So my friend NeighborMom and her family are taking a much-deserved vacation to Rome and Capri. Before they leave, I run into her husband and make a whole-hearted and genuine offer to feed their dog while they are gone. My kids love dogs and I think it would be great for Tall and Short to have this experience of helping out the neighbor.
NeighborDad graciously thanks me for the offer and says the dog will be staying with his sister who lives an hour away and has a dog too, but could we feed their other pets? Uh, wait, what other pets? I didn’t know they had other pets. Do they have a gorilla locked up in their basement? A caged talking parrot that Tall has neglected to mention after his many playdates over there?
How bad can it be? If that phrase is echoing in your head, then the answer is: much much worse than you thought.
They have a pet lizard. I have a huuuuuuuuuge fear of lizards that goes back to this one time when I was in a hotel in Australia and a lizard ran across my pillow and over my face. I had been in that groggy moment where I was thisclose to being asleep. I was so terrorized by this lizard (Gecko? whatever) that I could not go back to sleep. I knew that he was going to bite me and give me some Deadly Disease or possibly eat my eyeballs. To this day, I still have nightmares with giant lizards taking the starring role.
So, when NeighborDad says “lizard”, I just laugh out loud because I think maybe I must have told Neighbor Mom my Australia story and maybe she had told her husband because it was funny and now maybe it was all an Inside Joke and he was taking it full circle to get me to laugh like how does he know about my crazy fear of lizards?
No. NeighborDad does not understand why I am laughing, and he takes my laughing (wrongly) as an indication of my happy-go-lucky nature and my wonderful-approach-to-life.
Do you know what lizards eat (besides Flight Attendant eyeballs)? I did not know either, and NeighborDad was going to show me. “Just pop over tomorrow afternoon while we are packing and I will give you a quick reptorial.” Did he just say “reptorial”?
I show up with my assistant, Tall. We are ready to learn All Things Lizard. Since it is 4 PM, I have had a glass of chardonnay as a precautionary measure and am ready to tackle whatever NeighborDad and Lizard have in store for me. (Obviously, this Feeding Of The Lizard is a job I normally would have pawned off on The Husband. Fortuitously for him, he was out of town for work.)
We walk into their foyer, which is fairly small, just enough room for a little table. The floor is covered in a breath-taking mosaic pattern of ocean waves. Thousands of teeny tiny tiles form this elaborate masterpiece. That they walk on everyday. With their feet. (Wow, I realize I have never actually been inside before! I mostly drop off Tall or pick up Tall from a playdate.) This floor belongs in a museum. I am almost afraid to walk on it.
Tall and I follow NeighborDad upstairs to see the habitat of the lizard. Just a glass box. Ahhh, he is 100% contained. So far, so good. Then, we go into the laundry room to get the special food. On the counter, I see what looks like hamster food—a bag of seeds and dried corn and pieces of wheat. Of course! Lizards normally live outside, and this is the type of food you find in a field. THEY EAT EXACTLY THE SAME THING THAT HAMSTERS EAT. I breathe a big sigh of relief. This is going to be easy!
I pick up the bag of hamster food. See, I know what I am doing! I don’t need a “reptorial” on how to feed a lizard. Just dump the hamster-style food in the glass box, done.
NeighborDad watches me hugging the hamster food and gives me what can only be described as a quizzical look. “MOV, we will feed Gertie the Gerbil afterwards. She’s easy. Let’s feed Arizona the Lizard first.”
Wait, there are two pets now?
I put the hamster, I mean gerbil, food back. I look around. What does the lizard eat then? laundry detergent? dryer sheets? NeighborDad picks up a square plastic holder. It looks like something you might put art supplies in. Sure enough, there is a piece of a cardboard egg carton in there. Acckkk! There are bugs in there! Large bugs! Grasshoppers!
“…. other day, and then just check their water. Got it?”
Is he talking to me? I look over at Tall. I send him a typical mental telepathy message, “Were you just paying attention? because I wasn’t.” Tall is ignoring me because he has decided it is a good time to go through NeighborKid’s toy bin to compare Star Wars items.
So I ask NeighborDad, “Are you saying I have to give Texas these dead grasshoppers?”
NeighborDad smiles a tight smile. I know he is instantly regretting (as am I) accepting my offer to feed their pets. I can read on his face: you were a Flight Attendant for 10 years? you made people feel safe and you really knew what to do in an emergency?
