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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

I have a new life and it’s surprising, I pinch myself often. My new life is marked by music. Music in the kitchen, karaoke in the car and singing over dinner. No one is yelling, no one is crying and no one is drinking. My life is lighter by about 6 feet and 165 lbs.

I am sipping coffee and considering filling out an online dating profile. Better get back out there, more than one well-meaning friend has advised. Question one: “Are you a dog person or a cat person?”

That question seems trite and, technically, I am neither. I have been busy keeping three daughters alive for the last 16 years. This has left me a little suspect as to whether I even have the energy to care for my houseplants. I consider cat-versus-dog not just from a species point of view but from the view of an owner. What does owning a cat versus owning a dog say about a man?

Cat owners are more intellectual but perhaps less active. I imagine a slight man with greying temples absent-mindedly stroking a cat’s tail while sipping red wine and reading postmodernist novels. Cat lovers are takers. They open tiny tins of tuna in exchange for having their bare legs swatted by sharp claws on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. No thank you!

Now a dog man, that’s the man for me. Windblown hair and strong legs from all the hiking. A steady personality and the ability to put the needs of someone (some dog) above his own. A walker who stoops and scoops two times a day, that’s commitment. None of this, “I just stopped for drinks on the way home from work detour.” This man has a dog to care for. A hound, I decide, is the litmus test when it comes to the responsibility and fidelity of my future dates.

I put in some other necessary details to keep my profile from looking too sparse. I am careful to mention I love my children above all else and while I have baggage (who doesn’t at 50?) I am perfectly capable of carrying my own.

The Marks, Davids and Steves show up and I start ordering a short black drip. “Short? Isn’t the smallest called tall?” my date mutters. I smile and think, “Well your 50 is probably 62 and your five-foot-nine looks to be five-foot-four,” but I say, “No ‘short’ is small and I don’t need extra hot milk or caramel syrup.” What I mean is: I need the coffee to be easily left or drank quickly so I can end the agony of talking to another man who has clearly misrepresented not only his age and height but also his character.

One afternoon I bend my rules and meet for a drink in the pub. The gentleman is tall. A good start, I muse. Lo and behold he is intelligent, holds down a full-time job and seems kind. He’s been divorced for eight years and his longest relationship has lasted eight months. I wonder to myself if this is a red flag, but I press on with some hope. When the waitress comes with the bill, he stops her and says to me, “Hey, I’ll pay if you want to see me again but if you don’t want to see me again let’s split it.” The waitress seems as unamused as I am. I send her a steely gaze while handing over my credit card, ”It’s my treat,” I say through my teeth. When we leave the pub, I make sure to take the long way back to my car.

Soon I’m scouring the neighbourhood for coffee shops with two exits. I value myself and the few childless hours I have each week too much to waste time. Especially after one date. I scanned the coffee shop that day looking for his profile picture: what he lacked in hair he made up for with a great cheerful closed-mouth grin. What I find is a rotund man with no hair whose lack of front teeth implies a former hockey career. My date is not as advertised. Once we finish our coffee and some awkward conversation I say, “You’ll have to excuse me,” somewhat vaguely as though I might be going to powder my nose. I cannot find anything more to talk about so I walk straight past the bathroom and out the back door.

“Are you a dog person or a cat person?” becomes my standard sorting tool. It’s a good weeding out question. Dog owners as I’ve already imagined are reliable, they must keep something alive. I remain hopeful about a full set of teeth.

One coffee date has already gone further than any other. He stood when I approached the table and took my hand in his. He said “It’s nice to meet you,” and his hand is warm and dry and safe. This welcoming handshake was a first for my post-divorce coffee dates and I’m pleased. His vital stats and picture match the version in front of me and he was able to volley witty banter and not afraid to poke a little fun at me. We sat on the outdoor patio and despite the sun, the air was chilly and I cradled my coffee cup for warmth. He told me about his two amazing children who light up his entire world. His ex who left him for a mom from school and how much that changed him. I pulled out my zinger: “Are you a dog person or cat person?” Silence. It quickly occurred to me that he might have a cat. I lifted my head to look at him over already cold cups of coffee. “Dog,” he whispered as his eyes filled. He told me about his beloved dog who died only a few months before. It’s as though all the grief and uncertainty in his life was concentrated in this one loss. My first thought was, oh dear this is too much. I’m not ready for someone who can lay his soul bare and share with me his greatest grief. It’s too soon. I’m not capable of having a relationship in the aftermath of my shattered marriage. I forced myself to meet his eyes and watched as tears slid off his chin and bounced against the metal chair.

I took a deep breath and asked what her name was, and as his story fills my ears and breaks my heart, I leaned a little closer and let myself consider what it might be like to love a dog person.

Jennifer Hill lives in West Vancouver.

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