Good Boy Can't Live Forever
Apollo was the first one I told that I was trans and now he’s lying dead on the bench at the vet’s office. When I told him years ago, he was just sitting on his old smelly brown bed on the floor in my room, long body curled up as best he could. His eyes looked eager as I approached him, getting on my knees. We were home, alone as we often were when I was in high school. Apollo’s tag wagged softly, curious for what I was about to do but not overly excited. I lifted his floppy soft ear and put my mouth into that peculiar crevasse that make the curves of a dog’s ear.
“I wish I was a girl,” I whispered. I pulled away, placing the ear back down, like screaming into a jar and sealing it, afraid that my words might escape his ear if I didn’t cover it in time.
I looked to Apollo for a reaction, my face close to his. We never figured out what breed he was, an adopted mottled medium-sized mutt with a long corgi or dachshund body. His face was expressive with brown markings against black for his eyebrows. He raised those brown eyebrows for a moment before giving my cheek a generous lick.
Before he left, the vet who put him down told me to let them know when I’m ready to have them package him. It’s just Apollo and I, my parents and one brother at work, the other brother across the country. I lean over Apollo, petting those still puppy-soft ears over and over again while tears stream down my face. I want to ask if I can take his ears and keep them so I can rub them for the rest of my life like a rabbit’s foot, but I think that’s too weird.
I’m going to miss his sweet little face.
After our first dog died, the black lab we had when I was a young child, I saw her face everywhere. It was painful, being 12 and seeing other people on the street get to walk their black labs that looked exactly like our Lily. But that won’t be the case with Apollo, the mixed breed I begged to adopt. Other dogs don’t look like exactly him, so I keep petting those ears, knowing I’ll never see something like his face again.
When I first told my parents about taking estrogen, my father started crying that my face was going to change. He was going to miss the face of the child he raised, the face he watched grow into an adult. Maybe he was offended I was rejecting the face he and my mother gave me, the strong chin from him, the thin lips from her. But I’m still alive and he sees my face every day. I wouldn’t be alive if I didn’t change my face; I needed to change my face to survive. Apollo’s cute perfect little face is just going to be gone forever.
At first, I was upset that it was only me here. I was working from home in my childhood bedroom that then became my young adult bedroom when I had to move home after losing my job in the pandemic. Apollo was whining by the door, seeming like he was begging to go out which he never does. Apollo is terrified of cars and hates going outside so I knew something was wrong. When I took him outside, he walked very slowly and collapsed at the end of the block.
I couldn’t get him up and carried him into an Uber to go to the animal hospital where they said there was a huge tumor blocking his heart and he needed to be put down. I frantically texted and called my parents at every tearful step, begging for anyone to come help me. I didn’t get a response until I Facetimed my Mom to get approval to put him down. She cried a little in her office and told me she couldn’t get out of work today. She hung up and told me she had to get herself back together before facing down the next feverish child and horribly worried parent at her pediatric practice.
I fed Apollo McDonalds fries and McNuggets I had picked up next door while they gave him a CT. I wish I had known earlier; I could’ve gotten him a more personalized last meal, but he seemed content chomping away at the Happy Meal. I fed him until the vet told me no more food and they hooked him up to the IV drip that would kill him. I petted him and told him he was a good boy, the best boy, the best boy who ever lived and who would ever live, as he slowly drifted off to sleep, his breathing getting fainter and fainted until it stopped entirely. I made the decision to take the body rather than cremate him—Jews already aren’t supposed to get cremated and the Holocaust definitely didn’t help us get more comfortable with burning bodies, even if it’s our dogs.
Now I’m glad it’s just us. Apollo was my dog. I chose him at the ASPCA in the east 90s. We came because we saw an ad for his sister online, but someone had already claimed the sister and I fell in love with him anyway. I missed him dearly when I went to college. He’s been the only good thing about being forced back home. And now he’s gone, so it’s just my quiet uncomfortable parents and their adult transsexual child who can’t afford to pay for laser hair removal and rent at the same time in our cramped 1st avenue apartment.
