When I was in the sixth grade, my science class had lizards. I don’t remember their species, nor their given, pet names. I do remember being chosen—chosen—by my sixth grade science teacher to take home these class pets for the entire summer. There had already been a series of students chosen as their caretaker for Christmas break and other week-long holidays, but I was the ultimate champion, selected to spend the entire summer with the reptiles. My initial joy at the prospect of “having a pet” for the first time was soon replaced by the reality of being a lizard-babysitter, which meant I had two horrible responsibilities:
1) Feeding the lizards.
These lizards lived on a strict diet of LIVE CRICKETS. First of all, going to the pet-supply store to buy live crickets is awkward. Standing in line behind families with strangely appetizing dog treats and fluffy stuffed creatures for their new cat, I am there with my mother, holding a box of insects and dreading getting home with every fiber of my twelve-year-old being because this would mean opening the box, shaking the crickets out into the lizards’ terrarium, and trying to ignore their persistent and shrill chirping. The crickets will try to avoid their fate by holding on to the sides of the box with their tiny, sticky, insect legs and jumping—jumping everywhere—onto my hands, onto the floor, anywhere to get away from the pursuing lizards.
2) Cleaning the lizards’ terrarium.
Offering your hand into a lizard cage with a box full of jumping, screaming crickets attached to it is one thing. Hungry lizards want crickets. You are not the enemy in this scenario. When removing the lizards from their cage in order to clean it, lizards panic. Though I always tried talking them down from their frenzy, the act of picking one up by his narrow, cold, soft torso proved nearly impossible. One day, in frustration, I grabbed a lizard by the tail. AND HIS TAIL CAME OFF. I now understand this to be a painless and defensive maneuver, but at the time I was utterly traumatized. The tail continued to wiggle and squirm in the cage for several minutes. I cried.
On Thurdays, I tutor an adorable Hungarian boy named Zeti, who has recently turned ten years old. This week, I arrived at Zeti’s home to find him very excited because his birthday present had just arrived. When Zeti is excited he tells me “come!” and “look!” over and over, pronouncing “look” more like the name “Luke,” with a very long oo sound.
Zeti’s birthday present is a lizard. Zeti tells me the species of his birthday lizard, but I either don’t recognize the name or he is saying it in Hungarian and I don’t know the translation. We take the natural next step and type the name into the almighty Google translate, and the little white box on the right side reveals: “dragon.” We both laugh, and I try to explain that Google translate isn’t always correct, but he doesn’t know what I mean. The lizard/dragon is named “George,” he tells me. I am relived that he has chosen the American pronunciation, which is infinitely easier to say than the Hungarian: György.
“Come,” Zeti tells me, and he grabs a small metal tin, something that looks like it once held lip salve or hand cream. I follow him downstairs to the garage, in the corner of which sits a bucket the size of a child’s sandbox toy, filled with a parfait of layered dirt and halved apples. Zeti picks up a pair of elongated tweezers and proceeds to turn over several of the apple slices. Dozens of small, white worms are revealed, squirming as uncomfortably as anyone would who simultaneously lost their hiding place and their afternoon snack. Zeti collects several of these worms in his tin and we go back upstairs, where he proceeds to coat them in a vitamin C powder (for calcium, he says) and feed them to the lizard. Perhaps he had expected me to be more surprised or disgusted by this, but I am thinking about the crickets and how lucky Zeti is that these worms can neither scream nor jump.
The next week, Zeti reaches his fingers into George’s cage and picks him up by the soft, middle section of his torso. I admire his fearlessness. I take a deep breath and extend my pointer finger to lightly stroke his bumpy back.
I wish I could tell Zeti about my experience with lizards, but his limited English and my limited Hungarian would make this a long and difficult process. Funny stories often lose humor when arduously translated. Still, I tell him to never, EVER grab George’s tail. Then I tell him that he is very brave. Not everyone can be a lizard owner.