Gerbil-ShutterstockGerbils: A Love Story


Rodent dreams.  Little ears and walrus whiskers.  I can’t stop watching videos of capybaras soaking in Japanese hot springs.

They’re like giant gerbils, and they seem so peaceful and wise.  But I notice that the tourists petting them avoid the belly, even when they flip over and stretch seductively.  Anyone who’s been caught in a cat’s “bear trap” knows this trick.  What would a capybara bite feel like?  They’re rodents; they must have giant teeth.

I would rub the tummy, but I’d be afraid.  I’d do it, though—if the critter indicated he might like it—my heart racing.  I want to pet a capybara.  I wish one were sitting on my desk right now.  No, on my lap.

What do they smell like?  I imagine dirt and wet dog and a bit of eau de guinea pig cage.  They remind me of Labs.  They look dumb in the best sense of the word: clowny and joyful and laid back.  They know the importance of a good spa day.

There are lemons—whole lemons—floating in the wooden tubs with the capybaras, and Japanese hand towels.  It’s all so elegant, silent, dignified.  Snow blankets the ground.  Steam fills the air.  I wouldn’t mind being a capybara in my next life.  My life now is loud.




My oldest son Matt has quit smoking pot.  It’s been twelve days.  Last night Matt’s girlfriend Natalia told me, “Matt said you said it was OK if he smoked pot once a week.”

When Matt came home from work, I told him I did not say it would be OK if he smoked pot once a week.  What I did say was that it would be nice if he were the kind of person who could smoke pot once a week, but he’s not.  Pot is his kryptonite.

“No,” Matt said, dumping cheese on Doritos and sticking them in the microwave.  “You said if I only do it once a week, that’s fine.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Uh, yeah you did.”  Matt rolled his eyes.

“No, not.  Why would I say that?  You can’t—”

“Whatever.”  Matt shook his head like I was the biggest dumbass on earth.  He picked up his plate, a tube of Pringles, and a beer and brushed past me, bumping my shoulder as he went.

Goddammit.  I lost it.  I got loud.  Why was he so rude?  Why was he twisting my words?  “If you smoke pot in this house,” I yelled up the stairs, “you’re moving out.  Instantly.  No thirty-day notice.  You are not a rock star, and this is not your pad.”

Pad,” Matt said with a laugh, and his tone was so disrespectful, his thinking so wrong, I sank into a black hole—the one that sucks in controlling, powerless, codependent moms of adult pot-smoking children.

I spun in the black hole with the other martyred moms: moms who go to work every day, moms with “cheery” attitudes and no husbands, moms in pantsuits with gray roots and tired eyes.  We cried silent tears.  We felt destroyed.  We asked God, “What the fuck is this?  Do they ever grow up?  Do they ever go away?  And you want me to deal with this and perimenopause?  Are you high?”

My loud, hateful thoughts turned into frantic, fear-based thoughts.  If Matty smokes, he’ll smoke all the time, and I’m scared for him.  He’s my oldest boy, my big boy, and I’m afraid we’re experiencing “failure to launch” because he’s twenty-one and still hasn’t moved out—he’s moved his girlfriend in, the lovely Ukrainian Natalia whom I love as my own, and not just because she’s such an eager snitch, but still—

The black hole spat me out.

The kitchen smelled like rain.  Matt was working as an elf—a seasonal delivery driver for UPS.  He’d set his wet tennis shoes on the heating vent.  His brown jacket hung dripping from the bathroom door.  His glasses sat on the kitchen counter, dotted with raindrops, steamy from the warm air inside.  Matt was a good boy.  He was working; he was trying.  Life is hard.  No one gets it right.

I ate six Hershey’s Kisses, the candy cane kind that aren’t even good.  Then I took a bath.




A human, not a rodent, soaking in hot water.  No lemons.  No snow, no steam.  Only the strong scent of my middle son’s Axe body wash.

I stared at the wall near the ceiling, wondering for the millionth time what those two strange brown spots were.  They’re identical, the size of a quarter.  They look like they’d be soggy if you poked them, and once poked, a million wasps would come buzzing out.  Or an entire farm full of ants.  Or rats: big rats, baby rats, mama rats and middle-school rats.  Our Portland neighborhood is infested with rats.  They’ve entered our home—and not always willingly.  I found a live baby one on the counter next to the cats’ bowl, and a big dead one, courtesy of the dog, on my pillow—a turndown gift, like a mint.

I stood on the edge of the tub, praying no one would barge in, and poked the spots.  Nothing happened.  I scrubbed at them with a towel.  The spots remained.  It isn’t mold.  It’s a mystery.

