Winner of the June 2015 Elle Readers Prize
Lots of dogs eat shoes, bite people, destroy furniture . . . but Eddie tried to destroy a marriage.
After more than three decades of happy single womanhood, Mia Navarro wasn’t really looking to change her relationship status. The idea of being a step-anything to anyone was foreign to her, something she never thought about. . . . Until she fell in love with Jim and agreed to marry him. As it turns out, the marriage is pretty wonderful, the stepkids were, well, typical pre-teens, the weather in Los Angeles perfect. But life is not spotless. The spots belong to Jim’s mutt, Eddie. Possessive and jealous, Eddie behaves like Jim’s mistress—if a mistress could bark and compete for space on his beloved’s lap. As time goes on, a full-on war ensues. Mia slams the door in Eddie’s face, cordons off the house into dog- and wife-territories, and leaves the back door open . . . by, er, accident, of course. She even tries to leave Eddie behind in California when she and Jim abruptly relocate to New York. But in the end, it’s clear that not even a wife can come between man and dog. As Eddie ages, Mia softens, and as with any new family struggling to blend, the two must make peace with each other. Ultimately, Stepdog is a triumphant story about finding love at an unexpected stage in life and the many unforeseen obstacles—not only of the four-legged variety—that can get in the way on the road to happily ever after.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I underestimated the dog. On the first night I slept at my future husband’s place in Los Angeles, Eddie peed outside the bedroom door.
“He’s never done that,” Jim said, mystified.
Jim rushed to get a cloth and cleaner to rub the yellow from the cream-colored carpet as I paid no attention whatsoever to the incident. I lingered in bed instead, savoring the memories of the night before and our moments together. I was visiting from New York and had just met the dog. What is there to say about a dog? A bit peculiar, no doubt, but he seemed harmless enough. In my bicoastal romance, the dog was an afterthought. What a dope I was. Love blinded me to the conniving manipulator behind the wagging tail.
Eddie was cute, I’ll grant that much. About forty pounds, with dark spots on white fur, floppy ears, and a rump that looked absurdly comical in motion, Eddie never failed to draw oohs and aahs as he sniffed his way down the street. The spots appeared to be his charm and a great object of curiosity.
“What a cutie! What kind of dog is that?” people often asked.
“Just a junkyard dog,” Jim replied proudly. He loved that his dog was manly, with a ferocious bark and, as I would soon discover, a taste for brawls. Jim could go on and on about his precious Eddie.
“Based on what our vet told us, he has the markings of an Australian cattle dog known as a blue heeler. The blue comes from that little bit of gray behind his ears. For some reason the gray is referred to as blue.”
“. . . When he plays with other dogs, he nips at their haunches, which is a kind of herding mentality. Blue heelers have that instinct to herd cattle.”
• • •
Jim liked to point out that he and Ralph Lauren had the same taste in dogs. But the blue heeler in a Ralph Lauren newspaper ad he showed me was a more regal blue heeler, and not just because he was posing next to an exquisite denim-and-tan-leather handbag. The elongated profile didn’t look anything like Eddie’s boxy head. Eddie seemed more pit bull–ish than blue heel–ish.
“That’s Eddie’s ancestor,” Jim insisted. “That’s his forebear.”
Whatever. A disagreeable mutt—that’s all Eddie really was. It took no time for him to drop the niceties. He behaved like a dog with Jim and a jealous mistress with me. All we had in common was that we loved the same man. When I fell in love with Jim, I had braced myself for stepkids. Never, ever, did I worry about a stepdog.
In case you’re wondering, I’m not a cat person. I like dogs. In fact, I love dogs. Mitsuki, Tweety, Peluche, Rubi, Sophie, Jade, Esperanza, Bailey, Pinky, Canelo, Spencer, Riley, Bridget, Rani—these were dogs from my childhood and dogs that belonged to friends. They were loving and funny and made you happy. But these dogs usually knew they were dogs. They were the kind that are ecstatic to see you and jump around in circles and greet you like it’s midnight on New Year’s Eve. They don’t ignore you or stress you out or play head games or kick you when you’re down.
Initially, I ignored Eddie’s passive-aggressiveness, although marking his territory outside Jim’s bedroom was certainly creepy. But he soon became confrontational. He barked at the sight of me. He physically came between Jim and me when we tried to kiss or dance. He raced me or intercepted me when I approached Jim. When we shoved our way to our man, I usually won. Oh, could the mutt whimper. But Eddie had already beaten me to Jim by nearly four months. They met in January. I didn’t show up until April. I was the intruder.
