by Ronald Kovach
orange spice tea
I keep telling Nelson we’re expecting too much of our new guy, Otis, who is, after all, just a dog. An empathetic animal, to be sure; a good listener who looks at us closely with sustained eye contact. A tan cockapoo puppy bursting with energy and personality who looks like a stuffed animal in the gift shop at Mount Sinai Queens, the hospital where I work. But, nonetheless: a dog. He is not, I often remind Nelson, a therapy dog, not our personal play toy for boosting our oxytocin levels. We can do our own therapy, thanks. Or hire a two-legged professional.
This is in 2019, before everything happens. To everyone. To us.
It’s after dinner, which I have prepared following a grueling day, and Nelson, as is his habit, puts his iPhone down and heads to the living room to finish the Times’ latest on Trump’s impeachment. I know I’d better speak up before he starts venting.
‘Sweetie,’ I say loudly--to Otis, I should add—'as soon as I finish clearing, Papa’s going to do the dishes and give you a walk. I’m really tired from work, so you be a good boy for Papa, OK?’
Late in our marriage, or what feels like it, and early into puppyhood, I’ve found that this three-way approach is more effective than striking Nelson with an oar.
Otis throws me that searching look with his deep brown eyes, head cocked slightly to one side, as if puzzling over us. If he were human, I would have married him immediately. Or at least dated him.
Nelson looks up and groans, as if inestimably more tired than I am from a much tougher job. I’ve just finished a twelve-hour shift as an emergency room nurse. My day has included a hysterical woman ten minutes from delivery, a fresh stroke, an industrial accident from carbon monoxide, a DIY painter breaking his femur when he fell off a twenty-foot ladder, and a whimsical, unhelmeted motorcyclist who just had to take a quick spin in the middle of winter, a portion of whose brain had been ground into hamburger meat. He kept coding. Big surprise there. Nelson is a freelance copy editor who spends his entire workdays at the computer, often wearing a purple T-shirt that screams in yellow block letters: ‘Bring back the serial comma, OR DIE!’ You choose.
‘Hey, cutie,’ Nelson says--he’s talking to the dog—'I’ll be with you in a minute. Let me just finish reading about our infuriating country.’
I want to entertain our puppy so I lean over and give Nelson a big loud kiss on his cheek, adding an extra schmooching sound at the end. Nelson looks up at me all surprised. Otis immediately intervenes, wanting to be included. I feel a twinge of guilt because I haven’t kissed Nelson in a long time except when I want to give Otis some fun. The activity has sort of fallen off our to-do list.
‘Don’t look so shocked,’ I say. ‘I’m your wife.’ I lean down and give Nelson a few more loud smooches. Otis jumps up on his lap and we flip him over for a belly rub.
‘Do you think maybe we should buy Otis some men’s briefs?’ he asks.
I ignore this. ‘Mama’s going to take a nice long soak,’ I tell Otis. ‘We’ll play fetch later. You two have a long walk now and then get in some good cuddle time with Papa.’ I give him a nice pat on his soft pillowy side. His furry fuselage. He’s wagging his stumpy little tail. God I love the little mutt. My loyal lover.
Nelson throws me a look and sighs. He speaks aloud to the living room. ‘Oh Otis Otis Otis. Maybe, just maybe, Mama will be putting on my favorite satin baby doll pajamas tonight. Yes yes yes! Papa won’t be able to concentrate until he warms up yo mama on this ice cold night!’
At this rare energy in Nelson’s voice, Otis gives him a cocked-head look. Emphasis on cock, I guess. I sense the sap rising in Nelson, perhaps because I’m headed out of town to visit my sister, but he’s picked the wrong day and, as for the baby dolls, the wrong season. Typical. Any minute now I expect him to imitate one of Otis’ puppy modes and start aggressively humping my leg. But is this enough to sustain a marriage, I’ve been asking myself more and more.
‘Sweet boy’--I’m talking to Otis now—'you know when you have one of those real busy dog days full of fun and frolicking and all you want to do at nine o’clock is settle in for the night and call it a day?’ Otis’ big eyes look so compassionate, so completely understanding. ‘That’s where I’m at, honey. This tired woman is going out of service. Big time.’
Nelson, a tall, lanky guy with nice hair, unfolds himself from his favorite recliner and stretches. As I watch him, I remind myself that it only feels like we’re late into our marriage; that in reality we’ve been married seven years, not twenty.
