As the taxi pulled up in front of my boss's four-story brownstone, I realized that I had made a terrible mistake. Two weeks prior, when she had asked me to housesit for her, it had seemed like a fantastic idea. She and her family were taking a week-long skiing trip to Vermont, and I felt that it was a perfect opportunity to prove to her that I was a responsible person, capable of organizing mail while simultaneously keeping both a dog and cat alive. Furthering my career while living in the lap of luxury seemed like a win-win.
Located in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, her home sat neatly amongst a row of beautiful prewar townhouses lining the street, housing some of New York's hippest and wealthiest. It's the type of neighborhood a young and un-hip city transplant like me had very little business hanging around in. I felt guilty even standing there, as if I was single-handedly dragging the socio-economic level down by a noticeable percentage. I imagined people in their homes turning to their spouses and saying "Honey, is it just me, or does it suddenly feel poorer?"
I had heard my boss speak of her neighbors. Rumor had it that Lenny Kravitz was purchasing a home down the block. My most famous neighbor was the man who murdered his ex-girlfriend with an iron. Her biggest complaint was that fashion photographer Mark Borthwick's drum circles would last until 1AM. I've seen a drive-by happen from my window.
I let the apprehension of not fitting in pass, and decided to use this situation as a chance to reinvent myself. No longer would I be Chris Miles, the poor 20-something who struggles to make ends meet and who eats beans every night for dinner. For the duration of this week, I was to be Sir Christopher — the wealthy and loveable playboy. "Money? Ever an issue?" I would throw my head back and smugly laugh as I served my companions fine wine and an array of cheeses. "Look around this place I call a home. Does it look like money is an issue?"
So Sir Christopher pushed open the rich oak door, and left the bean-eater he once was behind him. And almost immediately, he was tackled by the large wheaten terrier he had promised to watch. With her mighty paws wrapped around my shoulders, we were eye-to-eye. I shivered as she began licking my face. I tried not to fight it though, and instead curled up in a defensive position, with one hand over my genitals and the other patting the animal atop its curly-haired head.
"Dog," I curtly greeted it, wincing as her filthy tongue slathered my face. "A pleasure, I'm sure." I should disclose at this point that I'm not terribly fond of dogs. I understand, as many have explained to me, that this makes me a terrible person. But I just don't. It's not that I wish them any harm. I just don't enjoy being around them. I had never admitted this to my boss. The dog, whose nametag identified her as Butterscotch, could almost certainly sense this. She had let herself get lost in a moment of excitement, but pulled back and recomposed herself. She eyed me up and down, and gave me a look that made it very clear that she and I were not going to be friends.
I put my bags down in the living room. The house was, as I expected, breathtaking, large and impeccably decorated, and I found the only word to adequately describe my feelings towards it was "damn." Lavish furniture occupied room after room, and fine art adorned the walls alongside children's finger paintings. The kitchen was endless. Recently renovated, it was equipped with brand new stainless steel hardware. Towards the back was a glass door that opened up to their back yard. "A back yard!" I said to myself. "They have a back yard!" A back yard in New York City is such a coveted possession. My "back yard" was the roof of a neighboring building where someone had spray-painted a giant frowny face with a caption reading "Beware of Bear."
I could tell by the dog's pacing that she needed to be walked. My boss's husband had left a thorough 10-page manual that detailed everything I could possibly need to know. I located the chapter entitled "Butterscotch (the Dog)." It was at this moment that my anxiety started to creep in. During my 27 years on earth, I had managed to avoid ever having to walk a dog. I read and reread the manual, which was of little help. The section on the dog was surprisingly light, considering he had spent a page and a half explaining how to use their bread maker. I found the leash and doggie bags, and envisioned every possible scenario that could go wrong. She could get hit by a car, or she could escape and maul a menstruating lesbian like in that episode of Law & Order I had just watched. But I reminded myself that this was bean-eater talk. The confident Sir Christopher wouldn't let an animal get the better of him.
I had taken two steps away from the house before I decided to call my mother.
"Mother!" I said, my voice quivering with panic. "Mother! I'm walking a dog and I don't know what I'm doing! What am I supposed to do? She's looking at me! She's looking at me like I'm retarded!"
"Calm down," she said. "It's just like regular walking, but with a dog."
"I need more information!" I screamed back. I was frustrated. Surely there had to be more nuances to it than that. I couldn't understand why the entire world was holding back this vital information. I looked over and saw Butterscotch hovering near a tree. "Something's definitely coming out," I told my mother.
"Number 1 or number 2?" my mother asked.
"I don't know! I can't tell! It appears to be some sort of liquid."
"That's urine!" my mother said. "Don't pick it up! You can't pick up liquid!"
After a few blocks, I felt the confidence of Sir Christopher returning. I informed my mother, who was impatiently listening to me while in the midst of a MTV Real World marathon. "I told you it would be fine," she said. Just as these words left her mouth, Butterscotch let out a ferocious growl and launched herself towards an adorable puppy who, along with its owner, had just turned the corner. The puppy cowered in fear. I yanked the leash as hard as I could, while screaming in horror. Everything seemed to be going in slow motion; Butterscotch's jaws slowly snapping up and down, the tiny puppy wincing while making peace with God, my mother on the phone saying "Well it seems like you have your hands full so I'm going to take this opportunity to go." I managed to drag Butterscotch out of reach of the other dog, which thankfully escaped unharmed.
