Life, Off the Leash

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In the beginning, I walked around the block. Or a couple of blocks. It didn’t seem to matter. That it didn’t matter was in itself novel. It had been a long time since I had gone out without any particular destination or direction, without knowing whether I was going to turn left or right at the end of the front walk.

I had no idea where all this was leading, though I like to think that even then I felt something tugging below the surface, the way a fisherman feels vibrations on a taut line and wonders whether something’s biting or it’s just the weight brushing at the bottom.

The simple aimlessness of it made me feel like a kid again. Back then, I was always out, had to be out, couldn’t bear not being out. Home from school, I shed books and disappeared, the parental refrain of “be home in time for dinner” trailing behind me.

Pete, with his boundless enthusiasm for the outside world, was like the reincarnation of that juvenile self. We’d hit the sidewalk and, like two kids with nothing special to do, spend a half hour meandering about. We were suburban vagabonds. In the mornings, with the whole world rushing to get somewhere, there was something almost subversive about roaming around with a companion who had no responsibilities.

And every once in a while, there’d be a night when the simple act of going away from the house and not coming back was like a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life. I remember one snowy night. This was one of those times when I really didn’t want to go out with the dog. There had been a party, I was a little tipsy, the house was warm, my bed beckoned. I had practically forgotten that we had a dog until I heard Pete’s desperate reminder, a single yip, issued from the direction of the front door.

I felt put upon. What was the story with this animal, this beast with its primitive needs? How could it continually rely on me to provide this escort service? Was it my fault that dogs hadn’t kept up with their evolutionary development? Where did this sense of entitlement come from? Was there a clause in some ancient contract between people and dogs?

I tried the last refuge of the reluctant dog walker–opening the back door and pointing to the backyard. Shouldn’t that be good enough? Do I expect a trip to the bathroom to be recreational? Get it over with, while I watch from the window. But Pete was having none of it. It was a showdown. All or nothing. He was incredibly stubborn sometimes. It had to be a real walk, him and me together, out the front door into the bigger world.

Finally, cursing loudly, I surrendered. Pete watched my every move as I put on boots, coat, scarf, and hat. At least he had the tact to forgo the celebratory tap dance. Out we went into the gentle night.

The snow was coming down hard, in big, sticky flakes. I shuffled down the walk, plowing two clean lines with my feet. The snow clung to every horizontal surface–tree branches, the curving contours of cars, house roofs, and porch railings.

The houses were all dark–not even the flicker of TV light. My virtuous neighbors were all asleep. No cars had come up the street yet. By morning, it would be plowed, shoveled, compressed, salted, melted, blown away. But for now, snowflakes lay undisturbed in airy piles.

I let Pete off the leash. He trotted ahead, up the hill, pausing to raise his leg at the fire hydrant. Even the hydrant’s small hexagonal top had a perfect plug of snow standing on it. The air was bracing, like a pinch of snuff in each nostril.

It was, in a word, beautiful. And I found myself reflecting once again on this minor miracle of dog walking: how, forced to do something–even something you really, really didn’t want to do–you could end up feeling grateful for it.

I felt wide-awake and strangely energetic. In the streetlights, I could see the precise slant of the snowfall. The low cloud ceiling reflected the light from the nearby city, making the sky unnaturally bright. I made a few snowballs and tossed them in Pete’s direction. They disintegrated in the snow at his feet. Finally, he caught one on the fly–or at least half of it.

We came around the last leg of our around-the-block journey. The house came into view. Its simple rectangular shape, its snow-covered roof and smoking chimney made it look like a child’s drawing. Curtains framed the darkened windows of the rooms. Up there, on the second floor, the children and Janet were sleeping.

How had all this happened? Out of a series of unplanned moves–marrying, having children, moving here–life had taken a good turn. It had all added up to something, after all.

Pete peed on his favorite telephone pole, the last stop before the house. Claire’s cat, who had slipped out with us, was pacing in front of the door. I loved the animals’ sense of entitlement, their certainty that this place belonged to them, as well as to us. I had created not just a home–but a den, too! I let them both in ahead of me.

Soon we’d all be asleep. Pete would find a spot on the floor of the upstairs landing or, more likely, on one of the children’s beds. He’d lose himself in dreams, feet twitching in anticipation of tomorrow’s adventures. He’d be the first one up, nudging the oblivious children awake. There would be no sleeping in when fresh snow was on the ground.

From the book Dog Walks Man by John Zeaman. Copyright © 2011 by John Zeaman, Used by permission of The Lyons Press, We came across this excerpt in Bark, a magazine for canine lovers interested in health, wellness, and doggie culture.

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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