As a queer person, I’d had no role models growing up, had to stumble through every relationship, learning how to love as best I could. Dog fostering was a kind of parallel crash course.
CAIN: I DIDN’T KNOW
I explained that Cain wasn’t mine. That I was only doing someone a favor, that this wasn’t real. But my words were hollow. He was not mine, but he was, the way being good to Marie was my responsibility during the time she was in my life. I had a responsibility to care for someone even if I didn’t consider them mine. The weight of understanding and shame was heavy in the humid Somerville night, that giant beast beside me, head high, staring down the street as though he’d hurt no one.
VINNY: BITING ALL DAY
Shortly after Cain’s mom got back on her feet and reclaimed her dogs, I graduated from college and moved to Manhattan, still dating Marie, who also moved to the city. I contacted a rescue about adopting a dog, and the director suggested I start with fostering. My first official foster was an orange foxy Shiba Inu who I named Blueberry. I was never allowed to name another dog after that.
I picked up all my foster dogs from the city shelter in Harlem, then cared for them and evaluated them at my apartment while working with a rescue organization to get them adopted. Once, I brought a friend to a foster pickup and she fell in love with a skinny brindle mutt. The next day, I called the shelter about the dog and learned that every dog I’d seen yesterday was now dead. They’d been euthanized through a daily practice to make way for more dogs. I was horrified. Cain’s situation had not been unique.
After that, I couldn’t stop fostering. Every dog I took in was literally a dog who didn’t die—that’s how high the turnover was in Manhattan. But beyond the horror of stopping, I loved fostering, loved the chaos and affection and wildness of each new charge.
A year or so into fostering, I was assigned Vinny, a sleek rust-colored Chihuahua—not the spindly kind but solid in his body, like a shrunken corgi. He was saddled with a hopeless behavioral issue called “no bite inhibition.” Most dogs who struggle with biting have warning indicators. They growl or raise their hackles or show their teeth, back away or flatten their ears. Vinny went from sweetness straight to the most ferocious bite his little jaws could deliver, which was surprisingly bruising. He was untrainable because his behavior was unpredictable, even to himself. If he didn’t know when he was about to bite, no one could stop him before he did.
Vinny bit my roommates several times. He bit Marie in bed. He never bit a stranger, but still, every time I walked him out of my apartment, which was right beside an apartment that served as an unlicensed daycare, I stiffened with fear. Everyone in my life hated Vinny and couldn’t wait until he moved on.
But I couldn’t help loving him. I loved his autumnal coat, his jaunty waddle, his attentive ears, the way he studied me with the dark eyes of a human. He never bit me once. I bargained to keep him: What if he was muzzled all the time? What if I removed his teeth and fed him dog-food soup? What if I lived alone forever, never seeing another friend again?
I was in my early twenties, and, even in my postcollege artsy party scene, I was the most social person I knew. I had two roommates and Marie, walked miles a day all over the crowded streets of Manhattan, lived in a tiny dark room, and frequently traveled to visit my aging parents. Once I went out every night for sixty nights straight, took a night of rest, then went out for forty nights. I struggled to fit a hostile creature into this overpopulated life.
I’ve failed to leave every single relationship in time, have hung on for months and even years too long. With friendships, I’m even worse. Being a queer child in the suburbs with only the first trickle of the internet was lonely, and I trained myself early to say yes to any social function, to cling to friends even when they treated me poorly. As a child I had friends who tickled me until I cried and punched me in the face and forced me into dresses. As an adult, I’ve faced the emotional equivalent of those gauntlets.
My instinct is to be forgiving, to try to understand where people are coming from and meet them where they are, even if this process isn’t always wise and causes me much pain. Vinny was different, because he meant no malice, but keeping him would’ve made my life impossible. I’d done what I could for him, for months, but all the people in my life were stressful to him, and he to them. I had to let him go, had to love him from a distance somehow. So, toward the end of our time together, I released him in my heart, little by little, the way I’d never yet been able to with even the cruelest friend.
I might’ve eventually managed to let Vinny go on my own, but, in the end, the rescue intervened, finding him a home with a woman who owned several other problem biters. Once he was gone from my life, I moved through the world so much more easily. I began to understand what it might mean to let someone go who was hurting me—though it would be years before I’d be ready to release a human friend.
