Clementine, my dog, my Valentine
Lessons on being in a public relationship
|awards for good boys||Feb 14|| 34|
The dog training book—BKLN Manners: Positive Training Solutions for Your Unruly Urban Dog, thank you very much—said to talk or sing to your dog to let them know you were paying attention to them. This is how I found myself rather mournfully singing to my brand new dog about my impending breakup. The dirge went something like this:
We love each other, but it’s not enough
It’s so sad, Clem
Very bad, Clem
Very saaaaad, Clem (x2)
(A reenactment.) Clementine didn’t seem to care much for the songs. Clementine out in the world is a focused hunter, the beagle part of her tenuous “beagle-pit” mix (something I’ve decided with much help from dog people, she was described as a “lab”) on full alert. She’s not very good at being a hound, but she points and tries to follow squirrels regardless, usually settling on eating some grass. These were not traits, at this time, I was familiar with. Everything she did was new and horrible and wrong. She was such a dog. I continued singing, panting as I tried to keep up, failing yet again to make her tired.
Clementine came into my life a month earlier, after winning a long-fought battle with my jazz-boy roommates (would apologize and clarify it’s a goof but they certainly don’t read this) about getting a dog. My boyfriend at the time, the one who was about to break up with me, was the tipping point — the roommates loved him, I loved him, he wanted the dog, they acquiesced, so I got the dog.
ID: a decidedly small at this point Clementine — she is standing paws deep in a pond, and looking up at the camera. She is light, orange-ish brown with white socks, a white nose, and very small? very small ears.
The dog was still a stranger to me when he ended things, a process during which I did puke. (For context I am a nervous puker, ask me about posting the announcement to my book after months of working on it in secret and having to sit on a curb while my dog watched me puke, this is my life.) We’d both known, for a while, that it wasn’t working. It was—in the moment—devastating but beautiful. Our parting was full of love and shared humor. We laughed and promised through tears to cheat on our future spouses with each other, knowing fully well it’d probably be too painful to ever be friends.
I spent a lot of time on the floor, after that breakup. During which Clem looked down at me with wide eyes as I kept asking her, aloud, “who are you?”. She whined at me inquisitively while I sat on my very uneven bedroom floor crying. I was foolishly trying to edit out references to my present-tense relationship in an article about said relationship that was publishing the next day. It was the first of many moments where I realized being in love, screaming about being in love, was, indeed, magical. Until it became something I couldn’t reel back in, no matter how many semantic tweaks I made.
Beyond getting a dog, my then boyfriend was the tipping point, the entryway, into many things. He pushed me to share my art in the first place. His approval of me, so warm, so earnest, allowed other people in, too. I felt I was finally being seen and recognized in the way I wanted, as a comedy person, this time validated by a Comedy Man, which made other Comedy People take me seriously in ways they had never before. I didn’t want to need that, hated that I needed that, but I did all the same.
He was larger than life. He helped me come out of my shell, in life and online. He was buzzing with ideas, constantly creating, making, building, drawing. We inspired each other, created together. And in sharing this, our together became something created for other people. Which is to say, by virtue of being together and both being artists growing a following, our relationship was public fodder. It wasn’t weird at first. We were just people making art who also happened to be in a relationship. There were a few thousand followers between us which was exciting and felt huge, but in the scheme of things was still very “intimate.”
But things changed. More people started watching, started caring.
And with our increased followings, it was suddenly very easy to see the dynamics I drew about manifest in real time behind the scenes which was an irony I was both fascinated by and increasingly horrified by, too. He is very talented, very smart. Some of my favorite women fawned over him, my favorite creators followed him and told him he was a genius, though they didn’t seem to notice I existed.
The edges of “engaging with fans” versus “flirting with fans” became nonexistent to me. I felt like a voyeur to the relationship I was in, watching other people parse out what our love must be like. Watching other people express their love for what was to them a stranger, making him, this man I loved, feel like a stranger to me. People sent him messages about how great he was, people sent me messages about how great he was.
