Frogs Coming Up from the Ground
The day I bought the first frog, Carol hadn’t spoken to me in two months. I was sitting on my balcony in a pair of purple plastic sunglasses, turning the white insides of my wrists up to the sun. It was July, and all of Los Angeles was wrung out with sunlight. I spent a lot of time out on the balcony, except on Mondays and Wednesdays, when I transcribed medical records in a windowless office downtown.
The job was temporary, something to pay the bills until pilot season started in January. I was writing a pitch for a TV show about a small town in Montana where poisonous frogs kept coming up from the ground and overrunning the place, kind of a Biblical plagues, true crime thing. I had started it two weeks before my college graduation, after the fight when Carol and I stopped speaking to each other. The only problem was that I didn’t know anything about frogs, which was where the idea for getting one started. I was sitting on the balcony thinking, I’m either going to take up smoking or get a frog, because this project is going to crap, and the smoking thing seemed more expensive. I unstuck the glass door and called an Uber.
The Uber dropped me off at the closest pet store, Pets N Stuff, which was still twenty minutes from my apartment. The store wasn’t much larger than a bedroom, and stunk with a heavy, dusty smell. A snake hung from a branch, looking sick and sandpapery. Three birds sat without moving in a cage. In the back, three aquariums held a suspiciously low number of fish. All the lights were turned off, and from the inside, the window looked like a huge, boiling cube of white light.
Behind the counter, an oily, dark-haired man was petting a chinchilla. If I were still in North Carolina, I would have guessed he was thirty, but two months in LA had taught me enough to know that he was probably fifty with some well-chosen plastic surgery. The skin on his face was pulled tightly back against his cheekbones. He looked like the type of person who did something different and more exciting on the weekends, a DJ, maybe, and this made me feel a strange kinship with him.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m trying to buy a frog?”
The man looked at me with heavy-lidded eyes. He was wearing a name tag that said McKinley, and his palms were orange with self-tanner. “You have a permit?” His voice was reedy and high. “It’s illegal to have a frog in California without a permit.”
I was getting a really weird feeling about the whole thing. “Oops,” I said. “Well. No. You know, on second thought, I think there’s like a PetSmart around the corner, so I’m just —”
McKinley stood up, and I instinctively backed away from the counter, but he just set the chinchilla down and went into a little back room that I couldn’t see. I stared at the chinchilla, and it curled up inside the open drawer of the cash register, on top of a stack of green five-dollar bills.
McKinley came back holding a tiny, plastic terrarium. There was nothing in the bottom but some fake rocks and a tiny, speckled frog. He handed it to me. “Sixty.”
He shrugged like, What do I care?, and took my fifty bucks. He had to pick the chinchilla up to put the money in the register. “If someone asks —”
I shrugged. “I found it in my backyard.”
When I got out on the sidewalk, I took a huge, gasping breath, as though I’d been holding it for a long time. I knew if Carol was there, she would have been absolutely furious at me. She would have known you needed a permit before she got to the pet store. She would have asked McKinley twenty prepared-in-advance questions about the proper care and feeding of the frog. She would have checked out a book from the library, because Carol would have had a Los Angeles library card the day after she moved to the city.
But Carol wasn’t there. And anyway, who wanted their life to be that easy? Carol would have taken all the adventure out of it. I held my eye up to the terrarium. “Look at us,” I said. “We did just fine.”
It seems important at this point in the story to explain Carol. Carol was my roommate all four years of college. Our friends called us The Twins, because we did everything together. Carol was a Dramatic Arts major and the toughest, most disciplined person I knew. She woke up every night to memorize her lines from two to four in the morning because she thought this was her best creative space. Our junior year, she only wore black, because she thought that wearing colors was inhibiting her ability to be a “blank slate” actress.