“What is your problem? What’s wrong with you? Quiet! Stop it! Sit!”
It became apparent that a good chunk of my life would be squandered proving who was more alpha. Never show your fears! The rest of my time would be spent shooing Eddie away, tugging Eddie’s leash, nagging Jim about Eddie, avoiding Eddie, and wanting to lose Eddie. It was exhausting.
I used to laugh watching one of my favorite sitcoms, Frasier. Dr. Frasier Crane hated his father’s Jack Russell terrier, another piece of work also called Eddie.
“Must this dog stare at me all the time?” Frasier grumbled in one episode as the dog watched him playing the piano. Sometimes the two would get into stare-down contests. Hilarious.
I don’t laugh anymore.
How can one person’s source of comfort and affection be so objectionable to another? Some of us see the dog as a lovable companion but definitely a few ranks below humans. Others treat them as a favorite child or principal friend. Jim fit in between these perspectives, but we still had to reconcile our differences.
To me, Eddie was just a pet. To Jim, Eddie was family.
Dogs had never been on my checklist for sizing up boyfriend prospects. I was more worried about “cons” like “self-absorbed” or “cheap.” Jim dazzled me with “pros.” He was smart and loving and fun and sexy and caring. He was responsible and financially solvent. He didn’t have male habits that grossed me out. Who cares about a dog? Anyone can get along with a little doggie. And if the dog was to become a problem, we could always find a more suitable arrangement. Humans always come first. Right? It wasn’t like Eddie was any kind of deal-breaker. Jim didn’t even mention him when we first met. Jim was not that kind of dog person. He wasn’t like those people who make their dogs vet their dates. My Jim was normal.
Not his dog, though. What a sour personality Eddie had. He was aloof and generally unaffectionate to anyone but Jim. He refused to fetch. He licked mostly himself. He was sometimes more cat than dog. Not too bright, he was often more hamster than cat. A possessive hamster-cat. He made you long for a llama.
I’m not saying Eddie was a bad dog, necessarily. He didn’t chew shoes. He didn’t steal socks. He didn’t destroy furniture or dig holes in the lawn or wake us up at dawn. He just hated me. Jim advised to woo him. I tried. But even after I walked Eddie and cleaned up after him and fed him and scratched his empty head, he would not extend his loyalty. There was just no scoring points with Eddie. He just wouldn’t share Jim.
“Just ignore him,” our soulmate said when I complained.
“How can I ignore him? He barks and growls at me, he tries to make me trip, his breath stinks . . .” Sometimes I would also catch him looking at me funny, like he was casting some canine spell. What a weirdo. “. . . he snores, he farts, he sheds, he walks into . . .”
At the sound of “walk,” Eddie would perk up from his slumber and look at Jim.
“Is that true?” Jim would coo, scratching away. “Do you snore? Do you fart?”
Then, to me: “He’s my pal.”
Then, to Eddie: “Aren’t you my buddy, you big galoot?”
I sometimes threatened to get my own pal, a cuddly pup that would be everything Eddie wasn’t.
“Right,” Jim said. “Eddie, meet lunch.”
Obviously my prince was not about to gallop to meet me halfway.
To be fair, Eddie was not without charm. He didn’t slobber. He didn’t hump legs. His tongue didn’t hang out except when it was really hot in the summer. And without Jim around he was, indeed, capable of being just a dog, more or less. Anytime Jim traveled for work, he left him in my care, and Eddie took no time in figuring out which side his bread was buttered on. He’d sprout angel wings and turn into new, improved Eddie. When it was just the two of us, he’d follow me as I went through my rounds between the den and the kitchen. He’d stand watch while I sat watching TV or he’d lie at my feet, making goo-goo eyes at me. If I absentmindedly crossed my legs as I worked at the computer, he’d ever-so-gently rest his head on my dangling foot, as if to say: “I can’t be close enough to you.”
It felt good being treated with love and respect. Then Jim would come back home and Eddie would dump me and resume hostilities.
