You are currently browsing the monthly archive for August 2014.
The year Cecilia and I fell in love—introduced via blind date arranged by Liz Fried, my mother’s lifelong friend’s daughter—we met in February. Throughout those next few months we found ourselves delighting in all the ways our lives were changing. When my birthday rolled around in August, I knew that in Cecilia’s complicated, seemingly unassuming, utterly fearless way, she was capable of giving me…pretty much anything. So when she arrived at my apartment that afternoon with a wrapped box about two feet long and a foot high, I was filled with the confident certainty that I had absolutely no idea what was inside.
I was not expecting an iguana. In a terrarium, with a plug-in hot rock and hollow half log and a blue water bowl and a sun lamp tube in the hood. A rescue iguana, as it turned out: nose to ass about four inches, with another four inches of tail. Someone had returned him to the pet store where Cecilia had found him. He was bigger than all the other lizards for sale, and needed a home.
We christened him Ozzie, the lizard of Oz. Iguanas are (mostly) vegetarian; we fed him fruit and salads and marigolds and protein powder. He rewarded us by showing us the strengths and limits of the limbic brain, his capacity for remembering us and reacting differently to us than to strangers, and by being, in essence, our own baby dinosaur.
Ozzie shed skin and got larger and then shed more skin and got larger still. It turned out the woman at the petstore had neglected to tell Cecilia a couple of salient facts about our iguana. The first was this: if you keep feeding iguanas, they keep growing. They never stop. Eventually he outgrew the terrarium, and we found a large wooden private-library-type cabinet with a chickenwire screen door, denuded it of interior shelves and put in tree branches and levels for him to climb around on, cut holes in the back for plugs for the hot rocks and heat lamps, put in a tray full of water for him to poop in (we had long realized that a litterbox full of water was his preferred medium in that regard), called it Ozzieland and put him in it. He took to it quickly and made it his own.
And he grew.
Often we would half-fill the bathtub with warm water and let him swim freely. He would tuck his long-fingered arms and legs to his sides and swim like an eel—fast as lightning, and about as easy to catch.
Iguanas express their emotions quite succinctly in their coloration; a healthy iguana is bright green; the darker and more dun-colored they get, the more one should be concerned about health. When Ozzie sank into listless dun-colored lassitude, we found a vet in the city who knew iguanas, and brought him in. Which is where we learned the second thing the lady in the petstore had neglected to mention: Ozzie was not, in fact, a boy. Ozzie’s body was preparing for egg production. (You can’t tell sex from genitalia; they keep that tucked away. You can from a subtle distinction in the scales on the undersides of the hind legs, as we found out from that vet.) But she was already named Ozzie, and sometimes even seemed to react to the name, so Ozzie she remained.
By the time Cecilia and I moved in together, Ozzie had outgrown Ozzieland. Fortunately our apartment had a storage room with a door that could shut, and that became Ozzie’s new home. We hung heatlamps from the ceiling, set up a litter box full of water for her to poop in, brought in Ozzyland, opened the door, and waited.
Tentatively she came out, did a half-circle of the area directly outside the box, and then went back in and watched. When it seemed safe, she came out and did another half-circle, about six inches wider, and then back into the familiar box. And then, emboldened, another larger circle, and then another, and then another, until she made it across the room and found a safe corner. And then she holed up there, and we waited, and she did a small circle around her new corner, and then a larger one, and then a larger one. And then she began to expand her circles in three dimensions, because iguanas are expert climbers.
In this way, she mapped out the entire room. Ozzieland, the door now permanently open, became her home base—it was where we fed her. She took to laying on the window sill, sunning herself, shifting positions as the sun made its course over the city. And she continued to poop in the litter box filled with water.
In the wild, iguanas often hang out on tree limbs over streams or other bodies of water, and, when threatened, drop into the water to escape. Often when we looked for her she would be at the highest point of the room, the flat wooden top of the bookshelf. Then we’d feed her—spinach, fruit, marigold petals— and she’d scurry down from the top of the bookshelf and scurry up to her feeding station atop the old Ozzyland. There she would lunge her head into the bowl of salad with the abrupt striking motion of a python.
By this time, Ozzie had grown. From her nose to her ass, she was about two and a half feet long, and her tail represented another three and a half feet. She had pushed out a fine row of spikes down her back. She liked to be on my head, and would clamber up me and dig her strong nails into my hair and stay that way, her tail down my back like a ponytail, while I wandered around the apartment.