People sent him nudes, asked him on dates. It became clear to me that, like most people but magnified x1000, we had our own separate online worlds, with threads connecting to other people in ways both meaningful and irrelevant that could never be untangled by the passive observer, hard as they might try, nor really explained in any tangible way to someone close to you. We tried to explain to each other, to find ways to make it feel better. But I didn’t feel I understood his online world, and I certainly didn’t feel as though he understood how bizarre, and often hostile, mine was becoming.
Things behind the scenes crumbled, but people continued to “ship” us, something that seemed to benefit him in greater magnitudes. I felt too keenly how welcoming people were of me when a Funny Man confirmed I was funny and, crucially, still loveable.
A month before The Break, I started the adoption process for a dachshund-mix I’d seen online. My then-boyfriend and I planned to go to the in-person event that Saturday. It was raining and cold when we woke, though we still decided to go meet the dog, two trains away. I rarely leave my house (I work from home, I’m chronically ill, often sad. You know!) This was huge. We were buzzing with excitement. We were getting a dog.
We got to the event, held inside a pet store now because of the rain. Dogs wiggled around in yellow “adopt me” vests. I lost sight of my boyfriend immediately, despite it being a very small space, so I went to find one of the adoption coordinators and ask where my sweet boy was.
“Oh! We actually found him a home this morning,” she replied. I was devastated. I felt my body slump with despair. Mostly that I had left my house for this.
Deflated, I looked for my boyfriend. I found him… simply bewitched by a very scrawny, DEFINITIVELY SMALL (at this point) brownish-orange (“tawny”) dog, who was in his lap haphazardly licking his face with a flat pink tongue. I immediately sank to the ground and let her wiggle into my lap. She looked at me with too-knowing, human eyes. “This is your dog,” my boyfriend said.
ID: A photo of the moment I met Clem. She is sort of standing in my lap (I am wearing a questionable combo of checkered pants, spotted socks and green raincoat) and has on a yellow vest that says “adopt me.” I have my arms around her and obviously also a phone in hand.
She was not what I imagined—not what anyone had imagined, when they thought of my first dog. See, I come from a family of dachshunds. Though when I was very young we had weird beautiful mutts, somewhere along the way my mom glitched and decided to reconnect with her childhood dog — Kikhl, cookie in Yiddish— who was a dachshund, and we’ve had dachshunds ever since. I am keen on a long dog. Everyone who knew I was adopting a dog also expected me to return with something vaguely dachshund esque.
Clementine Pennyfeather—yes this is my dog’s name, she was named as part of the “Westworld” litter, yes it’s true—was skinny, ribs slightly showing. She was sturdy though, even then, with a rootedness borne mostly out of determination to do as she pleased. She had come in from a rescue mission that morning, from Florida, and though they hadn’t spent too much time with her they reported she seemed to like pretty much everything.
She was apparently 3 years old and a “Labrador mix” which is dog adoption speak (and they were very clear about this) for “we’re not really sure.” She was, without a doubt, bewitching. “You’d be the first to apply for her,” they told me. “And at her size? She’ll go fast.” This is a real thing people say about Clementine—whatever size she may be, is quite suitable for apartment living.
I applied that day. During the week, we got updates about how she was doing in her foster home, including a photo of her smiling in Washington Square Park. My then-bf and I were freaking out. She was the mayor of everywhere she went, they said. She was already a neighborhood star. What unholy powers did this dog possess?
We were chanting “Clem” to each other throughout the day, already clearly aware of her powerful aura. He had a cat, and we were strategizing about the best ways to introduce them so that I could bring her over. We ordered a cage online, texted the foster about the right kind of food, got water bowls and a plethora of treats.
We were supposed to go camping that weekend but debated putting it off to get her earlier. We decided to have one last weekend of spontaneity and go upstate, but I couldn’t focus on the absolute absurdity around me (a single egg being cooked over an open flame, a very bad combination of acid (the drug) and a roaming farm chicken (alive), unrelenting rain) because I was so excited about the dog. He was too, though I already felt the soon-to-be-pronounced difference between owning a dog and being in said dog’s life—his excitement didn’t seem to have the same tinge of anxiety re: “about to own a living creature” as mine.