Remember Marley’s look of concern in the movie Marley & Me, when Jennifer Aniston came home after a miscarriage and sat quietly crying on her living room couch? Remember the dog sitting by her side, still as a rock, watching her every move, being there for her when she finally breaks down in convulsing sobs and buries her face in his fur? Eddie would have never done that. Eddie had only five settings: Walk. Sniff. Eat. Sleep. Inappropriately and noisily lick privates.
Yet we seldom hear about unlikable dogs like Eddie. We only hear, incessantly, about these holy best friends—these overachievers, even!—and the essential role they play in the household.
We have all read the stories about dogs becoming a healing presence for the sick and old. And they can be excellent companions. Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times, wrote a series of stories for the newspaper’s website, then a book, chronicling the first year of Scout, the golden retriever that replaced her other beloved dog, Buddy.
“My two children, who grew up with him but flew the nest years before his demise, joked that Buddy was my one perfect relationship in my life,” she wrote.
This is what Clara, a friend from grade school who is now a radio personality, said of her “four-legged son” Alejandro Alberto (red flag: a dog with a middle name) in a newspaper profile:
“He died after sixteen years with me. I think that when we human beings learn that dogs are superior beings that are here on earth to teach us unconditional love, we’ll hang our heads in shame.”
“A cat teaches you dignity,” she told her interviewer, “and a dog teaches you love that knows no limits.”
It’s not that I question these emotions. But a dog is a dog is a dog. We all know Alejandro Alberto’s “superiority” and “unconditional love” would have been seriously tested at the sight of a steak. Not even. Cheetos. He’d ditch both owner and “unlimited” love for Cheetos.
Of course, it was unrealistic to expect much sympathy. Friends, coworkers, relatives—they were all in Eddie’s corner.
“Poor Eddie. Can you guys get into counseling?” my friend Bill suggested when I shared my latest grievance. There is such a thing as pet-related therapy, of course, and Bill wasn’t kidding. Never mind that his own life was run by two hyperactive “fur babies”—Jessica and Stanley, both Chihuahua mixes—that at one point got him and his partner, Scout, evicted from their apartment in Los Angeles because of a no-pets policy. As they frantically looked for a place to crash with their dogs right before the Christmas holiday, I suggested—helpfully, I thought—that they put the rescue dogs in a kennel to make the search for temporary housing easier.
Out of the question, Bill said. “They are our children.”
And I’m the one who needs therapy. (Many years later, after marriage and two actual children, this is what Bill said to me one day: “Do you want Stanley? He’s an idiot.”)
Only my sister in Puerto Rico, Mari, a down-to-earth dog lover, would empathize and ask every now and then during our long-distance conversations: “Have you poisoned the dog yet?”
• • •
Clearly, I would never kill another living thing, not even Eddie. But in my new life as wife and stepmom, Eddie was no joke. He was another willful personality in the household, another tension in the “blended” family, the last straw on a bad day, the extra, unacceptable hardship that sometimes made me want to run away. He wasn’t just a dog. He was negative energy, a competitor for my husband’s attention, a nuisance, a bad roommate, a total traitor. Against my better judgment, he got under my skin.
At some point, it all got to be too much. I was utterly unprepared to gain an instant family, juggle so many new roles and relationships at once, and struggle with culture clashes. I had been so naive. For some reason I never doubted I would always get my way in my own marriage, just like I did when it was just me. I stepped into my new role ready to change things for the better, to teach the kids and love the husband and make everyone happy, fulfilled, and grateful I had come into their lives. That didn’t turn out exactly as I’d envisioned.
And then there was this darn dog. There were so many times I could have used Eddie’s allegiance, especially when I felt ganged up on or like an incompetent wife and stepmother. A sane dog would have offered comfort. But Eddie offered me none. No joy, no solace, no support, no love. He took sides right away and it wasn’t with Team Mia. It would be me against four. I’d require a blended-family coach, and a shrink or two, to root for me.
One day I was in New York, longing for love but happily unmarried. The next I was in the suburbs of Los Angeles juggling a new job assignment, a husband, two stepkids in their tweens, and doggie dearest.
I, in good faith, endeavored to work things out. How hard could it be when I had already succeeded in finding true love?
So I tried and tried—with the husband, and the kids, and especially Eddie, who at least didn’t talk back. I tried to tolerate Eddie. I tried to be friends with Eddie. I tried to train Eddie. And when that didn’t work, I tried to (legally) get rid of Eddie. If someone had to go, it sure as hell wasn’t going to be me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Just know I count on you to see my side.
