#641: CATCH AND RELEASE
My mind keeps going back to the fall, winter, and spring of 1996-97. That was the year in which my life turned itself every which way but up. The man whom I was deeply and unreasonably in love with put my heart and brain through a juicer. A good number of my friendships ended. I lost the social circle I had relied on for the last few years. I was trying to go to university full time after having been considered unemployable by the state due to psychological issues for the previous three years. I was trying to live on $175 a month. I started dating again, which was good, but the guy I was dating had an anxiety condition and actually thought that I might be poisoning his food. One of my roommates turned out to be a serial date-rapist specializing in virgins who attacked a good friend's close relative. I was chased down in the middle of the night by a man who stood on the corner and laughed while I fumbled with my keys at the door to my house, and I stopped moving freely for a long time after that. And then, my pet hamster died.
I had bought this little blonde hamster in the fall, because when my long-term boyfriend and I split up, he kept the cat. I was lonely for warm bodies in my life, and although buying a pet the size of a small dinner roll seemed like a desperate act, I needed to do something, anything, for myself. I needed to create a new life and a new home, even if it was with a hamster in a small bedroom in a house I shared with seven other people.
I brought the hamster home, set up his cage and food, gave him a pile of nesting material, and watched him rearrange his new environment. He shuffled everything around until it no longer resembled the tidy place I had created for him, but when he curled up under a shredded paper towel to go to sleep, he seemed happy. I watched him through the bars for about a week, and listened to the soft rustle of pine shavings at night, telling myself that I should let him settle in before handling him. One of my roommates, an animal lover, asked if he could feed him, and I gave him the go-ahead.
I let the hamster settle in untouched throughout the second and third weeks, as well, and it wasn't until sometime in week four that I realized I had yet to touch or name the furry little guy. I knew that I had been preoccupied with school, a new relationship, and mending my still broken heart, but to bring home a pet that is never once touched is strange. I couldn't figure out why I wasn't coddling him like every other living thing I had taken care of. I like animals, and I've had fish, lizards, cats, and hamsters off and on since I was twelve years old, so I felt guilty about discarding this one in a cage on top of a pile of books by the door. Why wasn't I calling him pooky and sweet baby and littlest fuschnickens?
I went over and unlatched the door to the cage. I had cared for a few hamsters in the past, and they had each lived into old age, so I knew how to handle this one, I was sure. Except that I couldn't. My hand hovered above him, frozen. I pulled my arm out, looked at it, and put it back in. Again, my hand remained frozen above the hamster. I re-latched the cage door and sat across from him on the floor. I started talking to him.
Am I afraid of you? It's ridiculous if I am, because you're cute, and I've had hamsters before.
He leaned up against the bars, sniffing in my direction. I imagined his tiny, sharp rodent fangs.
My roommates pick you up, you've never bitten them, and I can't even bring myself to hand you chocolate treats through the bars. It's true. I would hold out a treat, and as soon as he made a move in its direction, I would drop it and leap away.
He moved over to his food dish and started stuffing corn and sunflower seeds into his elastic cheeks. Each time he pushed something in, his narrow, ugly jaw yawned open. His cuteness was waning.
I haven't even fed you. I make other people do it. What is wrong with me? All I have to do is drop the bowl into the cage.
He made a startled dart backwards in the cage and then scrabbled madly at the far corner. His speed was suddenly alarming and unpredictable, like a miniature, furry shark.
Should I give you away? Is my aversion to you abuse?
I could hear him cracking open nuts. He seemed to be all teeth, and it was freaking me out. I wasn't simply nervous about my pet; I was terrified of him.
The roommate who was feeding him knew that something was up between the hamster and me, because every time he came into the room to feed it, I found an excuse to leave. Even having the door to the cage open while I was in the room had become too much for me. Also, I had taken to leaving the hamster's cage covered with a blanket when I was at home in the afternoon. The thing kept standing up on its yellow plastic house to get a better look at me, and I was sure that he could jump pretty far. I swore that I had seen him leaping at the cage door on more than one occasion.
