Puppy love

Kristine Gill

I can feel my shoulders slump as I lean against the puppy chow display to pick at Friday’s coat of red nail polish. It clashes hideously with this red polo I’m forced to wear, and makes it hard to care about my posture.

The front door opens slowly and the bells hanging on its frame jingle like mad.

“Hi, welcome to Petco,” I say. The words startle me like they do every time the automatic greeting passes through my lips. The woman smiles and mutters “hello.” I feel her eyes follow my shoes up from the floor as she takes in my slumped shoulders and chipping polish. I straighten up and reluctantly grab for the bottle of blue glass cleaner I’ve set aside during my midday manicure.

Somehow the large rats, dwarf hamsters and fancy mice I used to fuss over seem ugly and annoying now. The toys and treats scattered in their cages are too brightly colored for my mood. They make me angry. But I’m forced to stare at them while I wipe clean the glass containing these little rodents.

And this store is too loud. Squawking Conures and squealing guinea pigs compete for volume from across the cash registers. The checkered linoleum only does so well at hiding the dust, hair, stray seed and kibble that gather along the bottom of the shelves.

I bend down to pick up six or seven tennis balls that have escaped their display and glance up to see that someone must have recently had an accident on aisle five. It was probably the guy who came in with the Weimaraner earlier, judging by the size of the puddle. Looks like someone dined and dashed.

I head back to the supply room, past the bubbling wonderland of the aquatic display in the center of the store and the arrangement of outdoor dog igloos and hideouts toward the back. I spot my best friend Mr. Paper Towel Roll deep in conversation with Miss Disinfectant and snatch up both of them before things get too serious.

Back in aisle five I close off the crime scene with one of those yellow stand-up signs with the black stick figure in some sort of peril. Then I’m down on my hands and knees trying to remember which part of my application mentioned close encounters with urine. I’ve suggested that we cover the floors with bedding and change it periodically like we do with the ferrets, but Joan says we aren’t running a zoo.

Once I’m done cleaning doggie mess it’s back to wiping glass. I’m not in the mood for one of Tim’s rants about the injustice and cruelty that are the premises of the feeder fish race, so I stick to cleaning the tanks along the outside of the aquatic center. I wonder if the yellow angelfish recognizes me or looks at everybody like that. I’m the only one who cleans her tank, but still.

The damn bells ring again, and through the aquarium glass I catch blurred movement. This creature walks upright, sports the same red polo, and roguish good looks. He crouches on the opposite side of the fire-belly toad display to suck his cheeks in for a fish face and wink at me through the glass. Then he saunters to the backroom to punch in for his shift.

I feel light-headed and silly as I unglue my eyes from the aquarium and unstick grinning lips from my teeth to glance at the backroom door. Maybe it’s just the blue cleaner or the dirty guinea pig litter wafting from the rodent section that’s giving me this woozy feeling. Either way, I’ve suddenly remembered why I clean cages.

* * *

I think sadly back to the time I spent picking away at my nail polish out of boredom, wishing I had thought ahead and that maybe I’d woken up a bit sooner this morning. Would an extra 20 minutes have killed me? I could have fixed my bangs or put on another coat of mascara. At least I showered. But this stupid nail polish!

I’m on my toes now and all this adrenaline sparks a light bulb moment. Maybe the angelfish just likes me because I’m always smiling at her. I doubt the use of Windex and paper towels make anyone else here smile. I named her “Sol” because it’s Spanish for “sun” and because she’s this radiant yellow and because I take every opportunity to showcase my limited knowledge of the language. Maybe I’m always smiling at her because yellow makes me smile and because I look forward to cleaning fingerprints off of her tank around 4 p.m. every day. But maybe 4 p.m. coincides with more than just my routine cleaning schedule.

Ian waltzes back into the main part of the store, swinging his arms. He is the only guy I know who could pose with the stupid dog igloos and tennis ball displays and still manage to land a spot on the cover of “Gorgeous Petco Employee Weekly.” Few things could tear me away from my intense observation of the creatures in this store. As annoying as these gerbils can be, as bad as these ferrets sometimes smell, they’re still adorable. But Ian … Ian is my favorite mammal.

