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Wildlife Sanctuary

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Let's get this over with. When I was twenty-three, living in Brooklyn and working at a nonprofit where I sorted dental dams by tropical flavor, I went on a blind date with Richard, a London trader a decade my senior. He was passing through town after having almost been killed in a motorcycle race in Mexico. I found him impossibly charming. In fact, he was so attractive I willed myself to overlook that he lived in a different country, and that he wasn't at all my future-failed-rock-star type. We drank champagne in a bar with a floor-to-ceiling aquarium, in which bobbed a real! live! girl! dressed as a mermaid. She paddled around and bobbed up for air looking bored, but most of us on dry land were pretty amused.

"That mermaid is fat," said a girl on the barstool next to me, and Richard and I laughed at how ridiculous she was to complain about a woman working underwater all night in a sequined tail. And then Richard's knee brushed against mine in a way that made me feel like I'd never been attracted to anyone before.

So we fell in love and spent five years shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic bearing gifts of strawberry Linzer cookies, dog-eared novels, and loads of cheap lingerie that disintegrated at the laundromat. He proposed and we spent a year hunting for the perfect Manhattan apartment, which we bought together and then spent one night in before breaking up the following morning. The specifics aren't as interesting as the mermaid; he freaked out about settling down. But, he averred, he wanted us to keep dating.

"Forever?" I asked.

"Let's see how it goes," he shrugged, patting the space next to him in bed. I got the salient point: the future father of my children wasn't likely to show up at a condo I shared with a guy who wouldn't even commit to cat-ownership.

One woman tried to rent me the crawlspace above the kitchen cabinets.

The end!

But only kind of, because there was still the issue of our apartment. With all of my money invested in it, I was too broke to afford my own place. I decided to suck it up and temporarily move in with roommates, preferably ones with cable television and predilections for salted margaritas. What I really wanted was to hide in the fetal position and watch an endless cycle of Werner Herzog movies about the Amazon, guaranteed to fill me with gratitude that, while my romance might have been derailed, I was lucky not to have dead monkeys falling on my head. Barring that, I'd settle for digs within walking distance of my office.

I looked at a string of terrible apartments — stained ceilings and dirty paper plates and view after view of brick-lined alleys. One skinny woman on a leafy Village block tried to rent me the crawlspace above the kitchen cabinets. When I showed up she was eating a pack of Splenda grain by grain off the counter, like coke, but I pretended the trip wasn't a complete waste, as if I'd spent my entire adult life sleeping on a rickety shelf with my face four inches from the ceiling. Feigning interest, I climbed up the ladder to take a peek and saw that the mattress had been badly burned. "Was there. . . a fire in this bed?" I asked, and she flapped her arms, exasperated. "The girl who's here now fell asleep and her halogen lamp tipped over. I could have died!"

           

 

 PERSONAL ESSAYS

              

At the last raggedy group rental I saw — an old artist's loft in Tribeca — the inside of the decrepit elevator told me everything I needed to know. The message "Ottoman Empire, reveal yourself" was spray-painted on the dirty wall next to a taped-up memo that read, "Exterminator scheduled for February 31."

On the fifth floor, I knew I'd come to the right apartment when I saw the small sign on the door: "In the event of an evacuation, please rescue two dogs, one cat, roomful of birds, six turtles." Someone with different handwriting had added, "And one dude named Jay." The woman I'd spoken to on the phone, Marie, opened the door and greeted me with a sleepy, distracted air and a hand-rolled cigarette between two fingers. Then I walked straight into an aviary. Eight birds chirped beneath a grow light, which, she explained, was set to a nocturnal timer. A thirty-year-old retired model, she stood almost six feet tall, with perfect whole-milky skin and straight brown hair that skimmed the top of her waist.

A cacophony of high-pitched barks announced two dogs: a three-pound Chihuahua named Lila and a rat terrier named Charlie. "Come on, girls," Marie said to them. "Let's roll." She turned on her barefoot heel and headed towards the kitchen. I took in the floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with hundreds, possibly thousands, of records and hardcover photography books, framed drawings and photos of Marie on magazine covers, tear sheets of jewelry and perfume advertisements that I recognized from the nineties.

"First of all, this is their home," Marie said, offering me a cup of lukewarm coffee. A black cat with dandruff scuttled behind a potted ficus tree.

"I like animals," I said weakly, taking a sip.

The living room was a showcase for a museum-sized collection of taxidermy: a wild turkey flanked by stuffed iguanas, a brown bear's head on the brick wall, above a diorama of turtle shells and beneath an array of antlers.

Here, I thought, was a place I could fall apart. No one would even notice!

