“Learn to make collages. Water your plant. Collect lucky pennies.”
Let’s be honest: you’re not going to make collages or collect lucky pennies. That seems like a waste of time. You do, however, eat a weed brownie and read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen in one sitting at a bar. You wear high heels every day you teach so your students know what’s up. You get a birth control device implanted in your arm so you don’t have to remember to take pills.
As for watering your plant, you go back to therapy in the fall of 2014. You agree to medication—Zoloft, 100mg—and dutifully quit drinking for two weeks. The antidepressants make you feel okay sometimes, but mostly you feel numb, stupid, and uncreative. You stay on them for about nine months before weaning yourself off them because you’re about to lose your health insurance. Mostly, though, you just don’t want to take those pills anymore. It fucks with you for a couple weeks after the drug clears your system—insomnia, restlessness, increased depression—but you start exercising again and decrease your drinking significantly. The side effects go away. You feel better. The bouts of depression are less often. You sleep harder. The suicidal ideation has slowed to a dull thud you only consider when you’re broke.
The day you decide to stop taking the antidepressants in June of 2015, your best friend Penny from graduate school tells you she needs to give up her black pug for adoption. Her life is in a tailspin of court cases and sick children, and something must give. It has to be the dog.
You’re in your sister Celeste’s kitchen in Houston cutting up the little blue pills when Penny calls to tell you. A fluffy gray dog named Elliott huffs under the futon where you sleep in Celeste’s living room. The two of you are watching him for Celeste’s friend while she’s out of town. You hear him change positions, and your heart lurches.
Otis is a five-year-old pure bred black pug. Penny got him as a therapy dog for her daughter when she started having nightmares four years ago. This past year, you’ve read Helena Andrews’ Bitch Is the New Black twice, in which she describes “getting a dog instead of a baby,” a black pug named Miles. You see the words written in front of you: Yea, go forth and adopt this dog.
“I’ll take him!” you screech suddenly. Elliott barks and grumbles under the futon.
“What? No, you don’t have to do that,” Penny counters.
“No, I want him.”
You have never really wanted a dog. Your family wasn’t a pet family growing up. Mom is afraid of everything with fur. A chipmunk sat beside her once on a bench at the zoo and she nearly jumped out of her skin. As one of seven children, your mother noted that someone always forgot to feed the pet and the burden would fall on their mother, wrangling them alone after their father died. Dad travelled too often to even consider getting a puppy after the divorce. It was never a conversation in the Prince household—even when you won a goldfish at a church carnival, your mother hemmed and hawed for hours before letting you keep it. Poor Stephanie only lived for three days, so you lost the desire to have a pet.
But suddenly you want this dog. You look down at the cutting board on the counter, the steak knife in your hand, and the halved and quartered pieces of Zoloft. You remember that the only way for you to fight your depression while uninsured, unemployed, and out of therapy is to find an alternative. A dog could be an alternative.
You convince Penny you’ll take great care of him—despite having never owned a dog or done any research or prepared any part of your life for this transition—and she drops him off the morning you return from Houston.
Otis loves everything like a child who’s never tasted ice cream before. When you walk into your apartment on Sunday, June 28, 2015, Otis darts toward you like he’s been waiting for you since he was born. He’s incredibly well-trained—house-broken, sleeps in his kennel, doesn’t destroy shoes—and he does everything with you.
You try to get him to go running with you, but you give him heat stroke. Twice. Georgia humidity is a killer. You take him on (read: very short) walks and drive-through runs and cross-country road trips. He comes to Virginia with you to visit Jon the Firefighter, effectively wingmanning for you while you try not to fall further in love with that man. He behaves when you move back to Denver and into your mother’s house, and dutifully sleeps in the basement alone. Your mother isn’t amused—is downright terrified, in fact—but Otis is friendly. He never bites anyone. He rarely barks except at doorbells. He licks his nose nonstop and moans in his sleep.
But most of all, he makes your transition from antidepressants to nothing easier. He cuddles with you while you watch too much TV and drink too much wine. He encourages you to take him on walks instead of just letting him run around the backyard. But you miss him when he has to sleep alone downstairs, so you work hard to move out of your mother’s house and into a place that allows dogs.
In December of 2015, you move into a two-bedroom apartment with Javier the Chef. Otis is all about it. He sleeps in your bed with you on your feet. He entertains himself while you work. And he doesn’t break anything.
