My mother made her meatloaf with hard boiled eggs inserted in the middle, so when you cut a slice, a yellow pupil and hard white sclera stared up from your plate. As a kid, I ate it with horror. I saw right through her perfect homemaking skills and directly into what lay in front of me: dead cows and chickens that hadn’t even gotten a chance to take a breath. I would cry through every one of these meals, our Friday family special, wordlessly protesting the inhumanity of our dinners as I pushed the meatloaf around my plate. As the years went on, my crying subsided simply because my father wouldn’t tolerate it. When I was twelve, he grabbed the meatloaf on my plate with his fat fingers and pushed it into my mouth. He said, ‘You will eat this meat and let people who have no food weep’, and I resigned myself to my fate.
From the ages of five to seventeen I brought home exactly forty-three stray cats and dogs, fallen birds, sluggish lizards that had lost tails, even, once, a spider I’d inspected closely and noticed had lost a leg. I was comforted in my room by cats and dogs sleeping with me, all of us crammed together, furry puzzle pieces on my tiny bed. Each of them was made more special to me with my father’s relentless, but unrealized threat that ‘If you bring another one home, I’ll drown it myself.’ Every time my dad said this to me, my mother slept on the sofa for a week, watching late night preachers in a roundabout, silent apology to me for staying with him.
When I was sixteen, I met Mary at the local youth chapter of an animal rights group. We were two of four people there and her hair smelled like honey. The other two attendees were kids in my class who wanted only the prestige of saying they loved animals. But Mary and I were quiet, committed. We spent our junior year having melancholy dates at the zoo. Over popcorn and cotton candy, we talked about heady things like going to Africa to observe elephants in the wild or braving the bitter cold of either pole to save the last wild things that lived there.
The day Mary and I left for college, together, I spent the morning packing my VW bus with everything I needed. Most things I had simply thrown away. I ended up with two bags of clothes, a few dozen records, some photographs of friends, two dogs, one cat, and three finches. My mother put a warm, tinfoil wrapped meatloaf and thermos of coffee onto the floor of my rickety van. “Come home for Christmas,” she said as she kissed me on the cheek and dabbed at a few mascara laden tears. She hugged Mary and said, “Take care of my baby.”
My father stood in the doorway, smoking a cigarette and in a t-shirt so thin I could see his hairy chest matted against the fabric. He said, ‘How do you keep a moron in suspense?’ I briefly wished I had a barbed answer to his joke, then was ecstatic I’d never hear one again, positive as any teenager that I’d not return. He picked his lunch out of his teeth with his ubiquitous toothpick and started laughing like he’d been possessed. I wished him an imminent heart attack, then took it back in my head. He turned around, walked through the front door and shut it behind him.
Mary kissed me like it was our first and last kiss all rolled into one. His laughing faded the moment we hit the highway, our birdcages rattling around behind us and our newest friend, a scrawny dog we’d found the week before, a runt we’d named Idaho, digging into my mother’s meatloaf.