My daughter wants a pet for Christmas. Pickle (aka Eirene) is five years old and has high hopes. She talks of ponies and large dogs, malamutes, huskies, Great Danes.
My wife Cathlin tried to bring her back to reality.
“How about a gerbil, dear?”
Pickle began to cry.
“A gerbil is a nice pet,” Cathlin said.
Pickle cried harder. She became inconsolable, walking around the house, her little shoulders heaving, head hung low, the sobs coming in thick and loud.
Usually Pickle is such a mild-mannered sort. We tried to talk it through with her. At first she could barely speak, but gradually her cries eased off, like a motor slowing down coming into the harbor.
“It’s not nice,” she said in between sniffles, “for a mommy to make up a fake animal when her daughter really wants a pet.”
My poor daughter, so deprived in her knowledge of the world of pets she doesn’t even know what a gerbil is. I felt like a bad father, because in truth, it is me who is holding the line against bringing animals in the house. Not that I was pet-deprived as a child. At various times my brother and I owned dogs, cats, rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs, boa constrictors, mice (to feed the snakes), a piranha, goldfish (to feed the piranha), turtles, chameleons, iguanas and parakeets. Our parents said no to a monkey and my brother and I pouted for a week.
No, the reason I do not want pets has almost nothing to do with the normal parental reservations, the added work and cost of another mouth to feed or fear of ticks coming into the house. It has to do with being 24 and not having a clue about what to do with my life. But how to tell a five-year-old that her father was once not a pillar of strength, at least that is the impression I like to think she has of me, but a mass of confusion. My entire existence back then felt like walking in the pitch-black dark, arms extended but not knowing what I would bump into next and how much it would hurt. And usually what I bumped into was an animal, of sorts.
I was living in New York city at the time, the place so many of us swam to after college, hoping it would show us who we were supposed to be. I had majored in economics and began working for a bank. It was what I thought I was supposed to do, but I soon discovered I disliked working at a bank even more than I had disliked studying banking. After about a year I quit and took the first job I found, something I had heard about at a party. It was for a nonprofit called New York Cares, an organization that helped busy New Yorkers find volunteering opportunities such as mentorships, helping out at soup kitchens or cleaning parks. I loved that job, not so much for the work, which was mostly menial, but for how it began changing my life. Gone was my 30th-floor cubicle and suit and tie. But also gone was my half-decent paycheck and ability to pay the rent.
To survive I began pet sitting in exchange for free places to stay. I lived this way for a year and a half, getting my fingers bit by birds I did not know and my bed visited by furry creatures whose names I would never remember. These pets were not mine and there was never enough time to grow to love their idiosyncrasies. They were mere conduits to a lifestyle I did not fully understand but that I took to with alarming gusto.
I had always played by the rules, acquiring academic degrees and medals in ways my parents could brag about. Now my parents didn’t even know how to find me. Friends had a hard time, too. These were the days when it was still possible to become totally lost or at least invisible, no cell phones or Facebook for me to broadcast my trail. No one knew where I lived because I didn’t either, not really. I changed apartments every few weeks. Keys were passed to me by doormen and secretaries, in lobbies I was not allowed to pass through, on street corners and in subway stations. And with each move I discovered a new neighborhood, owned new books, music, appliances, spices, plants. And of course, pets.
Oh, Pickle, I wish you had known me then, an explorer of sorts, who needed only a toothbrush and subway token to survive.
For a few weeks I lived in the East Village on a listless street where each morning upon leaving the apartment I had to step over a man passed out and smelling of beer, Chinese food and urine. I rejoiced among the brownstones and leafy avenues of the Upper West Side and then became one of the truly privileged by living in Gramercy Park and gaining access to its private garden. I explored Washington Heights where during a period in the 1980s the neighborhood was ruled by a Dominican drug lord named El Feo (the ugly). El Feo was eventually gunned down in front of his bodega but rose to rule again from his wheelchair, only to be gunned down once again for good. A neighbor told me the tale down in the laundry room. She wore a heavily-painted face and had a large bouffant hairdo on which a pet pigeon perched, bobbing its head in time to the rhythm of her voice.
