Central Park in spring was magical. Leaves began to reappear on bare trees; the sun rose earlier—soft and shy—just waking up after winter, turning everything into a warm amber. It all looked new; even the benches glowed in a different kind of radiance. As the days grew longer, so did my walks with Scylla—first to the drinking fountain where she played with water; then up past the Belvedere Castle where the squirrels once more scurried about. I would stuff my hands into my pocket, engage in an imaginary conversation and smile to myself as I heard Scylla’s chain jingling up ahead. Every now and then, she’d stop and look over and make sure I was there, before she ran on again.
Scylla was pale silver, had the long, curly eyelashes and never walked on a leash. She loved eating carrots, was deathly scared of baby strollers and ran up to every man who wore dark pants. She thought they were her ‘daddy’ who no longer lived with us. She measured eleven inches when the standard height was thirteen, had un-cropped ears and her beard was always matted. Scylla was my six-year-old Miniature Schnauzer. She would be an instant disqualification in the show ring, but in my eyes, she was perfect.
She entered our lives when Erik, my boyfriend and I lived on the Lower East Side—by the low-income houses of Avenue D. He worked at a bar when I met him—as a twenty-one year old trying to find herself. Nothing could have been more thrilling than to date a New York bartender with long black hair and leather pants who was stopped in the middle of the streets to be asked if he was a famous rock star. Erik was the only white person in the building. As people spoke to me in Spanish by the bus stop, “no habla Espanol,” was all I managed to say. But it all became home—the faulty drainage system in the bathtub that frequently filled up with water; the astrologer downstairs who lived in the studio with her two young sons; the dodgy twenty-four-hour bodegas; the Dominican children screaming—it was our first apartment together and the uncollected garbage on the curb made it all the more romantic. Everything was exciting in the eyes of new lovers: staying out late, pointless arguments, even the division of household chores. After a few years we made a commitment—a puppy. I already had two cats named Lucifer and Mephisto and observing that theme, yet wanting to be a bit subtler this time, I scoured ancient Greek mythology more diligently than I ever did school assignments and finally decided on the name Scylla.
Becoming a dog owner was an entryway into a parallel life—a street within our street. We met Hot Stuff, the Welsh Corgi and Max the Pit Bull; we met Sasha the immaculate Maltese and Baron, the mini Dachshund. They poured out of every building: teacups, giants, some adorable, some not—they were everywhere and all that time, we had been blind. Owning a dog seemed to give us a unique perception into the comings and goings of a neighborhood. As we crossed paths during our walks and stopped to discuss grooming salons, we befriended all the dogs in the vicinity. The smile in the morning, or the few words in the afternoon, gave us a sense of importance and meaning. Those who previously just menaced our sidewalks now became our daily companions.
Scylla reminded me of my twin sister: their disheveled hair, their crooked walk, and their clumsy limbs. When my twin would visit, she slept in the raw and snuggled close to me, saying, “I feel like we are in the womb together.” There lay between us, not just flesh and blood, but an openness, transparency, and comfort that I never even shared with Erik who had quit bartending by then. I judged him. I judged that he was jobless; spent too much time on the computer and watched far too much TV. I judged that I paid the rent and received nothing in return. With my twin, as with my dog, my love was unselfish and instinctive. I didn’t expect, I didn’t measure and I never wanted anything in return.
But mostly the similarity between them lay in their eyes—they shone in spirit and they danced in laughter; they swam in pity as they drowned me in guilt. When we were children, I would beat my sister, making her bleed and pulling out her hair. She never raised a hand, never said a word and silently bore my rage. In those eyes I was always innocent and that sometimes made me angrier. Scylla never told me that I was late while she had been patiently waiting; that I had slept much too long when it was time to be taken out. She never said she wanted a treat or an hour more of my attention. She never so much as let out a whimper in protest. She just stared at me while I tried not to look.
