After years of mistakes, bad decisions and failed relationships, I finally met the man of my dreams.
While this sounds uncannily like the beginning of a love story, let me tell you that it most certainly is one. Maybe it isn’t exactly the kind of story we’ve spent the majority of our teenage years reading under the covers and wishing we’d have the chance to experience, but it does involve someone I met at an unexpected point of time in my life and fell madly in love with.
It was the summer just after my twenty ninth birthday, a detail that other people seemed to remember more vividly than I did. I was steadily approaching the big Three-Oh, with my left hand still noticeably ring-free. It didn’t bother me much but it most certainly did seem to bother my mother, who still believed that I was exhibiting some wild-child tendencies to break away from traditional societal stereotypes that I was dead set against during my childhood years and swore I would never fit into. The truth was, I wasn’t running away from marriage or relationships or commitment. I’d met my fair share of men, each one seeming more charming than his predecessor, whose bank account was a tad bit fuller than the previous one and whose promises sounded considerably more empty than the ones I’d heard before. I was positive I hadn’t been running away from anything. I was absolutely convinced that I didn’t have a hole in my heart that I needed a man to fill. I was strong, successful, in the prime of my youth (or so I liked to think) and was convinced I didn’t have to settle for something I didn’t crave for.
One evening after work, I walked down to the parking lot, my car keys clenched in my hand almost like a Swiss knife I was using to defend myself, my head bent against the light drizzle that was beginning to patter down upon the earth from the heavens. I did the routine checks – looked around me to ensure no one was going to jump out at me from a hidden location, checked to see if my tyres had been slashed by a vandal and bent down to see if there was a bomb pinned to the steely underbelly of my car. When I looked down, I didn’t see a large package with a clock pinned to it counting down the number of seconds until it would explode. I saw a little puppy crouching behind my front wheel, covered in mud and shivering from the cold. I held a hand out and he cowered at the sudden gesture. A moment passed and neither of us moved; he inches forward slowly and sniffed my hand warily. After taking a moment to decide whether or not I was trustworthy, he seemed to decide that I was and began to wag his tiny tail slowly. I smiled at him and slowly reached out with both my hands to pick him up and scoop him into my arms.
Leaving him there and driving away was out of the question. He was too small to survive – he looked barely about two months old. Something about the way he immediately snuggled up against my chest made me decide that I should take him home with me, at least until I managed to find him a new home.
Instead of driving straight back home like I usually do to catch up on the new episode of Devious Maids, I drove him to the local vet instead. The vet examined him, announced that he was in perfect health and gave him a bath to get rid of all the mud. Soon, he was bathed and dried, with fur a beautiful brown that reminded me distinctly of a chewy toffee that I was particularly fond of during my childhood years. And that is how I decided to christen him Toffee.
The vet advised that I put up notices for a lost puppy with pictures of Toffee on them so we could locate his real owner. There was a good chance he was homeless and lost, the vet hastened to assure me, because he didn’t have a collar around his neck, let alone a tag with numbers to contact in case he was lost. My mind was already working at a ninety miles an hour, thinking about the doggy goodies that I would stuff the pantry with and the squeaky toys that I would gleefully unwrap for him to play with.
When we got home, Toffee bounded excitedly into the living room. I stood at the entrance to my apartment, leaning against the doorjamb, watching as he sniffed every corner of the room before plopping himself down on the soft rug in the middle of the room, looking at me as if to say, “Well, that’s that!”
The next few days passed by in a blur. Between wrestling my socks and slippers out of Toffee’s mouth and trying to replace them with the squeaky toy that I picked up from the pet store that he strangely didn’t seem to care about, I spent most of my time placing advertisements both online in the local newspapers for Toffee in an attempt to find his ‘real owner’. It was a struggle not to roll my eyes every time I looked at the advertisement I’d crafted myself because in my mind, I was already Toffee’s real owner, this time without the quotations. I spent my time training him around the house, taking him on walks, cuddling with him on my bed, scratching him behind his soft ears as he closed his eyes contentedly at my touch. I most certainly didn’t want to give him up to an irresponsible owner who lost their own puppy. I could feel a protective instinct taking over me and more often than not, I suffered through terrible nightmares of being forced to give him up to a nameless, faceless stranger. Every morning, I woke up dreading that I would hear from someone who claimed to have lost their puppy and would go to sleep every night praying that no one would respond to the advertisements. I was slowly beginning to realise that I didn’t just like having Toffee around because he was clumsy and adorable in a way that could make anyone’s heart melt – I was falling in love with a tiny brown puppy with melting brown eyes who regularly tripped whenever he bounded excitedly around my little apartment and almost always fell headfirst into his bowl of milk in excitement.
