Pet Diaries: The Joint-Custody Dog Who Taught Me to Move On
Most people thought our dog agreement was unusual. My therapist told me I was replicating the joint custody my parents had of me after their divorce.
Introducing Pet Diaries: Life lessons we learned from our pets. This five-part series explores the ways pets have a positive impact on our lives. It's brought to you in partnership with Purina ONE® beyOnd®. Check out more stories at GOOD Pets.
When Kevin and I broke up nine years ago, we sold the Eames couch we bought together from a vintage shop in San Francisco. We couldn't agree on who would get custody, so selling it and splitting the $1400 seemed like the best way to keep things fair. My half would go toward the security deposit on a new apartment. I was moving out.
More difficult to divvy up was Chauncy, the 5-year-old bulldog mix Kevin and I had adopted together. But we did our best to split the dog down the middle, too. I found a new place right across the street. It was the best apartment I had seen, and hey, I liked the neighborhood, I told everyone. But really, I liked that Chauncy wouldn’t need to adjust to new sidewalks and parks and neighbors, and he’d be close to Kevin, too. I gave Kevin a spare set of my keys. He would come over every afternoon to walk Chauncy, and take him in when I was out of town.
Kevin and I started dating in college, then built a happy life together in San Francisco. On my 21st birthday, Kevin arranged to fly in a little puppy from an Alabama farm. We met him at the airport and named him after a member of an R&B group. Then, we moved to New York, and everything unraveled. We fought about spending too much money and not enough time together. Couples therapy failed to save the relationship. We thought we could stay best friends or, at least, close ones. Sharing Chauncy would help maintain the bond.
Most people thought our dog agreement was unusual. My therapist told me I was replicating the joint custody my parents had of me after their divorce. We thought it was weird, too, but Kevin and I were proud of ourselves for making the effort. And at first, it was really nice. I liked being able to make small talk with Kevin, and having my afternoons uninterrupted for writing at home. I also, I admit, liked vaguely keeping tabs on my ex. This mostly involved inferring details from his brief appearances in my life. How had his clothes changed—was he dressed up to go on a date? Did he seem tired from going out? Did he seem busier than me? Was he more successful at dating than I was? Was he lonely, too?
Sometimes, Kevin would text me on a Sunday at noon, asking if I wouldn't mind walking Chauncy that day. I would spend the whole day crying, assuming he was with a new girl. Once, at a party, a strange redheaded girl told me she knew my dog, which was a polite way of saying she had been seeing my ex. Whenever I heard Kevin was dating someone new—and there seemed to be a lot of them, girls whose names I’d never learn—I'd begin to rethink our arrangement. I’d practice the speech in my head. I’d tell him he simply couldn't come over every day anymore.
But while I was sometimes miserable, I knew that Chauncy was thriving. He had two owners who adored him. He never saw the inside of a kennel. Kevin had a car, and would drive him to far-off dog parks or whisk him to the country for the weekend. It seemed important for Chauncy to keep a link to Kevin. The arrangement stayed.
But my own link to Kevin was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. I started avoiding him, both socially and inside my own apartment. I skipped parties. I headed to the gym or out to lunch when he was due to come over. He had a serious girlfriend now, I heard, an art dealer. Every time I imagined her playing in the park with my dog, I felt like giving Chauncy a bath and washing her influence off.
Eventually, Kevin found out that his apartment—the one we once lived in together—was getting refurbished, and no leases would be renewed. He began scouting dog-friendly apartments across town. He could still have Chauncy for a week here or there, but the days of daily apartment visits were over. While he was feeding Chauncy one afternoon, I asked him how the house hunt was going. He said he found a railroad apartment in Greenpoint.
"Isn't that an awkward layout for a roommate?"
"Oh," he said, "I'm not moving in with a roommate, I'm moving in with Elaine."
I realized then that I wasn’t sharing Chauncy just with Kevin, but with the whole life Kevin was building apart from my own. I had to accept that by committing to joint custody, I would need to get used to another girl cuddling with my dog. It had been years since we broke up—Kevin wasn’t even my most recent boyfriend anymore!—and yet I had never fully accepted it.
It’s funny—all those years of seeing each other every day didn’t make us better friends. Instead, it kept us in a kind of perpetual state of breaking up. Only when Kevin stopped turning up in my apartment each afternoon was I able to understand that putting someone else’s needs first—the dog’s—required me to more closely monitor my own needs, too. Chauncy still got ridiculously excited every time he reunited with Kevin. I didn’t need to do the same.
Recently, Kevin and I took Chauncy to the vet. There in the waiting room, we exhausted all talk of how the dog had been doing. I realized we had almost nothing more to say to one other. The silence came as a relief. Finally, Chauncy was the last bond between us. We took Chauncy in together, made sure he was doing ok, then went our separate ways.