Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | January, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,577 words)
Alice is destroying my marriage. It began unexpectedly and accelerated quickly, and now we’re in the thick of a potentially ruinous interpersonal struggle. Kerry (my husband) sees it as a contest between my passion and his pragmatism. I do too, but not in a bad way. I look at it this way: Our marriage is like a seesaw, which fulfills its function by rocking back and forth. Alice, at the moment, is the teeter point. As such, she’s complicated. She is also the most gorgeous creature who ever lived.
Alice has curly hair, the color of oatmeal. Mornings she can be found basking in the sunlight that floods the two front rooms of our apartment, either on my daughter Lydia’s bed or on the living room carpet. In summer, the ash tree blooms and fills the windows, and our city apartment looks like a country house. Alice looks like a duchess, curled on the hearth. She knows that at 5 p.m., when I bring my radio into the kitchen and start making dinner, Lydia will be home soon. Our front door is thin enough that we hear everything in the outside hall — goodnight kisses, lovers’ spats, newspapers landing at our neighbors’ front doors. We are one floor above the lobby, and Alice’s ears flatten against her head when the downstairs doors squeak. Lydia often pauses in the vestibule between the first and second door to inspect the packages that the postman has dropped. Alice holds her breath in that pause, listening for what comes next, which is Lydia banging up the stairs to our door. She is a small child, but very bangy; each step announcing her after-school weariness. Alice, having been trained not to bark, stands at our door with barely constrained poise. She quivers. When the knob turns, she backs up, paws the ground, and emits a single yip. Lydia’s backpack crashes to the ground — it gets heavier every year — and the rituals of reunion commence. Alice licks Lydia’s face, Lydia massages Alice’s ears. Alice turns in circles, Lydia says, “OK, Alice, OK! ” She picks her up and cradles her, rubs Alice’s nose with her own. Lydia’s father comes up the stairs. Lydia gets Alice’s leash. When the three of them return from the park, we will eat.
People often make fun of small dogs like Alice. She is a teacup toy poodle, she is under 10 pounds, and people say, “That dog is the size of a rat.” Yes, I want to say, and you are the size of a Great Dane. So what? In an interview, President Obama once said something unkind about “little yappy” dogs and Michelle shut him down. All dogs are dogs. All dogs look silly and mournful when wet; all dogs have urgent ears. A small dog is as likely to sniff or cuddle or growl or bark as a large one. Across all breeds, there is a common dogness. People think big dogs express salt-of-the-earthness in their owners, something that speaks of mud and skinned knees and free-range parenting. They think little dogs, on the other hand, reveal their owners to be tacky, or frivolous, or worst of all girly, as if delicacy is the province of only one gender. Alice feels no pressure though; she doesn’t care how she looks. She can be both graceful and awkward. She is ethereal when she lifts her paw; she is clumsy when she roots in the wastebasket. When we catch her, she looks up, her jaws clenched around a tissue stained with lipstick or an emptied bag of kettle corn. “Drop it, Alice,” we say. She narrows her eyes. “Alice, drop it.” She places her treasure on the floor, as though it were a wounded sparrow. Then she slinks away, a little angry. Alice also likes to chew toes; she stations herself at the foot of the bed while we watch TV. She brings her kibble from the kitchen to the dining room table, eating it from the floor while we eat. She will lick the inside of your nose if you let her. She is a dog’s dog. She’s a little girl’s dog. She is our dog.
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For my husband, the problems with Alice are many. She is expensive and she requires too many walks — Kerry, being the most responsible member of the household ends up taking her for most of them. She wrecks midday carnal relations. She stares. When we lock her out, she whines at the bedroom door. Someday she may get sick, so sick that we can’t afford her care, and it will be two — three if you count Alice — against one, in favor of deepening our debt to save her. Kerry would of course want to save Alice, but Kerry also wants to pay our rent. Alice annoys approximately one half of the 12 or so tenants in the building — the French woman who receives right-wing mail and the guy who works out of his home as a medium are most likely the ones who have called management about her paws skidding on the hardwood floor at all hours. The gray-haired couple upstairs barely tolerates children; potentially incontinent creatures don’t mix with carpeted hallways. Our downstairs neighbor does like Alice, as does her cat Bubby, who glides up the stairs routinely to request stomach rubs from Lydia. When Alice came, Bubby knew he’d better make friends with her. We don’t know how the FBI agent on the fourth floor feels, because that’s her job.
