Winston Churchill described his depression as a “black dog.” I imagine something big, hulking, and British, with jowls that sagged as low as his. My own is a pampered little chihuahua. It's a nasty lapdog that yaps all day, demands its fox-ears be cleaned with cotton swabs, its rotten teeth be sprayed with something minty. I lay down, close my eyes, just for a minute, and it jumps on my back. Hey, please calm down. It never does. It never shuts up.
I never owned dogs growing up, but friends did. I felt bad for those with embarrassing dogs, dogs who pee when they’re excited or hump visitors’ legs. The people look at you with apologies in their eyes. The dogs don’t care.
My chihuahua doesn’t behave in public either. It shakes, as all chihuahuas do. Little dogs are consumed at once by fire and ice, by anger and fear, every waking moment spent with their peanut-hearts on overdrive. And they’re needy. Those hairless dogs, they’ll die if you leave them alone too long. My chihuahua too goes wherever I go. It hates being around people, but it hates being by itself even more.
Today is hot, the third day of the East Coast heatwave. I walk four miles every day -- it’s the only exercise I can tolerate. Walking is good, gets the body moving almost as fast as the mind. Running is better, but I get nauseous. And the chihuahua gets mad when I’m too quick, when its teeny feet can’t keep up. It snaps even louder.
I was at a craft fair once, and they sold dog shoes, shoes for dogs. The guy pulled me under his tent and wouldn’t stop talking. I didn’t know how to tell him he was barking up the wrong tree, that I don’t have a dog and thus no need for dog shoes. The tent smelled like fresh tires, from the shoes. They were padded with rubber to protect against hot pavement.
As I walk in this heatwave, the air thick and hardening like concrete in my nostrils, I wonder if my chihuahua would calm down if it had dog shoes. Maybe it’s loud because it’s neglected. Maybe it’s trying to get my attention. I ignore it, but what if it’s in pain?
No, I’ve done that in the past. There’s no reasoning with chihuahuas. Once they get a taste of attention, they crave ever-increasing doses. You fix one thing, buy it dog shoes, and now it wants winter coats and bedazzled collars, caviar instead of kibble. Better let it starve. It gets more annoying the hungrier it is, but that’s just its fear. You can’t show them sympathy, or they’ll take advantage.
I looked up “winston churchill black dog” on the Internet and Churchill wasn’t mentally ill. That’s just a phrase he used that got blown out of context. When I was 17, I thought I’d get a tattoo of him, a stick-and-poke on the inside of my thigh. Thank God I never followed through; Churchill has done problematic things. Imagine, my legs are open and his face stares at you.
My ex-girlfriend got a tattoo recently, not of Churchill, but of the moon. She had a dog, an old, dilapidated thing named Gumbo who was rescued after Hurricane Katrina. That’s the nice thing about pretty girls, they love weird-looking dogs.
Our first date was at the Botanical Gardens. They’re lovely in December. The weather is delicious then, cool and calm and crisp, so different from this heatwave. The Gardens light up for the holidays, strings of red and blue and green glowing on every tree. At night, you see the whole place burning neon from miles away.
They synchronize the music with the lights. There’s a bridge that runs over a road and wraps in a “U” to the other side. The bridge is high, almost eye-level to the surrounding trees’ canopies. Long ropes of light dangle from the branches, as if giant glowing jellyfish washed up on the trees. Songs played from the Nutcracker ballet, and I asked my soon-to-girlfriend to waltz with me. I was nervous and wearing a turtleneck, so my usual sweaty palms now contended with a sweaty neck.
But everything was okay. I was saying the right things. We ended up on a wooden bench, huddled together like rain-soaked pigeons. I told her about my neighbors’ dog, a chihuahua named Scooter. He fell down a manhole and was rescued by firefighters. Poor guy was traumatized, shook more than usual. They put him on Prozac. He used to be so mean, barking at me whenever I passed by on my walks. Afterwards, he would just stare at me blankly.
She thought that was funny. She would lean into me when she laughed. I liked that. I felt normal, just a person on a date. The deeper we dove into the night, the longer I talked, the longer I listened, the more I deluded myself --- I can do this I can have this I can do what other people do. The chihuahua wouldn’t let it last.
I said the cheesiest things, but her hand ended up in mine. As we walked, the chihuahua ran in barking circles around my feet, biting my heels, scratching at my ankles. I kicked him away. He wouldn’t win this time.
Our second date, we went ice-skating in the pulsing heart of Atlanta, on an ice-rink bordered by screaming highways and skyscrapers. Since I broke my ankle, I wobble even when I walk -- there’s no hope in balancing on a razorblade. It would have been cute, me swirling and incompetent, no friction and all gravity, and her poised and balanced, holding my arms, keeping me steady. But the chihuahua said no. It delighted in me looking stupid, flustered, falling.
When chihuahuas yap on, the barks blend together into words. And when you hear the words enough, you believe them. The chihuahua didn’t like this girl. She took too much attention away. And so in its snide, insidious little ways, the chihuahua planted doubt in my mind, made me question her every wayward look, every yawn, every conversation curling away like the leaves of a dying plant. The chihuahua told me things about myself, and I believed it. It convinced me the only love I deserved was the weak pumping of its teeny tiny chihuahua heart. I ended up breaking up the relationship. I should’ve looked into professional dog trainers, people adept at training other people’s dogs to sit and behave. But that fat cat pride, she had me convinced the chihuahua was mine alone to tame.
My mom’ best friend had a chihuahua. She loved that dog. Spoiled it rotten, took it to get its teeth professionally cleaned. The dog dentist overestimated how much anesthesia a chihuahua needs and it died right there on the operating table. When my mom told me the news, a brief flash, an acidic gladness passed through my heart. I shushed it quickly. Of course it’s a terrible tragedy that the woman’s dog died.
I’ve only walked three and a half miles today but the heat and the creaking in my joints conspire against me. I turn back, ready to walk home. The chihuahua walks glad beside me, tail wagging side to side.