When people ask me about the best gift that I’ve ever received, I almost always give the same answer. On the occasion of my fourth birthday, my mother presented me with a Barbie Dream House (with working elevator). It was my little girl alpha and omega. The response usually elicits a laugh and a head shake. That was so long ago. Something, anything, must have pushed it from its pedestal by now.
But at that age I was still easily dazzled by gifts. At age 20, my interest in presents began to decline. Of course I still received them, and still loved many of those that were given to me, but when asked what I wanted I often responded with silence. Last Christmas my mother had to ask me three times what I wanted before I told her that I might like my very own copy of Americanah and a horse-printed shift dress I had seen at Club Monaco.
Even though I love things, I’ve come to value experiences over them.
But on my 24th birthday, my first on my own in Brooklyn, my best friend decided to surprise me.
“The people at the pet store said you can keep them in the same cage.”
Inside that cage were to live two hamsters. I had never had a pet of my own. There had been a class hamster named Peto in the fifth grade but that was the limit of my experience with pets. Raised in an apartment that never allowed such things and mostly uninterested in the concept, I found myself once again dazzled by a gift.
My best friend was in the midst of a classic film phase, and I was unsure what to call them, so we named them Cary Grant and Marlon Brando. Cary Grant was the more streamlined of the two while Marlon Brando resembled the actor in his later years although he was less The Island of Dr. Moreau Brando and more The Godfather Brando.
I made sure they had water and food and got them a little wheel and ball and spent a lot of time in awe of the fact that they were mine. I lived in a very large, sparsely decorated studio back then, so their cage lived on the floor next to an ever-growing pile of fashion magazines. I would take them out of their cage, sit on the floor, and play with them gingerly, afraid that I might hurt them. At night I could hear them as they moved around. Sometimes there was fighting. I was worried at first, would wake up and check on them, but everything was always fine. I eventually stopped checking in.
I was commuting to and from Greenwich, CT for work in the spring of 2007 and often spent my weekends sleeping as late as humanly possible. But on a Saturday morning a few weeks after my birthday, I had a charity walk that I needed to attend. I willed myself out of bed at an early hour and checked in on the hamsters.
Something was terribly, terribly wrong. I reached for my phone.
“Why are you calling me so early?”
“Cary Grant ate Marlon Brando!”
There had been fighting that night, but they eventually quieted down. Or at least I thought it was a they settling down. But all that was left of poor Marlon Brando was his head. Cary Grant sauntered around the cage as if nothing had changed. He put his paws on of one the bars and pulled himself up onto his hind legs. In search of some affection perhaps, he pushed his little nose through a gap. I looked at his blood-covered paws and mouth, his belly swelling with his former roommate, and thought “I will never love you.” I managed to dispose of the last remaining piece of Marlon Brando somehow and left Cary Grant to consider his crime.
We lived an uneasy life after that, Cary Grant and I. We acknowledged one another in passing but never played in the same way again. For how can one love a cannibal? In that stereotypical New York City fashion, we had broken up emotionally but were unable to do so physically.
On Thanksgiving Day 2008 I was once again willing myself out of bed at an early hour. I had to hop on the train to the bus to my home for turkey and stuffing and didn’t want to be late. I walked over to the cage so that I could make sure he had enough food and water to last the couple of days that I would be gone. He would often lazily greet me as I approached. For a time after The Incident there had been excitement but he had long ago resigned himself to our wary relationship. But on this morning there was no greeting at all. I opened the cage and gave him an apprehensive poke. Nothing. As is usually the case with hamsters, he had lived a very short life. I dealt with the remains and continued to prepare for my trip to Boston.
I was surprised at how much I missed his presence, and I decided not to focus on the bad. Instead I remembered the wide-eyed wonder with which I had greeted his arrival and smiled.