My boys were jumping their kishkes out at Skyzone, the indoor trampoline park, and I was scrolling on Instagram when two women sat down at my table. One wore a hijab, one didn’t. They had a slew of kids with them – along with a plastic rodent habitat and a cardboard carrier box with a familiar logo in primary colors: Petsmart.
I couldn’t resist. “What’s in the box?”
The woman in the hijab rolled her eyes and nodded to her friend. “She and her kids took my son to Petsmart for his birthday and he told them I said it was okay to get a hamster.”
“There’s a hamster in there?”
The other woman laughed.
The woman in the hijab did, too. “Who buys a hamster?”
Who brings it to Skyzone? I thought.
I chatted with these two friends, the hamster, and the crowd of boys who were now assembling the cage with a water bottle and neon pink tube slide, and filling the bottom with wood shavings. The birthday boy, who was turning 10, told me he’d chosen a name for the hamster: “Hammy.”
“Hammy?” his mother exclaimed, adjusting her hijab. “Like Hammy the Hamster? You couldn’t think of something more creative?”
“It’s short for Hamilton.”
I agreed it was a solid name.
Just as the boys readied the cage, two nervous-looking Skyzone employees approached the table. “We’re sorry, but there are no animals allowed in the jumping arena.”
The friend, who had said her name was Samira, looked around the waiting area. “That’s alright, we’ll keep him here with us.”
The braver employee, who couldn’t have been more than 18, stepped forward. “No…We mean, no animals in the building.”
“It’s fine,” said Birthday Boy’s mom. “We’ll put him in the car.”
“You need to roll down the windows,” Samira said. “It gets hot.”
“I want to put him in the cage,” Birthday Boy said.
So it was decided that they would transfer the hamster into the cage, then bring him out to the car, where the windows would be left open.
Delicately, Birthday Boy opened the box and peered inside. “He’s scared.” He reached a hand in, and then, startled, yanked it out. “He’s running away.”
“Let me try,” one of his friends said, ready to be the hero. But his hand barely made it to the box before he drew it back in terror.
The two mothers exchanged a glance. Are you gonna do it?
It was a no on both sides.
I stood up. “I’ll do it.”
Look, I know it wasn’t a great idea. If I’d been smart, I would have sat back and watched the fun unfold, in the spirit of that old Buddhist mantra: Not my circus, not my monkeys. But I was invested now.
The boys looked at me in disbelief – and a little awe. It was one thing to make small talk with strangers; but this lady was going to touch the hamster?
I regarded poor Hamilton, a terrified ball of brown and white fur, cowering in the corner of his cardboard box. In a Disney movie, this would be the moment when, in Kevin Hart’s voice, he would have said something like, “This is NOT what I signed up for!”
But he didn’t.
He bit me instead.
Hammy the Hamster bit me.
There’s something inherently uncool about your thumb bleeding from a hamster bite, so even though I wrangled Hammy into his cage, I didn’t feel much triumph. In fact, I sensed, as Birthday Boy and his friends watched me, that if they weren’t sure I was crazy before, this interlude confirmed it.
But at least the moms were grateful.
As the Skyzone people supplied me with a band-aid (they fell all over themselves to make sure I didn’t sue them), Samira and I talked about how our youngest boys are the most empathic.
“He always wants to know if I’m happy,” she said.
“I have to tell mine it’s okay if I’m not happy,” I said. “No one’s supposed to be happy all the time.”
I remembered a conversation with one of my first sponsors, when, after just a few weeks clean, I begged her to tell me when I was going to be happy, for God’s sake.
“We’re not shooting for happiness here,” she said. “We’re shooting for peace.”
After a while, Samira and I fell into our phones, where an Instagram post reminded me that it was Eid al-Fitr, the holiday when Muslims mark the end of the month of Ramadan.
“Today’s a holiday, isn’t it?” I asked her. “Eid? Is that how you pronounce it?”
She smiled and nodded.
As the boys and I left SkyZone, the two friends and their kids waved to us and called goodbye across the lobby.
“Thank you!” said Birthday Boy.
“Happy Eid!” I said.
On the drive home, I thought about the tension between Jews and Muslims that was erupting right at that moment in Israel and Gaza. And yet, across the world, a Jew and a Muslim could sit together and laugh about their children and hamsters.
Then I called Petsmart to see if I needed a rabies shot.