He is your permanent toddler—cannot speak, cannot feed or clean himself, cannot be unsupervised for long. It doesn’t help that you go out of town frequently, a habit you picked up in grad school to maintain your sanity. You start a long-distance relationship with a novelist in California. You teach in Houston over the summer. You go to retreats and conferences and readings all over the country. Otis is mostly well-behaved in your absence, but you miss him terribly. Your depression worsens when he’s not around—not suicidal worse, but definitely not great.
Once, your roommate lets Otis out to pee during a snowstorm. A stranger kidnaps him and takes him across town. If the friend of said stranger hadn’t seen you running around screaming for him, you may not have gotten him back.
Another night, your roommate has a bunch of friends over. They’re all smoking weed and the front door is open. No one notices Otis wander down the front steps and into the street, until you ask where he is. The boys look at you, their eyes sleepy and bloodshot.
“Who?” one asks.
“My dog. Otis. Where is he?” You try not to sound irritated but you want to jam the pipe he’s loading down his throat.
“Oh, he’s in the kitchen,” Javier says. You stare at him. No, he’s not.
“Otis!” you shout. The smokers jump. No skittering of black pug nails on the hardwood. No heavy breathing or barking at the sound of his own name. Javier hears the silence, too, and looks at the front door. The screen is open.
“Oh shit.” He scrambles to his feet but you’re out the door and on the street before he can get to the porch.
You get in your car and start driving around with your high beams on looking for him. The panic in your chest is akin to the attack you had last summer when a man slapped you and threatened to kill you while having sex. It’s just like the panic you’ll have two years from now when you think the California novelist has been killed after waking up to a cryptic message from his mother. You’ll only have a panic attack this bad three more times in your life, and each time you’ll come out of it a little less sure you won’t have another one.
Otis pees in a garden around the corner when you find him. He doesn’t realize anything is wrong. You open your passenger car door. “Otis!” you shriek, your voice strained with tears. Upon seeing you, he starts panting. “Get in the car, honey. Come get a treat.” He races toward you and jumps onto the seat. He’s so well trained that he sits still for you to clip on his makeshift seatbelt (a dog carrier leash tied to the headrest of your passenger seat to keep him from crawling into your lap while you order fast food). You cry the entire time as you drive home, but he doesn’t notice.
Your faithful dog Otis loves you for another six months. In June of 2016, you fly back from Houston to pick him up. You’ve been offered a part-time job for July in Houston, and you cannot fathom being in this city another month without him. Your father offers to help you make the 18-hour drive with Otis in the backseat, and at 4am on June 27th, the three of you set out for Houston.
Almost immediately, something is wrong. Otis has trouble breathing, he can’t stop panting, and he’s listless and not eating. After about 40 hours of this, he vomits everything. The look on his face is utter disappointment. He looks at you like he’s so sorry, like he wishes he could clean it up for you. The panic returns. You scoop him up and take him to a 24-hour clinic.
After an hour and two maxed out credit cards, Otis stops breathing in front of you. The whole time you stand in that little room, he doesn’t stop looking at you while you pet him. You keep repeating, “It’s okay, sweetie, it’s okay.” Finally, he exhales. It’s over.
The vet tells you the cause of death is his breed. You’re sobbing so hard she gives you a prescription for a sedative, and that makes you sob harder. This dog that acted as your living antidepressant for the better part of a year should not be mourned inside a cloud of pills. You can’t afford to cremate him, so all you have left is his collar and his food bowl.
You never fill the sedative prescription. In fact, you never take another pill for your mental health again. When you move back to Denver after your summer job ends, you resolve not to settle any longer. You quit your waitressing job, apply to every writing and teaching job in the state, and start fighting your depression with a (metaphorical) machete.
Your dog is gone. Your living antidepressant is gone. You have no health insurance, no money for therapy, and no way to battle the demons except to just do it. So—you upgrade your gym membership, stop speaking to your roommate, and go to interviews. You say yes to every job you’re offered, and soon you’re juggling five. In your journal, you call this the Year of the Hustle. It helps you grieve. It helps you focus. It manages your depression to the point that you don’t have time to stay in bed and cry.
You grow up. You thank Otis. You resolve to get another dog one day, and pet insurance. But you don’t change your computer’s screensaver from pictures of him. That you keep.
Monica Prince received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing with a focus in poetry from Georgia College & State University. Her work has been featured in MadCap Review, TRACK//FOUR, Texas's Best Emerging Poets, The Shade Journal, Fourth & Sycamore, The Sula Collective, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor for the Santa Fe Writers Project, and the author of the chapbook Letters from the Other Woman (Grey Book Press, 2018). Prince writes, performs, and teaches at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.