Mia Meets Jim
Jim and I first crossed paths one infernal summer in Phoenix. Until then, this tropical island girl never knew 100-degree heat that slapped you in the face. Mid-eighties was more my speed. I returned to my hotel room after a hectic day of workshops, panels, and job fair duty and the telephone message light was blinking.
“Hi, it’s Jim Sterngold, a colleague of yours from the Times. I’m in Phoenix working on a story and I just ran into some of the Times people. If you’re free for a drink, I’d love to meet you.”
How collegial of Mr. Sterngold. He was making time to meet me in the middle of his breaking news story.
I was there for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention. While I took refuge at the air-conditioned Hyatt Regency, Jim was covering the story of a crazy arsonist who had been burning down new houses on the fringes of the city.
We had both worked for The New York Times as reporters for years but managed to never meet. When I got to the paper in 1989 from the San Francisco Examiner, he was already immersed in language training for his new assignment in Tokyo as a Times foreign correspondent. He left for Asia as I arrived in New York. He was now based in Los Angeles.
Then, in Arizona, of all places—actually, in a hotel bar in Arizona, of all places—I met my future husband. We had agreed to meet in the lobby bar, where the journalists gathered to drink and catch up. The bar was bustling with dark-haired people in business attire with name cards hanging from their necks. I took a high chair at one of the round tables with some acquaintances from the Daily News, El Diario, La Prensa, and others in the New York contingent, and waited. I didn’t know what to expect. Nice colleague? Self-absorbed bore? Competitive foe? Certainly not a hottie, but when I saw him I was instantly attracted. Not too tall, but slim and athletic. Blue eyes, full lips. Sandy-colored hair, gray at the temples. Hirsute, a weakness. Very sexy.
Unlike some of the nerds back in the office—Seersucker Day, anyone? (not to be confused with Tie Tuesday!)—this James was almost Bondian. He was the kind of man I’d immediately notice at a party. He looked me straight in the eye with a couple once-overs. I couldn’t help going into self-conscious dating mode as I shook his hand and made introductions. I held my vodka with a teeny splash of cranberry that barely tinted the clear liquid and worried he’d think I was a heavy-drinking barfly. No one offered him their seat—way to go, New Yorkers!—but Jim was completely at ease. He politely offered to buy us drinks and went to the bar for his beer.
“So what’s the story in Phoenix?” I said when he returned, trying to sound casual.
“Strange story,” he said. “They had a bunch of arsons . . .”
What a deep, guttural radio voice. How old can he be with that sexy salt-and-pepper chest hair? I looked into his eyes and nodded.
“. . . The guy left messages behind claiming that his fires were symbolic acts to protest the degradation of the desert by avaricious developers and he became a local folk hero. Except that after he was arrested, he turned out to be just a nut without a cause. Oops!”
He laughed. His teeth were perfect.
My gorgeous colleague was not only smart, he was self-deprecating and funny. I wasn’t about to waste any more time talking shop. I quickly learned that he was divorced, had two kids, and loved opera and Santa Fe. That last bit came up because I told him I had enrolled in a summer course on opera at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and would be seeing Lucia di Lammermoor. I had never been to Santa Fe.
“You’ll enjoy it,” Jim said of the city’s famous opera house. “I’ve been there. It’s a beautiful outdoor venue, with a tentlike roof, in a gorgeous area, and has fantastic food. I’m jealous. I wish I could join you.”
Hands down, best prospect I had ever met in a bar. Just as I was letting my guard down, Jim excused himself, saying he had an early flight back to L.A. Oh, no! So soon? Then I remembered.
“I may see you soon,” I said. “The national desk is sending me to L.A. for a month to fill in for Todd after he moves to D.C.”
Todd, the chief of the L.A. bureau, was relocating to Washington. As fate would have it, I had gotten his gig while they searched for his replacement.
Jim looked happily surprised. “Really? If you love the outdoors, you’ll love L.A. There’s great hiking and camping, and the weather is always fantastic.”
Camping? I’d rather have every pore of my body waxed and then tattooed.
“I love camping!” I said.
This was just too much good fortune. My arsonist-hunter was already hinting at dates in the wilderness.
