It was my twentieth birthday, and my boyfriend asked me to close my eyes and hold out my hand.
I expected an engagement ring. Instead he gave me a chicken.
Two chickens, to be precise. Two yellow puffs, cheeping in my hand.
We had an inside joke about chicken, which is why he got me the baby chicks, he explained. (It was only problematic if you knew our inside joke was about how I was primarily a vegetarian, but sometimes I ate a little chicken.) He also handed over two other gifts – a children’s Bible and a statue of a girl holding a bird.
The chickens went home to roost with me in my college dorm room, where I was a journalism major and clueless poultry farmer. Peep and Special Agent Dale Cooper lived in a secondhand glass aquarium where they huddled under a clip-on desk lamp for warmth. They ate grains and seeds smuggled from the dining hall salad bar and leftover Chinese food. When I teetered home from frat parties at 2 a.m., I let the chickens go free range, scuffling around my shoebox of a single room, pooping on my teal carpet. Once I tried to give them baths in the sink. Chickens don’t like baths.
At some point, I learned how my boyfriend, a 30-year-old with no vehicle, no money, no job and multiple warrants, obtained the chickens. He had called a farm in another state and said the baby chicks were the last wish of a sick, dying girl. Not only did the farmer’s wife drive several hours to transport two baby chicks to a nonexistent child, but she brought other gifts too -- hence, the children’s Bible and statue. A reporter for the farmer’s small-town newspaper tagged along, snapped a photo with a disposable camera and wrote a nice article about kindness between strangers, integrity and generosity.
Maybe that’s why I felt so protective of Peep and Special Agent Dale Cooper – we were in this together, wreckage left in the wake of this one man. So while my boyfriend was out guzzling Wild Turkey and chasing tail, the chickens and I settled into some kind of happiness. When I walked around my room, they followed in my path, like babies to a mother hen. When my boyfriend hooked up with some other woman and I sobbed for hours into my pillow, Peep nestled at my feet while Special Agent Dale Cooper tucked into my neck. As much as I took them under my wing, they took me under theirs.
Though I couldn’t successfully keep a Giga Pet alive, somehow I raised my chickens to adolescence. Their necks grew long, their feathers soft and white. Around this time, my RA busted me for keeping farm animals within city limits. My feathered friends had to go.
I found a farm for them, a place where kids go on field trips to see people churn butter. But the guy who ran the place wasn’t kind, and when I brought my birds there, he told me to “just shove ‘em in the coop.” I had a bad feeling as I lovingly placed them inside the structure, an affair made of rotted wood and rusty metal, and some enormous chicken bullies chased my birds into a corner.
As I drove away, I looked into my rearview mirror. Running after my car was Special Agent Dale Cooper, who had shoved his body through a gap in the coop’s chicken wire. I pulled the car over. My guys deserved better.
After a very brief stint living in my parents’ living room, the chickens finally found a coop to call home. One of my aunt’s friends in rural Indiana had just constructed a veritable chicken condo and was looking for a couple of birds to love. I had just the thing, and those cluckers were happy there.
As for me, I never got an engagement ring from my boyfriend, but I did get a restraining order against him. That’s another story. And I became a better vegetarian, the kind who never ate chicken, not even a nugget.
Maggie Downs is a writer based in Palm Springs, California. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian, the BBC, and Roads & Kingdoms, among other publications. Find her on Twitter @downsanddirty.