“Caught in A Bad Romance”

I wanted love so much that I missed the warning signs staring me in the face

“You still haven’t met him in person?” my friend Carol asked about the mysterious man with whom I’d been having a phone relationship.

Ron (not the creep’s real name) first called one night in 1984 in response to an ad I’d placed to form a writers’ group. I was 26 and single. He was 42, with a velvety voice and charming wit. We talked about writing briefly before our conversation took a dozen turns, lasting until 2 a.m. that night, and for weeks to come.

“Don’t you find it strange that he doesn’t want to you?” Carol pressed.

“He works nights,” I hedged. “Besides, we’re really getting to know each other.”

“He hasn’t even suggest ?”

“He sleeps during the day.”

I knew — but didn’t want to hear — what Carol was getting at: something was off with this guy who’d never married, lived alone, and was pursuing me — over the phone. Yet, with a long track record of failed romances and deep loneliness, I ignored these warning signs and convinced myself that Ron cared more about my soul than my face. I made a similar mistake nearly 40 years later, when months of COVID-19-related unemployment, emptiness, and solitude made me lonely enough to rescue a pandemic pup, who I sensed from the get-go was the wrong dog for me.

Bernie was a beautiful blend of husky and golden lab, with silky, forward-folding ears and bronze-colored eyes. Although his greeting consisted of jumping on me and nibbling my fingers, I told myself that he would be just as gentle and loving as my late lab-mix George, who I still missed. I wanted to love a new dog so badly, especially with the dark days of winter approaching. And Bernie loveable, when he wasn’t pulling his leash hard enough to rip my arm from its socket or whipping his head around with his ears pinned back and teeth bared to find my son petting the scruff of his neck.

These were among the behaviors that I rationalized away. I felt such sympathy for the trauma Bernie had endured and wanted so much for us to be buddies that I tried to overlook his aversion to looking into my eyes or my hugging him. I understood that he needed time to trust my touch. On rare occasions when he asked for a nuzzle or scratch, my heart swelled, as it did when he frolicked with his indestructible rubber ball. Mostly, however, he maniacally chomped that ball with his massive teeth, making me cringe at the thought of them ever sinking into me.

The first time Bernie bit me was on my hand, halting my conversation with an electrician who was replacing a ceiling fan in my office.

“That’s a nasty bite,” the electrician said as the gash bled and swelled.

“He didn’t mean it,” I said, brushing off the wound. “It’s his walk time and he needs to go.”

“You’re probably right. He wanted your attention. He’s just a pup. Still, what a handful.”

The second time Bernie bit me, later that day, was on the same hand. He’d grabbed it, ripping my shirtsleeve, as I knelt down to untie my shoes.

“It’s just a nip,” my husband Erik said when I displayed the new injury, larger than the first.

“He broke the skin again, Erik. He drew blood.”

“He didn’t mean it. He’s just a puppy.”

The next day Bernie bit Erik. “It isn’t a bite,” he insisted of his bloody puncture. “It’s a nip. Puppies nip.”

Determined to believe him, I stifled my growing disappointment in the dog.

I’d practiced similar self-deception with Ron. I buried my hurt when he abruptly canceled dates and vanished from my life for days. I even kowtowed to his demand that we hang out at my place or his — a filthy shack in the woods where mice rummaged through kitchen trash all night and skittered around the mattress on the floor where we lay.

Social misfit and emotional abuser though he was, Ron filled a void in my life. It took months of misery — and Carol’s urging — for me to leave him, and to recognize how loneliness and low self-worth had clouded my judgment about the kind of man I deserved. And it took Bernie plunging three of his largest teeth into the back of my knee for me to realize that I had to rehome him.

Like all the other bites, this one was unintentional. I’d blocked his attempt to encounter a dog whom he was already growling at, so he seized the nearest object: my leg. All rescues have issues, which often surface after they’ve settled into their new home. I’d tried excusing Bernie’s. But he could have bitten someone else’s leg, or dog, or child, and I wouldn’t take that risk. I immediately contacted the group that had rescued him which, to its credit, found an experienced dog handler to take him the next day.

As I packed up Bernie’s medical records, food, blanket, the toys he came with and those I’d bought for him, I wept. I didn’t pet him, and even though he tried looking into my eyes, I avoided his, not because I was angry but because my heart was breaking.

Bernie filled a void in my life that started when my kids moved out and deepened when George died, the pandemic hit, and my work and in-person socializing stopped. One month with him renewed my sense of purpose. Despite his difficult behaviors, I looked forward to seeing him every morning, hoping that he would welcome my arms around him. I miss his bed in my office and mopping up the puddles he left after drinking. His absence relieves me, while seeing his nametag bring tears to my eyes. I pray that he feels safe and loved in his new home, as I feel in mine. He deserves this. We both do.

Public health writer/editor and author of the memoir, “Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness, and Hope.”

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