He and Otis take it on out and I head to the tub. I pull open the bathroom curtain just a bit so I can keep an eye on my husband out on the street two floors below. I can just make out the eager bounce in Otis’ step, but not quite the funny wiggle in his hind quarter. I find his gait a poignant metaphor for how much he embraces life, how much we all should, how much I would like to re-embrace mine. If you want a bland pet, get a camel.
Lately, Nelson has been remarking on how all the dog walks have been affording him ‘awesome!’ opportunities to meet his fellow man (and by extension, and perhaps more importantly to him, women).. When he says ‘awesome’ this breathlessly, like a star-struck eight-year-old, I want to jab a dull syringe into his deltoid. But I’ve also been keeping an eye out.
‘Lydia,’ he sometimes enthuses to me, ‘there’s such a social dimension to having a dog, I never knew.’
He has also made it understood that, as a human formerly given to hibernating inside his dwelling for days at a time, living at his computer and iPhone, or reading and Netflixing, he now perceives, thanks to his regular dog walks, that there is in fact weather outside, and that it changes daily. ‘Weather is always there, Lydia. Always,’ he says, with a touch of irony, but mostly wonderment.
‘Nelson, maybe you need to get out more,’ I advise.
This was a man who hated dogs his entire life until I persuaded him to give it a try. Otis, the first dog either of us has had, would be our salvation. Our rescue dog, you might say.
I shut off the faucets and take a look down. At the corner near the drugstore and streetlight, I can dimly see that he has already bumped into what appears to be Jill, a willowy brunette in her thirties whom I met briefly once while bending over to pick up Otis’ poop. Her Flo, a fellow cockapoo with a name out of the 1950s, is, I hope, a future love interest for our Otis. I see Nelson gesturing to Jill, as if he is enjoying himself. I seldom see the animated version of Nelson in our apartment. He has grown more low-key. He hates our place. ‘I feel like a prisoner in here,’ he often says.
‘You’re the one who had to live in the city,’ I remind him. ‘You grow up in a sprawling suburb and then decide you can live happily in a $3,600-a-month closet in Queens.’
‘So how was your walk?’ I ask later, after my bath.
‘Fabulous!’ Nelson is weirdly full of energy again. ‘I got a poop and a pee out of him. But the highlight was running into Jill and Flo. She’s looking great.’
‘Who’s looking great?’ I ask.
He looks like he’s trying to think quickly. ‘Flo…the white fluffball known as Flo.’ He raises his hands in a quick gesture that asks how I could have been so foolish as to think he was talking about anyone else.
‘I’m glad you clarified.’
‘Well, you know, I worship clarity.’ He’s hopped up over something. ‘By the way,’ he adds. ‘I look for Otis and Flo to get engaged within the next year. Be prepared. They seem to have really hit it off. They are so frisky together! It’ll be a good day when Otis gets neutered. Or at least starts wearing a condom.’
I continue to not be in a mood to be humored. ‘What’s new with Jill?’
‘She’s casually dating a moderately appealing design engineer with atrociously bad breath and she doesn’t know how to handle it. The breath, I mean. He’s sensitive--the wrong words could crash the relationship. She’s still busy applying for marketing jobs and really wants me to copy edit her applications. I said no problem.’
‘For free, I suppose?’
‘Yeah. Do you think I’m going to charge a friend?’
‘You barely know her, Nelson.’
‘It’s a quick edit. No problem. It’ll be fun.’
I let this digest. I’m headed out of town in the morning. I’m thinking.
‘By the way,’ I say finally, just to fill the silence. ‘I put some special treats in the freezer for Otis if you get a bad deadline and really need to keep him occupied. We’re trying out Benny’s Bodacious Bovine Parts. I think you have some kneecaps and a couple bladders in there.’
‘Cool,’ he says. ‘Nothing like eating body parts.’
A few minutes before lights-out, Otis comes up on our bed. Nelson and I hover over him, enjoying his dogness. It’s a nightly ritual. Otis sops up the attention and, as usual, flops over on his back, demanding an extended belly rub. He smells like he needs a good wash. ‘In the morning, honey, I’m going to give you a bath to remember. Oodles of warm water and shampoo and Mama’s strong nurse hands all over you. Then I’ll wrap you up in that big fluffy orange towel and we’ll just hug and hug. You can just sprawl all over my lap.’ I’m talking to Otis.
Nelson is unusually quiet. Now they’re both looking up at me. Otis is such a sweet boy, such a good choice.
Like I said, this is in 2019. Before so much happens. To everyone. To us.
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