WHAT CAN BE BETTER THAN…? • by Rosemarie DiCristo

Most guys give you chocolates for your birthday. Or flowers. Johnny got me a Madagascar hissing cockroach.

Now, there are websites that let you name a cockroach after a loved one. No, Johnny actually gave me one, plus its fish tank, its food, the whole deal. I was thrilled. Mom was not.

“What’s Emma supposed to do with it?” Mom bellowed once she’d stopped screaming.

“Do?” Johnny looked astonished. “Keep it, of course. It’s Emma’s pet.”

He was dead serious, but I could tell from Mom’s expression that Johnny might be plain dead if I didn’t intervene. “You helped me catch fireflies when I was a kid, Mom,” I protested. “You do the ‘ladybug, ladybug, fly away home.’ Plus, when that centipede got in our kitchen, didn’t you scoop him into a cup and toss him in the backyard?”

“I also send money to save the whales,” Mom growled, “but I don’t want one in my bathtub.”

“Yeah. Technically this is your house, but I just turned nineteen and have the right to whatever pet I want.”

“Fine. But I’m never entering your bedroom again!” Then my cockroach’s hiss sent Mom bolting to the kitchen.

Johnny looked anxious. “They’re very gentle. They only hiss when threatened. Emma, you like him, right?”

“I’ve already named him Maximillian.”

“Cool. You ready for the best part?”

I nodded.

“Hissing cockroaches love to be held and petted.” And Johnny picked up Maximilian and deposited him into my cupped hand.

His tiny legs scratched a bit, but Maximillian was one fine-looking roach: fully the length of my index finger, a glossy reddish-brown, with two glorious antennae. I touched my hand to Johnny’s so Max could scabber over to him. We grinned at each other. “You always know exactly what I like,” I exclaimed.

You know the scene in Titanic where Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet embrace, arms aloft, in the prow of the ship? Johnny replicated it last spring, only at the 14th Street station of the Lexington Avenue line, where the subway platform narrows to a six-inch triangle and, Johnny assured me, if you stand there while the local and express zoom downtown, it’s grand.

It was, but I don’t think Leo and Kate got that lungful of tunnel soot during their embrace.

Anyway, we hopped the next train, eventually ending up at Coney Island. Nathan’s, of course. A cheap date? Nuh-huh; those hot dogs cost nearly $5 a pop.

We first met on jury duty when I tiptoed out of the jury assembly room to see what was down those off-limits marble corridors branching out in both directions only to find Johnny had the same idea We quickly learned we lived two blocks apart and were born two weeks apart, love the Yankees, not Red Sox, Svengoolie, not the Hallmark Channel, and that cheese, chocolate, and garlic make everything better. Sometimes at the same time.

It was a dare.

It tastes better than you think.

Johnny gets me, and I get him. Which is why, as we filled Max’s tank with toilet paper tubes and other hiding places, aspen wood shavings for bedding, a water dish, and a bunch of fresh fruits and veggies, I knew I had to buy Johnny an even better gift.

But what could be better than a Madagascar hissing cockroach?

The only pet that comes close is a tarantula. But you gotta feed them grasshoppers and stuff. That’s murder, sort of.

I considered a day of bungee jumping, but we’re both afraid of heights.

A tour of the sewers? Possible, but Johnny’s gift had to be something he could keep forever.

Getting Johnny his own zombie? No such thing, and anyway, it’d probably eat us.

He interns each summer mucking out the Pelham Bay stables, so I Googled “backyard manure farm.” Also, no such thing.

Johnny loved last year’s Stinky Tofu Fest in Chinatown, so I Googled ‘homemade Limburger cheese.’

Bingo! It’s a thing. An expensive thing. You gotta buy buttermilk culture, liquid rennet, bacteria linens, something called ‘geotrichum candidum,’ plus equipment. It’s time-consuming. You need to cook, mold, salt, age, and wash your cheese. But after about three months you end up with cheese so pungent, it smells like a combo of sweaty socks and cat urine.

I presented the ingredients, equipment, etc. to Johnny for his nineteenth birthday and his grin nearly split his face. “I can’t wait to start making it! My own Limburger cheese!” (Johnny’s mom? Not so thrilled).

I sighed. “It’s not a pet. But while Googling stinky cheeses, I discovered there’s this Italian cheese called Casu Marzu that’s infested with real, live maggots.”

Johnny’s dad, Mr. Conigliaro, laughed. “My father used to eat that.”

“Cool,” I said, “because the Internet has a recipe. It’s sorta illegal to produce and sell, but people do make it on the hush-hush…”

“Not in my house, they don’t,” Mrs. Conigliaro thundered.

“Sure, Mom, sure.” But when we were alone, Johnny told me, “Gramps lives alone on a dead-end street with a detached garage. Any escaping maggots wouldn’t be our pets, exactly, but they sure as shooting wouldn’t bother anyone. Wanna risk it?”

Realistically? The internet recipe sounds complicated. But sometimes, the fun is in the trying.

Rosemarie DiCristo was never lucky enough to own any pet (mostly because every female member of her family had fur allergies) but, living in New York City, she probably would NOT choose a roach anyway, despite how easy it would be to get one. She’s published short fiction in many venues, most recently online for Havok and in two of Ye Olde Dragon Books’ fairy tale and monster anthologies.

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