When I was growing up, my absolute favorite book was “The Night I Followed the Dog” by Nina Laden. In the children’s book, a young boy notices that his trusted dog had been sneaking out every evening, always returning just as the sun came up. After spending night after night witnessing his dog’s inscrutable patterns, he finally works up the courage to follow his dog out on the town one night. However, after tailing his dog for the evening, he realizes that his dog has been sneaking off to a nightclub every night. After he sees his dog hastily ushered into the dark club by a pair of intimidating bulldog bouncers, the young boy rushes over to protect him. The bulldogs quickly turn around to growl at the boy, but the dog calls them off — “Let him go boys, he’s with me.” Turns out, the boy’s family dog was a bit of a dog mob boss in their neighborhood.
I still think about this book often, especially in the last year since I adopted my dog, Otis. Although I had many family dogs growing up in Texas, Otis is the first dog that has been my responsibility alone to care for. I had a vague sense that the experience would be different somehow, that our relationship would be stronger for spending so much time one on one, and I’d have a better understanding of Otis, as a fellow being. I just had no idea how, in addition to the beautiful relationship that Otis and I have developed over the last year, he would also support me in my own personal battles in life. Regardless of how the world whips by, the morning ritual of our walk around the block brings me back to solid footing. Even on days when I can’t muster the will to care for myself, I know I must get up and at least care for his several times daily — I have to put on clothes, feed him (maybe grab a snack for myself in the process if I remember), and spend at least 15 minutes outside a couple times a day — lest I risk him acting out. Don’t let the charming glint in his eye and toothy grin fool you, he’s an absolute drama queen when he hasn’t gotten a good walk in.
When I went through a rough breakup last year, Otis got me up and out the door, day after day, like nobody else could. It would have been so easy to feel so completely alone and isolated in my Brooklyn apartment as I put myself back together, but the multiple walks outside throughout the day always forced me to recognize the human experiences I could still share with my neighbors and strangers at the park, always brightening my day just enough to carry on to the next. Even just the routine of walks created the structure in my life I needed as a foundation for rituals of self-care, reminding my to feed and water myself just as I did for him.
A couple months ago when I was still living in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, I decided to visit a neighborhood friend while out on my evening walk with Otis. As is common for many apartments in the area, it had a makeshift patio area on top of the garage of the unit below. Although the patios look purposefully built in many ways, you can always tell they were a secondary addition because you often have to crawl out of a bedroom window in order to access them.
That evening we decided to go sit outside on the patio and enjoy one of the last pleasant evenings before winter struck, and we’d be forced to wistfully watch nature from the insides of our cramped apartments. Knowing Otis’ anxious tendencies, I gently put him out of the window ahead of me, gently cooing and trying to get him to relax out on the patio as I turned to try to scramble out of the window after him, trying to avoid having him run off before I had the chance to check on him. Before my friend could even utter the words “how does he do on patioo—OH MY GOD”, Otis had leaped over the low patio wall, falling a story and a half down into the backyards below. I scrambled in panic out the window and over to the patio’s edge to peer over and see Otis, motionless on the ground below. In that moment, our brief relationship flashed before my eyes. My stomach and I both sank to the ground, panicking at the realization of how deeply entrenched the 20lb gremlin had become in my heart.
I called down to him desperately, and, in that moment, my world came to a halt and I witnessed a miracle — Otis gave a quick shake back to consciousness, having knocked himself completely out on the pebbly ground (or, more likely, my Nona blessed us both that night from up in heaven). I bid my friend a hasty goodbye and ran downstairs to the bodega below, yelling across the counter at the teenaged deli cashier to please let me into their backyards so that I could retrieve my miracle dog. After getting past the presumed joke of it all, I was allowed to run out back to find Otis running around, thrilled at the opportunity to run around without my oversight, as if he hadn’t just come back from the dead. I swooped him up into my arms and ran out past the bodega full of onlookers waiting to see if my dog was still alive, and threw both of us into the back of a Lyft home. Even though we were just a couple blocks from my apartment, I couldn’t bear to spend even one moment longer out in the cold world. Like the comfort of falling asleep in the back of your childhood car as your parents drive you home, I felt a calm sweep over me in the refuge of the backseat as I often had after a hard day out in Manhattan. Although I was always half-heartedly attempting to keep a budget, there were some nights that I just could not bear to brave another moment out in the harsh realities of big city life, and a car ride home felt like the easiest, most delicious gift I could possibly give myself in the moment.
