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Thatcher and me

January 4, 2010 1 comment

Mixed breed, half American Bulldog, half Dreadnought-class Destroyer


It’s the day after Christmas and raining pure slush from the sky. The temperature on the Upper East Side is about ten degrees too warm for snow, and the result is soaking through my jeans. That’s because I’m standing in oncoming traffic on York Street, losing a game of tug-of-war with a very large dog that has been trying to kill me for the last hour.
The dog’s name is “Thatcher.” My theory is that this is because he’s mean enough to declare war on Argentina with little provocation. Thatcher seems likely to declare war on anyone at the drop of a hat. At least, his attempt to drag me into the path of a commuter bus has suggested a certain orneriness. Thatcher is a mixed breed, part American Bulldog, part Dreadnaught-class destroyer. According to American Kennel Club, such dogs like to engage in an aggressive form of play that can often be mistaken for attempted homicide, and are recommended only for owners that have at least five years’ experience as an offensive lineman in the NFL. They also displace thirty thousand tons when fully submerged, and have a top speed of eighteen knots.
The idea of taking care of a dog for a few days sounded appealing when I first made the offer to my friend. I grew up around dogs. I’m a dog person. Or so I thought. What I really am is a dogs-that-are-smaller-than-me person. I had visions of myself on a sunny day reading a copy of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” at one of the city’s idyllic dog runs while my well-behaved charge trotted happily in the background with other dogs. She was going to be visiting family for Christmas, I was planning on staying in the city, alone. I needed something to get me out of the house, I figured, something to distract me from all the holiday cheer I was conscientiously avoiding. Nothing makes a lonely guy feel better than a trusty hound, right?
Those fantasies were immediately demolished when I walked into the apartment the first day. I say “walked in” as if I managed to cross the threshold. In reality, I ran into a wall of solid muscle and slobber that knocked me back three feet and planted me on my ass. So this is what it feels like to play defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions, I thought. Thatcher, his paws on my chest, looked down with an expression you usually only see in prison movies, the one that says “you’re my bitch, now.” In case I had any doubts about how literally he means this, his attempts to mount me every time I sit down drive the point home.
In such a sexually aggressive environment, it’s probably foolish to take my pants off, but I do it anyway. Seventy third and York is three avenue blocks east of the six train, and five blocks north. That’s as far away from a subway line as possible in Manhattan. The skies opened up on me during the twenty minute hike, without benefit of an umbrella. My jeans are now reservoirs slowly giving me hypothermia. I take them off to rest and dry off for a half hour, much to the excitement of Thatcher, who hasn’t had anyone to torment all day. I try to watch a little television while waiting for my pants to dry, but I soon realize that sitting in Thatcher’s vicinity is regarded as an invitation to be tackled. I try gamely to watch a few minutes of Superman Returns while fending off his attacks. I throw a ball for him, but the apartment is the size of a lifeboat. Thatcher retrieves the ball almost as soon as it leaves my hand.
He also destroys several items in the apartment while he’s at it. He knocks over chairs, tears through a futon mattress and head butts the wall. Every day I will visit him the destruction will have become incrementally worse in my absence. One day he’ll have gnawed a trash can to pieces, another day he’ll have eaten a text-book, later, a shoe. For sheer destructive power, I rank him at about thirteen kilotons. That’s worse than throwing an untamed horse in your apartment with a rattlesnake, but not quite as devastating as a tactical nuclear weapon. I’ve seen James Cameron movies with less carnage. I consider volunteering Thatcher for the US Marines, then realize he’s probably the last weapon you’d want to deploy anywhere near a civilian population. How a creature this devastating is powered only by dog food is a violation of the laws of thermodynamics that I can’t quite figure out, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with cold fusion.
Wet pants or no, I have to get him out of the apartment before he starts doing structural damage. He’s already taken out one load-bearing beam and it’s only a matter of time before he brings the entire building down on us if I don’t find a safe place to detonate him. I struggle to get his leash on him, an exercise about as difficult as trying to pin a collegiate wrestler who’s doused himself in canola oil. Once I manage to get him leashed and out the door, I almost immediately drop the leash as I struggle to lock the deadbolt with an imperfect set of spare keys. He immediately grabs the leash in his mouth and heads halfway down the stairs, stopping to throw a taunting look my way. “Hey, you can totally catch me. I’m just a stupid dog and you’re a clever human, right?” As I go to grab his leash, he runs out of reach. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did you want this? I’ll stay right here.” I lunge again, but he’s three steps ahead of me again. Suddenly, I’m back in sixth grade with the bullies who played keep-away with my hat.
I try subtlety, slowly sidling up to him while looking somewhere else. He gives me a withering look. “I’m not falling for that, you know.” Finally I throw myself at him, and after a brief struggle regain hold of the leash.
He doesn’t let go, though. The leash is supposed to give the human leverage over the dog, the idea being that even an animal that’s bigger and stronger than you is likely to stop when you yank on his throat. Thatcher’s figured out the basic mechanics of the choke collar, though, and taken the appropriate counter measures. With the leash in his mouth, whenever I give it a tug, he yanks me back with twice as much force. I’m not so much walking him as he’s walking me. I struggle for a few minutes before giving up, and he drags me around a few block wherever he wants to go. I conserve what energy I have left for throwing all my force at him when he decides to jump up on old ladies with canes, which is frequently. I might as well be walking around town with a loaded firearm. I keep the leash as short as possible and watch for the slightest move on his part toward humans, other dogs, pigeons, and cars. His favorite trick is to come to a complete stop while we’re in the middle of a crosswalk, forcing me to physically drag him out of harm’s way. After fifteen minutes, I’m just glad to get him back to the apartment with no fatalities.