After about a month had passed, I still hadn’t received any responses to the advertisement. The knot of anxiety in my chest that had seated itself roughly in the area of my heart for the last month began to loosen up and slowly disappear. I was pretty sure there was a statute of limitations placed on the time period within which you could reclaim your lost puppy from his new parent. Toffee was now officially mine and I commemorated that by buying him a new collar with a tag with his name on it.
A month later, however, I met a man who I was vaguely interested in who seemed interested in me as well. Our courtship was slow, almost poetic, marked by blood red roses complemented by stargazer lilies and cleverly crafted poems and exquisite Bulgarian chocolates. We connected over our mutual love for art, music, culture, good food and wine and our love for travel. He claimed to have soaked in the culture of Europe and promised that there would be a day when we would visit all those glorious historical hotspots together.
It was difficult starting and sustaining a relationship when I had another full-time commitment on my hand. It was almost akin to starting a relationship when I already had a baby that required my attention at the shortest of notices. Once, I had to cancel dinner with my new boyfriend at the last minute because an overly curious Toffee had pawed at a flower and gotten stung by a bee and had to be rushed to the vet. My boyfriend seemed to understand yet it was an unspoken understanding between us that I would always prioritize Toffee over our new relationship.
After about three months of dating, our relationship began to grow more serious. One night in November, my boyfriend and I were eating dinner at my apartment when he dropped his bombshell: he had booked two tickets for us to spend the Christmas holiday season in Paris, France.
I was stunned at his sudden revelation. A part of me was awoken at the thought of finally travelling to Europe with someone I actually really liked and seeing all the places that I’d read about and fantasized about seeing. My boyfriend began to talk about spending the afternoons in the parks, dining at French bistros, drinking fantastic wine and eating marvellous French bread, walking through the Louvre and experiencing French art and music and culture. As I listened to him talk, another gnawing worry began to formulate inside me.
I couldn’t leave Toffee. It was out of the question. I couldn’t leave him at an overcrowded holiday home while I jetted off to another country. Apart from Toffee being lonely and miserable for a good week, I knew I would go absolutely insane with worry. I would miss him and think about him constantly and would positively ruin our trip. I couldn’t leave him behind.
My boyfriend wasn’t quite as supportive as he initially was when we met about Toffee. He began to insist that it would be good for us to go on this trip together and that Toffee would be fine in a kennel for a little over than a week. “If this is about money, I’ll be happy to pay for the kennel,” he insisted. “He will be fine, don’t worry.”
It wasn’t fine. It wouldn’t be fine. Moreover, it wouldn’t be right for me to leave my baby behind and jet off to Paris. It wasn’t about the money. It was about leaving Toffee behind.
“No,” I said. “I can’t go. I’m sorry. I know you want me to say yes, but I can’t. I’ve got another commitment at hand that I can’t default on. I can’t leave him behind. It’s out of the question.”
The minute the words left my mouth, I saw a look pass across his face. He said nothing; he merely picked up his fork and began eating. The evening was ruined. We ate the rest of our meal in silence. He made an excuse to skip dessert, said he had to be at work early the next morning, picked up his coat and left.
About two days later, he called me to tell me that he was going to Paris without me. He wouldn’t be able to get an entire week off from work any other time, he said, so the opportunity was too good to let it slide because I wouldn’t be able to make it. I wasn’t particularly fussed, though. I told him to have a good trip, and hung up.
I bought Toffee a shiny new dog bowl for Christmas and made an excuse not to fly back home and visit my family to avoid surrounding myself with my brother’s three screaming children. I spent New Year’s Eve cuddled up with Toffee in my apartment, eating out of a large tub of ice cream. When firecrackers sounded in the sky signalling that the brand new year had just rolled around, I hugged Toffee and prayed that we would have plenty more years to spend together.
My boyfriend never called me or contacted me in any way after the holiday season. I took it to mean that our relationship was officially over. It didn’t bother me in any way, though. I was starting to grow more and more disinterested in the idea of embarking on a journey to find romantic love. It was starting to seem like something much younger girls, still untouched from the harshness of real life, would want to believe in. We spend so much time thinking about finding the right person who would complement us just right that we end up settling for someone who is a round peg to our square hole, just to feel wanted, comforted, loved, adored.
It didn’t matter to me if I never got married, if I never had kids, if I never celebrated a fiftieth wedding anniversary. It didn’t matter to me if I never got to wear a white dress and walk down the aisle. I had all the love I ever dreamed of receiving from my furry brown companion, and loved him back deeply with all my heart. Half of the things that society expects you to do in order to feel ‘complete’ in their eyes just didn’t feature in my grand scheme of things for the future. I had already found my life partner in the form of melting brown eyes and a wagging tail and that was all I needed.
Image: The Sleeping Puppy, Rembrandt