Today it hit me like a shot to the duodenum: I turn 36 in a few months. 36’s almost 40. 40’s almost dead.
I also realized I haven’t lived at the same address for consecutive birthdays since I was in my 20s. This will be my 7th straight birthday somewhere new from the year before. Accepting that one is aging and noting a propensity for upheaval in one’s domestic tempo are changes that speak to an evolving, maturing individual. On the other hand, as Gandhi famously said, “the internet is a bitch that must be bedded on a mattress of cute pics of doggies and kitties.” So instead of evolving, I’m gonna share my history with pets, and hope that it inspires you to share your own…petstories? That’s right. Petstories. We’re reclaiming the word.
So, pets I’ve known and, in some cases, loved…
–BLUE & GREEN PARAKEETS #1 & #2 (NO NAMES; DIED TOO QUICKLY)
I don’t remember much about these birds. I was young. In fact, the main reason I remember them is because they both died the same day, which led to:
–BLUE & GREEN PARAKEETS #3 & #4 (ALSO DIED RATHER QUICKLY. HMM……)
This is Parenting 101, whether deliberate or not. Nothing spells “subtext of power” to a child quite like witnessing your parents bringing in ringers for newly dead family members. If the parakeets were expendable, we were all expendable. Mutually-assured obsolescence is thicker than water.
Ebony was a black mutt. She was my first dog and thus I cannot help but remember three things about her: that she used to turn in circles before settling into a dirt circle in front of the gray stoop in our backyard; that one day my little sister was not paying attention to the half-eaten hot dog in her hand, yet Ebony was, and that Ebony took the hot dog out of my sister’s hand and she, a mere toddler, followed Ebony into the garage and got her hot dog back, an end whose means led Ebony to take a bite in my sister’s direction; after that, we never saw the dog again.
King was a bad-ass. A Siberian husky whose eyes glowed in the dark like wolves’, King killed pretty much any animal that ever appeared in our yard. I once saw him catch a bird in mid-air and rip it to shreds with his paw. King was cool.
Shortly after we moved upstate, he became very lethargic. My parents told us we were going to have to put him down. The afternoon it happened, I left home on my bike and rode as far away as I could. I stayed out late–it was cold, but I didn’t want to confront King’s absence. That night my parents told us countless tumors had spread throughout King’s body; putting him down had been the only humane choice. They also told us one reason King had so many tumors was because we hadn’t taken him for walks as often as we should have. Having your kids believe for years that the first dog they ever loved (it’s true, Ebony) died because they didn’t walk it enough? Very much not Parenting 101.
In elementary school, I was in the “gifted” program. On Long Island in the 1980s, this meant our clumsy-attempt-at-sensitivity-name was M.A.L., or “More Able Learners.” We were having MAL class in a computer lab on the 2nd floor of my elementary school (we were learning how to use axis codes to create colors and designs on Apple 2E computers. These were the desktops of yesteryear, the type of console that puts hair on your chest).
Mrs. West was speaking when a bird flew in through the window. There’s something exciting on a hormonal level when you’re a kid and you come into unexpected proximity with an animal that can’t hurt you. Animals, even wild animals, seem closer somehow when you’re 8, in a way they never are again. So the 8 or so of us in class were so incredibly excited by this shocking development that Mrs. West gave up any pretense of class that day and decreed that the bird, which was safely ensconced in an upper book shelf, should be examined by this animal expert who happened to be visiting another class in our school that day. He came by and identified the bird was an African finch–we were scandalized with excitement: this bird had come all the way to Uniondale from Africa?!
As if all this wasn’t enough excitement, Mrs. West topped it all: the first student who received parental permission–she emphasized “parental” meant only a mother/father/legal guardian–could keep the finch as a pet. Two of us straight-up booked down the hall and down the stairs, toward the 1st floor pay phone. Me and Jamie Rodriguez.
You have to understand. I loved Jamie Rodriguez.
She wasn’t my first crush. My first was this redheaded girl in my nursery school who died over Thanksgiving: dinner was nearly ready; she was running through the kitchen; her grandfather had the carving knife in hand, she came running up behind him, he happened to turn around…
Jamie wasn’t my biggest elementary school crush–for sheer intensity, that was (and always will be) Tanya Mrowka; for crush-de-contrast, Symantha Watson, who was amazing at math and who sometimes finished her tests even faster than I did, which drove me nuts and drove me wild–Symantha was highly intelligent and highly attractive, and ever since her if a girl’s good at math or science, I get all tipsy over her.
Jamie Rodriguez was the kind of girl you had a crush on because she was the same height as you, and she ran about as fast as you, and she was smart and she was white-skinned from a Spanish-speaking family, too. She was cute, and she was smart, and she was a few feet in front of me and she was gonna get to the pay phone first. You have to understand. I loved Jamie Rodriguez. And I didn’t want this bird to get between two people who could one day enter a meaningful relationship. So I waited for her right foot to land and I kicked it, tripping Jamie. She fell face-first–teeth-first, technically–into the footstool below the pay phone. Bloody-mouthed Jamie was being helped into the nurse’s office while I was on the phone with my confused grandmother, telling her the good news about the new pet bird I needed someone to buy a cage for. I lost Jamie Rodriguez forever. But the finch, who I named Finchy (I’m a writer!), lived with me for about 10 years, and then I gave him to my grandmother, who lived with him for years. Matthew 1. Jamie 0.
