Our good friend Robin offered to loan us a tarantula. Robin is an entomologist and though she is a fantastic person in her own right, I have to say I take particular joy in having an actual scientist in my social menagerie. “She works at the Natural History Museum,” I’ll tell my neighbor, “She’s an en-to-mol-ogist,” I’ll repeat it slowly and just to make sure they understand, I’ll clarify “You know, she studies bugs.”
Gloriously gorgeous, creepily crawlily, fantastically awesome bugs.
And you know who likes bugs? Little boys. Little boys like my son, Harper.
Here was an amazing opportunity. Not for us would be the simple caterpillar to butterfly chrysalis. That was sissy stuff for sissified parents. No, we would go boldly into the breech and darn if that kid wasn’t going to have his brain ignited with the fire of all science! His hair would get crispy from all the science learning he would be doing.
So, modestly, we told Robin yes, we would like to borrow a tarantula.
Robin emailed me a photo of each of the two tarantulas she had in her own little collection. The first showed a male Red Knee. Now this was a spider! It’s scarlet joints flashed against its dark carapace. He was huge, beautiful and yet menacing, the very picture one drew to mind when one heard the word Tarantula. A fine and furry specimen of arachnid.
The other was a petite female. An Arizona Blonde, Robin told me, though in truth there was nothing really blonde about her. She was more the color of Arizona Dishwater… though my own experience has proven that “blonde” is a relative geographic term- What in New York is deemed a blonde is in Los Angeles called a brunette, so a little leniency must be granted to whichever lonely entomologist was responsible for naming this drab little tarantula. Maybe he was from Jersey.
I showed Harper the pictures. He did not take more than two seconds to pick the drab petite blond.
“Really?” I asked, “That one?”
“Uh-huh,” he assured me, without looking up from his matchbox cars.
For a moment I imagined a future Harper bringing home a successive string of petite mousy blondes to meet his mouthy, red-headed mother.
“Really? That one?” I imagined the older version of myself asking my husband.
I spent the next few days hard-selling the Red Knee. “He’s got cooler colors, don’t you think? Isn’t that better than some brown little girl spider.”
“Nope.” He was firm. The mousy “blonde” was coming home.
That our latest addition would be making her home in the kitchen was beyond doubt. Upon her arrival, my husband’s casual suggestion that we put the terrarium in Harper’s room was rejected by both of us before he’d even finished saying the words. Even though we believed Harper was in more danger of being bitten by our friendly and free-roaming dog than he was of being bitten by the caged spider, we weren’t going to tempt fate. Or Harper. Or the spider.
After a few days by the tv (too out of the way), the kitchen table (too freaky for dinner guests) and one heart stopping hour on a Harper accessible bookshelf (“No touching! No touching! Ahhh!”) the terrarium eventually found a home next to the toaster.
One day over lunch Harper announced that his spider would henceforth be called, “Max.”
“Max is a boy’s name. The spider is a girl.” I told him.
“Is there a girl name for my spider? A Max name?”
And that is how Maxine came to bear the name.
For those first few weeks Maxine did little. We’d pull a chair over, Harper would belly-up to the counter and we’d watch Maxine… do… nothing. Occasionally she’d switch positions, but never when we were watching.
Harper grew bored and I began to calculate how many days would need to pass until Maxine could disappear without his noticing her absence.
But then we fed her.
“Are they my lunch?”
You should know three large “feeder” crickets run you 26 cents at Petco.
You also should know that they have no problem running your credit card for a 26¢ charge at Petco should you arrive with only a quarter.
Harper watched the crickets bounce around in the inflated bag as we made our way back home.
“Are the crickets going to live with Maxine?”
“Nope. They’re her lunch.”
He was silent for a moment.
“Are they my lunch?”
I can say there was some genuine relief on his face as he watched me dump the entire contents of that bag into Maxine’s cage. Maxine, for her part, didn’t even seem to register her lunch as I slid the lid back on. Here I had presented her with three delicious crickets and yet, still she could not be bothered to move.
Harper grew tired of watching. He left to go play with his Thomas trains. The crickets began to explore their surroundings, moving in. And still Maxine did not move.
Bored, I waited, thinking of calling Robin and asking her to pick up her defective spider.
And then Maxine pounced.
She was lightning in spider-form, leaping across the expanse of her cage in a millisecond; the cricket- one moment on the bed of coconut shavings and the next in her mouth. This was a predator, a deadly thing, finally showing her stuff.
I yelped, shocked by the suddenness of her movement…. And I fell in love.
Maxine in action was beautiful, elegant in her efficiency. I watched her in awe as the cricket disappeared into her maw. As the afternoon wore on, I became hooked. Here in my kitchen my very own reality show was playing out. I was as much in the thrall of that spider as any of my Facebook friends has ever been in the grasp of a Real Housewives or Top Chef marathon.
That afternoon Harper “butterflied” around the cage, dropping in for a few moments before moving on to more entertaining things. My husband checked in for a while too, the additional crickets promising that there would be more shows. But Maxine didn’t hold the same siren call for him as she had for me and as she swooped down on the other two crickets both times she had an audience of only one.
As if she were performing a show just for me.
