by JD Scott
My lover was gifted a chinchilla on his eighth birthday. They’re one of those strange creatures that seem to exist solely for childish whim. Angelito was especially willful. He willed himself through my lover’s jockish middle school years, through his teens ignited with violence, even past his early twenties, which were known for remorse. Angelito was eighteen when I met my lover. Angelito could buy porn, purchase lotto tickets, attend college. This was how our jokes went—youthful benchmarks, how maybe he’d make it into Guinness if we focused on his continued rodent life long enough. Angelito had willed his existence for so long—past fad and impulse buy—and now his little life was pure continuity: sitting in cage, shivering, sleeping, living, living.
We, too, were living—in the city—sharing a studio that rented for thousands. The shower had no pressure and took fifteen minutes to heat up. I could usually fry up an egg and eat it on the toilet while the water was still lukewarm. I considered this vigilance against the limited hours of the day. Angelito’s cage took up a good eighth of our space, vertical with its many tubes, wheels, water bottles, and hammocks. Ours was a minimal space, but we survived in it. No wall art. No television. Only a loveseat for lovers—no other sofas or recliners. A black glass coffee table in front of the loveseat, and Angelito on display in front of that—our only entertainment. We had a tall, thin table with duet chairs in one corner, that I referred to as the breakfast nook. I tried to inject some romance into this life where I could. I was a master of none and took gigs where I could find them. My lover cut coke on the black glass table and placed it into smaller glass vials. This process was occult to me: how many hands it all had exchanged before reaching my lover in its tiny quantities. His occupation has no bearing on his character though—he was sweet, gentle. He was good with remembering numbers and kept the product in steel boxes—travel-sized—each with its unique combination. I had a book on numerology that I kept above our toilet, but I never seemed to remember what each digit meant. In our own world amongst eight million we found the strength to exist and keep on.
When my lover had a birthday, Angelito had a birthday. I made Angelito a little party hat from junk mail and floss, tied it around his sable head. My lover and I kissed and ordered expensive pizza that came with unpronounceable cuts of rare meats and mysterious herbs. I thought this is what it meant to be alive. I felt something, then.
Of course my greatest fear in the world was not financial, nor physical, or even related to my own mortality—but Angelito’s. I dreaded when my lover was gone because every second he was away a wheel of fortune spun, pulling me closer to a ticker of death, toward being the discoverer of Angelito’s body. It should also be noted that Angelito was known for sleeping heavily, even before he aged into geriatrics. His breathing went slow and soft. I would often push my fingers through that dark, divine fur and imagine I was pushing years from my own life into his body. This was a way to absolve myself of all the wrongs I believe I’d done. It’s not that I ever felt a need to harm myself or save others, it’s just all I could think about when I was alone with Angelito: how to create a world where he could never die.
I took a gig for some art trade show from an ad, where I stuffed complementary magazines in tote bags and handed them to passers-by throughout the day. Some of the younger gallery girls made comments about partying. It was always awkward for me to make oblique references to my lover’s services. We were both perseveringly sober, and I felt my own phoniness when I tried to bring up our main livelihood. So… you all… like to… party? I repeated this in my head for hours, but never spoke. I wondered how I became this person: living in an apartment with illicit powders locked inside. It felt like there was a past life when this would not have been acceptable. Who was I before? Who had I become? The trade show paid me in cash that I stuck inside one sock, although I’m not sure why—this wasn’t a place I had kept money before, and I owned a wallet. Was I casting some invisible spell into the world, one that would make me divergent from my current self?
On the subway ride home I felt soreness in my upper arms, wishing to lay vertical in our small bed and let the blood even out in the way I presume blood does. It was when I got home I came into the scene of the Pietà, my lover in the position of the Virgin Mary, the dead body of Angelito laying in his hands like the wounded Christ. I could only whisper what happened as the tears of my lover fell. When I said what happened I knew Angelito died of old age, but it came out automatic as statements regarding death always do. What happened. I’m sorry. He was a good guy.
