One of my favorite cartoon characters as a little girl, was Chilly Willy. In my memory of Chilly Willy, Chilly and his polar bear friend Maxie battle the elements of Alaska and search for food. Sometimes Maxie is so hungry that he fantasizes that Chilly is a sausage instead of a penguin. He chases him! Chilly runs! A lot! Until Chilly finds a stash of whole fish (protein!) and begins to throw fish into Maxie’s mouth. I found Chilly’s mute cuteness appealing as a child. My father had many nicknames for me and one of them was Chilly Willy. I have a high voice that often reminds people of cartoon characters or Jennifer Tilly. In my twenties, a string of guys I knew had on-going fantasies that I would be become a voice-over actor and have my own cartoon character. One guy I briefly dated, who worked freelance for Nickelodeon and kept a folder in his living room titled, “Got Stoned, Had an Idea” went so far as to create this character for me. Her name was Amber Ant and she had a lot to say and way too much on her plate.
When I Googled Chilly Willy episodes, I didn’t find much except a Wikipedia entry and some You Tube videos. I watched some of the videos and saw that I was all wrong about Chilly. It’s Chilly who is always hungry and cold, not Maxie. In one episode he fantasizes about a winter coat and goes to the winter coat outlet to try to steal one. In another called “Half-Baked Alaska,” Chilly shivers in the snow and sees a sign for a restaurant. When he arrives, Smedley the dog, his foil, is running the restaurant. Smedley thinks he’s found a paying customer, and brings Chilly a stack of pancakes slathered in butter and syrup.
“More syrup? More jelly? More whipped cream?” Smedley asks as Chilly nods repeatedly.
But as soon as Chilly is about to take a bite, Smedley pulls away the plate, unfurls a bill for sixty dollars, and says, “Pay first, eat later.” Chilly’s disappointment is palpable. He sheds a tear and pulls at his empty pockets. For the rest of the episode, Chilly tries to work as a piano player, a barber, a blacksmith’s assistant, and a photographer’s assistant to pay for the pancakes. Eventually, Chilly steals pancakes from Smedley and rescues him from an irate customer. Smedley calls him a “customer for life,” and serves him a stack of pancakes. Chilly may not be able to hold down a job, but he’s good at finding a big animal to take care of him.
Created by Walter Lantz, the genius behind Woody Woodpecker, Chilly operates in a landscape of Depression era food longing and kid gluttony. What if you could eat all the pancakes? What if you were never hungry or cold? What if your parental figure/giant polar bear friend was able to hunt enough fish for you to eat?
I have always known that cartoon characters were early erotic fantasies for me and I’ve written about this before in a poem about Mighty Mouse. But Lantz, like many animators at the time, was particularly good at turning me on. I still get a little wet when I think about an episode of Woody Woodpecker when he dressed in drag to lure a stagecoach driver into picking him up. He used a decoy leg—one in fishnet stockings and a high heel—to signal the stagecoach driver. This leg served as early masturbation fodder.
I have always been interested in the idea of a small animal that cares for a larger one. The first short story I ever wrote in fourth grade was about a clown shrimp—a small parasite that lives off the dead skin of a fish. No one suggested to me that this was weird. Wait, is it? I have long loved the story of the mouse who picks the thorn out of the lion’s paw. I find all these stories vaguely erotic. Tiny and big, working together. Tiny does something for big and is rewarded with protection. Big does not eat Tiny. Tiny has all of the power actually, but will occasionally pretend she does not and run around pretending to be scared. Tiny feeds big, but is actually quite a little glutton herself. I suppose in BDSM circles, we might call this topping from the bottom or being a switch.
It’s possible too that my father saw me as Chili and he was my polar bear. One of the many jobs my brother and I had to do for our father, was to bring him food and beers. Like many children of that era, we were also expected to stand in front of the television and change the channel until my father found what he wanted to watch. After he settled on a football game or a Godzilla movie, he said to whichever one of us hadn’t scurried quickly back to the couch to nest in the crook of his arm,
“Go fix me a sandwich.” Like the good waiter child I’d been trained to be,
I’d dutifully respond, while giving my brother the stink eye, “Do you want mayo or mustard or both? Salami or ham?”
“Salami. Did your mother buy any cheese?”
“I think we ran out,” I might have said.
“Put pepperoncinis on it?” my father sighed. “Are there chips?”
“We ate them all.”
“Then just bring me a beer with the sandwich.”
I did and then I settled into the other crook of my father’s armpit to watch whatever he was watching.