In the following weeks I found myself clicking pictures of Maxine in her various poses around the cage: elegantly perched on top of her hidey-hole; poised on the corner of the glass; executing her playful post eating dance. These I would send as picture texts to Robin and my husband and my Parents as if Maxine were a baby who had just done “the cutest thing.” No one ever texted me back.
“Maxine demands respect.”
At pre-school I began extolling the virtues of tarantulas as pets.
“No thank you, we can’t bring Ginger the class guinea pig home for the weekend…We already have small furry creature.”
Pretend you’re a horrified pre-school mother. Now try and keep an open mind while I tell you that your kid is more likely to get bitten by that cute gerbil you bought on a whim than my kid is to get bitten by Maxine. You know why? Because Maxine stays in her cage… because unlike Fluffy or Snowball or whatever you named the rodent you brought home, Maxine demands respect. She demands that you not forget that she is a wild creature and get relaxed about tiny fingers poking into her home. Poor Snowball’s home is getting probed all the time.
As a bonus, Tarantula’s are the least smelly pet. No damp turtle must or the sweet sickly scent of urine soaked wood-shavings. Even seamonkeys get a little rank after a bit, but not Maxine… there’s only a lovely coconut smell wafting up from her shredded coconut bed. And her cage only needs to be cleaned out once every few months… something you might want to remember next time you clean the litter box.
Going on vacation? Don’t worry ‘bout it. She’ll eat when you get back. She doesn’t need to be let out, or take up any space on the couch. She won’t drag your underwear to odd places around the house, only to be found when giving guests a tour.
I must admit that telling people that a tarantula bite was no worse than a bee-sting wasn’t winning me any converts among the Duplo set… but it didn’t matter. I was sold. More and more I found that Maxine wasn’t Harper’s or the family’s or even Robin’s spider. She was mine. I checked in with her throughout the day, said good morning to her. Called her “little girl.”
“Robin, Maxine’s a little grouchy this week.”
“Well, “ Robin seemed to be letting me down gently, “She’s a spider.”
“I know she’s a spider… it’s just… is there anything I could do to cheer her up?”
“Bridget, she’s a spider.”
But to me she was so much more that just a spider. She was Maxine, exotic, elegant, distant. But most of all- undemanding. Daily life for a mom is a cycle of needs, demands that must be met: Feed the dog. Gas the tank. Snack for school. Locate other small shoe. Again. But all the while there was Maxine, sitting on my kitchen counter asking nothing of me, except a cricket once in a while.
“The Most Dangerous Game”
Once I timed her feeding wrong, dropping a trio of crickets in before she was ready to eat. She took so long to dispatch them that I found myself feeling bad for the bugs. A swift death was one thing, but these poor crickets waited longer than a week, as if someday a phone would ring with a pardon from the governor. Maxine would languidly move from one side of the cage and they would move to the other. Finally one morning I found that she’d picked off one in the night, leaving the other two huddled together in their own buggy version of the “The Most Dangerous Game.”
I’m sure you (and some of those pre-school moms) might find me blood thirsty that I enjoy watching Maxine… be… well, Maxine. But here I was experiencing the very ignition we’d hoped to spark in Harper. This was nature happening in my kitchen. And “nature” bites… and it would bite even if it was happening somewhere other than my breakfast nook.
During the summer I sent Robin a photo of a sack shaped web Maxine had spun. “Could it be an egg sack? “
“Possibly,” said Robin, “She was caught in the wild. Female tarantulas can store sperm and use it years later.”
Maxine had a past! Some dark assignation from her wild days in the desert. A soap opera unfolding on my countertop. And soon there would be babies, years after the fact! I could only imagine the plots that could unfold.
But alas, it was a false pregnancy. A practice run for some later date.
I was disappointed. Not for the lack of the spiderlings (who would have to have been removed while still in their eggs, since Momma was likely to munch them once they hatched) but that we didn’t get to witness that miracle of Tarantula parenthood.
Not that any of us were ill informed. Tarantula study was now common at our kitchen table. At school Harper held up two plastic ears of corn and announced to his fellow students that, “these look like Tarantula ovaries.” It was a proud moment for me, regardless of the raised eye-brows.
One morning shortly after I complained to Robin that Maxine seemed grouchy, I was placing my bread in the toaster when I caught sight of Maxine- splayed out on her back, her eight legs transcribing a furry little star on her coconut bed.
“She’s dead! She dead! She dead!” I screamed.
And then, suddenly, I was running to our bedroom for my cell phone. What had I done? Where had I gone wrong? How had I neglected this low-maintenance pet? Had I let some pesticide tainted cricket slip into her diet? How had my beautiful, strong Maxine succumbed to such a state.
“She’s molting.” said Robin when my call woke her.
Maxine had outgrown her exoskeleton. We’d been feeding her well. Underneath her shell, she had a brand new shell at the ready, soft but large enough to accommodate her bigger size. She’d be prone for a day and then she would kick the whole shell off, in one piece. When she did this it would look for like there were two spiders in the cage, her old shell and her new one.
“She must be pretty happy with you guys.” Said Robin, “I’ve been around a lot of tarantulas and I’ve never seen one do all the stuff that she’s done for you.”
A day later a new Maxine emerged. She looked different. Gone was the dishwater, this new creature was chocolate. Espresso, like you’d get in a café in Rome. Her legs were spindly, coltishly long.
To me she looked like a super model.