This is the Life of a Redhead

Friday, January 28, 2011


Nearly 50 of us stand in a line. We are each assigned a camel. All the camels are tethered together, but mine leads the pack. Sarah’s is behind me, and then the line continues until the very end, with that awkward kid, Mike, and his equally awkward camel pulling up the rear.  I stand next to my camel, and I watch it chew a meal, probably three days old, with a bucktoothed smile and spit dribbling down its snout. Its jaw moves in a circular motion, looks as if it dislocates, but always stays in place and traces imaginary arcs in the air. The Bedouins shout to each other In Hebrew. Our guide, Bena, translates.
            “Don’t get to close to the camels. They will spit and they will bite.”
            My camel keeps grinning with his bucktoothed smile. His teeth are larger than my nose. Each one overlaps, is stained yellow and brown. One tooth in front is chipped. Upper central incisor. Just like me.
            Trying to stare down my camel is a challenge. It looks so excited to chew its food. Its smile isn’t directed to me, but instead is a byproduct of habitual enjoyment. I want the creature to be intimidated because it has long been decided that camels are my mortal enemy in the animal kingdom. The animosity traces back to my youth, when a seven year old version of me in a St. Louis petting zoo fell victim to camel-chewing. My scalp starts to tingle as my hair braces itself in fear. It is not as long as it was back then, but it remembers the tugging and spit and the stares from onlookers, a mother gasping, mostly young boys laughing, at the tiny redheaded girl’s hair trapped in the jaws of a grinning camel.
            Sarah stands next to me and she is terrified of her camel. Her camel isn’t smiling, chewing, or happy to see her. Hers opens its mouth wide and starts groaning. The mouth is expansive. I feel like I could crawl inside and live in the damp confines of the mouth. But then I think about my hair, and the spit, and I decide that I could never live in the body of my enemy no matter how safe and warm and enticing his body appears.
            The sounds from Sarah’s camel ring out among our group. Nearly 49 heads turn to look at the beast. I find it strange that hers is the only one roaring. The other camels continue munching on their cud, smiling at us without actually feeling anything. They look bored.
            “I’m scared to get on this thing,” Sarah says, squeezing my arm.
            The grip on my arm gets tighter as Sarah’s camel keeps roaring. I keep staring down my animal, trying to send it signals with my brain. You’re my enemy, camel. I remember what your brethren did to me in St. Louis. I remember.
            “Just think of it as riding dinosaurs,” I say to Sarah, trying to calm her down, hoping she doesn’t cut off circulation in my arm. “You know Jurassic Park? The movies? They distort camel noises to make the dinosaur roars. Camels, whales, and elephants. So you’re probably imagining a T-Rex, but that’s just a camel. Try not to touch its face. It’s not going to hurt you.”
            Her hand moves back to her side. She looks more confused than relieved. The Bedouins are rushing us to our animals, urging us to sit on their saddles and hold on tight. The camels are lying down, their padded kneecaps resting on the ground. I love the way their knees look. There’s a fluffy protective layer on the joint, and when the knees are bent, it appears as the animal’s legs come to a sudden stop, with a deformed stump half-buried in the sand. Amputated creatures.
            When I climb onto the saddle, I purposely lean over, draping the locks of my hair close to the camel’s mouth. I want to tease it. I dare it to bite my hair. But the camel has no response. It stares straight ahead. Its nostrils don’t even pick up my scent. A Bedouin grabs the reins, hisses something, and with a great effort the camel stands and I am lifted into the air. We plod forward for a few minutes. I graft a tuft of hair on the camel’s hump. It’s coarse and dirty. The animal still takes no notice of me. It looks off to the mountains, unaware of my vendetta towards its breed and of the incident involving hair chewing and a traumatized seven year old girl in an exotic petting zoo in St. Louis. It has become a docile creature, inching towards those distant mountains, always forced to turn away by a hissing Bedouin. It will carry me and a thousand more girls like me, and it will never be aware of the hate or fears felt by those future girls. Instead, it will walk in circles, the same invisible arcs traced by its forever moving jaw.

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