j a c o b a p p e l
j a c o b a p p e l
la TRISTESSE des HéRISSONS
We’d been living together for eight months when we adopted the hedgehog. I’d wanted a German shepherd or a Doberman pinscher—a fearless, intimidating animal that could accompany me jogging in the park late at night. Adeline wanted a baby. Neither of us had ever mentioned anything about hedgehogs, but then Adeline read an article on unconventional pets, a throwaway piece in the back of a complimentary airline magazine, and soon enough I found myself wheeling a four-foot-long glass tank into the service elevator on a dolly. Hedgehogs require their space. It turned out that they also prefer warm, arid climates, so Adeline demanded that we install a convective heater and a dehumidifier in the living room. Outside, it was a balmy May in Manhattan. Inside, our apartment sweltered like the Kalahari.
Adeline named the hedgehog Orion. For three days, the prickly little devil entertained us by devouring mealworms and burrowing under aspen chips and exploring a makeshift maze that Adeline fashioned from cereal boxes. According to the Happy Hedgehog Handbook, responsible owners challenge their hogs with intellectual puzzles five times daily. My girlfriend followed the guide’s countless dos and don’ts with a fundamentalist’s zeal. Though I wasn’t as smitten with the creature myself, I was delighted to see Adeline in such bright spirits for the first time since her mother’s stroke. We didn’t argue all weekend, and our sex life rekindled, although Adeline constantly reminded me to keep our volume at a minimum, fearful that an errant moan might alarm our barbed roommate. Actually, the word she used wasn’t alarm. It was traumatize. I could envision her writing me up, just as she does the prospective parents she interviews during her home visits for the adoption agency: “Domicile unsuitable for placement. Poor boundary maintenance. Hedgehog likely to be exposed to sounds of sexual intercourse and to be emotionally traumatized.” So I screwed like a deaf-mute.
Sunday was my late night at the restaurant. I co-own a bistro and wine bar with two of my former law school classmates, blood brothers in the fraternal order of ex-attorneys, and we take turns closing out the register. That evening, I returned home to find Adeline kneeling opposite Orion’s cage, guarding the sleeping hedgehog with the intensity of a pediatric nurse. The ambient heat made even minor tasks like removing my raincoat feel like hard labor.
I kissed the top of Adeline’s head. “You’re up late.”
“Can I ask you something?” she asked.
Her voice carried an ominous undertone—the same tone she’d used months earlier when accusing me of having an affair. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Do you think he’s depressed?” It took me a moment to realize that she meant the hedgehog. “What does he have to be depressed about?” I poured myself a shot of warm bourbon from the decanter on the sideboard. “He’s got it damn good, if you ask me. No hawks or jackals to hide from. An endless supply of mealworms and crickets. The varmint has pretty much hit the hedgehog jackpot.” “I think he’s depressed,” said Adeline. “He looks depressed.”
I did my connubial duty, placing my face inches from the glass cage and examining the hedgehog at eye level. As far as I could tell, Orion looked no different than he had the previous afternoon: languid, dopey, content. How could a creature be depressed when his brain was only the size of a kumquat?
“I’m really worried,” said Adeline. “Mental illness is all too common in hedgehogs. I read an article online this morning.”
I tapped the glass. Orion cocked his snout.
“We could take him back and get another one,” I proposed.
I regretted the words as soon as they left my tongue.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” snapped Adeline. “If you had a sick baby, you wouldn’t take him back and get another one.”
Good thing we have a hedgehog, I thought, and not a baby. But I had the sense to keep this sentiment to myself. Instead, I attempted to wrap my arm around Adeline’s shoulders to comfort her. She shook me off.
“I can’t take this, Josh. I just can’t. Not on top of Mom,” cried Adeline. “If he’s not okay, I swear I’m going to jump out the window.”
Adeline’s threat was not an idle one. We lived on the sixth floor. When she thought I was cheating on her last February, she climbed out onto the ledge. After the police talked her down, she spent a week at Bellevue for observation.
My girlfriend’s father hanged himself in a hotel closet when she was twelve years old. My own mother overdosed on Darvon when I was fourteen. Sometimes I wonder if a family history of suicide is a healthy foundation for a relationship, but couples have been drawn together by stranger bonds.
“I know what he needs,” I declared, fishing a treat from the jar of freeze-dried silk worms. Orion explored the snack with the tip of his rhinarium and then ingested it with one swift gulp. “I think he’s just hungry,” I said. “For a hedgehog with depression, he’s got an awfully hearty appetite.”
“Hedgehog depression is atypical,” replied Adeline. “The worse they feel, the more they eat. In the wild, unhappy hedgehogs can consume their own body weight in locusts over the course of several hours . . . We’ll have to keep him on a strict diet and weigh him at least twice a day.”
“Sorry, buddy,” I apologized to Orion. “But look on the bright side, Addy,” I added. “That means more freezedried silk worms for us.” My girlfriend did not smile. “Don’t be an asshole,” she warned.