“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” -Indiana Jones
It’s Saturday morning and I’m headed east to the LA County fairgrounds to attend what’s advertised as “the world’s largest reptile show.” There’s one tiny problem: I’m what experts would call “scared shitless of snakes.” Right now, my hands are shaking so badly I could make drinks for James Bond. To stay in my lane I’m gripping the steering wheel like I intend to kill it.
Things are not going well. There are times in your life you agree to do something, but then, when that day arrives you realize what a truly horrible idea it is—what a fool you were to go along with it—and now, if you can strike a bargain to get out of going you’d happily chop off a finger or a toe. (I imagine some weddings feel like this.) All my fears of the near future revolve around the fact that in less than an hour I’ll be surrounded by 50,000-square-feet of snakes.
My grandfather just died. He was that rare man that never failed me as a hero. Death is a preoccupying thought as I thread my truck through this slow morning traffic. Some people eat their feelings. Some people get drunk. Some people bingewatch Netflix. Me? I go for long drives (preferably at top speed).
I’ve always wanted to be like him. Just now, on the phone with my grieving grandmother, I wished her my condolences and reminisced with her. Through tears, she told me she’d finalized plans to bury her husband of sixty-eight years. He’d be laid to rest in the family plot back in Iowa. She asked me what I‘m doing with my Saturday. I told her about the 50,000 square-feet of snakes waiting for me out at the LA County Fairgrounds. She laughed for the first time. (Everyone in my family knows about my fear.)
With a hint of lightness in her voice, she said, “Well, I just faced my greatest fear. …Looks like it’s time you face yours.”
My grieving grandmother just told me not to punk out. I laughed, said, “Y’know what? You’re right. It is time.”
Now, I’m speeding toward Pomona and there’s no turning back. Well played, Grandma.
Psychologists say our fear of snakes is primal. It’s so common that nearly all humans experience it to some extent. One in three adults suffer from an abnormally severe fear of snakes. Doctors and headshrinkers call it: ophidiophobia. That’s what I have, real bad.
A woman I used to get naked with once tried to force me to confront my fear. The first time I was in her bedroom, she asked me if I wanted to play with her new pet. I turned and saw it—lazily coiled in its glass-walled home. I froze in place. Then I looked around her room for something to kill it. I was ready to go full caveman. She saw in my dark eyes that I hated her snake. This bothered her. She decided she’d cure me of my phobia. A few nights later, while we’re half-naked, she hops up, grabs her snake and brings it to bed. I may or may not have said, “If you don’t get that fucking thing away from me, I swear to God, you can not get pissed when I murder your fucking snake.”
She was persistent. Bless her little heart. She kept pushing her black and brown ball python at me. She said, “If you don’t touch my snake … you can’t touch me.”
I didn’t have to hold her snake. I only had to touch it. If life were a silent movie, the title card would’ve read: “Snake vs. Sex: which will triumph?” She’d locked me in a battle between my deepest urges, pitting primal fear against primal desire.
Of course… sex beat fear. Sex works for the future, while fear derives its power from your memories of the past. The future should always win. So, I pushed forward a shy index finger.
My whole body drew back except for that unlucky index fingertip. That’s as close as I’ve ever come to any sort of intervention. I did not kill her snake. I considered that a total success.
A few years later, when I told a friend about that incident with the girl and her snake, he had a good laugh and I guess he decided one day he’d test my fear. That day eventually arrived. He invites me up on his roof to smoke and check out the night sky over Hollywood. He led me up to the highest point of the roof. At the peak, there in the dark of night, I caught sight of what looked like a coiled-up snake roughly two feet from me. You could say I over-reacted. With the quickness of a startled deer, I sprang in the opposite direction … right off the roof.
In mid-air, I thought to myself: Wait a sec—there aren’t snakes on LA rooftops. That motherfucker put a rubber snake up there to scare the shit out of me! Haha!
But really the joke was on him. He watched me fall off his roof, scared he’d just killed his friend. In his defense, he didn’t expect me to walk off the roof. Irrational fear makes you do stupid shit.
I just parked in the middle of an enormous and neglected parking lot. I stare at the weeds growing out of tiny ravines. This time, there’s no promise of naked breasts or gently sloping hips to get me out of the car—there’s just snakes.
