* Dear Reader, I plan to write one story from my life each week for...a while. Here is the first. Names have not been changed but hopefully nothing will be deemed too incriminating. I have tried to and will try to incriminate myself as much as anyone else in this and the stories to come. Don't worry, there will be more from our resident sex blogger, Elle Bonin, again soon.
My roommate Eryn, that's a weird boy's way of spelling Erin, not Aaron but a sort of a mid-gendered spelling, had a hamster named "The Hammy" and we called him Hammy for short, the hamster not Eryn. Eryn and his ex-girlfriend Stephanie got Hammy together, named him together, raised him in a cage together, though I don’t think they ever lived together, and when they broke up, Hammy came to live in The Phoenix House with us. Hammy lived in this wire cage shaped like an old-fashioned bird cage, with a series of colorful plastic tubes and platforms running through it for Hammy to traverse. The cage lived in a small room off the kitchen, that we called the "dining room" because in Olympia irresponsible, broke, twenty-something kids could afford to live in real houses because the houses were real run-down and real cheap, hence The Phoenix House.
I feel like I didn't pay much attention to Hammy. When an animal lives in a cage, in a room labled "dining" in a house full of people who "dine" on the couch while watching reruns of "Friends" or "The Simpsons" or whatever was on channel 13, FOX, that animal doesn't get a lot of attention, at least not from me. The other animals in the house, Lucy the dog and Miette and Spark the kittens, got plenty of attention because they were mobile. If they needed attention, they walked up to you and asked for it. In Lucy's case, threw her body at you. If they didn't get enough attention, Lucy pooped on the carpet near the front door and Miette peed on your laundry. Hammy had no such recourse. This is not to say that Eryn did not care for Hammy, he did in both the emotional and physical sense. I just felt like admitting that I did not do much for Hammy. Hammy and his cage felt a lot like sculpture, something you might look at with interest sometimes but don't touch and the more you pass it during your daily routine, the more it becomes a cabinet and less a piece of art.
When you live in a real house but don't quite have real lives yet, you tend to collect a lot of really useless stuff. For instance, there was a dead yellow car in our backyard, left by a previous resident who had promised to "take care of it". At this point, it had been spray-painted red and had grown a hornet's nest. Our roommate Amber complained that, "No, we can't get rid of the car!" because she wanted to smash in its windows with a baseball bat first. This resulted in a big conflict with my boyfriend at the time, Keith, who wanted to have it towed so that he could sell it or some part of it or make money off of it in some way. If Amber smashed the car, that would render it unsaleable, hence the dispute. In the end, I think we rolled the car into the street and left it, but I might be making that up.
The crawl spaces and basement of the house were full of years of delinquent roommate detritus: prom photos, photographic equipment, motorcycle parts, a motorcycle, dead amps, lamps, cords of all kinds, bench seats from cars, ironic thrift store art, ironic self-made art, gear of all kinds, rusted things, moldy things, things that people had at one time thought they wanted or needed but turned out they did not. When you finally have a space of your own, a house of your own, or the tenuous belief that it's yours and belongs to you because no one else cares about it, you want to fill it with things and when you don't have money or taste or any sense of how to make a life for yourself you fill it with crap and in our case pets too.
That's not to say that Hammy was crap. Hammy was great. Hammy's coloring resembled a muted dreamsicle, mostly dusty orange with some well-placed white splotches. His nose was pink and wiggled and his whiskers wiggled too. He was cute--he was a hamster. I couldn't detect much personality, but like I said, Hammy and I didn't spend a lot of time together. I was more concerned with my new kitten, Miette, my newish boyfriend, Keith, my newish life as a college student, my old existential crisis and my new ways of describing and extending it thanks to college.
One day I came home from school, I think, and set about doing one of a few things that I did a lot during that time: either making a salad, doing dishes (there were always a ton of dishes and the sink never drained), guiltily watching TV instead of reading critical theory, staring into space with a book in my hand and a notebook on the table or some other activity that's been lost to memory. Honestly, I didn't spend that much time on the internet then. There wasn't much to do besides check my Friendster account and send emails. No one was home but Eryn, and the animals. I looked in on Hammy who was lying on his back in the cage, limbs waving slowing in the air above him.
