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The Year Of The Snail

Getting an unexpected pet made me feel like an actual adult.

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I recently came into possession of a small German snail. I assume he is German because that's where he came from — my colleague Shani ordered a plant on the internet, and when it arrived she found that this little guy had stowed away, surviving days in transit and the hands of customs officials. I've never even been to Germany.

She told us about the snail in the chatroom where a bunch of us discuss our plants. I replied that I happened to have a terrarium at my desk, filled with moss and rocks and two tiny plastic people on a park bench, but no living resident. Shani said I could have the snail, and so I came to collect him. He was much smaller and cuter than I'd imagined, with very alert antennae and a shell about the size of a dime. In the way sheep sound like people pretending to be sheep, snails look exactly the way they are drawn in cartoons.

(A note: Snails have both male and female reproductive organs, which I learned while googling things like "do snails sleep" and "is my snail resting or trying to die." However, in my mind he is firmly a he. Also, I've felt fairly halfhearted about giving him a name. Some of my co-workers have taken to calling him Gail, but mostly I just call him "my snail" and trust that my audience can use context clues to figure out which snail in our Manhattan office I am referring to.)

I googled a lot that first day. What to feed him? Lettuce and spinach, which I have been taking a few leaves at a time from the biweekly office salad bar (even crustaceans should enjoy startup perks). Are snails actually crustaceans? No. How much water to leave out for him? A lot. Was he was poisonous and could he disrupt the ecosystem of the greater New York area? Probably not, but I've been washing my hands like 12 times a day anyway. I gave him everything he needed and went home for the night, and when I came back the next morning, there he was, waggling his antenna and munching wilted spinach.

It was a joke, sort of. It was all part of this not-quite-performance I like to put on, at work and on Twitter and even with my family and friends: crafty, motherly, slightly off-her-rocker Alanna, who fixes colleagues' broken shoes with a glue gun and embroiders borderline-inappropriate wall hangings, who yells about succulents and writes articles about where to buy handmade vibrator cozies.

It's not that I don't genuinely love these things, but part of that love is how they add up to this solid, legible version of myself. It's comforting to feel known, especially at a time when it's not always easy to know myself. This is my first full year living alone, my first full year not in a relationship, the first time I've ever woken up each day feeling like I actually live in my life, that it's not just practice, that for better and for worse this is all for keeps.

But I was entirely, unjokingly happy that my snail didn't die overnight. I did that, I thought as I changed his water and cleaned the walls of the terrarium in the office kitchen. I built this little life for this little thing.

My friend wrote an article about a Japanese YouTube channel that I love, wherein someone prepares tiny food in a tiny kitchen. Mini-pancakes! Teeny shrimp tempura! I talked to him about why I found it so satisfying, why I'd always been drawn to miniatures ever since I was young — here were these universes that you could control completely, where you could see the edges from right where you sat. Even if you can't chart the course of your own life or even your own day, you can rearrange forks the size of your fingernail.

Right now in my apartment entryway, I have a miniature Christmas tree surrounded by airplane bottles of liquor and Tabasco sauce, sitting next to a little chair on which is perched an incense burner shaped exactly like a tiny log cabin (partly dictated by the square footage deficiency of my New York apartment and partly because it's goddamn adorable). This is the kind of tableau that Alice in Wonderland might create, given access to a Xanax prescription and an Etsy store, and it gives me a thrill whenever I come home. I did that. That's all mine. Here, I am safe.

I can't control my snail's universe forever. Google informed me that some snail breeds can live up to 20 years, but I don't know if he is one of those kinds (IDEA: Shazaam for snails) or if he is already 19 years and 11 months old, or if ultimately he is unsuited to the environment of a fluorescently lit content factory. Like any entrepreneurial pet owner in the year of our lord 2015, I briefly attempted to make my snail go viral (we have not, I don't think, had a Marnie-level mollusk yet). But he moves too slowly, makes no noise, and refuses to face the iPhone camera, no matter how brilliant the video conceit. I like his lack of concern, his serenity, the opposite of my frantic GO GO GO–ing. I like having something to think about, however small and slimy, besides myself.

If my snail is still alive next week, I'll poke holes in some Tupperware and take him home to Boston for Christmas. There are other pets there: a loyal dog, a disdainful cat, and a new cat, Harry. He belonged to my mother's parents, who both died within the last year or so. My sister is living at home and has taken on the job of calming Harry, 600 miles from the house he knew. In return he loves her best, and sits on her scanner while she makes art. In 2016, I think I will get a cat.

CORRECTION

Snails are, in fact, mollusks. A previous version of this essay said they were crustaceans.

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