Good Dog

Good Dog: Ode to Joy

A patient pug lifts away the worries of a homesick poet in Kentucky

Photo: John Cuneo

“I miss my family,” I told him as he bent over his desk, at work on a story that he needed to file that afternoon. I was good at knowing when Lucas—now my husband—was on deadline and invariably interrupting him just hours before a story was due to talk about my feelings. He looked up from the gray computer glow and sighed. Not an entirely annoyed sigh, but a sigh that said, “This? Now? Again?”

We had been living together in Lexington, Kentucky, for three months. We first met in New York City, and then I moved home to Sonoma, California, to write. He, on the other hand, moved to Kentucky to continue working as a horse-racing journalist and to start his own business in the Thoroughbred industry. I thought I’d persuade him to move to California, and he thought he’d persuade me to move to Kentucky. Since my work—I’m a poet—didn’t depend on location, he won. We now lived in an old tobacco way station on Todds Road about twenty minutes out of town. Our neighbors primarily consisted of tree farms, horse farms, dairy farms, and more fireflies than I’d ever seen in my life. Still, I missed California and being close to my family. Lucas stood up from his desk and put his arms around me. He knew I had given up a whole different life to be with him. “Let’s get a dog tomorrow. You want a dog?”

He had always wanted a pug. He had owned one before and would go on and on about pugs’ personalities, their ability never to tire of endless affection. I, however, wanted to adopt a big dog. I liked to walk for miles down the tree-lined back roads of Lexington, and I wanted a dog who could keep up with me, a hiker, a guard dog, a beast. Still, he persuaded me to drive out to Bullitt County to meet a pug puppy, a runt, the last of her litter. I was skeptical the whole drive. Lucas and I had only been together for a little over a year, and here I was living with him in this complicated new state, getting a dog with him. Was I making the right choices? I stared out the window at the purple wildflowers that filled the empty lots between gas stations and warehouses. What was I even doing in Kentucky? Was I losing myself to his life?

Then I met her. She was a tiny fawn pug with a black scrunched-up face that made her look at once incredibly serious and ardently suspicious. She reminded me of me. I wanted to take her home immediately. Attaching herself to the collar of Lucas’s shirt with her sharp puppy teeth, she made it clear she wanted to come home with us too. I held her on my lap; she was a small, warm, sleepy-eyed loaf of bread.

Back at the house, I couldn’t stop staring at her or stroking her soft foot-long body. I didn’t want to do anything else but be with her. I wanted to name her something weird, and because she was such an odd-looking little girl, I came up with random names like Firetruck and Radio. To which Lucas raised an eyebrow and asked if I had ever named a dog before. We settled on Lily Bean Kudzu Marquardt Limón. The Kudzu is there because, as he put it, “she has taken over our whole lives.”

It was true. Lily Bean slept on my lap while I wrote. She slept in the crook of my arm as we slept. I canceled plans if it meant leaving her at home, and I brought her places if I could. She endeared herself to our friends by pooping in their living rooms and peeing on their bath mats. Of course, I still missed my family in California, but here I was making my own family with this man I loved and this dog that I couldn’t imagine living without. The green ease of Lexington’s countryside, the dog-friendly breweries and creek-side bars, all seemed to be made for us. We’d walk together down the shaded country road, hike in the Red River Gorge, or picnic for hours at Boone Station. I’d watch the way she looked at birds, or noticed something moving in the woods, and in doing so I became more connected to the land around me.

Once, when I set her on top of a picnic table while I wrote, a small butterfly flew right in front of her face. She opened her mouth and, surprising both of us, she caught the pretty little brown and orange thing. I gasped. Lily Bean’s eyes grew large as if she hadn’t wanted to hurt the butterfly and hadn’t had any intention of catching it in the first place. Then she opened her mouth again, and the butterfly flew right out unharmed. This sums up her personality: a small, benevolent god.

When we bought a house and moved closer to town, we started trying to have a kid. We’d been trying for a while, but now we were seeking professional help. The fertility treatments were a drag, sure, but the hardest part was the expectation each month that I might be pregnant and then the despair when we realized I wasn’t again. Each time I found out I wasn’t, I’d take a nap. It was my only way of processing. I’d gather Lily Bean in my arms and we’d sleep for an hour. She’d press her chin against my forehead—a position I have now come to see as taking the worry away—and snore while I let go of any firm ideas I had about the future.

When we finally gave up on fertility treatments and decided we’d be child-free, Lily Bean seemed more than fine with the decision. When people worried about me and asked if I was sad that we couldn’t have a family, I answered, truthfully, that we did have a family. A friend who was trying to be empathetic said that having Lily Bean was basically like having a kid, to which I laughed and replied, “Well, I can lock mine in a hotel bathroom for a few hours while I go out to dinner, so I think it’s still pretty different.”

But there is some truth to that sentiment. Lily Bean has made me more patient, more willing to stay home and take care of myself. She’s seen me write four books—two completed and two that should never see the light of day. She’s helped me build community. (Friends who will watch your dog and spoil her as you do are invaluable.)

There’s a sweetness to where I live. One of the things I love about the Bluegrass is that people aren’t in such a hurry and no one privileges busyness the way they do in bigger cities. You take your time, you talk to your neighbors while you’re out walking the dog, you breathe a little more. But that sweetness I feel also comes from Lily Bean. I worry about the overpersonification of our animals, but let me just say that Lily Bean is the kindest soul I’ve ever known. And she’s made me want to be kinder for it. I still sometimes grieve the fact that we couldn’t have a kid, but Lily Bean makes sure I know we’re a family. Just now, she’s come over from her bed, placed one paw on my knee, and given me the big eyes to remind me that it’s time to go outside—to wander in this place we call home.