Anthony R. Cardno
Navarre the guinea pig is my enemy.
He sits in his cage across the room, pin-sized brown eyes and a tuft of brown hair the only parts of him visible above the hard red plastic bottom of his cage. He senses that we’re the only two home. His owner, Randy, is out shopping for dinner and a video. Navarre knows if he runs out of water I won’t replace it until I hear Randy’s car pull up, so he’s sitting in one corner, conserving energy, staring at me. I’m trying hard not to notice, hoping he’ll just go to sleep. But every time I look up from my book, there he is, watching me like he has nothing better to look at.
Which, of course, he doesn’t. My fault, I suppose. Two sides of his cage touch white-coated plywood. Our landlords didn’t want to be bothered peeling down the bluebird-burdened wallpaper the last tenant left behind, so they nailed up uneven, knotty plywood sheets on every wall and the ceiling, then slopped white paint on it. The plywood doesn’t even go all the way up to the ceiling in one place, which is how we can identify the old wallpaper underneath.
Randy is not too concerned with the walls, but I insisted that we put Navarre’s cage in the worst corner, hoping it would cover the splotchiness. I’ve had better ideas.
We signed a year lease to get this apartment, the only place in our price range when Randy and I decided to move in together: a small studio in a converted garage on the corner of a farm. It has a kitchen and small bathroom off of one main room. Randy immediately fell in love with the coziness, the closeness of it; I wanted someplace that at least afforded us a bedroom space separate from the living room. If I couldn’t have that, than at least Navarre’s cage would be as far from our bed as possible. From that distance, I was willing to try to peacefully co-exist.
Most of the first night I was able to ignore his noises. Until he started chomping on the bars while Randy and I were making love—staccato bursts of “chung-chung-chung” broken by brief pauses. Even Randy’s breath in my ear couldn’t drown out the noise. I raised my head slightly to look over Randy’s bony left shoulder, and the pig was watching me. I lost any interest in sex, as quickly as if I’d just jumped into a barrel of midwinter snow melt. Randy was not disconcerted to say the least, and slightly annoyed at my lack of response to his continued thrusts. He finally got out of bed to settle Navarre down.
“I’m sorry.” I snuggled up behind him now instead of under. I kissed his shoulder blades, readjusted the covers on us. “You know how I am when I get distracted. I’ll try to tune him out next time.”
“It’s all right, Greg.” Randy tried to be consoling around a yawn. “Long day. We’re both edgy. Go to sleep.” Yawn. “I love you.”
“Love you, too.” I whispered, believing every syllable, adding silently, “but not your pig.”
I closed my eyes and wandered into a pleasant dream of a Christmas future: Randy and I, the two of us still together after twenty monogamous years. My hair has gone a distinguished silver, Randy’s has migrated south. And there, across the room is Navarre, his coat gone from brown to dun to gray, the paint on his bars chipped completely off, his water bottle still dripping, his odor wafting across the room. “Open the last present.” Randy points at a box three feet tall by three feet wide by three feet long. I rush the box, sending bits of metallic red wrapping and yellow ribbon everywhere—a piece (probably toxic) even settles between the bars of Navarre’s cage and he stares at it. The box opens to reveal a huge cage, with three Navarres of my very own. On cue, they start chewing on their cage bars, clamoring for me and only me. And Navarre joins in .....
I woke up from the sound of four guinea pigs eating metal to the sounds of one trying to get some attention: pitifully squeaking with a high-pitched “ree-ree-ree,” biting the bars, flipping his food bowl. It was three a.m..
This has gone on every night for a month. Three quarters unconscious halfway between midnight and dawn, I sometimes can’t remember what life was like before Navarre.
* * *
I was at “Open Mike Night” at The Covered Cannon, showing support for a friend of mine who was half of a lesbian acoustic-folk duo with dreams of being the next Indigo Girls. I noticed Randy early in the night; as tall as he is, with prematurely salt-and-pepper hair at odds with his thin boyish face, it’s hard not to notice him. I was drawn to him immediately. He stood out from the group he was with. Halfway through the night, one of his companions got up to recite some poetry—something that seemed to me like disjointed segments of an epic work-in-progress involving fairies and trolls. I couldn’t keep track of it all.
Randy and I connected after the Open Mike session ended. He made his way over to compliment my friend on her performance and casually introduced himself at the same time. My friend conveniently slipped away with a subtle “Greg, I’ll call you tomorrow.”
We found some common ground for small talk. He wheedled his way out of a “prior commitment” to join me at my place for more drinks. It was certainly not undying love at first sight, but the next morning we exchanged phone numbers before he walked out the door.