I knew that all the different stresses in my life had pushed my thinking out of the normal range, but I couldn't help that creeping sensation I had that the hamster was conniving. He was going to get out, and when he did, he was going to bite me. A lot. He would set upon me in my sleep, evil and fangèd, tearing at my soft, pulsing neck with his terrible incisors and determined claws.
I moved his cage out into the hall.
The situation, which at first struck my roommates as strange, eventually normalized, and they took turns feeding the hamster and cleaning his cage. My plan was to move out in the spring and "forget" him there, because there was no possible way he could thrive under the care of someone who could no longer look at him let alone go near him. Luckily, or not so luckily, depending on whose side you're taking, I never had to make that decision.
One afternoon after class, I came up the stairs to my room to drop off my books and grab a sweater. As had become habit, I let my eyes drift past the cage without really focusing on it, but a movement snapped them back. Something was not right. The shavings at the bottom were twitching. I found a chopstick in my room and poked the shavings aside to reveal the hamster slowly contracting and extending himself over and over. It was revolting. His movements looked almost reptilian, but I had not grown so cold to him that I would leave him there to suffer, so I called one of my roommates upstairs to assess the situation.
While we looked over the cage, I asked, So, do you think we should drown him?
NO! He's your pet. Don't you think we should try to save him? My roommate was horrified at my suggestion.
I don't mean to be cruel, but he's really little, and it looks like he's in pain. It would be euthanasia, not murder. I don't know what else to do. The animal's suffering was awful to watch.
We are not going to drown him. I'll see what I can do.
The house consensus was that the hamster had swallowed something it shouldn't have, and because hamster's are physically unable to vomit, there was only way for whatever it was to come out. The roommate spent a good part of the afternoon gently massaging the hamster from neck to belly, and it did seem to relieve some of the rodent's physical distress, but whenever the massaging stopped, its convulsions resumed.
Are you sure we shouldn't drown it? I asked.
NO. Dirty looks abounded.
After three hours of massaging the hamster, it stopped breathing. I felt relieved. And then, I felt guilty about feeling relieved. And then, and I'm not kidding, the roommate gave it mouth-to-mouth. I'm really not kidding. He opened that little creature's mouth and breathed life back into him. Three times. I didn't know whether to think of it as miraculous or really fucking annoying. On the one hand, I truly wanted that evil little varmint dead so that it would stop haunting my dreams, but on the other hand, I knew that I was a complete asshole to want to drown him in the toilet bowl, because my desire to euthanize him was less about relieving his misery and more about physically killing off an entirely irrational yet paralyzing fear that was actually living in the hall outside my bedroom door. It was like I was keeping a cuter, tinier version of Freddy Kruger out there.
When the hamster finally breathed his last, a couple of the roommates went outside to bury him in the yard, and without any warning, without ever having had a single warm feeling toward that hamster, I started to sob. A roommate handed me a tea towel, and I cried until it was sopping with snot and tears. Eventually, when my apparent grief was stretching out into an embarrassing scene, I went upstairs to my room and poured out more tears. I cried all afternoon. I cried off and on throughout the evening. I woke up in the middle of the night and cried some more.
That hamster, poor thing, had come to symbolize the albatross of heartache that was around my neck, my three-ounce millstone. He had unwittingly become the focal point of all my life's unhappiness, and I was deeply unimpressed with how cold I had been toward him both while he was alive and while he was dying. But, I was also a deeply relieved person. As terrible as this may sound, when he died and was buried in the yard, it was like I had put a great deal of my negative feelings into a bottle and thrown it out sea. That small death, that last little body I had associated with what had come before, allowed me to let go of at least a part of all the mess that had been my previous year. Except, of course, the metaphorical bottle I had thrown out to sea was a flesh and blood hamster who had died an unnecessary and excruciating death, which would have been less excruciating if we had just drowned him in the first place.
I slept more soundly after that, and his nasty fanginess became sweet carrots when the spring finally came.