University of Baltimore MFA student Elizabeth Phan writes the sweetest, deepest valentine to her dog daughter, adopted during the pandemic.
“What’s her name?”
I’m standing on the patch of grass at the corner of W. Eager and Cathedral as I do every morning at 7:20 and every afternoon at 2:30. A man in a silver Nissan rolls his window down as he waits for the traffic light to turn green.
“Sorry?” I ask.
“Your dog,” he says. “What’s its name?”
My dog is sniffing at the leftovers of dogs here before us, wishing she could eat the grass she knows she’s not supposed to and eagerly anticipating the bowl of treats in front of the flower shop we always walk by.
We’ve been together for one year and one month now, she and I. That’s over 300 days of scooping kibble into a bowl, clipping a leash onto a harness, belly rubbing, ear scratching, wiping crusties from the corners of honey-colored eyes, and receiving kisses that leave wet trails of saliva on my arms and legs.
I say, “She’s a girl named Juniper.”
. . .
“Remind me of your name again?”
It’s the week before Christmas, and I’m on the phone for a screening interview with a representative of a pet adoption organization. I read over my carefully prepared notes, silently mouthing the words in an attempt to commit my responses to memory.
I’m searching for a calm, quiet, well-behaved dog. I’ve had family dogs all my life, but this would be my first dog completely on my own. Because of this, I’m looking for an older, independent dog that could be my companion. A sweet and gentle temperament, cuddly, and silly are all important qualities to me in my new dog.
I will provide my dog multiple walks every day, as well as visits to the park or hiking trails which I frequent on the weekends.
Yes, I’ve had family dogs all my life. Candy, Shetland Sheepdog: Passed of old age. Pepper, Shih Tzu: Passed of old age. Teddy, Lhasa Apso: Passed of old age.
I respond to the rep and hear the shuffling of papers in the background.
“Ah, here we go — sorry about that. It’s been a busy holiday season.” She pauses to read over my file. “It says here you’ve already spoken with Juniper’s foster mom. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” I tell her.
Over the last several months, my phone scrolling routine went like this:
reply to text message,
double tap friend’s selfie,
refresh adoption website,
Forced to brave the raging pandemic alone in my studio apartment, I became obsessed with the idea of owning a dog. I would scroll and scroll until all the Baileys, Buddys, Maxs, and Charlies faded into one brown, scruffy blur. I sent a few email inquiries, but the dogs were either too young or too old and needed more medical care than I could provide or a backyard I didn’t have.
Just as I was about to give up my search, I found her.
Grainy photos showed a stocky 6-year-old pit bull terrier mix, all white except for one caramel-brown spot over her right ear. Her profile said she was sweet and shy and looking for a female hooman to live with in her forever home. I couldn’t fill out the application fast enough and feared I was too late.
The next morning, I received a reply from Erin, the foster mom. The icon on her email profile showed a person with glasses and dark hair. She was Asian, like me, and this made me feel better about my decision. Maybe Juniper would feel right at home with me.
You are perfect for her, she wrote.
The foundation rep and I go back and forth, asking and answering. She wants to know about my life and routine and I speak at an octave higher than normal, finishing my sentences with exclamation points and laughing at nothing in between, nervous.
Our conversation ends with a date.
. . .
“Hi! I’m Elizabeth!” I wave from inside my car.
It’s January 2nd, and I’m preparing to meet Juniper and her foster family for the first time. Their truck circles around before backing into a parking space at least six feet away from mine. I strain my neck trying to get a look into the backseat or trunk, but don’t see any sign of her. I’ve had my car packed with the essentials for days: leash, harness, treats, toys.
The new year begins with a bright, blue day and, for the first time in months, I don’t need a jacket. Despite the weather, my whole body shakes in anticipation. I’m smiling before I even get out of the car. I think, I hope she likes me.
Even before the pandemic, I was an introvert to the extreme. My headphones were an extension of me, telling the world, “Sorry — can’t hear, can’t talk.” I often wore them silently, no music playing out of them, just so I looked occupied. Work-from-home was a luxury I was privileged to have. I groaned in commiseration at the start of every work call, but I really didn’t mind the separation. I preferred not having to chit-chat and smile politely and “It’s cold out there!” my way through every conversation.
I am out of social practice. I dig at a hangnail on my thumb, watching Erin’s car and thinking about my next move. Erin steps out first, followed by her parents and younger sister. They’re arguing in Korean over who gets to hold the dog’s leash and whether she needs to use the bathroom.
“Nice to meet you!” Erin says, waving at me as she begins unloading the trunk.
Quickly, the pavement fills with miscellaneous items: bowls, beds, a half-empty bag of kibble, towels, three frozen chicken breasts, an extra leash, a squeaky teddy bear toy missing one leg, and bags and bags of treats. I joke that Christmas was a few days ago.
Off to the side, Juniper paws at wet grass, uninterested in the noise and commotion. She sniffs at the air, lifting her nose high, hoping to get a taste of whatever she thinks she smells. A honking goose captures her attention.