It’s hard to play off my furious scrubbing of the angelfish tank for anything other than nerves. I’m sure to keep my gaze on the glass so as not to let Ian know just how excited I am that it’s finally 4 o’clock. It’s a convenient place to stare because in the glass I can watch him meander down the reptile aisle. He squats to check on his favorite snake, the green one with yellow eyes whom he’s affectionately named “Sid.” Sid eats small adorable rodents with enthusiasm that suggests he’s prepared to take on larger prey that could one day possibly, most likely, no doubt include one of his human caretakers. I hope Sid shares my affection for a particular mammal. I hope he doesn’t eat Ian.

I’ve Windexed the crap out of Sol’s tank and I can see Ian giving Sid’s cage a final tap before standing up. If angelfish had eyelids, I swear Sol would have winked at me. Those lips of hers, forever pursed in anticipation seem to scream, “Go get him girl!”

I spin around as gracefully as one can while wearing clunky brown shoes and wielding cleaning supplies.

“Hey,” he says effortlessly, elegantly, easily.

“How’s it goin’,” I reply, failing miserably at containing my excitement. I have to bite my lip to keep from smiling.

“Today’s the third right? I have to feed Sid and the rest of these guys today. Did you wanna help, or do you need to finish up that glass?” he asks, gesturing with a thumb over his shoulder to the aisle he just walked down. I know I should finish the glass, if not because it’s dirty at least to give myself a moment to regain composure. Few girls enjoy watching snakes down little Mickeys and Minnies and while I don’t like it myself, it would take a lot for me to feign disinterest in anything Ian did.

“I was just finishing, so yea I can help,” I say, this time more naturally.

He flashes that roguish smile, his eyes just glinting through shaggy brown hair, and we head to the backroom.

“Did you finish that paper you had to do last night?” he asks.

“Yeah I did actually, but it’s horrible. I was up until three in the morning,” I say.

“Oh whatever, I’m sure it’s great. But three a.m.?! You have to stop that. People die from sleep deprivation, kid.”

“It’s cool,” I laugh, more in giddy response to his obvious concern for my well being than the idea of my death. “I’ll go grab the crickets.”

I bag probably 50 of the saddest looking crickets; the ones that are on the way out, no doubt as a result of severe sleep deprivation. I feel guilty sending the ones in their prime to death. Ian emerges from the freezer with a small bag of what I might have once mistaken for lucky little rabbits’ feet and we head back out to the store.

“You’re pretty much the only girl I know who likes to watch this,” Ian says, turning his bright brown eyes toward me.

I smile a half-guilty smile, knowing full well my allegiance to PETA may be on the line in the name of love.

“Well blood and guts come in like second or third on my list. Really, if small innocent creatures aren’t dying, I’m not gonna watch.” I say.

“Oh, join the club,” he responds. “Why do you think I applied at this place?” he says, nudging me playfully with the hand carrying the freezer bag. I pretend to wince at the dead mice and step away from him, but not too far. It’s little moments like these when I know I could use the momentum of our banter and drop a well-placed line in the middle of our conversation to just throw him for a loop.

“Tell him what you’re feeling,” I say to myself. Stop biting your tongue and try it.

“Go get him girl,” Sol’s bubbly words echo in my head.

“Well Kim would never watch. She hates this sort of thing. I couldn’t get her to even turn to the Discovery Health Channel last night, and they weren’t even showing surgery.”

“Well…” I trail off. “I don’t think it’s that bad.”

Suddenly I’ve remembered why I bite my tongue.

* * *

We take turns opening tanks and dropping in mice and crickets. We’ve done this so many times that we don’t have to talk. Two mice for the yellow snake, ten crickets for the thin brown lizards. It’s completely natural now, boring almost. The only thing I get a kick out of anymore is eyeing Ian while he watches these critters eat. Whatever makes him happy.

