Being Dalva Northridge


Department of Sex Ed

Jim Harrison's portrait of Dalva Northridge.

It wasn’t my idea to have sex while the dog watched. It was Jim Harrison’s.

I was reading a scene near the end of Harrison’s novel Dalva, when Dalva Northridge meets a Native-American cowboy named Sam Creekmouth and ends up having bourbon-fueled trailer sex with him. During their rib-bruising lovemaking session, Dalva’s pup howls along. “That dog music’s a real mood swinger,” says Sam.

I had discovered Harrison during a lonely summer abroad. His novel Returning to Earth, sent by my mother, was comfortingly American—full of Michigan glacier lakes and complicated delinquents. Now back in the States, I was reading everything he had written. He was a master of the unconventional character, and Dalva was queen among them.

I very much liked the idea of being entangled with a shirtless horseman who fried up post-sex bacon before skinny-dipping in a pond and said things like, “If I see another oilman, I might shoot the son of a bitch.”

There were some challenges: I was not a grand, reckless, independently wealthy beauty who rode bareback over the plains; I gagged at the smell of brown liquor, and grass-chewing rodeo riders were hard to come by in New York.

But I did have a dog. And from now on, I would not shut her away in another room during relations. This was potentially the first step to becoming as brave and earthy as Dalva.

Immediately, there were problems.

My dog did not howl along like Dalva’s, nor did she wander off to chew a bone in the other room. Instead, she interpreted my sexual encounters as playtime. When I turned my head mid-coitus, I found a spotted animal sitting upright just inches from my face. She was polite but persistent. She sneezed. She snorted. She let out a high-pitched yawn. She wanted somehow to be included.

I had imagined that I might feel that I was somehow offending my dog’s innocent sensibilities. Instead, it seemed that she was the real libertine here.

It escalated with each encounter. She pawed the mattress. She learned to sense a climax coming. Several times, overcome with excitement, she jumped straight up onto the pillows at the critical moment. One day, as a fellow tried to walk naked to the bathroom, she made a cheerful beeline for his groin, surely to take a gentle sniff. But human men can’t be reasonable with an animal’s mouth hurtling toward their balls. He darted back to bed.

“She went straight for it!” he screeched. No Sam Creekmouth, this guy.

But I felt that this was my entrée into a bohemian lifestyle, and I would not let go. Then, one day, I met my match: a man who had gone one step further than I had. Not only did he let his two enormous hounds watch us have sex, but he also allowed them on the bed.

“It’s their house,” he said when I suggested they temporarily lounge on the floor. Soon, my dog hopped up too. Now, the man and I were crushed together in a corner of the bed. The sheets bunched up; a pillow fell off. Without room for the left side of his body on the mattress, he balanced a foot on the floor, a hand on the wall.

This was bad for our backs.

Moments later, I reached my breaking point.

You’d think it was because a man was unwilling to remove his pets from the bed. You’d think maybe I wanted more than a sliver of space.

The truth is, our spectators had become accidental critics. And the reviews weren’t good.

Our audience, perched in front-row seats, fell asleep during the show. My dog, she of the hooting and jumping, shut her eyes. His two dogs stretched out and snoozed.

I recognize that dogs have no boundaries when it comes to sex: They don’t make love behind closed doors or value virginity. They don’t demand monogamy, and their courting rituals often involve a mere shift of the tail. In the history of a world, a dog has never been scandalized. And they simply can’t have a qualitative concept of human sexual chemistry.

But as those that live with pets know, despite all logic and theory, sometimes these creatures really do seem to be giving us the stink-eye, the cold shoulder, a knowing glance.

Sometimes they watch us too closely. Of course, we’re probably just transposing our insecurities and emotions onto them.

But still.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the dog, “but you’re cut off.” She seemed fine with that.

Turns out, that lack of dog music is a real mood swinger, too.

Justine van der Leun is the author of Marcus of Umbria.