In this rich, humorous and insightful memoir, critically-acclaimed author Lee Harrington shares her story of love, loss, dysfunctional relationships, and the shelter dog who put things right.
In 1997, New York City hipsters Lee and Ed were at a crossroads. Money was tight, their careers were floundering, their apartment was tiny, and their relationship, frankly, was dysfunctional. Then, on a fateful day in August, they decided on impulse to visit a nearby animal shelter, just to “look at” dogs. In a split-second decision that would change their lives, they brought home Wallace. They quickly realized that this spaniel mix was more than they could handle—he was aggressive, fearful of humans, and seemingly untrainable. Faced with overwhelming new responsibilities, the couple bickered constantly, worried incessantly, and disagreed on nearly every aspect of how to handle the dog. But the one thing they could agree on was that they loved Wallace. And slowly but surely, this love helped transform both the dog and their relationship. And thus, by rescuing an abused spaniel, they ended up rescuing themselves.
Funny and heartfelt, this memoir chronicles a couple’s changing outlook on their relationship, on their city, and on life through Wallace. Rex and the City will resonate with everyone who has ever loved their four-legged friend.
“A sweet and exquisite story . . . that should appeal to urban dog lovers and New Yorkers.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
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In New York City, on a daily basis, millions of women are faced with an existential conflict: what to wear. And on this particular day, on the last day of life as I knew it, meaning my last day of life without a dog, I too faced this conflict. It was the first Saturday of June 1997, and Ed and I had planned to take a day trip out to "the country" (which is what New York City people call the far reaches of Long Island). All week I had been planning to wear a pink linen dress from Paris, with a matching pink hat. To me, it was an outfit that suggested innocence and femininity, a certain je ne sais quoi. But when I pulled said dress out of the closet, I discovered that there was a big, dark, sticky, stain on its backside. Gum or something. From the subway system, no doubt. One of the great risks you take, in New York City, is sitting down.
"Oh, no," I said to Ed. "Look!" I held up the dress to show him.
"Well, find something else to wear," Ed said. Ed was the live-in boyfriend: handsome, talented, responsible, and too smart for his own (or anyone else's) good.
"How many weeks have I been walking around with gum on my ass? The last time I wore this dress was to my interview at that literary magazine."
"I'm sure nobody noticed," Ed said. "Just find something else to wear. And hurry. We're supposed to be at Chip's by noon."
The man we'll call Chip was one of Ed's best friends from college, and Chip had been promising for months to take us to his country club — which happened to be one of the most exclusive country clubs on Long Island's Gold Coast. And today, finally, we were going! All week long I had looked forward to a day of grand food and fine wine, served to us on silver dishes by waiters with white gloves, followed by some late-afternoon sunbathing by the Italian-tiled pool, where more white-gloved waiters would bring us chilled mango daiquiris, and then perhaps a shirtless George Clooney (who was rumored to belong to Lloyd Neck) would stroll past our cabana and I could say to people that I had seen his naked chest. Yes, I was shallow back then, for sure.
But what to wear? I had no Plan B in the wardrobe department. And to top it all I was feeling fat. I had gained seven pounds since Ed moved in seven months ago, and there seemed no end in sight. To either predicament. I liked to blame the weight gain on love, however (rather than on the fact that Ed and I drank sangria practically every night). There is something about being in love — the cushion of it, the safety — that simply adds weight to my body, as if the very gravity of the emotion has a substance that grounds you to this earth.
Despite all that, I still wasn't willing to accept that the weight gain was permanent. Therefore I refused to buy anything in a size ten.
But all the dresses that hung in my closet were size eight or smaller. And Ed was breathing down my neck. So I went with the old standby: the little black dress. (An LBD never fails to de-emphasize the bulge and emphasize the legs, and what woman in New York doesn't have great legs?) My LBD had a square-cut neck and scooped sleeves and fell just above the knee. I paired it with a Wonderbra and a pair of hip Italian platform sandals and voilÃ! I was ready.
"Okay," I said to Ed. "I'm dressed. I just have to brush my teeth and then we can go."
Ed came out of the bedroom and shook his head when he saw me. "You can't wear that."
