The Beginning

Later, much later, after Alison had taken me into her home and her life, she told me that I was born on her birthday, April 2. All I know for sure is that my first memory was of lying next to my poodle mama and some scrabbling, groping, slimy, slightly furry creatures. I was the baby, the only female, and I came out with a surprising color—black! A lady picked me up and turned me over. Hey, what are you doing? You can’t just pick me up like that and—

“This black girl has a gray marking on her chest and under her chin,” said the lady, peering at me over her glasses. “The others are brown with no markings.”

Is that a good thing, that I’m different already, before I have even opened my eyes? I have decided yes, it must be a good thing. I am already a special puppy; this much is clear.

One of the puppies wasn’t wriggling around like the rest of us. They came and took him away. “Too small and delicate,” the lady said. “Poor little guy. He’s on his way to the Rainbow Bridge.”

What’s a rainbow? What’s a bridge?

Wait, forget all that—what is that charming smell on the lady’s fingers? It’s pungent! Quite stimulating, actually. What can it be? I think it’s a food item, but I can’t seem to place it. . . . Well, I’ve only had a few things to smell so far, and I’ve got about three memories in the memory bank. I’m going to need more clues if they expect me to solve such deep mysteries of life.

I’m trying to get a sense of my surroundings. Let’s see . . . I am lying on newspaper, and I have to report right up front that this is not very comfortable. This is not what I expected. Well, I don’t know what I expected, but this newspaper certainly isn’t it. Didn’t they just say I was special? That I was black, not brown like the others? Actually, now that I think this over, I’m feeling a bit confused because I really cannot see anything. No black, no brown. My eyes are still mostly shut. I feel my way with a little nudge from the lady with the odor on her fingers as I inch over to my poodle mama. She is lying on a comfier surface with padding inside a covered type of metal box. I try to get in prime position before my two brothers get there. They are busy licking each other and I block their way, hah! If they want to feed first, they will have to pay more attention. Do not underestimate me! No sirree! Oops, I just tumbled over . . . and now I’m up again! Triumph!

There’s so much to do around these parts—wrestle with my brothers, sleep, pee on the bad newspaper, sleep some more, and jockey for position when it’s time to feed. After having my fill, I pee, curl up into the tiniest ball, and snooze. Busy, busy!

I don’t know how much time has passed. A lot? A little? My eyes are fully open now. There’s plenty going on out here! I look forward to seeing the lady and smelling her strong odor. She certainly is an odd one, because I can’t tell what she’s all about. She doesn’t provide milk. She doesn’t seem to pee or nap. She doesn’t wrestle. What a lonely, hollow existence she must have. Instead, she brings over short, yappy humans, who are very loud and clumsy, and who try to poke their fingers at me.

“Be careful of the puppies, kids,” the lady says. They like to look at my brothers and me and giggle. Every time we tumble over each other, they howl and laugh. When they come close enough to touch me, I kiss them on their noses, which makes them squeal. Is there something wrong with them? I have to admit, though, I enjoy the excited sound they make. Clearly, they think I am very special, because for everything I do, they make that noise. I have to admire their energy! I am going to make a little mental note of this, that tiny people are fun and they have a great attitude toward me. I can hone my innate comic abilities on them. They acknowledge, as I have suspected since the day I was born on Alison’s birthday, that I am the center of the universe.

“Don’t take them out of the crate,” the woman tells the kids. Is this a crate? Will this be my new life? It feels pretty good so far. I can play with my squirmy brothers any time I like, and I feel safe and protected when I’m huddled with them in one big, squirmy ball.

The lady also visits the crate sometimes without the giggling little humans and strokes all of us, even my poodle mama. Sometimes she rubs behind my ears, and it feels really good! I reach up and kiss her on her nose. I am a good kisser.