She will lick the inside of your nose if you let her. She is a dog’s dog. She’s a little girl’s dog. She is our dog.
Kerry fears neighborly rage, our one-year lease, and NYC’s scarcity of affordable housing. Kerry is cautious, Kerry is careful, Kerry is against extra spending, which is something Lydia and I are very much for. Lydia and I like new paperbacks and take-out burritos and postcards from the museum gift shop. We like bringing flowers when we visit friends, and chocolate, too, and tea. We are not good with margins and austerity, though when we got Alice we promised to be better. I have taken on more work and Alice doesn’t eat the finest dog food or anything. We frequently have scrambled eggs for dinner. Still, Kerry worries.
For Lydia and me, there is only one problem with Alice: She doesn’t exist. Actually, she might, but if she does, we don’t know her yet. We might have seen her picture online, at one of the rescue sites we frequent, but maybe none of those dogs was Alice.
The other night, we fought over Alice. Lydia, to my pride and shame, moderated. “I understand how Daddy feels, because you told him Alice wouldn’t be for a while, and then you and I started in right away. I understand how Mommy feels, because Daddy can never be persuaded of anything, and it’s not like we can compromise and get only half a dog.”
In our wedding vows, Kerry promised we could get a dog. “Two dogs, we’ll have to talk about,” he added, meaning one dog was OK, I reminded him.
“I didn’t know about the wedding vow, Daddy,” Lydia said.
Kerry looked abashed. But then he said: “Someone has to worry about the routine responsibilities. Mommy does housework on impulse, whereas Daddy does all the scheduled events, like laundry. I don’t want to be the dog walker because I am the only one who can keep a schedule.”
“Won’t Alice ever pee on impulse?” Lydia asked.
“You’re not helping,” I said.
Alice has become a dark cloud for Kerry, a constant pre-ulcerous stomachache. He never used to worry about our desire to get a dog because there’s a big clause in our lease: NO DOGS. It’s on a separate page. NO DOGS gets its own page, stapled at the back.
But two weeks ago, Lydia asked me to ask, just to be sure. Kerry said good, that will be an end to it. I wrote to building management. They wrote back the following:
“Dogs are decided on a case-by-case basis. Tell us your plan and we’ll let you know.”
I started in my chair. For so long, we had sighed and complained to our friends: “Our building won’t allow dogs. We want one so badly!” Now, it was a case-by-case decision and suddenly, Alice appeared. Kerry’s face clouded, his shoulders tensed. “Don’t tell Lydia right away,” he pleaded. I told him I wouldn’t, I understood the pressures of a dog, I was not as gung ho as he thought, I wanted to be measured, to wait until we had more security, to wait until Lydia could walk a dog by herself. I thought I meant it. I did mean it. But Alice kept looking at me. She looked at me from my lap, and she looked out from Lydia’s arms where the two of them lay snuggled on a Saturday, sleeping in. She looked at Kerry too, with love in her eyes, teaching him how to love her back. She looked at me so much that I gave in and began looking too, not just at her, but for her.
Last year Lydia’s first grade class did a months-long unit on families. The three of us almost ended up in therapy as a result. All the kids brought their parents and their siblings on their presentation days. Baby brothers crawled on the floor in diapers, big sisters described middle school. Lydia came home scowling. “Angela doesn’t have siblings,” I said. “Neither does Riley.” It was no use. It seemed that all other only children went on lots of vacations or were devoted to sports that kept them busy or lived in high-rises with lots of other kids who came over all the time to watch movies. I stopped reading books to Lydia that had siblings in them. Meet the Austins, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Saturdays, all these large-family books disappeared into my closet.
It festered through winter. I explained to Lydia again why she is an only child. Mommy suffered a near psychotic depression during pregnancy, we can’t afford a second child if we want to stay in Manhattan, or if she wants to go to a weekly ballet class, or for us to replace her shoes as her feet grow. The choice to have one child makes sense.
