Life on the Leash
Cora waved sheepishly at the car she’d just cut off and mouthed “Sorry!” to the driver. She had three minutes to make it two blocks, find parking, and dash to her client’s house. In DC, on the wrong side of rush hour, two blocks could take hours. On this day the traffic gods were on her side.
She’d told Madison Perry she’d arrive at her home at eleven thirty, and her phone read eleven twenty-nine as she snagged a serendipitous parking spot in front of the brownstone. Military precise, she thought as she speed-walked to the front door. She hoped her new client would notice. Though she was chronically late for every other part of her life, Cora always managed to make it to her clients’ homes on time, even if it meant breaking a few traffic laws along the way. The illegal U-turn she’d made in the middle of the street to snag the prime parking spot? Just part of the job.
The Perry brownstone was in a beautiful section of Georgetown. Close to Montrose Park, a few streets up from the shopping on M Street, and storybook charming on the outside. The low wrought iron fence opened to a courtyard filled with precision-
trimmed boxwoods, so perfect that they looked like the gardener had used a laser to sculpt them. Blossom-heavy window boxes anchored the four large front windows. Looks like a House Beautiful centerfold, Cora thought.
As she rang the doorbell she wondered who she was about to meet. Cora always tried to imagine her clients prior to seeing them face-to-face as a way to prepare for the all-important first session. Context cues, from the way the client’s voice sounded, to the syntax of their e-mails, to the type of dogs they owned, all helped Cora paint a picture that was, more often than not, dead-on. Predicting canine behavior was her specialty, but predicting human behavior was a close second.
Madison’s e-mail had detailed the challenges she was having with her new boxer puppy (“The nipping! The peeing! You need to fix this dog!”). Cora was always hesitant when a potential client asked her to “fix” their dog, because a dog is more than a piece of malfunctioning household equipment. Obedience training wasn’t a business of quick fixes, despite what Doggy Dictator Boris Ershovich preached on his TV show.
Madison’s e-mail signature had included her title at a prestigious DC law firm, so Cora assumed that she was an established attorney with a similarly well-connected husband, perfect children, and a new puppy to round out this year’s Christmas photo. But the name Madison gave her pause. She’d never met a woman over the age of thirty with the name. Cora heard footsteps approaching and envisioned the polished woman she was about to meet.
The door opened. “Look at you—right on time.”
Cora stood dumbfounded for a moment. The square-jawed Hillary-coiffed power broker she was expecting was actually a gorgeous late-twenty-something blonde in black yoga pants and a slouchy cashmere cardigan. The woman looked only a year or two older than twenty-eight-year-old Cora. Perhaps this was Madison Perry’s daughter?
The woman extended her hand. “Hi, I’m Madison. Thank you for fitting me in so quickly. I swear, Oliver is the devil. He’s really driving me crazy.” Cora saw Madison’s eyes flit up and down her body, taking in her frayed sneakers, work bag, and coat.
Cora swallowed her disbelief. This was Madison? This model-like creature was lady of the Georgetown manor and chief legal officer at Crandall, Quinn & Hawkins?
“Hi, hi.” Cora was caught off guard by her miscalculation. “Nice to meet you.”
“Please come in.” Madison took two steps backward and then clasped her hands under her chin. “I hate to do this, but could you take off your shoes?”
“Of course. Murphy’s Law.” Cora laughed. “Today’s the day I’m wearing old socks.” She loved her neon unicorn socks and wasn’t ready to toss them, despite the holes blooming on both toes. She kicked off her shoes, worried that her feet smelled.
“You know how it goes—white carpets,” Madison said, gesturing like a spokesmodel toward the immaculate cream and white damask-print rug.
Cora nodded. White carpets indeed. She tucked a stray tendril back into her thick caramel-colored braid, a nervous habit that did no good because the strand always popped right back out. There
were times, like when she met a successful, put-together career woman, that Cora doubted her decision to give up a fast-track corporate job to become a dog trainer. But, no matter that the salary wasn’t cushy and the stock options were nonexistent, Cora was making good on her promise to Cooper.
She glanced in the mirror as they walked down the hallway and admitted to herself that she looked more like a homeless person than someone whose name and impressive job title used to appear on a weighty business card. She still kept one in the folds of her wallet as a reminder of the corporate drone she used to be. Holey socks and all, Top Dog was a dream manifested into reality.
Cora’s button-down logo shirt was wrinkled and stained with dog slobber. A belt loop on the back of her three-year-old jeans had torn off because she was constantly using it to hike them up. Her old black jacket was flecked with a rainbow of dog fur. Disorder verging on frump had become a way of life.
