On becoming a dog person

Off the Beat

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The backyard grass has not been green since June. Its farthest edges feel like stubble, coarse and flaxen, punctuated only by dandelions and clods of dirt. Lately, afternoons have been all about water, with the hose unwound to battle the sun — a Sisyphean pastime.

My girlfriend loves her dog. She loves her dog substantially more than she loves me, in fact, despite our relationship being happy and full. And her dog, Ellie, belongs firmly at her side. When we run, when we cook, when we sleep, when we dance, Ellie is with us, making the moment whole.

I should clarify that I do not like dogs. Ellie barks when we come home, pines to go outside even when we’ve just come in, refuses to be touched or pet by almost anyone. She’s a pill. But my girlfriend loves this little pill, humoring her barks and indulging her moods. And when we fostered a puppy for half of July, we joked that we were “microdosing on parenting,” pretending to know how it feels to raise a child.

So I faced a quandary: Do I insist on clear boundaries, with dogs and people not sharing beds, or do I submit to my girlfriend’s happiness, letting her little rascal lick my face in the mornings? That brings us to the hose and the grass.

Ellie loves the hose. And when my girlfriend took the plunge of buying a home in May, I remembered how much I liked backyards full of grass. Growing up in Oregon, where my family has recently moved back after 15 years away, I recall grass in the backdrop of my purest memories — lush, emerald stretches unfolding everywhere. In my head, the Pacific Northwest is a forgotten corner of America, one that belongs to me, one with grass that will always be mine.

So to me, Ellie and I share the yard. For her, it is playground, respite and home; for me, it needs care, defense against summer sun. So we compromise with a game: In the afternoon, with the hose’s jet setting, I water the long-dead lawn, letting Ellie chase the cold stream, thinking she can catch or capture it, retrieve it for me. She’s a border collie — I’m told they like that sort of thing.

The grass never comes back, not really. And I don’t expect it to. Most days, I think the only one who believes my pretense of watering is me. Ellie, my girlfriend, her roommate, they all know I am there for the game, no less than Ellie is. She and I get time together, cavorting in the heat until we’re told to come inside.

In the beginning, our togetherness was for show. I loved my girlfriend and knew I needed to love her dog. Ellie was a not-so-implicit part of the contract of being an item. For better or worse, my girlfriend took our rapport personally, feeling her dog would be barrier or bond — depending on what I chose.

Editing columns this summer, I’ve repeated advice until it became my mantra: “How can you make this concrete?” I’d ask. “Your reader won’t care until they can see and touch the scene.” In a summer where my only real work was wordsmithing, I’ve thought endlessly about narrative, musing subconsciously about what makes a story sing.

All summer, I’ve been trying to tell my story with Ellie, for myself as much as anyone else. My parents have been bewildered to see me snuggle a dog, watching me permit her tongue to slather my face, their expressions approaching awe. To explain, I feel I need details, stories even clearer than the game with the hose. After a lifetime of discomfort and distress around even moderately well-behaved dogs, I want my story to be concrete. I want to understand why.

Confoundingly, I cannot. Each day, Ellie still irks me, making sounds or smells I cannot stand, and by rights, I ought to be fed up, bored with the heat, with her and with everything. But as we dance around in the wet, lifeless grass, I am not. Instead, I am thrilled. Against the odds and in defiance of reason, this high-maintenance border collie has become my friend and made me happy in the midst of the apocalypse. Inexplicably, I love her.

Next month, I reach a bittersweet crossroads: For a year, I will teach English in the western suburbs of Paris, and although the job feels like a calling, like a vocation and an adventure, I will be leaving my forgotten corner of America for longer than ever before. At 22, I’ll be striking it out alone, unsure where I’ll find myself after this year and bereft of the simplicity I’ll be leaving behind.

My girlfriend is a sturdier person than I am, resilient to more things and braver by far. And when I go abroad, she will retain the love of her life, a 40-pound border collie, who is her castle and her keep. When I am away, I will picture them lying in the yard, asleep together in her patch of Oregon grass.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.