It was an unsettling first encounter. Nigel was more than a little cool, I felt, and gave me a long unblinking stare of what seemed complete indifference. I tried to play down his aloofness and summoned my most honeyed tones to almost coo ``hello.''
He was unmoved.
Not even a twitch of acknowledg- ment disturbed his eight feet of lithe muscle, which draped nonchalantly around his owner's neck. Since the boa constrictor's owner, Gerald, was also one of my new housemates, this was not an auspicious beginning.
Nigel was unperturbed, however, and kept his usual routine as I shuffled and bumped my belongings into the adjacent room. He led a life of unparalleled ease, as far as I could tell: long periods of sleep in his glass-box residence, punctuated by a live dinner every week or two, and more long hours lounging around the apartment.
As the days slid into weeks and months, the initial chill between us thawed. For Nigel, our relationship was probably of no great concern. Another warm body around the house was neither here nor there. But thrown together as we were, I felt our forced acquaintance might offer some more-endearing insights than I had so far formed about the cold-blooded, fork-tongued, thin-lipped reptile.
Books on reptiles talked of how misunderstood snakes are. Fear of them is not instinctive, the snake manuals confidently asserted, but usually learned from people who are just misinformed.
I took it to heart.
The educational process began with Nigel and I taking the occasional ``walk'' along the esplanade in front of our house (with Gerald in close attendance). Gerald and I did most of the walking, while Nigel quietly contorted himself - his lethargic lifestyle no barrier to periodic limbering up.
Weekend furloughs from his glass cage, when the boa was given free roam of the apartment, turned into times of observation rather than alarm. To my surprise, he seemed to have almost feline tendencies, liking nothing better than to coil up in a corner. Often he would head for a particular chest of drawers and ooze his girth through one small knot in the wood, barely big enough for his head, and then curl up for an afternoon among the sweaters.
The human-climbing routine also came more easily as I got over my tense expectation of being squeezed breathless. Nigel would wrap his way around my torso in slow-motion loops of cold compressed flesh, then let his head meander along invisible curves in the air, flicking his tongue out like a feeler. I, in turn, would stand there, trying to pretend that nothing the slightest bit unusual was happening.
But to call our relationship affectionate would still be a stretch - for Nigel, too, I imagine. My anxiety had been shed for healthy respect. But affection was still trailing behind.
The real icebreaker came one Saturday evening, however.
I was getting ready to go out, and the bathroom was occupied. Gerald informed me that Nigel was in there having a little rest and relaxation - a pastime that seemed to absorb a major part of his life - and would I mind letting him stay a little longer. Of course not, I replied, but I did need to use the shower. Not a problem, he said.
Moments later, as I pushed open the door to our old unventilated bathroom, I was engulfed by hot clouds of mist pumping out of the steaming showerhead. The room felt like a sauna, and Nigel was nowhere in sight.
I undressed gingerly, half expecting a sleek body to unfurl itself from behind the toilet and slither across the tiles. But nothing.
Then, as I pulled back the shower curtain and stepped into the tub, I saw him. At the far end, softly outlined through the blurring heat, Nigel was swaying a slow limbo - his glistening footage wound around the towel rack as though it were some longed-for tree limb. He was in his element.
My fear of being watched - ogled by a boa - evaporated. He was quite oblivious to the human being soaping down at the other end.
And in any case, this was no time for formalities. He was far too preoccupied with his man-made mini-rain forest to worry about etiquette. In fact, I thought I could almost hear him humming.