My grandmother would always ask why Erik and I hadn’t married. She’d say, “Now why don’t you just give up those animals and have a child instead.” I’d laugh and say, “It’s not the same thing!” “But of course it is,” she’d reply, “You don’t have to do anything after they’re eighteen years old.” In a way, the overwhelming responsibility of having Scylla deterred me from having a family of my own. I couldn’t fathom a responsibility more intense than this. Erik and I squabbled over everything when it came to her—from housebreaking to teaching simple commands. If I told her to “sit” while we ate dinner, Erik would say, “Come on, hoppity-hop” and make her beg for food; if I said, “stay” when I walked in through the door, Erik would let her jump all over him. Sometimes I wondered what we’d do with a real child. We’d never even discussed marriage, and there we were, blissfully hiding underneath the weight of parenthood.
We decided to move shortly after we got her. Erik cut his long hair, stopped dyeing it black and looked for a full-time job. After several years of living together, we realized we were ready to move on to the next phase of our relationship—and for that, we needed a new apartment. I had rarely been above 14th Street before and the Upper East Side was a different world. The streets were spotless like the white gloves of the doormen on Park Avenue. The children didn’t run up and down but were pushed along in strollers made by racecar manufacturers. We had to pick up after our pet or risk being yelled at by passers-by who threatened to call the police. The dogs were cleaner, the trashcans were emptier and the buildings all had names.
We lived on a main thoroughfare, on the cusp of two worlds—on the east were the newly married couples who were moving in by the flock, eager to have their share of Manhattan real estate and finding reasonable prices. They were the ones just starting out together; embarking on a fresh journey. They aimed high, as high as the upper 90’s. As the avenue numbers lowered, the Chinese takeout joints increased and the grocery stores stopped carrying fresh-baked bread.
On the other side was Park Avenue—dotted with doctors’ offices. The sidewalks, flocked by mothers dressed in running gear and immaculate hair, discussing their children’s summer camps. Further west were the designer stores of Madison Avenue and even west of those, by Central Park were the museums and historic buildings. We were stuck in the middle, in no-mans-land—a brownstone full of students and young professionals, unable to fully commit to our jobs, our sweethearts or our futures, yet eager to move up in the world. We led transitory lives, not knowing which side of the avenue we would eventually land up in.
We didn’t know our neighbors or the corner deli guy; didn’t get good coffee or the newspaper on credit. We were outsiders in our new home and we trespassed the streets like shadows at night while the other dog walkers literally crossed over to the opposite sidewalk to avoid us. We were without faces or names and our neighborhood was just our courtyard, a stepping-stone back to our confined apartment. To make matters worse, Scylla became pregnant and we—the neighborhood’s shame and disgrace.
In New York, it is an unwritten law that all dogs should be spayed or neutered so as to reduce unwanted strays that burdened the overflowing animal shelters. The casual mating of an animal was viewed as a despicable, immoral act, parallel to teenage pregnancy. But Erik’s family, who were breeders, wanted to mate our Scylla with their stud. They believed it was cruel to prevent procreation; heartless to take away what God had bequeathed us. “How can we intervene?” his Catholic mother would say. “But isn’t it also cruel to encourage unwanted puppies that would litter the streets?” I’d say. Finally I relented, not in purposefully mating the two dogs, but in accepting the consequences, should nature take its own course.
It happened while we were on holiday and Scylla stayed with Erik’s parents in New York. When people found out she was pregnant, they would raise eyebrows. “Really?” they would say as they moved away, shifting their narrow eyes from Scylla over to us. We even had to change vets since previously we took her to The Humane Society, an organization that vehemently advocated spaying of animals. We were considered uneducated, thoughtless, backyard breeders and we became the untouchables. “How inhumane,” I heard someone whisper loudly under their breath, as they passed by Erik and me. The word echoed in the distance between us.