The next afternoon I think our relationship has improved. He’s responding to commands like “heel” and “down” and “Stop dragging me in front of buses.” When I get him back to the apartment, however, he’s decided that taking my pants off is now part of our daily ritual. You might ask how a dog would go about depantsing someone. They start by biting you in the crotch. I’m fortunate in that he manages to avoid major arteries and he only has a mouthful of denim rather than a mouthful of something else. But it’s a little hard to see the upside of your situation with a large predator violently yanking you around by the groin.
Due to a strange set of coincidences, I received more than my share of self-defense and weapons training as a child, and I’m actually relatively adroit at fending off an attack. But self-defense mostly comes down to anticipating your opponent and training yourself to react without thinking. Unfortunately, I was never trained to fend off an attacker that has his teeth that close to a sensitive nerve cluster. I’m afraid of yanking myself out of his jaws, because he’d just try to regain his grip, and his second bite my not be aimed as courteously. I stand perfectly still for a few seconds while he continues to yank my button fly off me. It’s actually somewhat clever: given the mechanics of the button fly there’s an outside chance he’ll succeed in tearing them off. He doesn’t give up though, and I realize if I want to go home I’m going to have to fight my way free. Thatcher and I grapple with each other: I grab him by the neck, he literally has me by the balls.
What happens next is something akin to the subtle, wordless detante between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Realizing our capacity for mutual assured destruction we slowly, warily, release our respective grips on each other. The process takes several hours and requires some last minute heroic diplomacy, but in the end a crisis that could have limited my ability to procreate is averted. We stare at each other across the tiny studio apartment, realizing we’re locked in a mythic struggle of wills, man against beast, no quarter asked or given.
Paradoxically, at the same time that we recognize the intractable nature of our conflict, we also realize something more disturbing. Whether we liked it or not, each was completely dependent on the other. I like to think it had to do with the Manichean, good versus evil dichotomy, but that wasn’t it. The truth is, it was the dismal, lonely week between Christmas and New Year’s. The city is cold and empty, and we had only each other. Despite the fact that our relationship was driven by our sole, shared desire to rid the world of each other, it was the only relationship either one of us had at the moment.
I should have abandoned him. After texting my friend about what a colossal pain in the ass her dog was being, she offered to let me off the hook by hiring a professional dog walker. No need, I texted back. I can handle him of a few days. I told myself I was just being honorable, fulfilling a promise I’d already made. But I knew better. The truth was that miserable hour commute from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side had become the high point of my day, often the only chores pulling me out of my studio in days. Despite our wrestling matches in the middle of city crosswalks, Thatcher was still better company than my television. We were stuck with each other. This is what our lives had narrowed down to: half hour walk with the enemy.
Resolving to improve our relationship, I stop by Petsmart before our last walk for a new leash to replace the one he chewed through, and a rubber tug-of-war toy marketed as “Indestructable! Long Lasting!” I can tell something’s wrong two flights below Thatcher’s apartment. He’s not barking, the first time in a week I haven’t heard him woofing at my approach. When I unlock the apartment door, Thatcher looks at me placidly. So does my friend’s roommate, a tiny Filipino woman who unexpectedly took the day off work. After wondering what the hell I’m doing walking into her apartment unannounced, she tells me she already took Thatcher on his walk.
I stare in shock. I have enough trouble handling him and she’s half my size. She shrugs when I ask her how she manages. Thatcher launches himself like a torpedo at me. Before he can land a paw, the roommate’s on top of him. She subdues him without touching him, some sort of voodoo hex curse she does with her eye and a short incantation. Thatcher lies down meekly, absolutely terrified by a woman who’s established herself as the alpha dog of her apartment. At me, he continues to growl. I offer him the chew toy as a peace offering. “He’ll go through that in about five minutes,” the roommate tells me. I scoff. “It’s marketed as ‘long lasting,’” I say, showing her the label. I give the toy a playful tug but Thatcher has already torn through his end. Like the monster in Alien, his bodily fluids seem to be composed of a highly corrosive acid. He continues to gnaw happily on the remains of the expensive rubber toy.
I leave the apartment feeling oddly dejected, remembering the pitying look Thatcher gave me as he looked from one of us to the other. “It’s not you,” he seems to say. “It’s me. I just need to be with someone a bit more forceful. But I really enjoyed our walks together. Well, I really enjoyed dragging you through the street, anway.” And that was it. Thatcher had moved on. I’d been dumped by an American Bulldog.
For the first time in days I walked home without feeling completely exhausted, though bedeviled by a strange emptiness. My apartment, as always, was spotless when I got back, the bed made, the dishes put away, the edge of every book on every table aligned in parallel with the walls. No dog had ever shat on my hardwood floors, or chewed through my running shoes, and none ever would. Still buzzing from the adrenaline rush I’d experienced in preparation for walking Thatcher, I looked around for someplace to ground my excess energy, and decided to go for a walk myself.
When I found myself haunting my local dog park, I told myself my destination had nothing to do with subconscious feelings of rejection. Sitting on a cold damp bench, I pulled a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s out of my jacket and read. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a large woman in a puffy winter coat gather up a West Highland White Terrier, the same breed of dog I’d grown up with. She carried the little thing with her left arm, undid the latch to the gate with her right. I snorted to myself. What was the challenge to owning a dog like that?

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