If you are anything like me, you cannot rest until you understand what I meant yesterday when I said I grabbed hold of a cactus with my fingers. Let me now assuage your itching curiosity by telling this story. Or re-telling it, for those who remember.
And also for those who forgot.
What is necessary to keep in mind is that I grew up in Canada.
We had maples.
Not cacti. (Latin; masculine plural.)
Maples, we knew.
The second one,
File that away, as we illuminatingly proceed.
I am 21 years old. Besides camp, this is my first time away from home by myself. (And at camp, they all knew with my family.)
I am on the other side of the continent, in California, in the U S of A, where, for the multitudes who have never experienced us, coming from Canada’s the equivalent of hailing from Kansas. But with the Queen on the money.
The point being, when you’re a stranger,
You do not want to mess up.
I am attending – “Here we go again!” – The Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA. No classes on weekends. And also, no food service for resident students, the on-campus nutritional option – vending-machine spaghetti out of a tin. (Which requires a can opener. Which I had mistakenly forgotten to pack.)
The “locals” go home on weekends, leaving students from Asian countries and Canada to fend for themselves. Sadly, I am not competitive at ping-pong, so I was unable to join in on their fun. (I know that’s racist but that’s all they did. Where’s “Table Hockey” when you need a helpful distraction from gnawing hunger?)
Sometimes, a generous L.A. “Home Person” with a car takes me out to a restaurant or back to their families. Or in the case of this narrative, a ramshackle beach house in Santa Monica. (A ten-minute freeway drive from UCLA’s Westwood campus, but when you’re a passenger – or at least when I am – it might as well be Mongolia. You sit in the back seat, and you’re there. How it happened? You have no idea.)
When we arrive – me and a handful of my classmates – there is immediate talk about beer. Which I am not sure I had ever imbibed. (“Imbibed” avoids “had drank” or “had drunk” considerations, which I only accidentally get right.)
The person whose absentee parents own the beach house, apologizes.
The available beer is not cold.
To which I immediately suggest:
“We could put ice in it.”
The general response I receive is akin to suggesting putting ketchup on cupcakes.
Apparently, I am quickly apprised, you do not put ice in beer. You can put beer “on ice”, but not the other way around.
To my chagrin and embarrassment, I did not know that.
It seems that ice waters down the beer. Or else it won’t fit in the bottle. (I probably assumed we’d be drinking it out of a glass. Why didn’t I just shut up?)
Anyway, I am in “Negative Territory” and the game had barely begun, putting me on a “short leash” in the all-important “Peer Group Acceptance” department.
My next move would be crucial.
(Time to remind you that I grew up in Canada. Where, if there’s a potted cactus, it is invariably a decorative rubber one.)
On the beach house living room windowsill, I spot a small green cactus, planted in a compatible brick-like container.
For reasons I cannot explain – then or now – I spontaneously reach over,
And wrap the fingers of my right hand around the trunk of the cactus.
(Yes, thinking it was rubber! But who grabs a rubber cactus?)
With an accompanying “Ow!”, I reflexively draw back my hand. But it is too late. Standing like soldiers on the tips of my fingers are dozens of needle-thin spines.
That’s what I’m looking at – a forest of needles, rising vertically from my throbbing fingers.
Which I am required to extract, one spine needle at a time. As my classmates look on, in dumbfounded horror and disgust.
“Ice in beer”, and now this.
Forget about “ushering me into the clan.”
I am lucky they gave me a ride back to UCLA.
But they did.
Mindful there was an “alien” – or lunatic – sitting in the car. *
(* I cannot blame Canada for this fiasco. Canadian readers are likely shaking their heads, along with everyone else. With the added awareness that I am shamefully them.)