You arrived two weeks after the fruit fly infestation in mid-December. I became transfixed on watching them swirl around a half-empty glass of amber liquid resting on the desk, almost resigning to the idea of claiming them as pets.
I stumbled upon Charles six months later, sculling in the back of a commercial tank in the same Mom N’ Pop shop I was told they found you. His vertebrae bobbing above the surface against the soft ripple of an industriously-chugging filter. His neck outstretched, angled toward the dusty lights suspended in space above him. Twin red lines smear the edges, framing his face. Charles turns, leveling me with wide eyes, his reflection hanging in the glass and I know I can protect him in the way I couldn’t protect you. Like I was incapable of saving myself.
I buried you two days later, underneath the skeletal yellow and orange bursts of the Japanese Maple in the front yard. Its fingerless branches reaching toward the slushy sky. Your painted shell inhaling the packed earth, rejecting the radiating warmth of the watery Winter sun, before even having the chance to name you.
You came to me as a surprise, expectant and emergent after years of familial gag gifts. No more nick knacks dotting my vanity, plush lumps pounded together to vaguely resemble the shape of your shell, as pillows resting on my bed. You came equipped with your own personal ecosystem. How hard could this be? All I had to do was fill the plastic pond with water, string up your fixtures, and you were mine. As If on cue, you gave us a laugh, expelling a tiny sneeze. How was I supposed to know at that very moment, a foreign hitchhiker was creeping into your muscles, brandishing a knife, ready to short-circuit your lights, and eclipse your sun?
I peer into your tank and watch as you claw onto a chunk of splintered log, raising yourself up to bask underneath the faux sun nailed to your sky. I turn and reach down, twisting the cap off a bottle of whiskey. I’ll name you tomorrow. It’s time to celebrate. I have big plans for us when the warm weather returns. I promised an outside oasis and to train you to bathe in a bathtub like an Internet reptile.
Charles is curled up next to me on the bed. I shrug off the warnings that I’ll catch salmonella because these are all the things I was supposed to get to do with you. He joins me as I bury myself in a stack of books on my nightstand. He peeks out from his shell, allowing me to use the pad of my finger to trace circles on top of his head. And when he jerks away and retreats, I don’t blame him for wanting little to do with the TV newscaster flashing a wide, vivacious grin, desperately trying to relay the day’s dystopic current events through clenched teeth. His eyes skate around and he only ever unfurls from his Nuchel in such a way in preparation to launch. I leap up to grasp him and pull him back to safety of the covers. He’s only attempted this once, but that’s further than you ever got.
Two days later, I am standing in the front yard, gripping a shovel and balancing on towering black heels, sinking deeper into the mud. To no consolation, I am reminded that Holly Golightly couldn’t even name her cat. There was too much celebrating things to come. My tongue is thick and dry, the grogginess of 3:00 AM conversations only just starting to evaporate like the morning fog. Blood pounds in my ears. I was up too late, talking to a girl from California, trapped on the other side of a computer screen, planning a trip to the West Coast.
At first, I didn’t think much of it. You, perched on the trunk, white hot bulbs still buzzing from the night before. Maybe I didn’t feed you the correct brand of pellets. It’s not my fault I had never been in charge of climate control before. Should I have trimmed down my list of names? For a minute, I thought you and I would have done well for ourselves in California. You in the heat, me, and that girl. It’s hours before I notice that your limbs have gone stiff, tucked away and folded up into yourself. I haven’t heard you release another scrape of a cough. I steel myself as a charred scent wafts across the room, slamming into my nostrils. I clutch the Zippo in a sweaty fist. Trembling, I jab my thumb down, sparking the flame to life. For an instant, I swear I can see flickers of yellow and orange, leaping and dancing at your eyelids, reflecting back at me.
I shovel the last of the dirt, covering the shallow hole cradling you in the ground. I hear the distant rumbles of a trash truck followed by the mechanical groans and clinking of bottles being emptied into the recycle bin. I wonder if burying old habits will be as easy as burying you. The Mom N’ Pop shop reassures me that this has never happened before. The infection blossomed in your lungs and slithered thorough your joints before you and I had ever met. There was nothing I could have done. Except, maybe, having closed a window.
Charles is given a moniker immediately. His shell scrubbed daily with the neat bristles of a spare toothbrush. He has never watched YouTube. It’s been two years, but no celebrations are taking place. We resume our nightly routine, Charles beside me on the bed. When he wriggles out of his shell, I mute the TV, and collect him, depositing him back underneath the regurgitating waterfall. I watch as he floats beneath the surface, swatting at a feeder fish, his painted sides wiggling as he opens his beak to chomp at a goldfish gliding by. He is only allowed to be out of the water for a short period of time. I was told he was semi-aquatic, unlike you. He eats $12.99 live-bait and I am assured he is the “good kind” of high-maintenance. I am left wondering why anyone gifts a turtle to an eight-year-old, let alone a 28-year-old.
Water bottles and bowls of vinegar litter my desk beneath the window that’s been sealed shut since you left. My laptop remains shut, shrouded in its soft glow, humming sleepily on my desk. The girl from California has disappeared with the leaves of your Maple. When the timer dings, I barely glance up from the book I am reading, knowing that Charles is safely enveloped in black velvet, punctuated by the sizzle of a red heat lamp. There’s comfort in knowing it will chime again tomorrow at 7 AM, and again the following day. Switching off exactly 12 hours after that. You once taught me how to play God, and I relish that Charles and I are the extent of one another’s lackadaisical joy. The creators of our own habitat, basking in one another’s manufactured suns with no threat of any outside debris slamming into our orbit.
Charles and I both know that we would never survive the California heat. For one, not enough rain. Too many pretty girls, an abundance of whiskey permeating the stale Los Angeles air, and a collection of bad habits clinging to the balmy desert particles, refusing to stay buried.
Jennifer Ledbury is a writer living in California.
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