"Eryn, I think something's wrong with Hammy."
We pulled him out of the cage and he didn't look well. He was a little chilly too. I remembered a story from a book by James Harriot, about an English country veterinarian who goes about the countryside making house calls to farmers and their families that I had read and reread as a child. I was thinking specifically about the story of a sickly newborn lamb. I had to google various combinations of the words "English" "country" "veterinary" "children" and "stories until the phrase, "english childrens stories about a country veterinarian" turned up the right name just now. James Harriot, the kindly country vet, had put the lamb in the oven to warm it, which even as a child I found ironic, and the lamb had quickly regained health.
So, we put Hammy in the oven. We layed his weirdly contorted body on a round, mesh pizza tin and set the oven to "warm", and hesitated about whether to close the door. We closed the door. After about 5 minutes we checked on Hammy and he seemed to bit more perky and less contorted. I thought of the snow-white newborn lamb and how happy the children in the story had been when it had revived. I pictured their rosy cheeked faces beaming and clapping their chubby hands together while their mother looked on with mild pleasure, her rough farm hands folded in her white-aproned lap, either that or I'm just picturing it now.
We shut the door again for good measure. Eryn and I looked at each other hopefully and said something about how he looked a little better. We decided we should probably still take him to a vet, but who would treat a hamster? As Eryn held Hammy in his cupped hands and Hammy started to move a bit more normally, right side up now, I hauled out the phone book and started making calls. I was ready for veterinary disdain--these city vets were nothing like James Harriot and wouldn't think to care about a thing like Hammy. I was such a writhing ball of anxiety at the time, prone to panic attacks, especially when tasked with writing straight-forward, analytical prose essays in my college poetry classes, that my level-headed practicality in this situation was beginning to impress me. Not to be gruesome or to make use of Hammy's pain for dramatic and figurative affect, but psychologically, I felt like Hammy looked a lot of the time: both frozen and flailing. But here, in my kitchen, phone book in one hand, phone in the other, I thought of myself as the best person for the job. Eryn needed my help and I was being helpful. I came to one veterinary clinic that seemed sympathetic to our cause and jotted down the address. It was a ways away, out in Tumwater, the most remote of the three Thurston county towns Olympia-Lacy-Tumwater. It was the most rural of the three, with a somehow more pronounced feeling of quiet gloom and eeriness than the other two. Sometimes Eryn, Keith and I would venture out to Tumwater to go to an all-night diner called Cattins for their all-you-can-eat fish n’ chips special that we would try to sereptitiously share between the three of us. One of the waitresses’ there, Betty, had a fake nose and you could see it’s rubber starting to peel off on one side, which was fasciniating. Other than that there wasn’t much reason to go to Tumwater but I offered to go along because I was being helpful.
Eryn and I were friends, but didn't spend much time alone together. He and Keith, were more buddy-buddy, for instance, Keith had to tell Eryn not to look at pornography on my computer when we discovered his indiscretion because the photos were downloading directly to my desktop, using that brilliantly subtle way that men have that I will never be able to accomplish. I imagine it went something like this:
Keith: Hey dude, you know how when you click on a link to a picture on the internet and it downloads to your desktop?
Keith: Yeah, so...
Eryn: Oh, totally. Won’t happen again.
I would later bust Keith for the same thing via the same technological oversight and my twenty-one year old self would be full of righteous indignation and try to refuse to see the connection between his interest in pornography and our my disinterest in sex.
And Eryn was tall and handsome and kind in a humble sort of bashful way, not cocky like most of my musician dude friends were, which is probably why I felt a little uncomfortable around him. Yes, that is why I was uncomfortable around him because honestly, we probably would have dated if I hadn't already been with Keith and maybe all three of us knew it. But I wanted to help, so we piled into the giant Ford van that he and his band mates used to pack gear into for shows in Seattle and Portland and the odd West coast tour and I held Hammy while Eryn drove. It would have been better if I had driven and Eryn had held his hamster but I didn't have my license at yet, due to the same anxiety that kept me from doing anything normal and productive, partially due to a fear of becoming normal and productive, and wouldn't get it until the following summer when I turned 22 and moved to California in an attempt to escape the very same anxiety.