We lived together for the same reason most young uncertainabout-each-other couples cohabited in New York City: because separately we couldn't afford to rent a decent apartment. Even as a couple we could not afford to rent a decent apartment, because in New York City you need to be a millionaire to even be able to afford a second bedroom. Our apartment was technically a one-bedroom, but the whole thing (living room, kitchenette, teensy bath) totaled three hundred square feet. But hey, it was New York, and we lived in the almost-trendy, up-and-coming section of the Lower East Side, and up-and-coming is a nice place to be: mentally and physically. Ed and I were both happy to be there.
We had moved in together the previous fall and had been dating for a total of two years. Marriage was a sometimes-mentioned possibility, if only another M-word could enter the equation on my behalf: maturity. And if Ed only could learn that, when it came to my wardrobe, he would have no say.
"And why can I not wear this?" I twirled around, and the skirt of the dress flew up around my legs in an artful swirl.
"You can't wear black to this country club." Ed was wearing a pair of khakis, loafers, and a crisp yellow Oxford shirt, buttoned one button too many at his neck.
I lifted my chin. "I can."
"No, I'm telling you, you can't. It's a conservative club. Why don't you just put on a polo shirt and those white Bermuda shorts we got for you at Brooks Brothers last week?"
"I don't want to look dowdy," I said. I was barely thirty years old and already terrified of such things.
"Who's going to care?"
"I'll care," I said. "Besides, this dress is fine. It's cute." And then I set about the task of finding the right handbag to go with my black dress. Deep down, of course, I knew that Ed, having been groomed at some of the nation's finest country clubs himself, was probably right about my outfit. But something in me that day didn't want him to know I knew he was right. It was more important to look thin.
Ed stood right behind me as I opened my wardrobe. "What do you mean you have nothing to wear? You have a whole closet full of clothes."
"This dress is the only thing that fits!" I said. "This is what I'm wearing. This is what I want to wear!" My voice rose as I spoke, and cracked, and Ed must have sensed that I was on the edge of something, something they used to call female hysteria, and because of that — and because, perhaps, my dress displayed ample cleavage — he let me have my way.
"Well, let's hurry then," Ed said. "If we get to Chip's by noon, he and I might be able to get some golf in before lunch."
I smiled in triumph. Those Bermuda shorts, for the record, were a size ten.
My triumph was short lived. When we arrived at Chip's weekend house in Nassau County ninety minutes later, Chip said that we wouldn't be going to the country club after all. "I know of a great place in Bayville," he said as he led us into the kitchen. "It's right on the water and they serve lobsters and crab. We can sit outside, drink a few beers. How's that sound?"
Secretly I was disappointed, but we always had fun with Chip no matter what. Chip was a benignly handsome, immensely likable man with a large frame and a kind smile.
"Aren't we going to golf?" Ed said.
"Nah," Chip answered. "I couldn't get a tee time."
"Did you even try?" Ed said. I could tell he was half-amused, half-irritated.
Chip answered with: "You guys want something to drink before we go?"
"No," Ed said. "Let's hurry. I'm starved. We didn't have time to eat before we left, because I thought we were going to golf."
"Okay then," Chip said. "I just need to find my keys."
After he'd left the room I gave Ed a look, which he knew meant: Why aren't we going to the club? "It's this dress, isn't it?" I whispered.
"Don't be paranoid," Ed said. "Chip is simply like that. He changes his mind at the drop of a hat."
And while it's probably true that Chip — who is uncomplicated and a pleasure seeker and above all good of heart — had had a sudden craving for beer and lobster, I began to suspect that Ed had been right after all. I had made the wrong decision.
"So what's this restaurant we're going to in lieu of the club?" Ed asked when Chip returned to the kitchen. Ed had been an English major in college and he still loved to use all the uncommon italicized words. "Is it any good?"
"Yeah, it's great," he said. "It's where the locals go."
"Are we going to at least drive past the club?" I said as we climbed into Chip's car.
"No," Chip said. "We're going in the opposite direction."
The opposite direction. My day, my life, clearly were not going as planned.