Later I moved to an apartment on 190th and Broadway, located directly above Ortiz’s funeral home. It was summer, there was no air conditioning, and I was forced to keep the windows open even when blankets of embalming fluid floated through the window covering everything in the business of death.
Pickle, can you keep a secret? I still think about that apartment above the funeral home with a fondness I can’t explain.
So why then don’t I like pets? This memory was supposed to be about all the animals I took care of during a period in my life that turned me off from pets forever. It was supposed to be about Sophie, the country dog who refused to pee on asphalt and so made me walk her deep into Riverside Park each night where frequently I would have to interrupt her business because I was about to get mugged. It was supposed to be about Tom and Jerry, a pair of fiendish cats who rolled pencils across the hardwood floor each night, and no matter how much I searched I could never find their stash.
Instead, the memory is a fond one, taking me back to a time when I discovered the best way to find out what came next was to begin taking random steps, even if on the surface they seemed to make no sense. It was during this period that I finally gathered the courage to take my first writing class, something I had never done before, not in college or high school, and nothing was ever the same for me again.
If Pickle knew this she would surely be able to wrangle a pet out of me. “Dad, tell me again about El Feo, and, by the way, can I keep this rabbit that followed me home?”
But wandering around in the past is a journey that often leapfrogs from one scene to another. Now I am revisiting my 11-year-old self. I share a room with my older brother. We sleep in bunk beds, he on the top and me on the bottom. Up against one wall are our two desks and on another wall our two bureaus. We share the poster space, too, my pictures of Crazy Horse next to his rock stars.
We also share the family dog, Triscuit, or so my brother and the rest of the family thinks. If each one of us was polled I am sure we would come up with a reason as to why she favored one over the other. And yet I trump them all.
Every night at bedtime Triscuit comes to me and I hold the bedcovers up high enough so she can gain entry. She burrows deep down by my feet, curling up there and keeping my legs warm throughout the night. In the morning I crawl down under the covers to lie next to her, the two of us transformed into a large lump at the end of the bed.
Triscuit is a spirited dog who cries inconsolably whenever we leave her alone and then greets us with a dance of joy when we return. To know that even the worst day in junior high will end in Triscuit’s welcome home is like going forth into the world protected in a knight’s armor. After school I often read while lying on the floor with my head resting on her stomach. She is only three years old but it feels as if she has been with me forever.
One morning I wake up and hear Triscuit whimpering down by my feet. She thrashes about for a moment and then lays still. She has wet the bed and the sheets down by my feet are soggy. I curse her and shove her with my foot, but she doesn’t make a sound. I call to her but she doesn’t move. I peel back the covers. Triscuit looks fine, all curled up in a ball, but still she doesn’t respond. Then I notice her tongue hanging loosely out of her mouth.
I scream for my brother, my parents, for anyone to come. My father arrives, running through the door in his bathrobe, and quickly ushers me out of the room.
I don’t remember what happened to the body, how my father must have cleared it away without my seeing it. I don’t remember going back to my room to change out of my pajamas for school, or standing in my room, looking at the bed, empty now and the wet sheets removed. I don’t remember staring at the bed for a long time before my mother arrived to hug me and tell me she was so very sorry, her own eyes wet with tears. I don’t remember my own tears, either. What I do remember is never wanting or asking for another pet.
Oh, Pickle, I am sorry. Perhaps you are right and the time has come to get you your own furry creature to love. Now that the past has been raised up to the light, and the truth of the matter remembered so vividly, your father’s will is weakening.
Maybe on Christmas morning we shall sit by the fire, petting a Chinese dwarf hamster (best to start small), while I tell you these stories, about how your father was once a young man who found his sense of self by becoming hopelessly lost, and many years before that he was a boy whose every bone ached with such sadness he refused to take another chance.