When I moved to Houston on June 12, 2015, I knew two things: I would live near Buffalo Bayou Park, and I would get a dog. Less than a month later, I had achieved both.
I’d settled into a never-lived-in one-bedroom apartment on Heights Boulevard, a short drive to my boyfriend’s bachelor pad off Westcott, but admittedly, a far cry from the 100-year-old walk-up where I’d lived in Chicago the year prior or the cottage I’d shared with four of my all-time favorite people at LSU. If the beige walls, carpeted floor and faux-granite weren’t exactly my style, they were a small price to pay to be five minutes from Chris, who’d lived in a different state from me until this point in our relationship. The pool, walk-in closet and gym were nice amenities. The nearby dog parks and walking trails for our new golden retriever puppy, Max, didn’t hurt either.
In the beginning, we bought Max a kennel that was large enough for him to run laps in. (It has since been banished to the garage per his request.) We also picked up a toy named Mr. Duck, a yellow leash and a cloth collar that I can now wear as a bracelet if I’m feeling particularly nostalgic.
It’s an accepted fact that golden retriever puppies are among the cutest of all animals, but Max took things to a different level. His floppy ears and always-wagging, way-too-long tail gave him a clumsy demeanor that made him even more loveable. Always curious, always pumped to be alive, he found the wide apartment hallways perfect for running through at full speed, often losing his grip on a turn and slamming into the wall in front of him, only to bounce back up and charge through the corridor again. We all should live more like Max.
We established that I would retain custody of him in the event of a breakup, which meant that my apartment was his home and the day-to-day responsibilities fell to me. It also meant that there was time for secret mom-and-pup activities that the stricter and probably saner parent, Chris, would not have approved of: taking joint showers, letting Max ride in the driver’s seat, smuggling him into Target in an oversized purse. Max was my companion in my new city—part not-so-scary watchdog, part roommate in the first apartment where I’d ever lived alone.
Three rounds of shots, a few more secret trips to Target, and countless attempts to run down his endless supply of energy later, Max was ready to enter the wrought-iron gates of the pristine Washington Memorial Heights dog park. Completely worn out from the late-night potty runs, we were just as ready as he was to join the lively after-work meetups that, for weeks, all three of us had envied from the other side of the fence. The dogs looked so happy, so tired. And the people looked like the friends we were longing for.
You see, we had recently entered the sometimes-difficult-to-navigate, post-schooling, pre-family stage of life. Some of our college friends who had also moved to Houston from Louisiana (there are a lot of us) were settling down. Others weren’t. We all had new jobs, schedules, apartments and priorities that didn’t always include each other. We’ve all circled back, and are arguably closer than ever now, but at the time, the sheer number of changes made it difficult to relate.
I had come a long way from the child who hid behind her mom’s legs in public, but in my new milieu, I’d reverted to the tongue-tied, anxious, shy version of myself. I found it difficult to talk openly with the friends who had brought out the warmer, more sociable side of me—the ones I loved most.
Lucky for me, Max was easy to talk about: Your dog and my dog are chasing each other? Let’s talk about that! His name is Max. What are you and your dog’s names? How old is she? Oh cool, Max is pretty young too. We got him right after I moved here, which wasn’t that long ago either. Where did you live before you moved here and got Dougie? Oh, wait … I think that’s poop.
Within a matter of weeks of joining the meetups, we found ourselves with a growing group of friends, hanging out at the dog park well past dark several nights a week, improving our socialization skills under the guise of Max’s. Eventually, we grew closer with a few members of the group, who conveniently happened to be young, new-to-Houston couples—a pair from Northern Kentucky with a feisty Doberman mix named Doug; another from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with a fluffy golden doodle, Murphy; a third from our most hated rival of Alabama whose yellow lab, Trucks, won over our hearts; and the last from two small Texas towns with an older black lab, Bubba, who had no interest in any of us whatsoever.
Over time, their contacts in our phones began to change from the likes of Bubba’s Dad, to Austin Bubba, to still Austin Bubba because I’ll never have the heart to change it completely. By Halloween, we were comfortable enough to wear ridiculous costumes in front of each other. For Christmas, we did the same. Soon, we knew we were meant to be more than just dog-park friends.
By the start of the New Year, we were having weekly potluck game nights where we played Catch Phrase and Cards Against Humanity. We attended our first Texas Ren Fest together and ate turkey legs. We became far too familiar with El Tiempo’s margaritas. We gasped in unison at the Houston Rodeo’s bucking broncos, as the animals reminded us of our little guys at home.
Days after Chris and I got engaged, the crew threw us a shower at the park—dogs running around us, cupcakes and wine glasses hoisted high in the air, out of snouts’ reach. They weren’t even on our guest list at that point, but, six months later, that had changed. Their smiling faces were the first I saw as the church doors opened on our wedding day. They helped usher Max to us after the ceremony. Austin Bubba is heavily featured in our photos, as we hope to be in his and Mrs. Bubba’s next year.
A lot can happen in a relatively short time. We watched the Tax Day Floods from our rainy-day meetup spot—a fourth-floor parking garage—and, after getting married, knocked down drywall in Memorial after Hurricane Harvey. Through it all, we’ve seen each other lose jobs, find new ones and get promoted. We’ve met each other’s parents, and in some cases, grandparents. We’ve rung in thirtieth birthdays while riding the bull at Rebels and created a giant, dog-friendly slip 'n slide in the rain at Spotts Park just because we were bored. Most recently, we’ve witnessed unfathomable grief, and felt a fraction of it ourselves, after losing the yellow lab’s dad to a courageous battle with a rare form of cancer.
The gates of our dog park—and some of the crew’s apartments too—were torn down last year to make way for the new H-E-B on Heights Boulevard. We hear that people have moved the meetup over to Spotts Park, but it has a different vibe. Chris and I bought a house in Garden Oaks. Some are moving that direction too; others are looking at Spring Branch; still another is talking about leaving Houston altogether to be closer to home. Lately, potlucks have become fewer and farther between as we deal with the new transitions of today—longer commutes, more responsibilities, less energy. A lot of the times when we hang out, the dogs aren’t even there. It’s just easier without them.
But when we do see each other—and let’s not be dramatic, it’s pretty often—I don’t find myself lacking words. We bonded during a time of transition, something we’re going through again. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—change can bring you dear friends, or a connection to a new city you never thought you would have. I understand that this time around. And when things do get tough, we can always talk about the dogs.