But then, after giving me such a nice rub, comes the worst thing ever to happen in my entire life—the lady leaves! That’s right, whenever she’s done with her visit, she stops petting us and she leaves the room. I moan and cry until I cry myself to sleep. I can’t help it! What have I done to merit such harsh treatment? Was I a bad puppy? But she kept saying I was a good puppy! Why does she have to leave me?! My brothers don’t seem to notice, but I don’t like it at all. Even after a nap, I remember that I’ve been utterly abandoned and I scrabble frantically around the newspaper, hoping the lady will come back soon. Surely if I cry again, she will hear my urgent plea.

If I were to think it through, perhaps I would remember that this happens all the time—the lady shows up, she scratches me behind the ear, she goes away, and eventually she comes back again. But that is a very long train of thought, and I am a very tiny puppy, and all I know is that the lady has abandoned me, no doubt for the rest of time.

Here’s an idea, one of my very first—I can get my poodle mama to nestle me! I am the cutest: I am black with a gray marking on my chest and under my chin, and she will just have to nestle me.

But my poodle mama is resting. She is not interested in nuzzling me, and she can’t scratch me behind the ear like the lady does.

My brief little life is over before it has truly begun.

A Special Puppy

There was one special dog before me. This is what I later heard.

Alison was always partial to poodles, ever since Remington—“Remmy”—and Natasha, the black poodles of her childhood.

“You know how things like that stay with you,” Alison later told me, although I did not know what she was talking about because I was too new to have things stick that long.

“They don’t shed,” Alison would tell people when they asked why she was so partial to poodles, because poodles like me have hair, not fur. Also, we are super smart and bursting with pride and personality, and we’re fun. . . . Well, all that goes without saying. So, when Alison talks about how we don’t shed, she’s hiding all the love and pain that comes with attachment. My opinion, sure, but I have good opinions—I’ve had several so far, and they are very science based and full of poodle wisdom.

Who can say why one breed of dog touches someone’s heart? When Alison’s parents separated when she was six years old, they split up the kids the way breeders split up the litter—different ones to different homes, no rhyme or reason, just the way it eventually happened with my brothers and me. Alison’s older sister and brother went off to live with their father in a new apartment in Manhattan. After three years of separation, Alison’s mother took her and Remmy the poodle to Las Vegas until the divorce was final. Remmy was Alison’s only friend for a while. Maybe that’s why she’s got this poodle fixation, not that I disagree with her excellent taste.

Alba came along when Alison was fully grown. Dark chocolate, large for a miniature, unlike me. You can have poodles all your life, but then one special one comes along, and for Alison, that was Alba, my sister in heaven.

It turns out that Alison never went back to the neighborhood park for weeks after she lost Alba. Not only was Alison her poodle’s number one mama and caretaker; she also became Alba’s nurse day and night toward the end.

It seems Alba suffered from one thing after another during her fourteen years, two months, and six days of life, before she crossed over the Rainbow Bridge. I now know that is where all dogs go when they finally leave the park. They cross the bridge to a place where they can run free in lush meadows and the grassiest pastures filled with wildflowers. They chase dozens of squirrels that clamber up trees to rummage for their nuts. They hear the songs of chirping birds and they get to be with all the other dog friends who long ago left the park and never came back. If a human hears the term “Rainbow Bridge,” their eyes water and they get the sniffly nose.

Alba succumbed on a frigid February day, during an intense blizzard with near-whiteout conditions. Alison had somehow gotten her to the v-e-t wrapped in Alba’s favorite blue blanket. When the v-e-t arrived, it took only one look at his face for Alison to know that it was time to let Alba go.

But she could not let Alba go! Some days, she could barely climb out of bed. It was weeks before she returned to the park where Alba used to take Alison for walks. Alison told me she thought of it as a test to see if she could go places that sparked memories of Alba—which was really everyplace. She had been here with Alba, and here and here. The Italian restaurant with twisty noodles down the block. The lobby of the building where she lived, where she and Alba went downstairs to pick up the mail. She now saw the world through Alba-colored glasses. And the park—oh, the park! Just one big jumble of Alba memories! Alba had walked Alison in the park so many times, because Alison needed to be walked at least a couple of times a day. Although it was a great responsibility, Alba was up to it. Poodles are very loyal that way.

