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May 5, 2016

The M Word: Ariel Gordon’s Additional Dependent

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This is the sixth in a series of posts catching up writers from The M Word, and finding out what they’re up to now. (Find out more about The M Word and read its rave reviews right here.) From previous weeks: “Kerry Ryan on Wishing and Washing“; “Heather Birrell on Talking to her (M)Other Self”; “Dear Me, by Nicole Dixon“; “Kerry Clare on Motherhood and Abortion” ; and “Christa Couture: Ever Since the End.”

“Primipara,” Ariel Gordon’s essay from The M Word about her choice to have one child, was one of the most widely remarked upon in the book’s critical responses—not least for its inclusion of her poem of the same name which began, “If I had had twins, I would have eaten one.” It was Gordon’s essay that earned The M Word its unlikely place on Brain Child Magazine’s Humour Book List last year. And now she catches us up to the very surprising news that her family has since acquired a new addition. 

*****

My partner and I were together for seven years before we got knocked up.

It took us another decade to acquire an additional dependent.

In those ten years—the age of many of my friend’s marriages before they busted up—we had a tank full of fish which included Downie, a black Asian Upside-down Catfish.

We hand-fed Downie shrimp pellets, until those weren’t enough and s/he started eating everyone else. (One fish leapt to his/her death to avoid Downie’s jaws-of-death. S/he became fish-jerky between the dresser where the tank sat and the wall: “It smells in my room,” my daughter noted.)

We surrendered Downie to the pet store. We didn’t mention s/he was a cannibal.

Next we got black-and-white Mollies, which are starter fishes like Tetras, the difference being that they are prolific breeders. One female came pre-loaded with enough sperm that she gave birth every month for six months. She was the alpha: she got huge and monstrous and wouldn’t let any of the other Mollies eat, nipping their fins and head-butting them. And then she’d release a brood of baby Mollies, which looked like flecks of ash. They’d hide in the aquatic plants we grew in the tank, which came from the store infested with snails.

We surrendered entire litters of small black Mollies to the pet store.

After we drained the fish tank, my daughter pined, though she’d shown very little interest in the fish.

“I want a real pet,” she said. “Can we get a real pet?”

The summer after we drained the tank, we found a greeny-yellowy wild salamander swimming in the pool with us at the water park in Portage La Prairie. That fall, someone brought a carsick hedgehog to daycare. (“It pooped on two of my friends,” my daughter reported, excited.)

So we had serious conversations about salamanders, lizards, and geckos and then hedgehogs, guinea pigs, and rats. Anna pushed for a cat or a dog, though what she really wanted was a perpetual kitten or puppy. I resisted, citing my furry-animal allergies, but was glad that the conversation was about having-a-pet and not about having-a-sister/brother.

Now, I don’t watch kitten videos or hunt baby animals on the Internet. But when summer rolled around again and a friend posted pictures of a small white kitten stretched out, yawning, I felt a pang.

A friend of hers was trying to find homes for three kittens, including the white one. It turned out that I knew the friend-of-a-friend, so one Sunday, we went to go see them. The girl could barely contain herself on the way there, but neither of us connected with the kitten, so next we visited a no-kill shelter. I sneezed, my nose dripped, but we were both suddenly determined.

A week or so later, we brought home a half-grown black-and-white cat.

We only wanted one child and we similarly only wanted one cat. Not two or three, or a cat and a dog. One cat. But, unlike my daughter, we’ve so far managed to keep the cat out of our bed.

 

My boss and I commute to work together. When I told him we’d gotten a cat, he had one question.

“Who’s home the most?”

“I am,” I answered.

“She’ll love you best, then,” he said. He said with pets it’s a combination of who spends the most time with them and who feeds them.

This logic could equally be applied to children, of course. Mothers are still most often the ones home with their children when they are babies, primarily because they gave birth to them and have the boobs with which to feed them with. But I’m sure half the reason that mothers often have such strong bonds with their children is because they spend all those endless early days and weeks and months with them, skin on skin.

My boss was right. Given a choice, Kitty prefers to sit on my boobs, wedge her knobby spine under my chin, and listen to my heartbeat. She bunts my glasses aside, spreading contentment pheromone all over the bones of my face. If she’s feeling particularly tender, she licks my eyelids.