Fifty-thousand square feet of reptiles. The words might as well be written across the sky. Food trucks are parked just outside the double doors to the convention hall. The sugary air of fresh kettle corn sweetens my mood before I step inside the building. The room is comfortably cool, the way all good conference rooms are. Only it’s the size of a major international airport, and the crowd is equally global.
A pair of British accents go lilting past. A Korean father pulls a crying child by the arm, dragging the boy out of the building. Four generations of a Persian family wrap around me. They are all laughing at how much fun a reptile show is with your in-laws. The crowd parts in front of me and I finally see them…
…Snakes. So many fucking snakes.
There’s no way to prepare for this moment. I freeze. A baby stroller tags me in the ankle. I stand tree-stiff. Eventually I begin processing information in front of me.
Most of the snakes are genetic hybrids designed by ambitious breeders. Their names are like ridiculous weed strains. On one table, there’s Vanilla Mystic Potion, Cinnamon Pinstripe, Anxanthic, and Champagne Oil. If you smoked these snakes, they’d get you high as hell.
There are people walking around with snakes casually draped over their shoulders like feather boas. I see kids with pythons coiled around their arms and constrictors wrapped around their necks. A portly, ruddy-faced man, who looks like a young Dick Cheney, passes me, carrying a box on his shoulder labeled 1,000 large crickets. This is a way of life. These folks love and feed everything I hate and fear. I am a pilgrim in a strange land.
A young redheaded woman pushes past me and shouts to be heard over the crowd, “Do you have any red dwarf tarantulas? I’m desperate to find a red dwarf.”
And I’m desperate to bail. But then I think of my grandmother. I need to make peace with at least one snake. Which means I need to make these snake people like me.
“So… um, wh-which of these is your favorite?” I ask a reptile dealer named Jeff with a thickly tattooed sleeve.
Jeff tells me, “The Albino pied. It’s listed at $4,500 for a female and $6,000 a male.”
“Holy shit! People actually pay that?” I shout. (I realize I’m terrible for his business.)
He handles it well. “It’s about sex. A male can impregnate 6 to 8 females a year. But females may not give birth to a clutch of eggs each year.”
For a second, I imagine snakes having sex. Without a doubt, it’s one of the worst seconds of my life. Jeff pulls out a sleepy Albino pied from its container. Despite my near-crippling panic, I stare at its creamy color, segmented by wide bands of tangerine. It looks like a refugee from a Baz Luhrman musical. I don’t want to touch it.
I stroll past another table of snakes and a woman smiles at me. Her voice sounds as comforting as warm milk. Now she asks me the question, “which one do you like best.”
I take a look, just to be polite, “None. They all terrify me. I only came here to confront my phobia. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”
But I do know why. She has the sort of patient stare that makes you want to tell her everything you’re feeling and not stop until either you’re in tears or grinning from an Oprah-like epiphany. She says with Midwestern certainty, “Sounds like we need to take a picture of you holding a snake to prove you conquered your fear. Here. Lemme see your camera.”
For reasons, that still surprise me, I say, “I think you’re right.”
She gives my camera to her daughter and tells me to pose with the most expensive one.
“It’s called a Super Mojave.” Before I can run away, she plops it in my hands. “Just be careful not to drop her. If you think you’re going to drop her, scream and I’ll come running,” she tells me with a smile. Then everything goes silent.
There. Is. A. Snake. In. My. Hands.
Its muscular mass is coiled a few times. Her head emerges. It lifts up. With a slow menace, like a gangster in a noir film, the head turns to face me. The tongue flicks out to taste the air. I look for something to kill the snake, somewhere to toss it.
Do not throw the snake. Do not throw the snake. Do not throw the snake.
I remind myself this is their most expensive snake, and they seem nice. A crowd gathers to watch the violently shaking guy try to hold an exotic animal while not shitting himself. I can hear children laughing. I do not care. They’re lucky I don’t throw the snake at them.
Here, you deal with it.
The snake is vaguely warm, like a person who died two hours ago and has yet to grow cold. The muscles feel rigid. You can sense this creature makes its living crushing other animals to death. The daughter tells me to smile. I’m surprised I’m still conscious. I attempt a smile. She snaps a picture. This is the moment I thought I was about to join my grandfather after I died from a snake-induced heart attack. Obviously, I did not. If I can hold a snake and not throw it at a child, I can probably handle anything.
Fear not, my friends. …it’s just a snake.
Zaron Burnett III is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter