As odd as it sounds, I finally made peace with my stepdog Eddie in Montclair.
A 40-pound Blue Heeler mix with dark spots on white fur, Eddie and I had been waging war for nearly ten years, ever since I stayed over at my then boyfriend Jim’s townhouse in Los Angeles and his dog peed outside the bedroom door.
The message was clear — “He’s mine.”
When I fell in love with Jim, I had braced myself for two stepkids. Never, ever did I worry about a stepdog. But in trying to find my place within my new instant family, Eddie was the one I couldn’t win over. He barked at the sight of me. He stood guard and tried to intercept me whenever I moved in Jim’s direction. He jumped between us when Jim and I tried to kiss or dance. He behaved like a jealous mistress – one capable of biting — who knew who had come first. Jim got him from a rescue place exactly four months before we started dating. I was the intruder.
When several years into our marriage we moved to New Jersey, I thought I had found my opening. I tried to leave Eddie behind.
“He’s a California dog,” I told my husband. “He’s used to perfect weather and sunbathing. He’ll be miserable on the East Coast.”
“He’s family,” Jim said.
Of course, Eddie came along. And, of course, Eddie loved Montclair. We kenneled him at Hal Wheeler’s while we hunted for a house. We found a lovely Arts and Crafts-style four-bedroom with rusticated brick outside and chestnut wood trim about a mile from the Glen Ridge train station. The house was known as “the cottage” among realtors and “the house with the longest driveway on the street” among our neighbors. When we got Eddie back from the kennel, Jim beamed like a proud papa at his report card, which read in part:
“Temperament: Friendly, outgoing, happy. Appetite: Good. Comments: Eddie did very well. Happy and social. He will be missed by the staff.’
A brawler with a rap sheet longer than my arm, however, Eddie got in trouble in no time chasing after a deer once and later killing a skunk in our backyard. That was miserable for all of us, since skunks always have the last word.
But the nemesis that almost killed him was a plant. Eddie at some point became a digger and he took a liking to flower bulbs, eating them and getting a bad case of poisoning that landed him in the animal hospital.
Despite all of his shenanigans, something had changed. On that first sleepless night when we wondered if Eddie would make it, the guilt kicked in abruptly as I tried to cheer up my husband. I realized I wasn’t ready for the vacuum Eddie would leave. I suddenly appreciated Eddie, annoyances and all, as a connector in our stepfamily. When tensions were high, he was the safe subject to talk about at the dinner table. His habits, health and latest adventures were of great interest to us because we all loved him, even me. He was the relentless companion, our protector with a ferocious bark, the one who had exposed my husband’s tender side.
And what was Eddie’s biggest sin? Loving Jim above the rest of us. I had to admire such loyalty.
Thankfully, Eddie survived. After that scare, I resolved to try harder to be a good stepmom. I became his exclusive food dispenser upon the advice of an animal behaviorist who told me Eddie probably felt I took away resources like the love and attention of his master. To compensate, I needed to become a provider of resources. It worked. Eddie still barks at me, but not as much and not with the same brio.
And Eddie won my heart for good when Jim had a horrible bike accident on Ridgewood Avenue that left him laid-up for weeks. Eddie never left his side, making us both feel better.
Today, Eddie is 14 ½ years old. He sleeps most of the day, walks with a limp and comes to me without much prodding anymore. A bit senile, he probably forgot he doesn’t like me, or that we once tried to get rid of each other. When we take our walks around our neighborhood now, we do so as family, not competitors. We’ve finally reached our truce.
Call it The Treaty of Montclair.
Mireya Navarro is author of “Stepdog,” a new release by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and a writer with the New York Times covering housing.