Last fall, my wife Debbie and I got a puppy named Maximus Toretto Blueberry Millman Gay.
He is six months old. He weighs 7.5 pounds. He is confident, outgoing, and sweet. He enjoys eating paper, leaves, disgusting trash, and murky street water. He is not interested in food unless you are eating it, and then he is very interested. When Max realizes he is about to go on a walk, he vibrates with excitement, and sometimes, he jumps vertically, like two feet off the ground. He recently learned how to lift his leg to pee. During the day he runs little errands around the house, moving his toys from one location to the next, going to his water bowl for a fresh drink, grabbing his favorite stuffed animal, Porsha, to have some quality time. He scampers around like he really has somewhere to go. It cracks me up every time. Because of the pandemic, I have all this time to study his movements, the same way I study my neighbor’s strange habit of moving his cars in and out of his driveway all day long. Why does he do this? There’s no method to it. Sometimes he moves the cars to different spots on the street even though there are no street parking restrictions in our neighborhood. Sometimes, he drives away for ten or fifteen minutes and returns. I don’t know. One of my other neighbors has a cat who walks himself. While they are walking their dog, the cat trots behind them. Sometimes he goes out alone, roaming the street, visiting this driveway or that. The little things have become so fascinating.
There are people who enjoy being single, who enjoy independence and solitude, and I always think, “How nice for them.” There was a time in my life when solitude was aspirational, and then I wanted more. I ached for it. I careened from one complicated romantic or unromantic situation to another. I started worrying about timelines. Dating in your late thirties, as a woman, can be fraught. There are new priorities. Certain timelines are accelerated. I have never been baby-obsessed. I love children, and if it happened I would welcome it, but I also wasn’t going to feel unfulfilled if it didn’t. And still, I was intimately aware that there was a clock ticking, and I did not want to wear dentures at my child’s graduation, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
There is also the reality that as you get older, your tolerance for bullshit diminishes. The nonsense you put up with in your twenties is not necessarily the nonsense you are willing to put up with a decade or two later. I never quite got into online dating. It was too intimidating, and the thought of awkward first dates with someone who responded to a hollow dating profile was unappealing. I found the post-date protocols ridiculous. I did not know how to calculate the length of time before making or receiving a phone call or text message.I craved unambiguous clarity, and there was little to be found in dating.
I lived alone for many years. I dated but did not cohabitate. I became competent in basic life skills. Some of my relationships were very good, I remember them fondly, but earlier entanglements were with people who did not like me and were open in their contempt. There was something almost erotic about it. I somehow convinced myself I deserved that contempt. I convinced myself I was attracted to it and then I hated myself for that attraction.
Like many people, when faced with the choice between a kind and decent person and a terrible person, I made the wrong choice every time. There was this one guy who fixated on my education and said that if my students called me Dr. Gay, they should call him Master if he were to get a master’s degree someday. He had never attended college, which I didn’t care about, but I always wondered how he was going to manifest a graduate degree and in what context my students would need to address him as anything. He would bring up this nonsense regularly and it was so ludicrous that it became interesting because he wasn’t being funny or ironic. He was dead serious. One night, after we had been to a bar in town—beer for him, gin for me—we were at my place. He was asleep. I was staring at the ceiling, still buzzed, contemplating his theories about salutation and I thought, “This is probably as good as it’s going to get.”
Sometimes, there would be other people in my home—friends hanging out, a lover spending the night—but mostly it was just me, only answering to myself. I arranged my things the way I wanted. I slept with as many pillows I wanted. I stretched my legs across the bed the way I wanted. I usually cooked for one, which felt like a pointless endeavor, so much waste, because I never figured out how to scale recipes down. I wrote late into the night and watched bad television late into the night and then got four or five hours of sleep and started a new day. I concluded that I was going to die alone. I was being melodramatic, but I was living in the middle of nowhere, so my prospects for healthy, long-term companionship were pretty grim.
Then Debbie came along, with a slick pursuit that involved trying to get me on her podcast for about a year. Eventually she asked me out on a proper date. Those were her exact words. Early in our courtship, I was struck by how open she was. She communicated enthusiastically and with startling clarity. She shared her thoughts and feelings, unabashedly. She told me exactly what she wanted and needed, what she would never compromise on. I did not need to guess. This is not to say that there’s no mystery about her. There is plenty. I learn something new about her every day. What I mean is that I did not have to play any ridiculous games or wonder where I stood. It was, frankly, alarming. I was thrown off my game because I did not know how to trust earnestness and openness. I kept wondering when she would revert to her real self until I realized she had been her real self all along.
We were in a long-distance relationship for more than a year, so I did not know everything about her daily routines and habits. Because our time together was limited though frequent, we were always postponing the quotidian routines of our lives until after our visits. When the pandemic forced many of us into our homes all day every day, I suddenly got to learn so much more about how she inhabits her living space and arranges her days. Living with someone else—sharing your space, all the time, having to be flexible, accepting that your way is not the right or only way, negotiating the big and small things you navigate as a couple—it’s unbearably intimate.
One day, Debbie and I were trying to get Max to eat actual food. We had an array of things—some chicken I baked, ridiculous fancy dog food from a place in West Hollywood, a small container of Cesar. We’d put some food in his bowl, and watch, holding our breath, as he sniffed tentatively. If he disapproved, he backed away, because that’s what he does when he doesn’t like the smell of something. Several times, he looked up with the saddest eyes, like he was saying, “Get it together, humans.” We kept trying and he kept backing the fuck up and Debbie smiled at me and said, “Isn’t it great, having something to take care of other than ourselves?” And I said, “Yes. It is.”
I have a family—there is my wife and I and our puppy and our two cats, and we are making a life together and taking care of each other. That unnamable thing that holds us together, pulses, grows stronger.