Initially, our dates consisted of dinner or a movie or drinks at The Covered Cannon, or all three. A trip back to my studio apartment always ended of the night. I lived alone, while Randy shared his apartment with three other guys, two to a bedroom. Privacy was definitely at a premium. The few times we did go to his place, his bedroom was “in use” and Randy would end up playing some complex fantasy-based board game called Talisman while I stood in the kitchen looking on, nursing a beer. To me, the game made Risk look like Chinese Checkers. We quickly decided that my place was less distracting and more intimate. Away from his housemates, Randy could be a real charmer, a master of small talk and sweet nothings.
I never did get to see the inside of his bedroom, which meant I never got to meet the pet he would regularly mention. The poor thing always seemed to be locked in the bedroom with Randy’s rather ‘active’ roommate.
Despite this, I was convinced Randy had a Lhasa Apso or Westie Terrier or some other small dog, which he infrequently referred to as “the little furball.” It wasn’t until we’d been dating almost five months that I got my first hint Navarre wasn’t a canine. Randy called one evening to say he’d be a little late for dinner because he’d just finished cleaning Navarre’s cage. “You know how these small woodland animals can be,” he’d laughed. So now I was thinking small woodland animal, furball: rabbit. Rabbits are cool. I had a rabbit hutch in the backyard when I was a kid.
I was very disappointed three months later to discover, when he was shoved in my face, that Navarre was smaller, hairier, and noisier. It was the day we moved into the apartment, a Sunday. I tried all week to get comfortable with Navarre. The following Saturday, I bought and installed ceiling length retractable plastic blinds, the spoken purpose of which was both to spare our guests the sight of Randy’s garish bedcovers and to create the illusion of a separate space for sleeping and necking. Most nights I convince Randy to leave the blinds down, and Navarre is out of sight if not out of hearing.
* * *
The third side of Navarre’s home, where his water bottle hangs by a thin piece of wire, is inches from the brown pressed-wood faux-paneling of Randy’s bookcase. The bookcase holds not so many books as videos and role-playing games and Randy’s copy of Talisman which he has badgered me to play for most of our relationship. The Monday night after we moved in together I acquiesced, beat the hell out of Randy and his friends in record time, and vowed never to play again. Some of Randy’s friends want a rematch, but I think he’s happier than he lets on that I’m sticking to my word. With me out of the game, Randy’s the big hero on the board. And for some strange reason, Navarre is virtually inanimate when the guys are losing to Randy. He became almost spastic when Randy was losing to me.
When Randy and his friends play, I usually take a book and hide out in the kitchen. We’ve yet to figure out how the kitchen was spared the hasty, uninventive makeover that the rest of the apartment suffered, but we’re thankful. Even if it is beige with sienna bonsai trees, it’s better than the poorly-applied shades (three by my count) of off-white in the main room.
A guinea pig (Cavius porcellus) seems to me a mundane pet for a man like Randy, who is obsessed with the worlds of JRR Tolkien, Robert Jordan, David Eddings, and CS Lewis. He’ll grudgingly read some Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley, the sole point at which our literary sets intersect. When I’m not reading those two Gothic authors, I’m more likely reading Tobias, Geoffrey or Larry Wolff; Virginia Woolf; Edmund White—and anything that’s not fantasy. I get absorbed in the details of real life; he escapes.
“I like to escape,” he tells me. “I’m sure White’s a powerful author, but what can he tell me about growing up gay that I don’t already know? Jordan brings me someplace I’ve never been and never will be.”
I try to dispute his logic by pointing out that he doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up straight or come from a broken home like Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff; I even suggest he read Mercedes Lackey—I hear she at least uses gay characters in a fantasy setting. But he starts cooing to the pig and the argument is over.
Early in our relationship, Randy and I made a deal. For every realistic, small-budget, independent film I subjected him to, I would sit through a studio-produced, high-budget fantasy flick of his choosing. One of the few decent choices he has ever made was Ladyhawke, in which Rutger Hauer plays an angst-ridden warrior cursed to turn into a wolf at night, while his love, played by Michelle Pfieffer, is doomed to be a hawk by day. Hauer’s character is named Navarre, although our Navarre is far from heroic and would probably be wolf-food in the wild. Ladyhawke is one of the few fantasy films I’ve watched to the end, mostly for the comic relief provided by the terminally cute Matthew Broderick. After we moved in together, the movie night trade-off continued, although I find it harder and harder to stomach his choices.
With three sides of his prison blocked, Navarre the guinea pig has his own share of angst. His cage is on an old corner table, so he has a fine view of me across the plush cream rug. I like to be comfortable when I read, and I refuse to retreat to the kitchen chairs just because some foot-long hairball is giving me the evil eye. I delight in knowing that, as uncomfortable as his stare makes me, at least I can walk on that rug in my bare feet and let the plush tickle my soles. Thanks to me, Navarre has no freedom.
