Charlie wasn’t sick. He didn’t live in a bubble or anything like that. But still.
It started when he was at school talking to Becky Jenson. Becky wore ponytails with red ribbons or blue ribbons or green depending on the day of the week. It was Thursday. So, it was red. They were trading stories about camping. Charlie’s parents believed in tents while Becky’s parents owned an RV. Charlie good-naturedly suggested that RV camping wasn’t real. It was like parking an apartment on a campground. What was the fun in that? Becky took no offense although she did mention that no one had to poo outside the RV whereas tent camping made poo’ing a challenge. Charlie appreciated Becky’s candid view on the subject and succeeded her that point. Then it happened. Without warning.
Charlie puked up a frog. A live frog. He never recalled eating a frog, nor would he ever consider it.
Becky dry heaved while stumbling to a group of girlfriends at another table where they proceeded to stare at Charlie with sour expressions.
Charlie drooled out an apology. Evidently, barfing up a frog really worked the salivary glands. Charlie then went after the frog before it wreaked havoc on his classmates but it was too fast and jumped out an open window before Charlie could capture it.
Years went by where Charlie thought maybe this was an isolated incident. Maybe he dreamt it. It was a childhood hallucination. After all, he never saw the frog again after that. There was no proof other than his own vague memory.
Then it happened again.
Charlie was on a coffee date with Taylor, a biophysics major who wore Patchouli and read The Talmud. They laughed together recalling an episode of a sitcom they both liked and again, without a hint, Charlie puked up a tortoise. A live Leopard Tortoise, he would soon discover after some research.
Taylor screamed with horror, knocking over her latte while running for the door.
Charlie was also horrified but he thought later that she could’ve been a bit less startled being a biophysics major and all. Since the tortoise was slower than the frog, he was able to pick it up but was then asked to leave the establishment as pets weren’t allowed inside.
Charlie didn’t know where to turn. Should he call a doctor? Go to the hospital? It’s not like he felt ill or had any side effects from barfing up these creatures. In fact, he felt like the picture of health. He’d never been stricken with anything more than a head cold in his entire 19-year-old life. And he attributed that to his hay fever. Lastly, how would one explain such a thing?
Charlie picked up the phone to call his mother. She must have some idea as to why this was happening.
The phone rang twice before he heard his mother’s voice say “Hello” and like a child, Charlie started to cry which surprised him because he was holding it together pretty good up until then.
As if Charlie’s mother had been bracing for this call his whole life, she said, “Oh Dear! It’s happened again, hasn’t it?”
She recalled a time when Charlie was just an infant. He loved to be held by his godmother whose name was Theresa. Theresa was his mother’s best friend. They met in 2nd grade when Charlie’s mother had the Chicken Pox and Theresa was asked by their teacher to escort her to the nurse’s office after the beginnings of a fever were making her hallucinate. She claimed to have seen bunnies dancing in the school hallway. Days later, Theresa’s body was covered with itchy blisters and she had a fever of 103 but Theresa never once blamed Charlie’s mother. To her, the friendship was worth every drop of calamine lotion applied to her sore pimpled body.
However, their friendship was truly tested when one day, while Theresa was holding Charlie, he threw up a gold fish. Charlie hadn’t even been eating whole foods yet. Theresa was shocked, gave Charlie back to his mother and the two never spoke again. It broke his mother’s heart but things happened with babies. One had to be open to the unexpected, even if spitting up a gold fish was highly unusual. She lost her best friend but she made a home for the gold fish in a flower vase and named him Henry. He lived for another two years.
Charlie’s mother had no remedy or explanation for Charlie’s condition. She suggested he keep 911 on speed dial just in case one of the creatures proved too unwieldy to puke up. The last thing you wanted was to choke on a stubborn salamander during an important interview or worse, a date.
That was it! Charlie realized the connection. When he barfed up the gold fish, the frog, the Leopard Tortoise, it was all in front of women with whom he had crushes. This discovery both relieved and destroyed Charlie. Did this mean that he was to be alone for the rest of his life?
He would have to start hobbies, go to the movies alone, perhaps pick up gardening. But a married life would never exist for him. He would die alone.
Years passed and Charlie had a fairly fulfilling life. He got a PhD in Philosophy, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, made soups and learned Mandarin. He and the Leopard Tortoise, who he had since named Patches, lived in a modest house outside of town. Charlie made certain never to interact for very long with most people. Who knew when a crush could flair up?
However, one day Patches was not acting like his chipper self. He left an entire stalk of Romaine lettuce neglected in his bowl. Not even a mustard green could rouse him. Desperate, Charlie got on the phone and called the local veterinarian. Since Patches was a good 80 pounds by this point, a house call was necessary. The receptionist told Charlie that Dr. Lewis would be there at 6pm after the office closed for the day. Since the situation didn’t appear dire, Charlie agreed to the evening appointment. But as the hours went by, his worry grew. Not only wasn’t Patches eating, but he also seemed depressed. Sure he was a tortoise but there’s a difference between slow and sad. Any sloth could tell you that.
The doorbell rang at 6 pm on the dot and when Charlie answered the door, he immediately felt a tightness in his throat. Dr. Lewis wore a lab coat and carried a large black case. After she set it down, she gave her honey blonde hair a fling behind her shoulder. Charlie almost passed out from restraint. He swallowed hard.
“Thank you so much for coming on such short notice.” There was a soft stone in his throat the size of a tennis ball. He thought if he didn’t release it, he’d surely choke and die.
“No problem,” said Dr. Lewis. “I live not far from here; it’s on my way home. Where’s the patient?”