Later that night, as I dozed off playing back the reel of our encounter, I was mindful that if I dated Jim I would be violating one of my rules. I adhered to a never-date-coworkers policy and it had served me well. Who needs to see their walking mistakes at the office? But Jim and I worked on different coasts, so who needs a policy? And I wasn’t after a relationship, particularly, just some spice in my otherwise uneventful love life at the moment.
My previous relationships had been phenomenally ill-suited to my ambition for everlasting love. I dated a charming alcoholic for more than two years. I dated a line cook who was too young, too bald, too overweight, but, oh, could he salsa dance. I stupidly agreed to go out with my mortgage broker—and stopped seeing him upon realizing he was a handsome misanthrope—before securing the loan. (At least he was ethical and I still got the loan.) Then I wasted another year of my youth on an intriguing Eastern European I met at a club. This guy was really hard to resist. He regaled me with stories about his hometown and urged me to read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, his favorite book. He took me to shows and dinners at social clubs in unfamiliar corners of New York with flavored vodkas and spectacularly beautiful women. He lavished money and romance on me. Then one day I discovered that he packed a gun for protection. I wondered, “Protection from whom?”
The suspicions were reinforced one evening when he met me sporting a busted lip.
He knew these people up in the Bronx, you see. He was so underpaid at his job, you know. He needed to make extra money, and these people, well, they knew how to get maximum insurance benefits. So, anyhoo, why not pack the car with relatives and purposely crash it into a tree?
My dating record was not stellar. I knew women who planned to get married by thirty and have kids by thirty-five. They were as strategic about love as they were about their careers. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t that well organized. I was just open to new adventures, to whatever life would bring in between newspaper deadlines.
And it wasn’t like I was the Bachelorette. The pickings were always slim, even in college. At five-nine, I was too tall for a third of the men. Another third fell off because I had the better job. Finding the last third entailed online dating, which I tried without posting a picture, which any online dater knows will yield worse results than a two-dollar scratch-off lotto ticket. But I was too self-conscious for a picture. My pitch didn’t help either. Determined to tell the truth, I wrote something along the lines of “Tall, slim Latina with zest for life and brains to match. Funny. Outspoken. Spanish accent. Loves jazz, good wine, assertive men.”
I scared the deer.
I was aware I might have come across as a handful to some men, but I listened to Oprah. She once told Serena Williams on her show that women erred when they tried to dim their light to let their men shine. Blind the hell out of them, Oprah said, or something to that effect. The right man would be able to take all your brightness. Amen.
When I was young and still in Puerto Rico, before leaving for college in the States in my sophomore year, I wondered if I would be happy marrying and having kids in my twenties, like a good Puerto Rican girl. I grew up the oldest of two sisters in a suburb of San Juan, went to the same Catholic parish school from kindergarten to my senior year of high school, and should have had a couple toddlers by my big 3-0. That’s what my sister, Mari, did, and today she and I are grateful for her three kids, my three adorable nephews, even if her marriage foundered.
Family is a big part of how we view ourselves. I religiously spent every New Year’s Eve in Puerto Rico with my parents, sister, nephews, and assorted cousins and aunts and uncles. On the island and in the States, some of my closest friends were classmates from kindergarten and grade school—Diana, Celia, Lourdes, Clemson, Jesús—another extended family. Because of my upbringing in an extremely family-centric culture, I have never been afraid of commitment, just of bad husbands—specifically, hard-drinking, horse-betting, womanizing macho men that are not uncommon in Puerto Rican culture. Many men regarded their financial support of their family as a job well done. They did minimum housework or child-rearing and dropped everything come “Social Friday”—a Puerto Rican tradition that involves binge drinking until early Saturday. My father, a claims analyst with a health insurer, was among those partaking of our cultural traditions. His drinking drove a wedge between us as I grew up. I couldn’t accept the loud personality that came with it, or the time and money wasted on it (and on gambling at the racetrack). I couldn’t accept that it took my father—a good-natured, affectionate, and decent man when sober—away from me. And I couldn’t accept it on behalf of my mother, who was more tolerant of it than I but was unhappy, still. I fought back with disrespect and the silent treatment.
My mother always worked, first as a secretary for a bread company and later as an administrative assistant in a doctor’s office, and she called the shots in the house. But she didn’t earn a lot and regretted not being financially independent enough to have options of her own. She worked full-time, she raised me and my sister, and she was the one who insisted we attend a Catholic parish school with Franciscan nuns from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, so we could learn English, even if she and my father had to scrape to pay for it. She hosted family gatherings, planned our beach vacations around the island, painted the house and made repairs, but she still needed my father’s paycheck. I grew up with her mantra etched in my brain: “Get an education so you never have to depend on a man.”
I looked up to my mom for her work ethic, common sense, and devotion to her family. I also learned from Mami to value my girlfriends. Even as an adult, I sometimes tagged along with her and the moms of my grade school buddies who met in restaurants or at one another’s homes to drink rum and Cokes, gossip, and trash their husbands. They called themselves Las Muchachas—the girls—forever ageless. Their daughters, my contemporaries, all eventually got married in their twenties and had their own kids. We formed our own circle of friendship. Las Muchachitas. I always assumed I’d have children. I got crushes on babies. But I also wanted a partner to have children with, and that was the glitch. Adopting a baby by myself, like some of my friends have done, was not for me. I didn’t feel that wanting or count myself that brave. And my job was a huge distraction from any long-term planning.
I had initially wanted to be a doctor. When revulsion at dissecting frogs in biology class made me reconsider, I spent months searching for a new major. Pharmacy? Accounting? Political Science? Then I saw All the President’s Men as an impressionable nineteen-year-old premed student at the University of Puerto Rico and that was that. Until then, I had no idea there was such a profession as “Woodward and Bernstein.” After watching the movie, all I wanted was to be a Washington Post reporter and knock on doors to dig for information, meet sources in parking lots, use code words and potted-plant signals to maintain secrecy, and publish stories that would dislodge the corrupt and make our world better. It didn’t cross my mind I could suck at it. I was what you’d call an upbeat teenager, even if sometimes I wondered, “Is this all there is?” In those moments, I felt the smallness of the island and yearned for everything I didn’t know. I also yearned for boys taller than me. I had been five-six by age twelve, five-nine by fifteen—taller than even my teachers. In other words, a skinny, flat-chested freak in a culture where men prefer to tower over their curvy women. I kept growing and slouching like Olive Oyl, and at some point my always enterprising mom got me what, to the naked eye, resembled a straightjacket to pull my shoulders back. She also enrolled me in modeling classes at Sears. “For your posture,” she said. “Siempre estas joroba.” Studying journalism in Washington, D.C., where I already had friends at Georgetown University, was my chance to step out of my flat shoes and sheltered life, if only for a few years of college.
I was oblivious to the fact that I could barely speak English. I couldn’t even figure out the lyrics in disco songs. I could read and write it, though, thanks to the American nuns who enunciated at Colegio San Antonio, my parish school. I was going for Woodstein, not Barbara Walters, so I picked my new major and told my parents I had to move to the States for a little while because the UPR had no undergraduate journalism program. Amazingly, they said yes. These were the same parents who, on my first date with an eighteen-year-old, who picked me up honking from a yellow convertible Corvette, insisted on chaperoning me, which is how I came to be French-kissed at fifteen for the first time in a dark movie theater with Mom and baby sister sitting just a few rows away. But somehow, the idea of sending me off alone to the States still in my teens didn’t scare them. As long as it involved education, my mom, and therefore my dad, was fine with it. Neither of them had gone to college, and they both wanted it for their daughters.
And there was my mom’s “Get your education so you never have to depend on a man.”
I guess it’s no mystery why I stayed single for so long.
Above all, I was trusted. It was as if Mami and Papi could foretell that their oldest would go through college without smoking pot and with her virginity intact. As I prepared to leave the island, I knew I’d be homesick. But I was ready for the non-Caribbean world. I applied to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and enrolled with a patchwork of financial aid—scholarships, loans, work-study programs—and whatever my parents could give me. Once in D.C., finances were the least of my problems. That first year at GW was T-O-U-G-H. I lived in a huge, noisy, awful dorm. Every weekend, drunk students would pull the fire alarm a few times a night, so we all spent a good part of the year freezing in our bathrobes out on the street while firefighters checked the building for smoke. I had several roommates, one of them a nymphomaniac. At least that was my humble opinion as the only virgin in the zoo. We’ll call her Betsy. She slept around as if it were a required course. It’s as if she had been held hostage for years by her parents and was finally tasting freedom. I didn’t care until she brought a guy to our room and had sex right below me on the bunk bed.
“Sheet, Betsy!” I said the next morning in my heavy accent. “You can’t do theeese!”