One day shortly after we moved in, and after I’d beaten the six-sided dice off of the role-players, I came home to find Navarre scampering joyously across the room, making that high-pitched “ree-ree-ree” noise that sounds remotely like a full-sized pig with his balls permanently in a vise.
“Randy!” I screeched. “How the hell did it get out and not break in half? That’s a three-foot fall!” As I lunged for him, Navarre smartly swerved left into the bathroom, leaving a small black pellet or two in front of my nose.
“Greg, please.” Randy’s voice impatiently preceded him from the kitchen. “He needs some exercise.”
“Not on my rug!” I swore. “Does that shit stain?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Randy was in the bathroom, where Navarre was nibbling on one of my dirty socks. “I’ll get a paper towel and pick it up.” He placed Navarre backside-first into the cage—if you put them in head-first, they try to jump and crush their facial bones, which is exactly what I promised to do if he was ever out of the cage again in my presence. I still say there’s a black smudge on the rug; Randy says it’s my imagination.
The smell is certainly not my imagination; even Randy will admit that without prodding. If Randy’s in one of his “clean the cage every day” swings, it’s not so bad—just the musk of the pig himself and the sweetness of cedar, which a person can grow accustomed to as easily as the smell of a propane heater and a boyfriend’s cologne.
However, when Randy’s not in the mood to be Mrs. Clean, things quickly get rank. The smell of pig, cedar-chip bedding, urine and droppings can be quite potent, especially when it’s wet—and it all gets wet easily. Navarre’s bottle is the type that drizzles whenever it’s touched or otherwise vibrated. And our apartment is perfectly situated for maximum vibration.
Our front door is six feet, eight inches from a major, if rural, town road. There’s a cow farm to our left, a horse farm to our right. We barely notice the trucks rattling by all day long. You learn to ignore the everyday exterior noises. But when it snows, the town plows come by every forty-five minutes, and you can feel the vibration. It starts when they’re a quarter-mile up the street and builds to our front door, then fades again to the bend in the road a quarter-mile in the other direction. It thrums through our walls and makes my reading lamp shake; it sets the water bottle dribbling like mad. Navarre ends up wearing or walking in more water than he drinks.
Not that it’s all the trucks’ fault. Navarre is not particularly adept at slurping up all the water he pulls down. I’ve often seen three a.m. on a weeknight thanks to the distinct sound of tooth enamel scrapping on metal tubing. Randy sleeps through snowplows while I jolt awake every time Navarre gets thirsty.
* * *
I reach the end of a chapter in my book and look up, expecting the pig’s eyes to meet mine; I see nothing. I unhurriedly slip a bookmark in place, and then step stealthily to the cage. He’s asleep, breathing smoothly and unaware of how close I am. I find myself wondering how long it would take to skin and deep fry guinea pig nuggets (“tiny bite-sized pieces” a voice from an old commercial shrills in my head); the ancient Incas bred the pigs for food and probably had some good recipes. If there is such a thing as racial memory, it would explain why Navarre scurries to the other edge of the cage whenever I approach. I lift the top of the cage, which for once doesn’t squeak, and begin to reach in to see just how close I can get before he wakes up, when an idea comes to me. I start banging on the bars, hard, loud and fast. Navarre jumps awake, as wide-eyed as he could possibly get, shaking and “ree-ree-reeing.” I drop the lid and laugh, low and deep. Our lease is not up for another eleven months; I have to do what little I can do to keep myself interested in still living here until then. And the sex, while good, is not going to be enough.
The sound of tires on gravel draws Navarre’s attention off of me and toward the front door. I casually disconnect the water bottle from the cage, with the usual effect. Navarre begins to hop around on his stubby legs in agitation, the pitch of his cries jumping to an extreme high. I enjoy the fact that he thinks he’ll never see the water bottle again—he doesn’t mistrust Randy this way.
I’ll be at the sink when Randy comes in, and he’ll be overjoyed to see me taking such good care of ungrateful little Navarre.
Anthony R. Cardno's short stories have appeared in Willard & Maple, Sybil, Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales Volume 6, Beyond The Sun, OOMPH: A Little Super Goes A Long Way and Tales of the Shadowmen Volume 10: Esprit de Corps. In addition to being a corporate trainer, Anthony is a proofreader for Lightspeed magazine, writes book reviews, and interviews authors, singers, and other creative types on www.anthonycardno.com, where you can find some of his other short stories. In his spare time, Anthony enjoys making silly cover song videos on Youtube. You can find him on Twitter @talekyn.