We drove back and went straight to her. And then suddenly, imperceptibly, there was simply BC—before Clem—and AC—after Clem.
ID: a photo of Clem sprawled out in some very green grass.
The adjustment process was very rough. I kept thinking, about Clem, “I don’t know you.” Who is this strange dog in my room, in my bed? I didn’t love her yet, not like I loved my dogs at home. I felt regret. I wished I had gotten a tattoo instead. She felt like an invader, suddenly disrupting my quiet life and forcing me to go outside and care for another living being, something I soon realized I could barely do for myself.
Parallel to getting to know who this strange dog was, my human relationships—with a friend as well as with my then boyfriend—splintered apart. I was losing myself, to my relationship, to trying to save it. We communicated our hearts out, or tried, to no avail.
I was losing myself to my work, too, throwing myself into it with abandon, unhealthily so. I was pitching a book at this time, a process for which I was still in complete denial about, though it had been my intention all along. It felt surreal to be excited about the culmination of a project my then-bf-soon-to-be-ex had encouraged me to put out in the world. Perhaps worse was how excited he still was, how invested he was. How bittersweet it was to know I would soon be losing this support. (One day during this process, I left the Penguin offices and called my boyfriend, crying again because we knew the inevitable was coming. And this! This is when I, crying, stopped outside a church to take a photo of a dog prayer sign—truly incredible stuff—and made direct eye contact with John Mulaney, who is very tall and very handsome in person.)
In my writing at the time I don’t call the eventual break up a break up, for it didn’t feel like that. It simply broke.
I think we both thought our love—the immensity of it—would be enough. Would carry us through anything. We stretched and bent and contorted, each in our own ways, in attempts to preserve an “us,” an endeavor that hollowed us out in the process. And then, there was simply no “us,” nothing to hold together anymore. We couldn’t. It broke.
We decided not to make an announcement—weird—but people are savvy, and started to suspect we weren’t together anymore. When it became extremely clear we’d broken up (he mentioned it on a podcast, according to strangers who reported this back to me) I got condolence messages while I read comments on his posts (a terrible idea) about women lining up to sleep with him. I was too sad to make new work, so I reposted everything. People thought it was all about him, these things I had made when we were together. Suddenly “exes” meant him and I found myself in the surreal position of defending this man from criticism of strangers to protect some idea of him, of us, of me.
It made it impossible to talk about my recent reality. I wanted to say look at how he was deemed good by virtue of being with me, but people decided he was a monster. He wasn’t. This is the whole point of my work! The people we love still fail us! And we fail them! But I found no room for this online.
And eerily, I still had to create “content” for people. I didn’t know what to do. I was miserable. But in the space he left behind, both in my life and in my performed one, there was now a very enchanting dog.
Which is how I found myself bleary-eyed, singing songs to my new dog—who in this time period got two very expensive UTIs which made her PEE BLOOD?? And also an eye infection requiring two weeks of The Cone—whom I still sort of hated because she felt like a reminder of him.
Clem and I got to know each other, established a routine, as I tried to figure out my career and my life as separate from my ex—it had been more intertwined than I’d cared to realize. She helped me unravel—I had been so tightly wound, so curled into myself and around the needs of someone else. Having to care for a living being, this time not a man, one who gave me unconditional love and kept somehow finding chicken bones on the street, gently led me back towards taking care of myself. She helped me socialize—sitting with a dog and coffee and a book is bound to invite conversation. I met and talked to people directly around me, something I’d been missing—I had fallen into my exes social group, and foolishly thought I would, or could, stay there. I let the warmth of an established “group” entice me, only to watch them drop out from under me during The Break. I now felt entirely alone.
