The first time I met my stepdad I was an arctic snow fox.
At the time, he wasn’t my stepdad. He was just a friend of my mom’s that she was inviting to dinner. At six years old I was oblivious the fact that single, divorced women don’t have male “friends” that they invite over for a meet-the-children dinner. If my mom wanted to have a friend over for dinner, what was it to me?
I had other, more important things to do.
During our lunch break, my best friends and I had sat down and seriously discussed the merits of “being” different animals. Jackie, Alana and I had been best friends since the first day of kindergarten. We were inseparable. Jackie was, in a word, adorable. She was small, pudgy, and two little crooked pigtails and a sweet little lisp that went perfectly with the scattered freckles that dusted the bridge of her nose. Shorter by more than a head by the rest of our class, everyone loved Jackie. It was impossible not to. She was the class clown a, class favorite, and class mascot, all rolled into one witty, huggable package.
Alana was the class beauty – she had silky blond hair that went down to the middle of her back and large, impossibly blue eyes. When she wore a blue headband, within a week half the girls in the class would all be sporting blue headbands. When she started parting her hair on the side, for weeks afterwards other girls would run around the playground with disobedient hair falling into their eyes as they retrained their hair to part on the side, too. Alana was quiet, cool, and beautiful. Even her name fit her. The rest of us were Beckies, or Sarahs, or Jackies. Alana – it just rolled off the tongue with a cool, crisp, classiness.
Me? I was the zany one. A tomboy to my core, I disdained Barbies and dress-up. I loved horses, and hunting, and animals, and the Discovery Channel, and above all else – I loved foxes. Foxes were the perfect hybrid of everything that fascinated me – they had long, slender legs built for running – something that occasionally eluded me depending on whether my Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis was acting up that week. They were a predator, which made for much better role-playing games – who wants to play “we’re a bunch of deer, watch us eat grass” for recess? Foxes could pounce, and snarl, and snap, and chase frightened field mice and savage rabbits….. and yet they were also cute. They had large fluffy tails, and pointed, inquisitive little faces…and they also happened to be one of the main characters in the world’s greatest movie of all time – The Fox and the Hound. I’m sure it was just a coincidence.
Earlier that week I had watched a documentary on arctic snow foxes and had found myself fascinated with their coloring and eating habits. For those of you who don’t know, an arctic snow fox will listen for the sounds of mice beneath the surface of the snow, tilting its head quizzically left and right, until at the very right moment they spring about three feet in the air, brace their front legs, and crash through the surface of the ice, pouncing on their unsuspecting prey.
As an adult, it’s fascinating to watch.
As a child – it was even more fascinating to act out. I never tired of it. Tilt head, dramatic pause, then FWAM! Leap into the air and crash down, stiff-legged in a display of predator glory.
It makes me knees hurt just remembering it.
During recess I would gather Alana and Jackie to my side and assign them their parts. Jackie would be a rabbit I could chase – but one I would always allow to get away, simply based upon the fact that Fox Becky would never be able to actually bite such an innocent, adorable creature as Rabbit Jackie. Alana would insist upon being a cat, regally ignoring my spluttered, angry explanations that cats couldn’t possibly survive in the wild, much less the arctic tundra. We finally compromised on her being a black panther – an animal much more suitable to the epic wilderness of my imagination than a plain, tabby housecat. The three of us would dash about the playground, Jackie hopping about with her hands drawn up to her chest like tiny little forepaws and wiggling her nose intermittently, Alana slinking about with a cool, feline grace, and me dashing and pouncing with high pitched snarls and agile leaps.
The day I met my stepdad recess seemed shorter than usual. We had barely begun our game when the bell was ringing and the three of us were forced to run and stand in our class line, miserable at being cooped up again. It was during our reading session that we came up with a plan – why did we have to stop just because recess was over? Couldn’t we continue on during the evening, and report back to each other in the morning the stories of our escapades? We could be animals all. Night. LONG!
The plans were made – our animals were chosen (although I highly suspect Alana was NOT the black panther I assigned her but rather a plain, drab, tabby housecat), and our pact was sealed.