When Scylla went into labor, we stayed up all night. She did not know how to tear open the birth sacs of each puppy and lick them to stimulate circulation. She did not know how to bite off their umbilical cords and eat each placenta. We pinched open the sacs and as Erik held each of the four puppies, rubbing them to stimulate their breathing, he would say, “It’s a boy!”
By eight the next morning as soon as Erik left for work, Scylla’s contractions started again. But this time, something was wrong. As I watched her push in agony, staring at me with her large eyes, I silently promised myself that I would never have children. Hesitantly I called Erik’s mother.
“Now, I want you to do something for me,” she said, calmly as my heart beat hundreds of times per minute. “I want you to put your hand up her birth canal and tell me what you feel.”
I did not think twice as I followed her orders. I managed to put in two fingers and thought I felt the head of a fetus, stuck.
“Now try to manipulate it,” she said.
“What? What does that mean?”
Panicking, I covered the remaining puppies in their whelping box, grabbed Scylla in a blanket and rushed her over to the vet—a new doctor we had switched to. There, she gave birth to her fifth puppy—and finally, a girl.
When it was time to give the puppies away, Erik put an ad in the paper. I had a trip back to India planned and made him promise not to give any of them away till I returned. When I got back, all the puppies were gone. Scylla walked around for days with their toys in her mouth and I sat in front of the TV, next to Erik, not knowing what to do with my arms anymore. The stillness that hung in the air between us did not seem wrong; I was complacent in our inability to articulate. As our lives at home became pointless, we just blanked into the television.
The only dog allowed near Scylla was Charlie—a young German Shepherd mix that my friend Sue had adopted from a shelter. Sue was trying to have a baby but had so far been unsuccessful. She had gotten Charlie after her first miscarriage. He would’ve been put to sleep had he not been rescued. He had stomach bacteria, a bad limp and needed three pills a day. Sue worried when he grazed his leg, rushing him to the emergency room. When he lost his appetite for two days, she spent hundreds of dollars on blood tests. I had to remind her that with our frail wallets, we couldn’t afford panic. “Wait three days before you react,” is what I told her. Sue always worried about everything––just the way she’d wash her hands ten times a day and plan her unborn child’s elementary school. “Oh, oh! They’re going to kill each other,” she would scream as Scylla snapped at young Charlie in irritation. She didn’t realize Scylla was being maternal. It was the same way she used to behave with her own puppies, pinning them to the ground and growling at them. But even though her puppies had long gone, like the invisible cord between twins, Scylla never forgot how to be a mother.
We walked together once a week so our dogs could learn to be friends. We walked by the Yuppy Puppy store, staring at the poor animals through display windows. Crowds of children pointed at them, saying, “look, how cute,” but for every pair of eyes that looked pleadingly at me, begging to be taken home, I knew there were hundreds more, stashed away in some puppy mill, to be mass distributed to other stores such as this. The store shared their premises with Flexipet—a dog rental company that was spreading fast all over the country. They rented out shelter dogs by the hour or day, to the owners who couldn’t fully commit, yet, hoping to find them permanent homes. As those helpless puppies stared out of the glass barrier, at passers-by who would stop and point, they were rented out like movies with a stamped due date, picked out through those windows like prostitutes. “I wonder if it’s okay to adopt children for a day, juggling them from home to home,” said Sue, enraged at the idea of dogs being treated like a commodity. “Maybe in getting one of those dogs, we’re rescuing them from their terrible conditions,” I mused. “It’s just crazy, “ she’d say, as she picked up Charlie so he could see the dogs through the window and moved his paw up and down to make him wave at them.
When Scylla was five, I decided to leave Erik. I became a single parent and Scylla, the dog from a broken home. I tried to make up for the time she no longer spent with him and I blamed myself for each minute that I stayed away. Every expression on her face now seemed solely in my control and it was in my doing or undoing that her joys depended.
