It was the last summer of the decade, hot and portentous, and I was interning for a laboratory that specialized in invasive reptiles. The lab was in South Florida, in a town so small and obscure that I learned to avoid naming it in conversation. When asked, I said I worked in Miami.
By early July, I had developed a seventy-page report on green iguanas and a habit of declining my coworkers’ invitations to lunch. Lacking plans for the holiday weekend—a weekend that happened to include my birthday—I called my friend Meredith and suggested that I visit. It was Thursday. The next day was both an office day and my last as a twenty-six-year-old, and I spent it scooting around in my armless rolling chair, flipping between an eBook and the document I was supposed to be proofreading. I’d kicked my travel bags under my desk, and at five in the afternoon I slid them back out, careful not to trip any wires. Meredith lived in Cocoa Beach, a city of high-rises that sloped down to the sea. An employee of the state’s department of agriculture, she spent her mornings visiting greenhouses and nurseries appendaged to name-brand department stores. Inside the large, humid rooms, she inspected palm trees and ferns for unwelcome insects, which she removed with tweezers and dropped into zippered plastic bags for further study.
Meredith was waiting for me in the circular driveway outside her building, holding a mug that I knew to be filled with some type of alcohol. Even from a distance, she seemed thin to me; her arms, which had always been narrow, were tinier still. Her daughter stood next to her, imperious, thirteen. We greeted with awkward, one-armed hugs—I was holding one of my bags—and walked indoors.
The lobby in Oceanview Towers was trimmed with burnished brass that showed me my own warped face. The building itself was shaped like a kidney, with a hollow interior. You could see straight up to the ceiling: twenty-six stories. There was a distant, constant slamming of doors. Flat blue carpet stretched across the floor of the lobby and snagged on my rolling suitcase, which I tugged gently, like a dog. Her daughter had grabbed my other bag, a duffel, and was walking in a lopsided way towards the elevator. When we reached their floor, with plaster walls and stucco ceilings reminiscent of the 1980s, it was hard not to think of Meredith’s own childhood, which had taken place in this very town, in a cottage belonging to the seaside hotel her parents used to own. I had spent every spring break of my youth skiing in Colorado, and I couldn’t think of Meredith’s parents’ hotel without remembering the one my mother had booked in Aspen. There’d been a resident child there, too—the owners’ granddaughter—and for one week each year we’d grown up alongside each other, drawing up schemes in the basement and hopping from the hot tub to the pool and back, taking in as much heat or cold as we could stand.
On my birthday, Meredith and I dined at an Irish restaurant, buttering scones that crumbled in our hands while a recording of Ulysses played fuzzily over the speakers. In the bathroom, the sound was clearer. I peed and listened to the book’s ending. Then the tape clicked back to the start, to Buck Mulligan’s razor and the snotgreen Irish sea. In Cocoa Beach, our own ocean was boiling: The first named storm of the season, Arrietty, was passing over the city. Two days after I returned to South Florida, I read that Arrietty had made an unexpected, sharp right turn, sparing the rest of the Eastern Seaboard and dissolving in the open ocean.
To get to my little windowless office, I had to walk through the laboratory, where my coworkers dissected the bodies of invasive reptiles: Burmese pythons, Argentine tegus, and the occasional spectacled caiman. If a necropsy had just been performed, the air was metallic and heavy with the scent of blood. I usually closed my door against the smell and returned to my report, but sometimes I asked to clean the sinks or ready the silver examination table. If a necropsy was about to take place, reptile bodies—lizards and snakes—would lie curled in the filled metal sink, defrosting. Before dissection, the bodies were stacked in the clouded freezer next to my office. A few animals had been inside for as long as five years; it had been my duty one afternoon to organize them. Some I’d killed myself, with a captive bolt gun. The euthanasia happened in another building, where it would not disturb the professors and academics whose offices were adjacent to ours. While we euthanized the tegus, other people walked in and out of the room: python contractors, state biologists, university students. One afternoon, I was joined by Asad, a biologist from our lab. I’d just returned inside with a plastic bin that I’d rinsed of tegu blood. Asad was using one hand to carry a bucket full of caiman he’d caught in the Everglades.
I protested when I saw him cleaning the gun I’d packed away.
“But they’re so cute!” I said.
Asad smiled. One of our jokes was that I was inexperienced, a bad biologist.
“Yes, but they’re harmful. You know that.”
Asad was from Pakistan and had begun as an intern, like me, then moved up the salaried ranks. While he reassembled the gun parts, I peered at the caiman, which were trying to scale the bucket’s smooth plastic sides.
“You can hold them, if you want,” he said.
I reached down and lifted two with my hands. I took a picture with my phone and, not knowing what else to do, lowered them back down.
“It makes me too sad,” I said.
“We’re helping the other animals,” Asad said.
“I know,” I said. “But still.”
We collected the tegus from the eastern corridor of the Everglades, where the only other human activity was inside a juvenile detention center. I wondered what the teenagers inside the center thought of the foot-long lizards running through the brush, and of us, the people in the white trucks who came faithfully to remove them. We were responsible for two hundred traps. On the days I was scheduled for trapping, I dressed conservatively, in pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a neck gaiter that covered my mouth and made it difficult to breathe. By mid-morning, I’d usually sweated through the moisture-wicking material. Sometimes, if the day was particularly unbearable, I took an Adderall tablet with the lunch I’d packed. Besides helping me focus, it gave me the sensation of rising above everything, of peering at my work from a distance and finding it satisfactory and fulfilling.
After three months of work, I returned to graduate school. The drive was long and boring, broken by roadside shops in Georgia and stops at Cook-Out in South Carolina. The shops sold, among other things, wooden knives with names like Lindsay and Sarah carved on them, and soft, nearly rotting peaches in large bowls by the register. I arrived in Maryland at midnight. My summer subletter had left the night before, but I could feel her presence in my room, which smelled like mildew and sugar. I retrieved a half-sleeve of Oreos from the space under my dresser. An ant was cresting the ridge of a cookie. I crushed it with the pad of my finger.