We drove mostly in silence, maybe chatting a bit, maybe listening to the radio or more likely an old tape, Eryn reaching over and petting Hammy’s belly with a finger every once in a while, but Hammy was starting to look a little beleaguered. His tiny pink feet clawed the air in slow motion, super slow motion like that really awkward way that people look when we’re trying to imitate slow motion on film, and I could feel his body clenching and unclenching in my hands, as his mouth opened wide, showing his pair of top and bottom teeth, long, thin,yellow, and paired to look like one big baby tooth on top and one big baby tooth on the bottom. I looked at Eryn, then back at Hammy.
"Um, Eryn, Hammy isn't looking so good."
Eryn looked down at Hammy then back at the road and we both said things back and forth that amounted to:
Maybe Eryn sped up, I don’t remember but for dramatic affect let’s say that we peeled into the parking lot of the veterinary clinic, or the opposite of peeled because we were parking and hopped out of the van and half ran-half walked into the clinic, trying to look sort of normal but also trying to move fast because Hammy’s life was in our hands and he was maybe dying and kind of burst into the entryway of the office and looked down into my hands and Hammy was dead. He had frozen in one of his contorted slow motion swim strokes. We looked up at the woman behind the desk who might have been the sympathetic voice I had spoken to earlier, with her look of expectation and readiness to serve, and looked back to Hammy in my hands still dead, and sort of smiled weakly, shrugged our shoulders, and headed for the door.
“Oh...” I heard her say and then maybe, “Too late, I guess.”
I think I patted Eryn’s shoulder as we walked back to the car and said something like, “I’m sorry, dude.” or hopefully, “I’m sorry, Eryn.”
At some point I probably transferred Hammy to Eryn or maybe I held him in my lap on the drive home as we discussed the proper burial proceedings in that practical way that people have of going to logistics for comfort. Eryn would call Stephanie and what time would he probably do it so that I could make sure to help and maybe the evening would be best so that Keith and Amber could come too, but once we got home I was exhausted and a little overwhelmed and went straight to my room upstairs, the big one with the bathroom even though I was the youngest in the house, that cost $250/month, which is crazy to me now, and fell asleep. I slept through Hammy’s funeral and I think Eryn ended up burying him in the backyard by himself that night after dark, which sounds pretty maudlin. I know I felt guilty for missing it and the guilt seemed to somehow outweigh the good feelings of having helped earlier. Some of the guilt came from exactly that, the fact that I had felt so good about myself earlier. While Hammy was dying and Eryn was upset about his pet, I was feeling proud of my level-headedness and kind-heartedness and what a good friend I was and no I wasn’t attracted to Eryn because that would mean I was bad when I really wanted to be good and then I missed the funeral and was automatically, irreversibly bad. Bad all around. Bad friend, bad student (having spent valuable study time helping), bad girlfriend for feeling close to Eryn, which once you’re there you might as well just go all the way to bad daughter, bad sister, bad person, which is what my therapist at the time called "The Parrot" and "The Bug". The Parrot is good and The Bug is bad. You're either one or the other but nowhere in between.
In any case, Eryn was sad for a while, visibly depressed, but everyone seemed to be pretty mopey, not just in our house but generally speaking. If you weren't making ascerbic, cutting remarks about some jerk and their perceived over-enthusiastic attitude over a can of Pabst in a semi-dank semi-dark interior space, you were one of those jerks, which probably meant you weren't from Olympia.
But Hammy was a good Hamster. He did all the things that good Hamsters do, including die within his approximately 3 year lifespan of natural causes. Yes, I just googled the phrase "hamster lifespan".
R.I.P. "The Hammy". I don't know why I thought of you today.