I shouldn’t have picked up when he called. I know that. He just wanted to know how the dog was doing, anyway.
I look down at Nero, who is trotting along in pace with me. He snorts and pants as he moves his sturdy little bulldog legs. He resembles a little old man, all floppy jowls and low-hanging browline and underbite. It’s part of why I agreed to take him when Jake left.
It was weird that Jake called at all. He hadn’t called since he left for New York four months ago. I thought maybe he had called about my birthday, but he didn’t mention it. He just asked me how Nero was.
“He’s doing pretty good,” I had said. I looked down at Nero, who was licking himself in the ridiculous purple velvet dog bed next to my desk. My face was hot and my heart was still racing from seeing Jake’s number on my screen, from hearing his voice. “He still sighs though. When you don’t come home on time. Like a teenager, you know?”
“Yeah, I remember.”
There were a couple seconds of silence. I held my phone between my ear and my shoulder and my hands shook as I typed his name into the Facebook search bar. I wanted to see his face.
“But I think he’s getting used to it just being me and him,” I said. “It’s been a while. I think he gets it by now.”
His profile picture was of him hunched over a table at an outdoor café, smoking a cigarette and writing in a notebook. Poetry, probably. I wondered who had taken the picture.
“That’s heartbreaking, Dev,” Jake had said.
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. We were both silent. I grabbed an earth-themed stress ball that had been sitting next to my pencil cup for months.
“Jake?” I squeezed the stress ball.
“Yeah?” I envied him for how unaffected he sounded. He was always better at that than I was.
“Uh,” I realized I didn’t really plan what I was going to say next. I wanted to ask him who had taken that picture. “It’s my birthday.”
“Oh.” I heard him sigh. “I’m sorry, Devon.”
He hung up. It was probably for the best.
I take some steps forward and notice that there’s no more give to the leash. I’ve outpaced Nero. He’s decided that he’s done walking and is now just laying down on the sidewalk, head on his paws, back legs to one side. He snorts and sighs and looks up at me in defiance.
“Come on, Nero,” I say, tugging a bit on his leash. Part of me hopes that he sat down without realizing what he was doing. Nero looks up at me, but doesn’t budge. He raises his eyebrow wrinkles as if to say, “did you really think that would work?”
Ever since my boyfriend left me in a strange city at a new job, I don’t really talk to anyone but the occasional coworker and Nero. I’m pretty confident in my ability to speak bulldog now. It’s all in the jowls.
“Come on, boy,” I say again, squatting now so my face is level with his. I pat my knee as I say it, fisting my hand in an effort to make him think I have a treat.
No dice. Nero relaxes onto his stomach more, his back legs fanning out behind him like a frog’s. I smile despite myself. He briefly closes his eyes, forehead wrinkles falling over his brow, reluctant to stay awake.
I know how he feels. Jake had called me at six thirty in the morning. New York time, not California time. After Jake hung up, I spent three hours alternating between attempting to calm my breathing, looking at his profile picture, pacing, and waiting to see if he’d call again. The sun was up by the time I’d calmed down enough to get back in bed.
“We’re both tired, boy. But you gotta get up if we want to go home.”
I look around to make sure that no one has noticed the situation. Nero has stopped us in the part of downtown with a cluster of hip gay bars, the type that I probably should be going to in order to rebound. This dog’s got an agenda, I swear. I’ve been thinking about dating. It’s just that bars are so–I don’t know, they’re so compact. I get nervous being around that many people at once, all of whom are trying to sleep with someone. And it gets hot. So hot. I met Jake online. Ten times as many people to choose from with almost no socializing required.
But at two in the afternoon on a Sunday, the bars are unsurprisingly pretty dead.
I try standing up again, pulling on his leash gently but repeatedly. My key ring jingles on the keychain attached to the leash, swiss army knife banging against my keys. I hate this leash. Jake picked it out.
Nero doesn’t even lift his head.
I give up. I sit down next to Nero and push him on his side so I can rub his belly, his extra skin moving back and forth as he stretches under my touch. He licks his nose, jowls smacking together. He lifts his head up slightly to yawn, and there’s a small patch of drool where his head was.