"This walk is over!" I scolded her. We didn't speak the rest of the way home.
Back at the house, I tried to regain my composure. In the living room, I curled up in an armchair next to the fireplace. It seemed like an appropriate setting to do a crossword puzzle. "Sir Christopher likes to do the Sunday Times crossword puzzle next to his fireplace," I said to myself as I skimmed the clues. I filled in three before giving up.
I decided to give myself a proper tour of the house. I went from floor-to-floor and room-to-room, walking the fine line between exploring and snooping in case they were recording my actions with hidden nanny cams. Looking at all of the family's fine possessions was a humbling experience. What would my boss say if she saw my cheap Formica countertops, my air conditioning unit made in the early ‘80s, or my TV sitting atop a coffee table I found in an alley?
At this point, it was still early in the evening, and I tried to think of ways to entertain myself, but I couldn't shake an impending sense that I was going to destroy or murder something. I thought about taking a walk around the neighborhood, but I assumed I would lock myself out or get lost and never find my way back. I had yet to eat, but I assumed if I started cooking I would either break a fine piece of china or start a grease fire. I attempted to turn on the television, but with 12 remotes, I knew I'd somehow manage to accidently TIVO soft-core pornography. So I decided instead to sit on the couch in the basement, and stare at a wall.
At 8PM, I was so bored that I figured I might as well go to bed. I didn't care that I could still hear children outside playing. My boss had made it clear that I could sleep in her bed, but it seemed as if that was crossing a boundary that should not be crossed. Instead, I tried to sleep on the couch I had been occupying for most of the evening. The house was eerily cold. It seemed less like a home and more like a museum, with artifacts of someone else's life surrounding me. I struggled to fall asleep for most of the night, assuming every bump in the night was a burglar or a confused hippy trying to find Borthwick's house.
After only a couple hours of decent sleep, I awoke the next morning to find both the cat and the dog sitting side by side, staring at me silently. Since the debacle the day before, I was particularly dreading walking the dog again. Why couldn't she just hold it like I did? Afraid of somehow breaking the toilet, I hadn't used the bathroom since I had arrived. Thankfully the second walk was uneventful. However, when I got back to the house, I couldn't find the keys. I searched my pockets, and then searched again. I started feeling panic rising. I told myself to calm down. I had been thinking of worst-case scenarios since I arrived, and clearly it was getting to me. I knew I had the keys when I left, because I had locked the door behind me.
A fourth and fifth search of all my pockets yielded the same result. Nothing. I retraced my steps, dragging Butterscotch behind me, and together we revisited every place she had stopped to urinate. As we covered more and more ground without any luck, my heart started racing. I kept reminding myself to breathe and to keep calm, but it didn't matter. Sweat was pouring off my brow, despite it being the middle of February. I imagined breaking a window and crawling in. Not my best idea. I imagined having to take Butterscotch with me to work, and having to explain to everyone why I had the owner of the company's dog sitting under my desk.
Just as I was about to give up hope, I saw the trashcan I had thrown Butterscotch's droppings in. Reluctantly, I reached in and grabbed the doo-doo filled grocery bag. Sure enough, there they were, nestled cozily up against a giant dog turd.
Walking to my office that morning, I passed by people taking their trash to the curb. "Monday is trash day at my apartment," I reminded myself. "My apartment – my shithole apartment that I so gladly threw to the wayside the first chance I had!" Watching people take their garbage to the street reminded me of the way my roommate and I bickered every Monday morning. Had I been home, she would have said to me "I'll take the trash out if you replace the bag." I would have responded with some passive aggressive comment like "Sure! I mean, I cleaned the entire apartment all by myself, but that sounds fair."
Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation, or the dog-related stress, but at that moment, I couldn't think of any place I'd rather be than my home. I wanted to curl up with my trashcan and my roommate and never leave again. Give me my tiny kitchen with no counter space. Give me my Target brand couch that I had to save up for five months to buy. Give me my warped walls, doors that don't shut, and mice that know how to disarm mousetraps. As crappy as it may be, my apartment was where I belonged. Sir Christopher can have his crown molding, his curly haired dog, and his plasma TVs with 20 remotes, but I wanted nothing to do with it. The thought of going back to that beautiful, awful house made me sick to my stomach.
I had a message waiting for me on my answering machine when I arrived at work. It was my boss. "Bad news, I'm afraid. A snowstorm is supposed to hit tonight and we're afraid of getting snowed in up here in Vermont, so we're going to be cutting our skiing trip short. We'll be home late tonight, so if you don't mind, can you just swing by on your way home from work and pick your stuff up. Oh, and one more thing. Can you just let Butterscotch into the backyard for a minute before you leave, so she can go to the bathroom before we get home?"
"Hallelujah!" I screamed. And as I watched the snow begin to fall on the way back to her place that evening, I knew the Lord had answered my prayers. I had the cab wait for me as I ran inside. I let Butterscotch out into the backyard and grabbed my bags, careful to erase any trace of my presence. As I locked the door and shoved the keys through the mail slot, I said goodbye to the life I may never know. "Who knows," I said to myself as the cab drove to my borough. The snow was really coming down now, and the world seemed at peace. "Maybe one day I'll be able to afford a place like that, but right now my little apartment in Queens is the only place I want to be."
And that's when I realized that I had forgotten to let the dog back inside.