Our world changed when Erik left, and every little street corner that I knew by heart, now seemed somehow altered. I was unaccustomed to chain the door behind me each night knowing I was the last person in, or fetch only one glass of water up to the bedroom, my other hand feeling useless. Every little habit now had to be broken one by one, like trying to quit smoking. Scylla too walked around the neighborhood, befriending all the locals, as she compensated for the absence of a father. Soon, she knew everyone—Jessie from the drycleaners who gave her treats every morning and Moses, the doorman next door. She knew Rafael from the 84th Street garage and James, who worked in the grocery store. In every direction, during every walk, we were now greeted with nods and smiles as the loss of one person from my life, lead to a relationship with an entire neighborhood. The bitter old streets that kept us at bay, preferring to be a stranger, now in the glow of a new beginning, became my close companion.
A month later, I fractured my leg and required help in walking her. Finding a dog walker was hard—as hard as a mother finding her first sitter. I exchanged emails, made calls and held several interviews yet no one seemed quite right. Then I met David who had a rare genetic disease and was blind in his left eye. His fifteen-year-old Fox Terrier, Freddie couldn’t see at all. David was retired, living mainly on the disability he received and I would see them walk along 83rd Street almost every day—one block to our three. He heard from our super Ricardo that we were looking for a walker and wrote us a note to offer us his services. Freddie had died a few months ago and he missed canine companionship. “I don’t even want any money for it,” he said hopefully, in a mid-western accent that he had somehow managed to retain after living over thirty years in New York. But I refused charity and we agreed on five dollars a walk—a steal compared to the going rate of twenty. For the next few months, three times a day, Scylla would howl in anticipation as David rang our buzzer, and she’d run into his arms, as he crouched down to greet her. He gave Scylla Freddie’s old toys and once, I even heard him call her by that name. I was indebted to David for helping me at a time of need and he, even more grateful for all those moments that he forgot about Fred. I almost wished my leg never healed when it was time to tell him I was better. Little by little, the neighborhood now became an indispensable part of our lives.
But when I went to bed at the end of the day, making sure the deadbolt was turned correctly, noises I’d never heard before, filled the latent air. As I slept, the entire building came alive through creaks and moans between walls and the only thing that gave me strength was in knowing that Scylla lay beside me. As she sat up alert, ears upright, I too learned how to react. And the hollow thud that before, would splinter my slumber, now just echoed through my dreams. In the newness of my world and the stillness of my nights, when my thoughts would wonder restlessly, Scylla became my guardian angel.
She knew I was coming even before I got out of the elevator. I could see her shadow through the gap beneath the door. I hoped she was playing with her white ball or perhaps even sleeping. But she was always right there. I struggled with the keys as she shuffled in excitement. I struggled with it every day, as a constant reminder of having someone so dependent on me. My hours were not my own, they never would be; I was forever accountable for another. The load dug into my shoulders and how I wished sometimes I could shirk it off. Yet, I couldn’t imagine a life without it. I carried that baggage all the way into the hushed streets, the stillness weighing down my chest. The later I’d return home, the more heightened would be my remorse and the earlier I woke up the next day to take her to the park. When I was around her, she seemed so elated that the regret of when I left was even stronger. Soon, I started to cancel dinner invitations. My Saturday nights scarily began to resemble my Mondays and the entire week merged into one long dog walk in the park. The expanse of the lush fields, the broken sticks that she played with and the murmur of the leaves—they all acquitted my guilt. The brief glimpse of true nature that was so rare in Manhattan, gently pulled both Scylla and me inside.
On a weekend morning, Central Park was a big party. Everyone was there—the Ridgebacks, the Wheatons, the Shih Tzus, and the Chihuahuas; the Bedlington Terriers with their odd shaped faces and tight white curls and the Komondors, with long dreadlocks, making them look like enormous masses of moving rope. There was Rick with June and Sam with Amy. There were dog playgroups that met according to breeds and sizes—the small terrier group gathering behind the Met; the Retrievers, further down towards the lake. And as we walked in a circle around the Great Lawn, meeting and greeting dogs from the east and west, toy poodles barked maddeningly at their shadows while owners who had been separated from their precious ones, hollered, “Lexieeee!”