In any case, I was wrong in my assumption of ancientness. My lover had cut a mini brick of coke open, but got distracted by his own hunger before he could finish the redistribution of product. He came out of the kitchenette with a grilled cheese dangling out of his mouth—only to see Angelito taking a dust bath on the open package. Angelito loved his dust baths, as all chinchillas do. I spent the rest of the night brushing blow off his little corpse while my lover wailed from the bed. The temper tantrum brought me back to a mental space of Angelito’s advent. Some past moment before me. Eighteen mysterious years of my lover intersecting with Angelito’s—his deeds and exes and relationships with family—all mostly unknown to me. There were hints, yes, but it seemed like Angelito was the last calendar that could stretch out towards a time that was gone forever. I don’t know who my lover was before he met me. He never talked about growing up outside the city. How many siblings did he have again? What were his parents’ names? Perhaps I didn’t even know my lover at all—I had tricked myself into thinking that sharing a few favorite movies was enough. Our two or three mutual friends. Suddenly our love became so horrifyingly flat, defined by each other’s presence: body sharing a room with body. How had I not seen us for who we actually were? I tried to imagine my own childhood intersecting with his. Playing together at recess. Sharing carrot sticks. Something innocent. These fantasies took me far from this space where I was scraping cocaine from a dead rodent with a Metrocard.
Although I found a humor that my lover’s chinchilla died doing what he loved—living—there was an immediate remorse for myself, alone. That sixth sense when you know your love is over, and it smashes into you with its ghosts. Because we lived in the city, there were few plots of land with the soft earth one needs for burial. We assumed there were fines for touching grass since there was such a dearth of it. You couldn’t even smoke a cigarette outside anymore without someone throwing a court order your way. There was an old church nearby that had freshly laid sod, and we came in the middle of the night, his body wrapped in a small cloth patterned with blonde-curled baby angels. It’s not the reverse grave-robbing that was surreal, but more-so the fact that it was a warm summer night and no one was around to witness our peculiar ritual in an otherwise crowded part of the city. I tied off the patterned fabric with a silk ribbon. They were both bought in the Garment District. I thought my lover would find this attention to detail sweet, but it went unacknowledged. The goodbyes were quiet, and here, too, is where we buried the last of us.
On a day-to-day basis I would mostly categorize myself as unhappy. Occasionally a song will stir some gooseflesh onto me. Or a sad movie will feel like it’s pulling apart the oyster shell that surrounds and protects the raw meat I call my heart. I didn’t feel much. This is to say, I didn’t have much to spare. My lover was immediately gone in our small shared space. It was minute: an extra inch suddenly between us in bed. At least, these perceptions, my own measurements of the ephemeral. I tried to pull and to latch on, but it was of no use. Nothing I said was enough. The gap increased between us. I tried to enter past his skin with my touch and confirm some bond between us, but each caress was slightly lesser. And then I felt it too, this distance, although there was still adoration, allegiance, it was transforming.
I finally knew what it meant to mutually love someone, but not be in love with someone. They say this in the movies a lot, but it was a concept unknown to me. I’d like to think of myself as simple, someone whose revelations aren’t as revealing as they should be. I suspect I may be dumber and less trusting than I tell myself, which seems like an adverse combination. Before I was sober, there was a brief period where I wasn’t. Before that period, I have never put anything like that in my body. I had a theory that people couldn’t actually get high and everyone was pretending—it was a monumental joke. Some type of Saint Vitus’ Dance—massive bodies of people acting out. Anyway, I guess I just don’t believe something is real until I experience myself. I don’t think either of us consciously knew that Angelito was the glue that bound us as lovers, although perhaps something extrasensory and deep inside me wondered. There were a lot of thoughts I repressed. I told myself the city is a place where you do anything to survive. That you have to keep going for the city. That I had to keep going for my lover, for Angelito. But Angelito was dead. This love, also, dead—and my zeal for the city…. Is it possible for an epiphany to unmanifest?