The park was directly across the street, a block away from where Alison lived in a building so tall that they called it a high-rise and required dogs and their people to ride up and down in a large, noisy box called an elevator. An elevator is a box where humans try very hard not to look each other in the eye, because this was New York City, where no one looks each other in the eye, just like in the animal kingdom. Staring directly is considered a challenge.

“There are too many people here,” Alison explained to me. “We do this to give each other space.”

Space? There is not much space in a mechanical box that moves up and down, so I didn’t know what she was talking about. My Alison, alas, can get very confused and is not the sharpest claw in the paw, but I grew to love her anyway.

In the park, there was a children’s playground where the shorter humans fearlessly climbed the monkey bars, shouting, “Look at me! Look at this!” to their mothers and fathers and nannies on the sidelines. The mothers and fathers and nannies had forgotten how to play, because that’s what happens to humans when they get taller, so all they did was yap. Yap, yap, yap. They had become too stiff to play-bow, and they ate their treats out of bags without having to perform tricks first. I’ll never understand humans.

In the children’s playground, there was a little section with swings. The ones for toddlers had plastic bucket seats, and the ones for taller humans had metal plates to sit on. The taller humans tirelessly pushed the smaller ones and made odd sounds, like “Whee!” Alison had longed to go with Alba on one of the plank swings, but she never got around to it. Partly, she was embarrassed because she thought it was really only for children, and she was afraid to look silly. She said she always regretted not going on the swing with Alba. I was like, why didn’t you just do it? But I get it. Alison, like the moms and dads and nannies by the monkey bars, had forgotten how to play.

Tall pin oak trees lined Riverside Park, along with an abundance of wooden benches where you could look out over the Hudson River. It was a very picturesque area and had brought Alison a lot of pleasure. Now, though, everything there reminded her that Alba was over the Rainbow Bridge. Instead of remembering how the two of them would sit on a perfectly chosen bench beneath a sprawling honey locust tree, listening to the laughter and happy cries of the short, boisterous humans over in the children’s playground, she saw only a lonely bench sitting in the barren wasteland that was now her life. Instead of remembering how she would count the forty-nine steps down a stone staircase when Alba took her on one of their longer walks, she saw the cold, gray steps to an eternal, Alba-less hell. Oh, that Alison! Someone needs to lick her face.

When Alison finally returned to the park without Alba, she watched with longing as other dogs walked their humans, prancing along or pulling at their leashes because their humans were so poky. She wasn’t sure she was up to petting a dog that was not Alba, but when a big and cheery golden retriever tried to jump up on her, hoping to get a pet, Alison relented and touched the animal’s thick, soft fur. Alison buried her face in the fur and started to sniffle.

“I’m so sorry. My dog just passed away a few weeks ago, and it’s still raw,” Alison apologized.

“I get it,” said the dog’s person. “When I lost my first, I had a terrible time. Come to think of it, it doesn’t get easier.”

Petting the non-Alba dog did not kill Alison after all, so when a black-and-white cockapoo stopped to nuzzle her leg, Alison reached down instinctively.

“Oh, I’m sorry, may I?” Alison asked the dog’s person, but her hand had already gravitated through sense memory to that special place behind the pup’s ear.

She braced herself for a major breakdown, a grief fest, but the soft, plush feel of the dog’s coat, the silky curls, and the quickening of Alison’s pulse gave her a sudden insight: this was what she was missing! She would have to get another puppy.

Months earlier, a poodle breeder named Agnes had friended her online, so Alison raced home to look up the breeder’s profile. All of Agnes’s dogs looked healthy and happy, and she had a slew of five-star reviews from satisfied humans. Alison fired off a text to the breeder, asking if she was going to have a litter anytime soon and explaining her terrible grief over the loss of her beloved Alba.

