I Bought You (Please Love Me!)
I was approaching 8 and not having an easy time with getting older. It wasn't like a gradual fall from grace - when you wake up one day and say, hmmm, bthings are not like how they used to be or how I thought they would be when I was this age. No this was fast. Everything suddenly turned to crap.
Before, when I was five and six, I was - really without question - very cute. Everyone said it. I was naturally blond the only blond in my Jew family but still tan. I was naturally blond and tan, a coveted look.
Then, all of a sudden, my hair changed into this really unexciting mousy brown color and frizzy, hard to manage. Nobody chooses that look! My body also did things I didn't like There were new bumps in my midsection, and my teeth were spitting out of my mouth constantly. It was entirely unmangeable.
Before, when I was younger, the way I acted, my little harmless misbehaviors - like talking or singing or talk-singing during nap time or when my parents were on the phone - were adorable. I was a kid! Now suddenly, the same behavior was obnoxious. I was supposed to "know better." Nobody was buying my shtick anymore.
You get it. I was having a mid-life crisis. They happen every seven years, according to the Buddhists, and this was my first time through the fire. So, I did what a lot of us do, especially the ladies, when faced with the passing by of our moment in the spotlight: reproduction. I got a pet. I wanted something that would be all mine, that I could show people - see, isn't that cute- and thereby reflect back on my own value. My friends all had dogs and cats but I was allergic. I envied all of that cuddling and attention.
We did have a parakeet, Connie. She let me touch her, for a week. But then we bought her a mirror, and she stopped letting anyone touch her and started smoking. (My mom smoked in her direction while watching TV.) Connie spent all day looking at herself, smoking, and complaining. She seemed too much my mother’s pet to fulfill my needs.
So, for my eighth birthday, I picked out a hamster. It was little, like me, and had shaggy mousy brown hair, like me. We were meant to be.
Unfortunately, we didn't bond, as hoped. I may have screwed up with the naming. I don’t have that gift for naming; I’m not creative like that. had a pile of stuffed animals, but I named them according to species: Tiger, Bear, Seal. I gave them their true names, as I saw it. My friends had like Princess Patty and Mr. Snuggles and endowed them with attributes. I didn't see it.
I also assumed I was different from my friends in how I “loved” my stuffed animals: I used them for my evening pleasures and then tossed them on the floor, where they spent the night. I felt guilty about this, as I’m sure some rapists do.
I’m saying, I had a complex that I might not be nurturing enough for a pet. And these insecurities seized upon me when I finally named my new hamster, after much tortured deliberation…Coco-Sweets.
What a terrible name! I hated it right away! I got stuck between two choices of what i thought other people might name a hamster, I didn’t like either, so I put them together with a hyphen. It sounded like a cheap breakfast cereal. It embarrassed me to say it aloud, but I didn't think you could change your mind once you named something.
I really liked the hamster though. She would stuff her cheeks with food and bury it across the cage. When stuffed, you could see the outline of the corn pieces in her bumpy cheeks. It killed me with the cuteness and science of it all.
Sadly, Coco-Sweets did not return any interest in me. Aside from hiding food, she spent all of her time focused on one thing only - running away from me. If I tried to hold her, she’d run from one arm to the other, jump to the nearest surface, and run away. If I directed her towards my face, say for a kiss, she’d flip around and run away.
Coco-Sweets spent her short life on this earth strategizing and executing one brilliant escape from captivity after another. She figured out how to escape from her first home, a square metal cage with a big wheel in the middle.Instead of running in circles, Coco-Sweets would spend hours climbing the wheel from the outside, stretching out and balancing it steadily with her mighty little hamster thighs and then carefully opening the two locks on the top with her nose, in a circle, until she could pop open the lid and run away.
We piled books on top of her cage, but she’d balance on the wheel and move her hamster head back and forth until the books fell off, one by one, and then open the lock and run away. She'd conduct these escapes late at night and sleep all day in preparation, more rejection of our play time.
I tried to accommodate her needs. I got her in one of those clear hamster balls and let her “run free.” But Coco-Sweets (no fool) would hit the wall and just stop there, unwilling to put on the show of a happy pet. We got her a larger home - an “environment” more than a cage, really - with multiple rooms connected by plastic tubes. I was even jealous of its size. But Coco-Sweets (tough mistress) spent all of her time climbing a plastic tube, balancing herself against its slippery edges, and using her hamster nose to undo the lid (tightened by my strong father) and run away.
