This afternoon, I did something shameful. Something I shouldn't even admit to. I put on my windbreaker, loaded the pockets with Milk Bones and then drove to the Joslyn Park dog park off Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica.
Without a dog.
There, I sat on a bench, leafing through a magazine and waiting for loose dogs — not immoral dogs, mind you, just unleashed ones — to wander into range. Whenever they did — while innocently chasing a ball or an errant Frisbee — I reached out and patted their furry little heads or gave their muzzles a friendly shake. If their owners called out that it was OK, I slipped them a biscuit.
And that's when I realized what had happened to me. A nice, normal guy — well educated and law abiding — I had now undeniably become ... a dog stalker. A puppy lover. I had gone over, in short, to the dog side.
It started a few weeks ago when, in the final capitulation of a bitter divorce (is there any other kind?), I surrendered our 9-year-old black Lab, Becky, to my ex-wife. I did it only with the greatest reluctance and sorrow, but, for reasons too numerous and discouraging to go into, I could no longer care for her.
Now, a writer's life is lonely enough to begin with — sitting by yourself in a room all day, listening to voices in your head — and I guess I didn't realize just how much I would miss having Becky snoozing under the desk, or greeting me at the front door or sprawled on the sofa while I watched "The Real Housewives of Sheboygan" (or wherever else the latest iteration was taking place).
Nor did I know how much shape she gave to my daily schedule. Every morning, Becky needed a walk around the block. Every afternoon, she needed a longer walk in Palisades Park. And every evening, she needed a postprandial stroll to watch the sunset and aid the digestion — hers and mine.
Without her around to stare at me until I'm guilt-tripped into taking her out — and man, could those big, pleading eyes do a job on me — I find that I'm back to my old dog-less, and amorphous, schedule. I get up late, go straight to my desk, start rolling the emails, then burrow down into some book I'm struggling to write, and the next time I look up, it's dusk. I haven't shaved, I haven't gone down to get the mail, I haven't even seen the sun. I'm living like a vampire, without the cool night life.
Nor am I sleeping well. After my wife forever vacated her side of the bed, Becky wasted no time spreading herself out. By morning, she had inevitably colonized the whole thing, and I would find myself sleeping on a sliver of the mattress, twisted like a pretzel and clinging to the sheet with my fingernails.
When we awoke, she'd roll over on her back, paws in the air, so that I could give her the first belly rub of the day, and then she'd lead me down the stairs, her tail wagging like a metronome, for our kibble and coffee. It wasn't an exciting life, but it had its rhythms, and writers live by creating their own routines. As Flaubert once wrote, "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you can be violent and original in your work." Of course, if living a monotonous life were any guarantee of artistic success, I'd have won the Nobel Prize by now.
And those old habits do indeed die hard — I still instinctively reach for the leash when I'm about to go out the door, and I still have plastic bags in all my pockets. I'm still tempted to put my empty yogurt containers on the floor so she can lick the residue. (She used to sport a telltale, and adorable, little white ring around her nose by the time she was done.) And last night, when I was still half-asleep and in a stupor, I found myself reaching out toward the left side of the bed, to pet what I thought was a curled-up Becky. But it wasn't. It was just a pair of black jeans I had thrown on the blanket instead of hanging them up in the closet.
But you know what? I did what fiction writers do all day anyway — I played make-believe, and I petted them just the same.
Robert Masello is a novelist living in Santa Monica.