How a Gecko Grew its Tail Back
His voice, a crashing of tormented cymbals over the phone, was what I imagined a waterfall stuck in winter would sound like. The rush of falling water below its thick, icicle shell. And, in part, it reminded me of a nature documentary I had seen once in my college dorm. The stiff rattling of David Attenborough’s voice combing through the past. A narration that had haunted me then and didn’t ease my anxiety as he spoke. I focused on the irregularities of his tone because I had known of his glacial voice before—afraid to become a sanded erratic.
The man, of course, was a neighbor lost, at first, to the collapse of the housing market, and then to the calving of his decade’s long marriage. He must have called me when he found my number buried deep within his phone’s dusty contacts, now begging for forgiveness.
I first met him at a church potluck the summer before 6th grade, where he bent down to meet my eyeline and extended his hairy arm for me to shake. He introduced himself as Anthony to my single mother—and Tony to me. When I began to question why, he plucked a Deviled Egg from his platter of a dozen and placed it on my paper plate—already soggy from watermelon rinds.
The fear in my eyes, an animal stilted in an empty plain, prompted him to explain that Deviled Eggs don’t actually mean they’re from the Devil—just that the Devil had been beaten out of them. It worried me that eggs were evil in the first place.
That Sunday afternoon, my mother had learned of his wife Sherri, their two sons (I forgot their names years ago), and that they lived at the end of our cul-de-sac in a house the size of two blue whales. After, he invited us to weekly barbeques with Sherri and the kids. My mother, being unceremoniously kind, agreed.
I learned during our cookouts that his sons were eerily quiet. They ate their cedar-smoked ribs in silence, their bluffs of potato salad without a word—even kept their conversations below a strained whisper. I confronted them about this once in the shade of their Willow tree. The older one, freckles the size of pregnant ticks, had said that if they were super quiet and still, no one would think they existed. The younger one only nodded while picking at the tree’s sappy bark, some of it collecting at the nubs of his fingertips. And when I asked them why, their answers faded into the hiss of the patio grill.
My mother thought Tony was a great orator. He told stories about his prickly sweat in the Middle East, the emptiness of Dubai before the oil boom, his failed farm venture afterward. First with peas, then radishes, and finally two sons. I understood why she found him to be captivating—the golden rings in his eyes, the brandish of a genuine smirk, the way Sherri was never home.
One summer, my mother, rich from nail salon tips, brought me to Disney World. I could only remember the blazing concrete after, the way I could trace Mickey on the burn of my forearm—a white outline against dying skin.
As we were headed back to our hotel, my mother’s cheeks pinched between my knees, we paused to watch a flock of ducks. Their bodies hovering on glass, their bills all pointing south—to somewhere we wished we could see but couldn’t. My mother saw the shadow first—a tinge of brown among so much green. Then its eye, a yellow band encasing a black diamond, trained its gaze on the flock.
She made me close my eyes. My warming Dole Whip splattered on asphalt. Then a pulse of a dozen birds took off at once, finally a silent shudder. When my mother said I could open my eyes, we had walked too far to see if there were any ducks left. I asked her where they had gone, though she never answered.
I first learned I was a reptile the summer I met Tony. The thieving chill of a rainstorm forced us into their house—the sound of a leopard in chase on the roof. When he suggested we should play Hide-and-Seek, his sons had slithered into the confines of their room. And my mother, drunk off box wine and his charisma, encouraged me to play. How do you play Hide-and-Seek if you’re the only one meant to be found?
I hadn’t known the expanse of his labyrinthian home until he began counting. Doorways led to innocuous bedrooms and dressers—where I was always on the lookout for a cartoon alligator pit.
If given the opportunity, most animals would prefer to hide if they were aware danger was nearby. Conserving energy—beyond being eaten—would be a reptile’s main concern. Best to be still and beg to be blended into the surroundings than to be spied on from the guts of a swamp.
