Here are some of the ways I’ve murdered people. I’ve burned people alive. I’ve drowned them. I’ve poisoned them with the venom of a blue ringed octopus. I’ve filleted, hatcheted, sliced, diced, and shot people. One time, I even blew up a priest.
I write about bondage, pedophilia, child abduction, cults, drug dealers, torture, ghost cowboys, and politics.
I am not easily scared.
I can research the forensic details associated with the remains of a child buried alive in a warm humid environment, and dug up three weeks later, as opposed to a child buried in frozen ground and found after a few days. I can read criminology interviews with mass killers. I can watch an autopsy of a 19 year old suicide victim.
I am okay with clowns, corn mazes, chain saws, twins, and life-like dolls.
You know what scares me?
They scare the shit out of me. Snakes and butter. The butter thing is a story for another day.
I know it’s silly. I’m embarrassed. I want to be one of those cool chicks who walk around with a python casually draped over their shoulders, like, hey, this is my snake Edie Sedgwick…instead I am the idiot standing on the chair screaming.
I do not like this about myself.
I even had a snake tattooed on my arm as a way of claiming my fear. That didn’t work by the way. It was total bullshit. I am still afraid of snakes. And now I have a tattoo that scares me.
Many people have offered to cure me of my fear, mostly by offering to wrap large snakes around my neck, which is like offering to cure someone’s fear of serial killers by raping them and burying them in a shallow grave.
But because I had agreed to do this event tonight, I had promised to do something that scared me so I could stand up here and tell you all a story about it. So I thought it might be worth exploring the possibility of having some kind of controlled snake encounter.
I emailed a friend who works at the zoo.
To my abject horror she wrote back and said that she could set me up. Not through the zoo, but through a former zoo teen snake enthusiast named Cody, who now works for Pets on Broadway.
I had a lot of mixed emotions about that.
But I got in touch with Cody and set up a time to come meet with him. And the snakes.
Yesterday. 2 PM.
I spent the morning researching snake phobia. Sidebar: snake phobia articles are all accompanied by terrifying images of snakes.
A few hours into my research, my page of notes consisted of one sentence.
CAN SNAKES SMELL FEAR?
At 1 pm, I took a Xanax.
At 2 pm, I pulled up in front of Pets on Broadway.
Before I got out of the car, I reapplied my lipstick. So I’d look nice when I was admitted to the hospital after my panic attack.
Cody is young. Like twenty, maybe. Or twenty-five. Young enough that he’s kind of annoyingly competent and mature. The day I met him he was wearing a hoodie, jeans, sneakers, glasses, and a digital watch. He has a tattoo of a lizard on his arm, and he carries a Batman keychain.
Cody loves snakes.
But he’s used to dealing with people who suffer various stages of discomfort around snakes, and he’s as calm and patient as a psyche ward shrink.
He walked me over to “meet” the snakes.
There were maybe six aquariums, with a snake in each one. Snakes like to live alone. It’s one of their things. One of the snakes, a ball python - lifted its head and stared at me.
“Um, can snakes smell fear?” I asked Cody.
Cody didn’t think so, plus he said, they have really bad eyesight. “He’s just exploring,” Cody said. He wasn’t exploring. He was staring. Like full-on John Hinkley death stare.
Cody uses words like “adorable” when talking about snakes, as in, “Ball pythons are adorable.” He also says stuff like, “I know one snake who…”
Does anyone ever really know a snake?
Snakes all have unique patterns, he says, “like zebras, and snowflakes.”
“Do you want to touch it?” he asked.
He was talking about a white ball python in one of the middle aquariums. He had a triangular shaped head - the snake, not Cody - Cody’s head it normally shaped — and was maybe eight inches long. He would grow up, Cody told me, to be 3 or 4 feet, and probably live 30 years.
I did not want to touch it.
“Can you pick it up?” I asked Cody.
“Sure,” he said. Cody is a go-along-with-it kind of guy. He opened the aquarium lid, dipped his hand in, and lifted out the snake.
It didn’t have a name. Cody says they don’t name any of the snakes because they’d “get to attached to them” but I will call this snake Frieda Kahlo.
Frieda Kahlo wrapped herself around Cody’s hands. She was always on the move, adjusting, — snaking — using Cody’s hands as tree branches.
Snakes don’t like being held, Cody says, but some of them tolerate it.
There was a sign on Frieda Kahlo’s tank that read FUN FACT: THESE SNAKES CAN ONLY FIND PRAY IN COMPLETE DARKNESS.