It was a messy, crowded house, so obviously lived in I felt an overwhelming rush of relief. Here, I thought, was a place I could fall apart. No one would even notice!

"It's a three-bedroom," Marie said as we walked down a dark hallway, "and there's a guy living in this one. Chris. He works nights, on the opposite schedule of the birds. This would be yours." I followed her through a doorway to a sunlight-flooded room with a corner plywood desk, a loft bed on stilts, and enough plants to fill a greenhouse.

"I'll take it," I said, and Marie pulled a key out of her pocket.


Two weeks later, I was as comfortable in this new home as I would ever be. I missed Richard terribly and we were at a standstill with the apartment, because it was hard to let go, both of each other and of the investment. We hadn't officially put it on the market yet, because as long as we held onto it, there was a chance the relationship could be salvaged. Or we could sell it and cut our losses, but with the worst housing market in three generations, the only way to walk away was defeated.

I had started hanging out with a guy I'd had a crush on for months, an editor so obsessed with fiction, he didn't have any interest in a real relationship. As if to prove the point, he owned only one towel. I felt relieved that there was no possibility of commitment; instead of diving in again, I could walk around and around the pool, toeing the water without getting wet.

Marie, on the other hand, wasn't cautious at all. Since stepping aside as Karl Lagerfeld's muse, she'd stayed busy as a plaintiff, filing three different lawsuits in search of cash settlements. On Saturday afternoons, we often went to yoga class together, then came back to make raw soup out of coconut and cantaloupe. "You know," she said, hacking at a melon while I asked her about why she was suing a former roommate, "I think the purpose of my life is litigation."

              

 

 PERSONAL ESSAYS

           

 

I'd been living there three months, when Marie's shouts woke me in the middle of the night.

"Sarah, babe!" she called into my room. "Help!"

I stumbled into the hallway, yawning, to find a Chinese man unloading wooden crates of frogs from his cart into the entryway. Marie rushed over and took both of my hands. "Oh, my God," she said. "Look what I did!"

She'd been walking home through Chinatown when she spotted a sign advertising frogs for one dollar apiece. A few of them paddled around in a plastic bucket on the sidewalk. "So I told the guy I'd take all of his frogs," she said, and when he told her there were a ton more in the back, she said she'd take those, too.

I supposed buying hundreds of frogs came with free delivery. She waved goodbye to the man, who looked anxious to get out of the house. (And who could blame him?)

Marie hauled one of the cases through the kitchen, around the corner and into our bathroom.

"Oh, my God," she said. "Look what I did!"

"Now we take them out!" With the handle of a plastic hairbrush, she pried open the lid and dumped two dozen frogs into the shower.

As one of them hopped out of the tub and behind the toilet, Marie looked up, suddenly afraid. "We've got to get these frogs out of here," she said. She flipped open her cell phone and dialed. I heard her tell a friend what she had done. A tinny voice on the other end yelled out, "Not again!"

I asked if she had done this before.

"Not with frogs," she said, brushing past me to close the bathroom door so none of them could escape. "There were, like, two small things involving freeing animals from Chinatown. One was ducks."

"How does this end?" I asked.

She said her friend would be here soon with a truck and they'd drive out to a wildlife sanctuary in Brooklyn to let them go. But these frogs hardly struck me as wild. They were like the amphibian version of that killer whale released from Sea World into the open sea. He'd floated there in the ocean — a listless lump too disoriented to hunt. I had serious doubts about the likelihood of these little guys making a go of it outside the box.

We rounded them all up before Marie's creature retriever arrived, a shaggy guy who must have realized by now that sleeping with Marie wasn't going to be as awesome as he imagined. One by one, we hefted the splintery cases to his Jeep, and the two of them got in. "Hey," Marie said to me, "you're invited."

I shook my head, and they took off towards the Manhattan Bridge. Back in the bathroom washing my hands, I spotted a frog crouching behind the shower curtain. He had missed the exit to Brooklyn and now was stuck in this apartment. For about two seconds, I considered abandoning him in that puddle of patchouli body wash, but then what?

I thought about my old apartment, empty all these months. I'd had the broker agreement sitting on my desk since before Christmas, willing the whole mess to disappear.

I caught the frog in a paper sack, stuffed the signed contract into an envelope and ran downstairs and outside. I'd forgotten my jacket, and the wind blew straight through my worn out t-shirt to the skin, but I was grateful for the cold air, the way I imagine someone waking up from a coma might be excited about eating a turkey sandwich. When I reached Hudson River Park, I set the bag close to the water's edge, opened it, and walked away.

           
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sarah Norris is a freelance writer in New York.
©2009 Sarah Norris and Nerve.com