You can tell a lot about a man by how he treats his dogs. My ex-husband called Tilly, our Labrador retriever mix, “pinhead.” He banished her from our bed (while welcoming our other dog) because she lavished affection on me, or so I surmised, and by doing so, he managed to punish us both.
After our divorce, I started dating again, but with reservations. I was enjoying living in a tiny condo with enough room for only me and the dogs, Tilly and Chance, an Australian shepherd mix. Their companionship was nearly enough to keep my loneliness at bay. Nearly.
My first date with Steve was in a bookstore-coffee shop in Boulder, Colo. He had arrived early and was camped at a corner table with a half-empty cup of black coffee and three newspapers. His beard was trimmed, his smile genuine.
As we chatted, I learned that although he was 52, he had never been married. His age wasn’t a problem — I was 45 — but his status as a lifelong bachelor seemed like a red flag. I had once dated a man who saw women for two years, then broke up with them. I knew his pattern but told myself things would be different with me. They weren’t. I learned to pay attention to red flags.
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Steve had a dog, Molly, and a cat, Flora, both adopted from the same humane society where I had volunteered. While I was thrilled that he was an animal lover, I worried that three dogs were perhaps too many for one family, and that my dogs might attack his cat. A first date was surely too soon to be thinking about such things, but I’m a bloodhound when it comes to worrying, sniffing out every potential problem.
After an hour, Steve and I walked to a restaurant for lunch. We were enjoying each other’s company so much, we agreed to have dinner that night, then reluctantly parted.
Driving home, I felt immense relief for having met someone who shared my interests and seemed to like me. Most of the men I had dated in Boulder were looking for women who were Olympic-level skiers, or at the very least triathletes, with svelte, muscled bodies. Back then I was more zaftig than svelte, my free time devoted to books and animals. I was used to seeing a date’s disappointment upon first seeing me.
On the way to dinner that night, my car began to wobble within a block of my house. When I pulled over, I discovered my tire was completely flat. I called Steve from the side of the road to let him know I would be delayed.
“I’ll come get you,” he said.
Soon Steve arrived in a white Subaru. He might as well have been riding a white horse.
The next week we walked our dogs around a lake so they could get to know one another. It was October and I hadn’t brought water for them. The walk wasn’t long, and I didn’t think it would be hot, but the temperature soared under a brutal sun.
When we paused to catch our breath, Steve got down on one knee. Surely, he wasn’t proposing. I liked him too, but so soon?
Instead, he poured water from a bottle into his palm and offered it to my dogs, who lapped it up. In that moment, I began to fall for him.
Soon after, he invited me to his house for dinner. His house was full of dark wood and, like him, exuded warmth. Black and white photographs he had taken of dancers and waterfalls hung on the walls. Unlike the stereotypical bachelor pad, it was immaculate (thanks to a housecleaner, I learned later). But I didn’t smell anything cooking.
I come from a Jewish family where we feed guests until they’re in pain and then send them home with leftovers. After Steve gave me a tour of his home, he said, “How about acorn squash for dinner?”
Isn’t acorn squash more of a side dish? “Sure,” I said, not wanting to be rude.
He steamed one for each of us. It was sweet and hearty, but as a meal smacked of withholding. It turned out he didn’t eat meat, another thing we had in common, though that still didn’t explain the meager offering.
As in any relationship, there was friction.
“I might cut my hair,” I said one day.
“It looks good long,” he said.
I hadn’t asked for his opinion. “It’s my hair,” I said. Was I being overly sensitive? He had offered a compliment. Yet I couldn’t help thinking of all the men who had found my appearance wanting.
We had our first serious fight when Steve suggested bringing his dog, Molly, to my condo for New Year’s Eve, saying, “I don’t want her to be alone.”
“Chance might attack her,” I said. “Protecting his turf.”
“We’ll keep an eye on them,” Steve said.
He didn’t know Chance’s history of volatility. Why couldn’t Molly stay home for a few hours? I thought I wanted an animal lover, but now I wondered if he loved Molly too much. I was not, I discovered, above being jealous of a dog. We kept at it, getting angrier.
The next night, I returned home to a bouquet of red roses that Steve had left outside my door. I had worked unusually late, and the flowers had frozen in the cold. Later, laughing, we christened them “rosicles,” and just like that, the fight was over.
On New Year’s Eve, Molly came over, and the night passed without incident.
We continued to date, though neither of us brought up the future. I wasn’t sure he was the one for me. I doubt he was sure, either. Maybe we were both just too wedded to our hard-won independence to consider fully merging our lives. How important is that anyway if you don’t want to have children?
I had been taking my dogs to a vet 30 minutes away, so Steve recommended I switch to his, who was nearby. Some women borrow their boyfriends’ clothing; we began sharing a vet. When Chance broke a tooth, we brought him in to see if it needed to be extracted. While there, I mentioned a growth on Tilly’s leg that recently had appeared.
The tooth was nothing to worry about, the doctor said. When he looked at Tilly’s leg, though, concern clouded his face. “I don’t like that,” he said. He extracted cells from the lump, after looking at them under a microscope, said he wanted to remove it and we scheduled the surgery.
After the lump was removed, the doctor told me to keep Tilly quiet for six weeks. Because I lived in a small place, I took the dogs out no fewer than four times a day, and I worried that Tilly constantly climbing the stairs to the second floor could reopen the wound. Just thinking about it made my chest tighten.
“Stay at my place while she’s healing,” Steve said.
It was too early in the relationship for us to move in together. I wasn’t sure we ever would. I’d been stung by divorce. He hadn’t found the right partner in three decades of dating. We might never have decided on our own to do this kind of trial run.
But this wasn’t about us; it was about Tilly. And it was for only six weeks.
As soon as Chance saw Steve’s cat, his eyes locked on her like prey. Steve grabbed Chance’s collar and held him back. Luckily, Flora never ran, which would have triggered Chance’s chase instinct. She just continued to stare him down. It was her house; Chance was a mere guest. Had he tried to attack her, it’s not clear who would have won. Gradually, the three dogs formed a pack that, with coaching, respected Flora’s space.
Steve and I made a good team caring for Tilly, keeping her bandage dry as she relieved herself in the snow, ensuring she didn’t move around too much. We made good housemates, too.
Six weeks later, the vet removed Tilly’s stitches. Back at Steve’s house, I packed my suitcase and returned to the condo with my dogs. But what had once felt like a refuge now felt empty.
The next morning, I called Steve. “It was weird spending the night without you,” I said.
“We missed you guys, too,” he said.
I moved back in with him that day. A year later, much to my surprise and delight, this never-married man produced a little box with a ring and asked me to marry him. He did not get down on one knee, nor did I need him to. That’s only for giving water to the dogs that brought us together.
R.L. Maizes is the author of the novel, “Other People’s Pets,” forthcoming in July, and the short story collection “We Love Anderson Cooper.”
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