One freezing night in early January, a vicious sleet storm covering New York, Cecilia and I were heading for bed and, as was routine, entered Ozzy’s room to check if she was OK before turning the lights off.
And couldn’t find her. This happened sometimes, it wasn’t a huge deal, but now we fanned out through the apartment, and she was not in any of the obvious places. We looked again, more carefully, worried this time— it was sleeting, freezing, the windows were all shut tight—had she slipped through the apartment door at some point? It didn’t seem possible. We slowed down, checked rooms one by one, and in a room she rarely entered I found her.
Or rather, her tail. She had found the single and only path of egress out of the apartment—a crack in the plastic pleating that ran between the air conditioner and the window frame. There was literally no way to get out of the apartment except for this narrow slit in a crease of plastic, and she had found it.
We were on the 10th floor. A foot-wide ledge ran all the way around the outside of the building at window-base level. I could feel the cold air coming in through the pleat. I rolled up my sleeve, reached my hand through the slit in the plastic, and grabbed Ozzy just behind her front legs. I had her, and then I didn’t, and then I did, and then she was gone.
I yelled for Cecilia. We went to the other windows, shining lights at the foot-wide ledge, trying to see if she had made her way toward another window, trying to see if she was under the air conditioner or on top of the air conditioner or had climbed the masonry. We spent an hour shining lights from windows and looking for her, to no avail.
The sleet storm continued—it was frigid out there. Nine stories below us was a piano store. It was now midnight. If she had fallen, there was nothing to do until morning.
We finally elected to leave all the windows open, leave little salads with fruit in each one, and go to bed.
And woke up the next morning huddled together in the coldest apartment I have ever slept in. Three inches of snow covered the ledge; at the open windows, the little clumps of salad had frozen into rock-hard masses. Cecilia prepared for work; I went down to speak to somebody about getting on top of the piano store.
It wasn’t possible until 10:00 am. Cecilia’s job was just a few blocks from the apartment; she left, the two of us hugging in the elevator bank, trying to remain hopeful but knowing it didn’t look good. I let her go, and then went back down at the appointed time and the man with the key let me onto the piano store roof.
Where I found Ozzie. She had fallen nine stories and landed, but then had obviously still been alive because she’d tried to climb back up. The lip of the tar roof curved up, and she was at the top of it, her fingernails hooked into chinks in the wall.
I pulled her gently off, put her under my coat against my chest, and took her upstairs. I called Cecilia at her job and told her “I found Ozzie, and she’s gone.” Cecilia said she’d take an early lunch break and be right over.
And then I took Ozzie into the bathroom. She was dirty from her fall and her climb, and I washed the dirt off her in warm water and laid her out on the counter, thinking deep thoughts about my utter failure as a father to this beautiful intelligent creature.
And then her mouth opened, and I thought: exhaust gasses. And then one of her long fingers moved, and I realized: she’s alive.
So I put her to my lips and did mouth-to-mouth, which she DID. NOT. LIKE. AT. ALL.
So I held her and let my body warmth do what it could, and she began to come around, clamber around a little to be comfortable. And the doorbell rang, and with Ozzie on my chest I went to answer it. It was Cecilia, with a large cardboard xerox-paper box from her office, obviously intended as a place to put the dead lizard. I opened the door a crack and said: “Don’t be freaked out, but I’ve got Ozzie on me, and she’s OK.”
And Cecilia’s first thought was: Matt’s not taking this at all well.
But once I had convinced her that I was not going to insist we all pretend she was still alive, that the lizard had in fact survived a nine story fall into a sleet storm, the next step was to race her to the Animal Medical Center on the upper east side.
She had fallen nine stories and had not broken a bone. She had dented cartilage in her chest. She achieved, and I believe still maintains, the record for the highest survived iguana fall in New York history. (There was evidently a cat that dropped 43 stories and lived.) She had frostbite on the tip of her tail, an inch of which was surgically removed, leaving more than three feet with which to thrash you if you tried to take her out of the bathtub before she was ready. She lived for many years after, and continued much as before, but she never sunned herself on windowsills again.
Ozzie, the dying and resurrecting iguana.
Eventually she succumbed at an appropriate old age to a respiratory infection, which came on with no warning.
I like to think that she thought she was in a tree, that night. She was out in the cold, high over the world, and when my arm came out and grabbed her she obeyed her natural instincts and dropped, hoping that somewhere down there, somewhere, there had to be water.