Dogs named Frosty, Flipper, Mr. Sparkles, Comet, Clifford and Spud. Ferrets named Teddy, Granite, Aspen, Scotch, Gloria, Evian, and Zach. A hamster named Splat, but Spud ate it. Goats named Biscuit, Celebrate and Holiday. Cat named Poopsie. A chicken named Space, like Grayson’s middle name. Bunnies named Silver Stud and Hunny Bunny. Horses named Thyme, Buster, Perrier, Angel and Dolly.
When Grayson is in the pet store his eyes light up like a Fourth of July fireworks display. He taps the glass and hunches over to get eye to eye with the guinea pigs and fancy mice. He burbles his disgust at the reptiles with their beady eyes and scaled skin. He stares thoughtfully at the various fish aquariums, pondering aloud the benefits of owning fresh water versus saltwater fish. As we browse the aisles he jabbers without stopping about his many pets. Grayson turned twenty-four a few months ago but his childlike curiosity will never be outgrown.
He always talks about his pets. There was his nemesis Spud, his older sister’s poodle, which ate one of Grayson’s beloved pet ferrets. He likes to talk about how he used to wake up in the morning and pick up Teddy, Granite, Aspen, Scotch, Gloria, Evian, or Zach and sling its lanky body around his skinny neck and walk around the house. I don’t know how, but the subject of ferrets comes up frequently in conversation. Maybe he just works it in, so that he can reminisce about all of his furry friends. These days, his only pet is, well, me.
He likes to hold me behind the ears when he kisses me. I feel like I am a puppy held by its beloved master. I don’t object, I think it’s hilarious, and it’s better than if he wanted to touch my face since that grosses me out. Hands are loaded with bacteria. One time I reversed our roles, holding his face in my hands from behind his ears. He even looked like a little puppy, but only for a second because his shiny blue eyes took on such a look of confusion. His expression was one that said, “…waaaaait a minute!” I let go because I fell over laughing.
He had a Labrador named Flipper who followed him around like a shadow. Grayson would whistle and five dogs came hurtling from bushes to trot after him. My parents didn’t let my brother and I get a dog when we were kids. When I was old enough to read, I went to the library and wrote a report after researching what it would take to get a dog: what kind of shots it would need, whether it was a breed of dog that would do okay in a fenced yard, what kind of grooming it needed, how much food it ate. If I was a parent and my seven year old gave me a report like that, without any help or encouragement, I would be amazed. Then I’d buy that kid a litter of puppies right then. But no—my parents held steadfast to their claims that they didn’t want a dog to be alone all of the time while we were not home.
We were always home. It was bullshit.
We had gerbils: two little rodents with long furry tails and paper thin ears. One was all black with white stripes across its front paws. We named my brother’s Mittens. Mine was an obese thing that spent most of its time in the corner of its cage, munching on whatever fruit or lettuce leaf we fed it. This one was a menagerie of browns and whites: I named it Brownie. Very creative names.
I loved those damn rodents so much you would think they were my cousins or something. One time, after a weeklong family trip, I was so overjoyed to see those silly little gerbils buzzing around in their cage exactly as I had left them that I started crying. This moment was caught on video by my parents who were probably wondering whether they should put me in therapy right then, or wait until my teen years.
A year later when I found Mittens on her side, motionless and cold, I was horrified. Those damn gerbils had never sat still enough for me to ever be able to even pet them; they were always twitching around at warp speed. I reached in tentatively, and stroked her little body with the tip of my index finger for a few seconds. Brownie did not come near Mittens; she stayed in her corner, eating her feelings. I could barely pick Mittens without getting shivers. I stuck a shoebox halfway into the cage, and set its body in it; it must have been around August when my mom bought us new shoes for school, so there was an empty box lying around. I went into the backyard with one of my mom’s small gardening shovels, and dug a deep enough hole to push the box in. I quickly covered it up, threw some flower petals I hastily grabbed off of the ends of my some plants, and said a quick goodbye. I told my brother later that his gerbil had died. My brother was almost a teenager by then, so he didn’t really care. Or at least he pretended he didn’t.
When I try to talk to my best friends about how Grayson and I call each other silly names rather than mushy romantic pet names, they just kind of laugh awkwardly and look at each other sideways, like “What? You think that’s cute?” It tickles me when Grayson calls me an Australian swamp rat or fraggle breath. I don’t even know where he thinks up these ridiculous names, but I laugh at their oddness. I call him Sparky since he is always bounding around and jumpy, and he responds to it.