He takes a deep breath and he switches gears. He is talking to me patiently, slowly, and kindly, like you might talk to someone who looks perfectly normal but you just found out to be mentally-challenged.
“MOV. The lizard’s name is Arizona, not Texas. She eats crickets. But not dead ones. They must be alive. If you give her dead ones, they will make her sick. They must be alive.”
“Okay, got it.” Come on, MOV! You have changed a thousand poopy diapers. What is a cricket or two compared to that on the Yucky Scale Of Gross Things? “I dump all those crickets in the glass box and Arizona will eat them. I check her water. Uhh, do I have to change out the area where she, uhhh, poops?” please say no please say no please say no.
“Oh, God, no! Are you kidding? Ha ha! We are so grateful that you and Tall are doing this favor for us. But, please, do not dump ALL the crickets in. That is too much and you will also run out if you do that. Just about 2 or 3 every other day. It is better not to dump them out. Use these special tweezers instead.”
I look at Arizona. She blinks up at me: my life is in your hands, MOV, don’t screw this up.
I had not looked closely at Arizona before. She is mostly a greenish-brown, but her tail is coming off and she looks as if she has a strange skin disorder. What is left of her tail has turned pink.
Great, I think, she is going to die of her Mysterious Skin Disorder while my neighbors are on vacation. Welcome home! Here’s your mail, and by the way, Arizona is dead. I don’t think I have much chance of winning the trophy for Best Pet-Sitter Ever.
As if he is reading my mind (or notices that I am riveted by Arizona’s tail), NeighborDad says, “Don’t worry about her tail. That’s normal: she is shedding.”
Ahh, of course! That’s what reptiles do, isn’t it? that’s what makes them reptiles. I remember that (vaguely) from my 8th grade science class. Come to think of it, maybe I was absent that day.
Now we head into the other room to meet the gerbil and learn how to feed her (which will obviously be a piece of cake compared to Arizona). NeighborDad is telling me I need to dump out the food bowl first before I refill it and while he is talking and I am trying to suppress my ADD tendencies……………….. a terrible thought enters my brain.
“Uh, NeighborDad? Umm, back to the lizard: do the crickets ever try to, you know, hop away? like out of the container before I even have a chance to grab them with the tweezers?” Even asking the question is making me queasy.
“MOV, of course the crickets hop away! You just have to be careful. If. One. Gets. Away. You. Catch. It.” Again with the we-chose-the-wrong-pet-sitter slow talk.
I must really like these friends. Or I must be really dumb. I am not sure which one yet.
Tall puts the Star Wars paraphernalia away and we get ready to leave. NeighborDad hands me the keys, which share space on the silver key chain with a decorative small blue tile that is painted with an intricate fleur-de-lis pattern. Molto Italiano.
He smiles and says, “Thanks again, MOV, for doing this. It’s really nice of you. We appreciate it. And…… I know you’ll be great at feeding them!” Again with the misplaced confidence.
The first day, we pull off without incident. We pick up the mail and put it on the kitchen counter near the sink with the gorgeous hand-painted tile backsplash. I study the details of this magnificent design. It looks like something from a church, a Really Famous Church where people go to pray but get distracted thinking, wow—pretty stunning tile Jesus has over here!
I want my kitchen to look like this, maybe I should take some pictures? I think my cell phone has a built-in camera in it. Would NeighborDad and NeighborMom be mad if I took a picture of their sink? Is that weird? My Good Sense (what tiny sliver of it there is) gets the better of me, and I decide to ask them after they get home if I can take a photo of their tile-work. We focus on the task at hand, as opposed to the hand-painted tile. Tall assists with watering the plants.
The gerbil is very happy to see us and Tall does a great job giving her the special mix of seeds and wheat and corn. Then, Tall feeds Arizona exactly two live crickets and she gobbles them up quickly. Walking home, Tall says merrily, “This is the best day of my life!” and then, “Can we get a lizard?” For a split-second, I think sure.
That night, though, I have what can only be described as a Premonition Dream. NeighborDad and NeighborMom get back from vacation early. They walk in on me just as I am feeding the gerbil the last of the crickets. A stuffed parrot has come to life and is making a mess shedding colorful feathers made of tiles everywhere. In the background, Tall and Short are doing back-flips with the lizard on NeighborKid’s race-car bed and they are all brandishing Star Wars light sabers (even the lizard, although hers is a bit smaller).