As I dressed, the fight with Matt faded.  I lost interest in the spots.  I was thinking of my friend.  Tall, handsome, kind John with his Roman nose and wire-rimmed glasses.  John is a scientist.  He has the perfect answer to all my hypochondriac questions: “You’re fine, you’re healthy as a horse, you’re going to live to be a hundred and two.”  John thinks I’m obnoxious and a “princess” who spends way too much at Starbucks—and still he loves me.

I love him too.  He is genuinely good.  He sees the best in everyone—well, there’s this one guy at work who really gets his goat, but beyond that…  At movies, John cries so hard he has to take off his glasses and wipe his eyes with a hankie.  Yes, he’s the kind of man who always has a clean handkerchief in his back pocket and a box of Kleenex in his truck.  If you’re hormonal, he’s ready.

Two months ago, John found blood in his urine.  He has cancer.  Bladder cancer.  No.  Yes.  No.  I remember the moment he told me.  He’d gone to the doctor—we were sure it was nothing.  I was in the living room sweeping up dog hair.  It was close to Halloween.  All the grass was dead and the pumpkins glowed in the late afternoon sun.  My phone buzzed.  It was John: “Are you sitting down?”

It was bad news.  The sitting down kind of news.

We’re still in the “ignore it” stage.  John feels healthy and acts healthy, so how could anything be wrong?  We rarely talk about it.  We still fight.  I bitch and complain.  He’s negative.  Nobody’s drinking kale smoothies, or flying to Mexico for alternative treatments, or visualizing the bladder full of orange, healing light.  Well, I am—the visualization part—but how is that going to help John when he thinks it’s “a bunch of horseshit?”

We ignore the elephant—no, the giant capybara—in the room.  John will be fine.  John will be fine.  Johnwillbefine.  The truth is, I’m afraid we’re at the beginning of a long journey that won’t end well.  But, when you think about it…isn’t that life?

I closed my eyes.  I quit thinking altogether.

Matt called me into his room.  He’d taught himself to play “Wish You Were Here.”  There were a few false starts.  “Check it out, Mom.  Strum, strum, fuck!  OK, check it out.  Strum, strum, shit!”  Then he got it and it was good.  Natalia and I applauded.

“And I’m not smoking.”  Matt set down his guitar.  “It’s been like almost a month.”

“Yay,” I said, purposely not correcting his math.

He gave me a puppy-dog look.  “Will you please bring me some water?  And make no-bake cookies?”




A giant capybara stands—sits?  It’s hard to tell; they’re all shaped like pears—under an outdoor bamboo shower.  Hot water drips onto its head.  It closes its eyes, blissful.

I keep looking for the rub.  Is the hot springs a ruse?  Is this how the capybaras are rounded up before being led to slaughter?  Do relaxed capybaras make for more tender meat?  Do people eat capybaras?  I shudder, remembering the time my daughter googled guinea pig and was greeted with an image of two: braised and on a plate, ready for dinner.

Are these jumbo rodents as peaceful as they seem?  Or do they fight to the death when the cameras are off?

Who are these capybaras, and why am I too lazy to Google any information about them?  Giant, happy rodents bathe on my computer screen.  I don’t want to know more.  It’s the mystery I love.

A big one—the size of an English bulldog—sleeps, two mini ones curled at its rump.  I watch it breathe, in an out, so slowly, as it dreams its scritchy dreams.  I notice a grasshopper on its back.  It darts.  Shit, it’s a snake, no a lizard!  I wasn’t expecting that.  The reptile slithers into the grass.  The capybara twitches in its sleep.

Another one goes underwater—the sides of the tub are glass—and just sort of walks around.  It moves blindly, eyes closed, like an old person in a pool.  I wonder again if they bite.  I’m reminded of a story.  Gerbils.  Giant gerbils.  Little gerbils.  Oh, how I wanted gerbils.




I’m nine and I’ve read the book and I’m ready to be a full-fledged gerbil owner.  A responsible gerbil owner.  I actually wanted the Teddy Bear Hamster, but my mom said no.  Anything too cute is immediately denied.  There’s a limit to cuteness in our house.  No Pulse or Lawman jeans, only the itchier J.C. Penney brand.  No salon haircuts.  My mom gives me and my siblings—and several of the kids on the block—identical choppy bowl cuts.  A thirty-second sit down in Judy’s living room, and you’re good to go, ready to fly back outside and play Red Rover or doorbell ditch or watch Shirley swing the dead possum by its tail, or whatever it was you were doing before your mom told you to go inside and get those goddamn bangs out of your eyes.