According to the Internet, this is submissive behaviour. She’d do the same to the alpha if she lived in a community of cats. She also rolls on the ground the moment the front door opens, showing her belly, as if to say “Hello, big hairless cats! Please love/feed me…”

Nowadays, people refer to their pets as furbabies and to themselves as their pets’ parents. But I prefer to think of myself as a cat that is slightly higher than Kitty in the social hierarchy. I have certain responsibilities to her—and affection for her— but I am not her parent.

Last night, after the girl had gone to bed, I was sitting on the couch and Kitty assumed her usual position. Except this time, she reached out and softly put her black-and-white paw on my eyelid. After a few moments, she tucked both paws under her body and promptly fell asleep.

When I was breastfeeding my daughter, I was often aware that I was putting my nipple into a mouth full of irrational teeth, that I was trusting her not to bite me.

Kitty’s paw is full of sickle-shaped claws. Her mouth is full of needles. But I am still willing to offer her my softest bits.

 

I’m good with animals, even if I don’t need them, if that makes any sense. When I was a kid, delivering newspapers in my neighbourhood, I came to an understanding with each of the neighbourhood dogs. They stopped barking at me when I entered their territory; some of them even offered me their bellies to rub.

Once, I was walking down my street at night and saw a dog-shaped animal twenty feet away. When I got a bit closer, I saw that it was a red fox. But I still bent down and offered my hand and said soft things, trying to tempt it to closer. We looked at each other for long moments, but it was wild and eventually loped away. I hold that memory close, the same way I hold the memory of watching my late uncle dandle my youngest cousin when she was two weeks old, the way I hold the memory of that hot summer when my daughter was born, how naked we both were.

My daughter had hoped that the cat would be hers, that it would love her best, but I tell her that Kitty loves all of us differently. I tell her she has to be more patient with the cat, let it come to her, but she’s almost ten now and isn’t very patient.

What’s more, she’s starting to push me, alternating pouting with correcting every single thing I say. I am embarrassing, she says.

I tell her I could be much more embarrassing, given half a chance. She squints at me.

Today, between karate and groceries, the girl was hungry, so we stopped at Tim Horton’s for a bagel and cream cheese. And she pouted because I wouldn’t get her a Frozen Lemonade or a Maple Cinnamon French Toast bagel, restricting her to the tap water I’d brought from home and a Twelve Grain bagel.

We’d made it through the drive-through and were sitting at the light and she was lifting my water bottle to her mouth when the light changed. I moved smoothly into the intersection and had just completed my left turn when she yelped.

“What?” I said.

Waaaaaah,” she replied.

“Anna, what?”

“You—jerked—the car…”

“Anna, I was driving. I didn’t jerk the car.”

“You made me spill the water all over myself…”

A sniffly moment of silence.

“Here, blot yourself.” I passed her the box of tissues I keep in the front seat.

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“It means pat yourself with the tissues.”

“Like that’ll make a difference…”

“Anna—“

“What!?!”

“I’m starting to get mad…”

We spent the rest of the trip to the grocery store in silence. After we’d found a parking space, I handed the girl a coin and asked her to go get a cart.

I’d opened the trunk and was preparing to transfer our bags and bins when Anna returned, parking the cart next to the car.

“Mama,” she says, her face pink from crying and bashful. “Can I have a hug?”

And I didn’t need the Internet to tell me that this was submissive behaviour. That she was trying to apologize for shouting at me and for pouting before that.

But the difference between Anna and Kitty and even the neighbourhood dogs of my childhood is that my relationship with my daughter is slippery; we are both alternately dominant and submissive. More than that, we are just people, trying to get along, even if I built her in my body, cell by cell, limb by limb.

“Yes,” I say. And I pull her close, holding her tighter than usual. I want her to remember that once neither of us could remember where she began and I ended. I want her to hear my heartbeat, thudding irrationally in my chest.

And I am suddenly glad we are here, damp and irritable, in this parking lot, that we have all made it this far. My daughter was born in the hospital; Kitty was born under somebody’s stairs. But we love each other, and we most of the time, we remember to pull our claws.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Her second collection of poetry, Stowaways (Palimpsest Press), won the 2015 Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. She is currently working on CNF about Winnipeg’s urban forest, which is slated for publication in 2018.

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