I went home with a researcher, a testudinologist. A Turtle Man, he called himself. I met him at a club, where he resembled the creature he collected obsessively: time-saddened and stationary. I needed a boyfriend, and something about his sloped shoulders and his fingers tapping to-the-beat signaled Commitment To You.
I’d been a free bird, not god-fearing but commitment-fearing, for six years. So I was sort of eyeing the wire cage when I sidled up to him pretending not to see where my hips bumped. I wondered if we could open up, share furniture and learn something about ourselves. I wanted a companion. He jumped at the chance.
So we sat in his flat kissing, post-Uber. I squinted through the kisses, peeking at rows of glowing aquariums beyond his cheek. Stacked like books in a library. The clunks of reptiles and purring filters occupied an enlarged auditory space. That and our lips still working out a symbiosis.
He didn’t know about my collection. Six years of skirling hook-ups led to an odd habit: nabbing a souvenir from each fling and sticking it in my purse. I had a sock, a jar of homemade cucumber preserves, a .30-06 casing, a beetle preserved in glass, a 20-kroner coin from Denmark, 3 lambskin contraceptive wrappers, a turkey feather, and a big toe clipping.
The Turtle Man had showed me around when we first arrived, pointing to each football-shaped dinosaur and telling me its name. The reptiles had protracted their necks and fanned their claws. It’d struck me that the glass tanks contained self-contained reptilian tanks. Armor-sandwiches. Heads like gun muzzles made from old tongues. I’d asked: Why turtles?
“This here is Paddy,” he’d said. “I put my old junk in her tank for decoration: my rock collection, marbles, Legos, Lincoln logs… I feed her mice from that cardboard box. Her bite could take your hand. But look — flip Paddy over,” (he’d done so) “and she’s just a flabby baby!”
The dismayed monstrosity did have rather pretty fudge-colored eyes. It had occurred to me that the Turtle Man was both wide and thin, whoopee cushion shaped. If I became his girlfriend, I’d eventually have to watch ‘Paddy’ eat a live mouse.
“Why turtles?” he’d continued. “Well, turtles live as long as us. I don’t want something that’ll die in a few months, I want something that’ll stick around — god, gee, is that a spider? Let me get him.”
As he had swatted the arachnid, I’d told him I wanted a pet. He’d grinned and pointed to the soil in Paddy’s enclosure, which was calving chunks of loam into the water. I saw eggs, half-buried. He’d placed his forearms above my hips. He wanted to give me a baby snapper.
So I was making out with the Turtle Man with my eyes open wondering if an ectothermic egg gift was a sort of proposal. He wouldn’t care for any other animal. Mice were offerings. Spiders were whack-a-moles. It seemed prejudiced. Noah’s ark filled only with turtles.
And I happened to see a feeder mouse push itself through the cardboard box’s breathing hole above Paddy’s aquarium. I kept kissing the Turtle Man but strained with one eye over his earlobe. There was something at stake. The pinkfooted rodent plopped to the floor where the carpet touched the trim.
I pulled away and asked for a glass of water. He said “absolutely’ and jogged away like we were in the intro credits of a movie. I crept to the sacrificial mouse, let it whisker my hand, and neatly lifted it into my purse. I had my companion. It might only live a few years, I knew, but it would save me from a lifelong sentence — so that was plenty long enough.
James Cato writes in the great outdoors, usually covered in ants. He is from Philadelphia. Look for more of his work in the Eunoia Review, Coffin Bell Journal, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Alluvian.