And Puppy Makes Three
We were young. We were in love. We were rollicking in those sublime early days of marriage when life seems about as good as life can get. We could not leave well enough alone. And so on a January evening in 1991, my wife of fifteen months and I ate a quick dinner together and headed off to answer a classified ad in the Palm Beach Post.
Why we were doing this, I wasn't quite sure. A few weeks earlier I had awoken just after dawn to find the bed beside me empty. I got up and found Jenny sitting in her bathrobe at the glass table on the screened porch of our little bungalow, bent over the newspaper with a pen in her hand.
There was nothing unusual about the scene. Not only was the Palm Beach Post our local paper, it was also the source of half of our household income. We were a two-newspaper-career couple. Jenny worked as a feature writer in the Post's "Accent" section; I was a news reporter at the competing paper in the area, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, based an hour south in Fort Lauderdale. We began every morning poring over the newspapers, seeing how our stories were played and how they stacked up to the competition. We circled, underlined, and clipped with abandon.
But on this morning, Jenny's nose was not in the news pages but in the classified section. When I stepped closer, I saw she was feverishly circling beneath the heading "Pets -- Dogs."
"Uh," I said in that new-husband, still-treading-gently voice. "Is there something I should know?"
She did not answer.
"It's the plant," she finally said, her voice carrying a slight edge of desperation.
"The plant?" I asked.
"That dumb plant," she said. "The one we killed."
The one we killed? I wasn't about to press the point, but for the record it was the plant that I bought and she killed. I had surprised her with it one night, a lovely large dieffenbachia with emerald-and-cream variegated leaves. "What's the occasion?" she'd asked. But there was none. I'd given it to her for no reason other than to say, "Damn, isn't married life great?"
She had adored both the gesture and the plant and thanked me by throwing her arms around my neck and kissing me on the lips. Then she promptly went on to kill my gift to her with an assassin's coldhearted efficiency. Not that she was trying to; if anything, she nurtured the poor thing to death. Jenny didn't exactly have a green thumb. Working on the assumption that all living things require water, but apparently forgetting that they also need air, she began flooding the dieffenbachia on a daily basis.
"Be careful not to overwater it," I had warned.
"Okay," she had replied, and then dumped on another gallon.
The sicker the plant got, the more she doused it, until finally it just kind of melted into an oozing heap. I looked at its limp skeleton in the pot by the window and thought, Man, someone who believes in omens could have a field day with this one.
Now here she was, somehow making the cosmic leap of logic from dead flora in a pot to living fauna in the pet classifieds. Kill a plant, buy a puppy. Well, of course it made perfect sense.
I looked more closely at the newspaper in front of her and saw that one ad in particular seemed to have caught her fancy. She had drawn three fat red stars beside it. It read: "Lab puppies, yellow. AKC purebred. All shots. Parents on premises."
"So," I said, "can you run this plant-pet thing by me one more time?"
"You know," she said, looking up. "I tried so hard and look what happened. I can't even keep a stupid houseplant alive. I mean, how hard is that? All you need to do is water the damn thing."
Then she got to the real issue: "If I can't even keep a plantalive, how am I ever going to keep a baby alive?" She looked like she might start crying.
The Baby Thing, as I called it, had become a constant in Jenny's life and was getting bigger by the day. When we had first met, at a small newspaper in western Michigan, she was just a few months out of college, and serious adulthood still seemed a far distant concept. For both of us, it was our first professional job out of school. We ate a lot of pizza, drank a lot of beer, and gave exactly zero thought to the possibility of someday being anything other than young, single, unfettered consumers of pizza and beer.
But years passed. We had barely begun dating when various job opportunities -- and a one-year postgraduate program for me -- pulled us in different directions across the eastern United States. At first we were one hour's drive apart. Then we were three hours apart. Then eight, then twenty-four. By the time we both landed together in South Florida and tied the knot, she was nearly thirty. Her friends were having babies. Her body was sending her strange messages. That once seemingly eternal window of procreative opportunity was slowly lowering.
I leaned over her from behind, wrapped my arms around her shoulders, and kissed the top of her head. "It's okay," I said. But I had to admit, she raised a good question. Neither of us had ever really nurtured a thing in our lives. Sure, we'd had pets growing up, but they didn't really count. We always knew our parents would keep them alive and well. We both knew we wanted to one day have children, but was either of us really up for the job? Children were so . . . so . . . scary. They were helpless and fragile and looked like they would break easily if dropped.