I was nine years old. I came across all of them the same way: Happenstance and wandering. I loved them, all of them, deeply. And I believed that they loved me back. That little critter love filled the empty space where a functional family unit or real human friends might have been if I were another child, one more interested in dolls than birds. Taking care of them was my whole world and, because they had no other choice, I was theirs.
There were rules in my home, but not a lot of supervision. Nobody asked me if I’d done my homework or brushed my teeth, but I had to be home before dinner, had to bathe every night, and had to clean my room. This last one was essential since by age nine I’d already become one hell of a hoarder and more often than not the smell of urine-tinged wood chips would waft down the hall from my doorway choking everyone in the house.
I didn’t collect old vintage finds like the middle-aged masters on reality shows that didn’t exist yet, rather, I collected creatures, a variety of friends who couldn’t get away. All kinds of animals could be spotted in my personal zoo. I found my dog after wandering into a stranger’s backyard one day to pet the litter of puppies crowding around the gate. My dozen rats, hamsters, gerbils, hermit crabs, and the snake came from a local pet store that I’d walk to every time money founds its way to me, either through babysitting, scheming, or chores. Back then, in the early nineties, twenty bucks could buy me a new tank, wood chips, a water bottle or whatever, food, and some kind of animal for my little prison of love. The tadpoles came from a pond near the train tracks. The lizards from a friend’s cousin down the street who had caught dozens of them in a field, back when the suburbs were surrounded by empty fields of grass or dirt.
Carefully, I chose each one and doted to the best of my very poor young abilities. In retrospect, my devotion was probably not appreciated and at times toed the line of downright terrifying. Rats, for example, probably do not enjoy bike rides or bubble baths. But at the time, I did my best and they were my everything whether or not they were on board with it.
And then my mother’s marriage ended everything changed. And when they were gone, all gone, every last fuzzy bottom given away, sold off, set free, or euthanized, my world crumbled. And for a while, I lost myself.