But the truth was Cora could get away with the squirrel’s nest of dark blond waves and makeup-free face. She looked like she belonged in a vintage soap ad promising velvety suds and a schoolgirl complexion.
“Did you have any trouble finding us?” Madison asked, sounding as if she was talking to a child.
“Uh, no. I’ve had quite a few clients in your neighborhood. Georgetown is sort of my backyard,” Cora replied.
“Oh! You live in Georgetown?” Madison sounded surprised.
“No, I live in DuPont, but I have tons of clients in Georgetown. I get a lot of referrals around here, particularly—”
“Anyone I might know?” Madison interrupted.
Cora felt like she was in an interview for the Junior League. “Um, Ted Sullivan? He’s over on P Street. Marjorie and James Klein? Uh, let me think . . . the Dunn family?”
Madison shook her head at each name but appeared comforted by the fact that Cora could rattle off a list of folks in her tony neighborhood.
Cora stole glimpses of the rest of the beautiful house as they moved toward the kitchen, averting her eyes from her reflection when they passed another oversize shabby-chic mirror.
“Well, here’s the little monster,” Madison said with a flourish.
Oliver the twelve-week-old fawn boxer puppy was curled up in a tiny ball, fast asleep in the corner of his faux rattan crate.
“Oh. My. Goodness,” Cora exclaimed. “He’s perfect. I’m in love!”
Oliver stirred, stretched, and then realized that he had an audience. He went from slumbering puppy to entertainer in an instant, leaping in circles and barking excitedly.
“Should I take him out of his crate?” Madison asked.
“Please! I have to kiss that little face right now.” Cora saw Madison wrinkle her nose.
“It’s gross, I know, but j’embrasse mon chien sur la bouche!” Cora said, unable to control the stream of French. She often broke into her second language when she was feeling uncomfortable.
“Vous parlez français?” Madison asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh, j’essaye de parler français,” Cora replied with false modesty. Her minor in French guaranteed that she did more than try to speak the language, but it wouldn’t do to brag in front of Madi
son. “Let’s head outside for a potty break right away since he’s just waking up from a nap.”
“Really? He needs to go out after he wakes up? That’s probably why he pees all the time after I take him out of the crate. I just thought he was mad at me for leaving him in there.”
Cora switched to autopilot and began her standard dissertation about the misunderstood world of canine elimination as they walked Oliver through the kitchen toward the backyard. She surveyed her surroundings while well-rehearsed words tumbled from her mouth. The kitchen was large and formal, painted a warm Tuscan orange, with soft Vermeer light pouring in from the many windows. The giant circular table seated eight, and Cora envisioned the chummy dinner parties Madison probably hosted there.
Madison and who else? Cora could see rows of silver-framed photographs on the shelf above the fireplace behind the table, but she couldn’t get close enough to them to make out the faces. Was Madison a second wife to some cigar-smoking DC backslapper?
The yard, once they exited through the French doors, was as impressive as the rest of the house, surprisingly large for Georgetown, and ringed on all sides with a tall privet hedge. Cora wondered how the burned-out urine spots to come would go over with Madison.
“Charlie’s on the way,” Madison volunteered. “He called and apologized for being late—he really wants to help with Oliver’s training. I mean, he better help. Oliver was his idea. I’ve never even had a dog before . . . Charlie doesn’t know it, but I’m really more of a cat person.”
“Maybe Oliver will help you be both,” Cora replied, starting to understand the scope of what she would be dealing with. She fretted that she’d eventually have to snake charm the woman into liking her in order for them to successfully complete the program. But for now, she focused on the dog, knowing that a puppy could blur the hard edges of even the most disagreeable clients.
So his name is Charlie. Cora checked Madison’s left hand. Bare. Pretending to be a puppy person to lock down old Charlie?
Oliver stopped jumping on Cora long enough to find just the right spot to pee, and Cora chanted “Hurry up, hurry up,” to him. She turned to Madison. “I like ‘hurry up,’ but do you already have a potty phrase?”
Cora started to explain how a simple phrase can become a Pavlovian trigger to get a dog to eliminate but was interrupted by the French doors opening to reveal the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen. Cora suddenly understood why Madison would lie about being a dog person.
He was Cora’s kryptonite: tall, broad shouldered, with short sandy hair that swooped in a way that looked styled but not fussy. He radiated the kind of kick-in-the-gut good looks that made both women and men stare. He wasn’t “pretty” but arresting. Manly, like he’d be at home chopping wood in a flannel shirt, even though he was wearing an expensive-looking suit.
