Three and a half years ago, when I got my dog, Lee, from an animal-rescue organization in New Jersey, I could barely contain my fantasies about our new life together. She would snuggle with my boyfriend and me on a Sunday morning! It would be paradise. And it is. She’s a master. She’s even managed to adapt to the string of men that have paraded in, and then out, of my life since I got her.
When my most recent boyfriend, A., and I finally had our last fight a few months ago, I stormed out of my apartment and went to the gym for an hour and a half. I came home to find a note on my computer: “I walked and fed Lee, and I’m leaving for X.’s house. A.”
To the untrained eye, there would have been nothing suspicious about this note. But as I parsed it more closely, I noticed something significant: He had referred to the dog as “Lee.”
Yes, that’s her name. But for the past several months, A. and I had almost exclusively referred to Lee by a completely absurd nickname, Roo.
It started as a bit of a joke, as these things often do. I had long been in the habit of calling her Lee-Lee, which to A.’s mind sounded a lot like “Re-Re,” as in “retarded.” So he started calling her Re, which very soon became Roo, and from Roo we got Rooey, and from Rooey she became the Rooster. We even called her the Happy Rooster—the name of an old-timey bar in Philadelphia where one can sing karaoke—which was down the street from my old job. On special occasions, she was also Rooina (or Princess Rooina) or the Rooling. Lee didn’t seem to mind these nicknames; as long as they were said in the same excitable, vaguely baby-talk tone of voice, she responded eagerly.
As I write these words, it almost seems like a betrayal: These were our secret nicknames! No one else called her Roo, or really anything else besides Lee. But what A. didn’t know is that Lee and I had both been there before.
My whole history with Lee has been intertwined with my (eventually failed) relationships with men. I adopted her partly because I had been dating this guy N., who wouldn’t shut up about wanting a dog. (In retrospect, I realize this was because N. was fundamentally antisocial and enjoyed the company of animals more than other human beings—including, it turned out, me.) I have to admit that at least part of the reason why I adopted Lee was out of some sick attempt to draw myself closer to N. after he had unceremoniously dumped me over the phone because of our “fundamental differences”—if I got a dog, the irrational little voice in the back of my mind said, then N. would want to bring his new dog over and hang out, and then maybe we’d get back together! This scenario, alas, never materialized.
But I soon started dating M., a union organizer who was going through a divorce. Even though we didn’t have much in common, we both loved the dog. But Lee could sometimes turn up at inopportune times. One evening, as we were groping each other in bed, I caught Lee staring at me from the floor. For some reason, it came to me to utter, “Stop looking at me, swan!”—a reference, of course, to Adam Sandler’s famous line from the frat-boy classic Billy Madison. M. naturally thought that was the most amusing thing he’d ever heard, and so we started calling Lee the Swan.
Soon the Swan became Swinners, and soon Swinners became Swinner-swan-swoon, and an entire vocabulary sprang up. Others have written about the secret languages that couples sometimes develop, and how the ability to converse in standard American English becomes increasingly difficult as the couples-only language takes over. (When you stumble upon another couple’s secret language, it can be embarrassing in a way that feels all too familiar—I recently heard a friend answering a call and squealing “Otter!” into the phone. You are headed down a dark and dangerous road, I thought to myself.) Connecting your secret couple language to an animal is even more insidious. Suddenly, you’ve become an ersatz family—if I’m the dog’s mommy, then it makes sense that my boyfriend is daddy, does it not?—that has its own secret language.
The first time I realized that it was all fun and games until it wasn’t anymore was when I asked M. one morning, a little too sweetly, if he wouldn’t mind taking Lee out for a walk. I was tired, and he was there. And besides, I thought self-righteously, he couldn’t just get all of the benefits of having a dog, could he? But then he said, “Yeah, but when we break up, it’s not like it’s even going to be a question about who gets the dog. She’s your dog.” That shut me up. He was right: Our whole fantasy world would soon come crashing down, and Lee and I were on our own again.
Sadly, this was a lesson I neglected to learn. After M. and I broke up, I went on a series of bad dates and drunken hook-ups; I went out a couple times with a slightly lecherous chiropractor who lived in my building, largely because I could just dash back to my apartment, mid–makeout session on his leather couch, and let the dog out for a quick pee. Fortunately, dating the chiropractor didn’t last long enough for him to develop his own nickname for the dog. That was probably for the best, since he’d confessed that when he’d owned a dog, he never picked up its poop because he thought that was gross. Not only was he lecherous, but he was also a delinquent dog owner. I stopped returning his calls.
Then D. came into my life; he was a freelancer for the paper where I worked. He was skittish about Lee at first, being a cat owner, but soon came around and started calling her the Thing—hardly the most original nickname, but it would do. The Thing engaged in “Thingery,” of course, and much to my delight, D. even started walking her. We broke up, we got back together, he told me I’d broken his heart. Maybe that was why I insisted on calling him Uncle D.—most decidedly not Daddy—for most of our relationship. But who was I kidding? The semantics hardly mattered; once again, I’d entered into a faux-family situation. So when D. and I broke up and I started dating A., I hardly thought twice about Lee’s new nicknames—until it was too late.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about why I fall into these situations again and again, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not alone. I look at my friends’ relationships, and everyone is so quick to start hanging out every single night, or move in together after six months, or invent secret languages and cutesy nicknames. But none of my late twentysomething friends are getting married, or even thinking about it. It’s much easier, after all, to have a fake family than a real one.
It’s so easy to fall into the same old patterns, but I’m determined that my next relationship will break the mold. I don’t need to play house anymore. No more nicknames or silly pseudo-baby-talk accents, either. I think it’s time I grew up, and I don’t think Lee will ever know the difference.