Clara was wounded. Up and down her forearms were makeshift toilet paper bandages and bandaids of various sizes. She slumped into the chair next to me and held her hand up to a small cut on her shoulder and held her other hand on a scratched elbow.
She sighed. And I waited for her to talk.
“I don’t understand…” she said quietly.
I knew what she didn’t understand. What she didn’t understand could be heard in the background of this very conversation, running in circles in the next room. They were all she had talked about for the past week. It wasn’t hard to read Clara’s mind these days.
“I’m sorry they are giving you trouble,” I said, sincerely.
She picked at the wounds on her arm and nodded.
They came in a cardboard box at Walmart. We had driven all the way to Anchorage that evening especially for them, and I admit, I drove a little faster than usual, because the excitement of my family had bled over into my own jittery body. After repeated questions about when I was going to get off work, and coming home to find my kids already dressed and ready to walk out the door with their shoes on (this is unheard of). We packed into the car and I had to go back into the house to get Lydia would I found dancing in the living room, entirely alone, and when I asked why she wasn’t in the car yet, she said it was because she was so excited to go. We were finally doing it. We were finally getting Guinea Pigs.
We arrived early. The young woman we were meeting in the parking lot wasn’t scheduled to be there for another fifteen minutes. But that didn’t stop us from sitting in our car and anxiously looking into every car that drove into the parking lot.
“Maybe that red car. There’s a young girl in that red car.”
“Do college students drive minivans?”
“Does that man look like he would own Guinea Pigs?”
“What does that question mean? Do I look like I would own Guinea Pigs? Owning a Guinea Pig doesn’t change what you would look like.”
But we still looked. Cautiously driving up to and past several different cars, just to see if they would react to a car with three children with their faces pressed up against the windows.
Later, when we found out that the girl we were meeting was going to be late, we ran into the store to buy “a few things” and left with a cart full of Guinea Pig food, bedding, treats, lettuce leaves. Things we already had at the house, waiting for the Guinea Pigs for when they got home, but more, just in case, just for the ride home, just so they know immediately that we love them. Again, I admit, I allowed all of this to happen.
When the moment finally arrived, it arrived at the same time as a burning car was abandoned directly next to ours and the driver, a suspicious young man, jumped out of it and bolted out of the parking lot, leaving his car in flames right in front of us. This remarkable encounter didn’t even register in my children’s consciousness, because at the same time as the burning car was being parked and abandoned another car was pulling up beside us and a woman was lifting a cardboard box from her trunk.
And there they were. Under the billowing cloud of a burning car in the Walmart parking lot, my children met their friends. One tan and white, one grey and white, both the size and character of nervous potato.
And we took them home. Three kids huddled in the back seat, leaning over a box that kept squeaking and shifting in Clara’s lap as they opened the lid and fed in lettuce leaves and made what they thought were comforting cooing noises.
But that had been over a week ago, and now Clara was sitting in the chair with her mummified and bandaged arms. Wounded.
“They don’t let you hold them?” I asked.
“They will get used to you, soon.”
“I know. Maybe. They just hurt me.”
“We can trim their toenails.”
She seemed surprised by this. “No. This…” she motioned to her arms where the little creatures had kicked at her until she was forced to repeatedly put them down, “and this…” she waved a hand up by her neck where she had apparently held them up to her face and risked the threat of death in order to hug them. “That’s not what hurts,” she explained. “It is my heart that hurts. I need them to know how much I love them, and I don’t think they can.”
And I understood this too. “Oh. Oh, Clara,” I pulled her into my arms. “You are learning what it means to be a parent.”