                The Gerbil Story

I am nine, in my bedroom on 31st street with my best friend Kelly.  I’ve finally wangled gerbils—which is ironic, as for the rest of my life I’ll have a severe rodent phobia.  But I’ve got my gerbils, happily gerbil-ing in their fluff in their cage like a birdcage, and life is complete.

Kelly and I are holding the gerbils.  They are scary-fun—the best kind of fun.  I can still feel the thrill in my belly, the gerbil in my hand—ugh!—scampering up my arm, up to my neck, its sharp claws poking my skin, the whiff-whiff of its breath against my neck, the naked tail—argh!—its breathing, so fast and birdlike, what if it goes in my ear?!  And then—

Kelly screams.  She’s still holding her gerbil, but her hazel eyes have grown enormous, for it has bitten her thumb.  The gerbil’s bitten Kelly and she’s screaming.  I see bright ruby blood, the brightest, reddest blood I’ve ever seen, welling jewel-like from her thumb, and the gerbil is still attached.  I can’t believe it.  “Get it off, get it off,” Kelly shouts, panicked, and now she’s getting really pale, all the blood draining from her face, out of her thumb, blood dripping on the hardwood floor, the gerbil gripped, chomped down permanently and forever to her thumb, its little body flinging back and forth as she tries to shake it off, its beady eyes bright, determined to never let go of my friend.

I call for my mom.  Kelly keeps trying to shake the gerbil off—why won’t it let go?—and now I’m crying and scared, what if it never lets go, what if it bites Kelly forever?  And then—whap.  The gerbil flies across the room and hits the wall on my little sister’s side with a loud thump, then slides to the ground and lies there.  Unmoving.

Oh.  My.  God.  Kelly’s hurt, and we’ve hurt the gerbil, slumped against the wall, stunned and motionless.  Is it dead, is it dead?  Blood dripping, blood smeared on the gerbil’s chest, and I’m crying.  Suddenly, I no longer like this gerbil business, and I yell once more for my mom who comes running as I collapse to the ground, hands on my head in a duck and cover position.  I hate them, I hate them.  This is really, really bad, make it go away.

I was a highly emotional child.

My mom picks up the gerbil.  She rubs its bloody head.  It blinks.  It’s alive.  We put both gerbils back in the cage (for I was gripping my gerbil the entire time).  “Now it’s time to calm down,” my mom says, hands on hips.  I wipe my nose on my shirt.  I recover.  Kelly is bandaged 1970s style: no trip to the doctor, no antibiotic ointment, no rabies shot—she has a giant rodent gash on her thumb, but my mom just runs cold water on it, slaps on a Band-Aid, and we go outside and play.




There’s more.

The Gerbil Story, Part Two

The next day I walk to the cage, full of trepidation, no longer excited about these gerbils of mine.  With power, the owning of pet rodents, comes great responsibility, and it weighs heavily on my nine-year-old shoulders.  I watch the gerbils.  One of them is doing its gerbil thing, shredding up a toilet paper roll, its black eyes starbright and alert, and the other…isn’t moving.  I poke it.  Its head falls off.  Yeah, you heard me: The second gerbil’s head falls off.  The alert gerbil, the gerbil with the intact head and the curious starbright eyes, which I now realize are pure evil, has eaten his cagemate.  He’s eaten his friend, chewed its head almost all the way off.  And when I poke said friend, fluff falls away from the carcass and the head plops to the bottom of the cage.

I yell for my mom.

“Ooh, ick,” is her response.  She sets down her coffee cup.  “Go get me some toilet paper.”  She hesitates, a grim look on her face.  “No, go get your dad.”

A sick horror seeps into my veins.  Once the dad is called in, you know it’s really bad.

My mom tells me to “quit fussing” and go wait in the hall.  As I crouch outside my bedroom door, the linoleum cold on my bare feet, I devise a story in my mind: The evil gerbil with the starbright eyes is the one that bit Kelly, the one that got fwapped against the wall on my little sister’s side of the room.  He was so traumatized by his flight through the airspace of Kimmy and Krissy’s room that once safely back in his cage, he proceeded to eat his cagemate, his lady friend.

Now, I have no idea if those gerbils of mine are male or female, but I instinctively think of the bad one as the man and the cannibalized one as the lady.




Gerbils: Day Three

I tiptoe to the cage, sick in my gut.  I really hate gerbils now.  Maybe I shouldn’t look.  Maybe I should go back downstairs and watch cartoons.  If I ignore the remaining gerbil, will it go away?  Well, yes, eventually.  But no, I’m the responsible gerbil owner.  I read the book.  It’s my duty to change its water, feed it and clean its cage.

I force myself to look.