When I ask him to tell me his animal’s names, he asks why. Then he names about ten of them, and then he again asks why? Why why why? He won’t stop asking until I answer. He doesn’t pick up on things like me ignoring him.
“Look, its Justin Bieber,” he says as we are eating humongous pizza slices at Costco. It’s sunny, and we are sitting at one of the white plastic picnic tables near Costco’s outdoor eating area. Grayson and I are the people that dare to brave rush hour traffic to get three exits away to Costco on a sunny Monday night in order to devour one of their fantastic, oversized, and oozing with mozzarella cheese and sauce pizzas for dinner.
We sat there at our plastic picnic table, with a cardboard pizza box open on our table, exposing the glorious shiny slices ready to devour. I blinked and Grayson had swallowed two slices whole. As I was munching as daintily as I could with about a hundred paper napkins strewn across my lap since I am the world’s unluckiest eater, I swiveled my eyes, observing the other odd people that come to Costco Monday nights for dinner. True to his words, Grayson indeed spotted a ‘tween who looked exactly like the young pop star.
However, things were not always cheesy and delicious. Because despite our mutual adoration of awesome pizza slices for $1.50, Grayson and I broke up. Twice. The first time, it happened after a wedding ceremony. I’d invited him to this ceremonious event as my date, knowing that he despises social events. But I was selfish, so I ignored the impending doom that was sure to occur. True to my predictions, we fought most of the two days there. We even fought during the ceremony: me hissing at him to shut the hell up when he was making snide comments in my ear during the sentimental parts of the ceremony.
After the ceremony, we sat together in a large chair. He jabbered nonsensically about the uselessness of marriage. I stared quietly at the happy guests lining up to begin devouring the appetizers. Grayson would probably start complaining about the lack of culinary choices for his palate, an argument that I have heard extensively for months. He is a vegetarian, but I use that term loosely, because he really just eats bread, rice, cheese and candy.
Back to my point, I cut him off in the middle of his rambling, and I told him (rather than asking- I was pretty certain of his feelings for me at this point) that I knew that he did not like me. He shut up. His blue eyes turned off their sparkle effect.
Then the arguing began. The screaming. He told me he would never marry me. I sat there stunned, knowing it was true, and knowing I would never want to marry him either, but it still hurt to hear. I loved him, I still love him, but we both knew we would never have that feeling of being “in love” with each other. Not then, not now.
So we ended it. I cried, and I told him he had to leave. Grayson and I didn’t talk for months.
It was hard to go from being someone’s girlfriend to nobody’s girlfriend. After the better part of a year, you get used to always having someone to talk to, even about the most inane things. On Friday nights, when you’re exhausted from the work week, and all you want to do is have dinner and watch a movie on the couch with a warm body next to you, it’s hard to not give in to the temptation to call him. But I didn’t- I held steadfast to my decision to be finished with Grayson.
He got in touch with me after two months, though. He seemed to have changed to being appreciative, thoughtful and considerate. I caved. I missed our tête-à-têtes.
After a few weeks into Relationship Round Two, the magic of our reuniting began to wear off. Grayson began to revert to his previous ways of being entirely self-absorbed and immature about almost any topic. His obsession with Mexican food really began to take its toll on my waistline, my debit card, and my patience. I absolutely hate Mexican food and will refuse to eat it unless I am starving on an island with nothing else available. Well, no, even then, I’d scrounge and chew on some tree leaves or sand.
On a nothing-special kind of night, I called him. He was at his friend’s house, but was leaving. His cheerful tone began to dissipate as I got going in my one sided discussion of where our relationship was (the same place as when we broke up the first time), where I saw it going (nowhere), and how I thought it was sort of pointless to be dating someone you’d never truly love.
He sort of listened this whole time, only occasionally inserting a, “Well, yeah, I agree kind of” comment here and there. When I finished, he asked, “So now what? What does this mean? Do we have to stop seeing each other?” It was heartbreaking for me to hear that. Here I had just finished telling him how I could feel that his feelings for me would never escalate to a level where it was worthwhile for me to be with him. Call me selfish, but I think that every person deserves love. Heart stopping, stomach flipping, I can’t get you out of my mind love. And even though he ended the conversation with, “Well, you know I love you, right?” and tears, it was over. I hung up first.
Shireen McCleary is a native of the Pacific Northwest, but moved abroad to teach English in South Korea for a year. Her writing is inspired by the many people she meets or already knows. The way she weaves anecdotes or single quotes into stories is with a good cup of coffee and jazz music playing in her headphones. Her story Isabella was published on Carpe Diem Review in 2009.