I stared out the window and sulked. Saturdays are precious to those of us who live in New York City, you see. Sometimes it's your only chance to get from life what the city, in all its bountiful cruelty, will never deliver: air, sky, space, parking spaces, and a sense of belonging and peace. You can pretend, for a few precious hours, that the clock isn't ticking, that your relationship is solid, that your apartment isn't really only three hundred square feet.
So imagine a Saturday on Long Island's Gold Coast. We passed mansion after fabulous mansion. We passed stately oak trees and fine green lawns. The sky somehow seemed bluer out here than it did in the city, and the color of the grass was almost unearthly, surreal. Even the sunshine had an eternal quality to it; it was as if the inhabitants of what was known as Long Island's Gold Coast were simply entitled to more of it, all the time. They say F. Scott Fitzgerald set his novel The Great Gatsby out here, and Fitzgerald is by far my favorite author — one I try to emulate, less the alcoholism and the crack-up at the end of his life. So I put my window down and took a gulp of his epic, golden air, and it tasted of hope and promise. Some of the greatest wealth in the world could be found here on this slender, riotous island (one can't help but make Gatsby references on the Gold Coast), and the fact that I was so close to and yet so far from all that wealth suddenly bothered me for reasons I can't even explain. I mean, I wasn't an entirely shallow person back then, before we got the dog. But I certainly did have shallow days. Especially on sunny Saturdays on Long Island. When you were supposed to go to the country club.
And couldn't one argue that every New York City woman has her shallow days? In New York, thousands of people spend hours each day trying to fill their voids with material possessions. The Fendi baguette makes up for your miserable childhood. The Ferrari replaces your low self-esteem. So maybe, on that fateful day, I had been hoping that spending three hours at some swank country club would lift me far above my own reality and carry me beyond my three-hundred-square-foot apartment, my noncommittal relationship, my ho-hum job, and my unpublished novel (which sat at the top of my closet in a box, and which Ed always pointed out took up one more precious square foot).
Lunch, needless to say, was a disappointment. The soft-shell crabs looked and tasted as if they had been soaking in formaldehyde for a few months before they reached our table, and a ratty-looking seagull kept flapping onto our table to beg for food. Above our heads was a giant banner that said: WET T-SHIRT CONTESTS EVERY THURSDAY NIGHT SPONSORED BY BUD LIGHT.
"I'll have champagne, please," I said wearily to the waitress. There was nary a George Clooney in sight.
"We don't have champagne," she said. "We got white, we got red."
"Red, please," I said.
"You want that on the rocks?"
I looked over at Ed, and he did a shrug/smile.
"Oh, let's have a pitcher of margarita instead," Ed said. Chip, subliminally seduced by the banner, perhaps, ordered a Bud Light.
When the waitress left, Ed said to Chip, "I thought you said this place was good," but he was laughing, because our table overlooked a boardwalk, and teenage girls kept Rollerblading by in bikini tops; plus we were the only customers in the restaurant, which meant we would get served right away.
Soon our food arrived, along with our drinks, and we filled one another in on the past few months. I was working as a "permanent temp" with an employment agency, and actually loved it. I only took assignments that would require little or no actual work, and therefore was able to spend at least six hours per day working on my novel. "It's the perfect job," I told Chip. Ed added that later that month, as I did every summer, I would begin teaching a creative writing course at a local university. "I'm looking forward to it," I said. "It's my favorite part of the year."
As for Ed, he was still enjoying that blissful state of existence called "between jobs." He had moved to New York last November and was looking for work in documentary film. But no one could ever have referred to Ed as a slacker, or even called him unemployed. He had worked hard at his previous production job, and had been diligent enough about saving money to live on those savings for a year. Plus he was talented and experienced enough in his field to be picky about where he would work next. "So I've signed up for a couple of classes at Film and Video Arts," he said. "Photography. Intro to Avid. I'm looking forward to that."
Chip worked in something called a holdings firm — whatever that was — and he told us everything was the same with him. Everything was always the same for Chip, and I envied such balance, such consistency. He was the only person in our circle of friends who had an actual job. "I get a lot of golf in on weekends," he said. "Can't complain."