That’s when the lights went out.
I swear to God. The lights went out in the store.
“They’re just testing the electrical system,” Cody assured me.
The lights came back on.
He held out his handful of creepy crawly. “Do you want to hold her?” he asked.
I haven’t always been afraid of snakes. When I was five and my cousin Jessica was six, we went hunting for rattle snakes in the desert outside my grandparents house in San Antonio. I had recently read Trixie Beldon #1, in which Trixie saves her younger brother from a snake bite by slicing the bite open and then sucking out the venom. I was eager to try it out. I didn’t want my cousin Jessica to die. I just wanted her to be bitten, so that I could practice. I remember being disappointed when our snake hunt came up empty.
My snake phobia manifested a few years later, in Key West. It was 1979.
I was home alone. Cleaning. I remember that because I was wearing a red bandana around my head, because i thought it made for a good vacuuming outfit. I was seven. My step-brother, Alan, was ten. He been out riding his bike with a friend. This was back when Alan and I both had the same shoulder-length blond hair.
You’ll notice there aren't many parents in this story - again, it was 1979.
The doorbell rang.
My dad’s apartment was on the second floor of an old conch house in Old Town, across the street from a cemetery.
I went downstairs and answered the door. And there’s Alan, with this big shit eating grin, and he’s holding a black snake out in front of him, with both hands, and in my memory this snake is the size of a bicycle tire — like 4 feet long — it may only have been 2 or 3 feet — but it was a big snake. I backed up the stairs as quickly as I could. Alan and his buddy hurried up after me, with the snake.
Alan wanted to keep the snake. He cited Finders Keepers. Which is, of course, a landmark case, establishing precedence.
The problem was Alan didn’t have anywhere to put the snake. And at some point in the process of waving it in my face, and handing it to and from his friend, it got away.
In the apartment.
I remember standing up on the couch as it slithered across the living room.
Snakes are hard to catch.
They are good at hiding.
When my dad and step-mother got home, Alan had to explain what happened.
He had lost a snake. In our house.
That night, at dinner, I saw the snake slither out from under the couch and race toward the kitchen.
This is how it went. For weeks. The Summer of the Snake. We might go days without seeing him, and then, there he'd be sidling up against a baseboard. When friends came over, I had to explain that they might see a giant black snake, and that we were pretty sure it wasn’t venomous. More than one playdate ended with us all on chairs screaming.
By the time Alan managed to catch the snake, it had been around so long that the powers that be decided he could keep it. In an aquarium. On the balcony. Next to the hammock I spent a lot of time in reading Nancy Drew books.
The snake ate live mice.
Sometimes the mice stayed alive in there for days, all trembling ear and twitching noses. Their pleading little eyes saying, HELP ME.
“Do you want to hold it?”
Cody lowered Frieda Kahlo onto my fingers, and she wrapped herself around my hand. She was all muscle, I could feel every part of her as she wound around my fingers and arm.
My hand was shaking. Snakes can’t smell fear, but they can sense stress. Frieda Kahlo wasn’t that into me. I held her for about four minutes - not that I was counting. Long enough for Cody to take some pictures on my phone.
Then Cody lowered her back into her home.
Later he got out a blood python. This was a horrible looking snake. With grotesque vomit colored spots.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” Cody asked.
“I don’t want to hold him,” I said quickly.
Cody had him in his hands. The blood python was longer and thicker than the ball python. As thick as an engorged cock. Cody held him as we talked, which is like trying to talk to someone holding a chainsaw. It makes it hard to concentrate.
The python struck. Right from Cody’s hands. It lunged forward, fangs bared.
I jumped three feet, let out a little shriek, and scrambled backward.
Cody quickly wrestled the snake back into his tank. Cody wasn’t sure why the snake had struck like that. He thought maybe he’d been startled by a shadow.
My heart was in my throat.
I managed to finish talking to Cody. I said goodbye. When I was leaving the store bathroom - after washing my hands so I wouldn’t die of snake born salmonella - I saw a lasso of something called bendable eco-terra for a lizard habitat - a kind of twistable vine material - it was hanging on an end cap.
For a second, I thought it was a snake.
See. I am still not cured.
But thanks to Cody, I have some cool pictures. And a new blog post.
I hope you’re happy.
[End note: I wrote this essay for a show called Reluctant, produced by my pal, Courteny Hameister. Her book of bittersweet and hilarious essays - OKAY, FINE, WHATEVER - is available for preorder. It is snake-free, and honestly one of the best books I've read all year.]