallace wasn’t impressed. Get me a beef consommé snow cone, his look seemed to say, and then maybe we’ll talk.
Sometimes I thought Ted and Wallace and I should move someplace healthier, like Berkeley or upstate. But Ted had grown up south of the Mason-Dixon line, where heat was something you just braved your way through.
Ted therefore managed to maintain both his spirits and his social life during the heat wave, and on the hottest night of the summer, he went out to dinner with some friends. I hadn’t joined them because leaving the dog would have been like confining him in a hot car with the windows rolled up, and
you can get arrested for something like that. So Wallace and I made do with cold washcloths on our bellies. And we would have been fine just lying on our backs, watching television, had not Ted called from his cell phone and said he and his friends were on their way over for an after-dinner drink.
“Good God,” I said. “Are you sure?” My ankles itched suddenly and I hoped it wasn’t fleas.
“Yes, I’m sure. Jeff wants to see the place. And he wants to meet Wallace.”
“But we don’t even know if Wallace likes other people yet—especially men. What if he lunges at Jeff?”
“He’s not going to lunge at Jeff.”
“Why don’t we just go out for a drink?” I said. “Did Giuliani say it was cool enough to go outside?”
“Jeff wants to see the apartment,” Ted said. “Plus, we’re already here.” I could hear his voice coming from both the
phone and the lobby. Then I heard three pairs of shoes coming up the stairs.
“Don’t kill anybody,” I said to Wallace. “Okay?” He didn’t move from his panting position on the floor.
I rushed into the bedroom for a last-minute look at myself in a full-length mirror. It was a scary sight: I was wearing boxer shorts, an old Robert Plant concert T-shirt, and some flip-flops I had bought at Rite Aid for $3.99. All of the above were covered with dog hair and stained with drool. At least it wasn’t my own drool, but still. I looked like I hadn’t showered since that Robert Plant concert in 1983.
It was official. I had become a Crazy Dog Lady.
In that split second I made a decision. I would pretend that I was not a Crazy Dog Lady, and that my guests had simply caught me off-guard; that I didn’t spend most of my days dressed like this. I threw on a Yankees cap over my unwashed hair. I would pretend that I was a normal person and Wallace was a normal dog.
I tried to act nonchalant as I greeted Ted’s college buddy Jeff
and was introduced to his female friend. She, Leisl, was one of
those fragile blond beauties with pale eyelashes and collarbones as delicate as spun glass. She wore a gossamer slip dress of butterfly yellow, and a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. Jeff explained that they had gone to business school together, and that she was just in town for the night. He had a hungry look on his face when he said all this, which suggested he was hoping to have sex later.
I invited them to sit while Ted went into the kitchen to make the drinks. Meanwhile, Wallace pushed himself into a standing position and did a Downward-Facing Dog. I watched with a certain amount of trepidation as he lumbered toward Jeff, but the dog simply veered away when Jeff put out his hand. Next, Wallace went up to inspect Leisl, panted and slobbered all over her $1400 dress. Then, apparently having approved of her, he backed up and sat on her Jimmy Choos.
Leisl smiled in a tight, crinkly-eyed way that suggested she wasn’t pleased.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, pulling Wallace away. “That means he likes you.” I was about to go into my usual “he’s a rescue dog” spiel, but then I saw that her forearm was slick with drool.
“It’s okay.” Leisl said flatly. “I love dogs.”
But I could tell she didn’t. In grad school I used to dog-sit
for an English professor who would dismiss anyone he disapproved of—grouches, Fundamentalists, Republicans—in this way: “They’re not dog people,” he would say, sighing with
true sadness. And I finally knew what he meant. I had found
“Say, Lee, do we have any wine?” Ted called from the
“I don’t think so.”
“Any beer? Vodka? Cooking sherry? There’s nothing in
the freezer but washcloths!” Ted stuck his head into the living
room and apologized to our guests. “Sorry, but it looks like
we’re totally dry.”
“We just, um, haven’t had a chance to go to the store,” I said,
laughing nervously. “We’ve been so busy training this dog.
We have frozen beef consommé,” I added, trying to be funny.
But my guests weren’t dog people, so they didn’t get it. I finally knew what my old college professor meant.
We sat and stared at one another. I had spent so little time
in the company of humans that I seemed to have forgotten how to have a conversation. Normally you’d talk about the weather, but I didn’t want to call any attention to that.
“So what have you been up to?” Jeff asked me. “We haven’t
seen you out in a while.”
“Oh, the usual. Writing, temping, searching for the meaning
of life. This new dog keeps me busier than anything. You know how it is.”
They didn’t. My comment was met with silence. All these people in the hermetically sealed room were making it hard to breathe.
Jeff nodded toward my hat. “Are you a Yankees fan?”
