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I live in a child-free zone. Our 105-year-old former tenement building holds 20 apartments, all of them a tight fit even for just a couple of childless adults. The plumbing is falling apart (last night we came home to find water pouring in through our ceiling). The heater routinely sets off the carbon-monoxide detector. And should you run the microwave without unplugging everything else, you run the risk of blacking out the whole floor.
But rather than give up our cheap, rent-stabilized one-bedroom as the neighborhood quickly gentrifies around us, we opt to ignore our biological clocks and just get space-efficient dogs instead.
There are nearly half as many dogs in our building as there are apartments. In 12, a nervous little puckish man houses two mutts that seem to have lost their minds from his overprotective nature (he has one of those Pet-Finder decals on his front door to alert fire fighters to the rescue needs of the dogs). In 11, the lesbian couple has a small poodle-something mix, and also a very large yellow lab that lives in Connecticut during the week with the femme half of the couple while she trains for her pilot’s license (the girlfriend, not the dog). The cute guy in 1 used to have a girlfriend and a dog, then they both disappeared one after the other. Now he orders Chinese takeout on Friday nights, which makes him seem tragic and even cuter (assuming the dog and the girlfriend aren’t stored in his freezer).
We’ve had our dog about half a year now, and I fear I’ve become one of those dog people, the type who gets a silkscreen photo of their pet on a T-shirt. That childless guy who brings up the dog in conversation by her first name, as if I might sign her up for basketball lessons and gush over her report cards like your friends with real children do. Nothing is sadder than a dog owner who’s really, really into their dog.
Last weekend, Carl, the dog and I rented a car and went to Massachusetts for my cousin’s wedding. She married a Hawaiian guy, so the whole thing involved leis, acoustic guitars and prayers to the surf gods. It was the dog’s first time out of New York City, her first time off leash and outside the confines of the dog run. As soon as we arrived, she became far more dog-like than she’d ever been, bounding after squirrels and trying to chase them up trees, her tongue — better than the tail for measuring happiness levels — longer and floppier than we’d ever seen it before.
It immediately made us question our decision to adopt a medium-sized dog in New York. Rescuing her from the shelter had seemed so heroic, but she spends most of her life on the end of a leash and in our too-small-for-children apartment. It’s not a natural sort of life for a dog (not for people, either, but we at least get the choice), and during our time at my parents’ house in rural New England, we began to suspect we weren’t the model parents we’d assumed we were.
A childless existence is common and expected of the gays, especially gay men. For all our talk about assimilation, this is still the one quality that separates us from almost every other aspect of humanity. Instead of children, we enjoy the extra spending money and decorate the house with expensive photography, take more trips to Belize and get dogs. It’s a fact that makes me feel uncomfortably separate from the world. That’s why I like living in our building.
Because at least in our building, we’re all people who haven’t found the space in our lives (quite literally) for a child. We take our dogs to weddings, where our peers and our relatives get married and prepare to move on to the next phase of adulthood. We worry about whether the dog is happy in the apartment. After our trip to Massachusetts, Carl and I half-seriously discussed whether we should someday consider moving somewhere where the dog would feel more comfortable living.
In this way, I can see how a dog, like a small rent-stabilized apartment, could become an excuse not to fully grow up. How could you give up below-market rent? Why bother to give it up when you could just get a dog?
We’re going on a week-long trip to British Columbia in about 10 days. If we had kids, they’d come with us, which would undoubtedly modify our travel plans to a more kid-friendly itinerary. But since we’re child-free, we simply left the dog in Massachusetts with my parents. She’s there now till we get back, and she loves it. It’s the most convenient option for her, as well as for us. We’re marveling about how much easier life is when there’s no dog to walk — we can go straight out to dinner at a restaurant after work, and go to the gym to work out in the morning.
There is something strange, though, about that sort of convenience. It’s almost perverse to take care of an animal so easy and pliable and think its any substitute for a kid, or even on vaguely the same plane. Should we ever end up with children, I wonder if we’ll resent them when we no longer have the freedom to fly off to Canada on a whim, or the money to buy art for the walls of our larger, more expensive, kid-friendly apartment. It’s a question we continue to put off answering.
Will Doig writes from his exile in New York City. He can be reached at email@example.com.