When it came time for our lease to be renewed, we went our separate ways. Our love had become something unrecognizable to us both. He moved out before me. He took everything with him except that colossal cage. We never talked after that. Something in me—that dedication to survival—of being in a space without much grass or trees—that too departed with the lease. It was no secret that I grew up in the suburbs—but I had unlearned it. I never mentioned it. From everyone I knew in our shared city, it was not an unusual opinion to think that other life was unbearable outside the urban. I became some sort of modern hunter-gatherer, where I could only buy the groceries I could carry home. Even buying something as simple as a screwdriver became an activity I had to plan my entire week around. You can’t just go to a hardware store when you want to go to the hardware store. I didn’t know how to re-adjust to this other life where you could get into a car and go wherever you wanted whenever you wanted to. My life was reliant on delayed trains and chamomile tea. But—I sold all of my possessions. I gave the keys back. I left. My exodus was something more like poking a hole in one of those foil-coated balloons that don’t pop as much as sadly deflate. The air—parts of my being—escaping slowly. Then, gone.
At first it was the number of trees that gave such a violence to my eyes. I counted involuntarily. This thing that happened was a remembering of the scale of America. The off-white walls of the rented condo apologizing for their own flaccidity. Half the rent, double the size. I burned sage. I bought a junker on the internet for a couple of hundred dollars. It was held together with chewing gum, fairy wishes. I took up smoking for the first time in years, what with the cheap cigarettes and everything, and smoked three in a row with the windows rolled up, the hot air blasting my face. Everything reeking in the equity of burnt plastic. I went through fast food drive-thrus for the novelty of it. I was amazed I could fill a shopping cart up to its metal edge, dump the groceries into my trunk, drive that car home. It was incredible how much food a person could purchase with access to carts and cars! Although I was sad, these forgotten pleasures gave an extra cadence to my beat. I even found joy in the rotted vegetables. I did what I did because I could. I went to a furniture superstore and walked five minutes through the orange-stickered showroom before even seeing another human. Such open space brought a sense of danger upon me. It had been so long since I had encountered anything like this, that it had become unreal, something else entirely. I wanted to talk to someone about what it was like to leave a claustrophobic city, but all my friends were still in the claustrophobic city, so I continued to spill French fries in my lap and displace my loneliness.
I started waking up at dawn, going to estate sales. I’d purchase the belongings of the dead, flip them on online auction sites, other antique stores around town. I’d make enough to continue, make enough to eat another greasy burger, considering the other side of whatever I had come out of. There was a wrongness to reselling the dead’s possessions, even if they didn’t need them anymore, but it felt better than the previous life. I felt some type of moral high ground within me, having found a task I could repeat. Gone were the days of a new gig every week.
I told myself I wouldn’t text my lover until he texted me first, but he never did, and I never did. One day I was with him in the city with his sad pet, and then I was hundreds of miles away pretending to be suburban. The truth is: sometimes there are endings and they occur so unapologetically that no sense can be made of them. You’re bound by your love in a tiny box and then you come out the shroud, unaccompanied, walking through the presence of so much open space. I slept alone with some interior of mine sealed in a rodent’s bones hundreds of miles away. I started having dreams of cages, dreams of strip malls that continued into each other, endless. The further you walked, the more you entered an afterlife you couldn’t return from.
The autumnal equinox had passed, and all I could think of were craft stores. Craft stores filled with cinnamon-scented brooms. Dark ribbons. Glitter-crusted plastic pumpkins. All these props felt like an ushering in of season to the suburbs. Everything before was illusion. Years baked in brutal summer subway stops underground. But here was a world of air-conditioning and bite-sized candy. The express train from Halloween to the new year. This felt like the good death, the change I needed. I became obsessed with these ideas. I decided to park at one end of a large, outdoor type of strip mall. I dedicated myself to entering every store, from west to east, and speaking to someone in each one. Clothing closeouts. Nail salons. I did just that. I hello’d, I scoured the sales racks. The final store was a big box craft outlet. I nearly cried from all the aisles: the yarn, the build-your-own-doll parts, and all the Pantone hues of oil paints. It was junior high, I believe, when I shoplifted last. I couldn’t help myself. No one was around, and I shoved a few small tubes of lemon, ultramarine, and cadmium into my pockets. The thought of those primary colors touching my thighs brought bumps to my arms. I bought fake flowers and was so giddy at the check-out counter with my own illicitness that I dropped my credit card twice.