I can’t go back home without him. My tears about Apollo shift into tears about the rest of my life and I know I need to get out of here. I lift up Apollo’s ear one last time and I whisper, “You’re a good boy, Apollo.” I put his ear back down. This time it feels like patting a child’s blanket down after tucking him into bed.
I return to the cold, hideously ugly fluorescent lights, crying and crying. Estrogen makes me such a crier. I thought I had gotten myself together, but now I have to lean against the wall to keep it together. I feel so dramatic, like a character actress gunning for her first Best Support Actress Oscar nomination, but I can’t help it.
A nurse sees me and coos, “I’m sorry hon, I know. I know.”
She pats my hair and leans my head against her shoulder. “I’m sorry,” I sniffle. “Go ahead and put him in the box or whatever. I’m ready.”
The nurse smells intensely like beefy dog treats and hand sanitizer. She walks me back to the waiting room, joining the other pet owners of Midtown and the Upper East Side. She puts me down in a chair and says they’ll be back out shortly.
I look at the other people in the waiting room. A bald man anxiously tapping his foot while holding his caged bird. A couple with a cat pawing out of its crate. A family with a young child sobbing as the nurse hands them a little post card that I already recognize as the infamous “Rainbow Bridge” poem. I’m upset that I’m not the saddest person in the vet’s office, but I should’ve expected this. A 6-year-old little girl wiping her tears on the thigh of her mother’s pants easily trumps the 23-year-old transsexual with her makeup fully cried off, stubble poking through wiped away foundation, puffy nipples jutting out of an inappropriate crop top that was not picked with the intention of coming to an animal hospital.
I watch as the little girl’s father picks her up so she can cry into his shoulder. I was only ever held by my parents as a little boy. My parents have never picked up their daughter. Not that I want them to now. They don’t even like hugging me anymore, uncomfortable when my budding boobs press against them.
The receptionist looks at me with pity, “We’re ready for payment whenever you are.”
I barely even register whatever preposterous amount they’re making us pay to have murdered my dog. I put it on the credit card that I’m only supposed to use for emergencies.
The nurse returns with a large cardboard box that must be Apollo’s current resting place. I stand and take the box from her.
“He’s all set in there. I’m so sorry for your loss…” I hear her take a moment to scan me deciding on sir or ma’am, but she decides that saying neither is probably the best for both of us. “We just give this to everyone.” The nurse puts the little postcard with “The Rainbow Bridge” on top of the box.
“Thank you,” I avert my eyes from the text of the poem because albeit corny and super religious in ways that I am not, I cannot read it without crying at any time in my life, and definitely not now. “Do you have a bag?”
“You don’t have a bag?” she asks like I’m some terrible dog owner.
“I wasn’t really planning on coming here today.”
“Let me get you something.” I wait, holding Apollo’s corpse in the box, watching as the bald guy with the bird talks to the receptionist. My nurse returns with a large Bed, Bath, and Beyond bag.
“Thanks, would you hold it open for me?” The nurse stretches the bag open as I maneuver Apollo’s box into the bag, my arms weak already. Injecting estrogen does not help me today, making the tears flow easily and my upper body feeble. She looks increasingly annoyed as I struggle to get the box to fit right. A woman who held me while I cried and smells like rubbing alcohol and processed meat is really upset with me right now. “I think I might need a bigger bag.”
She puts the bag down and grabs the box from me, easily getting it right into the bag. Must be some crazy vet nurse strength from wrangling big dogs all day. She lifts it up and hands it to me.
“So sorry for your loss.” I don’t think she means it this time.
I carry Apollo in the Bed, Bath, and Beyond bag out of the vet, rejoining the rest of the world. The sun is setting already, the light far from the east side, but it’s still warm on a muggy summer day. I head back to the apartment, like a twenty-minute walk away, and wonder what people think I’m carrying. Did I just get a new humidifier or maybe an air fryer from Bed, Bath, and Beyond?
There’s this New York City urban legend about carrying a dead dog. There are many versions of this fable and apparently other cities have their own version, but it’s something like this: a girl’s dog dies and she only has a wheeled suitcase to carry the dog’s dead body. She takes the luggage on the subway to bring the dog home from the vet. She puts it on the ground carefully between her legs as she takes a seat. Some guy asks her what’s in the bag and, not wanting to say it’s a canine corpse, she lies and says she has a bunch of computers. The man snatches the bag and runs out of the subway right as the doors close and the train keeps moving. The girl sits there stunned, no longer having to deal with disposing of her dog’s corpse, and the man is surely in for a surprise later when he opens the bag to find a decaying dog instead of valuable computers.
It’s a perfect New York City story because it invokes the magic of public transportation, a dash of inconsequential crime, the highs and lows of lying to strangers, and gives you that dog-eat-dog world that people want to see the city as.
I wish someone would come up and steal Apollo from me, so I could participate in the myth and tell people that it really happened to me, but nobody messes with me. Growing up in the city, I have this unshakeable belief that I will never be robbed. I think I look both too unapproachable and too annoying for anyone to mess with me. Like you can just tell I’m going to be such a cunt while you mug me.
But I have become afraid. I used to walk alone late at night without a care in the world, messaging people on Grindr as I traipsed through empty streets, trying to find a quick fuck before I got home. But now, I don’t really do quick fucks on Grindr anymore, and it pains me to admit it, but the empty streets feel scary instead of free. Maybe if I get my own big dog, I can walk it at night and feel safe again.
I feel guilty to Apollo that we haven’t even buried him and I’m already thinking about the next dog. I don’t think this family can exist without a dog. We don’t talk to each other about anything else. Maybe we talk about food sometimes, but that’s about it—how’s the dog and how’s dinner. I talk to my parents about other stuff sometimes, basic life and work stuff, but I really don’t say a word to my siblings that isn’t about food or dogs. We just don’t connect on anything else. And we only know how to spend time with each other around the nexus of a dog. Not in a million years would my Mom and I just take a walk around the neighborhood and sit and talk on a bench, but we would always take Apollo to the dog run.
I get back to our apartment and finally put Apollo down—it feels so dreadfully empty. I have to move out as soon as possible. I don’t really know where an appropriate place to leave him is, so I just leave the bag by the door.
I go into my room and collapse onto Apollo’s old frumpy brown dog bed. I bend over myself on my knees like I’m praying and I cry and cry. It smells like his bad breath and his Frito feet and I want to keep it with me.
I don’t even hear the door open or anybody come home until I hear, “Oh honey.” I look up and Mom stands at the entrance of my room. “Sorry,” she sighs. She’s cautious, not sure whether to approach me or not. I start to get up, so she doesn’t have to make the choice. “Did he go out easy?” she chokes up slightly.
“He was a good boy until the very end.” I almost go to hug her, opening up my arms, but I see her eyes widen as she slightly recoils. I immediately cross my arms and act like that’s what I was going for. In the moment of grief, I forgot about how she doesn’t hug me anymore. It’s never been said out loud, but I noticed I only get touches on the arm now. I imagine it’s her not wanting to feel my syringe-grown breasts against her.
She puts a sympathetic hand on my arm and looks me up and down. Surely, she’s frowning because our dog died, but I can’t help but feel like it’s from looking at me.
I feel ashamed for being deeply disheveled. I haven’t let them see me like this. If you have to convince your parents that being a trans woman is a good path for their son, you have to at least look the part.
Being an underemployed transsexual who lives with my parents and doesn’t pass most of the time feels like it has extremely few dignities. Putting myself together feels like the only way to survive. I hate that I feel like I’m on the brink of death when my foundation has sloughed off, but neither of my parents have referred to me as their daughter, and it feels like they just never will, so only letting them see me in a full face of makeup is my best attempt to get that.
She asks, “I’m going to order Chinese food, what do you want?”
At dinner eating cashew chicken, I’ve eaten more chicken today than I have in the past two years. I’m a vegetarian now except in times of crisis when I need McNuggets and cashew chicken. I think Apollo would want me to eat chicken for him.
