After the first young woman showed me to her chair, took my coat, let me get comfortable, set down her toolkit and pouch of heated rocks, offered me a choice of Pinot Grigio or Merlot, inquired as to whether I was having a good day, pulled free and shook loose and snapped on a pair of latex gloves, confirmed for a second time what package I ordered and laughed at herself, smeared scented cream on the cuticles of my thumb and forefinger, chucked my hand as she hallucinated it transform into a tarantula, squealed a bloodcurdling wheezeshriek pedestrians outside must have heard, flinched violently, shuddered profoundly, felt the surge from her scalp down to her knees, broke out in hives staining her neck, panted fiercely out lips and cheeks that swellflapped like a mudskipper, backed up and knocked down a rival’s aluminum tray, made stainless steel utensils jingle on the floor like spent shell casings, peppered patrons’ shoes with the ricey ricochets of her prodigious vomit, and was steered through the slit in the velvet curtain by her panicked boss as he cupped her elbows, a second and far more seasoned woman was deployed to resume my Lavender Primrose Supreme Deluxe Total Relaxation Mani-Pedi. As a concession, I agreed to pay an extra 20% on both the service and the gratuity, which I offered without prompting because of how extraordinary the good mood I am in at this very moment is.
The replacement aesthetician, unlike the first, has a face as dispassionate as a limestone Buddha. Raised in thatch huts torched to cinders on the killing fields of overlapping wars, I have every confidence that she has witnessed far worse, is made up of true grit.
As she buffs my outermost toe, earning her extra pay, I tell her, I do think I have a chance. Her name is Antonia, by the way.
เธอน่ารักใช่มั้ย, she asks.
She is beautiful, I reply.
My confidence blushes. I correct my posture in the chair and say, I surely hope so.
I add, Do you really believe that?
The storefront door hasn’t quite finished closing when the salon erupts with gossigasps and ramblewhispers. Strolling down the sidewalk, I feel like a floating cloud. I am sure everyone who sees me can tell. The florist on Hitzë Road surely can tell, but perhaps it’s because of the six sunflowers I have him sleeve in six meters of ribbon.
Yesterday I had to park the Bronco on the street. The garage entrance was blocked off by no less than three moving trucks. Although Mondays are Antonia’s days off, I went to the pet shop anyway because of how breathless the Frenchman was when leaving his message on my answering machine.
And not without reason. A Billy goat, two platypuses, a tube of Luna moths, five geoduck clams, a near-ready emu egg, 100 yabbies, ten kilos of straw, a bin of high-concentrate brackish water tabs, and his largest top-of-the-line incubator set me back Q115,250. We had a brief, heated argument over my request for a culture of tardigrades (he convinced himself that I was being ludicrous) but when I presented my down payment in Omani rials, he found his calm and promised to look into it.
Today I’m back for an assortment of flora, the ecotanks, the beehive, and the octopus. The Frenchman has been talking about the octopus for a week, and this morning it finally arrived. Two men in navy windbreakers with the word CARABINIERI emblazoned across their backs pause traffic with stern looks so that I can maneuver the Bronco and hitched trailer into the spot by the pet shop entrance reserved for loading and unloading.
No longer content to be left at home each and every time I pursue new investments for my menagerie, Electra touches down on my shoulder, tucks in her wings, and claws a sharp grip of my tweed.
I pull the edges of my bowtie. Are the sunflowers too much? I ask.
Raat! Something with panache.
You got that right, sister.
This time, and to my delight, as soon as I enter the pet shop’s sliding glass doors, Antonia is right there to greet me.
She is dressed all in white. And smiling proudly as her eyes curtsy.
Electra makes the sound of a cash register opening, softly enough for only me to hear.
I hold the bouquet at arm’s length. I say, I got these for you. I hope you like them.
Her chin drops, her mouth opens, her eyelids tighten. She accepts my gift as one would an ivory carving.
Estas flores son tan hermosas. Siempre me recuerdan a mi madre.
Electra whispers in my ear, Tell her tell her tell her.
She sighs. ¿Cómo sabías que los girasoles son mis favoritos?
Um, well, I didn’t. But they suit you.
Me encantan estos. Y la cinta es tan lujosa.
I clasp my hands and say, I’m so glad you like them.
She dips her head and says:
Soap her fit.
Electra whistles and cries, Wowwwww.
I tell Antonia, I’m sorry: What did you just say?
She swallows and repeats, Soap her fit.
Electra mutters to my neck, You kiss your mother with that mouth?
I roll her words in my mind. Soap her fit. So perfect.
And days ago: Hop on iced hay.
Have a nice day.
Electra commands again, Tell her.
It’s funny you say their your mother’s favorite; I spoke to my mother on the phone just the other day.
Antonia hugs the bouquet to her chest.
Me imagino que tu madre es encantadora.
Well, I think that she is.
Antonia coyly beams.
Bueno, Raymundo, yo también tengo algo para ti.
Out of nowhere she hands me a book skillfully tied in a red bow.
Electra tells me softly, Go for the jugular. Now.
Perhaps you’d like to, maybe, I don’t know, come over sometime. To see the animals. And to read this book with me.
Eyed lake, tube, heady mulch.