NeighborMom glares at me in disgust and says, “I thought we told you not to let the lizard out of the cage,” and then to her husband, “When did we get the parrot?”
NeighborDad whispers to her, “Maybe we should consider moving.” He looks me in the eye and finishes the thought, “To a galaxy far far away.”
I wake up in a cold sweat.
Like the dream, the next day does not go smoothly.
First, I cannot find their keys. I tear the house apart, and eventually Tall says he thinks he saw them in the car. That makes no sense whatsoever. We live just a few houses away from them, we would have walked there so why would the keys be in the car? After 45 minutes of searching, I’m at the point of giving up in despair. I see a glimmer of blue tile poking out from under the backseat. Maybe Short was playing with the key chain? maybe he has a tile fetish like his mommy? Regardless, it looks like we were so lazy that we drove to their house last time to feed the pets.
Our entrance to the house is blocked by a pyramid of boxes (is this still part of my dream?). As I carry in their packages, I am reminded as to what NeighborDad does for a living: he owns his own company which distributes hand-painted tiles from Italy. The. Boxes. Are. Full. Of. Tiles. The tiles are very very heavy, and I also know they are fragile.
I struggle to bring them in without accidentally dropping any of them (26 boxes in all) and then I start to wonder if I was supposed to put them in the garage. That is not going to happen. They sit in the foyer, like an abandoned Andy Warhol project gone hopelessly awry. (As a delusional aside: I wonder if NeighborDad would notice if one or possibly two of the boxes went mysteriously “missing”?)
Tall is already at the kitchen sink helping me to put water in the watering can for the plants. The watering can slips from his 6-year-old grasp and water goes all over everything, including the mail. Damn it. I try to dry off their mail as best I can, and I whisper I’m sorry to the drenched Travel & Leisure with the picture of Venice on the front cover. The water in the photo looks especially, uh, "realistic" now.
We go upstairs. Today, Tall wants to take the gerbil out of the cage to pet it. Absolutely not, I insist, as a nod to last night’s Evil Dream Sequence. We feed the gerbil and are walking out of the room when we notice a frog. The frog is in a small tank with some plants.
Was I supposed to feed the frog? am I still in the dream? I start to feel panicky. When I was sucked into the Mental Vortex of oh-my-god-lizards-eat-crickets, did I just not hear the part about the frog?
How many pets do these people have?
Tall looks at the frog, then back at me. “It’s a good thing we don’t have to feed Kermie!”
Wait, what do you mean? do frogs not eat? are they like, uh, statues? or camels? “Tall, did NeighborDad mention the frog?” I say as nonchalantly as possible, given the circumstances.
“Yeah, he said that Kermie lives in his own little eco-system which means that the plant provides him with food and he provides the plant with oxygen and they are self-sustaining and don’t need any outside interference.” Times like this, I'm so glad Tall watches all those Nature Shows on the Discovery Channel.
Into the bathroom. Hello, Arizona! The tail looks good today, lovely shade of lavender. We retrieve the box of crickets, and Tall stands by anxiously, tweezers ready. We open the box cautiously and one Olympic Hero flings himself out. Jeez! What do we do now? My first instinct of course is the wrong one: I try to step on him.
Tall screeches, “Mom! The lizard won’t eat crickets that are dead!”
I know our cricket supply is running low. Tall is right: if I kill this escapee instead of catching him, we will definitely run out of food before our shaky stint as pet-sitters is up. My next thought is: what if cricket lays eggs or splits in two and clones itself or however they reproduce and there are baby crickets everywhere when NeighborFamily gets back? They will never trust me again, and they will know that I cannot follow even simple instructions.
We have no choice. We corner the cricket. HOP! Man, those things can jump! Almost got you….. HOP! HOP!!! Angry HOP! We are chasing this silly cricket around the bathroom like we are on some sort of Game Show on TV: if you catch the cricket, you will win five lizards and a lifetime supply of free crickets!
Carelessly, we have left the box of crickets unattended and several more have managed to hop out as well. HOP! HOP-HOP-HOP! We are part of the Anti-Gravity Experiment. HOP!!!!
After what seems like an hour, but looking at my watch I confirm is around 7 minutes, we find all the crickets and return them to their box. I am exhausted. I catch Tall’s eye in the giant mirror bordered in silver miniature tiles.
He says slowly, “Mom, remember yesterday when I said it was the best day of my life?” He smiles slyly, “I was wrong. Today is.”
(“Mentally On Vacation”)