When I exited the store, I had an experience that moved my body. It’s this feeling I get sometimes, like if I’m caught red-handed or a celebrity I love dies. Some psychic variation of getting the wind knocked out of me. It feels like I’m panning in and out of my body—like my mind was microwaved and suddenly I’m astral-projecting. If I were religious, I’d talk in tongues. I feel hot and fucked up and lose myself in the moment. I lost myself then. The craft store, it turns out, was the penultimate shop. A tiny unit—barely any glass windows at all, stood at the end of the plaza I journeyed through: a pet store.
I made a bee-line past the fetid ferrets, beyond hamster-as-legion, into the back corner where three chinchillas sat in a cage. Black, grey, white. I wanted someone to approach me with indignation, to tell me many people think they want a chinchilla, but most people don’t know how to take care of one. Do you even know about the dust baths? I know about the dust baths, I’d scream. I wanted someone to fight me—maybe even physically. I would grab a pimply teenager and pull both ears until they screamed. I see that fur, and I’m uncontrollable. I loved him. I loved him wholly. I loved his impossibly dark hair, his relaxed demeanor, his softness—that rare quality that could occasionally penetrate my own misery. My own stupidity for falling for such a disposition. When he left, I lost him forever. These are the things that people say. Does allowing myself this humanness lessen me? I wonder, too, if your only experience living in the suburbs is your teen years—then you return—is your only default setting hormones and angst? Or have I been hiding away some aspect of my feelings, my hurt, because I told myself this is what I needed to go on? When you cut the years like a tarot deck, divide the past into numerologies from the book above the toilet—does one’s behavior finally make sense? There was a melodramatic emergency to how much I suddenly needed him. I couldn’t stop myself. How I wished the fiendishness away. How I wished life was. This desperation…. Angelito was twenty. He could have almost bought alcohol. Probably even collected Social Security if we’re factoring chinchilla years into this. I’m not sure why everything has to be human years first, but it does. These stupid jokes, again, like costume pearls hitting linoleum.
I decided, in an instant, to adopt the white one, call him Diablito. An inversion of a past life. I could be this person that inhabited space. I could be like anyone. I could get a better job, take out a loan, pay mortgage on a house. A house! Like this I felt bumps rolling up and down my arms. This new chinchilla could live into my Social-Security-collection years. That thought alone brought palpitations. Was this joy, the comfort of a new life beginning? I wanted something small and romantic that I could bring into this world, some euphoria that could be for me alone.
I know, from a distance, I would resemble that mania that anyone could get in a pet store. I could be making that impulse buy too. I spent too many years with his predecessor though. I earned this mania. I know about chinchillas. I know what it’s like to age and find that each passing year gives you nothing, nothing, nothing. I have something, though. I have Diablito now.
I have this theory that if Angelito hadn’t rolled around in the coke he would have just kept on living without end. There’s no scientific principle to prove this theory, but I have a hunch it will check out. Yes, I believe in numbers. Crystals and stars. UFOs. I’ve read about cats in Japan that grow an extra tail and age into a wild infinity. I have books that say there are deeper meanings to this world—all you have to do is practice consciousness. I’m conscious.
Diablito is snowy. Little onyx craft beads for eyes. Like this he seems unreal too. Plush, dollish. I am dedicated, this time, to pushing my fingers into delicate down, to transferring years of my own life into this creature so refined and soft. If I get quite good, perhaps I can leech out the lives of others, point them all like a laser beam into my little love. I’ve heard stories of emotional vampires sucking life from everyone around them. I will be lightning rod, and all energy of the world will pulse into Diablito, ensure that one thing in my company will last enduringly. This one is for keeps.
I imagine this perpetual flux of auras pushing towards this little chinchilla to add year after year to his lifespan. The combined effort of all Earthians! Hundreds of years from now, when alien invaders come to our deserted planet, Diablito will be left, sleeping on his hammock. They will see this beautiful creature and know we were a prudent terrestrial race. They will see the happiness that humans brought into this world—the sacrifice—how they gave up everything for him. They will nod their alien heads and know this chinchilla love was everything whole and true and good.
JD Scott is the author of two chapbooks: FUNERALS & THRONES (Birds of Lace Press, 2013) and Night Errands (YellowJacket Press, 2012). Recent and forthcoming publications include Best American Experimental Writing, Salt Hill, The Pinch, Hotel Amerika, and The Baltimore Review. JD lives in Tuscaloosa.