There were the joggers, the walkers, the watchers, and the talkers and we all came together irrespective of how late we were out the night before. During the remainder of the day, we went to different restaurants and we shopped at different stores. We had different jobs and lived on different sides of the avenue. But in the capsule of a weekend morning, in the time allotted purely for the pleasure of our companions, the disparity in our professions and our addresses held no barriers as we congregated in the park, racing behind our canine friends and chasing away our guilt. For a few hours each day, we forgot all our differences—just throwing sticks, running after balls and picking up dog poop.
We knew each other’s routines but we rarely knew each other’s names. We saw each other every week but if we bumped paths any other time, alone and out of context, we were unrecognizable. We went to work late because of vet appointments and we left dinners early to do the nightshift; we cut short holidays and we ignored houseguests. We chose outdoor restaurants and special hotels; dark upholstery and safe cleaning products. Our lives, our schedules. and our identities were tied to our dogs and we were nothing without them.
Our dogs were our everything—a child; a lover; a vision. They filled the emptiness in our hearts and the awkwardness of being alone. They replaced all the missing pieces and warmed our souls. There was something simple and uncomplicated in their affections that attracted us. It was not manipulative or deceiving; it was unhesitating, wholehearted and absolute, like a child’s. We gave and we gave so selflessly but we needed them as much as they needed us—a straightforward barter.
Scylla knew to stay away from the Pit Bulls and to run after the little Yorkies. She knew how to get to the park through the 84th Street entrance and where the turtles sunbathed on the rocks. She knew, as if by instinct, just as she knew the sound of the elevator, that winter had receded and April was fast approaching. Central Park that spring, our first without Erik; our first on our own in a gloriously new city just waiting to be discovered; our first as part of a new surrogate family who had deeply touched me with their kindness, was magical.
We would walk into the labyrinth of the Rambles, covered densely in trees; unable to see the high-rises on either side and pretend we weren’t in the city. We crossed man-made bridges and stepped over little streams. I would sit by wooden logs while Scylla perplexed over the mystery of water. We lost our way often and I adhered to familiar paths, safe in knowing where it would take me. Sometimes Scylla refused to follow and would stop dead on her track. She wanted a change and preferred a different way. Each day, through a new turn to the left or a new trail to the right, I was challenged to expand my routes, feeling triumphant in making it back. As she trotted ahead, then waited for me, she edged me further and further and although I couldn’t memorize the entire map, I finally learned, through Scylla’s gentle encouragement, the quickest way to the lake.
David came on a walk with us, early one morning, while most of the city still slept to nurse a late Saturday night. We hadn’t seen each other in months. Scylla raced ahead of us, chasing squirrels, sprinting through a flock of pigeons that fluttered away in a cloud—forgetting me completely as I heard her, way out in front, crunch on dried twigs. Her ears stuck out like a rabbit and at times I lost complete view of her.
“She is behaving very strangely,” I said. “I’ve never seen her so excited and independent. She must be happy to share this walk with you.”
“I don’t think so,” said David, “I think since I’m with you today, she feels safer in letting you go.”
His vision was even worse now and he considered getting a seeing-eye dog. But on days he really missed Freddie, he would rent one from Flexipet. I would remain silent, struggling to justify his choice.
“So, what are you doing this weekend, anything?” he asked, changing the topic.
“I’m supposed to go to a party tonight,” I sighed, “but I don’t really want to go.”
“Oh but you must! You have to go. What do we do otherwise? We walk our dogs, eat our dinners, listen to a bit of music, read a good book and go to bed.”
His words lingered like the conscience that tracked my every move; slowly making sense like the path that finally took us back to the Belvedere Castle. As we approached the end of our walk, I realized David was right. Yes, I had to go. I had to get out. If only to return and open the door, to be greeted by pure and unconditional love and say, “honey, I’m home.”