I first met Nero after my third date with Jake, when we went back to his place after dinner. I was twenty-one. He was this rare, old-money type, and I’d never met someone who was so careless with his money or so carefree about his life. At his giant apartment, we settled into his plush leather couch, and Jake poured me a glass of red wine. Nero, who was only two at that point, wiggled with excitement at seeing a new person. He sniffed and snorted and drooled all over my hand when I held it out for him to sniff. Jake showed off all the tricks Nero could do, in that way that dog owners do when they know their dog is adorable. As I watched this six-foot-four mountain of a man say “roll over!” in a sing-songy voice, I knew I was all in. I wanted a life that was Jake-and-Devon-and-Nero.
I guess Jake didn’t want that.
So here I am, twenty-six years old today, alone with my ex-boyfriend’s dog. Devon-and-Nero.
“Not that you’re not enough for me, buddy,” I say to Nero. Sometimes I think he can read my mind. I scratch between his ears, and he leans up to lick my hand. “I love you.”
Maybe Jake thought I was drawing some weird extended metaphor when I told him that Nero was finally getting used to living without him. He should know better, really. He’s the writer, not me. I would have told him that if he’d asked me about how I was doing at all. I don’t need to cry for help through our dog.
If that was what he wanted, I could have told him that it’s easy for Nero to get over a guy that left him because “I just feel like this isn’t the life I should be living right now.” That Nero doesn’t want to be owned by a guy who thinks it’s okay to move his dog and his boyfriend to godawful Sacramento because “I feel like it’s where we should be” and then pack up and leave because “I need to find myself.”
“That’s heartbreaking, Dev,” he had said. What a condescending asshole.
“Is he nice?” I’m pulled from my distraction by a small Asian guy, no more than five foot three, who is beginning to move towards Nero.
“Yeah, go for it,” I say. The guy puts out his hand to Nero, who leans his big head slightly forward to sniff this new person. When he bends his head forward towards Nero, his trendy haircut stays put. He’s pretty cute.
“What’s his name?”
“Hi Nero, I’m Brian.” Brian pats at the ground and Nero, incredibly, picks himself up one leg at a time and pads over to nuzzle his new friend.
“Wow,” I say to Brian. I stand up. “You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve been trying to get this dude on his feet.”
“I would, actually. I saw,” he says. “I work over there.” Brian gestures at one of the clubs without looking away from Nero. He’s busy petting Nero, scratching him on the back like someone who’s owned a dog before.
Nero’s looking at me with his mouth wide open, panting happily. I try to take a deep breath, but it comes out shallow and shaky. I hope Brian can’t tell.
“Oh really? I just moved here a few months ago. I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never gone.” I’m talking too fast, but I can’t stop. “I don’t know, bars have always kind of put me off for some reason.” I feel my face turn red, and the late summer heat has nothing to do with it.
Brian stands up straight and looks at me for the first time, eyebrows raised. He’s so short that I can see right over his head, but the way he holds himself, chin up and chest out, makes me feel like the short one.
“It’s not for everyone, I guess. What was your name?” Brian asks. He touches my arm deliberately as he says it, as if trying to relieve some of my embarrassment, and a thrill goes up my arm. It’s cliché as hell, but I’ve missed that feeling.
“Devon,” I say. Brian smiles.
“So you’re new to town?”
“Relatively, yeah,” I say. My breathing is more even now, and I can manage to talk slower. “Coming up on six months. I’m from Eugene originally.”
“Oh really? Why move?” He winks at me conspiratorially. He’s probably poking fun at Sacramento, but now my mind is back on Jake. I breathe in sharply and feel my pulse rate start to increase.
“Long story,” I manage to say. It’s not a lie.
The second I say it, I can see that it’s not the response he wanted. Brian’s face falls a little, his soft grin has returned to a neutral expression and his brows are slightly furrowed, like I’ve disappointed him with how bad I am at small talk. So much for a potential first date. I should just stick to online dating.
“Well if you excuse me, I’ve gotta take my guy home while he’s still standing,” I say, gesturing to Nero. He sneezes.
“Cool. Well uh, maybe I’ll see you around some day, if you can stand to come to a bar.” Brian smiles again, but it’s flat. I can feel myself blush, this time with guilt.
I want to apologize to him, to tell him the real reason I moved here. I want to tell him about my phone call, about how angry I am that I allowed one phone call to totally set back all the progress I’d made towards becoming a functioning human being again. I want to tell him that I think he’s attractive and that I’d totally ask him out under normal circumstances. I could tell him all these things. He seems like the kind of person who would listen.
“Yeah, see you around.” Nero and I turn around, and I can feel the sun on my back as we walk away.