1.

            It’s either go to Italy or get a dog. She can only afford to pick one.

            Something happens to you when you hit your thirties, and it’s not just the baby clock ticking, although that’s been bothering Bria lately – a lot.

            No, it’s more a feeling that you’ve got to get serious with yourself. By the time Jesus was 33, he’d founded a major religion and met his maker – literally. Now that’s serious.

            She has just turned 33. What the hell has she ever done in her life, with her life?

 

            Don’t get her wrong – she was never a slacker. She has a good home, a career (of sorts) and has seen much of what there is to see of Paris, London, and Biggar, Saskatchewan (slogan: “New York is big, but we’re Biggar!”).

            No man, though. Well, sometimes a man, but never one she’d wanted to hang onto for long.

 

            “You’re too choosy, Bria,” her friend Stacy says, her nasal Brooklyn accent still noticeable even after two decades of living in Toronto. The words come out elongated, like she’s talking through a huge chunk of cheese and has to make an extra effort to enunciate. “You gotta be grateful for anything with a pulse. Look at Dan….”

 

             She doesn’t want to look at Dan. There is nothing about Stacy Bartelotto’s current boyfriend that Bria finds attractive. Not his face, not his clothes (almost exclusively Ed Hardy T-shirts and a good decade too young for his beer-thickened torso), not his conversation (hockey, monster trucks, sci-fi and hockey). Her only guess is he must be fantastic in bed.

             Sex. How long has it been since I’ve hooked up with anybody? Not since Paul, now that I think of it, and Paul was, what, two years ago?

             “Come on! You’re gorgeous, girl!” Stacy proclaims from her perch on the rose-chintz sofa that, along with a smaller couch by the window facing opposite, set the cheerful tone for Bria’s open-concept main floor. Flipping back a hank of black hair, Stacy fixes her full-lipped smile on her pal. “You’re blonde. You exercise. You’ve got big boobs, for gosh sakes! You should be beating them off, so to speak.”

            “With these man hands?”

            “Oh, they’re not that large.” Stacy studiously glances away from Bria’s hands and down at her own dainty fingers with their perfectly polished nails. “Why don’t you try online?”

            “Forget it – too many weirdos.”

            “That’s how I met Dan!”

             A brief silence hangs in the air.

             Bria bites her lip and pretends to flick some dust off the high polish of her walnut coffee-table before continuing: “And before you suggest it, Stace, forget the bar scene. Artificially induced affection followed by the 4:00 AM walk of shame is not my idea of great romance.

             "I guess I’m destined to be a loner.”

             I used to have more personal connections, she thinks.

            But now her family – her mum and three sisters – has scattered to other places. Her cat, Smokey, died the previous spring. Her dad died nearly 10 years ago, leaving Bria a small inheritance, which is why she was able to afford this pretty, semi-detached house they were sitting in, not to mention the wine they’re sipping.

            At least she could be proud of being a responsible person. Unlike what others her age might have done, she didn’t recklessly blow her wad on good times, bad men and worse memories.

            I did the smart thing, she tells herself. I invested in urban real estate, and it’s paying off beautifully. My house is already worth twice what I paid for it. Twice! Let’s see Jesus do that!

 

            She pours out another slug of Pinot for them both and curls back on her side of the couch, her unfocused gaze on the late afternoon sunlight streaming in through the front window.

            “I dunno, Stace. Something’s nagging at me that just won’t shut up. Do something with your life, it says. Crawl up and out of that comfortable rut you’re dug into. Redefine yourself ... So it’s either Italy or a dog.”

            She has enough money saved up for only a single option. Stacy, being half-Sicilian, plumps for the home country and Bria’s sorely tempted.

             Italy – a place she’s been dreaming of seeing for years now. The home of great art and music and food and wine and sexy, albeit hairy, men. If she stretched out her funds by living as frugally as possible, perhaps she could swing one month, maybe two, living that dream. Then it would be back to empty reality.

