By Sarah O’Brien
Lick of the lizard is a penetratingly insightful, raw story which delves into one woman’s feelings of inadequacy and guilt.
The loss of her husband, return of an old flame and her ever increasing resentment toward her daughter Lisa, makes for a gripping read as one starts to connect and identify with the main character. My aim is to draw comparisons with the metaphor of people being similar to lizards or reptilian if you like within the events, characters and themes of this short story.
I also have a particular interest in the narcissistic tendencies displayed by our main character which in this case is the mother figure. The fraught relationship between mother and daughter also lends food for thought and hopefully I will be able to shed some light on the dynamics of Lisa and her mother’s relationship, as we delve further into this challenging and provocative story.
The story starts with the mother sweeping the kitchen floor, the very first line gives us a sense of unhappiness, and the menial basic task becomes a clear indicator of the mother’s mental state.
‘I am sweeping myself into the dustbin’
This intensely morose quotation brings the reader to the conclusion that the mother has issues such as anxiety over ageing and the inevitable acceptance of death.
Age and ageing becomes a big theme throughout this story with the narrator (1st person) making reference to the ‘wooden floorboards, honeyed by age, marked and pitted by pots dropped in moments of uncoordination’. One could draw a direct comparison to the way we humans age, marked with the battle scars of life.
The mother continues to talk about the skin cells she has swept off the floor, her skin cells. She calls it ‘another days gathering of myself’, to what is she referring?
I believe she is talking about the last dying embers of her youth. If you study lizard’s behaviour in their natural habitat, you will notice that lizards shed their skin in patches with small skin cells’ being shed one by one which is something similar to how the mother refers to her own skin. During this time the lizard’s skin becomes dull and white patches appear all over their bodies. Which brings me to my second theme which I feel is the undercurrent of this story: metamorphism.
The rebirth of one’s self, changing from one physical state to another, similar to the way a caterpillar becomes a butterfly or indeed lizards detaching their tails as a method of self-preservation, a means of survival. This can be seen throughout the story with the mother’s intrepid tale of self-discovery in the arms of her lover Dave and in her realisation that he is far from the wonderful creature she originally thought.
The idea of a lizard being able to discard part of it, in order to protect its life is telling of its nature and in this case of the mothers’ nature. The story continues with Lisa coming home from school, she has an unusual relationship with her mother, full of tension and friction.
They both suffer through a strained few moments as they struggle to communicate. Here we get an insight into the mother’s mind frame she actually thinks to herself of how she wishes ‘Lisa would throw her coat on the chair so that it would eventually slither onto the floor and get walked on’, purely so that she can scream at her daughter .Upon first reading I was surprised to say the least, at the mothers blatant show of contempt for her child and started to wonder if the main character was a narcissistic parent who has neither insight or compassion for an adolescent who is mourning the loss of her father.
On closer inspection I came to the conclusion that although the mother is clearly extremely jealous of her youthful, beautiful daughter she is also lacking her own self-worth and has lost her identity as she has lost her husband. Lisa and her mother were left on their own together without ‘him to keep us apart’. Where before had been little cracks in their relationship, huge craters had started to appear.
Three years on and it was getting worse. The mother waited some time before venturing out and dating after the death of her beloved husband, revelling in her neighbours distaste for her situation. The mother is almost a reptile to them a social pariah if you will.
They looked at her as if she was capable of stealing their happiness and their partners ‘as they cling possessively to their husbands arms’ if she dared say more than hello. The mother then meets her old flame Dave, who he has put up on a pedestal all these years. She begins to describe him ‘the careless look hanging around him’ and the ‘smell as he took a drag on a cigarette’.
This gave me cause to remember how lizards flick their tongues out testing the air to assist in identifying smells and to recognise ones mate. As the mother reminisces on her past relationship with Dave, she is drawn back into the excitement of him. The lean body crashing into hers by the subway when they first met and how insistent he was that she come back to his flat. Dave was almost like a drug to her, addictive as the ‘dope’ he smoked.
She fell for him and his charming stories of how back in his youth ‘he was sitting on a rock blistering in the sun when a lizard taking advantage of the heat darted across and licked him.’ She believed every word of it and was smitten. She fell deeper and deeper in love with him until the day he ‘slithered off ‘like the reptile that he was.
In a lizards mouth something called a Jacobson’s organ can be found. This is used for recognizing partners in courtship and during the mating process. In other words this was the story Dave would tell all the girls, his signature story.
Fast-forwarding to the present she has met Dave again years on and agrees to go for a drink with him. She gets incredibly inebriated and Dave drives her home .The two are getting along famously until Lisa gets home and the mother notices Dave paying Lisa too much attention, Jealousy rears its ugly head .Dave becomes enamoured with Lisa’s youthful glow and her beauty and draws a direct comparison between Lisa and her mother, ‘her skin is like yours was..’ which needless to say doesn’t sit well with the mother.
They arrange to meet the following day in town for lunch and they talk about being a single parent and Lisa, which the mother soon tires of. They head back to the house .Lisa has just arrived back from school in her ‘maroon blouse and grey gym slip’ and as she cooks herself something to eat for lunch she ends up burning her hand. Dave Is immediately at her side and provocatively puts her hand in his mouth telling her the same story about how when he was a boy he learned a cure for burns….as the mother watches her daughter she sees that same expression on Lisa’s face that look of memorisation that she knew had once been on her own.
I think it’s at that moment when the mother finally realises that both she and Lisa are pawns in this game. That Dave would stay eternally young, not literally of course but because society dictates to us that women past a certain age have had it whereas men seemed to get more attractive with age.so as Dave ‘grows out his skin it gets tighter and tighter until it splits and it sloughs off in one go. Just like….
‘the lizard that licked him’
Of course we know that when a lizard shed its skin it comes off in small patches, bit by bit like the mother and Lisa in this story, but what the narrator is trying to convey is that Dave was never a lizard nor was he licked by one .He is a snake for only snakes slough off their skin in one go.
He was a creepy, lecherous middle aged man who couldn’t accept that he was past his prime. A devious, sneaky character. One to be handled with caution. However it is well known that lizards are tough creatures, resilient, they survive in the most trying of terrain dominating desserts and so all along the mother’s greatest fear was herself .
Fearing the inevitable fact that we all get older- youth doesn’t last. The time she spent resenting her daughter in her innocence and seeing her as a physiological irritant just gave rise to Lisa’s susceptibility to a predatory older male such as Dave, whose childish concept of masculinity is so ingrained.
Though the mother once viewed her daughter as a rival of equal footing and competed with her for male attention unknowingly or not ,all along it was the proverbial ‘snake in the grass’ that was the real danger –the real enemy.