Once More to the Lake (with Teddy)

By Danny Cherry Jr.

I used to be fucking petrified of dogs. Big dogs, little dogs; chunky and skinny dogs. Corgi or poodles; pit bulls, or those little round dogs with smushed faces. You know, the ones that sound like they’re gargling peanut butter when they breathe. It don’t matter. No matter how much someone promised me their dog “didn’t bite,” if it had four legs and could outrun me, I didn’t want it around me. 

The larger they were, the more scared I was. 

About a decade ago, when I was 18 or 19, I was at a house party, and noticed a small gate partitioning off part of the house. It was the type of gate people installed when they had small children, or small pets. At that point, I was able to tolerate small dogs (mainly those caged up or leashed). So I kneeled down expecting something cute to come scampering towards me, when instead, what bent the corner in the distance was an animal that was an affront to God. I made eye contact with a fucking Great Dane the size of a mini-horse. I back peddled and gripped my red solo cup as the House Horse walked over the gate, prompting me to think “what the fuck is the point of the gate?” 


I say that to say I was a bit of a bitch when it came to animals. 

That’s up until two years ago, when I overcame my fears and got out of my comfort zone, and became a “Dog Dad.” 

Now, as I draft this very column, my little buddy—a 5-pound, apricot-colored, tea-cup poodle named Teddy—sits at my feet.

Having Teddy made me get out of my comfort zone, and I am a better person, and writer, for it.

It was October of 2022 when my wife came home after work and showed me a picture she had taken. It was a flier posted on the sno-ball stand across the street, promoting that a local breeder had bred some teacup poodles. We talked about buying one in fits and starts while watching She-Hulk—the episode when she was twerking with Meg the Stallion for a reason that is still confounding—until I said what I was always going to say: “no.” 

He was cute as shit, but all the same, he was still a dog, and I did not like dogs.  

My fear of dogs in the past was linked to my fear of everything, to be honest. I had a fear of the unknown; a fear of change; a fear of getting out of my comfort zone. 

Growing up, up until about 10 or 11, I was the type of kid that sat inside all of the time just writing and imagining worlds, while the real one passed me by outside. I’d sit on my bedroom floor cross-legged for hours, writing stories until my dresser drawer overflowed with my ideas; while the streets outside during summertime overflowed with laughter, as other kids made memories. I was content with finishing my poorly drawn comics—The Adventures of Apple Boy and Taffy Man. What waited outside was the humid southern heat that bit at ya neck and coated your skin in sweat. What waited outside, was a world of possibilities; and when there’s a world of possibilities, anything can happen. And when your brain is wired the way mine was, if anything can happen, it would likely be the worst outcome. 

This logic is why I can’t ride a bike: well, obviously I would fall

It’s the reason I can’t swim: because what if the instructor drowned me? 

But riding and drowning could be avoided: I just didn’t get on the fucking bike or go in a deep pool. But dogs? I could be just out minding my business one day, when a dog was loose walking around the neighborhood. Or, it could bust through a rickety wooden fence like in the movie Cujo. 

When it came to my creative aspirations and my fears, I mostly kept that part of myself, to myself, as I aged. I’ll skip past the stereotypical “struggling to fit in” parts of my life and just sum it all up by saying what’s obvious to most: being different when you’re a preteen fucking sucks. Those of us who were artsy or creative didn’t fit in much. So I shrunk that part of myself going into eight grade and high school, and focused on sports and socializing more. I was what folks call a “late bloomer.” I would often doodle or write when no one was looking, out of some fear of rejection, or, being seen as a nerd, or weird. 

Even in college, the nervous, fearful part of myself would keep my creative aspirations hidden. When I was in the library working on a story, or trying to learn how to pitch, I instead just said I was doing homework. After MBA school, I’d blogged in semi-secret for a few years. I’d made a twitter account seperate from my personal account where I could post the link to my stories for strangers to read. The fear of putting myself out there where everyone could see me, not just strangers online, held me back for a long time. 

In my mid-twenties is when my writing career started to pick up steam and I started to get published more often. I’d post my links to my stories, then log the fuck off so I could forget I’d done something crazy and immortalized my words for all-time on the world wide web. That is a level of stress I knew I needed to get used to. But live readings and doing interviews were off the table for me. Even telling the people closest to me I was actively pursuing a career in publishing was insane to me. 

I mean, who the fuck wanted to hear me read, or listen to an interview I was in? Why would I tell people that writing wasn’t some fun hobby, but the only thing I ever thought about? The only thing I would lose sleep about, and when I was in the zone, forget to eat about?

Just so they could tell me it made no money? Or that I needed to focus on getting a real job?

But in hindsight when assessing the reasons I kept my writing aspirations to myself, and sequestered it to a part of the online world where no one I knew would know, my reasoning for not expanding my opportunities were bullshit. It was fear. Fear of leaving my comfort zone. Fear of failing. Even more specifically, the thing I feared the most, was that in by being loud and proud in my artistic aspirations, I’d just be falling flat on my face in front of everyone who knew me. Whether it was my writing career or my normie career, I took no risk; I never deviated from what was comfortable. I clung to my repetitive normality like a scared child clung to a teddy bear because if I took no risks, I couldn’t fail and fall flat on my face. If I didn’t take a risk, I couldn’t be disappointed. Dreams couldn’t be crushed if never exposed to the weight of reality. 

Then years later I did something I never thought I’d do and got a dog. 

I’ll skip past the light-coercion my wife and her friends employed to get me to this point… but I decided I’d at least meet Teddy. 

