Virtuous
Author:M.S. Force

I love every stinky, icy, frigid inch of it. While others hide out inside, I take to the streets with my dog, Fluff, on a leash. Her full name is Fluff-o-Nutter, but don’t judge me. I was nine when I named her after my favorite food group at the time, and fourteen years later, she’s still my most faithful companion and the one tie to my old life that I brought to my new life. She goes everywhere with me, except school.

 

I tried to get her in there—once—but was stopped at the door by stone-faced Mrs. Heffernan, who told me school is no place for animals. Even after I swore I’d keep her under my desk and out of the way all day, the answer was still no. She cited health codes and rulebooks, her spittle hitting me under my left eye. Taking Fluff home cost me a personal day, and I swear Mrs. Heffernan still checks under my desk every day when I’m on recess or dismissal duty, just to make sure Fluff isn’t there.

 

Because I can’t take my twenty-pound baby to school with me, I hired a dog walker to care for her during the day. That’s working out well, except for the time Fluff bit one of the poodles. The dog walker was irked, but I’m certain poor Fluff was only defending herself. She was quite indignant and put out by the entire incident. I told her she has to behave herself or get stuck inside all day if the dog walker fires us.

 

Fluff has behaved admirably ever since.

 

I’m rewarding her good behavior today with a long walk through the Village. The wind is bitingly cold and snow flurries fill the air on this early January day. It’s the kind of bitterly cold New York day that keeps even the hardiest of souls inside, so Fluff and I have Bleecker Street mostly to ourselves.

 

As I’m still somewhat new to the city, everything about it fascinates the girl from Nebraska. I love the architecture and the chaos as well as the taxicabs and the bikes that zigzag the streets on even the coldest of days. I love the stylish women who put together amazing outfits I’d never conceive of on my own, the handsome men, the diversity, the dreadlocks, the tattoos, the music, the theater, the piercings and the food. I despise the poverty, the homeless sleeping outside, the grime, the graffiti. Overall, I love a whole lot more than I hate.

 

My roommate made fun of me for weeks when I first arrived because I gave money to every poor person I encountered. She told me I’d be broke before Christmas if I kept that up. So I stopped, but my heart still breaks every time I walk by someone in need, because I wish I could help them all. Most of all, I love that I feel safe here. If you’re someone who worries the city is dangerous, you’ll think that sounds crazy. But when you’ve survived what I have, safety is relative. The way I look at it, for every one person who might hassle you on the street, there’re a hundred good people nearby who’d come to your aid. I take comfort in that.

 

I window-shop my way from one end of Bleecker to the other, lingering outside Marc Jacobs before the cold forces me on my way. A first-year teacher can only dream about shopping at Marc Jacobs, so there’s no point going inside, not to mention they’d freak about Fluff being in there.

 

Standing still is not an option today. My face is so cold at this point, it’s gone numb, and I have the start of an ice-cream headache without the pleasure of the ice cream. I’m thinking about heading home to the cozy apartment I share with one of my colleagues when activity in the playground at the end of the street catches my attention.

 

“Let’s see what’s going on, Fluff.” We head toward the park, Fluff pulling hard on her leash, though I can’t tell whether she’s hot on the trail of a scent or a sight. I’ve learned to let her investigate these things or put up with her pouting all day. She’s freakishly strong for a little old dog, and I find myself nearly jogging to keep up with her.

 

I’m not quite sure how to describe what happens next. All I know is one minute we’re trotting along until I slide on a patch of ice, teetering for a moment between disaster and recovery. By the time I regain my feet under me, Fluff has taken advantage of my momentary loss of balance to bust loose. Her leash goes flying out of my hand, and she takes off like a shot, making for the gate to the park on tiny legs that move with puppy-like speed.

 

Fears of her fragile body being crushed under the wheel of a taxi keep me running as fast as I can, calling her name as I go. She rounds a corner and disappears for a horrifying second before I make the turn into the park and bring her back into view. I’m laser-focused on her and terrified of her clearing the other side of the park and dashing into traffic.

 

“Fluff! Stop! Stop!” I run so hard my lungs are burning from the cold and the exertion. My eyes are tearing, also from the cold, as well as the sheer terror that my defenseless little dog is going to end up as roadkill if I don’t get to her—fast. “Fluff!”