I brought Ming home on a Friday night. It was the same night Shannon brought home the 27″ television that seemed to take up the whole living room. We sat on the couch saying, “I can’t believe that thing is in our apartment.” I was talking about the TV and she was talking about the chinchilla.
Ming came into my life in a fit of creative exuberance veiled as a poor excuse for treating seasonal depression. It was February — that dreary month in Boston when the asphalt and sky have merged into one slate gray, the wind whips through your Gore-Tex and sunny days seem so far off you want to say your good-byes and head over the railing of the Mass. Ave. bridge.
So I decided I needed a pet. Another pet. The twin partners in crime — key-stealing, Velcro-eating, remote-control-chewing ferrets — weren’t enough of a handful.
I stopped at the Pet Shop on my way home. The bunnies, cute and dumb like your high school sweetheart, were plentiful. And right next to the bunnies were the chinchillas, like elusive, fuzzy little old men, seemingly crossed between a squirrel and a kangaroo, sitting on the edge of a dusty glass bowl. It was a cage full of big ears, bolts of velvety wrinkled fur, and feather duster tails that moved swiftly in circles.
I’d worked in pet shops my whole life and had encountered several chinchillas along the way, but was never particularly thrilled about picking them up because in general they didn’t like to be held, they were quicker than I could ever hope to move, and their skeleton under all that fur is about the size of a lemon. This allows them to jump four feet straight up and to run five times faster than your average household dog. For some reason I didn’t think these acrobatics would be a problem in an apartment with few walls, lots of furniture, slippery hardwood floors, two people, two ferrets, and an occasional golden retriever.
I stood for a while, watching the half-dozen chinchillas bouncing around upside down in the cage and rolling with chinchilla glee in their dust baths. I fed them raisins and began singling out the ones with the most personality.
There was one courting me through the bars of the cage, handing me peanuts in exchange for the raisins I offered. He’d pull down his ear for cleaning and then it would spring back with a tuft of moistened fur sticking up like a lynx. He knew he was cute. Watching him I thought of the Mogwai in “Gremlins,” the one you keep in the dark that sings and coos sweetly. And like the Mogwai, our nocturnal chinchilla hated bright light and must never get wet.
But the chinchillas were strange and beautiful and exotic. And in case I hadn’t already made up my mind, I got a rush of creative rationalization.
I would write children’s books about the adventures of this chinchilla, and use the live one as a model for my illustrations! I could teach children about South America, chinchillas’ native land. I could even toss in a bit of rudimentary Spanish. He could be my muse, my little creative energy box in an imported bamboo cage on top of my writing desk.
I promptly ordered up the chinchilla with the peanut in his hand.
As the owner reached in to grab the fur ball of my choice, which I had spent almost an hour selecting, he squinted and said, “I can’t sell you that one.” I questioned him agonizingly. The man pointed out that my chinchilla was missing a hind leg. He had adapted well but the owner refused to sell him to me. After some debating I picked the female that kept pushing my first choice off the bowl. She had sass. The owner informed me she was more rare than the traditional grays because she was cloaked with a hood of charcoal black. She looked somehow Asian under all her sudamericana – she had sly and sleepy Japanese eyes. Piedrita seemed appropriate. “Little stone.” But she was begging to be called “Ming.” Ming Piedrita traveled first class from The Pet Shop to my house in an empty box of antibacterial hand soap. That should have been a sign.
I sat on the couch and slowly opened the box, lifting Ming out and holding her against my chest. Her little heart was beating furiously. Her fur was so soft, any Gund would be jealous. I set her down on the couch next to me. She hopped up to the highest point on the couch, and then to my shoulder. She began grooming my hair with little monkey paws. Instantly, I was smitten.
She grew more comfortable in her surroundings and before long, Ming had made the jump from the love seat to the couch, almost a foot apart. On baby legs she was already a pogo stick with a mission.
Our little household seemed happy. The animals came out in shifts because they’re natural enemies. Sometimes Ming could play in my bedroom while the ferrets raced around the living room tipping over beer bottles and stealing our keys. Then Ming had my whole room to herself, including two windowsills and a seven foot high rug-covered chinchilla condo my dad had built. It was during this time alone that the little demon in her began to fester, encouraging her to inflict damage I am still finding years later.
I think Shannon liked the chinchilla but didn’t know quite what to do with her. That was most people’s reaction. She didn’t come when called, she was nearly impossible to catch, and she took to fibrous textures like a lawnmower. If she found a postcard on the coffee table she would give it a scalloped border in under a minute, turning it carefully to each new flat side, leaving a lacey pattern meticulously gnawed into the surface. She especially liked books, and especially books with glue bindings. Unfortunately, this included several on Shannon’s book shelf in the living room.
One book in particular suffered a nasty fate. When Ming was finished eating the entire cover off, all that remained was a few pale green fibers. I felt awful. I promised Shannon I would replace the book. I asked her where she got it, my keys and wallet in hand. Dublin. Used book store. It was a first edition.
Strike one for Ming.
Soon after, Ming took a middle name, “Farrah,” which was, coincidentally, Shannon’s middle name.
Strike two came a week later during a much-needed recuperative dinner. We’d both had a hectic week and we were relaxing with a spread fit for queens: hommus plate, Greek olives, mesclun mix with raspberry-walnut vinaigrette and fresh mozzarella, a bottle of Chianti. I poured two glasses and we sat down to enjoy our meal.