“I’m only interested in a black female,” Alison typed.

“I suppose it’s possible,” the breeder typed back, “but most of my pups are chocolate.”

“No, I definitely don’t want that. My Alba was chocolate.”

“I’m not a crystal ball.”

This Agnes sounded a little crabby, even in her texts.

“And she has to be healthy,” Alison messaged.

All my pups are healthy.”

“When is the next litter due?”

“End of March.”

Alison did the math, which was not hard—the end of March was only a month away! That was hardly any time at all, considering the panic and anxiety and second thoughts and night sweats that Alison would need to pack in before actually picking up that puppy.

A few weeks passed, and Alison was jumping out of her skin.

“Hi, Agnes. It’s Alison again. I just want to know how things are going with the puppies.”

“I KNOW WHO YOU ARE,” Agnes typed back. “Nothing new to tell you from two minutes ago.”

A few days after that: “Hi, it’s Alison again. . . . How is the mama poodle doing?”

Half a day went by before Agnes texted back: “I’ll let you know WHEN I KNOW.”

Alison’s friend Michael, an architect she used to date, but with whom she’d remained close, took her out on her birthday, April 2.

“Do you think the mama poodle is okay? Because the breeder said the end of March, and it’s already April . . .”

“Hon, come on, we’re gonna toast to your birthday,” said Michael. The waiter had brought them two glasses of pinot noir, and Alison and Michael clinked glasses. “To you, honey. You’re going to have a great year.”

“What if no black female is born?” said Alison before the glass even touched her lips. “Maybe it’s too soon anyway for another dog.”

Michael sighed. “You’re just going to have to wait and see.”

Alison hardly tasted her salmon as she continued to check her phone for messages. “Do you think maybe something’s wrong?” she asked Michael, whose attempts at non-puppy conversation had gone nowhere.

It wasn’t until Alison was home and getting ready for bed that the first message came in from the breeder. The dam had begun to whelp.

“Chocolate male,” Agnes texted.

Oh no, thought Alison. Please, please, not chocolate. I cannot look at a chocolate poodle and not think about Alba.

Half an hour later, another chocolate male.

A few minutes passed and a third chocolate male arrived, although the breeder thought this puppy might be too frail to survive. “One more to go,” she texted.

Alison knew that yoga breathing was a very handy thing during a stressful time like this, so she breathed in deeply . . . and then forgot all about yoga breathing and went back to hyperventilating, which was easier and more familiar. Anxiety was her wheelhouse.

Then, at 11:20 p.m., Alison received the final message of the night. Despite the late hour, she just knew that Michael would enjoy being roused from bed for this exciting news.

“Huh?” said Michael when she called him, sounding totally asleep.

“Michael, Michael, Michael!” Alison said with all the comportment she could muster. “Guess what? A black female was just born! And on my birthday! It’s a sign!”

“It’s a sign you’re nutty,” Michael said with a slightly grumpy voice. “Hon, I’m happy for you, but why don’t you just go to bed now and let me go to bed, too.”

Six weeks later, Michael drove Alison about an hour away to New Jersey, where the breeder lived. She fidgeted with the radio the entire way.

“Honey, I can’t take any more Bee Gees. Could you look at the map so we can find this place?” asked Michael.

“What do you think she’ll be like?” asked Alison.

“She’ll be special. Are we on the right road?”

“Different from Alba, right?”

“Alison, focus!”

 Once they found the large, beat-up looking two-story house in West Milford, they rang the bell and heard an immediate siren of barking dogs. An elderly heavyset woman in a flowing smock answered the door.

“Hi, Agnes. I’m Alison . . .”

“Fer cryin’ out loud, you think I don’t know that? You are too much,” said Agnes. “Wait over there on the couch.”

The designated couch was cluttered with towels and newspapers. On the coffee table, Alison almost knocked over one of the many trophies with Agnes’s name on it, along with her winning dog. There were photographs and blue ribbons on the walls with all of Agnes’s prize-winning poodles from over the years.

