Plans and the Pet Store

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The pet store wasn’t supposed to be today’s highlight.

I actually didn’t plan to go there at all, as I almost never plan to go the pet store. Certainly not this one, anyway, a dimly-lit, big box affair off of a wide and depressing avenue in the north part of our city. (Yes, our dog eats just fine, but I’m not the one who usually procures the food from the more genial pet store up the hill.)

All I know about this pet store is that it was the one where my ninth grade Language Arts students would return, after their half-hour lunch break, with betta fish in plastic cups, since it was just around the corner from my first teaching job in Seattle. They’d come to class with these fish in cups, and then expect a certain level of deference for their newest finned friends, to the exclusion of whatever else may have been planned for class that day. (One of them later told me that an enterprising student had taken to breeding, somehow, and then selling baby betta fish. I should have been more impressed, I think now, than I was at the time.)

So we hadn’t meant to come here, but we’re here because we’re early for a truly bizarre appointment to buy an ice cream maker. Having put “homemade ice cream” on our list of things to do this summer, I seized on the line item last week, when most of my family had a cold and we couldn’t accomplish any of them more adventurous things on the list. We couldn’t plan any of the playdates we wanted to, couldn’t go on a ferry or visit a rainforest, but gosh, we could probably make some ice cream.

I flirted for a moment with the notion of putting a bunch of ice in a big ziplock, then a smaller bag with some cream and sugar inside of that bag, then taking turns shaking that whole thing around, like I saw once on an Instagram reel, but then decided that I a) didn’t imagine my children would really do their share of the shaking and b) actually like ice cream and want to eat a little bit more than a sandwich bag’s worth. So then it was on to OfferUp to search for a used ice cream maker, because if I don’t want to do it the really cheap way, at least I can be sort of cheap and also, hey, a used thing is one less thing someone else has to throw away. It took a while for me to find a listing that was sufficiently red and not farther than three miles away. (People will drive to buy used stuff, apparently. I, on the other hand, will drive about three miles.) Finally, the Dream Ice Cream Maker appeared, nearby and the right price and red, my favorite color for an appliance. It was fate.

The only caveat: the seller wanted to meet me in a grocery store parking lot to exchange her unwanted appliance for money. To me, this had a nefarious, rum-running (or at least illegal raw milk dealing) kind of atmosphere, but after both my sister (experience in buying used stuff—she will drive more than three miles) and my husband (good at examining a situation for sketchiness) assured me that this person probably didn’t want to give a stranger her address, I agreed. To the grocery store parking lot I’d go, with my two children in tow, at lunchtime.

Only we were way early, because I usually estimate a half hour to drive anywhere in Seattle. Even when our destination is about three exits north on the freeway, and Google Maps assures me it will be less than 10 minutes, I believe it will take 30, surely. It did not, and I found myself in an unfamiliar parking lot, on a hot Monday, with nothing to do until noon, when I needed to meet a stranger to buy an ice cream maker. You know, normal Monday stuff.

The grocery store itself provided a few minutes of useful, checking-off-the-list shopping, procuring us a baguette and some cheese to go with dinner, but then, instead of it being just the right time for the Meetup, it was indeed still super early. To the pet store we went.

My children, I should say, were thrilled with this development. An ice cream maker doesn’t really come alive for a 3- and 6-year-old until they’ve seen it in action, so they weren’t totally certain what about this mission was going to make their lives better. They were still deeply in the grips of this summer cold, so I refused to buy them the chocolate muffins that they really wanted at the grocery store, so the pet store, the pet store that I’ve never really liked, was actually a welcome addition to the itinerary from their perspective.

Inside, it was dark and cool, and smelled terrible, like most pet stores. We took a hard turn to see the fish tanks, which the girls zoomed past much faster than I wanted them to. I wanted to pick out our favorite fish in each tank, to watch them wriggle through the water and examine the tank that claimed, without visible evidence to contain crabs. They wanted to point at the glass, as close as they could without actually touching it, and exclaim “Fish! More fish!” before continuing through the store to find more animals. They are clearly not ninth graders, driven by a desire to be late to Language Arts class and acquire a pet in one serendipitous mission.

