I’m sitting at a small table in a bakery inside the Islands of Adventure Theme Park in Orlando, Dan’s guide dog curled at my feet. The guys — Ethan, Dan, and Ethan’s friend Sean — are off enjoying thrill rides with names like The Hulk and Dr. Doom. I’m happy to be the designated dog-sitter, perched on a seat that I’m certain won’t spin or hurl me down sudden drops. I have a good novel, a cup of tea, and a muffin I’ve ordered to justify my long stay. Chandler justifies his presence by wearing his harness, proof that he’s a working dog with the legal right to hang out in eating establishments. True, we’re stretching it since he’s not my working dog, but the staff has been kind enough to let us be.
I’m nearing the end of a chapter when a boy about two years old, overalls made huge by his puffy diaper, comes bounding over to play with Chandler.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” I say. “You can’t touch him. He’s working.”
As long as they’re in harness, guide dogs are on duty and shouldn’t be acknowledged. People are often surprised to be told this, especially if the dog in question seems to be snoozing. But it’s actually part of their job description to be still and unobtrusive when they’re not actively guiding. If they get petted and encouraged they’ll figure it’s okay to be playful in public places, including dangerous ones like train platforms. Knowing all this, I still feel a bit false enforcing rules, given the circumstances.
The boy’s mom looks curiously into my eyes. “Are you blind?” she asks bluntly.
“No, he’s not mine. He belongs to my . . .” Once again, I’m forced to choose between imperfect terms. Boyfriend — too teenagery. Lover — too focused on our sex life. Partner — too businessy. I knew one man who referred to his long-time love simply as my Susan.
“He’s my husband’s dog,” I hear myself say.
Growing up, my best friend and I told strangers we were sisters. I’m sure Amy, who was one of five all close in age, simply enjoyed getting away with our fib. But there was more to it for me. My own sister was a runaway who hadn’t lived at home since I was six. I also have half siblings from my mother’s first marriage, but they were adults who lived across the country. My parents were serious and quiet when they weren’t fighting. In their company, I often felt lonely. Naturally, in those brief moments when I claimed to be my vibrant friend’s sister, I was naming something I wanted terribly.
Am I doing the same thing now?, I wonder, gazing out the window. I merely meant to simplify my explanation. Yet didn’t I feel something familiar as I formed the word husband in my mouth? Didn’t I enjoy that quick image of myself as someone who got to sleep next to her partner every night? Whose roof overhead was our roof, and when it leaked, was our problem?
I find it painful to have pockets of family time like this with Dan only to go our separate ways when they end. Though we live a hundred miles apart, we manage to see each other most weekends. Still, after four years as a couple, I wish we were closer to figuring out how to merge more completely. As it is, we found each other in middle age, our separate lives fully formed. I can’t imagine giving up my current life and community for anything less than sharing a home. Meanwhile Dan, who grew up in the noisy dorm of a boarding school for the blind, is grappling with whether he’s ready to trade in the quiet bachelor life of his weekdays.
Sipping my tea, I watch the mother and son I’d talked to meet up with the rest of their family. The mother takes her husband’s place pushing the double stroller that holds their twin girls while he lifts their son onto his shoulders. Next, a young couple passes by herding two preschoolers wearing the Dr. Seuss Thing One and Thing Two t-shirts that are for sale throughout the park. Behind them, a pregnant woman strolls with her partner who whispers into her ear, something sweet and private between them.
Sighing, I return to my book, soon lost enough in the story that when I feel a tap on my shoulder, I let out a yelp.
“I scared her,” Sean brags to Ethan who walks in a step behind him, holding Dan’s hand. Chandler stands up, wagging his tail at the sight of them.
I study my crew. Wet clothes cling to them. “Water ride?”
True to form, Ethan answers, “Nah, we just all peed ourselves, Mom.”
Sean and Ethan run off to buy cotton candy while Dan settles into the seat beside me.
“How are the boys treating you?”
“Great. They’re really inclusive and they both make sure to describe the visual parts of the rides to me.” He leans in so our heads are touching, our favorite position for talking so he can feel my nods and we can punctuate our sentences with kisses.
“How about you? Bored?”
“No. I love that you guys are getting to do this.”
“Okay, but how about you and I cab it to the hotel so we can drop off Chandler and spend a little time together?”
“Nice plan,” I say, putting my arms around him.
Recalling the envy I felt as I watched passersby, I realize I don’t know their situations any more than they know mine. I may not have everything I want in this relationship right now, but there’s plenty to keep me here, working with my boyfriend/lover/partner to figure out the rest of it.