The Office Dog

R. Daniel Foster last wrote for the Metropolis section of the magazine

The first time I saw Buddy, he was a blur of tan fur pushing through my studio garden, leveling the matilija poppies and knocking foot-long bell flowers off the spreading brugmensia. He stumbled into my office, licked my face, nosed around my desk, jumped on my couch and went to sleep.

An hour later he was gone. He returned within weeks, the same routine.

During the past two years, Buddy has come nearly every morning, often hanging out for the day at my rented studio, a small back house in Silver Lake. I asked my landlord, Max, about him and he said Buddy belonged to the woman whose house backs up to the property. After Buddy began visiting regularly, I would hear her calling, and Buddy would bound from my couch, running. In slippers, she sometimes stormed the driveway, shedding bobbypins, dragging the Labrador-spaniel mix off by the collar, cursing him for the new hole in her fence. Still, Buddy would escape, ecstatic to see me.

Driving to my studio from my Los Feliz apartment, I've rounded the corner to see Buddy sitting in the middle of the street far down the block, waiting, a small gold lump surrounded by a sea of hot black asphalt. I often stop the car, the sight is that dear--dearer still because I don't own the dog and have never fed him. I want to freeze-frame the scene, preserve the surprise that love is around the corner, so present, patient. Trusting that you haven't forgotten.

Each time I pass Buddy, I roll down my window and tell him he's the best dog in the world. He runs to my purple studio door, and within 15 minutes I'm writing and Buddy's snoring. I'm sometimes tempted to lock Buddy in, and I fantasize about moving and taking him with me. But I never could, not because I couldn't separate Buddy from his owner, but because I'm not certain this dog can really be owned.

I began taking Buddy for walks two months after his first visit. I liked the feeling of faux ownership. I liked the idea of having a relationship again. He already knew the maze of Silver Lake hills we covered. He often sniffed ahead, waiting for me to catch up. We passed dogs that snarled and spun on tight chains, kicking up brown clouds in fenced dirt yards. I wondered about ownership, about leashes, and about running free.

We passed a porch thick with teenagers gossiping, waving Marlboros above their heads. They stopped, their tight adolescent stares loosening as they spotted Buddy, and then poured off the porch. "What a cool dog!" They asked how long I'd had him. I told them he was my office dog and their faces only grew brighter, contemplating such independence even in a dog. They told him to come visit, and a few weeks later as I pass the house with Buddy, a tennis ball arcs overhead. Buddy fetches it.

"We played with him all day yesterday," a 16-year-old boy tells me. His celadon eyes have lost the jaded, bored look he shot me that first time we met. His eyes ask me what a dog like this means, as if Buddy is some omen. I remember being like him, listening to the whole world, trying to fathom the mysteries of the heart.

Back at the gate, I look up at the white Spanish house in front of my studio. Rob and I shared it for nearly five years. I think about how unconsciously one enters love, but my inability to commit drove Rob as nuts as the shaggy Labrador we brought home from the pound one day--the one we returned the next morning. He made a mess of a house already cluttered with the subtext of our polite exchanges. We seldom argued. I wish we had.

Buddy growls at a cat in the wide front window, and I remember a scene from eight years before--a glowing dining room table strewn with expensive ceramics, packing cartons stacked in corners. Two men who once shared love haggle about which vase, coffee cup, bowl is whose. One of us sits with lined paper, balancing columns in the official tally, and in the other hand, a calculator.

In the years since, other men like Rob have wanted to possess me; I am all too aware that I have ached to possess others as well. I think of my friend John. He tells me, simply, that all he wants is someone who will hold his finger out, forming a perch on which John can land, and from which he can fly.

I sit in my studio garden watching a milk-white cat stalk a mourning dove. The dove escapes to a high perch, and I consider the mess I've made of love, the thwarted expectations and mismatched intentions. I consider the delicate balance men in love must find between power and vulnerability. How to hold onto one's power while exposing the heart to another?

Many claim success, producing as proof their decades-long unions. But peering close I see the not-so-buried power struggles, the mistrust, the relinquishing of identity for security. I'm reminded of Briquette, the dog I had as a boy, a spaniel-terrier that we fenced in the basement to keep from peeing on the living room carpet. I've always felt we failed the dog, which never learned to run free without being hunted down, dragged back by the collar. There was something sweet, but also restless, about Briquette, and, down deep, something angry.

Max has joked that Buddy probably visits all the studios in the neighborhood, sponging off writers, painters and artists who are grateful for quick romps in the garden and the productivity that the sound of background snoring brings. At first I didn't believe him. I wanted Buddy for myself, even if he spent nights at the woman's house. I knew my love for the dog was selfish. I didn't pay for his grooming and vet care, and I never hauled sacks of food home from the grocery store. Buddy's love felt nearly too free--love that I hadn't earned. Then I realized the thought itself was a tight leash that I had placed around myself long ago.

Buddy began to disappear for long periods about the time a new love entered my life as suddenly and brilliantly as the dog's appearance in my garden. I wondered why. Maybe Buddy had found a new alpha wolf, dogs supposedly being the products of their ancestry, trained to read social cues. I've reviewed research from the Dog Genome Project, and am aware of why dogs behave the way they do. I've read the infamous Atlantic Monthly cover story, "Why Your Dog Pretends to Like You," in which scientists explain a canine's unconditional love as a calculated ploy for food and shelter.

But that theory doesn't explain why Buddy tagged along behind me as I jogged around the Silver Lake reservoir, desperate for my smell. I wonder if those scientists have ever known the simple joy of a furry head on your thigh, or appreciated a rare, sudden intrusion in a well-kept garden, or the impossible ache that follows an unforeseen exit. Ultimately, my relationship with my new lover proved more illusion than reality. It didn't last.

My yearning for Buddy has faded, but my love for him has deepened. I may not see him for weeks, and at times I wonder if I will ever see him again. And then he's at my door, the burst of welcome as bright as ever.

If dogs truly are consummate generators of unconditional love, Buddy's brand seems higher than even that. This is a dog the Dalai Lama would own, I think. They both understand the meaning of a love that is so consistent, yet independent, and returned so abundantly. His Holiness would tell us it doesn't matter what it means, only that we accept it as we sit surrounded by a sea of black, so present, patient. Waiting.

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