j a c o b a p p e l
la TRISTESSE des HéRISSONS
“Everything” necessitated another morning away from the restaurant, another session with the enlightened and costly Dr. Waller. As we waited in the therapist’s vestibule, I found myself reflecting that I should have given in to Adeline about the baby—because if we’d spent a fortune taking care of a sick infant, at the end of the day at least we’d have had a child. In contrast, no matter how much time and money and emotional energy we devoted to Orion, the most we could ever expect to end up with was an obtuse creature that smelled like rotting mulch.
The door to Dr. Waller’s inner sanctum opened, and a middle-aged woman hiding behind a kerchief and sunglasses exited quickly. Her handbag was slung across one shoulder; atop her other shoulder perched a red-faced lovebird. It crossed my mind that the pair might be receiving family counseling, and I couldn’t help grinning. At that moment, Dr. Waller beckoned us into his office.
“Is something humorous, Mr. Barrow?” inquired the therapist.
“Not at all,” I said quickly.
“Humor is a universal emotion,” said Dr. Waller. “All mammals have a rudimentary sense of humor. And humor has a great deal of therapeutic potential. The challenge, of course, is how to tap into it. What a human being finds funny will necessarily differ from what a raccoon or a muskrat finds funny.”
“Obviously,” I said.
Dr. Waller eyed me warily, like a general preparing to reprimand a junior officer, but ultimately he allowed my remark to pass. The therapist toyed with an unlit pipe and listened as my girlfriend recounted our latest tale of hedgehog woe.
“He’s out of control,” Adeline concluded. “He has no judgment anymore. To be honest, I’m afraid he might do something dangerous.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” soothed Dr. Waller. “I think it’s rather clear that the anti-depressant has tipped him into mania. It happens. It cannot be helped. Fortunately, as the Prozac leaves his system, there’s a good chance his mood will re-stabilize on its own.”
“And what if it doesn’t?” demanded Adeline. “That’s where environmental factors come into play,” explained Dr. Waller.
“Sensory overstimulation can exacerbate bipolar disorder in many species. I’ve seen it in rabbits. I’ve seen it in hamsters. While I’ve never seen it in hedgehogs myself, there are case reports in the literature . . . I can prescribe twenty-five milligrams of lithium twice daily, if Orion will take it, but what he really requires is a stimulus-free atmosphere.” “We’ll do whatever you suggest,” said Adeline.
I sensed that the therapist was leading us toward a precipice. “What exactly do you mean by stimulus free?” I asked.
“No loud sounds, no pungent aromas,” said Dr. Waller. “But you don’t have to go overboard. Hedgehogs don’t actually hear or smell as well as most people believe. Vision is by far their strongest sensory modality,” he added. “If you want to break Orion’s mania, you’ll have to keep him in compete darkness.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“Until he recovers,” said Dr. Waller. “It could be days . . . it could be months. It all depends upon the hedgehog.”
Adeline thanked the therapist profusely. I wrote another two-hundred-dollar check.
Outside, Union Square was alive with rhododendrons and forsythias, the cheerful throngs of NYU undergraduates and lunching office workers a striking contrast to the elderly captives we’d soon confront at Mrs. Terwilliger’s nursing home. It seemed so long ago that Adeline and I had picnicked in that same park, opposite the statue of Lafayette—so long ago when I’d markered the words “If you sue me, I’ll still like you” on Adeline’s cast. I longed to remind her of that distant afternoon but feared that, in her present state of mind, the memory might actually upset her.
“Maybe this hedgehog is too much for us,” I ventured. “Maybe he’s too sick to be raised outside a medical setting.”
“Don’t you dare say that ever again,” said Adeline, her voice like a stiletto. “If he’s too much for you, I’m too much for you. We’re a package deal.”
If it had been entirely up to me, we’d have punched a few air holes through a shoebox and slid Orion into a bureau drawer until his mania subsided. Needless to say, the decision was not entirely up to me, so I spent the greater part of the next eight hours light-proofing our apartment while Adeline tended to the hedgehog in a rented darkroom at the Manhattan Institute of Photography. She was determined that Orion was to retain free roam of his cage while under light quarantine, which meant that all of the living-room windows had to be papered over with black oak-tag board. And that was just the start of my efforts. I sealed off the bottom of the apartment door with a strip of rubber, moved all the small appliances into our bedroom, and hung a damask curtain across the foyer entrance. Love sometimes requires a willingness to indulge unreasonable requests, and I was determined to blot every last photon from our lives to soothe Adeline’s nerves.
I sipped Canadian whiskey while I labored. Okay, maybe I enjoyed a few sips too many, but the Glen Breton was surprisingly smooth—so much so that I downed half a bottle over the course of several hours. I’d been drinking more heavily ever since Adeline had accused me of sleeping with one of our college-aged waitresses, because while the charge itself was 100 percent false, I still felt guilty that I’d found the young coed attractive—and even guiltier that I’d terminated her so abruptly. But Adeline had stopped by the bistro one evening, on her way home from her office, and she’d seen the two of us sharing a plate of calamari at the bar. To quote my girlfriend’s own words, “I don’t care if anything actually happened. What matters is how I felt when I saw you.” So I fired the girl, and Adeline climbed out onto the sixth-story ledge. After her stint in Bellevue, she never mentioned the incident again.
