A few months ago, I petitioned to take time away from Yale and help my mother get rid of the dinosaurs. I was tired of my classes, tired of waiting each semester, with dread or hope, for the New England cold to arrive and then recede. Meanwhile, my mother needed an extra pair of hands with farm chores.
Come fall, my classmates’ Instagram stories burst to life, boasting campus landmarks and reunions of similarly dressed friends. I packed a twenty-inch suitcase with my laptop and charger, a short story anthology, toiletries, and no more than twelve changes of clothes. My mother did the same. Then we loaded our stuff into the back of her car and took turns driving away from Missoula, past mountains and brown cows and vibrant splashes of greenery.
I drove a little over half of the five-hour journey, during which my mother closed her eyes and swayed like a ragdoll in the passenger’s seat. My mother was nearing one full year of searching for a job. The longer you searched, the harder it got, she told me, because the recruiters would wonder why none of the other recruiters had already snatched you up. To make things worse, my mother was looking older and older, losing her definition. Nobody wanted to watch a woman age beyond fifty. When my mother took interviews over video call, she used four thumb-sized strips of transparent tape to pull back her cheekbones and her jowls.
Her unemployment was the reason we were selling the family farm. My father was the one to suggest it: I was hardly home anymore, and my sister, Tilly, had never cared much for the dinosaurs. Tilly would rather have kept a dog or a cat, a warm-blooded animal, something to curl up in her lap and scratch at doors when she disappeared behind them.
So my mother reached out to a broker, who asked us to supervise various health inspections and refurbishings, all the necessary steps to prepare the farm for the next stage of its life. She got choked up whenever we talked about saying goodbye.
I wrote my college essay about the passing of one of the oviraptors, Lucius. The summer before my sophomore year of high school, Lucius settled into a far corner of his enclosure, where I would visit and feed him eggs.
My mother had warned me against disturbing an animal’s diet, but my intellectual curiosity was overwhelming. I wanted Lucius to try all kinds of eggs before he died: fried, scrambled, hard-boiled, poached. I wanted to see if he would eat carefully enough to tell the difference between them.
The other oviraptors, sensing an air of morbidity around Lucius, were giving him a wide berth. Like humans, oviraptors walk on two legs, so it was like watching elementary schoolers on the playground, making a game of avoiding the class reject.
Small, quick dinos like the oviraptors are the brightest ones, followed by the bigger carnivores, and then finally the sweet, lackadaisical herbivores. My essay took a moment here to meditate on the perplexing beauty of dinosaur intelligence, of apple-sized brains in one-hundred-foot bodies. It troubled me to think that the smarter a type of dinosaur was, the more conniving its personality was likely to be.
Each morning of the week before Lucius died, I woke before sunrise and prepared an egg to deliver him at feeding time. While my father distributed the oviraptors’ routine breakfast of raw eggs, nuts, and seeds, I presented Lucius with his latest scrumptious dish. Lucius trembled, rustling his feathers as he knelt to take the egg in his mouth. He always swallowed it in one go, but afterward, his face would grow thoughtful. He must have tasted something out of the ordinary.
It was rare to see a dinosaur die since most of them lived at least fifty years, some of them past one hundred. To finish off my essay, I wrote a few more lines about Lucius lying alone in the corner, myself coming to rescue him from isolation during his final stretch. The implication was that I would be a very considerate member of the campus community.
At the end of the spring semester, one of my closest friends told me that I was a bummer to be around. I had proposed rooming together during the next academic year, and after a series of evasive texts, they were looking into my eyes and declining the offer.
I was emotionally exhausting. I did not contribute enough to our group dynamic. Much of what I said was just too much. They brought up several examples of my lines of philosophical questioning: what keeps you going on a day-to-day basis? Really? We were sitting in a tomato-red booth of the campus cafe, attracting stares. My friend promised that they loved me dearly despite these caveats. Whew, I said.
In life, my friend was in a very good place. They might have been right about happy people being better off in the company of happy people. Sad people, they lightly suggested, should stick to their kind. I didn’t want to be a bad roommate, but I couldn’t figure out how to be better. I bought birthday presents, asked others about themselves, remembered personal details. Only twice had I mentioned the worry that plagued my recent existence: that the last time I felt genuine, childlike joy was when I was dating a girl who couldn’t stop talking about how her arms were too small for her body.
T-Rex, she called herself. I informed her that a T-Rex’s power was concentrated in its massive head instead of its arms. She laughed, then took offense. When she was breaking up with me, she brought up this conversation again. She said, I can’t believe you told me I have a big head, what a horrible thing to say. I did not apologize then. Later I did, though I’m not sure if I meant it or if I just wanted her to forgive me.
I used to think about this girl with every ounce of my energy, but these days I’ve been trying to kick the habit. Some nights I dream about her coming back to me. Other nights I dream of a T-Rex closing its teeth around my body, the resounding crunch, going wherever I’m meant to go in the end.
