My dog Chloe has been in a serious relationship for two years now. Her boyfriend is a handsome English Setter named Rainbow, and they are very well-matched. Both weigh about 60 pounds, and both are not-very-birdie bird dogs. Both love to play tug and keep-away; both love to swim in our nearby creek and hunt for fish. (Chloe actually sticks her snout into the water and tries to catch them; Rainbow barks at the fish from a safe place on the shore.) In terms of hierarchy, Chloe is definitely the boss, which suits them both fine. Chloe always passes through doorways first, always wins the rope during games of tug-ofwar and always tries to steal Rainbow’s food. And because he will so willingly let her steal his food, we try to feed them separately, for Rainbow is always on the verge of being too thin and Chloe is always on the verge of being too fat.
“Chubs” is what Rainbow’s guardian, Greg, calls Chloe behind my back. I know this because Greg and Mindy’s seven-year-old son, Clayton, tells me everything. We are neighbors in idyllic Woodstock, N.Y.
But anyway, it makes me happy to see Chloe and Rainbow together. It makes me happy to witness dog love: the joyous, raucous way they greet one another; the impish, playful ways in which they bite each other’s ankles; and, at the end of the day, the adorable way they nap together, sometimes facing with legs entwined, other times spooning like an old married couple. Always, their bodies are touching, and I love to see the content, tired look on Chloe’s face when she sleeps with her head draped across Rainbow’s neck. That look speaks of companionship, and ownership, and true love. It makes me want two dogs, but that second dog would have to be Rainbow, and he’s not on the market. So, as with most relationships from which we want more, we take what we can get. I call Rainbow my half-dog.
Recently, however, Chloe and I went on an extended book tour, which meant that for seven weeks we had to leave Rainbow behind. That’s seven weeks without anyone biting your ankles, or pinning you to the ground so that he can bite your neck, or trying to take away your saliva-soaked stuffed bunny rabbit, or cuddling with you on a big stinky dog bed. By “you” I mean Chloe, of course. Every night, before we went to sleep, I promised Chloe that soon we’d see Rainbow again. I even, as a joke, marked the calendar with our return date and pointed to it as proof. “See? That’s Rainbow Day!” She always smiled at me and thumped her tail.
About two weeks into our tour, I called Greg to check in on the family. “Rainbow has a new girlfriend,” Greg said.
“Who is she?” I said, in the same exact voice I used, oh, 20 years ago when the Love of My Life told me he was in love with someone else.
“Her name is Phoenix,” Greg said. “She lives next door.”
“What kind of dog is she?” I said, again in that voice.
“A black Lab.”
My heart stopped. You see, Chloe hates black Labs. I can’t explain this hatred; it seemed to come out of nowhere 12 months prior. One day Chloe was a friendly, open, I’ll-play-with-anyone kind of dog; the next day I had to pull her off a female black Lab who had had the audacity to say hello at the dog park. Since then, any time we see a black Lab, Chloe makes a strange rumbling noise—not quite a growl, more like the revving of an engine—and strains determinedly on her leash. It’s the sound of hatred, I guess, of exacting some sort of revenge. But for what? Maybe Chloe was psychic. She knew the love of her life was going to cheat on her with a female black Lab.
“Rainbow really loves Phoenix,” Greg was saying. “They play all day long. She’s a really fast dog.”
I was offended. Chloe, being on the verge of being fat, was not as fast a runner as Rainbow. But that was part of her charm.
“But what about Chloe?” I said to Greg in a whiny voice. “Chloe’s in Massachusetts. So are you. He has to play with someone.”
So, basically, it was out of sight, out of mind. Spoken like a true male.
After Greg and I got off the phone, I sat down on the floor next to Chloe. I smoothed out the sun-bleached fur on her ear flaps, I stroked her heart-shaped little brown nose, I told her she was a pretty, pretty girl. I can’t explain how heartbroken I was at even the thought that Rainbow loved another dog more than he loved Chloe. That Chloe had been replaced. Just like that. We turn our backs for 10 minutes and look what happens! I actually started to cry.
Now is probably the time to admit that I myself do not have a boyfriend. I am not the love of anyone’s life. No one nips at my neck or my earlobes. So, of course, it gave me pleasure that at least my dog was getting love. Someone in this equation has to get the guy. I mean, in order to believe in love you have to see it, every day, in action. That’s why so many women read romance novels and see sappy movies. You have to keep that hope alive. Otherwise you become the pathetic single woman who lives alone in Woodstock and apparently lives vicariously through her dog. This was quite disturbing.
I did not tell Chloe about Rainbow and his black Lab mistress. I simply pointed at the calendar and told her that Rainbow Day was coming soon.
Meanwhile, there we were on Cape Cod. Which is not a bad place to be Without Love. We spent our mornings at the shore of a tiny freshwater pond in Brewster, Mass., watching the mist rise off the water in the postdawn light. Chloe swam around hunting for fish while I meditated and read Harry Potter. In the afternoons, we went to the beach, where Chloe hunted for more fish—a smorgasbord at low tide—and I just watched the horizon, never growing tired of how vast and mysterious and promising the world could seem if you just kept your eyes on this proverbial horizon rather than on your computer screen. It’s hard to find love through a computer screen, which doesn’t even show your own reflection.
