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I'm a writer living in St. Petersburg, Florida. I was raised in rural Maryland, a stone's throw from Baltimore City.

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Turtle Girl

 The following is a true story from my childhood:


Turtle Girl

            So, there I was in first grade, holding a cardboard box bigger than I was. Inside the box was a living, breathing box turtle that my family would sometimes capture from the woods behind the house. Also in the box, was a head of iceberg lettuce and a glass dish of water.

            My teacher’s reaction isn’t something I remember, but I like to pretend she was a mixture of horrified surprise and pangs of disheveled pity when she saw me.

This happened sometime towards the beginning of the my first-grade school year. By this point, I was already the weird girl with no hygiene or social skills, touting unbridled hyperactivity and a talent for not paying attention to anything important. I would cry constantly, unsure of what emotions were, but with a real knack for making others very uncomfortable. On this day, I transcended to Turtle Girl.

            At school, I may have been a menace, or at least an undiagnosed, disordered student, but while at home, I was merely an insignificant bite of fruit fallen from the instability tree.

            Living with a mother who had symptoms of borderline personality disorder was interesting, to put it excessively mildly. It was actually like living with a great white shark that could breathe air, live on land, and drive a small, cherry red, economy class car.

What I’m trying to say is, I’m not sure if it was my idea to bring the turtle to school. It might have been, but I think it was far more likely her idea. My school didn’t have “show and tell,” like you would sometimes see in sitcoms and cartoons. We had assignments: book reports, math problems, and handwriting practice, but no live animals, except for tadpoles in an aquarium on the other side of the room.

            I went to school with the turtle confused on why I had the turtle there with me in the first place. He smelled bad. Then he pooped his box and smelled worse. The teacher put his box by the door to the hallway and kept him over there for the day.

            He was a wild animal and I knew almost nothing about him.

            Occasionally, my classmates asked me questions about the turtle.

They asked, “How old is he?”

            I would answer, “I don’t know.”

            “Is it a boy or a girl?”
            Again, I would say, “I don’t know.”

            “What does he eat?”

            “Lettuce.”

            But literally, nine out of every ten questions had the same answer, that being: “I don’t know.”

            The most important question, one I didn’t even think or know to ask at that age, being that I was a six-year-old child with little experience handling reptiles, was if his skin could be possibly covered in salmonella. I wasn’t even sure what bacteria was at the point and I was awful about washing my hands.

            The day was nearly over, and in a way that I didn’t understand at the time, I realized no one really cared if I brought the turtle to school and most everyone else thought he smelled bad too. This was the country, with farmers and woods instead of neighborhoods and subdivisions, so most of my classmates had woods of their own, containing assortments of various woodland creatures. Most of their parents probably had the sense to leave nature alone and not have their kids bring it to school.

            I know I touched that turtle at some point during the day. I felt nauseous, as we waited for class to wrap up and the bell to ring. From my stomach, hot, liquid bile welled up in my throat and into my mouth. I swallowed it. It happened again, and I swallowed it again, and slowly raised my hand.

            “I just threw up in my mouth,” was all I said.

            My teacher looked back at me with a blank look on her face.

            She began to say something, but I shot out of my chair, heading for the exit.

I didn’t make it. Instead, I projectile vomited everywhere.

It hurt. This type of violent vomiting at any age hurts and this was my first experience with it. All that came out was what looked like hot, yellow water, which must have been stomach acid and bodily liquids.

Between the box turtle in a box and my puke, I collapsed and blacked out on the floor. I came to shortly after, when an adult picked me up and hastily put me in a chair with the trash can in between my legs, at my feet.

I think it was one of the custodians. He pointed and said: “in there,” and just as he did, another wave of puke came crashing up and into the can.

He and the other custodian cleaned up the door and floor quickly as the bell was about to ring.

The bell rang and I continued to puke into the small, olive green, army surplus style trash can. Every so often, I looked up to the rim of the cardboard box and at the turtle, as he or she munched lettuce and pooped.

My class lined up for the buses, directly across from me puking my brains out. Their little faces all stared at me, so I looked down into my bucket of vomit. Over the sound of my own stomach trying to escape the confines of the human body, I heard boys squirm and say: “ewww.” The little girls that I had tried to become friends with giggled and said: “gross,” while pointing and whispering to one another.

My display probably scarred a few of the more sheltered kids for life and I wonder how many parents got an earful of: “she puked!” from excited first graders after coming home on the bus.

Lucky for me, my mother was already coming to pick me up from school, so I wouldn’t have to throw up on the turtle all the way home or some other horrible combination with the turtle in one hand and a big box of puke in the other. Unluckily for me, she, like many of the other mothers of my classmates, was a classroom volunteer.

My mother apparently took her volunteer position with incredible seriousness and gave it the highest priority. I was pretty far gone by the time she showed up, so if she checked on Turtle Girl and Puke Turtle, I can’t remember it. As a rule, she wasn’t very attentive, so the odds were slim. Flighty attention is a genetic affliction. She went and cut out paper letters or something, while my sweaty, child body sat in a chair, next to the door, with a trashcan full of vomit at my feet for about an hour.

            Eventually, we left. I felt lightheaded, dizzy, and generally horrible.

On the way home, she remarked that the flu must have been going around and I must be getting sick.

            The turtle was returned to the woods that night and the box was thrown out.

            He lived another year before my father accidentally killed him with the riding mower. It was sad. He cried, so I cried, and my mother cut her rose bushes.

            As for me, that fateful night I went to bed dehydrated and a mess, having chills and nightmares. Even though I still felt sick the next day, I was sent off to school like nothing happened. Kids giggled and laughed at me outright and others asked me questions about the turtle that I still didn’t know how to correctly answer.

             Reptiles hatch from eggs and they enter the cold world alone, small, and helpless. There are some exceptions, but the same alligator who protected her young from a far when they were hatchlings might eat one or two of her offspring a few months later.

Warm blooded animals like humans have this sterling reputation of compassion and love for themselves and their kids. However, not every cat who has kittens or human that has children will give their children love and affection.

             


             

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About Me

               My biggest inspiration for writing is David Sedaris. I listened to his 2004 essay collection: “Dress Your Family in Corduroy ...