–MAX & BUN-BUN
We had two rabbits for a while. Max was black, and very large. Bun-Bun was white, and super tiny. The veterinarian told us we couldn’t let Max impregnate Bun-Bun because the offspring would be too large and kill her. One day my father wasn’t around and my mother and sister started screaming from downstairs. I ran downstairs, ready to sow my man-of-the-house oats. The commotion was over the bunnies. Max was having sex with Bun-Bun. My mother told me I had to stop it. There are moments in one’s life one knows one will write about one day. I knew on some level I would never forget the day my mother insisted I stop two rabbits from having sex. Actually, there’s probably only one level to take that on. Whatever. Have you ever tried to stop two rabbits from having sex? It’s not the kind of sensation one forgets. Ever tried pushing two magnets with the same poles toward each other? There’s that weird, invisible resistance? Well, imagine that sensation inverting itself via a rupturing ulcer, and that’s what breaking up hot rabbit action feels like.
It’s not easy. Becoming a man.
Thunder was the coolest dog ever. He died before he turned 2. He was German shepherd, 150 pounds and all of it muscle. I’ll write his story somewhere someday. He hemorrhaged to death in my arms. Kept bleeding and bleeding and bleeding. Covered the whole kitchen floor. My father was away, in Puerto Rico. I will never forget dropping Thunder’s corpse into my mother’s trunk, or how cold it was that night, and how hard it was for the two of us to physically get it into the trunk. Turned out the a-hole neighbor’s kids, the ones who’d claimed the dog scared them, tossed a bunch of crap into Thunder’s run/kennel, and he swallowed some, which led to the hemorrhage.
Not too long after Thunder, we got another German shepherd puppy. Named him Shadow. Cute dog. One night I was home alone, trying to practice the piano for an upcoming audition. Shadow, who was confined to the kitchen behind a little fence, kept barking. And barking. And barking. And I was trying to block it out and focus on the music–it was Chopin’s Raindrop prelude–and I couldn’t. He just wouldn’t stop barking.
After a few failed attempts to start the piece up again, I snapped, strode to the fence Shadow was stuck behind, and told him off. And he foamed at the mouth. Lots. In a few hours, he was dead.
The breeder who said Shadow’d gotten his shots for epilepsy had lied. Nope. Shadow had to be put down.
So at this point I’ve been told one dog died ‘cuz I didn’t walk him enough, a second bled to death in my arms, and now a third had a seizure right after I yelled at it and soon died. We need a revolution.
Lucien was my one and only cat. I’m not a cat person. I don’t know if I’m a pet person at all, really. I said before I’m cool either way with having kids. Pets are like kids, except they’re pretty much guaranteed to die within 15 years. Losing loved ones doesn’t get easier. Love lost is life loss.
Shadow died when I was in 10th grade. I didn’t have a pet for a while. Then when my parents’ marriage began to fall apart, I was punching out of a shift at work when I saw a girl holding a box full of black-and-white extra-toed kittens. I asked if we could meet the following night. We did, I took the runt of the litter (who climbed up on my head), and voila: Lucien.
Lucien pretty much covered my twenties. I was 20 when I got her and I was 29 or 30 when she died. People told me I’d love having a cat ‘cuz they’re cleaner than dogs. Not true. Cats are gross. They puke so much I suspect at least a few of them are emetophiliacs (vomit fetishists). Their poop causes schizophrenia. There are entire spectrums of light only known to the human eye because cat hair gets into them, because it gets into everything. When humanity makes first contact with aliens, there will be cat hair somewhere on the alien ships. Probably all over their nicest sweaters.
Lucien was super, super cool. Every cat she ever spent any time around, she dominated that shit. I saw her fuck up dogs. The only animal she was ever afraid of, oddly enough, was a pet rat belonging to a college housemate. When I’d play the piano, she’d lay down near the foot of the piano, where the sound vibrates out. When I stopped playing, she’d come rub on my leg and make noises. She wanted me to keep playing. If I didn’t play, she’d keep circling and making little cries; once I started playing, she’d lay down again by my feet and just chill their the whole time.
When she got sick it came out of nowhere. For 10 years she never had a single health issue, then suddenly one day my three-year old niece announced “Lulu’s sick,” and then I saw Lucien leap up on the chair she napped on, but she couldn’t make the jump and she landed awkwardly–cats look awful when they don’t land like cats. The vet didn’t think there was anything they could do. There was one procedure they could try, for like $600. I wasn’t working at the time and I didn’t have $600. The doctor repeated that there was no guarantee it would have helped any. But I always remember what that tasted like. Having life & death flattened into one-half of an equation. That shit’s taste’s distinct.
I dug her grave on a frigid winter day. The ground was hard. That seemed fair.
Sydney came the same year Lucien did: 1999. That was the last year my family lived in the house we’d been in since 1988. It was the last year my parents’ marriage felt like anything other than past tense. Sydney was one of the last gift’s my father gave my mother while they were together. He’s grown into a history and significance all his own, which was really rather clever of him because if you’ve ever lived with a cockatiel you know that they are capable of piercing shrieks that are like cold slivers of steel puncturing your brain. So the fact that Sydney is still alive all these years later is cool to me because it’s something that’s survived from when my parents were still together. I was going to take him off my mom’s hands a few weeks ago and bring him to live with me on LI, but my apartment gets super-cold and cockatiel’s get cold in any thing below 70.
So I remain pet-less. Just me and some cacti and memories of one kid and maybes of maybe more.
Do you have petstories? Who was your biggest crush in elementary school? Ever broken up a sex act? I have–with bunnies and in my professional capacity! Share your stories! Por favor!