I was impressed. I told my friends that my hamster was clearly a genius, reflecting well upon her owner. I said that to cover up for my deeper feelings of resentment, frustration and worry.
I bought you! Why don’t you love me back? It’s your job!!
I purchased Coco-Sweets to gain a sense of control over my life, but instead she made me a ball of anxiety. Every morning, I would open the door to the den, filled with dread that she would be out of her cage. If she was, I would scream like a maniac.
Because hamsters in cages are very cute; hamsters out of cages are rodents running around the house.
My parents would usually find her under the couch in the den (a scary place), but a few times, Coco-Sweets wasn’t there. I’d sit in school all day, worried and unable to concentrate. Once my mother showed up and poked her head in the classroom: “We found her! We found Coco-Sweets!” “Thanks!” I replied, then whispered, “But don’t say her name out loud. It embarrasses me!” It turned out that Coco-Sweets had climbed sixteen stairs and was under my parents’ bed.
Once I brought Coco-Sweets to my friend’s house for a pet play date. I left her for awhile. When I came back to check on her, she was just climbing out of the top of the cage with my friend’s giant dog in the corner watching her, literally licking his lips.
Coco-Sweets became an everyday reminder of the worst-case scenario: death. It didn’t help that my brother would tease me by holding her over the garbage disposal.
Then it happened: the worst-case scenario. One day, in a reckless mood, I played with Coco-Sweets on the kitchen counter. I let her walk near the edge, and she fell - a skyscraper’s distance in hamster height - landing on the hard cold floor. I killed her, I thought. And regretted my entire life. I picked her up, and she stood there, frozen in my arms. Then, gradually, she began to move, very, very slowly coming to life. She shook off the trauma, slowly walking towards my face, looking scared and vulnerable. She needed me. I kissed her.
In her nearly brain-dead state, Coco-Sweets and I finally had a moment. What a sweet little pet. She recovered in an hour and was running again. What a relief.
Anyway, the school year ended, I turned 9, and my family and I took a trip to Europe, my first trip abroad. We left Coco-Sweets and Connie in the pet store where we bought them, and I left behind all of my angst and worry.
Usually, we took summer road trips, and there was a lot of tension from hours on the road but Europe made up for it. It was amazing. I saw Stonehenge and the Louvre. I saw the Pompidou Center in Paris which blew my mind about what architecture could be with its tubing around the outside (It reminded me of Coco-Sweets’ home.). I went to Holland and saw boobies in the Red Light District and Anne Frank’s house and had profound, ineffable feelings about the social order. In Europe, my mind felt creative and happy for a change. I wasn’t obsessed with controlling everything to make up for a lack of attention.
I couldn't stop smiling. I still remember my father telling me that I looked happy and seeing how that made him happy.
We came back and went straight to the pet store. I was excited to see Coco-Sweets and start on a new, healthier, less codependent path together. They handed me my hamster, but her skin looked lighter. I mean, it wasn’t her. “Oh sorry, wrong pet. Ha. Oops!” They came back with another hamster, not her either. And another! It turned out that Coco-Sweets had died, and they were trying to pawn off another hamster on me.
I cried and yelled at them: Excuse me?! I might just be nine years old and not great at naming pets, but I’ve just come from the Red Light District, okay? Give me a little credit. I know my own hamster! A year’s worth of frustration and tension poured out of me, newly liberated from my experience abroad. I protested in anger at their mistreatment of Coco-Sweets and their condescension towards me. They were speechless. My father shrugged.
I was angry and sad, but in my heart, I felt that Coco-Sweets was, like me, finally free. I pictured her escaping their entrapment, running away to the Giant Supermarket next door, and exploring the aisles as I had explored Europe.
I didn’t want a substitute hamster and never got another pet after that. A new me was born in Europe, the authentic me, who didn’t exploit animals by naming and controlling them. We may not have connected in life, but in her death, little Coco-Sweets, or “Hamster”, and I blazed a trail for the freedom and voice of the small, brown and oppressed.
Disclaimer: I haven’t owned another pet since, but I did kill about a dozen rats and mice while living in Manhattan.