This is the day I lost my Smiles.
For clarification, Smiles is our new baby bearded dragon. Also, Smiles isn’t technically mine. My nine-year-old son Tyler is his official owner, as he’ll happily declare for all to know. He was the one who begged for him mercilessly, who cried when we said we would think about it, who brought out the big guns and lamented his first born status of having to share everything with everyone, namely his two annoying brothers. Smiles, named for the wide, open mouthed expression on his face, was his – except when it became necessary to feed, care or pay any general attention to it, then as it turns out, Smiles is mine.
I can’t say I mind, I took a quick liking to the reptile. Maybe it brought me back to my younger days, scanning the bungalow colony woods in summer scouting for those bright orange salamanders. My friends and I would catch them, count their spots, declare their age, and put them in pitiful little Tupperware tanks that we would decorate with grass, dirt and rocks. No animals were ever so loved by their captors, who routinely forgot to feed or give them water. Or in the case of my sweet younger brother – or at least sweet in this retelling – forgot to punch air holes in his plastic home. It took him awhile to figure out that his prized critters weren’t actually sleeping. I remember once leaving them out on the bungalow porch too long in the sun. You don’t want to know what I found when I returned from camp later that day. Let’s just say, to this day I don’t eat dried apricots.
Even with the 30 year time passage, I should have known better, but I guess I’m just an old nostalgic sap, I liked him. I really liked him. He isn’t orange or spotted like the “Sallys” of the old days. He’s a more lizardly grey brown, all the better for blending my dear. And he’s not smooth bellied and sweet; Smiles is a predator. Just watch him catch a cricket. Even lounging on his branch feigning sleep, in a flash he’s on the move. Snap, there go another cricket. I try not to think too hard about my transition from loving the innocent soft salamanders of old to the wizened, scaly dragon I identify with now. There’s something frightening there but again, I’m not thinking about that. Smiles knows what’s what. You’ve got to appreciate that.
In the week we’ve had Smiles, we have definitely bonded. I talk to him, bring him fresh vegetables, stroke his head, take him out to cuddle – don’t judge me, my boys are getting bigger. Sometimes, when I come close to the tank, Smiles runs up to the nearest branch and stares at me with a gaping smiling mouth. At least that was how I perceived it, until I read a book on bearded dragons that said that they sometimes show dominance and aggression with their wide menacing expression. Ouch. I don’t care what that book say, Smiles loves me.
So on this gorgeous May morning, I decided that Smiles should feel the real sun on his back instead of the infrared light bulb that heats his cage. Tyler was in Hebrew School already and the other boys were occupied with a video game. It was just me and Smiles as I walked out my front door into the bright happy morning.
At first, it was a Norman Rockwell picture. Me and my lizard on the green green lawn, under the blue blue sky with the yellow shining sun, so pretty. We basked as Smiles slowly scampered from my hand to the grass and back, until I got distracted for one damn second when my neighbor’s son biked past. I wanted Julius and Michael, my other boys, outside biking as well, and turned my head to call into the house for them.
That was when it happened. Smiles took two quick leaps and scooted right into the bushes that line my front lawn. It was my turn to have a mouth open and wide and my eyes as well. “Howard!” I screamed for husband, lunging for the plants. I was quick but he was quicker, and within a second, he was gone.
The person who would throw a paper towel at a spider and then run out of the room screaming was now full body deep in the bowels of a bush crawling with creepy creatures. I was beside myself. I could not believe what I had done. What the hell was I thinking bringing a small lizard outside without boundaries? All that went through my mind as I clawed helplessly through the mulch and dirt, scratching my arms on the branches and staring maddeningly at the leaves was that Tyler was never going to forgive me. I could see it. On my deathbed, he would bring it up… remember when you lost Smiles?
Full on panic set in as the minutes passed and I realized my hope of recovering my baby dragon was as fleeting as he was. Howard was pulling apart our front shrubs. I had my face nose to nose with a giant spider and merely blew it aside. Things were crawling on me and I pushed my face lower to the ground and deeper into the bush. The shrub thinned out and I could see through it to the other side and Howard’s face staring back at me.
I was crushed. For one of the only times I can remember, Howard had the decency not to pour oil on the fire with, “Why would you do something like that?” or “What were you thinking?” I can only imagine how desperate I looked. Although, I got some idea by my father-in-law who was there as well, slowly circling the bushes with very large feet. Every time he caught a glimpse of my crazy eyes, he started repeating this tense, optimistic mantra, “Don’t worry, hon. You’ll find him. Don’t worry, hon. You’ll find him. Don’t worry, hon. You’ll find him.”
That was when Julius and Michael decided to make their appearance running from the door. Howard and I halted them immediately, both afraid they might step on Smiles and wanting to keep them unaware of the situation, but it was useless, the little lizards were on to our game. “Why’d ya take him outside?” Michael wanted to know. “You lose Smiles?” Julius asked. Crap. There were no secrets now. In my mind I had already jumped ahead to the pet store to buy a replacement baby bearded dragon, but now with the boys in the know, there was no way out for me. The gig was up and I was officially the worst mom ever.
We continued like this, gently circling the shrub, staring hard at every branch – who was I kidding? He was four inches long and the color of bark. I sometimes couldn’t find him in his cage. I pictured his little face that was either happy to see me or territorially posturing for dominance. I was on the verge of heavy tears. Suddenly, Howard whispered something like, “I see him.”
There was no way. On my lawn of a thousand plants, a million blades of grass, Howard had found him, sitting in the center of the shrub next to the shrub that we had just mutilated. Slowly we closed in. Howard attempted retrieval but Smiles was deep in the shrub and he couldn’t get his hand around him. He tried coming in from behind but was afraid his tail would pull off if he tugged at it.
Barely breathing, I pulled apart the bush the best I could. He really was in there, deep in a crisscross of intersecting branches, his little face looking straight up at me without the hint of a smile. A large spider crawled over his back. I waited a second hoping he’d eat it or something. No such luck. Feeling like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, I slid my hand down and around, praying that he wouldn’t bolt. He didn’t. I pulled Smiles out and into the cave of my shaking hands. Gently hugging my hands to my chest, I walked into my house, placed Smiles back into his tank and cried.
All day, I watched Smiles closely for signs of stress, but he was fine. Only I spent the rest of the day in a state of shaky exultation. We found him! In all the bushes and all the grass, we found him. It was a near disaster. It left me thankful and vulnerable. I had almost committed one of those parent crimes that children carry with them for the rest of their lives, or at least thru therapy.
When Tyler found out what had happen, his mood was light and airy. “You lost Smiles.” He almost joked. He had no idea of the tragedy averted. Later, Howard and I reflected on how differently the day could have gone. If he hadn’t looked in that bush… If he had run… we would all be without smiles for a long time. Thankfully we survived our first week as baby bearded dragon owners, and now I’m just going to shed this day like reptile skin, smile and move on to the second.