When I first started dating a couple of years ago after my marriage ended, I listed on my on-line dating profile that I was only interested in tall men. I wanted, like many women, to feel tiny, perhaps even more so because I’m not particularly small. I’m 5’5’, which is above the average height for women and I weigh anywhere between 140 and 155 pounds. My first serious boyfriend after my marriage fit the bill. He was 6’3 and weighed 240 pounds. Sometimes after sex, I lay on top of his body, and felt like a small bird on top of a giant rock. Once when a drunk lurched towards me on the sidewalk, this same boyfriend imperceptibly put his body between mine and the staggering man’s. Insta-shield! The man stopped short and veered off in the other direction towards his next victim. Other times, for fun, my giant boyfriend lay on top of me and pretended to crush me with his body. It was one of those games I’ve been playing with boys since before I can remember. How much can you stand? Does this hurt? What about this?
“Go ahead put your full weight on me,” I said.
“That’s not going to work. I’ll crush you,” he said.
“I can handle it.”
“No you can’t.”
“Yes, I can.”
And then he settled half of his full-weight on top of me. Leg to leg. Dick to pussy. Chest to chest. Face to face.
“See?” I said haughtily.
“You want more?” he raised his eyebrows at me.
“Okay,” he lowered his chest more fully onto mine.
“It’s too much,” I screamed after about 15 seconds. “I can’t breathe.” He rolled off of me. Giggling. This was our foreplay.
Recently, I met a man who was exactly my height, and who was so good in bed and so good at talking—jokes, questions, the news, food, stories, gossip—anything really, that I fell for him in one night. Swoop. Crash. My heart. But he was small. I weighed more than him. When my ex, the big boyfriend, asked me how I felt about this, I could only say, I don’t care. Because suddenly I didn’t anymore.
It didn’t work out with this small man and I was sad for two months, but I learned that I can be a big animal, and that sometimes I like it.
We watched Finding Dory in a newly re-furbished AMC in the East Village that has fully reclining seats, which are not unlike beds. Because Finding Dory is harrowing and involves a disabled fish who was separated from her parents as a child and trying to find them once again as an adult, I couldn’t fall asleep as I sometimes do in these weird movie seat beds. I loved Finding Nemo for its anti-helicopter parenting message and the weird fish who were trapped in dentist’s office fish tank. My favorite was Gill, who proves to Nemo that he can take care of himself with a simple fish nod and a “You know what to do.”
My daughter squirmed next to me on her bed seat as the drama unfolded. I cried in the opening scene and she looked over at me in mild disgust,
“Mama, you’re crying already.”
“Yeah, that’s going to happen more,” I said and grabbed for her hand.
She held it for a while, and then let it go so she could dig deeply into her sack of sour patch kids.
I see now that Finding Dory is all about the big animal, small animal dynamic. Dory, Nemo, and Marlin rely on big animals—mostly an amazingly grouchy octopus—named Hank—to help them navigate the aquarium, find each other, and escape. In turn, the smaller animals teach the big animals to break free, but stay together. Hank, gives up his hermit dream of being alone and moving to an aquarium in Cleveland. Small animals get something physical they need, namely transport and protection, while the big animals get wisdom and insight.
I suppose I am my daughter’s big animal, and this is a movie about alternative family structures. Birth families and adoptive families. Queer fish and disabled outsiders. Community. And not giving up and moving to Cleveland, no matter what.
When you give birth, the doctor puts this tiny screaming animal baby on you, and you try to feed it, and it sort of works and it sort of doesn’t and you keep going. You strap the baby to your body and you walk around and it takes a couple of years, but soon the baby is a kid and the kid is walking away from you. Coming back still, but also walking away. Trying out its small legs on this large stupid, dangerous planet. Those small legs are ridiculous. How can that small person be walking, while wearing skinny jeans no less? Why are they walking off a curb? Eventually that small person can talk about her feelings and is living with her dad half the time in Brooklyn and when she is with you, she treats your big animal body like a rock in the ocean. She washes up onto your shores. She scrambles somehow up the side of you. She hits you like a wave you’ll never stop surfing.
I turned 44 on the summer solstice and strawberry moon. On my walk home from a dinner with one of my best friends, I felt a great release. For the last three and half years, I’d been walking around like a wound in search of a bandage or maybe just another wound. I thought it was my right to have a partner. I felt entitled to a spouse. As a small animal, I was supposed to be given a big animal. Where did my big animal go? Why have all the big animals stopped taking care of me?
As I stood in the mist of the Washington Square Park fountain, I realized I could play with big animals and small animals, but maybe I didn’t need any animals to take care of me.