“No. Just a Yankees cap fan.”
Leisl gave me a blank, slighly surprised, which made me suspect she had recently been Botoxed.
Meanwhile, Ted came out with a baguette and olive paste and some old powdered lemonade. It was too late to tell Ted that I’d dropped that baguette on the floor, and that Wallace and I had played tug with it.
As Ted set the tray down, Jeff checked out the apartment.
He himself lived on the Upper East Side, in a cookie-cutter
high-rise, and had always admired us from afar for our bohemian tendencies. But tonight he could not disguise the, um, dismay on his face as he took in the blood-orange walls, the blue velveteen sofa cover I had scored at a drag queen’s stoop sale and our “outsider” artwork, some of which we had admittedly found on the side of the road.
Leisl was staring at the gold thong bikini I had hung on the
wall like a sconce. Ted had given this bikini to me as a birthday
present back when we first started dating and, while I was
flattered that he found me sexy enough to envision me in
such a get-up, it really was the kind only a women with breast
implants could wear. Thus, a wall hanging.
“That’s interesting,” Jeff said of the bikini. Wallace panted and panted in a way that made Jeff’s statement sound lewd.
I realized Jeff was sweating profusely, and I hoped it wasn’t
induced by the thong.
“Jesus Christ, let’s open a window!” Ted said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” I tried to give him a look
that said Trust me on this one, but Ted persisted.
“It’s absolutely stifling in here,” he said.
I picked up a piece of bread that had teeth marks on it.
“Why don’t we just go out for a drink?” I insisted.
When I said the word “out,” Wallace got excited. He leapt up and spun around and his tail knocked over the olive paste, and began to bark in a manic, piercing way. Leisl drew her body backward, as if prepared to limbo right out the door. “Stop!” Ted yelled at the dog. “Calm down!” To us he said: “I’m just going to open this window.” When he did, the stench rose up from our courtyard like one of those nuclear clouds they always showed you in the ’70s in science class.
The apartment filled with a stunned, solemn silence.
Jeff brought a handkerchief to his forehead. “I should probably,
uh, get Leisl back to her hotel,” he said. His voice was
choked from trying not to breathe. Plus, he had giant wet spots
under his armpits, and I knew we had ruined his chances of
As they rose to leave, I felt myself filling with a mild panic. It seemed that when they closed that door, any further possibility of freedom or youth or glamour would have vanished. “Well, thanks for coming you guys,” Ted said. He apologized again for the heat and the lack of drinks. Then he added casually that he had been invited to a rave that night by some architect friend. “He’s really cool—he designs hair salons if you can believe it, but he does them in a very modern style, and uses a lot of brushed steel. He has a lot of really cool friends.”
“You should go,” I said to Ted. “You should absolutely go to that rave.” There was urgency in my voice and Ted looked at me questioningly. It just felt that there was more at stake than his immediate pleasure—I felt that if he stayed in, he would be setting the tone and the terms for the rest of our lives. We would be domesticated animals. So it was like we were on a sinking ship and I was telling him to save himself.
“What will you do if I go?” Ted said.
“Oh, I was going to watch a video.”
“What movie did you get?” Jeff asked. He’d had his hand on the doorknob for the last few minutes, which was unfortunate because you could really see the armpit sweat. But I appreciated him offering me this one last chance to prove myself, my Last Chance to Change.
And I could have said, A La Recherches Le Temps Perdu, in perfectly accented French, But why bother? It was too hot. And in the end, you are always found out. “Um, it’s called ‘Training Your Gun Dog,” I mumbled. I looked at Leisl and shrugged. “It is.”
She gave me another Botox look—one that contained neither smile nor frown.
“Oh, I heard that’s a classic,” Ted said, laughing. “Excellent cinematography. And Antoine Coppola did the sound.”
Jeff shook his head and laughed and said, “You two,” and then goodnight.
Leisl reached out her slender hand and thanked me. She had a sublime French manicure. My stubby nails were rimmed with dirt. And in that moment, I saw her life and she saw mine. I saw that, at the end of the day, she would go home and wash off the dog drool, whereas I would live in it. And drink of it. And the funny thing was, I didn’t even really mind. A few months earlier I had been like her—a woman who worked to buy clothes to wear to work. And what’s the point of that? Maybe the whole point of life was not to keep your nails polished, and have a rotating wardrobe. Maybe it wasn’t even about air conditioning. Maybe it was all about helping someone else—even a dog—get a gleam in his eye. And keeping him safe, happy, and warm.
Wallace came over and pressed his warm self against my legs.
“I guess I’ll stay in with the two of you,” Ted said as our guests slipped away into the night. And he stayed. He stayed for several years.
~ originally printed in Bark magazine, Summer 2003, Issue 79