“So, do we want to just bury him in the back upstate?” Dad asks. He hasn’t cried at all today which makes me upset. He just sighed when he got home from work and said sorry to me. Who doesn’t cry when their dog dies?
“I don’t want Apollo just rotting in the house until the weekend.”
“You could drive him to grandma and grandpa’s tonight. They’re closer,” Mom suggests.
“Apollo didn’t spend a lot of time there though. That wouldn’t make sense.”
“Well we don’t have a backyard here. Those are really the options,” Dad says as he shovels lo mein into his gullet. “You wanna just chuck him into the East River like a prostitute?”
“Shush, I’m eating dinner,” Mom rolls her eyes. “We’re not throwing Apollo into the East River.”
“We should’ve gotten him cremated the. Who decided to just take the body?”
“Nobody was responding to texts! I made the decision in a moment of distress,” I explain. “I thought Jews didn’t do cremation anyway.”
“For humans that is. Throw the dog in the oven; we can cremate him for cheaper at home anyway.”
Mom hits my Dad.
“Can’t we just bury him in Central Park or something?” I offer.
“You can’t just dig up a dog grave in Central Park,” Dad shuts me down. “And it’s shut down at night anyway.”
I want to say that I spent my teen years drinking, smoking weed, and sucking dick in Central Park at night but I simplify that to an eyebrow raise and a coy smile. “You can definitely get in the park at night. Apollo loved Central Park. I can bury him there tonight; I’ll be fine.”
“If you want to get arrested for damaging property with your dead dog, go ahead,” Dad slurps up the last of his lo mein, reaching over to Mom’s takeout container for a dumpling he knows she won’t eat. “Maybe your brother would help you.”
“He’s not even here at the dog shiva meal. He doesn’t care. It’s totally fine, I can do it myself. Do we have a shovel?”
“In the storage closet, but you can’t tell the cops that I told you that.”
Mom puts down her chopsticks, “I’ll go with you.”
“You don’t need to do that,” I say. “I’m going to wait until it’s closed so it’s not going to be until like 2am. You don’t stay up that late.”
“I know I don’t need to. I loved Apollo too. I want to put him to rest” Mom insists. “He’s my dog too, and I want to be there. I can stay up.”
“I’m not going to stay up for you guys. If you guys need bail, I’ll get to it in the morning.”
We start walking to the park at 1:30am. I’ve put myself back together in a look that serves as both funeral wear and sneaking into the night—muted makeup with a faint maroon eye shadow, black Doc Martens, a black skirt, and a sequin black top completely hidden under a black hoodie. The sequin top is really just for me.
Mom and I are only talking about Apollo: walking him this same route when he a puppy, how he had an accident in the Best Buy, how he’d tremble on the sidewalk when a car went by, how he’d barked at any man over 6 foot, how his favorite place was wedged between the toilet and the sink. Neither of us had any illusions that our unfriendly, poorly trained dog who could barely walk on a leash and went on and off of puppy Prozac was a great representative for the canine community, but he was ours.
The stupid thing about the city claiming that Central Park closes is that there are a million entrances and they just don’t close them. As with every stupid rule in the city, it’s just about criminalizing homeless people. We walk right in between the stone walls, past the park I would come to as a child, thinking the slide you’d go down on an old piece of cardboard was the tallest thing in the world. You can smell the petting zoo around here.
We walk deeper into the park, Mom clearly tense and on high alert. I don’t think she’s walked in the city past 11pm in maybe 3 decades. She’s always stressed now walking with me, being seen with me even in the daytime, so we don’t do it much. I can see her scanning every stranger on the street for a response to me. One time, a man cat-called me in front of her. She was clearly terrified, but I loved him wolf whistling. Maybe she doesn’t think I’m a woman, but I’m good enough for the scumbags on the street.
It bothers me that she’s so worried about some stranger harassing me on the street, when all the worst things said or done to me were in her house. If some stranger calls you a faggot, you can run away, and you’ll never have to see them again; if your brother calls you a faggot and you share a room, you have to pull it together by dinner.
