Hanya Yanagihara’s parents bought a pet tortoise, Fred — cold-blooded, beady-eyed, and surprisingly particular. (“He liked only red hibiscus, not pink.”) Fred is 15 years old, and will likely live another hundred years. He’s part pet, part rejection of death, and part claim on filial devotion, all under one neat shell.
In a post-industrialized country and era, there are fewer and fewer practical reasons for a family to stay together once its children are grown. We do so out of tradition, but tradition isn’t an imperative. Fred, however, was his own imperative, a difficulty that demanded a response, a legacy that, unlike a car or a house, needed a caretaker, an animal who was both a repository of a surplus of parental love and an announcement of parental need: Come home. See what we’ve taken on. When you see him, will you remember us? Fred was a way of requesting devotion without having to literally ask.
I wish I could say that we had decided what to do with Fred by the time I left Hawaii, but we hadn’t. Instead, we watched Fred circle the yard, speaking of him with the same affectionate bewilderment we would a precocious child. I had already told my parents that I wouldn’t take Fred when they died; my brother said he wouldn’t, either. Our refusal seemed to provide them with a curious, even paradoxical contentment — my brother and I might not need them to stay alive (we would like them to, but like is not the same as need), but Fred did, or so they could believe. And so, for him, they would. If one of pets’ great gifts is their ability to make us feel loved, their greater gift is how they make us feel necessary.