Animal Parlor Games

When I was in high school in the late seventies, I had a friend I’ll call Jen whose parents were divorced. I’d spend the night at her house from time to time, or visit her after school.

Her mother, who I’ll call Janice, promoted the idea that she was a sophisticated woman, although even at 17 I could tell her glamor was from a bygone era or from a world apart from the one I inhabited. Janice’s hair was bleached to perdition, and she wore it in a teased, flimsy up-do with gaps I could see through from certain angles. She was extra tan from playing tennis under a flaming Atlanta sun. Jen said, “My mom is so lucky. She gets tan without trying, even through her bra.”

Janice chain-smoked Virginia Slims. Jen and I would drive aimlessly along winding two-lane roads in Janice’s Cadillac, listening to her eight-track tapes of Neil Diamond and smoking the cigarettes we found in the glove compartment.

If Janice went out on a Saturday night she could be counted on not to come home until two or three in the morning. It was the era of discos and swingers, and Janice participated enthusiastically. Jen would invite a group of us over to drink beer and maybe fool around. If our beer ran out we’d raid Janice’s liquor cabinet. Jen knew how to make whiskey sours and tequila sunrises, those yummy sweet drinks that don’t taste too strongly of alcohol. Once I puked my guts out in an aluminum garbage can behind the house. Another time I blacked out.

Janice played a game which involved assigning animal species to people. She said, “Every person has an animal group they belong to. Most people are either birds, dogs, or horses.” And within a certain genus, she would even single out the species.

Janice labeled her daughter Jen a quail, and truth be told, she was spot on. Jen had a wide, long, face and a smooth, plump body that rode low to the ground, somewhat bottom heavy, but she was also a small person.

She said I was a robin. I have large, dark eyes, long black hair, a small mouth, pointed chin and nose. After she told me I was a robin, I felt like one, though it’s hard to be objective enough about myself to know if Janice had pinpointed the right species for me.

Secretly I was glad, and felt sorry for Jen. Quails seemed ponderous, not spry and nimble like the robin. And the quail’s plumage was muted, no red breast to boast of.

I think Jen was sad about her quail status too. She bought into her mother’s self-styled glamor girl image, really believed Janice was a foxy man-magnet, a superior woman.

The last I heard about their family, Janice had died of lung cancer, and Jen was in LA, homeless and in debt after losing her job as the head buyer of a large department store chain. Maybe she never got over how her mother placed her in a homely bird group. Who knows, she might have really been a bird of paradise, or a condor.

6 thoughts on “Animal Parlor Games

  1. Jessica says:

    This is such an interesting recollection to me, especially the years later follow up. It’s always strange how those families who seem the most attractive when we’re teens turn out to be so fragile and broken when we look back as adults.

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  2. Michelle says:

    Christine, this is so sensitively observed and explored – and well written. “bleached to perdition” – brilliant! I puked my guts out and blacked out too. Perhaps you’re a falcon?

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  3. Jo says:

    I love this. It’s absolutely wonderful……such an interesting glimpse of a family, of you. That poor girl. I’m thinking of our conversation the other day….I’m not sure what I am now….

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  4. paisley says:

    you just never know what little tidbits your brain will attach itself too… and often not knowing is the first in a long course of ‘buying into it’… i struggle with this myself… sometimes even when the lights finally come on,, and you know it is not your reality,, those feelings are hard to shake…

    i really enjoyed the way you told this story,, it made me feel as if i too was a part of it….

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  5. Lirone says:

    Yes, naming can be a powerful thing, and animal names do seem to strike some deep archetypal images.

    It also makes me wonder in what other ways the mother showed what seem to be low expectations of her daughter.

    It’s so tempting to come to the conclusion that we really understand other people – and yet it’s so easy for that to reflect only our own prejudices and insecurities. So much better to encourage people to define themselves!

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  6. christine says:

    When I sat down to write this post, I was thinking how fun it is to equate people and animals, but when the words came out, I ended up focusing on the negative aspect of labeling.

    Still, I do like the idea of imagining what kind of animal I’d be. Maybe the caveat should be that we can be whatever animal we want to be for a day, like Arthur in “The Once and Future King.”

    Lirone, the mom pretty much checked out after the divorce. She was all about man hunting, gin and tonics, tennis, and smoking ciggaretes.

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