A group of clearly drunk teenagers pass us, girls giggling as they clutch onto boys holding bottles in paper bags. I don’t really want to be a teenager again, but God, do I miss when that was me on summer break, tripping over myself on the way home from someone’s apartment whose parents were gone for the weekend.
The teens are far from us, but we still hear the crash as one of the boys drops the bottle, glass shattering in the bag. Mom startles, muttering “Jesus Christ,” under her breath and putting a hand to her heart. The teens cackle wildly.
We keep walking deeper into the park, up a hill, until it feels like there really is nobody for miles. I walk us in front of a large tree, “How about here?”
“Perfect,” Mom says. She pulls the little shovel out of her tote bag and I start digging while she keeps watch. Apollo isn’t all that big in that box, so I get a suitable hole pretty quickly.
“Let’s get him in there,” I suggest. Mom takes the box out of the Bed, Bath, and Beyond bag and gently lowers it into the hole.
“Rest easy Apollo, you were such a good boy even when you weren’t,” Mom offers, crying very softly.
I cover the hole back up with dirt. Mom picks up a nearby stone and places it on the dirt.
“You don’t want to say anything?” she asks.
Dogs are the only thing that really makes me feel corny. The Midwestern mothers and I have the same taste in dog memes. Everyone’s written about why we love dogs: they’re perfect loving creatures that make us better people, cursed with a short lifespan. It’s a selfish way to view another living creature, but we don’t cry for dogs just because we’ll miss them.
We’ll miss the people we were when we were with them, demarcating portions of our lives with their entire lives. Apollo and I were puppies together, him a frightened mutt adjusting to big city living, while I was a closeted middle schooler confused by puberty, growing my hair long, just learning to take the subway by myself. I was so jealous of him when he got neutered, his balls lopped off and everyone acted like it was completely normal. Apollo grew into an anxious but lovable mess of a mutt, while I was more of a high-functioning drunken mess of a teen, traipsing across the playground of the city with an unlimited MetroCard and a fake ID, but never letting my grades slip. He was terrified of me the first time I smoked weed, not recognizing the foreign scent on my fingertips. I thought my parents would notice, but they had thankfully already gone to bed. He aged gracefully, calming down a bit and getting some grey on the muzzle, while I went to college and decided to finally do the thing that I had told Apollo in secret. He started walking with a limp, the hips on his long body not prepared for a decade of life, while I started walking with a sway, my new hips and chest propelling me forward.
And now Apollo gets to die, and I have to keep living without a real friend in the house and any other dog I get will only know me as a woman. Apollo was the only dog that saw me through it all. I think his only problem with it was that I would no longer let him lick my cheek when I was wearing foundation, but I always made sure he could get in his kisses at night after I showered it off.
Never again will I pet his soft ears or hear his nails on the hardwood floor or be a teenage whirlwind giggling and drunk and high, walking through the park at night and wishing I could just be a girl.
“Sit,” I command the earth, holding the dirty shovel in my hands. “Stay.”
“You have to say more than that,” Mom insists.
“I don’t have anything more.”
“You’re a liar. You never don’t have something to say.”
“I thought something pithy might be more meaningful than some long drawn out speech!” I object. “You know what, I think you should say something. You insisted on coming tonight.”
She sighs, taking a moment to collect herself. “You were the dog that kept me company when my youngest child was out all night doing who knows what. You were the dog that filled the house with a little life after all my children flew the coop. You were the dog that went grey with me, but only I got to dye my hair to hide it. You were the dog that got me out of bed every morning and made sure to snuggle me before I went to bed. And you were the dog who licked the tears off my face when I cried, when I cried about—,when I just cried.”
Her voice breaks off into tears and she turns to me, opening her arms. She pulls me into her. The short woman’s head lands right above my breasts, turning her face into my chest.
About the Author
Sam Josephs is a non-binary trans woman and drag queen from NYC, currently living in LA. They are trying to eat more vegetables.