I spent half of my days at the farm with my mother and the other half alone. My mother and I worked side by side to refill the dinosaurs’ food and water, which was easily a two-person job. Afternoons, we would drive half an hour to the nearest superstore for groceries and cook pastas at sunset. To walk off dinner we strolled around the enclosures, keeping an eye out for fencing panels that called for repair, particularly by the ankylosauruses.
My mother and I’s relationship had vastly improved ever since I began losing friends. An hour before I pressed submit on my petition to take leave from school, I laid my head in her lap and curled the excess parts of my body behind her, weeping as she combed her fingers through my knotted hair. Before then we would barely touch: maybe a hug if I was about to leave home for a while.
Three times a week, we carried a bowl of purple grapes to the patio and FaceTimed my father for life updates, plus Tilly whenever she bothered to pick up the phone. A brontosaurus was having a baby, we shared. A state champion tennis player was taking my sister to the homecoming dance. My mother did two interviews last week. I was off Lexapro.
I used my alone time to make banana bread and watch TV on weekdays. If I felt upset, I would hop into our caged loader and take a joyride of shoveling up the colossal turds produced by larger dinos. This poop therapy only happened when I got to thinking about the past, reviving feelings of bitterness or pointless reminiscing that should have expired long ago. I wondered if I would be better off in New Haven, making out with Tinder dates or foraging for friends who might like me, but after driving around and washing my hands in the sink, I felt better about spending time with the dinos, counting down our final days together.
In early November, my mom received a job offer from a firm in Pittsburgh. She accepted it with the caveat of delaying her start until Tilly’s graduation. Without the farm, there would soon be nothing tying her to home except history. My father, who was working remotely these days, would accompany her to Glacier National Park, one of many items on my mother’s bucket list, which had been lengthening since she downloaded TikTok on her iPad. Afterward they would rent a truck and drive our belongings across the Midwest.
After getting the phone call from Pittsburgh, my mother and I bought champagne and a miniature cheesecake to devour at the kitchen table. It was only ten in the morning. Neither of us cared much for drinking, but we both felt it was the right thing to do.
My mother started to tear up a couple sips into her first glass. Extending her fork for more cheesecake, she requested that I consider trying to be less like her. I asked in what sense. Her voice shook: before we came to the farm, she was sad to watch me losing color, terrified that she wouldn’t be able to save me. My mother said, why do you think so much about yourself, but only so brutally? You and I have this same problem. Tilly and your dad, they find it easy to be kind.
When I was in high school, I hated hearing her make such presumptuous statements, but I let this one slide. Weren’t we supposed to be talking about Pittsburgh? I smiled and took the penultimate slice of cheesecake. My mother closed her eyes. Yes, we were. Before we returned to our different places in the world, we should try to start changing our minds.
For Thanksgiving break, my father and Tilly decided to pay their respects to the farm. My dad wanted to see the baby brontosaurus, who was learning to stand. The general idea was to celebrate the baby’s birth, my mother’s employment, and the holiday, all in unison.
With two more faces at the dining table, we feasted on hot turkey and assorted vegetables that my mother and I had spent the afternoon preparing, topped off with pecan pie from Missoula. We chatted about Tilly’s college prospects and my mother’s intention to get more involved with the parents’ council now that she had the time to do something fun. After dinner we refrigerated the leftover turkey, and in keeping with our routine, my mother and I led our visitors around the dino enclosures. Even Tilly looked a little nostalgic to see them in person. Next week the broker was coming by with the buyers for one last inspection.
If I were to write another story about dinosaurs, I would focus on how the different kinds make their living. Back in the glory days, carnivores sat at the top of the food chain. A scarce number of them hunted vast herds of herbivores. Being one of the big guys sounds like a good deal until you realize that the tree-huggers lived much longer on average, while T-Rexes died at twenty in the wild. Then you had thieves like the raptors, or evaders such as pterosaurs, who fished and pilfered. Given the prosperity of modern-day birds, it might seem that pterosaurs and their progeny fared the best, but roaming around the farm, I felt that the question of survival had become obsolete. Every dinosaur had its place.
Tilly suggested naming the baby Jeff, after our broker. Jeff had assured us that a capital gains tax would apply to the new offspring as well. We could hear chatter from the neighboring pens, sometimes a distant roar. Stars glimmered amidst a sky fading from black to indigo near the horizon.
One of the brontosauruses was pacing around the edge of the enclosure, shaking dust from the ground where my family stood. The four of us shivered in trappers and knee-length jackets. The baby, huddled between its mother’s legs, was a shadow to us. As the mother lifted her wrinkled neck toward the sky, her green eyes gleamed electric, reptilian, facing nowhere in particular. I knew that there was probably not a single grievance in that relatively small head of hers: her body knew all it needed to know, nothing more. I wanted to be just like her