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His Heart on His Sleeve

Day of fun in the shallows turns into a most unexpected deeper life lesson

My husband lost his shirt. My clothes are drenched. My dog is dry.

The day had not gone as planned.

Earlier, my husband and I arrived at Austin’s Zilker Metropolitan Park with our shepherd-mix rescue dog, Dana, hoping to ease her into loving water by seeing other dogs swim. We chose a popular swimming hole on Barton Creek between Barton Springs Pool and Lady Bird Lake. Unfenced and free of charge and rules, “Barkin’ Springs” is where the city’s counterculture, riffraff and dog lovers clash.

We enter the fray on the south side of the tributary, where a concrete pad slopes into a blue-green pool that is a melting pot of waders, lovers, children, vagabonds and dogs of every shape, size and color. My husband tosses a tennis ball into a swirl of water below a dam. Instead of fetching, Dana plants her paws on dry ground and pants after her toy.

She loves her ball, but not as much as she hates getting wet.

I kick off my shoes, roll up my blue jeans and step in. The 68-degree spring water almost stings my toes as I navigate over stones to retrieve the ball. Dana whines as it bobs away on the frothy waves. Then helpless, we both watch as a Lab paddles by and gobbles it up. Her ball is lost in a sea of humanity and canines.

In this swirl, a dog must retrieve and defend its toy with zeal. So must the human, we learn. Across the creek, we observe a man interrupt a woman’s game by continually snatching up and throwing her dog’s toy. The blue heeler can’t resist diving in again and again.

Wanting Dana to have the same verve, I find a stray ball and try to tempt her into the water. I tiptoe onto the rock and algae-covered creek bed and wave it in front of her nose. She nips at the ball with bare teeth as she leans over the water as far as she can without getting wet.

A step deeper and I slip, falling all the way down the bank onto my back. In about a foot of water, I am drenched from the shoulders down. Dana stands nearby watching me, nonchalant and dry.

Regaining my bearings, I look to my mate for sympathy. Instead, his face says, “Let’s go.” Blue heeler and company have swum to our side, and my husband is sizing up the man insisting on fetch while the dog’s owner is trying leave. She just isn’t fast enough to get between her dog and the insensitive stranger.

I’m struggling to put on socks and Converses over my wet feet when I see the stranger fling the toy into the deep one last time. He cackles and dances on the sidelines as the blue heeler scrambles after.

Now, my husband steps between the man and the dog long enough for the woman to leash her pet and leave. I’m still fumbling with my shoelaces, impaired by wet jeans and pruny fingers.

The stranger fixes a wild eye on his interceptor. Wet from swimming, the man shivers and chatters nonsense through what remains of his teeth. Water drips from rivers of gray-streaked curls onto his slender body. He steps closer, and my husband lifts his left arm in defense.

Still approaching, the man makes a final plea. It’s incoherent to me, but my husband drops his stance.

“You want my shirt?” he asks with disbelief.

“Yeah, man,” the stranger replies plainly, rubbing his bare chest. “I’m freezing.”

In one move, my husband pulls off the T-shirt he had won at a mixed martial arts competition and hands it to the stranger. “Here,” he says, gruff and still at a distance.

The man’s eyes grow wide as he takes it. He giggles as he hangs the XL shirt on his bony frame, pointing to the skull silhouette decal, showing everyone who will look.

“Let’s go,” my husband says aloud. This time, I’m on my feet and Dana’s on her leash.

We three—husband shirtless, me soaked, Dana dry—walk away in silence. The day had not gone as planned. We’d embarked hoping for a doggy swimming lesson; we left with a lesson in humanity.

A way up the trail, I venture a whisper. “That was one of your favorites.”

“I think when someone asks for your shirt,” my husband says, shrugging his bare shoulders, “you gotta give it to ’em.”

Suzanne Haberman is a staff writer.