            Unless I meet a count or something who sweeps me off my feet and invites me to stay at his villa at Lago Como, showering me with jewellery and EuroRail passes. Fat chance.

            “You choose a dog, you’re looking at, like, 12, 14 years of real responsibility,” says Stacy. “That’s the kind that won’t go away when you get tired of it.

            “It’s just like having a kid, only a kid whose shit you have to pick up – in public, which is totally gross, by the way – all day, every day. Plus, it’ll always be needing toys and exercise and vets and licences and God knows what. That costs big bucks. And you think Mediterranean guys are hairy? Try a dog, honey.”  

            “I need to love something, Stace.”

            “Your funeral.”

            “Maybe I could give him an Italian name?”   

 

            It would have to be a him. Her family had had a male dog when she was growing up. Sebastian, the black Lab. What a lovely dog he was, so well behaved and terribly sweet. Gee, what a dog. She cried and cried when he died.

           Crap. That’s another thing to consider. Does she want to love something that will die way before she wants it to? It was hard enough with Sebastian and Smokey and, of course, her  dad.

            Like all unpleasant thoughts, she pushes this out of her mind. Scarlett O’Hara and she are kindred spirits in at least one thing: I’ll think about it tomorrow has always been Bria’s mantra, her method for dealing with unhappiness. That and junk food and junk TV. Nothing, she feels, soothes the soul so much as a big bowl of Kraft Dinner and a Toddlers & Tiaras marathon.

 

             “Him? So what difference does it make if it’s a boy dog?”

            “I don’t know. I guess because Sebastian was a boy dog. Except for Dad, we were an all-women family. I always wanted a brother ... ”

“I got one – you can have him!”

            “ … and Sebastian was the closest thing there was. I’d like to have that feeling again.”

            They both pause to top up their wine glasses.

            “And, who knows, a walk in the park, my dog meeting another dog with a handsome human attached – cue the romantic music... it could happen.”

 

           She is, for sure, a responsible person. Bria also possesses a brain larger than a peanut, so she isn’t going to walk into this blind. The right thing to do before even considering getting a dog would be to read up on the subject.

            Stacy, sensing that Italy has already lost the battle, pulls her tablet out of her purse.

            “Okay, let’s do this!”

            They google “dogs.” What a bad idea. Over two million available pages and counting. They narrow the search to “new dog.” That’s better – only one million-plus pages. Scrolling through the offerings, the pair hit on a kind of dating website claiming to match a person via lifestyle to the ideal dog.

            Like a Cosmopolitan quiz-master, Stacey drills the questions at her.

            “Small, medium or large?”

            “Medium, I guess.”

            “How active do you want it to be – couch potato, average joe, marathon man?”

            “Mmm … average.”

            “How much exercise time do you want to put in on a daily basis? Half an hour? An hour? More?”

             “An hour seems reasonable.”

             More questions follow, including one on grooming that Bria can only take an optimistic stab at.

             The site spits back multiple choices: Cocker Spaniel, West Highland Terrier, Miniature Schnauzer, Wire-haired Fox Terrier. Hmm. They all look kind of cute. Nowhere near as big as a Lab, of course. And none of them has that reassuringly square Lab head she's used to.

             “Let’s look at some more.”

            Stacy and Bria each take another gulp of wine. Maybe, Bria thinks, we shouldn’t be doing this half-blitzed….

            They move on to a picture index that showcases every dog breed in existence. Jeez, that’s a lot of dogs. Click, click, click. Hmm. Too short, too stocky, too hairy, too hairless, just plain ugly....  Bria finds herself pausing to read out the descriptions of her four “dating” choices.

            “Okay. Cocker Spaniel – ‘stubborn, doesn’t like being left alone, prone to something called Rage Syndrome.’ ”

            She glances over at Stacy, whose wide mouth twists into a grimace.

            “Pass?”

            “Pass!”

            “West Highland Terrier – ‘regular grooming, can have allergy-related skin problems.’ ”

            “Pass.”