I was what my hippie mother called “not built for the American education system”, which meant that I skipped a lot of classes and majored in Interdisciplinary Studies. I liked writing sketches for the college improv groups and worked as a barista. In the fall of senior year, Carol and I promised that we would move to Los Angeles together. She was going to be an actress, and I was going to be a screenwriter. We got an apartment, plane tickets. Our lives were going to be full of spotlights and movie stars, and moving to a new city didn’t matter, because we’d have a built-in best friend.
Two weeks before graduation, she told me she was going to move to Charlotte to follow her boyfriend, Ian, instead. They’d been dating for three months. She’d gotten a job offer as a receptionist at a law firm. She told me in the kitchen of our apartment, while I was cooking spaghetti, and I laughed out loud, out of stubborn disbelief more than anything.
“Of course you are,” I said. “Yeah. Right.”
“I’m sorry,” Carol said. She was wearing this ratty navy sweatshirt that had belonged to her dad in college, and wiping her nose on the sleeve.
“You’re not serious.”
She nodded. “I just think, I mean, it’s more realistic, and it’ll be cheaper —” She was sitting cross-legged on the floor. “I understand if you’re upset. It’s a crappy thing to do to you. I feel really bad about the whole thing.”
Her phone was sitting on the floor beside her, and it lit up with a string of texts from Ian. I realized at that moment that she had known for a while that she wasn’t going to move to LA. She and Ian had talked about it, talked about how she was going to tell me, in our kitchen two weeks before graduation, with a pot of tomato sauce bubbling on the stove. Carol looked down to read the texts. She was telling me that I had to move across the country all by myself, and she wasn’t even totally paying attention.
“I’m sorry,” Carol said again. I gripped the linoleum countertop and tried not to cry. I didn’t know the first thing about moving. Like, how was I supposed to pay utilities? Carol paid all our utilities out of some bank account that she’d set to automatically draw money from both our accounts. Was I supposed to set one of those accounts up? What if I had to go to the DMV? Weren’t California DMV’s hard to navigate? It suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world, to know these things. I felt stupid for not knowing them. I forced my voice to sound disinterested. “It’s fine,” I said. “It’s fine. I mean, I thought you didn’t want that kind of thing, but I guess I was wrong.”
She recoiled like she had been slapped. “What kind of thing?”
“The housewife thing,” I said airily, bending down to open the fridge door. I wiped my eyes with my back turned to her and grabbed a soda, cracking the top.
“Oh,” she’d said, crossing her arms. “I get it. You think you’re better than me? Cause newsflash, Katie, it’s not like you have an actual screenwriting job lined up out there. Don’t act like I’m stupid because I can face facts.”
“A receptionist? At a law firm?” I rolled my eyes and took a long drag from the soda. It was so sweet it made my eyes and teeth ache. “Okay.” I knew this would upset her, knew she hated feeling ordinary.
“You don’t mean that,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “You’re just mad.”
“No,” I said. “You’re just too scared to actually do something impulsive. Perfect, responsible Carol. Taking the safe way out. What’s on your to-do list now? Have the perfect Southern wedding. Dinner on the table by five. Maybe community theatre on the weekends? Not after the babies are born, of course.” I threw the soda away, and it made a hollow thunk in the trash. “Have fun being a housewife.”
“Screw you.” Carol stood up, her face red, and pushed the pot of tomato sauce off the stove. It splattered on the floor and up the walls in a gutty mess. She walked out of the apartment.
We didn’t speak the last two weeks before graduation. I was too angry to apologize to her. She was the one who had done something wrong, not me. The day after graduation, I flew to Los Angeles and spent the summer lying out on the balcony of my new apartment, reading trashy magazines and convincing myself that I didn’t need a best friend. I liked being alone, I’d always liked it. Everything I wrote was awful, and still I kept writing, all the time, writing. I was going to wring success out of Los Angeles, California if it killed me to do it. Still, the apartment Carol and I had signed a lease for was too big for just me. I wasn’t renting out the second bedroom, out of some stupid hope that she might change her mind, and the rent was going to put me under soon.