The remaining gerbil is no longer alert, curious, doing his gerbil thing.  He is unmoving.  My heart explodes.  I shut my eyes tightly, reach out a tentative finger, and give him a poke.  He doesn’t move.  I open my eyes, too afraid to poke him again.  Either way, he doesn’t move.

For the third time in three days, I yell for my mom.

She thumps up the stairs, sets down her coffee cup with a sigh, and pokes the probably dead gerbil.  She pokes it again.  After one final vigorous poke, she pronounces it dead.

This is it.  The great gerbil experiment of 1974 is over.  Done.  I don’t know if I’m more horrified or relieved.

As my mom takes the cage way, saying, “Well, this was a waste of money,” I look at my hands, my fingers pinched together from the stress of the entire episode.  I hate gerbils, I tell myself.  I hate them, I hate them.  At the same time, I’m heartbroken.  Why did my gerbils not turn out right?  Why did my gerbils go so awry?  Why did I get the bad gerbils?  Why, why, why?

I tumble back through time.  The wanting, the years of wanting, and the book with the illustration of the perfect Teddy Bear Hamster—the right kind, Mom!  The kind I wanted in the first place.  The kind that doesn’t eat its friends.  But no, it was too cute, and there could never be anything too cute in our house.  We only ever got vanilla ice cream.  Why?  Because it was plain, and anything else would be too fancy.

The yearning, the whining, the begging, the pleading, the book with the picture in it, with the instructions that I read, that I memorized—The responsible gerbil owner will change the water daily.  The responsible gerbil owner will provide a wheel for their pet.  Gerbils want and need daily exercise.  Watch them go for a ride!—and then the trip to the pet store up on Woodstock, the gerbils, two gerbils because two are always better than one.  The two gerbils in a box—gerbils in a box, gerbils in a box, the thump-scritchy-thump of gerbils in a box—and the cage, the cheaper one like a birdcage, gold—it was so pretty—but was it a gerbil cage?  Was it actually a birdcage?  Was that why the bloody mayhem occurred, because the cage was too small?  Even now, forty years later, I have so many questions.



I now realize that when I watch the capybaras, I’m not in a state of relaxation, I’m in a state of hypervigilance.  Look at them simmering in their fancy outdoor hot tubs like wannabe actors in a Burbank apartment complex.  They lean against each other, close their eyes, relax their bodies, sink down until just their tiny ears are visible.  So Zen, so laid back, so…dangerous.

Do they eat each other once darkness falls?  Do they sink their teeth into the hands of unsuspecting tourist/belly rubbers?  Are they lovers or killers?  Madmen or just really chill spa guests?  That’s the rub: I have no way of knowing (well, I could Google, but as I said, I’m too lazy).  And while I love the mystery of the capybaras, I don’t trust them, not one bit.  Who’s to say they won’t wreak havoc on this snowy, steamy Japanese resort town?  How can I believe what’s right in front of my eyes?

When you think about it, that’s the problem with life, too—the rub, the tricky part.  Are things as they appear—happy capys getting their hot tub on—or are there deeper, darker developments to come?  Is it nothing, or is it something?  Oh, mystery of life: how amazing, and how truly terrifying you are.

Will Matt stay “off the nip” and have a happy, productive life, spinning on his own mortgaged gerbil wheel with good-citizen determination?  Will John’s high-grade cancer cells do the right thing and dissolve in their weekly bath of tuberculosis bacteria?  Or will they grow angry and destroy a genuinely good man?  And what about the spots on my bathroom wall?  What the hell are those?  Nothing?  Or something?

I guess my only choice (for I’d rather be dead than bitter and jaded) is to force myself to see the good, to believe in the good: Matt, twenty-one already, and yes, he’s in my home, eating my food and running up my water bill, but at the same time, yes, it’s Matt, alive, my big boy, right here in my home.  And John, the gerbil I always wanted—no, the Teddy Bear Hamster—the good kind, the right kind, the kind that sticks around.  And here he is, sitting beside me in a movie theater on a rainy Sunday afternoon, big and warm and comforting, weeping into his hankie.

Back at my desk, I stare at my computer screen, wondering if my university has some sort of system to spy on us, to watch what we do all day long in our locked offices when we’re supposed to be grading papers.  Do they know I’m obsessed with the capybara videos?  Is there some sort of limit to how many times you can refresh before they knock on your door, hand you a pink slip, escort you off the property, and send out a university-wide email telling everyone you’ve decided to “spend more time with your family?”

Fuck it.  I throw caution to the wind.  I press play, lean back and watch, mesmerized, as fat, happy animals float in their lemon baths, enjoying themselves, in the moment.  Breathing.  At peace.  Alive.