have lizards to thank for teaching me to accept loss and disappointment on a daily basis. They taught me that some efforts will not be rewarded and no second chance will come. Without knowing it, they would put Hollywood endings and life itself into perspective. Not a bad feat for a gaggle of reptiles out to teach a lesson to a pre-pubescent boy.
In Spain, I attended the American School of Madrid, which I now remember nothing of aside from its location, on a street or neighborhood called Dr. Fleming, near giant stretches of arid land that had nothing at all in common with the fertile doctor after which they were named. Where the school ended, on one side of a narrow boulevard, desert-like dust fields took over and gradually seized control of everything in sight. It was in essence a no man’s land, a lizard’s haven (when I returned to Madrid some two decades ago, the neighborhood was so chock-full with residential apartment buildings I recognized nothing at all).
If I remember right, we received a break in the late morning before being released for the day at two p.m. Both during the break and after the release, while awaiting the taxi called to fetch me and take me home (my parents did not drive), I became the lizard master of Dr. Fleming.
My pact with the reptiles was absolute and feral: they knew me and knew when to look out for me. They knew I’d come hunting them, small and large, using all my tricks, and notwithstanding my small hands, out-quick them to the rocks and stones behind which they tried to hide. They were pure green. They were also cunning and daring and unafraid of me, mostly because they knew I wished them no harm. My game was the hunt, to hold the lizards alive, their tiny lungs pumping in my hands, before gently putting them back down to scamper. I believed lizards were the only dinosaurs left on earth, and I revered dinosaurs. My hunting was merely a way for a small man to go so very far back in time, no Steven Spielberg necessary.
Now I should describe a hunt, but a special one, for the lizard I nicknamed Tambien, a word I had some strange phonetic fondness toward. Tambien was a speedy midsize lizard with a wart-like crust on its beaky mouth. Though lizards are not herd creatures, Tambien seemed to stand out among the others, not moving from its outcropping as I approached, as if to say, “Boy, come get me. You won’t, and so you’ll learn.”
I had a near three-month sojourn with Tambien, and I loved this hunting, with all its ruses, more than any flirting with girls to come. All was silent. All was felt. Unlike living among Paco’s tribes in my building, I was alone in this Spanish Sahara of lizards outside my school.
To catch a lizard is to work between the lines of siege and assault. Most of Tambien’s green-caped tribe lingered near a huge abandoned pylon, once probably placed in the middle of a dirt field as proof that one day a building would follow — but the building or its builders had a change of heart, leaving the orphaned pylon as a kind of veranda for the lizards, one beneath which they could also find oval rings of welcome shade.
I’d charge the pylon first and watch them spill out like balls from a hard-hit billiards rack. I’d chase left and right but they’d find crevices and vanish.
As I grew into a veteran, I learned to quietly stake out the pylon, knowing they’d run at my approach but then come back. All the while I’d stand stock-still like another piece of stone or a boy statue in marble.
This second strategy worked, as some of the inexperienced lizards mistook the boy for the statue and I’d pounce, my small hand grasping and holding their bellies, feeling that magnificent pulse, the throb of their reptilian gills pushing gently at my palm. I’d never hold them for more than a few seconds. The thrill was the catch.
On occasion my hand didn’t move quickly enough and I’d get only a squirming tail, which they would soon grow back, an anatomical tidbit that amazed me and for a while made me think the same could happen to humans without limbs.
Getting to Entonces was another matter. Early on, I nearly captured him once but was left only with his tail as he managed to slip between my fingers and run into a ditch. The ditch was no real refuge but Entonces cared little. His only task was to stay alive another minute. This itself was another lesson, the severe pressure that comes over all that’s alive when salvation is on the line.
On countless occasions I saw Entonces and his odd beak and played cat-and-mouse, or boy-and-lizard, with his movements. But he always won. I had him on the pylon’s jagged side when all reason suggested his next move would be to dart upward. As I prepared to cup my hand where I knew he’d go, he shifted down and actually leapt to the dirt and ran free. This made me smile with admiration.
Many times Entonces and the others made me smile. This dexterity called survival was a marvel to behold, and stopped literally at nothing. One lizard, unable to swim, threw himself into a puddle of thunderstorm water and lay there until I nudged him up so he could get back to the others.
Often, when I boarded the taxi that took me home, the driver would ask me what I’d been up to all alone, poor boy. Chasing lizards, I’d say. And he’d reply he’d spent the morning chasing bulls.
No one believed this was how I spent my glorious private time, in this inner world of elusive reptiles. But I knew they knew. I knew Entonces would tell others of the marble boy and the pylon, and before dying would salute our little chess match. I believed this deeply. I looked at the book of dinosaurs I had at home and saw my kindred spirits. I could spend hours in that book, the hours before my father walked into my room and said, “Time for the California,” and to the California we went.
— This is one in a loosely linked series of autobiographical essays in which the author recollects his childhood years, spent largely in Washington, D.C., and Madrid, Spain. Some names and details have been altered for reasons of privacy.