Betsy found me immensely funny, which made me angrier and less fluent. All I could do was move my half of the bunk bed to the study alcove in our room and the next year get out of campus housing altogether. I found a studio apartment with mice above a Roy Rogers chicken restaurant and roomed with a Puerto Rican high school classmate who was as celibate as I was.
That first year I could barely keep up with classes, and my journalism school grades were in the gutter. I had the hardest time with accents that didn’t sound like mine. I went to cover Jimmy Carter during a presidential campaign appearance for an assignment and didn’t understand a word he said. (I taped him and a friend later interpreted his drawl for me.)
But I was lucky to find a mentor in a beloved professor who everyone knew as Puff, short for Puffenbarger.
Charles Puffenbarger was a business editor at The Washington Post who also mentored one of my Watergate heroes, Carl Bernstein, and brought him to class as a speaker. I was so impressed I went out with Puff for a whole year after the course ended. Our relationship was flirtatious, not sexual, but Puff convinced me I could be a good journalist and our friendship endured for twenty years, until he died of brain cancer at seventy. Puff encouraged me to aim high. My grades steadily improved as my English got better. I interned at the Cox Newspapers bureau in Washington and got a few pieces published in The Washington Post.
Then, as I was set on returning home, I happened to spot an ad for a summer journalism program for minority journalists at the University of California at Berkeley. A summer in sunny California? I applied, got in, and bought new sunglasses. I had no idea the Bay Area has miserably cold weather in the summer. Neither did I realize until it was too late that the benignly named “summer program” was really a boot camp. Basically, top journalists around the country—the likes of Bob Maynard, Nancy Hicks, Eileen Shanahan, Les Payne, Roy Aarons, Milton Coleman, and many others—came to Berkeley on two-week rotations to kick our butts. They edited a weekly called Deadline and we spent the week reporting and writing for it in between seminars about the ethics and standards of our chosen profession. I had never worked so hard in college or life. I also realized I had overlooked an important detail. The program wanted to increase racial diversity in newsrooms, so they wanted me to interview for jobs on the mainland. I told my parents I had to delay my return for a couple years. I told them the experience in the States would help me land an even better job back home. My parents were all for it.
But I never returned home.
My poor parents. They never thought they’d lose me forever by sending me to college. Neither did I. I don’t regret my choices, but it would forever gnaw at me that I chose to not have my family around for most of my adult life–or any of my old close friends, for that matter. Phone calls and twice-a-year visits could never make up for all the moments lost. I thought more about this only as I got older. When you live apart from the family you love, by choice, nostalgia only grows with time. But as a twenty-one-year-old suddenly in charge of her own life, I was just excited, even if I cried on the plane all the way to San Francisco from San Juan when I officially moved out of the parental home for good to start my first real job. That would be as a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, an afternoon paper in a city I came to love so much that it took me another ten years to think about moving again.
I fell in love with San Francisco at first sight. It was hilly and surrounded by water just like home. The fog and perennial chill were definite downsides. But the city more than made up for those with its sheer physical beauty, its accepting politics, and its racial integration. I arrived in a shell-shocked city, though. Just a few months earlier, San Francisco mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk had died at the hands of Dan White. And just days before those shootings, Peoples Temple cult leader Jim Jones orchestrated the mass murders and suicides in Guyana.
On my first day at the Examiner, they assigned me a desk near Tim Reiterman, a reporter who was shot in that tragedy but survived the same hail of bullets that killed Congressman Leo Ryan on a remote jungle airstrip. He was friendly and kind to the new wide-eyed hire, just like the rest of the Ex’s staff.
Excerpted from "Stepdog"
Copyright © 2015 Mireya Navarro.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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What People are Saying About This
“I adore this book. Alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, Stepdog is an extraordinary chronicle of romance, marriage, blended families, career juggling, and an obstreperous dog, written with a journalists’ eye for detail, and a novelists’ insight for character. Mireya Navarro is a wonderful writer who reminds us that in the end, love and compassion conquers all – even a cantankerous canine.“ — Bruce Feirstein, bestselling author and contributing editor, Vanity Fair
“In STEPDOG, Navarro reminds us that our companions (human and animal) challenge our assumptions, force us to compromise and give us plenty of opportunities for hard lessons. A charming, funny, poignant memoir about love, life and family." — Esmeralda Santiago, author of When I Was Puerto Rican and Conquistadora