Erin’s mom introduces herself to me with a bag of dried fish in her hand.
“She loves treat,” she tells me in broken English. “Her favorite. Give, give.”
I watch Juniper’s ears perk at the familiar crinkle of the bag that holds her snacks. The smell of sea is overwhelming, but she’s locked in on me now, not caring who I am or what I’m doing there, as long as she’s on the receiving end of the piece of dry, crackled cod in my hand.
I kneel. She saunters over slowly, stepping over pools of her own drool as she approaches. We’re in front of each other now. She blinks once, then licks her lips.
“Here you go,” I say.
Juniper is eager, not pausing for dramatic effect, and takes the treat, her foster family clapping and congratulating us in loud, excited Korean exclamations.
. . .
I become a mother, teaching Juniper things like how to shake my hand for a cookie and scolding her when she jumps up to look at what’s on the kitchen counter. I learn that her favorite food is whatever is in the street, and I make noises like aye ap pa pa pa and ehh bep bep bep hey when we’re on walks so she doesn’t eat them.
Her nicknames evolve from practical to unrecognizable: June, Junie Girl, Bebe, Mozzers, Good Gunnie. And she’s all mine. My love, my girl, my sweets.
Her full name is Juniper Lee Phan, and the Lee stands for “leave it.”
She’s not good with people the same way I’m not good with people: shy, paranoid, and quiet until they get too close, then it’s hard to shut her up.
She tends to keep to herself, the rescue wrote to me in a post-adoption email. No dog parks, if you can avoid it.
No problem, I write back.
Our first month together, I search the internet for things like:
what to do with your dog,
spending time with your dog,
how to tell if your dog likes you,
dog obsessed with grass,
and what does it mean when your dog looks into your eyes?
Outside is no longer a recreational option. It’s a bullet point needing to be crossed off every day. Another life depends on mine, and I am to be held accountable. We go on our routine morning, afternoon, and night walks because I once read that a dog living in a studio apartment needs at least two hours of exercise per day, and I’m determined. We walk all over the city, Juniper’s tip-tap in line with my click-clomp.
My neighborhood, the one I’ve lived in for years, becomes new to me — another character in our story. Street corners I once walked by without a second thought take on more important roles, like Juniper’s favorite sniffing spot or the intersection where we found that $10 bill I had to fish out of her mouth. My phone tells me that On average, this year’s step count is higher than last year’s. 2020: 1,756 steps/day. 2021: 10,386 steps/day.
We pass the tall greyhound each morning and the old corgi each afternoon, and I shuffle by quickly, avoiding dog interaction for Juniper and people interaction for me. Even at the possibility of unwanted small talk, I’m no longer afraid to venture out. I turn corners with ease, ready for whatever’s on the other side. My headphones stay tucked in my pocket.
As my world opens up, I begin a list of things I encounter.
- Cathedral Street, medics tending to man lying in the road in front of apartment building.
- Man and woman arguing and physically fighting on E. Biddle Street.
- Elderly woman who asked if she could take me and Juniper’s photo on a snowy John Street.
- Man who complimented Juniper, then pulled a live bunny out of his pocket for her to sniff.
- Man who asked Juniper’s name and then replied with his dog’s name. “Cannabis, can’t forget it.”
One night, I am taking Juniper on her last walk of the day when we are stopped by a teenage girl. She has extra-long blond hair that touches her waist, and isn’t wearing shoes or a jacket, even though it is the middle of winter. I feel overdressed in my knee-length coat and beanie.
It’s been some time since I adopted Juniper and our routine is solid, but I’m still getting comfortable with walking around outside after dark. The girl frightens me, and I keep my distance.
“Hi,” she says. “May I pet your dog?”
I tug on the leash and reply, “I’m sorry, she’s not very friendly.”
“That’s okay.” The girl smiles and sits next to Juniper on the sidewalk. “I’m really good with dogs.”
We’re under a streetlamp on a busy street. I’m glad there are other people, witnesses, walking by. The girl reaches her hand out and I wince in anticipation of Juniper’s loud barking.
“Good girl,” the girl says. Surprisingly and out of character, Juniper allows the pets.
Quietly, I hear, “She really loves you.”
“Your dog, she really loves you,” she says louder. The girl raises her head, not missing a beat. “I’m a dog whisperer. They tell me things and I can understand them.”
“Oh,” I say. “Okay.”
I suddenly feel very hot under all my layers, and I know it is because I will tell people this story and they will laugh, but I believe her.
The girl continues. “You two are going to have a great life together. She wants you to know she’s very happy and thankful.”
“That’s so nice to hear,” I say, and I mean it. “Thank you.”
The girl says nothing, and waves goodbye. I look down at Juniper who is already looking up at me.
“Is all that true?” I ask her. She blinks, then licks her lips.
Beth Phan is an Asian-American writer and MFA candidate in the University of Baltimore’s Creative Writing and Publishing Arts program. This spring, she will publish her first book. Phan lives in Baltimore with her dog–and actually likes it.