I stand and reach up to feed the top row while he crouches to get the bottom. Sometimes, when he feels me watching, he’ll look up, expectant and bright-eyed. I have nothing to say, but he lets me play it off with a smile that he returns with a smirk. I know he knows. He has to know. So why is this so hard?

“Alright,” he says, straightening up within inches of me. In another one of those movie-esque awkward moments I can feel his breath somewhere around the region of my forehead. He’s the perfect height, perfect build, perfect guy. I look up at his scruffy chin. With the most subtle and natural of movements I could step forward and fall into his arms. He’d catch me I’m sure, but I chicken out instead and take a step back. He inhales, puffing his chest slightly, and gestures down the aisle.

I have a nice walk to the backroom to ponder what didn’t just happen. I like to blame him in these scenarios. In any other situation I’d be brave enough to take that step forward. It’s his fault he’s taken, and by a girl who hates blood and guts, no less.

But since I have only a few hours with him, I resolve to make the best of things. I push thoughts of Kim away, and commit to the best friend role. It’s hard to settle, but it’s better than nothing.

“Where the hell is Kandy?” I ask. “It’s four thirty … really this is late even for her.”

Kandy is one of the strangest people I have ever met. She’s thin, has red hair and reminds me of some terrified rodent. And even though that makes her fair game for any one of the reptiles we’ve just fed, she would still rather cuddle with Sid the snake than a puppy, or even Ian. Strange as it is, I’m glad because she’s one less person I have to compete with in the dramatic battle for Ian’s love.

“Dunno,” he says. “She needs to get her act together. We’re running low on mice and Joan hates paying for them … Kandy is what we call expendable labor.” I laugh and snatch eagerly at a chance to crack a joke in hopes that Ian will crack that smile.

“As long as no one fires her,” I say. It works. We’re laughing because despite Kandy’s perpetual tardiness, she takes shocking interest in the animals at this store and would surely be crushed if she were fired. If she’s late it’s probably because she’s lost track of time surfing some Web site about the natural breeding habits of crayfish or the top ten obscenities most commonly uttered by African Grey Parrots. She’s quirky, awkward and at times embarrassing, but we both have a soft spot for her.

As if by cue, Kandy peaks around the corner into the backroom to punch in for her shift.

“Hey Kandy,” Ian and I say in unison.

“‘Ello,” she replies, apparently opting for the British accent today. At least she’s speaking English this week.

“What took so long?” Ian asks in the casual but still parental-sort of tone he reserves for Kandy, as he puts the rest of the mice into the freezer.

Kandy manages to tear her eyes away from the ceiling, which she’s apparently noticing for the first time, to answer.

“Had to pump my bicycle tires again,” she says. “I accidentally deflated them the first time I tried. It took a while.”

I stifle a laugh, turning it graciously into a snorting/coughing/choking sound while Ian responds. His composure during Kandy’s little moments is truly awe-inspiring.

“That’s rough,” he says. “Beats paying for gas or walking though.”

“Indeed,” Kandy says with an abrupt laugh. She chooses the strangest moments to act normally.

Suddenly Joan’s voice booms over the intercom.

“Reptile associate to aisle seven please,” she says.

“That’s me,” says Ian, whisking away to share his knowledge of the creepy and crawly with whatever customer needs his expert aid.

“Hot damn,” I think to myself. “That is one lucky Petco consumer.”

I’m immediately bored upon Ian’s departure, and it’s Kandy to the rescue.

“You love him,” she says. My head snaps around from the empty doorway Ian just walked through to glare at her.

“Whoa, wait, wait, wait,” I think. Space cadet Kandy has actually been paying attention to my soap opera scenario long enough to form an opinion and offer advice for the first time. This is monumental and I don’t know how to react. I settle for blushing furiously and denying it all.

“Ian? I’d rather get with a ferret,” I say. “We’re just friends, and he’s dating Kim.”

“Yes, but Kim is such a wanker,” Kandy says in her accent of the day.