This conversation somehow, for Chip, segued into the Neil Young concert he had seen the previous weekend, and then he and Ed were on to their favorite subject: all the Grateful Dead concerts they had attended during their college days. This could go on for hours, I realized. And, no matter how much I enjoyed these two males' company, there was only so much "And do you remember the way Jerry segued into 'Not Fade Away' from 'Space'?" I could take.
So I gazed across the street toward the harbor. A few small sailboats bucked in the water, trying to move forward in that anchored sort of way. It was almost officially summer, I realized, and a crisp anticipation began to move through my veins — or perhaps it was the grain alcohol with which they had spiked the margaritas. I became aware of the rare, wondrous feeling of direct sunlight upon my skin and the lap-lap-lapping sound of the water. I straightened in my seat. Maybe this summer would be the summer I had always dreamed of: with perfect weather, invitations every weekend to friends' beach houses in the Hamptons, and weekly gatherings with my girlfriends at the Bryant Park Café, where we would drink rummy, fruity concoctions, and wear elegant, jeweled shoes paired with fetching handbags, and talk about art and books. Maybe I would finish writing my novel, and Ed would get going on that travel documentary he wanted to produce. In June we could attend the polo matches in Southampton and in July we could see the horse races at Saratoga, and in August we could go sailing at Ed's friend's plantation in Beaufort, and by September, I could relax with a sense of accomplishment, as opposed to the usual Labor Day freak-out in which I agonized over all the things I did not do that I'd said I'd wanted to do.
I sighed. Who's to say any of that would make me happy? Ah, happiness. The thing that had been eluding me since I was ten years old.
"Remember that time they played that cover of 'Couldn't Get It Right'?" Ed said. "Saratoga '86."
"No, it was Hampton '88," Chip said. "I remember because Charlie took so much acid he took all his clothes off and ran into the street." He raised his sandwich to his mouth. There was a bluish-gray claw dangling out the side, like something from Dawn of the Dead.
Some customers arrived and took seats at a table adjoining ours: a couple with a dog. They looked to be our age — late twenties — and she had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, in that casual, unattended, weekend way that I could never quite pull off. She also wore a platinum engagement ring and jeweled shoes. But I barely noticed the ring, or stopped to think how it might fill some void. I was more interested in the dog. He was a golden retriever, a great teddy bear of a dog, and I watched the way he curled himself under the table, sighing with ease as he positioned himself in a perfect patch of sun. Every moment is a summer moment for a dog.
The man whispered something into the woman's ear, and she gazed at him adoringly while the dog gazed adoringly at them. The way this couple kept their hands knitted together suggested that their lives were knitted too.
I looked over at Ed: smart, handsome, reliable Ed. He was now laughing about the time he and Chip were shrooming during history class. I thought of our own relationship. Sometimes it was rocky, other times solid as a rock. Sometimes I wanted to cling to that rock — your one chance at survival in a whitewater river. Sometimes I wanted to give up and let go, and float with the current, not caring where I might land. In this sense I didn't think our relationship was different from any other. And yet, all my life I had wanted to be knitted to someone. And I'd always wanted a dog who would sit under the table and gaze at my lover and me as we held hands.
"Ed, look at that cute dog!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rex and the City"
Copyright © 2014 Lee Harrington.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Decision,
Chapter 2: The Indecision,
Chapter 3: The Trial Period,
Chapter 4: The Last Chance to Change,
Chapter 5: Training Our Shelter Dog — With Leadership and Love,
Chapter 6: Practicing Positive Reinforcement,
Chapter 7: How to Become a City Dog (and a City Dog Person),
Chapter 8: There's No Love Like Dog Love,
Chapter 9: The Cure for Separation Anxiety (Times Three),
Chapter 10: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,
Chapter 11: Domestic Animals,
Chapter 12: The Hypochondriac's Guide to Overprotective Dog Care,
Chapter 13: Becoming a Scary Stage Mother,
Chapter 14: Adjusting to the Responsibilities of Having a Dog,
Chapter 15: UNLEASHED,
Chapter 16: The Downtown Dog Moves Uptown,
Chapter 17: Where Should We Let the Sleeping Dog Lie?,
Chapter 18: Making It Official,