I asked other parents of onlies how they handled the pleading; most people said that it hadn’t come up, that their onlies liked their situation just fine. Meanwhile, my daughter had mastered pathos at a Dickensian level. The vortex of her longing sucked up small pleasures, blotted out the sun, made me ache for a pregnancy that I knew could do me in. With sudden clarity, I realized I was a failure at homemaking, for what is a home without lots and lots and lots of kids? There had to be noise and crashes at unexpected times, and club meetings on the stairs, and walking a scrappy little sister to school. My life was a sham, it was not full, it was a cruelty inflicted on my one precious child. I began taking antidepressants.
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Eventually, winter let up. Lydia attended dance camp and learned inappropriate songs. Friends slept over. They built forts and they fought and out of sight things crashed to the floor. We had dinner parties and the house got messy. I worked to keep our apartment as full and gay as possible. It became a habit. We became hosts. We threw a Christmas party and a New Year’s dinner. Then I googled successful only children. Daniel Radcliffe is an only child. So too, Cary Grant and Carol Burnett. I felt better, even triumphant.
In The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud writes about how a family of three never looks like a real family when they sit down to dinner. When I read that, I recognized the sentiment, and I felt worse.
Then, on a bus one spring day last year, I sat next to a woman who was holding a black poodle on her lap. She massaged the dog’s head with her thumb. We got to talking. I told her my child loved dogs, and I wanted to get her one. The woman replied that her daughter was an only child, and the dog was the best compensation she could think of. Indeed, she said, the dog had worked wonders.
In the play The Member of the Wedding, there is this line, distilled and poignant. Lonely Frankie says it about Janis and Jarvis, her brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law. “They are the we of me.” The three of us are already three, but a vision flared: Alice could make us three even more of a “we.”
Kerry said the other night that he married me partly because I don’t think things through and I married him partly because he does. He was angry that I had told Lydia the building said “maybe.” I had promised to keep it under my hat. I was angry because he doesn’t understand how much we need Alice. He said: “I thought you were a grown-up.” I said: “I thought you loved me.”
The three of us are already three, but a vision flared: Alice could make us three even more of a ‘we.’
I do wonder if I should have my head examined. Alice is obviously something more than a dog to me, she is some sort of promise, some dream deferred onto which I can project realization. She is the anti-lonely, the kinetic and frenetic to energize the quiet world of three, she is also peace at bedtime, Lydia maybe falling asleep at a normal hour. There is a time in life when our parents shape and define it, they set the terms of what is both normal and possible. Alice is a way to expand my powers, to convince myself that I can stretch our universe, place one more star inside its boundaries. I remind Kerry we could not afford Lydia, either. I remind him how much we had to adjust to walking her in the park, too. He reminds me that dogs and people are not the same, and I shoot back that that’s the point — we are not making another baby, we are merely adopting a dog. There is always a counterresponse; it is a fight between two equally sane points of view. That’s why Alice is pushing us apart. To Kerry, she’s the sword of Damocles. To me, she’s the final click on the lamp’s dial, the one that brings us to the brightest wattage possible for our home. We are both right. The domestic seesaw rocks.
For as long as I’ve known him, Kerry’s had a plan. He runs the numbers, he thinks ahead. Where we’ll eat dinner and what time the movie is playing and whether the bus or the subway will be faster today. He uses calendars and maps and software. He is calm and efficient and brainy. He has tried to teach me to stick to a plan, too, with some success. I, in turn, have coaxed him to surrender, to trust that even unpredictable pleasures can be counted on: I am forever changing the plan, but I am always here. Little dogs yip and run around in circles and confuse the situation of your life. But they also build their world around you, and if you can endure the noise and motion, you get all those lovely kisses. To me, this is the perfect plan, the stable and the kinetic, forever in pursuit of each other. That’s us. That’s family. That’s Alice.
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Leslie Kendall Dye is a writer and actress in New York City. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Vela, Electric Literature, SELF, The LA Review of Books, and others. She is at work on a memoir about mothers, daughters, drugs, and show business.
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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross