When I was very young, I was afraid of dogs. Not just a little scared. I was petrified, the kind of fear that made me shriek and clamber onto the nearest table or chair or up a grown-up’s leg until I felt safely out of reach. Nothing had ever occurred in my life to warrant this reaction. In fact, I’d never really been around dogs. We owned a 50-gallon aquarium full of fish I didn’t much watch or care about, and the only people I knew with pets were families on TV. I knew Lassie from watching reruns on Saturday mornings. She was a dog, but not really. She felt more human than I was; definitely better behaved. Lassie had enviable hair. Lassie helped out around the house. Lassie was a hero. A pal.
Lassie didn’t make trouble for anyone.
When I was growing up, my neighbors had giant Dobermans that wandered freely. Our central Florida backyards all butted up against a retention pond, no fence for anyone, and my mother never wanted us inside the house. My brother and I spent most of our time sweating out all our body weight and facing massive dehydration and sunstroke in the relentless heat. We never knew when those dogs might show up. When they trotted past, massive and muscled as horses, I’d freeze, then scamper. My father had parked his old truck on the back deck, and sometimes we played on it, even though the metal got so hot it could blister flesh. If I saw those dogs, I climbed up onto the very top of the cab. Though I was still small, I weighed it down, denting the roof beneath my body. The dogs never came close, not nearly as interested in two sweaty kids as they were the garbage and assorted fast-food trash they could scavenge from the lakefront.
How did I stop being afraid of dogs? When?
The short answer: I don’t know.
Maybe it’s easier to talk about what scared me out of relationships.
I was married to a woman, and we separated after more than a decade of living together. Intimacy requires a lot from a person, and sometimes the spirit just goes out of a thing, like a party balloon slowly deflating, falling flat in the corner of a quiet room. Over the course of our relationship, my wife and I acquired several pets. After our split, I kept collecting them. My house holds three dogs, a cat, and a hamster. Last month, when the hamster died, I immediately went out and got another. I really want some fish. A couple birds. Ferrets. Bearded dragons. I keep trying to buy a tortoise, but my good friend tells me I shouldn’t.
“It’s not manageable,” he tells me, gently. He’s trying to be the kind of loving that’s honest, and I know he’s right. A person can’t just keep building a pet empire. How could I get anything done with yet another life to manage? I can’t even manage my own.
How do you sleep?
I sleep surrounded by animals. We’re twisted together in a mess of tangled limbs, an actual nest of pets. There’s a dog slipped along my back, one curled up against my belly, another nudged behind my knees. There’s a cat along my neck. Is my sleep better or worse for it? Was sleep better when there was a partner in the bed with me? When it was one dog?
When you own a pet, you get a companion that loves you unconditionally. Blind, careful obedience. Your dog won’t tell you it needs a walk. They won’t say, “Kristen, please take me to the bathroom. I am gonna piss myself.” You learn to seek out signs. You find the thing they do in lieu of speech. Specific mannerisms. I can do this with pets; I have trained my eye to know when one of them is sick. Can tell when one is feeling grumpy, when they’re tired, know when they’re hungry. I’m able to understand nuance in their baleful expressions but find myself incapable of doing that for a partner.
Maybe it’s because I already did that for so long. I looked for signs for years and still felt like I never understood what was happening; that the person I loved was mutable and changing and always kept me searching. I found it exhausting.
Or am I exhausting? I find myself very tiring. I’m funny except when I’m alone. Then I’m only funny half the time. Maybe 30 percent of the time. I could probably be funnier alone. But mostly I just want to power down, and pets don’t expect you to be on all the time. They only need you to fill the food dish and cuddle them, and sometimes you can walk them down the street, especially if they’ve got puppy energy.
The cat does not need walking.
I go out with women I won’t ever see after that first date. I give nothing of myself, because it feels like I’m parceling out bits I can’t get back again, and there’s only so much of me to go around. With pets, very little is required. Pets are a rest. A respite from the overwhelming largeness of human experience. And let’s face it, everything is too much human experience these days. A pet doesn’t even try. And why should they? I can be as shitty as I want, and at the end of the day, my dog will still curl up next to me on the couch.
Is my dog gay?
I’m a queer woman and I don’t know what that means sometimes. I mean, I know it means something. Everything always has to mean something, right? But what. The thing about loving a pet is you’ve never gotta tell them you’re gay. No coming out process for a new puppy. When I meet new friends, co-workers, women, men, strangers in the 7-Eleven, I have to navigate the choppy waters of outing myself. I don’t enjoy the process and usually make a joke out of it to trick the people around me into thinking it’s funnier than it is, because no one likes dealing with a grumpy, exhausted queer.
Your dog doesn’t care if you’re a lesbian, Kristen.
All they care about is food and snuggles and taking a walk and maybe eating that roach they found behind the couch. A girlfriend probably wouldn’t do that, true enough. I could live without insect consumption.
So what are we doing with intimacy?
I am navigating human tenderness via my pets. I am relearning how to love people. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I’m a high-maintenance friend. This was a crushing blow to my ego. I’ve always held firmly to the belief that I’m an extremely chill person. I’ve always considered myself to be very low-maintenance. I eat trash; I hang out at home alone; I am pretty funny and kinda dumb about things. But then I began spending more time with people. Requiring more from them. A neediness broke out in me. What is this, I wondered. I am not like this, I thought, but maybe I am and have always been that way. Perhaps the pets fill this need in a kind of way that’s allowed me not to recognize it.
Or perhaps I’ve just reached a new part of my life where I’m growing and expanding, the roots of my tenderness outgrowing their allotted plot. I’ve spent years cultivating my feelings in the tiny space of my writing, and now it’s gotten too large for it and I’m strangling to death on my own emotions.
But dogs. That’s what we were talking about, right?
All that time spent at an early age terrified of canines and now I can’t get enough. I talk about them all day. I think about my pets at home, without me. I worry how I’ll react when I inevitably lose one. Because that’s something we have to understand, right? That the timeline of a pet is much more truncated than our own. That we cannot hope to think they’ll live alongside us; that we’ll grow old together, gracefully slip off into peaceful rest at the same time. No, dogs lives are much shorter, and we have to accept that. Except I worry that I won’t, and that doesn’t sound healthy.
But what’s healthy, anyway?
If I need to get another dog, I will. But I am ready to navigate love again. I think I’m ready. I mean, I am ready to get exhausted. To hurt. To break open outside of a Word document. I think my pets would support me in this. They’d support a tortoise, at the very least.