He walked with a saucy little pimp limp. Think John Travolta’s irresistible hip sway during the Saturday Night Fever days, coupled with an adorable little hitch in his step.
When he saw something he liked, he’d lunge at it, circle it warily, maybe give it a gruff stare. And he was vocal, so very vocal, with well-honed communication skills that made it clear when he felt frustrated (a lot), angry (even more often), and disappointed (evidenced via a resigned sigh).
Buster was my first true, real love. We lived in six apartments together, going from a rent-stabilized one bedroom to a garden level one with a plush yard and a grill to a midtown eyesore one block from Trump Tower. We shared a bed, of course. He, like me, appreciated a great rainbow sushi roll. When his back ached, he would lounge on his deluxe down-filled mattress, purchased from one of those ridiculous Soho stores that stay in business because of suckers like me. Yes, we had our tiffs. And he didn’t restrain himself from airing his many grievances. In fact, he was so vocal that instead of deeming his behavior abusive, I decided he was full of gumption and spirit and spunk. Unsurprisingly, no one agreed with me.
After reading Lena Dunham’s heartbreaking Instagram post about having to give up her rescue dog, Lamby, who simply could not adjust to family life or relinquish the self-destructive behaviors and aggressive nature that made him a danger to those around him and to himself, I once again grieved my Buster.
You see, Buster was a border collie mix that I got as a Christmas gift—yes, a really, truly bad idea—as a tiny puppy from a college roommate, when I’d just started working at CNN.com. I was doing overnights and breaking news, and it didn’t leave much time to take care of a needy, demanding, often-unruly animal—but still, we went running most days and went to the park for hours. He never knew neglect or abuse. When I moved from Atlanta to New York to work in entertainment, he went to the park every day, rain or shine. I based my entire schedule around his needs, and lived only in neighborhoods that were walking distance to Central Park. I fed him free-range steak. He had doggie playdates, most of them fraught. I took him to Europe with me. He shared burgers with me at J.G. Melon, an uptown institution. We went skiing. And sure, we had some problems. The vet had to tie him down and muzzle him during routine checkups because Buster bit the staff. When I told the vet it was really no big deal, since Buster bit me most days when I did something that upset him (like stopping to play fetch after 45 minutes, a game Buster could psychotically engage in for hours upon hours), the doctor looked at me aghast and said: “You do realize that dogs are not supposed to bite people, right? You do understand that this behavior is not normal, and that this is likely a major personality flaw in your dog?”
My husband, Justin, and I brought Alex home from Presbyterian hospital in Manhattan. We were skittish. “If the dog so much as growls at my son, I will string him up by the neck,” threatened my husband. I told him it would never happen because Buster would realize that Alex was part of his pack and, as such, would love him.
Spoiler alert: This never happened. Even when he was a newborn, I would strap Alex into his baby carrier, leash up Buster and trek to Central Park for his off-leash carousing. We’d get home. And then the drama would start. Buster would stalk the baby, laying claim to his toys, his rocker, his blankets. He never licked him, not once, and that dog could lick me for hours. He’d sniff him suspiciously, give him canine side-eye, and wander away. I wondered what would happen when Alex finally became mobile.
And one day, I found out. Alex, gurgling and giggling, crawled towards Buster, who was lying on the floor. The baby tried to pet him. Buster lunged, and bit him in the face. My child was screaming in fear, my husband (at this point, dealing with advanced brain cancer), leaped and grabbed Buster, flipped him on his back to assert dominance, and berated him. The dog glared at Justin and growled. And growled some more.
Slowly, the baby playdates began disappearing. “I’m really, really sorry, but your dog scares my child—the barking and growling really freaks her out,” said one mom, who was the opposite of a helicopter parent. Another told me her son was terrified because Buster would corner him, bark loudly, and steal food out of his hands.
And still I was in denial. The dog bit my kid in the face. And somehow, through some twisted sense of loyalty and logic, I sided with the canine. I look back on this now, and I want to shake some sense into myself. I clung to him because I was too obstinate to admit that he was more than I could, or should, handle, and because I refused to give up a dog. Only scum dump dogs, I told anyone who’d listen, and Buster and I were together, for better or much, much worse.
So what was the breaking point, you might ask? My husband was rapidly deteriorating—at one point, he walked Buster and left him tied up outside a coffee shop, but returned home unable to remember where the dog was. Against every ounce of good judgment I had, I had to leave my baby with his dad, now dealing with stage IV brain cancer and in a perpetual state of confusion, pull on my Hunter boots and slog my way through a downpour until I located the dog outside a Le Pain Quotidien.