I’d just taped over the red light on the carbonmonoxide detector when Adeline returned home, wheeling Orion’s travel case in a stroller. She immediately shut the door behind her and flipped off the overhead lights. Darkness cloaked the room. I had to feel my way down from the stepstool.
“Dark enough for you?” I asked.
“More than dark enough,” said Adeline.
“I’d kiss you right now, only I don’t think I could find you.”
I heard the squeak of stroller wheels and the frenetic scampering of the hedgehog inside his case.
“You’re going to kill me for this, Josh, but I have to ask,” said Adeline. “They’re selling fresh-cut lilacs on the corner. I didn’t want to buy them while I had Orion with me on account of the smell . . . Would you be all right taking care of him for an hour while I take a bouquet of lilacs to Mama? You know how she loves lilacs.”
“Go. Don’t think twice,” I said. “Orion and I will do some male bonding.”
“Thank you!” declared Adeline. “I’ll be as quick as I can.”
Her footsteps inched back into the entryway. When she opened the apartment door, the light from the corridor limned her silhouette angelically. “Make sure you don’t let him out unless you have the lights off,” Adeline warned. “And no silk worms before bedtime. They’ll give him indigestion.”
“Everything is under control,” I assured her.
And then she was gone, and I was alone with the hedgehog.
I turned on the fluorescent lights in the kitchen, illuminating the living room just enough for me to unload the hedgehog safely. I realized that Adeline would have viewed this as cheating—as a direct assault on the creature’s welfare—but I wasn’t about to carry a manic animal with a pelt of spikes across our apartment in the dark. I probably would have turned the overhead lights on, too, but I was afraid that Adeline might be testing me—waiting on the sidewalk outside to spy for cracks of light around the oak-tag. To my surprise, Orion appeared to have burned through his mania already. He didn’t resist when I cupped him into the mitt and set him down inside his cage. It only took a few seconds for him to uncoil and cuddle into his woodchips.
My ulcer was burning again—like a sharp quill being driven through my abdomen—so I retreated into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of milk. I sipped slowly, letting the cool liquid coat my throat and esophagus. When I returned to the living room, the hedgehog lay tucked into a mound of chips, sleeping soundly. It was only seven o’clock, but as far as I was concerned, the creature had the right idea. I poured myself a second glass of milk, turned off the kitchen light, and went to bed.
I dreamed the world was an overfed hedgehog, that all of humanity lived its existence, oblivious, at the tip of one long quill. At some point, Dr. Waller tried to push me off the edge of that quill into the abyss—and I awoke to Adeline, attempting to drag me off the bed by my feet. “You’re a total asshole, a total fucking asshole,” she shouted. “I knew I couldn’t trust you!”
“What’s going on?”
“How stupid do you think I am?” continued Adeline,pulling my sock from my foot. “You promised me you wouldn’t expose Orion to any light. You promised me
everything was under control.”
“Everything is under control.”
“Then how do you explain this?”
She held up the empty milk glass I’d left on the bedside table.
“You poured yourself a glass of milk after you put Orion in his cage,” she said. “Don’t you lie to me, Josh. I know you let him out first—before you got the milk.”
“So you didn’t take the light bulb out of the goddam refrigerator,” she cried. “I don’t care how little light he was actually exposed to. That’s not the point. The point is that you’re careless, and selfish, and you don’t give a damn about either of us.”
The room slowly came into focus. I was still somewhat drunk, but also mildly hung over—an all-too-toxic mix. “So I don’t give a damn about you, do I?”
“Apparently not.” Adeline started punching my hip, my ribs; she pounded the side of my mouth. “I ask you to do one small thing, just one tiny damn thing, and you can’t even do that. What is wrong with you?”
I’m not sure what finally drove me to the edge—the pain in my jaw, or the alcohol, or some inexplicable force that controls the lives of hedgehog and man. All I can say is that something snapped. I charged into the living room, flipped on the overhead lights, and as soon as I’d managed to squeeze my hand into an oven mitt, I scooped up the dumbstruck hedgehog. Adeline was hollering, sobbing, pleading. I don’t think she realized my intentions until I’d yanked down the oak-tag board and was already climbing out onto the window ledge—and by then she was powerless to stop me.
Wind gusted up the avenue. Below, traffic lights stretched across the city in beads of red and green like strings of Christmas decorations.
I didn’t have a plan—not exactly. A part of me yearned to grasp the hedgehog like a baseball and heave it into the sea of yellow cabs below, and another part of me realized that was an insane idea, and yet a third part of me wanted to hurl the damn animal downward with full force and then dive after it. So I stood there, paralyzed. Drunk. Angry. Lost. Adeline poked her head out the window, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. When she started climbing onto the ledge, I inched myself farther along the brickface. Some couple we made, the pair of us fifty yards above the street, one hollering and the other clasping a hedgehog.
That was when I lost my grip on the creature. Its quills slipped without warning from the Kevlar mitt. Instinctively, I reached out with my other hand—my bare hand—and clasped my naked fingers around the thorny, squirming ball. I was far too smashed to feel much pain, but I could sense the warmth of the blood trickling down my wrist and under my sleeve. I suppose the blood reminded me of how close we all are to the abyss, how easily a guy can step over the edge. It was the blood that kept me from letting go, that kept me clinging to that hedgehog for dear life.