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Another Word For ‘Birthday Hamster’ by Laura Pavlo

There were one thousand “e”’s in the “please” Lucia’s son sung into the pet store window as he furiously pressed his fingers against the glass at a teddybear-faced hamster peering up at him.

Lucia wished there was another word she could use for “no.” In that moment, “no” wasn’t a strong single syllable especially when Jack went on about naming the hamster “Po.”

“I don’t know, Jack…”

“Can he be for my birthday?” Jack turned and looked at her with eyes as big as cake dishes. She imagined the hamster with a tiny party hat and a lima bean cupcake.

She was about to say “no” again or forge a stronger word to replace it when the hamster stood up like a pipsqueak circus elephant and pressed its teardrop pawpads against the glass, his blackbead eyes staring at her the same way he stared into space hoping to reach his message to her or God or the man with the name badge who left dinner pellets every night before the other side of the glass went dark or perhaps to the hamster they were all a blur in the lights.

Ten minutes later, Jack hopskipped sidewalk squares toward the car, the hamster rattling around in its cardboard box with each excited pounce. Lucia carried two bags of hamster supplies on each hip like a pair of twins.

“Be careful with Po!”

shrodentia (n.) /SHroh-den-shee-uh/ Shame, guilt, or remorse over not providing enough for your child by way of emotional support, physical belongings, or physical emotions; willing to go to any extent to mask tumult, i.e. purchasing a small mammal

Lucia spent too much time before Jack’s birthday party building Po’s habitat, and then too much time staring at the sunyellowed ultrasound photograph taped to the fridge from her 6-month OB-GYN appointment with Jack (how can this boy be a decade old already?), and didn’t preheat the oven to the correct degrees Fahrenheit for the cupcakes. During dessert, she wished there was a word for the part of the brain that memorized recipes or the part of the cerebellum that forgot exact oven preheat degrees resulting in mulchy frisbee disk cupcake bottoms. When a partyguest’s parent took a bite and pitifully smiled at her with blue frosting on the curve of her upper lip, she would’ve used this word to explain herself.

“This must be hard,” the parent said. She was the mother of Jack’s friend Sabrina but Lucia couldn’t remember the woman’s name.

“How so?” Lucia asked. She plucked crumpled “HAPPY 10TH BIRTHDAY” napkins from the kids’ table.

“You know, doing this all on your own.”

Lucia wished there was a word she could tell this woman that would say “I’m not that different than you,” but before she could think of a definition or even a syllable, she noticed a kid carefully smearing blue icing on the birthday hamster’s head.

equiparenting (v.) /ee-kwuh-pair-uh nt-ing/ The act of existing in two roles, often overcompensating to fill the empty shoes of the absent parties for which you’re trying to exist; (n.) the attempt of an individual to be equivalent to a couple—most commonly a set of two parents—who can balance marriage, children, career, mortgage, soccer practices, birthday parties, vacations, fights, nights, and broken lights without falling to pieces; see singlemotherhoodlessness (n.).

Three trash bags, a clean hamster, and a Jacknap later, Lucia discreetly keyed in traveler information on a discount airfare website. Was there a word to describe the amount of days since her last vacation? Maybe the word could also describe the bizarre total of clicks while she browsed ticket prices, or the number of times the browser 404ed her—sending one carefully-selected seat to the grave beside a law firm’s informational PDF and a folderful of old photos—because Jack yelled “the hamster peed on the carpet” so she ran for the bleach and left the browser to die, refreshing itself silently until it forgot her name.

After an evening of gift opening and eating extra birthday cupcakes, Jack sailed into sleep at 9 P.M. Lucia stepped out of the shower an hour later after scrubbing icing and bleach from the backsides of her wrists and between her fingers. On her way downstairs to turn off the porch light she encountered Jack in the hallway as he disposed of Po’s cage outside his bedroom door. Apparently Po had been running a half marathon on his wheel.

“Too loud,” he mumbled with sleep heavy on his lips before returning to bed.
Lucia closed Jack’s door and sat across from the hamster in the hallway. She rested her head against the wall and watched Po stack sunflowerseed carcasses in a corner. His cheeks were plump peaches. She leaned forward and brought her nose to the cage; he stood on his hindlegs and pawed at the air to find balance or feel out a sixth sense. His pawfingers clutched the rungs of the cage as he sniffed around the area of her face. His tiny nose was delicately sculpted from grapefruit pulp.

When she stuck a finger between two rungs, he approached it with the same fervor as he would a sunflowerseed, licking to find a surface to crack. He bit into the flesh of her fingerpad and it felt like the needle from the doctor who cooed Lucia into an epidural.

donorknowinglackthereof (n.) /doe-ner-noe-ing-lack-there-of/ Used to describe a woman who has received sperm from a man whom she does not know even one fact; includes states of confusion, brief moments of grief, ounces of remorse, miles of wondering, and nights lost to answerless questions; see also nervanticipating (v.)

While pregnant with Jack, she wrote a dozen letters to Jack’s biological father. The letters were filled with mundane questions like what his favorite subject was in grammar school, did he prefer sweet or sour, was he a night person or a morning person (because god knows it’s the morning people who know how to get things done), what color was his hair when he was born and did it change as he grew up, did he play any sports, did he love his mother, did you love your first-ever girlfriend, did you ever cheat, do you think about your childhood often, how many times (in any given week) do you think about running away?

Jasminn, the clinical social worker assigned to Lucia’s IVF case, told her these questions were normal.

“Should I feel like I’m drowning in questions with answers I’ll never know?”

“You should feel like knowing the answers won’t matter,” Jasminn said during their fifth session together; Lucia was sixteen weeks pregnant. “He’s just a donor. Not your son.”

Jack’s father, professionally known as Donor 167B4, wrote to her once to say he was sorry he hadn’t replied to her other letters. I like to keep a private life. This made her write more letters and ask more questions. Rona, Lucia’s partner, fellow soon-to-be-mom, and avid reader of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, wrote a few letters to Donor 167B4 too, but her letters were bulleted lists of qualities she hoped their son would have.

“How dare he say he wants to live a ‘private life,’” Lucia rambled while scrubbing dishes with so much angst Rona ushered her to the sofa and gave her a glass of water.

“He’s given away his sperm to create an inevitable human being—a person that will be half of him—and he says he wants to be private about it?” she continued between gulps.

“He’s being dumb,” Rona said, petting Lucia’s forehead. She tucked a strand of Lucia’s hair behind her ear and then met the lava in Lucia’s eyes.

“Dumb?” Lucia scowled at her.

“What did I say?”

“Are you calling the father of our child dumb?”

“Jesus Luce!”

Lucia tossed the remaining water at Rona’s KISS T-shirt and bolted out of the room. Hormones had taken her hostage and left Rona as the gatekeeper.

Donor 167B4 was a formality, as Rona and Jasminn reminded Lucia day after day, but Lucia invested swaths of time into sorting out or dreaming up his hypothetical traits.

“Do you think he’s allergic to animals?” Lucia asked Rona who was watching the news and shaking her right foot side-to-side, a tell-all indication that something was irking her. They were eating cupcakes Lucia baked to commemorate the seventh-month-mark, which coincidentally landed on their four-year anniversary.

“Is that genetic?” Rona replied with half of her attention.

“What’ll be our rule on pets?” Lucia asked. She dusted crumbs from the top of her watermelon belly that she’d been using as an impromptu plate for several weeks.

“He can have any pets he wants.”

“Any?”

“Sure, why not?” Rona’s foot shook harder.

“A chameleon?”

“They’re cool. They change colors.”

“A rodent.”

“What kind? Rats? Hamsters? I love them all.”

“A parrot.”

“We’ll teach it the entire English language.”

“A tarantula.”

“I embrace creatures of all shapes, sizes, and levels of horror, and so will our son.”

“A dog.”

Rona melodramatically clasped her face with her hands and shrieked. “God forbid!”

Rona left when Lucia was a little over eight months pregnant. First, she left for the day (See you after work, sweet-pea). Then the day became a week (My mom needs help, I have to go to her). Then she left for good (…). Perhaps it was all the lists and letters or the interminable rides on the hormonal rollercoaster or the fact that she wasn’t part of this pregnancy—biologically speaking—that drove her away.

With only a handful of weeks left shaped like an extraterrestrial pear, Lucia continued to ask Jasminn questions. She had asked too many questions to stop asking altogether and continued asking right up to cutting the cord: Will he feel it?

A dull thud from Po after he threw himself off the balcony in his cage into a puff of paper bedding startled Lucia out of the memory. Jack grumbled nightwords from the other side of his bedroom door.

Jack was now ten. Lucia’s book of questions she had asked herself, Rona, Jasminn, Donor 167B4, her parents, friends, and Jack (once he started growing up) was worn-in. He slept late on weekends. He his favorite food was chocolate (and he didn’t mind cupcakes with too-soft centers). He wasn’t exceptionally skilled at playing soccer. His hair was the color of an old brass trumpet, probably a gene from Donor 167B4. He loved Lucia the way a boy should love his mom, he talks about all the girls in his class, he dreams about exploring new places, his favorite day is his birthday, and he’s not allergic to hamsters.

Resilience (n.) /rih-ZIL-yunss/ Ignoring the adjectives, nouns, and verbs forged from rogue and/or nondescript emotions caught in your hair, seen on the street, hidden under your bed, stuck above your brow, or dug into the crevices in the center of your diaphragm, resilience is the act of standing your ground while waves wash over you, remaining silent when a word won’t fill any space, icing birthday cupcakes with shaky hands, telling the hamster in the hallway that there might be a god somewhere carrying a dictionary so large it could fill any of the heavens or hells, but you don’t know the word for it yet.


About the author:

Laura Pavlo is a designer and writer living and working in New York City. Her short stories have appeared in Crab Fat Magazine, apt, Four Chambers Press, District Lit, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Menda City Press, Anomaly Literary Journal, 99 Pine Street, Stylus Literary Journal, and The Walrus. She won first place for the Jimenez-Porter Literary Prize for her novella “Ellipsis.” She has a B.A. in English and a B.A. in graphic design from the University of Maryland, and is a proud two-time conqueror of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

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