Care and Feeding
by Lisa Finch
My fifteen year old son, Brennan, had barely nibbled at his cheeseburger. Now I watched him pick half-heartedly at his fries.
A shrug. Barely audible words that might have been “not really.”
When Brennan’s dad, Jeff, had walked out on us six months ago, it had been a painful surprise, like stepping into a bear trap that had been set just for me. Except, of course, Brennan had been caught in it, too.
Over the months, Brennan silently raged against me. Somehow, it had all become my fault. Each day he inched further and further from me, the space between us growing exponentially. Counselling hadn’t helped. But then, everyone involved had to show up and Jeff hadn’t. Or wouldn’t.
Now Brennan sat across from me; he might have well been on the other side of the world. I remembered the last big fight Jeff and I had. Brennan and I wanted a dog. I’d visited our local pet store who’d recently started re-homing rescue dogs. It would be perfect. But Jeff had refused and that was that. Even then, he’d been planning his escape.
Jeff left, and the dog project deflated.
Now here in the restaurant, the idea resurfaced. No sooner was it in my thoughts than it popped out of my mouth: an olive branch. A trip to the pet store.
Brennan’s eyes were bright as they met mine. “Really?”
A dog. What had I just done?
I swallowed hard and forced a smile. “Really.”
I followed Brennan into the store, mentally calculating the price of dog food, vet bills and other expenses. A little late, I chastised myself silently.
Another thought dawned on me: what if Brennan didn’t find a dog he wanted here, tonight. I imagined his stony silence on the drive home.
“Hey wait,” I said. “We just passed the dogs—”
I ran to keep up. He led me past the cats, hamsters, birds, and tropical fish.
Brennan ran over to the dimly lit terrariums. “Aren’t they cool?” He pointed at the sign on the glass enclosure. (Female) Brachypelma Smithi. The Mexican Red Knee Tarantula.
He was putting me on, right? Surely he remembered. Me, near hysterics whenever a spider of any size invaded our home. It’s hard to forget a shrieking woman, doing the Funky Chicken, levying a broom or sometimes a can of Raid. Once I’d used a glass and had left said glass for a week before I ventured near it.
“I—it’s a spider…”
“Yeah, but Mom, just look at her! My friend Jared has one. Did you know that the tarantula is actually a low-maintenance pet?”
“Oh?” A full body shiver reminded me of that old saying. Someone had just walked over my grave.
“Yeah, you feed them like once a week,” Brennan said, faced pressed up to the glass.
I asked him what they ate, feeling vaguely queasy that somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, I already knew.
“They eat crickets, live ones.”
“Yeah, I think I read that somewhere.” I forced myself to look inside the terrarium. The spider moved its hairy orangey-red and black legs with exaggerated slowness, like something from a horror movie where things have gone terribly wrong.
Brennan looked at my horrified expression. “But you won’t let me get one, will you?” He shook his head and stormed away. “I should’ve known.”
He turned, his cheeks splotchy, the universe compressed into a choice: be a cool mom or watch Brennan move farther and farther away. Bridge the distance, right now. Or don’t.
“Let’s talk about this,” I ventured.
He folded his arms across his chest. “So you can tell me all the reasons why I can’t have one.”
“No.” I plucked a pamphlet out of the stand, The Care and Feeding of Your Tarantula, and stalled for time. “It means I have questions.”
“Ask away.” He gave me a tight smile. “I’ve researched.”
News to me.
“Okay, what’s this stuff?” I pointed at the sand at the bottom of the spider’s enclosure.
“Substrate. It’s a mixture of sand and peat moss. You only have to remove the dead crickets—I mean I would have to—and change the sand a couple of times a year. Spiders are pretty clean.”
“Do you have to, uh, exercise her?” My arm bristled just thinking about her crawling on my son.
“No, and that’s the great thing, too. You can handle her, if you want to. This specific breed isn’t very aggressive and if you just relax, she’s won’t spook and throw her hairs at you or bite.”
Now I was in full body shiver mode. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop. “Yeah, the venom. Doesn’t that freak you out a little?”
He shook his head. “She’s got venom but only a limited supply so she’ll really only ever use it in a life-threatening situation. Mostly, she keeps to herself in her little hide.”
“Hide? Exactly how it sounds I guess…”
“Yeah, she needs a place to just hang out, you know, unseen.” He turned back to the glass. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”
A place to hide out, unseen. Flashes of my ex showing up at the door unexpected, just when I was having a good day, or when I was having a very bad, weepy day. Imagine never having to see him. Ever. Just staying in my dark little hide, my needs all being taken care of.