But I soon learned I had found the perfect friend, partner, and content, honestly. There was a gaping hole where sharing my relationship had been. Though I’d long been uncomfortable with that reality, breaking up and getting a dog allowed me to still be a person with a life behind the scenes in a way that didn’t invade privacy (mine or others).
It was on long walks getting to know Clem, and singing to her, that I felt months, years, worth of pent up rage about being in a public relationship, all at once. I hated it. I hated how it benefited him. I hated how people were nicer to me when a man reminded them I was funny and, crucially, not unloveable “despite” the things I was saying. I hated how people asked such wildly different things from us, how I felt asked to speak to everything all at once, how he was praised for simply discussing himself. I hated how anything I drew was taken to be about him, taken to be autobiographical—an insult given how much time I spend creating and also yet another way he continued to be linked to me despite my tireless efforts to unravel the yarn I myself had spun. I hated how people tagged him in my posts, tried to play detective about what was about him. I hated how trying to talk about how it was just a normal relationship, i.e. messy, led to people wanting to “cancel” him, and ultimately led to me continuing to protect this person who’d just broken my heart. I hated trying to defend him while I tried to prove to people I was funny, I was smart, I was capable—things he had helped me believe in. I didn’t know who I was without him, and my “audience” didn’t seem to know either. Even when I tried to avoid him, he would pop up in other people’s stories, in their messages. One influencer tagged him every week for months, in what I presume was an effort to get back at me for not wanting to be her friend. Suddenly our love, our togetherness in real life, became a cudgel for strangers to use against me. And it hurt. I hated most of all that it hurt.
There is more, oh so much more. But it’s not my story to tell. Not now, at least.
Clem song, to tune of Orinoco Flow by Enya
In the time since we parted I have loved again. I’ve lost again. I’ve let myself unfurl, let other people in, refused to post anything about it. My work is mine—and will be. The deep irony of being with a man and watching him be more readily accepted (and have my own work ascribed to him) is a pain I don’t think will ever diminish, but it’s becoming something to process, to write about.
And Clementine. Clementine became everything to me. She required more care than the type of dog I’d imagined getting, which forced me to be vigilant. She needed exercise, and so I needed sleep. She needed to play, and so I needed to get work done first. She curled right into the spot he left behind in my bed. She kept me company during long nights spent furiously creating a comedy book—I signed the eventual book deal the very week my relationship ended, the same week that piece about my relationship published—about how men are rewarded for doing, well, most anything. She was there to cry into as I realized how much of what I was writing about, that I so desperately wanted to refer to as lessons learned, were still applicable. She eagerly climbed into the lap of new men, proving that like her mother she is a terribly obvious albeit hilarious bitch, earnestly seeking male attention whilst, underneath it all, truly just trying to eat twigs.
She reminds me of him, still, in a way I can now only love—endlessly, innocently, the version of “us” that we desperately tried to save. When I met Clementine, I needed my love with a man to help embolden me, to help me be public facing. And in the time since it is my dog who gets me out of myself, who allows me to talk to strangers, to bond with strangers over dogs, to post about my life without needing to reel anything back in. So please, ship me and my dog. It is the best relationship I’ve ever been in and, for a long while, the only one I’ll be ready to share.
More photos of Clem:
ID: A triptych of Instagram stories asking audience members to give their best “Clem coming of age movie.” The first one reads “Y Tu Mama Clembien.” The second is “Clem Things I Hate About You” and Clem has a gross swollen eye which is circled in yellow with the words “NO” underneath. The third is Clem in her cone of shame, the suggested movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Clem.”
ID: Clem in her mole hole. (She’s in a dirt hole, she loves to be in a dirt hole.)
ID: Clem looking dejected while lying belly first in an actual puddle of mud.
ID: a screenshot from my personal Instagram showing Clem’s first snow. She looks worried and is on some snowy leaves. The caption reads: whooooole bunch of people just caught me taking these photos and singing “Clem’s firrrssst snow” (tune of “there she goooooes”)
ID: Clem with her green octopus toy known commonly as “Nanalan”