There’s got to be something wrong with him, Cora thought, steeling herself to remain professional. Aside from the fact that he’s dating someone who doesn’t like dogs.
He strode over toward Cora with his hand outstretched. “Hi,
you must be Cora. I’m Charlie Gill. Sorry I’m late. Can you believe that I hit traffic at lunchtime?” His ruddy cheeks and quick smile unnerved Cora.
Cora met his grip with a firm handshake and did her best to hide her immediate and unprofessional attraction to her new client.
“Nice to meet you, and I totally understand the traffic. It runs my life—I could tell you stories!” Cora said, smiling her biggest “I’ll blind you with my teeth so you don’t notice that I’m not wearing makeup” smile. She hoped that he hadn’t heard the tremor in her voice or noticed the bright red splotches she could feel blooming on her cheeks.
Oliver rushed over and jumped up on Charlie. “There’s my little guy!” He laughed and leaned over to pet his puppy. Charlie’s voice went up. “Are you the best puppy in the world? Yes you are! Why, yes you are, little Ollie-by-golly!”
“I know this is going to sound totally bitchy, but can we get started?” Madison asked. “I have a one o’clock meeting.”
“Of course! Sorry about that,” Cora replied, embarrassed that she wasn’t more on top of the lesson and avoiding looking directly at Charlie. She usually controlled the progression of the hour with a conductor’s fluidity, but she had a feeling that the Perry-Gill household wasn’t going to be business as usual.
“Let’s start off with some Q and A.”
They headed back inside and settled in the kitchen, Charlie and Madison sitting at the table and Cora taking up her usual position on the floor next to the dog.
“I just have a few questions that’ll help me get to know Oliver better and help me understand what you want from training.”
Cora launched into her standard questionnaire—Where did you get your dog? Who’s your vet? What type of food is your dog eating?—and studied Charlie and Madison as they took turns answering. People revealed more than they realized during that simple twelve-question interview. Cora usually divided her time during Q&A interacting with the dog and gauging the people, so that when they stood up to begin the session she could predict how each party would react. The interview process was a holdover from her project management days, a part of her corporate arsenal that she used to set her apart from her dog training peers.
Madison was the easier to read. She’d almost come out and admitted that she didn’t really like Oliver, and during the interview Cora began to realize just how deep that dislike actually was.
“There’s so much wrong with this dog, right, hon? He’s like, pawtistic I think.” Madison put her hand on Charlie’s thigh and laughed at her own joke. “But we’ve got our very own Doggie Dictator now. There’s a ton of stuff to fix, but that’s why we’re paying you the big bucks!”
The corners of Cora’s mouth turned down before she could help it. Equating the success of her program with the cost was a close second to the “fix my dog” request on her list of red flags. (Which was tied with people likening her to Boris Ershovich.) Sure, private training was expensive, but so was having a plumber show up when you’ve got an overflowing toilet.
Charlie sighed, as if heading into a frequent battle. “Mads, there’s not a ‘ton’ of stuff wrong with Oliver. He’s a typical puppy. It’s all normal.” He reached down to pet Oliver, who was chewing on his shoelace.
“What are the main challenges? I want to make sure we get to all of it.” Cora focused on Madison, as unpleasant as she was, because her cheeks got hot every time she looked at Charlie.
“Where do I start?” Madison held out her hand and ticked off the problems on her manicured fingers. “The peeing, the drooling, the poop in my closet, the hair, the muddy paws, the smell, the nipping, the jumping, the destruction of my shoes, and the nonstop spazziness. I’m over it.”
Charlie sighed again, crossed his arms, and leaned ever so slightly away from Madison.
“Wow, that’s quite a list!” Cora said. “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that I can help you with most of it.” She paused. “The bad news is that muddy paws, drool, and hair are all a part of the deal when it comes to dogs. Maybe you should’ve stuck with cats?” It slipped out before Cora could stop herself, and it sounded unkind. She kicked herself for insulting the person who was about to write her a check.
“Sometimes I wish I had,” Madison said, narrowing her eyes at Cora.
“I think we’re going to be fine, Mads,” Charlie said, defusing the mounting tension and finally reaching out to his girlfriend, giving her hand a squeeze. “I’m sure Cora knows how to help us, and she’ll show you that Ollie-by-golly is a genius after all. Right?” He looked at Cora with a hopeful expression.
“I promise. You’ll be embrasser votre chien before you know it!” Cora’s French tripped her up yet again, making her think about kissing. She turned pink, and wondered how she was going to navigate the next five weeks without ever looking directly at Charlie.