I put the frog in the windowsill of the second bedroom, the one that was supposed to be Carol’s. The room was completely bare and still smelled of paint. I’d decorated the rest of the apartment in loud, clashing colors. The walls were green and yellow, and I’d hung prints everywhere, until the whole thing reminded me vaguely of the inside of a brain, with images and words jigsawed to every surface. I’d rearranged it all endlessly until it was exactly the way I wanted it. If Carol had lived there, I knew it would have been clean and empty, and everything would have been perfectly in style. Some days I played a game to see how long I could go without moving anything from its place, as though I were a ghost who didn’t live there at all.
I decided not to give the frog a name. I felt like he didn’t want one. He had evolved beyond such things — needing to be known. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I took him with me to the medical records office, and he hopped around under the fluorescent lights. At home, I sometimes spent entire days sitting on the floor watching him, trying to write something, anything. It was hard to imagine a town getting overrun by frogs when I only had one, especially one who seemed so disenchanted with life.
“You need me,” I said, pouring the food inside his cage. “You need me to take care of you.” But he just looked at me with disdain.
I took my frog to the beach, thinking it might help my imagination. I sat until my legs were red and puckered and only wrote three lines of dialogue. When I went down to the waves to wash sand from my feet, a toddler found the terrarium and had the lid off in a second. The frog didn’t get out, but I shouted so loudly that she started to cry, and her father glared at me. I was a woman who shouted at toddlers at the beach and made them cry. On the drive home, the sand itching between my toes, I thought about calling Carol.“You wouldn’t even recognize me now,” I would say. “I’m nobody’s best friend. I’m nobody’s best friend but mine.” When I got to a stoplight, I put my head on the steering wheel for so long that the car behind me honked.
I posted pictures on my Instagram of beautiful Los Angeles weather, of palm trees and smoothies in the sunshine. I dyed my hair a bright, platinum blonde that made my face look tan and young. I captioned my photos #GirlBoss.
After I paid the August rent, I had $200 left in my bank account. I figured I could eat ramen and eggs for the month and afford two more frogs. More frogs would fix my writer’s block. The one I had was defective; too stuck-up. I went back to the pet store, and drove this time, to save money on the Uber. I walked in, and it was like nothing had changed, except that the chinchilla was gone. The man was behind the counter, wearing the same vest, and his nametag said “Harry.” I walked up and put a hundred dollar bill on the counter.
“Two frogs,” I said. “Please.”
He looked at me sadly. “If your other one died, we aren’t responsible.”
“No,” I said. “It’s not like that. We have personality differences.”
He nodded and went into the back room. I felt a great affection for him.
“You’re the only person I know in Los Angeles,” I said.
He popped open the register and put the hundred dollar bill inside.
I lined the three frogs up on what would have been Carol’s windowsill and crossed my eyes to make them look large and overwhelming. In my script, there was a mean town mayor (this was Carol), and a cool, hip mom who was really good at destroying the frogs and keeping her kids safe (this was me). They had been best friends in high school, but then the town mayor totally betrayed the hip mom. The three frogs looked at each other suspiciously from behind their plastic terrarium walls. I took the second frog out and sat it on my palm, holding it up to the other terrariums to get a closer look.
“You’re friends,” I said. “You guys are supposed to be friends.”
In August, I bought six more frogs on a credit card and still managed to pay the rent. The financial situation was getting kind of hard to ignore, but all I had to do was hang on until pilot season. I had eleven frogs then, all illegal, living in what was supposed to be in Carol’s bedroom. I felt like a counselor at the world’s weirdest summer camp. The seventh and eighth frogs were loud, ribbeting through the night. The fourth frog liked to escape from its terrarium, but it always hid in the top left corner of the room, never any other. The script was getting better with each frog, but it still didn’t feel like enough. When I went back to Pets n Stuff for the twelfth frog, the dark-haired man was at the counter wearing a nametag that said Joseph, and he waved his hands. A parrot squawked at me.
“No more frogs,” he said. “I’m starting to think you’re a cop.”