Ming wanted in on the action. She hopped up onto the back of the love seat a few feet from the table and looked simultaneously cute and disinterested. Every time I looked at her she looked away. I reached out to grab her and she fled the couch, only to return during my first bite of salad. Soon I realized she had every intention of jumping. Ming lifted off into the air and my arm shot out to block her landing. She propelled herself directly into the center of the dinner table. Exiting via Shannon’s shoulder, she sprang cackling from the room, leaving behind her a wake of broken antique wine glasses, pita, and raspberry walnut vinaigrette.
From this point on she was no longer “Ming Farrah” to Shannon. She became “Chinchilla.” A name said often, and always with a certain degree of accusation.
During an online research session in which I tried desperately to find advice on handling the increasingly difficult Ming, I came across an interesting tidbit. As I relayed it to Shannon her eyes began to shine. On my laptop was a photograph of a five-year-old holding a chinchilla (the animal must have been drugged) and underneath it, the warning: “If you squeeze your chinchilla too hard, its eyes will pop out.” A concrete threat emerged in our household after that day. “Chinchilla!” Shannon would call, affecting a generic Asian accent, “I’ll squeeze you till your eyes pop out!”
Strike three resulted in Ming being confined to my bedroom forever.
One night our friend Leila was over and we stayed up late talking. When I was almost too tired to get off the couch, I began to call Ming. I rattled the box of raisins that often drew her out of hiding. She ducked her little head out from under the couch with a huge dust bunny crowning one ear. We remarked on how precious she was. We spent the next hour and a half trying to catch her.
Ming decided she was going to play tag with us. She skimmed the floor with the grace of a figure skater on crack. She was careful to knock down or break anything she passed. She screamed the whole time, a loud, pulsating half-hiccup half-squeal that made me feel simultaneously guilty and annoyed. She couldn’t really be scared; she knew the nightly drill. Raisin can shake. Show of head from under couch. Thirty seconds of playful chasing. Corner and catch chinchilla, cuddle soothingly for ten minutes, apply yogurt covered raisin, then cage. The process never varied. Until this particular night. Which ended in Leila, of Barbie doll dimensions, lifting up one end of my enormous couch so I could parachute beneath it on top of Ming with a bath towel.
After that, Ming didn’t see the rest of the apartment. Except for a few times when she rushed by me, sneaking out my door and into Shannon’s room, climbing into her dresser to chew little holes in her Victoria’s Secret underwear.
Theories abound as to why Chinchilla finally lost it. Being a grains and berries kind of girl, she luckily lived in a vegetarian household. The closest thing to meat our refrigerator ever saw was the frozen swordfish that Shannon brought home periodically and threw out a week later.
So this is my theory. Suddenly it was summer. The Boys Next Door shared an alley with us and my bedroom windows opened onto that alley. They had a large grill and several insatiable appetites. And they were not vegetarian.
Little Ming’s favorite spot in my room besides my bookshelf, which she tended to with tireless relish, was my window sill. The Boys Next Door barbecued every night and they talked to her when her silhouette appeared in my window. The grill, directly across and upwind from my left window, exhaled a constant and overpowering stream of carcinogenic smoke and the smell of searing beef hide. Sometimes when I opened my door to enter, I had to wave the black smoke aside to see my way across the floor.
I think the smell of burning animal flesh made Ming nervous.
Since her quarantine to my room, Ming and I became bunkmates. The only problem was that I slept from eleven until seven and she from seven until eleven. While I tossed about on top of my sheets in the August night, she chewed furiously on her chinchilla bungalow, stopping only to spring onto the bowl for a hearty clank to break up the monotony.
As summer wore on and the barbecues came fast and furious, Ming began behaving strangely.
She became exceedingly vocal, yowling until all hours, especially if there was a full moon. Her squalling began whenever something existed near her. She would bark at the book case and then run and hide in her hut, or push on the screen top until the stone gargoyles weighting it down fell to the hardwood floor with a deafening thud. Soon the ever-sweet werewolf chinchilla supplemented her howling at the moon — with biting me.
I was appalled and insulted. I thought we had a connection. This clearly drew a line between Ming and me. No more yogurt covered raisins from the hand that feeds.
Ming picked up one last bad habit. And this was when her gender came into question. One night after I had caught her for bed, I was holding her in front of me. She turned her head and bit me once on each hand, as usual, and then sprayed a healthy stream of urine directly in my eye with the accuracy of a sniper. At which point I dropped her and ran from the room to exclaim to my slightly concerned, but mostly entertained, roommate that my beloved pet had pissed in my face.
For me this meant war.
For Ming this meant mating season.
I was wrong about Ming’s gender. Not that I ever checked, but I got a feminine vibe from “him.” Besides, the sex of my pets is irrelevant to me unless I plan on breeding them. Even if I had thought about breeding chinchillas in the past, I would not be stocking up on 70 lb. bags of yogurt covered raisins in my lifetime. So Ming was coming into sexual maturity, and wanted to mate, and was surrounded by steak fumes. Ming Farrah Piedrita became a different animal to me. He became, well, “Chinchilla.”
Chinchilla was adopted by a lovely woman in Salem with plans to breed and a need for a “feisty” male. Well, that’s just what she got. I think.
So over a year later I see my exposed stereo cords scalloped and shining copper, I open an old jewelry box and find it stuffed with pilfered raisins, I find my J. Crew Grecian leather sandals with only one of five straps left — perhaps her only way to deal with smoke signals sent from an ailing calf on the grill.
Oh, Ming. I do sleep better at night.