One Saturday morning, we stood in front of the very sno-ball stand where his “FOR SALE” poster was hung. The breeders arrived and handed us a tiny fur ball, four months old and the size of a baseball, when curled up in my palms. I looked down at him, and his tiny chest heaved-lightly, and, again, he was cute, but I wasn’t entirely sold. 

The start was rough. Having him was a test of patience for both me and my wife within the first hour. We went and picked him up, which required us driving over the North Causeway over Pontchartrain Lake. That ride across the Pontchartrain is a beautiful sight. The bridge itself is an engineering marvel, being one of the longest bridges in the country, and it goes right over the wide expanse of water that stretches well past the horizon. The lake often looks like a still sheet of metal when the winds were calm; when the winds weren’t, the waves rippled and the sunlight danced atop of the waves’ edges, like the light was skittering over diamonds. It was majestic. 

But hard to appreciate when a puppy is whimpering and shitting itself. 

The first few weeks he wouldn’t stop acting up; chewing his pee pad, or even crying at night. I wasn’t so much as mad at him; I’m not an unempathetic monster. I had just known that I had a history of not being comfortable with dogs. But also, I didn’t know if I had the capacity to take care of a living thing. But also to be really real, I was getting frustrated me and my wife couldn’t (yet) get up and go how we wanted to anymore. He was still dealing with separation anxiety and projectile shitting everywhere. (His play space often looked like a man made of chocolate was struck with a chainsaw.)

One thing me and my wife used to do before we had gotten him at that point was just go sit by the lake near our house. She’d journal and I’d read or write, or listen to a podcast. But, over those weeks of having him when he was struggling with being with us, that stopped. 

Then weeks later, something happened. One morning, I was working on a short piece, when Teddy walked up to me and tapped me with his nose, and made eye contact with me. And waited.

And waited.

then I moved my arm, and he sat in my lap while I wrote. 

He’d go on to do that several more times over the months, and over time, we bonded. I made up a nighttime ritual with him. I’d pick him up and walk around his sleep area, then turn off the lights using his paw with my free hand. Then I’d place him in his bed and let him know that me and my wife would come back for him in the morning; we were just going upstairs. Then I’d place his toy turtle in the open space near him, and pet behind his ear until he closed his eyes.

He stopped whimpering at night after a while.

I could understand his nonverbal cues, and he began to listen to me and my wife. He’d start to curl up by my feet when I wrote, and he’d turn on his back. I’d then take one of my feet and lightly rub his belly with the tips of my toes while he twisted and smiled underneath. Or at least I think he was smiling. I’d like to think he was. We started watching dog documentaries together, too. I knew he was just looking at the other dogs on the screen, but a part of me likes to think he retained a little something-something about his species’ history. That he knew once upon a time his species were fiercest, giant wolves, who came out from the forest one day, when they realized humans would never hurt them.

Whenever I was stressed from writing, it was like he knew. He’d come curl up in my lap, or across my arms while I was typing, like he did as a baby, and breathe out lightly; not moving, not even really sleeping. Just… laying there. Sometimes licking my palm, other times, just rubbing the inside of his neck against my forearm. All the same, his presence was calming. 

I’ll stop waxing poetic and get on to what the hell my teacup poodle has to do with my writing career. 

Having a dog after years of fearing them made me realize how foolish it is to succumb to fears and what-ifs. 

In the year-plus since we’ve had Teddy, I’ve done two readings; I’ve been asked to do several interviews and have said yes; I’ve taken the world’s wildest swings with my writing, not resting on the style that has worked in the past. Having Teddy made me realize if I could let an animal into my home that I once feared, and end up loving it, then what have I been allowing fear to hold me back from in the past? 

I was once hindered by my fear of what the worst thing that could possibly happen was. 

What if I go to a reading and stumble over my words? 

What if I did an interview and the interviewer didn’t find me interesting? 

What if I wrote a story that was too personal, and embarrassed myself? 

What if, what if, what if. 

But what if you did that thing you’re so scared of, and nothing happened? What if on the other side of that fear is everything you ever wanted? What if you learned what I did: fear is nothing more than a self-imposed cage that we delude ourselves into thinking is a shield. We think it’s protecting us, when really, it’s a thick ass wall blocking out the opportunities coming our way. 

If I didn’t make my point clear then let me spell it out to you: if I can go from someone who refers to gentle giants such as Great Danes as “affronts to god”, you can go do that reading; solicit that agent; join that writer’s group; submit to that fellowship. 

I’ll be doing the same. As far as my return to the lake? 

My wife and I don’t have time to go together for now. We’ve been busy lately: we’re expecting a child, and she’s been overseeing the building of our house. I’m taking care of Teddy, amongst other household duties. But I go to the lake when I have the time. I go and marvel at the lake, but this time when I go, I have my little buddy scampering at my side, likely trying to eat duck poop, reminding me that fear is nothing more than an illusion; and sometimes, when you put yourself out there, amazing things can happen. 

The Pike Boys by Danny Cherry Jr.

Danny Cherry Jr.

Danny Cherry Jr. is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and sometimes journalist. He is a frequent contributor to Antigravity Magazine, and has written for: Buzzfeed News, Politico, and The Daily Beast; and published fiction for Apex Magazine, Fiyah Lit Mag, amongst others. 

His story “Brief Life Story of Lila” was added to the Locus Magazine recommended reading list for 2022, as well as the BEST AMERICAN SCI-FI & FANTASY 2023 notable stories list. His recently released debut novel, The Pike Boys, is a historical crime drama based in 1920s NOLA.

Follow Danny on Twitter (X), TikTok, Instagram, and 
BlueSky @DeeCherryWriter.

Sign up for his newsletter: