It was night when we heard it, the air cold and chalky. We were returning home from a dinner party. Being around other couples had made us pleased with each other, our hands clasped inside his coat pocket.
We moved to the sound and saw a tiny frog perched on a pile of discarded palm fronds on the sidewalk outside a thrumming, fancy event.
“A frog!” I said.
“Cute,” said my husband. He kept walking.
I crouched to look at the frog. Big eyes, eager pose, parabolic mouth, like a smile.
I picked up a cup off the sidewalk that smelled faintly of mango and alcohol and tried to coax the frog into it. Peter stood at a short distance, not speaking.
“A freaking rainforest fundraiser,” I said. I railed about the irony of hacking down this living creature’s home, shipping it three thousand miles, and using it to glam up some party space for society bigwigs who’d get wasted and donate money to save tropical forests like the one decimated and wilting in vases all around them.
“I mean, a tree frog!” I said. “He’s like the poster child for biodiversity.”
I corralled the frog into the cup and began breaking off bits of greenery to furnish it.
“What are you doing?” said Peter.
“Bringing him home,” I said. “We can’t leave him here. And the kids have been gunning for a pet.”
“Honey,” said my husband.
It was an endearment that, four years into our marriage, had acquired a thousand shades of meaning. This one meant: We’ve stayed out too late, we have two small children at home, our sitter will be mad, you drank too much. It also meant, Honey, you are a mother with a full-time job, you barely have enough energy for friends, for me. Our apartment is tiny. You’re overwhelmed. Where does a frog fit into that? It meant: Stop it. You’re being stupid.
“He’s mine,” I said. “I found him.”
I covered the cup with my scarf, and we set off towards home in silence.
The next morning, I took the boys to the nearest pet store. The place was filthy and claustrophobic, bags of kibble slouching in piles next to murky, bubbling fish tanks; glo-lamp geckos; rubber pet toys with manic faces. And it stunk: dog food, birds, rodent piss, dried shrimp. I called out, “Hello?” A clerk lumbered into view. Pale and shapeless in his pilled yellow polyester uniform, he looked as if his flesh had been squeezed from a caulking gun.
I asked him what he knew about tree frogs.
“How much time you got?”
I glanced at the boys, mesmerized by the fish tanks.
The clerk explained frogs’ habits and preferences, their diets, behaviors, moods. As he talked, he gathered up several hundred dollars’ worth of supplies: tank, gravel, cedar mulch, bags of plastic greenery—
“We’d like real plants, please.”
“What for?” He cocked his head. Little gray teeth showed when he smirked. “They only use it to hide.”
I clutched the fake ferns as the clerk shuffled off through a dented door. He emerged several minutes later with a puffed-up plastic bag scrambling with crickets. “I think I got you two dozen in here,” he said. “Hard to count the jumpers.”
On the way home, I decided the frog’s name was Froggyfroggyfrog. Parenthood is a form of brain damage.
It took several hours to set up the aquarium, sterilizing its surfaces according to the clerk’s directions. I put Froggyfroggyfrog’s glass house on a bookshelf in the boys’ room. We looked. He didn’t move. It was like a photograph.
Every few days, I had to stop by the pet store for more crickets. I knew Froggyfroggyfrog—F—was eating them because one day there’d be a cloud of them in the tank, and then a day or two later, stillness. I knew he must have been exploring his plastic rainforest, defecating as he went, because I began to notice little frog poops, which look like elongated mouse poops, stuck all over his sheer glass walls. But neither the kids nor I ever saw him hop or climb or flick out his tongue to catch a cricket. We never heard him chirrup or peep. Indeed, I was the only one who saw him at all, and then only on those afternoons, increasingly rare, when I’d clean out his tank or spritz his world with water. Within a week of his arrival in our apartment, he had ceased to provoke even the blandest curiosity from the boys. Their pet frog, for all intents and purposes, was a glass tank of fake greenery.
For nearly eight months, I continued to take care of F. Rescuing the frog signified something important. It meant I was observant, compassionate, conscientious. That I cared about actual living things, and not just the abstract causes they got hijacked to represent. I also wanted it to mean that becoming a mother had not made me incapable of eccentric, spontaneous gestures, like the charming, slightly reckless hero of an indie film. After all, I was risking alienating my husband to bring an adorable pet frog—a honest-to-goodness rescue animal!—into my children’s life.
I loathed the crickets, though. The clerk suggested I substitute bags of mealworms from time to time—“like, say, twenty mealworms for every hundred crickets”—and I did. They were small, brown maggots. At the clerk’s prompting, I also did a little research on tree frogs and discovered they are not exclusive to Ecuador and Costa Rica; certain species are actually native to the northeastern US, including New York State. I heard a rumor that they breed like vermin in Manhattan’s flower district, though I’ve yet to have it confirmed.
I moved F’s aquarium to the bottom bookshelf. “I’m sure he’ll still get enough sunlight down there,” I announced to no one.
Sometimes, I tried to recall the night I saw F sitting big-eyed and hopeful atop his discarded greenery; tried to imagine walking away, leaving him to the garbage trucks, and my heart would soften. I’d spritz his greenery, run out for crickets, wipe the poops from his walls.
Once, during a phone call with my sister, a dog trainer in Austin, we got to talking about the weird relationships people have with their pets. She told me she’d come to believe that people don’t choose their pets. “They choose us,” she said.
In July, Peter, the kids, and I went on a two-week vacation, and I didn’t bother trying to find a frog-sitter. Who would take on such a job? Shortly after we returned home, I bought a new batch of crickets, and when, three days later, the aquarium was still buzzing with them, I realized F was dead.
Had it been a terrible death? Worse than being crushed in a garbage truck? I hoped not. I released the crickets onto the fire escape, dumped the contents of the aquarium into the garbage, wiped down the glass, and donated it to the boys’ school. I avoided turning F’s demise into a “teachable moment” about death.
I went out of my way to avoid the block with the pet store after that. What if the clerk happened to glance up as I was passing? How many customers had he seen walk through that door hopped up on flimsy enthusiasm for some new pet? I winced at the memory of his smirk. Because what would I say? I found a frog, brought him home, and built him a mausoleum.
Celia Barbour is a writer, editor, and professor who lives with her family in Garrison, NY.