That afternoon, when my mom picked me up from after-school care, I silently crawled into the backseat of her brown 80s Datsun, fumbling the intricacies of the seatbelt my awkward fox paws.
“Hurry up, Becky. We need to get home.”
I tried to hurry up, but the seat belt was proving impossible without the use of my thumbs – and as we all know, foxes don’t have thumbs.
“Becky, here, I’ll get it.” I smiled up at her in a way that I hope displayed the fact that I no longer had flat, human teeth but rather sharp little jaggedy canines. Beside me, my sister rolled her eyes and buried herself in a book as my mom stared at me, before sighing. “Oh. I get it. Are you a dog again?”
I yipped a high-pitched, insulted negative. A dog? A big, lumbering, slow dog? I shook my head, then yipped twice again.
“Oh,” my mom said with another sigh, pulling out into traffic. “A fox.”
I yipped again. Smart mommy.
Preparing for dinner was hectic, between my mom trying to help us with our homework, do her makeup, and produce a delicious meal all at the same time. The fact that I refused to sit at the table (have you ever seen a fox sitting at a dinner table? Don’t be ridiculous.) probably didn’t help her stress level. Of course, she knew better than to argue with me. When I “pretended”, I pretended hard.
Math took twice as long, cupping a pencil with a tiny, white paw, but I was a smart fox and I figured out a way to use my furry chin to stabilize the pencil. Whether or not it was legible, I’ll never know.
By the time my soon-to-be-dad came in, I was in full gear, pleasantly warm from the excitement of knowing that halfway across the city, a bunny hopped around her living room and a black panther (not a tabby housecat!) snarled angry responses to any questions from her captors-in-the-form-of-parents. When our dogs exploded into a volley of barking and excited twisting at a knock on the door, I scrabbled over on hands and knees and joined them, squirming and sitting up to scrabble at the door with my pack.
“Hi. My name’s Dave.” He was a man of medium height and broad shoulders, with a trim beard and kind eyes. My sister stood up to shake his hand. I yipped at him and sat up, offering him a paw.
Dave took my paw, glancing over at my mother. “She’s a fox,” she explained wearily.
Introductions were made, and Dave sat down to try and charm us. My sister was friendly but obviously more interested in her book than him, and I only yipped or snarled in response, depending on whether the answer was affirmative or negative. In retrospect, I actually feel a little sorry for him.
When it came time for dinner, I refused to sit at the table. My mom insisted. I shook my head. She insisted again. I shook my head harder, ears flat against my skull in irritation.
“Becky, seriously, enough. Sit at the table like your sister.”
I snarled, and backed under the table legs, glaring. I was a fox, darnit. Foxes did not eat at tables, with utensils. Not only did they lack thumbs as well as an interest in using human plates and forks, they also lacked the necessary balance to remain sitting up for that long – they ate on all fours. Everybody knew that.
“Becky, enough. Time to eat.”
I whined, and shook my head.
“Becky, enough. Quit pretending.”
I snarled back at her, and felt the thick fur at the ruff of my neck begin to bristle. Who was pretending?
With a desperate look, my mom had to make a quick choice. Which was worse to show her date? The strange child or the stubborn battle she knew she was about to lose?
“Fine. Foxes can eat on the floor, but only – ONLY – if they finish everything on their plate.”
I yipped back at her, opening my mouth in a wide grin, my tongue lolling over my sharp canines. I gave her a small wag of my tail— but only a small one. It wasn’t like I was domesticated. Still, she should be rewarded.
The plate slid beneath the table, and I crawled out from beneath the chair legs to hunch over it. The green beans and picadillo wavered, then became a slice of raw caribou. I squatted down and picked it up with my teeth, chewing the meat and growling slightly as my sister’s legs came too close to my “kill”. It was dark, and oddly comforting beneath the table. The legs around me looked like trees, and without any real effort they wavered slightly, and then became trees. I was in a forest – a cool, green forest, full of shadows and unexplored places. I was eating the caribou I’d brought down, occasionally snarling at the smaller scavengers that crept timidly forward to eat from my kill.
“So, Dave, ” my mother said, raising her voice to be heard over my territorial snarls. “Would you like some more potatoes?”