We humans are nothing more than little fleas that give Earth an annoying scratch. People have the habit of believing the world revolves around them. Their dramatics are born in their little suburban homes or in their crappy Subaru cars. Most of the time, the emotional disasters that feel like the sky is falling are triggered in the middle of an exchange of passive-aggressive dialogue between friends or lovers. But when the guy on your subway commute makes a remark about how your backpack is in his way, his elbow shove is nothing compared to the wrathful push of a tsunami.
When I was little, I wanted to become one of those veterinarians who live in the jungle and rescue injured wildlife for a living. I imagined living in a giant tree house, sleeping in a king-sized white linen bed, and cuddling recovering tigers and baby monkeys. Each day after school, I would line up my stuffed animals in a row, giving each of them a checkup and then kissing them in between their button eyes before tucking them to sleep. I spent hours reading cartoon books that portrayed elephants wearing blue pajama sets and jaguars in corduroy trousers attending an elementary school that mirrored my own. I wrote stories of bunnies throwing birthday parties in Greece and friendly crocodiles who engaged in water aerobics.
It wasn’t until my mom took me to the theater to watch the Disney documentary African Cats that I was first exposed to the horrors that lurk in the underbelly of nature. I sat in a theater at the age of eight watching the same stuffed animal pairing I slept with close to my heart maul the other to pieces. I remember the false sense of hope I had watching the baby zebras escape the clutch of the hungry cheetah the first time, only to watch the predator sink its teeth deep into black and white stripes a few seconds later. I remember seeing claws puncture hind legs, pinkish red flesh of limbs wedge itself between jagged teeth, pain written across the zebra’s wild eyes, a look of satisfaction painted across the cheetah’s. We left the theater twenty minutes later. My romanticized version of nature continued to fizzle out when I was met by mosquitoes who slurped up my blood and intruding cockroaches who scurried around my kitchen floor. I soon started to hate the very idea of being in nature around the time that I became a “tween,” and my desire to move to Africa and live amongst lions became a complete childhood fantasy.
I still loved animals, of course. I grew up living with two rescued stray cats from the ASPCA. Patches was black and white and had a little blotch in the shape of a heart that nestled right beside her nose. She’d wake me up in the morning licking my face and kneading on my stomach, digging her nails into my arms, pretending I was the mother who abandoned her. My other cat, Smokey, was a fatty with a pair of emerald eyes. His belly grew to be as big as a soccer ball and he had the biggest paws I had ever seen. Every meal he’d treat as his last, inhaling his food so fast he’d make himself sick. They both treated my bed as their own and would sleep in my sheets every night, leaving me sandwiched in between the two of them. I’d watch them as they’d dream on their backs, bellies exposed, snoring and drooling like any other obnoxious family member after a Thanksgiving dinner. And for a while, I viewed them just as any other old estranged relative with little quirks. That was until one morning, when my mom and I discovered an article about an old woman dying alone in her New York City apartment. The clickbait of the article read in big letters, And Her Face Is Missing!
“Well, what happened to it?” I asked. I assumed it was currently being used as a mask by some perv wandering around the Upper East Side. You know, just like any other perpetrator in Law And Order: SVU episodes.
“Her two cats Penelope and Fluffy ate it,” my mom said hesitantly in response.
“Patches and Smokey would never do that to us,” I had said as a statement. But my mom shook her head.
“I don’t know…”
I thought back to the times they’d puff up their tails and curve up their backs in the shape of a crescent moon to make themselves appear bigger than me. To scare me. Or all the times they’d hiss loudly after I attempted to dress them up in American Girl Dolls’ tutus. Their teen mood swings would eventually turn, and the next thing I knew they’d be purring in my lap again, but that eerie feeling of being nothing to them continued to haunt me.
The laws that exist within society don’t apply to the natural world. If I ever chewed off the head of my ex-lover, there would be a movie about it. Newspapers would be filled with details about my crime. Photos of bloodsoaked sheets and pictures of the deceased smiling from an old Christmas card beside the word “victim.” My mugshot under the huge headliner: “The Female Ted Bundy.” Praying mantises, however, don’t sport around in orange jumpsuits after their snippets of intimacy turn south. Rather, the decapitated heads of their mates stand as a trophy of survival, a ticket of approval for their next thriving generation.
My relationship to nature is now limited to my visits to the beach. I swim alone, feeling the waves of the ocean embrace my body in its arms. It’s cold. I am irrelevant. Every time I get pushed by the waves of the ocean into its murky sand, I am reminded of my insignificance. And yet I still run back to its abrasive nature, I run back to being swallowed, chewed, and spit out again. There’s a comfort in knowing that I am just another menace that parades about the earth’s skin. We are all fleas inhabiting a place that has bigger fish to fry than the parasite that clings to its fur.