Ever since that wild night, I have come to understand and appreciate Otis’ resilient, sweet nature all the more. Although he was pretty much unscathed after falling off the patio, he did seem to have hit his chin pretty hard; his grin is even more scraggly than before, with several of his little teeths having gotten knocked out in the fall. That night, and many after, Otis and I took care of each other, and kept each other company as we braved the rough NYC grind — together.
When I decided to leave New York, I focused all of my anxieties about the upcoming, life changing move on Otis’ wellbeing. I dove into careful preparation for Otis’ voyage from the Brooklyn apartment he’d only just recently gotten fully comfortable in, to my childhood home in San Antonio. I had myself convinced that Otis was going to be absolutely traumatized by the plane ride; I threw myself into travel arrangements and vet visits, anxiously packing up all of my things ahead of time so that I could focus, distraction-free, on Otis during moving day. It never occurred to me that moving could possibly so easy if one starts 4 weeks early, rather than just one day. When I landed back in San Antonio, it wasn’t even a week before I went into COVID-19 quarantine; in a flash, my life had gone from being surrounded by throngs of people constantly and spending weekends out dancing with my close network of friends I’d come to depend on after 3 years in the city (like a damn fool), to co-quarantining with my mother and our collective herd of critters.
Although I know myself to be wildly lucky in finding myself at my mother’s house in our spacious, green neighborhood, the shock of sudden isolation sent me into a deep depression, leaving me powerless over my fear of what my beloved Brooklyn hideaways would look like the next time the city would be safe enough for my return. Although I feel comforted in knowing that my loved ones and I are strong enough in health to very very likely (knock on wood) make it through to the other side of this quarantine, I feel a deep haunting sense of foreboding in considering how life will be different when the US quarantine is fully lifted. When will it be safe enough to go out dancing again? I still feel the warmth and sweat of the throbbing crowds of Friends and Lovers on Funk nights, so deeply intoxicating and exquisite. I feel so incredibly lucky to have been young, wild and free in Brooklyn once.
I find myself going through a sort of grieving process for a lifestyle I never felt I fully experienced to its fullest potential. That’s the thing about living in New York City, the lively heartbeat of the city calls to me, reminding me that there are more adventures to experience amongst its streets. Although I’m sure I’ll see it again, I grieve the loss of my sense of young freedom, one where I didn’t worry about sharing a sip of my friend’s corona with lime, or think all that much of the beautiful, strange woman who pushed through the dark, dancing crowd to compliment my tinted glasses and gently kiss my cheek before slipping back into the throng, like a sweet drunken mirage.
As I’m sure so many of us isolated peoples are experiencing, I am bidding adieu to the olden ways, routines and ideas imagined prior to this viral pandemic quarantine, “the new normal”. I am sad to know I’ll never really know whatever happened to my cute Brooklyn neighbor who I used to run into every Saturday at the Prospect Heights Farmers Market, always convincing myself that I’d actually go ahead and take the leap and ask him out for coffee or something, just next time. As I so often told myself, “there’s always next time.”
Although nearly everything in my life has changed over the last year — I lost several close friends, lost my boyfriend along with them, changed jobs, changed managers (3 times), left my new “adult” home to move back to my childhood one, and given up the close friends I’d spent years desperately trying to connect with amidst the chaos of New York City life — Otis is still here to remind me, everyday, three times a day, that things also stay the same.