by Laura Eppinger

I don’t. Didn’t grow up with pets. Came up with three siblings, thirty cousins, a dead end street full of playmates. Freaky neat parents. No clutter, no dust. No hair, no dander, no slobber allowed.

I never loved dogs and I’ve told exes they were a deal-breaker. I never knew how.

Then the sheep dog and the collie you rescued came to stay, and I soften because they’re rescues and because you named them Thelma and Louise. My heart breaks when I spot a tattoo inside each of their right ears; indecipherable, yet signals from some dubious breeder.

You warn me the new smell in your apartment will be Dog. Because it’s the dog days of summer on the East Coast but these pups are used to Texas heat. That’s so like you, to try to pretend you never left Austin by shutting off your central air. I don’t like living in New Jersey either, but I don’t try to bake to death in my apartment just to prove that point.

When I meet them they don’t bark, don’t jump, don’t bite. Several fears, quelled. I take a hard look at your girls. They’d have you believe they’ve evolved from foxes, not wolves. I’m tempted to use words like tawny or cinnamon and damask or cherry, but come on, I don’t write erotica.

You’ve explained their personalities but I get to know them on my own. Thelma is smaller, scrappier. Her instinct is to eat tiny creatures: bunnies, squirrels, other people’s small dogs.

That’s how you’ve described her. For my part I’ll say: Thelma is a spaz. She is also your favorite. You love to hate all the trouble she gets into—mostly shit. Deer pellets, waste from other dogs, even groundhog shit. You’d never encountered that one before, and she rolled around in, really dug her face in. Her punishment was a bath but it was no punishment at all because you lathered and brushed her all over, Prodigal Daughter who loves to be touched.

The worse she acts, the deeper your love. It brings me to my biggest fear in dating: that I’m too agreeable, give my partner too easy a time. If I were more difficult, more of a handful, I’d get loved more. That I am missing out on baskets and barrels and bathtubs of love, but I’m too stubbornly self-sufficient to let it in.

Louise is a girl after my own heart. She needs to be touched or stroked constantly. Or at least, if you’re working at your desk, have one eye on you while one paw holds down your foot. She’s keeping you right where you are, so you don’t stray. She’s jealous, you tell me, and if you’re cuddling with Thelma she’ll wail and inch closer. You have to match your affection, she will not wait a turn for your hands.

When you told me they were coming to stay, you listed all the ways it was going to be bad, for them and for you. They’re outdoor dogs but you don’t have a fenced-in backyard, so they’ll be cooped up and stir-crazy. They’ll try to climb the stairs to your loft and wind up breaking their necks. Someone before you trained them that carpet is the same as grass and they’ll squat on it accordingly. Worst yet, Thelma once attacked a neighbor’s nippy dog, in a flash, but she left some serious damage. You paid thousands of dollars to stitch the palm-sized yapper back together. She’ll cost you a fortune, that one.

“And yet, when I think of her, I want her here,” you said, reaching out to stroke Thelma’s coat of rust. She was still in Texas.

We hadn’t said I Love You yet but I knew I did. I’d never said it first before. I couldn’t believe you were pining for that dog. I couldn’t imagine you’d ever pine for me.

Dog-longing. That what I envied you felt because that’s what I felt for you.

That’s why I like Louise best.

Having them here isn’t bad for them and it isn’t bad for you, though of course you complain about them constantly. It’s how you love; I don’t care where you’ve lived you are from New York, and this means you worry over what you love. Once they gave you fleas. The first time I brushed Louise I caught a living tick. I handed it off to you, too squeamish to do what had to be done. You burned it up in a bit of tissue over the kitchen sink.

Of course we are terribly allergic, both of us. Thelma and Louise give us flu-like symptoms: swollen eyes, dry coughs, itchy skin. The remedies are worse. The only effective medications keep us groggy and napping throughout the day, before falling into bed for the night at 9 p.m. That is just how Thelma and Louise like us. Prone. Still. Our bodies wrapped against theirs.

Seasons change and love deepens. We can say I love you to each other now. And the dogs. You call them sweetheart and use other terms of endearment you’d never say to me, but I don’t mind. They’re my sweethearts too.

We slink back into your apartment after a New Year’s Eve away, though we’d worried about them the whole night out. A ray of sunshine warms us, the four of us, as we nap into the couch. Arms, paws, tails that thump unto sleep: one warm mass on this first day of a new year. I must love your dogs, it occurs to me now, because I dream about them, too.