“At least she really does breed poodles,” Alison whispered to Michael. “That has to be a good sign, right?”

“Do you think she lured you here under false pretenses to sell you a schnauzer?”

“Stranger things have happened.”

Agnes came into the room holding a black poodle, but Alison was confused.

“Um, is that the new puppy? It looks a bit . . . older,” said Alison, treading carefully for fear the breeder was a bit psycho.

“Don’t be ridiculous, this is my Chloe,” said Agnes as she plopped herself down on a chair, the elderly poodle on her lap. “Well, what do you think? Do you want the puppy or not?”

Alison exchanged a brief look with Michael. He seemed to be suppressing a giggle.

“Well, yes, I think so,” said Alison. “But perhaps I can meet her first?”

“Listen, you, I have a waiting list for my dogs. I know city people think you can have whatever you want, but you need to tell me right away if you want her or I’m moving on to the next taker.”

“No, don’t do that!” said Alison. “It’s just . . . can you bring her out with her two brothers? I’d love to see them all together.”

“The two chocolates are already sold.”

“Yes, yes,” said Alison in her most reassuring tone. “I just want to see them together. There’s nothing so joyous like seeing puppies romp around, right?”

Agnes grimaced, clearly at war with herself over whether to maintain her haughty saleslady face or melt at the shared obsession with all things puppies.

“Okay, I’ll bring them out. Fair warning, though. The girl is needy. She was the only one that cried when I left them. Do you work in an office? Because it’s better for this one if you’re home a lot.”

“Yes, I’m home a lot,” said Alison.

Agnes grunted and made a big show of getting up from her chair, as if Alison had asked her to climb Everest instead of going to the next room, but soon, the two male puppies came running and tumbling through the door. They came right over to the couch to get a good look at the two new humans. They nuzzled Alison’s leg.

“It’s like they know you need a puppy,” said Michael. He had gone with Alison when she first got Alba, back when they were still a couple, and had helped with puppy training.

The two puppies started running all over the room until they ended up beneath the chair where Agnes had again taken a seat with her ancient dog in her lap.

Drum roll, please—because this is where I made my first entrance. I was a mighty black beauty, even though I was only a pound and a half, and I had a pink bow that perfectly offset the silky black of my hair. I kept a little distance from the new humans because, really, who were these two and why was one of them making squeaky cooing sounds of delight?

“Can I put her on my lap?” asked Alison.

“Be my guest,” said Agnes in a tone that didn’t sound as hospitable as her words.

Alison picked me up in her arms and held me to her chest. She squeezed me like she was going to flatten me out. Hey, take it easy!

“Oh, little girl,” said Alison. “I’m Alison. I’m so pleased to meet you. Am I going to be your new forever person? Your new mama?”

And then she did something that was very curious. It was the first time I saw her face leak. Later, I would see it all the time, but this was new to me and a little strange. I felt droplets of water plink onto my beautiful black coat. I hoped this lady was not going to keep leaking like that.

Wow, her chest was beating so fast.

“Michael, she’s so quiet,” said Alison, wiping up the leak with the back of her hand. “Do you think she’ll have a personality like her brothers?”

Whoa, I have plenty of personality! Oodles of poodle personality! How could she not see that?

“Just give her time. She’s a baby,” said Michael.

At least the other human seemed to get it. What did this Alison person expect? I was six weeks old. I had barely met any other humans except for the lady with the intriguing odor on her fingers and the children who kept waking me from my naps.

Alison kept squeezing me against her chest. It felt good and safe, but it also felt a little tight. I needed to get it across to her that she didn’t have to squeeze that hard.

I knew just what to do—I kissed her nose.

“Well, do you want her?” asked the breeder impatiently.

“Yes, yes, I want her,” said Alison. “Now my life will be happy.”

I have to admit, I was beginning to feel the same way.