I knew from the moment I held Fritz in my arms that he was mine. He slept like a baby and looked like a little bear. His true nature was actually feisty. He chewed through pillows and couch cushions.
The rescue where I'd adopted him said he was a chow, but wrote "Labrador" on his paperwork so I could get him into my apartment. When my friend came over she said, "He's a little Pitt." Meaning, Pitt bull. It was the most abundant breed in Gainesville, Florida, where we lived. He had the telltale wide face and muscular body, but he was also something else. A true mutt.
I signed up for training classes, and the trainer, Becky, singled me out right away.
"There's a reason he has four legs," she said gruffly. She had dyed hair permed like crinkle fries. I was holding Fritz on my lap like a child. He tried to squirm out of my arms. "Let him down," she barked.
I was used to being at the top of my class in school, but in Becky's class, we were at the bottom. "A dog can tell if you're not confident," she told me during the walk-and-command exercise. "Do you want him or not?"
The question gave me pause. I wanted Fritz's companionship and cuddly-ness, but I didn't want to be the Alpha master that he desperately needed. I was comfortable as a pushover.
We plodded on. I raised my voice, and Fritz listened. He even got first place for "look at me" at training graduation.
Fritz and I spent several months in a loving if imperfect relationship. He pulled me out of my shell. I talked to people (and dogs) in the neighborhood. I was a journalist and he kept me charged for a fast-paced newsroom. I covered a few executions at the Florida State Prison, where civilization seemed to dead end. I was always grateful to come home to Fritz — another heart beating.
When my grandmother died, Fritz didn't lick my tears. He nipped at my ankles. He stopped to smell the flowers. He chased baby frogs and even stared down snapping turtles. Nothing rattled him. He swallowed life whole.
I had gotten Fritz to fill a void. When I moved to Florida I knew no one and was lonely. Two years later, when I got a job in Washington, D.C., my thoughts turned immediately to Fritz: Would he stay, or come with?
I sat on the decision until the day before I left. I finally decided to drive Fritz out to a summer camp for dogs. It was deep in the sticks — not unlike the place where Fritz was probably born. The camp was temporary and bought me more time to decide what to do.
I got to Washington and fell in love with a boutique apartment in Georgetown where dogs weren't allowed. My sensible side said: Let him go. My sentimental side hung on.
After a month, I went back to Florida to get my things. I picked up Fritz —intending to take him back to the rescue where someone new could adopt him. Instead, his chocolate brown eyes locked me in.
"He's coming with," I told my father, who had met me in Florida for the move. He has generously let me stumble through my own mistakes in life.
Fritz must have heard me, because in the middle of the night, he licked my face more intensely than ever.
In the morning, I took him for a walk so he could take in his last Florida scents. Then he got in the back seat for the long drive to Washington. He was calm, as if being with me with me was the only tranquilizer he needed.
I snuck him into my apartment. He must've known he was being hidden, the way he sidled surreptitiously up the stairwell. I took him to the neighborhood dog park, a manicured stretch of park full of exotic breeds and frou frou things. He was the new, cool kid, chasing the dogs like they'd probably never before been chased.
We had only two run-ins: with a curmudgeonly white-haired man in seersucker button-down with two little Schnauzers, who walked away from us with the aim of a billiard ball. "Get your dog out," he snarled at me. Another man told me curtly, "I don't trust Pitts."
"Well, I don't trust Republicans," I felt like replying. Only later did I find out he was in fact Republican.
One evening I came home to a letter under my door. Management had finally figured it out. They gave me a week to get rid of him. I wept like a child, with Fritz by my side, oblivious.
Parting with Fritz was the second hardest break-up of my life — the first being that with my Italian boyfriend, which unraveled in an equally dysfunctional way. I drove Fritz to a local rescue agency that was taking in dogs. Tears slid down my face as I filled out the paperwork. "Are you okay?" they asked. I shrugged.
Within a week, Fritz was adopted. The new parents walked in with their dog, a boxer named Cleo. Apparently, they'd been coming to adoption events for two years so Cleo could pick out a buddy. When she saw Fritz, it was love at first sight.
I didn't get to say a proper goodbye to Fritz, but the last time I saw him his new parents were taking him out for a walk. In my rear-view mirror, against the fuchsia-violet sky, I saw Fritz leaping about, rodeo style.
Looking for me? Maybe. Looking for life? For sure.