If you had looked around my dorm room my first year of college, you would have seen the usual: a mini fridge topped with hard-bound textbooks; a blocky desk with a matching wooden chair that makes any butt twinge in fear; a chest of drawers bursting with unfolded jeans and sweaters; a towering set of bunk beds strung with blankets and littered with food wrappers from late-night snacking.
I would have calmly implored you to, please, ignore the strange red glow coming from the crack beneath the closet door. Avert your eyes from the bulging bag of hay propped against the desk. Don’t listen to closely to the chirping and rustling coming from under the bed. Hear crickets coming from our room at night? Oh, that’s nothing.
Enter me: twenty-year-old mastermind, apt at the art of concealing live animals, expert at getting away with it. I was a seasoned pro, with an entire college semester under my belt. I knew when the fire inspections would be, when exactly to bring in bags of pet food through the side door of my building, and what times the RAs were most active in the halls. With illegal goods accounting for one hamster, one leopard gecko, three guinea pigs, a ball python, and a green iguana, I was giving zoos a run for their money.
People around campus knew me as the “pet expert,” and I never disappointed. Want to play on the floor with a cuddly, chirping animal? I used to let the guinea pigs loose on my carpet. Never seen a three-foot lizard before? People would visit from other buildings just to see my iguana munch some leafy greens.
It all started when I moved in with my ex-girlfriend, Amanda. We moved into the same dorm room after only two months of dating. The only thing missing: a new companion to seal the deal. Who ever heard of lesbians that didn’t have a dog nipping at their heels or five cats strung along the back of their couch?
Central Connecticut State University does not allow any non-human residents in the dorm rooms besides the occasional bug-eyed goldfish. Even so, the question of what kind of animal we would be smuggling past the authorities was on both our minds.
The answer came to us in the form of a giant 50% OFF sign strung in the window of the nearby Petco. When I saw a small pile of scaly green guys through some dirty pet shop glass, my heart stopped. Each lizard was lime green, with tails that stretched longer than their bodies. They climbed on top of each other with no regards to their tank mates’ comfort, long toes flattening whoever lay beneath them. One sat close to the front of the tank, his head tilted at us with one beady orange eye glaring at us from his teeny head. His “stink eye” game was so strong, I knew he was the one. Before we even got to the register I had dubbed him with the name Remington.
We brought him back to the dorm that day in a shoebox. The whole ride there, I could hear his little nails scraping at the sides of the box as he scurried around. We had a tank, some dirt to cover the bottom, and iguana food pellets to feed him. I didn’t know much about iguanas, other than they can grow up to five foot long and live for about 20 years, but I figured what could possibly go wrong?
The first problem was the tank. We managed to fit in underneath a desk, with a sheet draping over it. A soft glow shone out from behind the fabric from the heat lamp, but we decided to solve that problem later. After we realized he was not going to eat the dry pellets from the pet store, we opted to buy him mixed greens. After some light research, we discovered that iguanas thrive on a diet of collard greens and kale. After only a day of meals going smoothly, our roommate turned the temperature in the mini fridge down and all the food promptly froze. Have you ever tried to eat baby spinach after its been frozen and thawed out? I don’t recommend it.
Then, it happened. My phone rang on my way back from class. Amanda’s voice on the other line was quick and worried.
“There’s a note on our door.”
I didn’t see the issue at first. There was a note on our door, so what?
“Just hurry back,” she said, and promptly hung up.
When I stepped inside our room, Amanda held the half sheet of paper up wordlessly. The incident report was clearly labeled with the words “not a fish” in bold ballpoint pen. Left out in the open, Remington glared at me through the glass of his tank. His head tilted to one side as if to scold me for not covering his home properly. By the time the RAs came by to check on our “not fish,” he had been moved to his proper hiding place beneath a tablecloth.
Pet Detective: 1
That just left us with one more thing: his attitude. I had never taken care of such a rude animal. He did everything he could to make us miserable. He whipped his tail painfully at our hands when we tried to take him out of his cage, his needle-like nails shredded our skin as he tried to climb up our arms, and he would tilt his head at us every time we walked into the room and lifted the sheet away from his cage. His stink eye followed us everywhere. Nobody was spared.
And yet, he was the thing I cared about most that first semester I lived on campus. I fed him diligently every day and soaked him in warm water to aid his scaly shedding. I fell asleep every night with his orange eyes glaring at me and woke up every morning to find him fast asleep, splayed out on his stomach with each of his limbs crumpled beneath him. I kept his nails trim and rubbed ointment into his wounds when he burned himself one winter on his heat lamp. I snuck him carefully in and out of the dorm every time we had to move out for spring break and refused to leave him in anyone else’s care. He was completely and utterly mine to care for.
I—the girl who despised babysitting and cleaning up my own room—fell in love with taking care of my iguana, and when I decided not to move back to campus this past year, my room at home became a zoo in itself. Each night, I fall asleep to the sounds of my snake rustling along the bottom of his tank, or my iguana rubbing his nose on the glass to try to get my attention. To most people, the noise would keep them up all night or drive them crazy. But I don’t know how I would sleep without the slight tang of reptile dirt and muddy water encased in my room.
The scenery is different, now. My room is painted a cheery yellow and flanked by four towering bookshelves. It’s a room for one, with a single set of drawers and a twin bed. I crack open my laptop every night after class to finish my assignments before work the next day. Remington is three years old and almost as long as I am tall. He still climbs the sides of his enclosure like he’s scaling the Rocky Mountains, still sleeps with his arms uncomfortable contorted behind him. Yesterday, I caught him glaring at me from across the room as I studied for a midterm, one large orange eye boring into me. I turned to him, flipped him the bird, and flipped the page of my textbook without comment.
That’s the thing about friends. They never take that sort of shit to heart.