A dog would live too long. An axolotl would stink the house. Reptile equipment is confusing, complex. I’m allergic to cats. What I really wanted was a sibling, or my father. I was thirteen. We bought two guinea pigs.
One was longhaired and calico, the other velveteen and skittish. Neither liked being patted. They retreated when I reached. Occasionally I cradled them while watching a movie but they shook in my arms, inconsolably. All that gave them joy was roaming on the lawn when the sun shone.
My mother, her fiancé Jeff and I lived in the poor part of a rich suburb. A red brick apartment backing onto a parking lot. “You live there?” A kid from the neighborhood asked. After school, I took the guinea pigs from their cage and set them on the grass. I watched them eat bok choy and watermelon from the porch. Then I went inside and helped Jeff gamble. I recorded odds into a spreadsheet, looked through form guides for the age and records of a filly, tracked down weather reports for tracks. $4000 on Young Dreamer at $2.45. Six, and two wins. Ascot? Drizzly. Meydan? Sunny.
If fortune attended, Jeff would take my mother and I for dinner. We would surprise her when she returned home exhausted from work. Opacus bags beneath bloodshot eyes. She would huff and sigh. Too much cleaning, too much budgeting, planning and washing to be done for the frivolity of a restaurant. But eventually, a smile.
We went to Chinatown with Jeff’s gambling partners. We ate behind red curtains in private rooms. Menus were never given out. Meals materialized. Sizzling pots of hot broth, and slivers of meat that cooked through in a single dunk. Rare moments in which my mother seemed relaxed, seemed happy. Life momentarily suspended on high. After all, her daddy had been a gambler too.
* * *
The guinea pigs had been with us for eighteen months when my mother and Jeff split. This wasn’t the first time, but it was the last. Something about money. I wasn’t privy to the details. Only the fact we couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore. We’re moving to the coast, my mother said, and we have to give away the pigs.
The two of us drove ten hours in the direction of the tropics. Palms and mosquitos, detoxifying sweats. A new life began. A new life grew, and then halted, in its infancy. A white spot appeared on my mother’s tongue. She became thinner, more on edge. Eating became exacting. Surgery was required.
The stitches had barely fallen out when a lump appeared on her neck where the graft had been taken. Then another, nearby. Time rewound, we returned to the city. A specialist removed the growths, and nurses wrote ‘ANXIETY’ across the file at the foot of her bed. They grew back.
Jeff came to the hospital to see her. He took me for lunch. We didn’t go to Chinatown, but a seafood restaurant by the bay near our old apartment. Wind swept and sandy, white umbrellas above us, shucked oysters on the table. It must have been a good week at the track.
I went back to the hospital, and he out into the future. My mother’s sutures weeped and I sat beside in silence. The next and last time I saw Jeff was the funeral.
* * *
Do you want to see ten thousand dollars? Jeff asked me. He took a stack of fifties from his briefcase and placed it in my hand. I turned the notes over, banded together tight. I shook them back and forth, the ends shimmering in the light, golden like a promise. But this was back when the center still held. Back before the luck ran out.