Around nine every morning my rhinoceros iguana Ava climbs down the ladder from her sleeping box and walks her dinosaur walk, kathump-kathump-kathump, tail swishing side-to-side, from the north end of the barn to the southeast-facing deck. Ava has free run, while Sebastian and Emo each have their own corral. On the deck are two big sunning cages, one at each end, and I carry the males out, otherwise they will fight and try to herd Ava, who is spayed and wants no part of it.
From the first cloudless day in mid-February to the last sunny day in September the lizards can bask on the deck. I join them every chance I get. I spread a towel on the oak boards and sit down beside Ava. She tilts her head and peers into my eyes to know my status and my throat aches with love welling up. Ava senses the emotional shift and stands up like a cat, nose and tail raised, eyes shut, while I run my hand down her dry-silky flank and spiky dorsal crest. I kiss her and tell her what pretty nose horns she has. When I lie down she climbs onto my stomach, scaly feet and claws not quite breaking skin. She rests her chin on my chest, her belly on mine, and her tail drapes over my leg. She tucks an arm back at her side the way iguanas do when they are content, like it is the most natural thing for her to have a human basking buddy. This is the life I have always wanted, not ever having to say good-bye to my lizards because it’s time to go inside a house.
People ask, “How did you get interested in lizards?” I fumble for a response and end up saying that lizard love pre-dates memory. But I do remember a bullfrog and I can see a clear line between him, and my first lizard.
I came into this harsh world where I was going to have to adapt and learn to live among humans if I wanted to survive. At first the world was not at all harsh, in fact it was downright luxurious and blissful and it would’ve been perfect if not for the problem of the distance that separated me from the pond where my bullfrog lived. My whole life I’ve been trying to fix this problem that I first became aware of when I was four-and-a-half years old, wearing my flower girl dress in Aunt Marcia’s wedding.
On St. Mark’s Place the rent was three hundred dollars a month. The apartment was on the first floor way at the back, like going back in time, and it faced a void between buildings and steel gates went across two tall windows, muddling the view, but letting in bright sunshine. I put my futon on the floor of what might normally be a living room. If one had furniture, there might be a rug, a small couch, stuffed chairs, a lamp, maybe a coffee table and in the adjoining area, a desk and book shelves, and in the wide closet that led to the kitchen, one might hang clothes, and I did put mine there, but it wasn’t much, plus I needed the space for Mr. Boa. He coiled himself in the back and I hung a clamp light from the clothing rod with a red heat bulb (snakes don’t see red).
It was my first apartment that I could set up the way I liked: Full of lizards. The Universe picked up on my intent. As soon as my phone was hooked up it started ringing about iguanas.
When I think of St. Mark’s I see the sunshine pouring into that little room where I put Spot’s branch –the tree limb—and he is basking at the top under his Vitalite, watching over his territory. He has grown and the bend in his spine has almost straightened. His dorsal crest spikes are getting taller. He’s lost the bright green that lets babies hide in foliage; he’s turning olive-tan-gray with the orange tones of a male coming of age. With swollen jowls and dewlap pushed out Spot shakes and bobs his head, talking to the new young females Pooky and Snooky. Spot has never seen females of his own kind, and he watches them with wide-open eyes, awakening to the new, exciting things coming alive inside him.
A few months before Gordon and I moved to Los Angeles, I got a fantastic job bartending in a Greek nightclub in Queens, where I dressed up wild, made lots of money, and had a ball with my fellow bartenders, especially Nikos. He asked what I hoped to find in L.A. I said I thought I would be discovered by me. Surely going three thousand miles away from home would push me into a grown-up life. I couldn’t be fifty years old in sparkly-lacy outfits, dancing behind the bar till two a.m. And wouldn’t I be so off-the-hook if Gordon and I got married. Settled into those roles where I cook and clean and Gordon gets the job. I admit there lives in me a little Martha Stewart who revels in making everything, and creating a comforting atmosphere in the home. I hesitate to say comforting, since my idea of that includes lizards and snakes and bromeliads everywhere, and I understand these elements do not say “comfort” to everyone. God, could I throw a fabulous party. I could get so out-of-control carving a pumpkin with lots of sharp teeth, and decorating a Christmas tree with hundreds of sparkles and baking a Yule log with bittersweet chocolate bark and merengue mushrooms. I have to mention kids. I didn’t want them and I didn’t think you got to be in that role and not have them. And should I put myself in a holiday apron basting a turkey, where are my lizards? The only sparkles are miniature Christmas trees dangling from my ears and soon I am on anti-depressants, losing a battle with rage.
Gordon didn’t get the job, I did –at a topless bar called Candy Cats.
I’m in the food court at a mall in the San Fernando Valley three thousand miles from home and I’m fine, I have a job and cash in my pocket, I have a driver’s license and a car. I’m drinking coffee and reading INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, which I found at Waldenbooks a few stores down. I am killing time between a double-shift at Candy Cats One and Too. What better time to get another iguana? I don’t know that’s what I’m going to do, I just get up from the table and wander into the mall on auto-pilot, into the pet shop, past the bubbling fish tanks and the screeching birds, past a hamster spinning his exercise wheel and into the blue-white of Vitalites and the particular motion of reptiles. I put on blinders so I can’t look at the baby tortoises, the ball python, the tank full of anoles because if I look at their eyes I’ll buy them all, I have the cash to do it. I see the baby iguana inside the big tank standing on her back feet digging against the wall of glass. One of her hands folds under because the wrist is broken. This is Goober. Splinting that arm will be like trying to repair a toothpick. I get the sales clerk and I reach in and lift the baby out to stop her from clawing at the glass with her broken wrist. With my free hand I take out my roll of cash and buy Goober, plus a ten-gallon tank, which she stays in on the passenger seat of the car, draped with a jacket, while I do my night shift. Driving back to the apartment I talk to this little person, this small, green presence asleep in the glass tank on the seat beside me and I tell her everything’s going to be okay.
In the morning Gordon says, “We didn’t talk about you getting another iguana.” That was true, he had a right to be mad. However, it was clear to me –the only thing that was clear—I needed the freedom to decide how many iguanas I would have.