With only a few seconds left, I found the master bedroom, and within it, his closet. It’s able to hide a reptilian body behind shale and shackle. And as I snuck into its bowels, the doors hinged jaws bit the tip of my index finger. I could feel the rising pitch of a distressed scream bleed from my mouth. When I was silent again, a stream riding the cliff of my cheek, I had forgotten about the hesitance of Tony’s sons.
Naturally, he found me. The closet door opened, then slowly shut behind him. The darkness holding me stiff.
When I talk about Tony, what I really mean to talk about is the hunt. I felt his lips on my finger—the rotting iron of a muskeg. This was what it must’ve been like to be that duck in an Epcot swamp. How hard the duck must’ve tried to flap its wings and fly; how easy it was for those jaws to clamp down.
I left the closet, a kiss branding my fingernail, wanting only to feel the pinch of that door again, and not his hot breath.
That week, my fingernail bloomed into a lavender field. My mother never asked why, instead she offered to paint the rest of my nails a similar shade of purple. She didn’t want my teachers to question the single welt brewing within me. What did it mean for a mother to know of the alligator’s sins and not how to save the meat it relied on to live?
I laid out my fingers on our kitchen counter as she gave me camouflage. Maybe somewhere in her brushstrokes there was love. Or guilt. Or shame. I couldn’t tell because her hands were as steady as they had always been. If I told you my hands weren’t also shaking—the grip of fake granite below my fingers—I would be lying. I would also be lying if I told you I liked the color.
Purple is ugly; alligators are ugly; the crooked doorframe of a master bedroom is ugly. Gazing into my bruised finger that day, I believed that I was ugly. And I thought a thin layer of nail polish could make me pretty again.
In a month, my fingernail fell off, which left a bed of puss and the birth of a new nail. In a month, everyone asked me why I only had nine fields of chipped lavender. I didn’t have the words then to say that Crested Geckos could lose their tails if they felt they had become threatened. I couldn’t tell myself then that they could continue living with parts of their souls ripped from their bodies.
The episode where David Attenborough explained the escape of a Crested Gecko was the same one where I waited in my college dorm for the pills to explode within me. The tail had been removed, so why hadn’t the body also left?
I remember watching how the crack of an alligator jaw nearly ate the whole body of a Crested Gecko. Luckily, in its instinctual desire for life, the gecko sprinted from the majority of the danger. After the gecko was safe on the branch of a Cypress, the movie showed the slow regrowth of its tail in a panning time lapse. The molt of its body at first unsettling—and then beautiful. How still it had stood before reclaiming the parts of itself taken without consent.
As the pills began to smudge my vision, the panic of my finger made me vomit across my coffee table. And when my roommate cleaned up the mess, he didn’t ask why. Instead, he held me as if I were a child that had never grown out of his trauma. He apologized as if he were Tony—as if he knew what it meant to take away from something that had nothing left to give. Afterward, I struggled with bulimia. But I was still alive.
When Tony explained himself over the phone, there was nothing left for me to do but keep silent. There was no forgiveness to give. I didn’t have a revelation—didn’t want to hold my head up high and give him the space to apologize. Often when we talk about trauma, we forget to search for what was lost. We want tangible things: explanations, regret, pain removed from the bodies we were grown in. All things that cannot be given back.
I kept silent when I heard his sobs over the crackle of the reception. And after a minute of his blubbering, I ended the call. He would call again and again, hoping I would answer and forgive, but I didn’t.
Alligators, like all predators, beyond the safety of their mosquito-infested waters, become fragile. They are both slow and easy to capture. Then tamed, killed, and finally eaten. Boiled or stir-fried or grilled or baked or stewed or mashed into something completely unrecognizable. Then, they will become tasty. I heard once, from a friend who lived on the precipice of the Santa Fe Swamp, that alligator meat tasted just like chicken. I suppose then, that chicken must also taste like survival.
Maxwell Suzuki is a queer writer who lives in Los Angeles. Maxwell’s work has appeared in trampset, Anti-Heroin Chic, Kissing Dynamite Poetry, and The Hellebore. He is writing a novel on the generational disconnect between Japanese American immigrants and their children. You can find him on Twitter @papasuzuki or on his website lindenandbuckskin.com.