I’d been dumped by a man who was feeling ambivalent. We’d jumped into it all too fast. I adopted a coolly elegant tone and told him, “I set you free,” then hung up the phone and ugly cried for four weeks. Somewhere around week five, I got a fantastic breakup haircut, pretended I was fine, signed up for internet dating and assumed I’d never see him again.
At week six, like a guy sniffing around a beach with a metal detector, the man called. He wondered if he’d made a mistake. Also, the way I’d handled the breakup had impressed him.
I gave him an ambivalent “maybe.” I’d already convinced my friends I was the suffering heroine in a love tragedy, and that’s not an easy PR campaign to reel back in. Also, I was nervous. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, I can’t afford a second breakup haircut right now. Then again, I’d been scanning dating websites for a week and finding only what a friend calls “the leftovers.” And I really did like this man.
Over dinner, he showed me a dog he had found online. A red tricolor Australian shepherd at an Aussie rescue in Lake Elsinore. I won’t lie: The dog had seriously photogenic profile photos. He asked me to come along for the first meeting.
So there I was, conflicted about this newly defibrillated relationship, riding in the passenger seat to the Inland Empire. We pulled up to a house, and a dog with red curls the same color as mine raced back and forth at the fence, barking furiously.
Karyl, who ran the rescue, had named him Chance. “You know, like the ABBA song?” He’d been at the rescue for a year. He’d been trapped as a stray at 6 months old and had been at the rescue on and off for about a year. (He’d been given back by one home and had escaped from another.) His file warned, “Chance can and will jump a five-foot fence.” He was a dog with a rap sheet.
I sat on the ground, Chance immediately climbed into my lap (he was a 55-pound dog) and I thought, “Oh no.” It was the eyes that did it. He had human eyes. He was like a person trapped in a dog’s body. He’d look at you with a keen expression that said, “I wish I had the power of speech because, girl, we need to talk.” When we left with him, Karyl implored us, “If it doesn’t work out, please just bring him back.”
We never brought him back. And I fell in love with the man because of the dog. It was his kindness toward an “unadoptable” animal who had been written off by most people. That first night, the man slept on the hardwood floor with Chance to make sure the dog felt part of a new pack. It was a simple gesture, and I was stunned by the goodness of it.
And maybe I owe some credit to Los Angeles geography. It was 2008, a few months after the Writers Guild strike ended. Work was slow. Nobody was hiring yet. My apartment at Olympic and Robertson faced a busy alley and had no air conditioning. I had a group of single lady neighbors with whom I’d gather for wine in our Wooster Street complex (we’d nicknamed it Woosteria Lane), but my writerly “room of one’s own” suddenly felt small and hot and lonely. I knew that up in Topanga Canyon, where the man lived, there was a dog who would put his chin on your knee and gaze up at you as if he understood it all. I’d found a new pack. Maybe it was time to get over having been dumped in haste.
And maybe I even owe some credit to the canyon itself. To that feeling of turning off PCH onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard, winding your way up through hills and oaks and sandstone peaks where ocean murk creeps in at night, filling the place with Brigadoon mist. There’s a dental X-ray apron feeling of anxiety weighing on you as you navigate a writing career in Los Angeles, a city of haves and have-nots and pretend-to-haves and never-happy-with-what-they-haves. But on those afternoons, I’d turn right at the corner where beach meets mountain, and I was suddenly in the woods, hearing the sounds of hawks and mourning doves and coyote packs screaming like they’re watching someone open gifts at a baby shower. Most important, there was an Australian shepherd who wanted me to come hike at Red Rock Canyon Park with the man who adopted him. The man who would see his dog seemingly deep in thought and stop to ask, “What’s on your mind, Chance?” I didn’t want to lose this pack.
I realized the man deserved a second chance. The same one he’d given this dog. We went from ambivalent to back together to married. We were a trio.
Meanwhile, Chance’s rap sheet grew.
“This is a dog that needs to be managed,” said a trainer. A human had clearly done something terrible to Chance in his first 2 ½ years of life. If we were seated at a sidewalk cafe, Chance would wag his docked Aussie tail if a fellow canine walked by. But if a 1,000-year-old man with a cane shuffled past, those were the pants he’d lunge for. He once lifted a leg and peed on a friend’s Christmas tree. He was a serial humper. He stole off countertops. He destroyed a couch.
The morning after a dinner party, I found him on top of the table, surrounded by crystal wine glasses, eating the remains of a cheese plate. Seeing me, he went in for a last bite and then leaped over the stemware with a Baryshnikov-like grace. I once caught him finishing a loaf of bread and wondered if he might actually be my biological son. When a new neighbor remarked, “Oh, you guys have the fat red dog that barks on the balcony,” I explained he was a home security system you need to feed twice a day. Also, he was fluffy, not fat.
Earlier this fall, 11 years after meeting him, we said goodbye on our living room floor. They’d found an inoperable heart mass. He was in pain. We weren’t putting an almost 14-year-old dog through chemo. As the vet inserted the needle, he tried to nip her. He was Chance up to his final moment. Misunderstood by most. Loved by us.
We always called him “Poor little Chance” because of his rough start. My sister-in-law once gave us a dubious staredown and said, “There is nothing poor about that dog.”
Now that he’s gone and there’s a new rescue dog named Larry chewing our couch, I realize it’s true: There was nothing poor about him. He’s the old soul who helped me understand no human or dog is perfect. No beginning is perfect. You have to take a chance.
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