I’m sure Vinny’s dead now, but for years I imagined him with his aggressive brothers, nipping and chomping, and the work his new mother had done for them, her arms dotted with puncture wounds, and I longed to hold him again, missed him desperately even as I knew our love was only temporary and that I couldn’t give him what he needed. Even now, I try to be happy he found a home, but I still can’t help feeling guilty that it wasn’t with me.
LENNY: WHO WENT SOMEWHERE ELSE
When I selected Lenny as the next foster, Marie disagreed. She preferred I choose a young man named Oreo—fluffier, younger, sweeter. The picture of Lenny showed a small black supermutt who looked about a hundred years old. He had a huge nose and confused eyes, a wiry, grizzled muzzle.
“But he has character,” I said. “Look at him.” I won out, and the scrawny, weaselly dog seemed even more elderly in person. Marie and I fell in love with him the moment we saw him. His hair was turning white all over. He was devastated by a common but often-fatal pound disease called kennel cough. He hid deep under my bed as though seeking a private place to die, refusing food.
The only way we could entice him to eat was by sprinkling his kibble with parmesan cheese. With this incentive, he gobbled down a whole bowl of dried pellets. Slowly, he gained weight and strength. Slowly, he began to love us, though he still looked as ancient and frail as ever.
I began to understand what it might mean to let someone go who was hurting me.
Marie’s parents loved Lenny too, so much that they adopted him themselves. From then on, Lenny was still in my life, the way none of my other fosters were. But he was no longer mine. Whenever I visited her parents’ uptown apartment, I wanted to grab him and manhandle him and reprimand him the way I always had, but I had to be respectful. After Marie and I broke up, sometimes years passed between sightings of Lenny, and, as he grew older—somehow he lived ten years post-adoption—he didn’t always remember me.
My experience of letting Lenny go while keeping him in my life echoed back years later. One night, years after breaking up with Marie, she announced to me at a party that she was now dating a woman I’d been briefly involved with years before.
I grimaced. Despite having been out to friends as queer since I was twelve, I’d never had the apparently common queer experience of two people I’d been involved with dating each other, and the idea was horrifying, even though I was many years into a committed relationship with the woman I thought at the time was the love of my life. My first thought was, You can’t find someone new? We’d all been friends together in college, but more than a decade had passed since that time. Marie was gorgeous, brilliant, charming. Weren’t there new people for her to date? People I hadn’t drunkenly snuck off with from parties years before?
Breaking up with Marie had been an adjustment already. In the immediate aftermath of our breakup, when I’d see her around, I’d longed to interact with her in the old ways—kissing her, touching her, speaking to her intimately with our old nicknames and secret jokes. But I couldn’t—she wasn’t “mine” anymore. When she started dating this other woman, the dynamic got weirder. Two people I’d kissed were kissing each other. Their involvement was like the world telling me that, possessive Scorpio though I was, I owned no one. As soon as I let go, anything could happen. I would’ve weaned Lenny off the parmesan, but he ate it all his life.
Last summer, I jumped naked into the sea with Marie and her girlfriend outside their rental house on a remote beach. This was a few years into their relationship, and I hadn’t noticed that, over time, I’d become accustomed to them together, had actually grown to enjoy spending time with them as a couple. We’d been to picnics and parties together, had cooked dinner and played games in the drafty house, storms raging all morning. That night, in the dark, in the churning sea, I realized that being with them, even naked, even in the midnight undertow, wasn’t uncomfortable now, that I didn’t long for more from either of them, that I could look across the salt and the effervescent jellyfish and love them both in some way that wasn’t possession.
Lydia Conklin has received a Stegner Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, three Pushcart Prizes, a Creative Writing Fulbright in Poland, a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, a Creative Writing Fellowship from Emory University, work-study and tuition scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, Djerassi, the James Merrill House, and elsewhere. Their fiction has appeared in Tin House, American Short Fiction, The Paris Review, One Story, and VQR. They have drawn cartoons for The New Yorker and Narrative Magazine, and graphic fiction for The Believer, Lenny Letter, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. Last year they served as the Helen Zell Visiting Professor in Fiction at the University of Michigan and they are currently an Assistant Professor of Fiction at Vanderbilt University. Their story collection, Rainbow Rainbow, will be published in May 2022 by Catapult in North America and Scribner in the UK.