Did I buy my college girlfriend fish for Christmas one year? No. But did I try? I sure as hell did.
I believe it was a PETCO, not on Christmas Eve, but maybe Christmas-Eve Eve, or thereabout. Before you judge me by the PETCO and suspicious timing, please understand that this wasn’t some last-minute whim.
I had a plan.
I had come for the clownfish. Those beautiful specimens of striped day-glow orange aqua culture—each one a tiny little Nemo unto itself. Except that this was several years before Finding Nemo, so don’t you dare think I was inspired by a goddamn cartoon, OK?
I stood at the tank for a few minutes, admiring the fish as much as my own daring as a gift-giver. You have really outdone yourself this time, I thought. Then I glanced around at other customers, wondering if anyone loved them enough to buy them a clownfish for Christmas.
While shopping for a suitable tank, I started to appreciate how expensive fish, as pets, could get. The largest tanks sold for hundreds of dollars. But surely I could get by with much less. So I grabbed a tank that held a similar volume of water to your typical goldfish bowl. Add some neon pink pebbles, a little fake coral and the fish, I assured myself, would feel right at home. Just to be on the safe side I motioned to the salesman standing nearby.
“I’m interested in buying a few of those clownfish. Do you suppose I can put a few in here?” I asked, lifting up the tank.
His reaction took me a bit by surprise. I’d expected him to smile and congratulate me on picking the best fish in the shop. Fine choice, sir, fine choice indeed! Instead, his face took on the expression of your office’s IT guy after you’ve asked him, well, any question at all.
“No, you cannot put a few clownfish in there,” he said, his response more bark than speech. “Clownfish are saltwater fish, and for saltwater fish you need a large tank. And you need a good deal of equipment to keep the water saliferous. If you put a few clownfish in that tank they’d be dead in a day.”
His tone implied I was a total idiot whose fish buying privileges should be revoked until some future time when I was able to discern between the kind of fish you can keep in a bowl and the kind that needs a full-blown oceanic experience.
Apparently bedside manner isn’t a point of emphasis in the PETCO employee manual.
My grandfather had raised birds in an aviary behind his house in the suburbs of Los Angeles. When my brother and I stayed with Grandpa Stone we got up every morning to feed the birds and clean their cages. We loved the birds, especially the owl finches with their wise little faces. Though I do think that the name is a bit misleading. It’s more “finch with coloring that is reminiscent of an owl” than the “tiny owl” I’d been remembering for all these years. Even so, it’s a dapper little bird.
By the time I got to college I wasn’t quite as keen on getting a bird. Changing dropping-laden newspaper pages and hauling bags of birdseed from the pet store (but definitely not PETCO… they lost themselves a loyal customer that chilly Christmas Eve) seemed like too much work. My brother, however, still clung to our childhood dream of owning a bird.
So one Christmas I took the money I’d earned from my job at the campus copy shop and bought him a parakeet.
To be honest, I don’t even recall what my brother named the bird. I don’t remember much at all about that bird’s life.
I do recall vividly, though, when it died. And so does my friend Carlos, who happened to be occupying my brother’s room at the very moment when Tweety(?) took a turn for the worse. Carlos watched for a few minutes as the bird thrashed itself against the bars of the cage and eventually stopped moving. Years later, he still talks about how disturbing that night was for him. It didn’t help that when he came into my room to escape the feathered carnage, I was so startled that I hurled myself out of bed and tried to tackle him.
The truth is, tragic pet deaths were not new for my family. There were the anoles that died mysteriously in their cage within weeks of coming to live with us.
And there was the one hamster who ate (half) of his housemate. This was the same hamster, by the way, who later faked his own death. And I don’t mean he curled into a ball for 5 minutes and gave us all a “good scare.” No, this little shit went full fledged Romeo—made such a convincing performance that my mom cried and wrapped him in a paper towel before returning from church several hours later to discover he’d vanished into the air duct.
Which is all to say that pets die. It happens. Sometimes it happens gracefully. Sometimes it happens with such violence and psychological trauma that your best friend no longer feels safe in your home. Either way, you bury the thing and you move on.
My way of moving on was not to back off my new found interest in giving pets as gifts. No, my way of moving on was to up the ante.
The baby chameleon I bought for my girlfriend at the reptile trade show in Havre de Grace, Maryland was so damn small and adorable. If you don’t believe that chameleons can be adorable, I’ll wait while you go do a Google “baby chameleon.” Or, just check out this pic:
In retrospect, I’d come to see the folly in choosing a bird as a gift. Birds were simple creatures, really. A little water, some seeds. More than my brother could apparently be bothered to do, but simple by most pet-keeping standards.
On the other hand, lizards present a much greater challenge to their owners than birds, even if the biologists would like you to believe they share a common genome. By buying my girlfriend a chameleon, I gave her more than a devoted companion for the next 3 to 6 years. I also gave her a job she could take pride in. A job consisting of changing UV light bulbs, regularly cleaning out the cage, and supplying a steady diet of crickets.
For a while, everything was as it was supposed to be. My girlfriend was thoroughly devoted to that little guy. Everyone who saw him agreed that he was literally the most adorable thing they’d ever seen. Even as he got a little larger, passing just beyond peak adorability, it was impossible not to find wonder in watching him. The independently swiveling eyes. The comically slow movements. The slingshot tongue used to lap up crickets.
The chameleon didn’t last through the end of the summer. Well, technically, I don’t know how long it lasted. Maybe it went on to live a full life—but it didn’t do so in my girlfriend’s house. One afternoon her mother placed the chameleon’s cage out on the back deck. Hoping to give the him plenty of sunshine she pulled back the heavy black veil that would have otherwise blocked out most of the light. That the veil was simultaneously serving as one of the walls for the enclosure was somehow lost on her—until she returned an hour later to find its inhabitant missing.
Sometimes, when I feel nostalgic, I look back at that time in my life and ask, why, Jesse? Why were you such a weirdo? I mean, who gives people pets for gifts? Maybe one time you get a little corny and wrap up a puppy in a bow for that special someone—but to be a serial offender? And to do it with fish, birds, and lizards?
What does it say about me? I honestly don’t know.
But I can assure you these days I don’t do that weird shit anymore. These days I’m back on the straight and narrow. My gifts are run-of-the-mill clothing, jewelry, toys and an occasional personally crafted four-day epic puzzle quest. Yep, nothing to see here.