My six-year-old daughter wants a pet. No, she needs a pet –her words, not mine. As much as I love dogs, I’m not a pet person. Not at this point in my life. This almost-40, perpetually exhausted mother of two (including an extremely active toddler) has no energy left to take care of one more child. When she first asked if she could have a pet, my answer was a flat no.
The following day, I heard her energetically saying “Sit!” and “Fetch!” Long story short, her baby brother can now sit and fetch a toy or a snack for her. Now that he was trained, she went back to asking for a real pet. This time I explained why we couldn’t get one. Not now, I said. The crafty little one took her puppy eyes to Daddy. Of course, Daddy melted. She could have a goldfish. Imagine how fun it would be to clean its tank, feed it, and watch it go glub glub in the water! She pranced away without a word.
A pet list came up next. Since she wanted a “real” pet which she can take walks with, and since I was too tired for a dog or a cat, she came up with a list of tier 2 pets. Tier 2 pets, she says, are those whose poop you don’t have to pick up. Like hamsters, mice or even a rat will do, she said.
I cringed. “A rat? Are you serious?”
“Yes! Don’t you know, Mama? They’re so fluffy and cute.” Her wide eyes in full earnest.
Don’t I know rats? Oh, baby girl, I want to say. I’ve lost count of the number of rat-traps my mom and I used to set in our tiny home. I remember my mom frantically covering everything on the dinner table to protect it from rat droppings falling from above. I could tell her about that day when my sister and I had excitedly put on our DIY rice flour face masks and slept in them. The person who gave us the face mask recipe had said to keep it on all night for clear glowing skin. In the middle of the night, my sister woke up screaming bloody murder. A rat had licked her face. We swore off face masks for a long time after that.
Or I could tell her about that day after Diwali, when people were bursting firecrackers on the street. Dad was away on transfer and when we unrolled our mattresses on the floor (we only had one bed), an entire family of rats scurried out. My mom, my sister and I huddled together on the little bed meant for two kids, afraid to stretch our legs. By the end of our stay in that house, the rats had grown so big and fearless, the stray cats that roamed around the building wouldn’t dare to cross paths with them. Cowards! my mother would mock-spit at them.
But to tell my daughter all that, I’d have to explain many other things like why growing up, we didn’t have bedrooms of our own or a toilet inside the house, or why we lived in a place with a rat problem, and why we didn’t have so many things she considers given. I will tell her this someday, not forgetting to add that despite this, my sister and I had an extremely happy childhood.
I will tell her this another day, not because I want to protect her from reality, but only because I want her to stop being such a sloth, put her goddamn shoes on, and leave for school. The bus driver has already called twice. “I’ll think about it,” I say.
We rush into the elevator. “Mama, I think I will get a pet.” Her confident face looks up at me.
“Wait, I said I’ll think about it, I didn’t say yes.”
Her eyes twinkle. “Yeah, but you had said the same thing when I asked for a baby brother and I got one, didn’t I?”
The story behind the story:
I am turning into my mother. I find myself subconsciously adding “When I was your age…” into conversations with my (now nine-year-old) daughter. She seems to enjoy these tidbits from my childhood, even though it’s so starkly different from hers. Her perspective on my childhood is so refreshing and often amusing. I would never, not in a million years, think of rats or lizards as “cute” beings!
For this essay, I only knew I wanted to write about her negotiations with us for pets, but elements of my childhood–the rats, and the conditions we lived in, braided themselves organically into the narrative, and the ending surprised me in the best possible way–I’d forgotten that conversation in the elevator with my daughter. It popped up unexpectedly when I was writing this, making me smile. Cut to present day: we’re pet-sitting a pair of turtles for a friend in preparation for getting our own pet turtles soon.
Bio: Hema Nataraju is an Indian-American writer and mom, currently based in Singapore. Her work has most recently appeared in Booth, Wigleaf, 100-word Story, Ruby Literary, and Nurture Literary, among others. One of her flash pieces is on the 2022 Wigleaf Top 50 longlist. She tweets as m_ixedbag.
“Pet Negotiations” was first published in Ellipsis Zine.