“It’s for research,” I said.
“No,” he said.
“I thought we were friends,” I said.
He motioned to the sign on the door. “We’re closed,” he said. “We’re closed.” Even when I shoved the money at him, he backed away.
The eleven frogs didn’t fit on the windowsill anymore. I kept them all in their little terrariums around Carol’s room. I took the Craigslist ad for a roommate down (where would I keep the frogs?) and got another credit card to pay the rent on instead. The lids of the terrariums were orange and pink and purple, and at night they glowed in the dark. Sometimes I slept on the carpeted floor in the frog room. I kept working on my script. In the script, more and more frogs kept coming in, and more people in the town kept dying. The cool, hip mom who was based on me took the town over from the mayor.
I dialed Carol’s number on the phone and didn’t hit call. I knew that if I called her, I would have to say I was sorry. And the worst part was, I wasn’t sorry.
“Hey,” Carol would say. “Haven’t heard from you in a while,” and there would be a current of steel in her voice. It would be my job to say sorry.
“I have eleven frogs,” I’d say. “And my script still sucks. And I’m angry, because I did the thing you’re supposed to do. I moved and I followed my dream and now I’m lonely. I took the risk. How come you didn’t take the risk, and you get to be happy?” And what kind of apology was that?
One Sunday, I broke a crown eating cashews and had to go to the dentist. The dentist looked inside my mouth and said I’d need a friend to come pick me up after the surgery the following Tuesday. The laughing gas would make me too sleepy to drive. The dentist had clean, gloved hands and wore a pair of glasses. He was balding. “You’ll need someone to watch you,” he said. “Just for the day.”
“Okay,” I said.
I brought a frog with me to the surgery, in a terrarium with a blue lid. It was the second frog, who was always quiet and didn’t like to move around too much. “I’m watching him,” I said. “For a friend. I couldn’t leave him for the day.” The hygienist smiled kindly at me, like she thought that this was the kind of person I was, the nice kind who took care of other people’s pets, even when I had my own things going on. It was nice, to be thought of like that. After the surgery was over, I took an Uber to Pets N Stuff and knocked on the glass window. The terrarium felt too heavy to hold. When I tried to open the door, it was locked.
“Hey McKinley,” I said, slurring a little from the numbing gel. “Or Joseph. Whatever your name is. Can you watch me today? I went to the dentist.” The terrarium swung dizzily from its handle. I thought I could see a light on, in the back, but no matter how loud I pounded on the window, the door stayed shut.
By the twenty-seventh of August I was completely out of money and had to call my parents to ask them to pay the rent.
Right before I hung up the phone, my mom said. “Oh, I almost forgot! I saw on Facebook that Carol and Ian got engaged. That’s so exciting. Did she call you?”
“No,” I said. “No, she didn’t call.”
“You didn’t see online?”
“I didn’t — check — I-I think she might have unfriended me.”
“Oh,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, it’s — I mean, it’s stupid.” I clenched my fist and took a deep breath.
“Are you okay, hun?” she said. “It’s okay, you know, to come home. It’s okay if LA doesn’t work out.”
“I really have to go, Mom. I’ll call you later,” I said, and my voice sounded husky, like I hadn’t used it in a long time. She tried to say something more and I hung up.
I walked into the other bedroom. I suddenly thought, there are so many frogs in here. How did I get so many frogs? I opened one terrarium, then all of them. There were frogs coming up from the ground. They hopped toward each other in a little huddle. I felt so bitter my tongue tasted like salt in my mouth. I thought back to that day, in the kitchen, standing in all the tomato sauce on the floor, when I had said all those things that were true but didn’t seem to matter much anymore. The frogs were hopping and burrowing into the carpet. I understood then, how you could harden yourself until there was no longer a time for apologies, there was only the plague, already upon you and about to take you right out. My skin felt ridged and wet, like scales. The walls of the empty room rose up around me. The light caught the warp of the windows. The ceiling closed in like a lid.
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