Charlie led Dr. Lewis out to the garden at the back of the house. Although she wore heels, she skillfully maneuvered her way around the wild flowers and spiky succulents.
“Hey Little Guy,” she said as she greeted Patches who was sleeping on a mossy bed under a palm frond. “I heard you weren’t feeling so good.” Then she knelt before him on bare knees where Patches laid his head. Charlie was compelled to look away and silently gag. But a forceful swallow held down whatever new critter begged for release.
Dr. Lewis took out a stethoscope and listened to Patches’ heart. She felt for tumors around the soft bits of body beneath his shell. She looked into his eyes with a small flashlight. She even opened his mouth and stuck her hand in, feeling for polyps and cankers. Nothing. But she’d take some blood and return in a couple of days, especially if Patches didn’t show some improvement.
Charlie held on to the door frame leading out to the garden as if he were on a rolling ship. The thought of Dr. Lewis returning made him light headed and swallowing impossible. He felt the life inside his throat rotating like a fetus until Dr. Lewis removed a surgical glove to reveal an engagement ring. A simple, white gold band with a small diamond in its middle. Even though Charlie had just met Dr. Lewis, he felt that the ring didn’t suit her. He imagined something more unconventional like an emerald to match her eyes. Nonetheless, this was just the thing to unclog Charlie’s throat. For if nothing else, he believed in loyalty.
Dr. Lewis arrived at 6 pm the following Wednesday, then again on Friday and again on Sunday even though it was her day off. Charlie didn’t argue because, truth be told, he rather enjoyed the company. Other than the occasional visit from his parents, he was alone, all the time. He became so accustomed to a solitary life that anything else was foreign. When Dr. Lewis would arrive, she and Charlie would exchange pleasantries – The weather sure is hot. Is this a new rug? I understand that artichokes are in season – things like that. Then Dr. Lewis would end the conversations abruptly and head out to the garden.
Whenever Patches saw Dr. Lewis approach his head would lift and he’d smile, as much as a tortoise could. She’d scratch his neck like he were a dog and his eyes would close in the pleasure of it. She hand fed him carrots or zucchinis which he accepted without hesitation. But he’d often return to complacency when Dr. Lewis took her leave. “He’s just a moody fella,” Dr. Lewis would say. However, it hurt Charlie’s feelings. After all, it was Charlie who usually fed Patches. He was the one who cleaned up his poop. He was the one who puked him up those many years ago but he couldn’t rightly share that with Dr. Lewis.
Charlie thought Dr. Lewis was finally crossing a line when she requested Charlie stay in the house during her visits with Patches. She told Charlie that Patches wasn’t comfortable having him there during examinations. How would she know? Did she speak tortoise? Could she read Patches’s mind? Did they share a secret language? Life was easier when he was alone. It was just him and Patches. No complications. No hurt feelings. No worrying if he would lose the love of his tortoise. She had no right to make such demands, even though the demands sounded more like pleasant requests.
On the next visit Charlie would confront Dr. Lewis. After all, he felt nothing for her except maybe gratitude for helping Patches. If he’d only contacted another veterinarian, the results would’ve been the same. Patches would’ve recovered somehow. How he didn’t know. But somehow. It had nothing to do with Dr. Lewis’ soft voice, her gentle touch, her honey colored hair that left loose strands on the shoulders of her white lab coat. It wasn’t the way she looked into your eyes like you were the only person in the room, which is silly because he was the only person in the room. And it wasn’t the way she smiled with slightly uneven teeth. Those soft lips.
Suddenly Charlie barfed up a Gecko. He put it in a tank and named him Lance.
Six o’clock came but there was no knock at the door. The next day it was the same. He called her office but after the receptionist put him on hold she told him that Dr. Lewis was busy. The next day out to lunch. The next day out sick. Perhaps his resentment wasn’t such a secret. Dr. Lewis knew he was jealous. She was no fool. What had he done? She was only trying to help Patches. Charlie didn’t need to get so emotional about it. Now she was gone forever.
With each passing day and no visits from Dr. Lewis, Patches started to become lethargic again. He listlessly nibbled at some red leaf lettuce but not enough to sustain him. His water bowl sat unlicked, attracting mosquitos. Two weeks went by. It rained for five of those days and on the sixth day the sun began to peek out of the clouds with promise. Patches, however, would barely lift his head. That’s it, Charlie thought. I’m calling another doctor. Just as he picked up the phone, there was a knock at the door.
When Charlie opened it, he couldn’t help but think she looked more beautiful than ever, even though she was crying.
“I’m so sorry. Are you okay? I broke it off. I had to. How’s Patches?”
Her sincerity and sadness made her all the more stunning that Charlie ran from the room and heaved into the guest bathtub two puffer fish, a sea horse and three Garibaldi. He started the bath water for whom he would later name Hank, Gloria, Josephine, Mike, Fran and Cecil. How could he possibly return to her? She was standing there in his enclosed porch, waiting for him. Her pearl skin illuminated by mid-morning light. Her chest heaving with sobs. Oh how the silver heart necklace she wore snuggled in between her breasts. How he wanted to be that necklace but he could barely rise from the bathroom rug after hurling from his body the largest collection of sea life to date. He would have to tell her the truth and send her on her way, back into the arms of her fiancé, whose name was probably Drake or Chad or Philipe.
When he staggered back out, Dr. Lewis stood bent from the waist. Her armpits were green with sweat, the ends of her hair dripped with what Charlie could only describe as goo and her lips were smeared with a white foam.
Next to her a wet baby panda rolled around the floor.
They named her Penelope after her mother.