“Holy cow,” I think. This time the British humor is too much. I’m torn between shock and flattery, and I’m stunned to silence. She really thinks Kim is a wanker?! The thought warms my heart and gives me hope. At least I’m not vying for the position of some angelic sweetheart, and I wouldn’t consider myself a wanker. I’m smiling at Kandy with a smile I reserve only for the wanker-loving boy in my life.

“Go get ‘im girl,” Kandy says, breaking into my train of thought, as she tiptoe dances to the broom closet for a dustpan.

The irony is too much. Sol and Kandy have suddenly merged in my mind. The advice I’d only dreamed the little yellow fish would give me is suddenly coming from a real life human source — in the exact wording no less, save the accent. Fate, Karma, insanity and momentum. This is too perfect. The planets are aligning, and I suddenly feel pressure and excitement at the same time. Even if it’s not the right time, it’s the only time I’ve felt so bold, so daring, so delusional. It would be a shame to waste this moment and this energy on some menial task like helping Kandy sweep. But there’s one last tether holding me by the ankle, and grounding me to Earth.

“What if he says no?” I ask Kandy breathlessly.

“Oh…” she says lazily, peaking her head out from the broom closet with a bit of dirt on her nose and a dust bunny in her red hair, eyes wide.

“I don’t think he will,” she finishes.

That’s it. I’m barreling out into the store, down the reptile aisle to a boy with brown shaggy hair who’s wearing a red polo. My clunky brown shoes have never felt so light, my nail polish never so perfectly painted.

“Hey you,” he says, turning away from the customer who’s just found the perfect heating lamp and is headed to the checkout.

“‘Hey you?'” What a perfect thing to say! He is so smooth, so charming, so extraordinary. I’m breathing a little too heavily after my hot pursuit. My hair feels windblown and elegant and the flush in my face could only be more flattering.

“What…?” he asks, as his lips curl into an expectant smile. I smile back, still panting, knowing full well what’s next. He eyes me curiously, waiting for whatever Kandy story I have, whatever news I bring. But it’s not breaking news. It’s very old news, in fact.

I step forward, ease onto my tiptoes, steadying myself with one hand on Ian’s wrist and sliding the other onto his neck, my thumb on his temple and my fingers in that shaggy brown hair. It’s as soft as I expected. I close my eyes, press my lips against his slightly open mouth and sigh.

And here, among the kibble, the Weimaraner piss and squawking of Conures, Ian kisses me back.

The hand I’ve steadied myself against intertwines itself with my own. His free hand finds the small of my back and brings me in closer for what is proving to be a rather PG-13 affair. The rabbits are for sure getting a kick out of this. I break away for air and he takes the free moment to plant one on my forehead, directly in line with the spot where his hot breath hit me earlier this evening.

Biting my lip, I ease back down onto my feet and look up at him. And look who’s biting his lip too! I’m all giggles. A yellow something darts wildly in its tank behind Ian sending bubbles to foam at the surface.

“Perfect,” he breathes. I agree. Except reality has suddenly come into focus from my flat-footed position on the floor.

“What about…” I trail off, dropping my head to look at the floor and dreading the response.

“I broke up with her two weeks ago, but I can’t shake her,” he said. “She still comes over unannounced and I feel bad turning her away. But Kandy’s right, the girls quite the wanker.”

I look up to face him just as quickly as I turned to Kandy only minutes ago, with a huge smile.

“She talks to you about Kim?” I ask, dumbfounded at the uncanny observations Kandy has until now reserved exclusively for four-legged creatures. We walk to the backroom in awe of her matchmaking skills.

There, Kandy looks up from the floor where she’s been sweeping up dirt piles with the dustpan.

“Blimey, this floor is a dirty bloke,” she exclaims. “You two should stop dilly-dallying and help me.”

“You’re bloody right, Kandy,” I say with newfound warmth for the mouse-like girl. Suddenly, and for the first time, I’m eager to sweep floors.

Contact features correspondent Kristine Gill at [email protected].