When Joe and I adopted Cheddar, a scared, three-year-old blonde terrier mutt who looked like a small, fat, elderly lion, I was excited to have our first shared responsibility. It was a first step toward a long life of joining forces and making real, living things happier and healthier and stronger than they would otherwise be without us. Raising a dog was a teamwork-driven endeavor that would take real tact, compromise, skill, time and sacrifice.
This project happened to be very cute, with a tail that curled right up into a tight O-shape that balanced playfully atop its hind quarters. I’d sometimes put my hand through his tail and pretend it was a furry bracelet. The shelter said he’d be shy, but that’s all they said, and slowly he warmed up to us, starting to show shades of joy, feistiness, and mischief. We, in turn—two idiots with a cute new friend—spent way too much money on toys and treats, and rushed home from wherever we were everyday to be together with him: Three dummies in a one-bedroom in the thick August heat, flopped on our backs on the bed, bellies up.
Then Cheddar started getting scary when we passed other dogs on walks. At the slightest jingle of a collar tag, he’d tense and morph into an upright monster with a serious jones for blood. Eventually, walks became video games: Avoid all dogs at all costs, or get sued, or the worst-worst: Make the kid in apartment 3B confront mortality for the first time in his life, in the event that Cheddar eviscerates his family’s golden retriever. The dog park, or any parks, or any outside activity besides bathroom-going, became out of the question. It was disappointing, but workable.
Then he bit a friend who was visiting as she made her way to the bathroom. Out of nowhere, nose through the air like a dart, teeth in ankle, drawing blood. It was scary. We called a trainer, named Sari, and saw her often. It cost a lot of money. There were a lot of new rules. There was a lot of cheese, to give the dog as positive reinforcement. Stress. Fighting: “Sari said do it THIS way,” “No, I am pretty sure that way is the stupidest way I’ve ever heard of anything being done in my life,” and so on.
Sari said once during a training session she thought Joe and I were trying too hard to be perfect, and I knew she was right. We both wanted to cure Cheddar, make him good, and prove that we were meant to be together as a team. But, even deeper, when we argued over how to deal with the dog, I’d feel this nagging fear that it was foreshadowing how we’d be incongruous over every future project—owning a home, starting the business we dreamed up in a bar one night, raising children. Every time the dog lunged toward a skateboarding teen, every time we argued about the correct tone of voice in which to issue (rare) positive feedback, I cowered in doubt: Is this the universe telling us we aren’t meant to be married at all?
Then Cheddar bit more people. My dad and brother during Thanksgiving at our apartment. Our friend’s boyfriend. Me, when I nudged him while stepping over him and he thought I was about to hurt him. They weren’t scary bites, but they were fast, meaningful warnings. And they happened even when we were doing everything the trainer said to do.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. Cheddar was aggressive with strangers and dogs, but it came from a place of fear. And when he wasn’t scared, he was sweet, youthful and warm. In the apartment, just the three of us, he was the center of everything—and sometimes, I could trick myself into thinking we were the perfect-couple and perfect-dog owners I’d once fantasized we’d be. Laughing at his winding body chewing rawhide at the foot of the bed filled end-of-the-day silences. Waking up on Sundays with him knotted between us made us feel whole. And texting about the amount of pees peed and poops pooped and treats given every day made us feel responsible, functional—parental. Even commiserating over bad dog days with Joe felt like a special new level of intimacy, one just for us—one to be kept hush-hush as the dog looked on guiltily, chin flat on the mattress, eyes sad.
I wanted it all to give way eventually to a reborn Cheddar, but without fail, every terrible walk or scary run-in with a person brought on The Conversation: A sad, angry exchange where we’d unpack whether he was dangerous and whether it was time to re-home him. We’d set new last-straws: If he does X, he’s out of here. Okay, if he does Y, he’s really out of here. And so on. For a year.
Then he bit our friend Lib right in the eye socket. He’d met her a dozen times and knew her well but, after a calm evening spent watching television, he simply arched his back and hurled himself at her face—a first. After I pulled his body off of Lib and tossed him into the bedroom, slamming the door behind me, and saw blood dripping from under her eyeball and down her cheek, I knew it was time. Time for Joe and I to have our last iteration of The Conversation, and say goodbye to the dog we’d spent a year trying to fix.
One evening last week, we brought Cheddar back to the shelter that had given him to us a little over a year ago. I stood on the sidewalk while Joe filled out the paperwork. I cried and cried as the little dog circled around us nervously, sitting on our feet and pressing his face into our legs, confused. I cried harder when the shelter person came out to take him, and told us a lot of information I can’t remember, but one thing I will never forget: “I can’t guarantee he’ll stay alive.” I cried and cried when we handed her his leash and his bag containing his fluffy bed and his favorite toys. I cried and cried and cried as we walked away, Joe’s arms wrapped around me, people staring. We could hear Cheddar’s signature howls all the way to Avenue A.
Then we cried together, on a bench outside a Starbucks, because in New York, if you need to cry and you aren’t home, you just do it right there in broad daylight. Then we got Korean fried chicken and ice cream sundaes, and cried a little bit more, and I gave the finger to a happy couple that walked by with a dog, and Joe laughed. Then we went home to our dogless apartment, cried into one another, and got into bed.
Then Joe asked me how my day had been, aside from dropping off the dog. I told him about it, a dumb story about the office, the subway. We made jokes, we laughed on our backs, bellies up. And for the first time in many days, I didn’t have to think about the dog at all. We tried to keep it going as long as we could, and stayed up far too late.
Under the weight of hundreds of pages of gold-plated curlicued cake toppers that read “FOREVER AND A DAY” and advice about decorating vintage Rolls Royces with local wildflora, wedding magazines don’t forget to mention to you that you shouldn’t forget to plan for your marriage—not just your wedding—during the wedding planning process. It’s easy to get caught up in it all, warn the mags, in all the cake-topping and Rolls Roycing, and forget what a wedding is really about: Two people, joining in partnership, forever… and, well, a day, maybe. If you’re into afterlives.
Peeling the layers of our wedding planning back, I was scared to see losing Cheddar as a failure. Like maybe he was a symbol that we weren’t ready for forever, even if we were ready for a wedding day. It was something I kept coming back to, when we’d have our The Conversations. I was so sad to lose our dog, but even deeper, I was so scared to give up on the first project we tried together. But after that very bad day, when we cried fearlessly into one another in public, taking breaks only to try to make one another laugh, I discovered we were already acing a much bigger project with flying colors: Us.
So I think we’re ready to get married, already.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Lauren Rodrigue works in advertising in New York City and is marrying a total babe on July 16, 2016. Tweet her at @laurenzalita.