Sunday, December 30, 2007

Replacing Matisse

Once upon a time, when we lived in a rambling 19th century New England clapboard house, we had the requisite suburban-family pets: a black lab and a tiger-striped cat.

Let me be more precise. We had Blackberry, an aging, winsome chow-hound whose life-list of Things I Have Eaten included an oil painting, a cord of firewood, and the contents of my son's sacks of Halloween candy, every year of elementary school. A paragon of good manners, however, she always discarded the Snickers and Twix wrappers, and anything with licorice, into a delicate pile. Blackberry's special skill was artfully worrying her eyebrows, with an anxious sideways glance at her bowl, to convince the next sucker arriving in the kitchen that she hadn't been fed dinner yet.

We had Cleo, the bulimic, bi-polar feral feline from Hell, whose goals in life were to pee on freshly folded stacks of laundry and to puke behind the sofa. Her only sliver of endearment in the bosom of our family was strictly for the theatrics. When evicted from the house for misbehavior, which was often, she slunk to the side yard. There she would play dead out on the lawn, waiting for the neighborhood mockingbirds to dive-bomb her lifeless body, whereupon she sprang up to maul them in a most unappetizing fashion. Cleo was pure Hitchcock and Hollywood. Blackberry was purebred Merchant Ivory, zapped by Comedy Central.

Blackberry and Cleo arrived in our household as puppy and kitten, within weeks of each other. Every day of her happy-go-lucky Labrador life, Blackberry, wagging and wiggling, would nuzzle hopefully toward Cleo with a friendly wet nose and a goofy doggy-smile. Every single day for 14 years, Cleo would sharpen her claws in anticipation of this ritual, then with electric fur arch her back and hiss and swat as if Blackberry were some unknown Pitbull looking for lunch.

After Blackberry's tail thumped its last sweet thump, we mourned tearfully. Cleo was subsequently outsourced to live in a barn where she could chase mice and pee at will. We were petless. Almost.

We had acquired, in the meantime, a fantail goldfish. He was christened "Matisse," as a nod to the artist's painting of "Les Poissons Rouges." When Blackberry and Cleo were still around, Matisse had served mostly as a decorative object. On the kitchen counter in a tall jar (to save him from angling kitty paws), he swam around a slender plant and didn't ask for much. An occasional sprinkle of food and change of the water were all the attention he needed. Or got.

Eventually, though, with the furry pets departed to their respective greener pastures, and the kids living away at school, before I knew it Matisse had taken on new importance in my solitary life. When I ambled downstairs in the morning in that big empty house, I had someone to talk to. Somehow we started a quirky little duet. I approached his jar, he swam to the glass and made kissy-faces at me until I got out the little red box of fish food. Seeing the famliar red, he would dart excitedly through the plant, then race to the surface to wait for his little flakes, smooching tiny air bubbles until he was fed.

Yeah, right. I know you don't believe me. None of my friends did either, until they saw it in person. This was a goldfish with Personality!

I started calling him by ridiculous little nicknames (which, of course, he couldn't even hear). Ti-ti, Teetles. "How's my little Teetlebaum today?" I would inquire. Egad, what was coming over me? I had never used cutesy love-names like that even for my own children, so why was I suddenly bestowing terms of endearment on a slimy 79-cent purchase from Petco? Thank God no one was within earshot. I embarrassed myself.

When the time came to leave that big old house and pack up a lifetime of memories, I was heartened to think of Matisse as my companion for the transition. Then, when the sudden decision came for a preliminary move to Paris, I became determined to take Matisse with me. Okay, obsessed is a better word.

I fretted about how to transport him, and the water he would need to travel in (this was before the 3-ounce carry-on fluid limits). After much searching, I found a gallon-sized neoprene jar with a handle to take on-board for the flight. I envisioned Matisse in coach class, under my seat, where I could open the lid and reassuringly feed him little nibbles.

Then I became worried whether a fish could physically sustain cabin pressure at cruising altitudes of 30,000 feet. I scoured Google. I called vets and pet shops for solutions. No one could answer my queries. Did I detect muffled snickering as they hung up the phone?

I wanted to find out about airline pet transport regulations. I swam through the maze of passenger service, cargo, and myriad customer service agents at Air France. They were polite and attentive, and said they'd look into my request. Finally, someone was listening! The agent got back on the phone after checking with his supervisor. "I am sorry, Madame, but we have no regulations concerning carrying a live fish on board Air France," he said with utmost civility. "You see, no one has ever asked to do so before." I felt sheepish, but somewhat of a pioneer.

Finally, pragmatics prevailed. I simply had too much luggage to allow me to bring Matisse to Paris. My wise friend Sheila, who had coached and aided me through the whirlwind packing-for-Paris ordeal, generously offered to care for Matisse until I could come back to fetch him. I knew he was in good hands.

When I returned to the States to touch base several months later, I had, I'm ashamed to admit, all but forgotten about Matisse. Paris had been so thrilling, such a cultural learning curve, that I'd had precious little time to think about a piscine pipsqueak in a tall jar in Massachusetts. Paris does tend to put elements of your life in perspective.

I called Sheila to catch up for lunch. "I have some bad news for you," she offered solemnly after a long silence. "Matisse died a month ago."

"Oh -- Matisse?" I said blithely. "Well, he was sweet, but after all, he was JUST a goldfish. I hope you said a 'praise be to Allah' before you flushed him down the loo!" Sheila, who had witnessed my Matisse obsession first hand, didn't know whether to be relieved or furious, I think.

Since then, I've been truly petless. I'd love to have a dog in Paris, but time and money budgets just don't allow it. And after 14 years of Cleo, I no longer fancy owning a cat.

Last Friday, after my kids had returned to the States, I knew it was time. First, I found a sack of marbles for €1 at the marché in Belleville. Then a large vase at Monceau Fleurs. A quick visit to Vilmorin Animalerie on quai de la Mégisserie, and I found her.

She was swimming, ballerina-style, unlike the hundred other clumsy poissons rouges in the tank. "Celui-là," I pointed her out to the attendant. He had a tough time catching her in his net, but I wasn't going to adopt just any goldfish.

Before I had left the store, I had instantly given her a name. "Louise," a nod to one of my favorite French authors, Louise de Vilmorin, whose ancestors started the Vilmorin seed and plant company.

Ah, you should meet my little Louisette. My Lou-Lou. Ma petite Lou-Lita-la-Belle. We already love our little morning chats, we two.
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