It's 1981, and I'm on my way to Mountain View Elementary, a string of one-story brick buildings in Southern California that is not in view of any mountain thanks to the blanket of smog. I'm carrying a Star Wars lunchbox that contains a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a cookie. My name is written on the X-Wing spaceship on the front of the lunchbox in my mother's handwriting. I'm still mad at her for defacing it.
I am 8 years old, and I'm about to get my first pet.
After school, I'm picked up by an older kid. He's got a van with beige shag carpeting on the inside. In the corner is a half-constructed disco ball, the Styrofoam still showing in the southern hemisphere. It looks like the Death Star. I picture myself in the X-Wing, flying into it. My X-Wing, signed by my mother. All the other rebel pilots fly by, laughing at me. I'm an outcast even in my fantasies.
The van fills with a gaggle of other kids, and we're trucked a dozen blocks away to our after-school latchkey location. I think it was a church or some kind of activity hall. All I remember is it had a large, barren backyard. That's where I met Lizzy.
I was back by the fence, trying to be invisible, when I heard the commotion. The bigger kids, the bullies, had a laundry basket turned upside-down. Two were holding it down and a third was on his hands and knees, peering in. They were all whooping like howler monkeys. My curiosity drew me closer.
Inside the laundry basket, flitting back and fourth, was a small lizard. The bullies towered over it, lifting the basket and grasping for it from all sides, screaming. In the back of my mind, I could hear the echoes of my parents fighting, screaming at each other when they thought I was asleep, and me, trapped in my room, pacing back and forth, their voices reaching in at me.
The lizard was freaking out. The lizard was in danger. I had to save the lizard.
In the fantasy, I'm flying that X-Wing, and the Death Star's laser turrets fire at me from all sides. I turn off my targeting computer and speed past all the other rebel ships. I'm going so fast, the hull of my ship glows red. My mother's handwriting burns away.
One of the bully kids has the lizard now. His smile is evil. He takes the lizard by the tail and swings it like a lasso over his head. He's having some sort of cowboy waking dream. Bullies always dream of cowboys.
All at once the lizard separates from its own tail – a natural defense against the slow-witted, but drastic nonetheless. The bully screams like a girl and drops the tail to the ground; the bullies gather around it in a circle, watching it twitch.
What they don't know is that this is all part of the plan. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution has led to this moment, where the predator is distracted by the dying tail as the lizard escapes. I know this because Grandma got me a subscription to National Geographic.
The lizard, free from its tail and its predator, flies across the backyard, hits the ground in a tiny explosion of dust, and slides to a stop at my feet. This poor lizard with fighting parents. I reach down on instinct and grab the lizard and pick him up. He's still alive – I can feel his tiny hyperventilating heart. I look him in the eye and feel this strange, intense kinship.
In my fantasy, I fire the torpedoes into the hole and fly away from the Death Star at light speed. It explodes in a fiery burst. All that anger, all those bullies, all the fighting parents in the world explode. Gone.
I put the lizard in my pocket before the bullies notice, and keep him there when my mom picks me up and takes me home. I tell my parents about him that night, about how I saved him from the bullies, and beg to keep him. He lives in the garage in a fish tank for a few months. I go with my dad to the pet store on Gary Avenue every week and buy grubs to feed him. He bites my hand when I reach into the tank. He's still so angry, and I can't blame him one bit.
Lizzy the lizard dies after a few months, and I bury him in the backyard. I dig a hole in the wilting vegetable garden – the one my dad and I started before the fights got so bad – and I put a stick in the ground to mark the spot. After a few months, all the corn plants are gone, and that stick is the only thing remaining upright.
Dad had moved out by then, and my parents got divorced the next year. And I was still waiting for someone to save me.