I realized I’d just missed something Brennan had said.
“Sorry,” I prompted.
“I said I’ll take care of her. I’ll do everything. I promise.”
So: payback for every spider I’d ever squished. This was it, a hundred fold. A kind of chill fell over me. I ran my hand through my hair, sure I felt something moving around in there.
“Okay, this next part is a deal breaker: you will make sure she never escapes. I mean never ever.”
That had been three month ago. I’d gained some grudging respect that I’d allowed the spider in, but not much. Certainly not as much as I’d hoped for.
Lately I’d taken to avoiding this room, and its sinister posters, its darkness. More and more I couldn’t help compare the choice of a spider with Brennan’s rebellion, his constant testing of me.
I didn’t expect to actually care whether the spider lived or died. But it mattered to Brennan and somehow keeping her alive meant maybe I hadn’t completely failed as a parent.
Brennan had worried about the spider when she remained motionless for days, without eating, and then one day she shed her old skin. Like Lazarus, she had emerged. Her body was soft and she was vulnerable at first, so she’d stay put until her new skin hardened and she had protection. Huh. A kind of inertia until she was ready to face the world again.
Now I stared at the terrarium; something was different. New light? No, it was the same red light. The water looked recently changed, there were no cricket bodies. Brennan had kept his word.
Then I noticed it. The lid, it was askew.
And the spider was nowhere to be found.
I picturing myself giving into my old pattern: I’d run out of the house, call Brennan out of class, get him to come home and take care of this.
No. I was stronger now: I put my hair up in a ponytail, rolled up my sleeves, slipped on a pair of high latex gloves, and got down on my hands and knees to find her. After all, I was Mom, Finder of All Lost Things. I could do this.
Three hours after Brennan had stepped off the school bus, with both of us now on the hunt, I had to admit it. Even I couldn’t locate her.
“She’s lost, isn’t she, Mom?”
Yes, she’s lost. And now maybe she’ll die.
I hated myself for doing it, but I sat down on the step and put my head in my hands. Hot salty tears sprang to my eyes.
I couldn’t even keep a damned spider alive let alone maintain a relationship with my only son.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he said.
This only made me cry harder.
“It’s not that.” I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “I feel like I’ve lost you.” My words came out in a whisper. “We used to be so close.”
“We’re still close.” As he said it, his mouth turned down; even he didn’t believe it.
We sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally he said, “It’s just that things are all messed up now.”
I reached for a crumpled tissue in my pocket. “Yeah.”
“It’s not your fault.” He turned his face away. This is something he used to do when he was little and he didn’t want me to see him cry. “I mean what happened with Dad.”
I took in a long shaky breath. “What if it is? What if it’s all my fault?”
I imagined Dr. Phil admonishing me that grown up issues shouldn’t be discussed in front of the children. Now I’d probably make Brennan feel all sorts of emotions he couldn’t sort out. Another failure on the pile.
How many ways could one mom fail?
“If I’ve been a shit, I’m sorry,” he said.
I sighed and let the language slide.
“I have, haven’t I?”
“Well, maybe a little,” I said.
We both laughed. When I put my arm on his shoulder, he didn’t slip out of it.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s put on Netflix and watch a really bad horror movie. She’ll come out eventually.”
Just this morning, that statement would’ve sent me into the full on heebie jeebies. I’d grown my own hard shell.
“Let’s just hope I find her first or you’ll have a heart attack.” But I could see he didn’t mean it. He saw the changes, too.
Later, watching a really campy zombie flick, out of the shadows, something moved in the glow of the TV with exaggerated slowness.
“Mom! Look! She’s back!”
Back. Back was good.
I could relate. My own inertia after Jeff’s exit, had made me want to curl up into myself, away from the world and its light.
After months of staying in my hide, now I emerged, ready.
Brennan picked up the spider. “Want to hold her?” He grinned wickedly at me.
“Well.” The hair stood up on the back of my neck. “Maybe later. After all, the female Mexican Red Knee can live up to 25 years, so I’ve got some time to work up to it.”
Brennan’s mouth dropped open. So, his mom knew a thing or two about spiders.
“Impressive,” he said, watching the spider crawl along his arm, with exaggerated slowness.
* * * * *
“Care and Feeding” was originally published in Wild Musette Journal #1901: Frog Porridge (November 2019).
Lisa Finch lives and writes in Forest, Ontario. Her work has appeared in over 25 publications. You can dig deeper here: amazon.com/author/lisa_finch and here: www.finchtales.webs.com. She is blessed with a wonderful family, friends, a full calendar, various pets, and many books.