I got my dog a little more than a year ago during a transitional period in my life, and he’s been bringing me both joy and aggravation ever since. I say “got” because “adopted” feels grandiose (as opposed to what, natural birth?) and “bought” doesn’t feel quite right either (“rescued,” meanwhile, feels positively Wahlbergy). He was just six weeks old when I took him home, and for the first few months I had him, all my emotions felt raw. My feelings were like a tooth that’s just been drilled — nerve exposed to the slightest breeze. Things I’d long since taken for granted could suddenly sting me to the bone.
The way a small puppy can instantly soften everyone it comes into contact with makes you feel like the press agent for pure joy. It changed my life immediately, and not just because I became quickly inured to the feel of still-warm bagged feces in my hand. Neighborhood characters I’d never given a second look would cross the street to stop me. A woman who seemed to live in her car on my block would shriek at the sight of him, hug him close to her chest and let him lick her neck in a way that was clearly therapeutic. “I needed that,” she’d say, and I understood. We never exchanged names.
These interactions weren’t about me, of course, but we shared a certain something being emotionally vulnerable in such close proximity, acknowledged only with polite smiles.
I named the boy Charley, after the Steinbeck book (not realizing at the time quite how common a dog name “Charlie” is). Once, he met a shy little girl outside a coffee shop. She was tentative at first, clearly wanting to pet the puppy but a little scared. Charley seemed to feel similarly about the small human. Her father asked the dog’s name, and upon hearing that it was Charley, she said, in a very small voice, “…my name is Charlie,” before giggling as he licked her cheek. I only just managed to smile politely and go on my way before dissolving into a puddle. Another time, I was teaching him to walk down stairs for the first time near Aquatic Park. I coaxed him down, using my most encouraging voice, as he slowly gained the courage to first take the steps one at a time, and then gradually a few in a row. All the while, I hadn’t noticed that a crowd of about 10 people had gathered behind me. When Charley made it all the way to the bottom step for the first time, they cheered. Every day was like that, a mini adventure.
It was that quality, of seeming like he needed my help to fully blossom, that made me adopt (sorry) Charley in the first place. He was from a litter of farm strays that hadn’t been to the pound yet. I met the owner in a parking lot and had to choose between Charley and his brother, two little black dogs with white chests and feet (sadly, I could only take one). His brother had floppy ears and more white on his nose than Charley, who had a nearly solid black snout and pointy ears. I initially thought the brother was the cuter of the two. But whereas his brother, initially gregarious, quickly lost interest in me, Charley was standoffish at first, but slowly warmed. Eventually he wouldn’t leave my side. I know it sounds incredibly lame, but in some way it seemed like he needed my help to navigate the world.
Charley’s hesitance turned out to be a good practical joke, as he quickly grew into the boldest, most excited-to-be alive dog I’ve ever owned, a ball of pure exuberance. I went from having to help him navigate the world to trying to keep him from attempting to experience all of it, right this second. He wants to eat all the foods, smell all the smells, chew all of the people’s hands, all of the time. FOMO-ass dog.