It was real cold that night, not just Miami cold, and it was late. I’d had to wait until the girls were asleep to go out into the pre-Christmas lunacy of the mall because my wife and I were keeping up the Santa story as long as possible, trying to maintain some sort of parental leverage in our chaotic household. I was almost home, going a little too fast through the thick, tree-covered dark, and I looked down for a second to adjust the unfamiliar controls of the car’s heater. That’s when I felt the sickening thump.
I hit the brakes and pulled over, disgusted because I knew to be more careful in our neighborhood, with its kamikaze cats and unleashed dogs, which sometimes included our own. I took a deep breath and got out of the car.
I saw nothing at first, but then spotted a shadow several yards back. My shoulders got heavy and I steeled myself as I walked toward it, not looking directly at the lump on the road until I was almost on top of it.
I realized it was an iguana.
The iguanas were everywhere that year, the latest in Miami’s endless parade of invading hordes. Depending on which of my asshole neighbors you asked, the place had already been overrun and ruined by New Yorkers, German tourists, Cubans, Russian criminals, or homosexuals. It’s all nonsense, of course. The truth is that everyone here is from somewhere else. Even the ground is just a few feet of landfill, brought in a hundred years ago to make a city out of a swamp. Nobody and nothing has deep roots. They aren’t possible. That’s why we all attack each other and whoever comes after us—so we can feel like we have a right to claim our own little piece of this temporary paradise.
But those three-foot-long lizards had managed to unite us all, for once, in hatred. A few cast-off exotic pets had started breeding and grown quickly into a tribe of thousands. By the time anyone realized the problem, it was impossible to get rid of them. There were too many. The iguanas crowded in parks, lined the banks of canals, ate people’s landscaping, and generally just fucked things up. They became another unavoidable and unpleasant part of Miami life, like rising sea-levels, roaches, and bad plastic surgery. I hated them as much as everyone else did. It felt like a civic duty.
But I hadn’t ever hurt one before, or even seen one up close. I looked down at the lizard in the road, on its side, tail crushed, arms together in reptile prayer. It was like a miniature dinosaur. Majestic, even. I gave it a cowardly poke with my shoe, the flesh denser than I expected. There was no response, and I realized it was dead. I turned back to my car, but all of a sudden, leaving it in the middle of the street didn’t feel right. I thought I should at least kick it over to the side. But when I looked down and saw those little arms, still clasped, I couldn’t do it. I got back in the car and drove off, ashamed.
I told my wife what happened. She said, “Those things are a menace. They’re like giant green rats. I’m glad you didn’t try to swerve or anything. You could have gotten hurt.”
I was almost convinced.
The next morning, the TV was on and the local news, always excited by the cold, cut away from the usual winter footage of tiny South Beach dogs in bedazzled sweaters to shots of dead iguanas lining the city’s streets. A herpetologist’s voice-over explained what had happened. If it goes under 40 degrees for more than an hour, iguanas are temporarily paralyzed. Under 35, they die. It had dipped to 39 the night before. According to the scientist, those who had nested in the trees for protection, led by ancient signals in their brains, had lost their grip and fallen to their deaths. I was exonerated, no longer a killer. Still, things didn’t sit right. It didn’t seem fair that the iguanas had been betrayed by their own nature.
The following night it dropped to 30 degrees, and the rest were wiped out. It was Christmas Eve morning and the news reported that some roads, especially by the canals, were almost impassable. The County sent crews of men with reflective vests and Santa hats out to shovel the bodies, clearing the streets and the parks first.
In the carnage, there was joy. Triumphant headlines included: “Ee-goner,” “Igpocalypse,” “Reign of terror ends in Rain of lizards,” and the worst of all: “Christmas Miracle.”
I understood everyone’s happiness. I saw the glow on my daughters’ faces at the park that afternoon when we didn’t have to shoo green monsters away from the metal slide, which the lizards had always enjoyed, probably for its sunbaked warmth on their cold-blooded bellies. But for me, the celebration of mass death was always wrong, and I was disappointed that our collective hatred had been rewarded.
Maybe that’s why I got excited this morning when I caught a flash of the once-familiar green while walking our dog by the park where my daughters are now too old to play. An iguana, with the telltale jawbone of a male, was sunning himself regally on the slide, head aloft, eyes closed.
“Welcome back,” I called out, tossing a couple dog treats from my pocket, all I had to offer, his way. They clattered on the bottom of the slide and his eyes popped open.
The iguana turned his head towards me, checking for danger, and looked me over for a good five seconds. Then he relaxed, straightened out and slowly closed his eyes. He had decided I was friend, not foe, giving me the absolution I didn’t know I’d been waiting for.