Having basically skipped the fish, we were running out of amusements before we ran out of time to spend in the store, so I headed nervously for the rodents. The hamsters were placed insensitively high up, as if the store weren’t organized to be a short-term attraction for small children, but the chinchilla proved a true performer. The guinea pigs were so endearing that I involuntarily noticed that they were on sale ($15 off! Discount guinea pigs!), considered what that sale could mean to me, and wisely kept my mouth shut about that thought.

Finally, still waiting for Ice Cream Maker time, we paused in front of the reptiles, where an employee was busy with one of the terrariums. I gave her some space, hoping she wouldn’t notice that we were using her workplace as a zoo, but she, being good at her job, looked up at me, smiled, and asked if we needed help finding anything. Like all good pet store lurkers, I smiled back and said we were just looking. Which, of course, we were.

But then I glanced at her name tag, and discovered an assemblage of mostly vowels that you usually can’t find unless you go to Ireland, a name that I’d only ever seen once before. On a ninth grade language arts class roster, in the top right corner of a handful of assignments, on several birthday and Christmas cards, and on the tag of a cactus that still sits in my mother’s kitchen counter. I looked back at her face curiously, at the precise moment she met my eyes and broke into a grin.

“Wait, did you used to work at Ingraham?”

I laughed. “Yes! I could never forget your name! Goodness, that was such a long time ago.”

“I’m almost thirty now,” she declares, and I shake my head in disbelief, though I know it’s true. She has tattoos now, a few piercings, and her hair isn’t pink, but essential she looks the same as she did back then. I wonder if she thinks the same, wonder how she even recognized me at all, with my nose and mouth behind a mask. I remember those early days, when the age gap between me and my students was less than a decade. Most of them are in their thirties now, just like me.

“Wait, are these your kids?” she says, taking them in with her own disbelief. How young I was then, how clearly not someone raising kids, those years when I rode a bicycle to school before dawn and sometimes stayed until the sun went down. They must have known I was just a kid.

“Yes! These are my daughters,” I say, introducing them to her. “Girls, this was one of my very first students.”

“Your mom was my favorite teacher,” she says to them, bending down a little, and the girls are duly impressed until they spy the lizards in the tank beside them, which are far more interesting than this meeting of two people much older than they.

“Look at those lizards!” the youngest recommends.

“They’re on top of each other!” the oldest adds, to my momentary embarrassment. This is proving more like a zoo visit than I expected.

“Yes, they’re friends,” my student tells them, seriously, kneeling down beside them to see. “They like to cuddle together sometimes. There’s another one with them sometimes, and he gets really jealous.” She tells them more about the lizards, and the girls listen raptly, fascinated with this lady and her deep knowledge of reptiles.

She tells us about working here, and we tell her about our dog. I tell her my mom still has the cactus she gave me fifteen years ago, and we remember that our birthdays were only a few days apart. Before I know it, it actually is time to meet the ice cream maker in the parking lot, so we have to say goodbye.

The handoff goes off without a hitch. The seller of the ice cream maker is young and friendly, clearly the sort of person who’d rather not have a stranger arrive at her house, just as my sister told me. We have an ice cream maker, ready to help us achieve one of our summer dreams. We get back in the car and head home.

It wasn’t part of the plan, the pet store. Honestly, today was a weird day, full of other unplanned occurrences that were far less pleasant. The summer itself has been a bit that way, so far, so much so that I occasionally get grumpy and weary and decide that making plans at all might be foolish. And maybe I shouldn’t get my heart as set on them, the plans, as I do.

Still, I’ll say this for plans: Once upon a time, we decided that making our own ice cream was sometime we’d like to do this summer, and that one little plan led us on a strange quest to a strange parking lot, where we were early enough to find a familiar face, a bright moment of encouragement and kindness in the middle of a jumbled, flexible, surprising day. I suppose it wasn’t part of the plan, not at first, but it was a plan that led us here. And that’s far from nothing.

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