            “Miniature Schnauzer – ‘they tend to express themselves vocally.’ ”  

            “Pass.”

            "Wire-haired Fox Terrier – ‘bores easily, requires a lot of stimulation.’ ”

            “Definitely pass.”

            Bria sighs. “I don’t know, Stace. Maybe we’re being too hard on them. I mean, I’m sure I’ll love whatever I get. But I just can’t seem to warm up to any of these models. I’m probably being shallow in the first place, checking out purebreds instead of getting a mutt from the local shelter.”

            “Yeah, but at least this way you know what you’re getting,” responds her ever-practical chum. “And, unlike a certain ex-boyfriend of yours, wouldn’t it be better to start off this relationship issue-free?”

            Bria wryly nods agreement.

            Click, click, click.

            “Stop! What’s that?”

 

            Medium-sized – check. Square head – check. Cute orangey patches on a short, white-haired body, with long, tufty fringes flaring out from the back of its four legs, just like those action streaks artists draw to indicate a superhero in rapid motion – oh yeah, check. Adorable, similarly fringed, triangular ear flaps – is that not the sweetest thing you ever saw? The sweetest face? Check and double-check....

             Wait a minute, Bria, what are you doing? Remember, you’re a responsible person. Don’t get swept away by a beautiful face and body.

            “It’s called a Brittany.”

            “Read the description,” Bria says, a trifle hurriedly.

            “ ‘Brittanys, formerly known as Brittany Spaniels, are easy to train, warm-natured and good with children.’ ”

             “That sounds promising, especially if my baby clock finally gets to me.”

             “ ‘Originally from France … ’ ”

             “It’s not their fault – you can’t hold that against them!”

              “ ‘… they are bred for independent hunting.’ ”

             “I like that – I’m independent myself.”

             “ ‘An athletic breed, Brittanys have long legs, and are sturdily built without being heavy.’ ”

            “Just like me!”

            “ ‘Their faces are intelligent and alert … ’ ”

            “Ditto.”

            “ ‘ … and their gait is elastic, long and free.’ ”

            "Hey, my gait is elastic, long and free, too. Gee, it’s like looking in a mirror, except for the pointy teeth and fur.”

           If, indeed, this was to be her dog, there’s obviously some truth to the saying that people resemble their pets. The same goes, Bria thinks, for look-alike married couples. It’s long been a theory of hers that people tend to fall in love with others who share similar physical characteristics simply because everyone’s pretty much in love with themselves.

            Stacy gives her a withering look before continuing: “ ‘Of a hardy and generally healthy disposition, they require only a backyard and a place to exercise where there’s room to run.’ ”

            “I have a backyard. And there’s a big park not far from here, where I’ve seen lots of off-leash dogs tearing around. What do you think?”

            “I think you’re nuts.”

            “And I think I found the perfect fit,” she says, giving her friend a swift cheek kiss. “Italy is just going to have to wait!”

 

            Bria does have a life beyond shopping for a dog.

            Okay, maybe it’s not much of a life, she thinks, but certainly a career that some might view as successful, if they don’t peer at it too closely.

            The truth is, her job isn’t much of a job. Sure, it sounds glamorous – copywriter for a boutique (read really, really small) ad agency in midtown Toronto. But when the bulk of your time consists of writing catalogue copy for a gardening supply firm and descriptive lines for hardware flyers, the glitter, to quote the old R&B song, rubs right off and you’re nowhere.

            She’s fallen into this position almost by default, temping over the summers as an executive assistant while she chipped away at an arts degree at the University of Toronto. After graduation, she found to her dismay this was the only real work for which she was trained. But she caught a break at last, landing a spot as secretary/receptionist at Splash Advertising, which led in time to a junior copywriting position.

            Five years, two small pay raises and one promotion later, here she was – in semi-career limbo, dealing with the post-33rd birthday blues and the big Dog Question.

©2016 Leslie C. Smith 

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