Meanwhile, Chloe went and fell in love.
It happened at the Brewster Book Store. I had gone in to sign some copies of my paperback, and to introduce Chloe to the store’s owner, Nancy, a real dog lover who has rescued several dogs herself. Nancy had set up a wonderful display of dog-themed books on a small antique table, and had placed, at the table’s base, a large stuffed animal— a black-and-white Husky, with one of those benign Husky smiles embroidered onto its fake-fur face. He (I assumed this stuffed Husky was a he) was about the size of a real-life Springer Spaniel, and his straight-legged, straight-spined stance made him look noble and rugged and devoted. Which is perhaps why Chloe fell so hopelessly in love with him.
You should have seen it! First Chloe stood in front of this stuffed animal—this Love Effigy—and touched her nose to his. (This is what she does to me when she wants my attention—she pokes me with her snout.) Then she went down into a play-bow, with her tail swishing madly. Then, because the Husky still had not responded, she barked at him—just a playful, flirtatious little yip. Still, the Husky remained mute, stiff and guarded.
I decided that the dog’s name was Skipper, because he looked like a Skipper (his steady, glass-eyeballed gaze seemed to imply he was looking beyond the horizon of a great blue sea).
I also decided that maybe Chloe wasn’t as smart as I’d always made her out to be. We’ve always thought she was part Border Collie—the smartest dog out there—but no self-respecting Border Collie would ever mistake a stuffed dog for a real one, right?
Ah, love. It makes even the smartest females blind.
Chloe poked Skipper with her snout again, and then threw herself at his feet, rolling onto her back and displaying her pink-spotted belly.
Nothing. No response from Skipper.
She shimmied a little and barked and flailed her legs in the air dramatically. Nothing. Skipper remained impassive. Finally, she nipped him on the ankles—a sweet, playful gesture that always worked with Rainbow.
Meanwhile, Nancy and I watched, along with a number of very amused customers. We laughed. We made comments about “men.” How aloof they can be, how non-responsive, how no female can resist the strong and silent type.
I’ve always loved cross-species friendships: the tiny kitten who snuggles with a Pit Bull, the horse who nuzzles a pig, that famous Ridgeback in South Africa who foster-mothered a baby lion. This says to me that love knows no boundaries— that love is simply Love. So even though I was standing there watching my dog Chloe flirt with an inanimate object, and worrying that she was less intelligent than her brethren, and basically making a fool of herself, I also told myself that didn’t matter. Whoever said love had anything to do with intelligence, anyway?
Finally, after receiving a particularly vigorous ankle bite from Chloe, Skipper finally toppled on top of her and then just lay there, on his side. Chloe, in response, sprung onto all fours—in that remarkably quick way dogs have— and proceeded to bite Skipper on the throat—another one of her favorite moves with Rainbow. But Skipper continued to lie there, unmoving.
“I used to date a man just like that,” one of the bookstore customers said. And we nearly died laughing.
This leads to a tangent: About a year ago, I developed a disturbing and all-consuming celebrity crush. I’m really not the celebrity type—I don’t watch TV or read magazines or even see all that many movies. And I certainly have never followed celebrity gossip. But in this case, I happened to meet the man in person, locked eyes with him (eyes as blue as the sea!) and experienced, well, a form of zap that stayed in my system for months. I won’t bore you with the web-trolling, image downloading, fan-site drooling details… (okay, it was Viggo Mortensen) but I will share with you the conversation I had with one of my friends, who’d had a similar obsession with Orlando Bloom. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” I remember her telling me. “This crush has awakened something in you. Since your divorce you’ve been kind of shut down toward men. You should be thankful that this person has brought back your capacity to love.”
“And lust,” I said.
“Oh, yes, that too.”
Anyway, seeing Chloe flirt happily and unabashedly with her fake-dog boyfriend made me think fondly of my own fake boyfriend, and of all the happy times we had together (in my head). It made me realize that it can just be so much fun to love someone. It almost doesn’t matter if he/she loves you back.
And what does this have to do with Rainbow? Nothing, really. We were totally over that cad.
When we got back to Woodstock, the first thing Chloe and I did was visit Rainbow. Their reunion was riotous. Leaping, chasing, biting, throwing themselves at one another. Rainbow brought Chloe one of his toys—a little rubber doll—and Chloe immediately stole it from him and then flaunted her triumph, tossing the toy in the air and refusing to let Rainbow have it. They chased each other around the pool, across the tennis court, in and around a grove of pine trees that bordered the land. They took turns tearing mock-savagely at one another’s scruffs; they bit each others’ rumps and ankles. They played until they were exhausted and too weak to stand up anymore. And even then, lying together on the rug at the hearth, they played, mouthing each other silently, clacking teeth. Finally, after another hour, they fell asleep entwined, their very breaths in sync.
As I watched them, I found myself filling with happiness again. And relief. It was clear that Chloe was still Rainbow’s favorite girlfriend. She had not been replaced. At least not at this instant. Plus, the thing about Dog Love is, there’s always plenty to go around.
I never told Greg’s family or Rainbow about the stuffed dog. Primarily because they would have made fun of me. Plus, Chloe’s brief affair was like any summer fling… fleeting, insignificant, all style no substance. So it was a private joke between me and my dog when we presented Rainbow with his reunion present: a stuffed black Lab.