It was the end of the 1990s. The Tamagotchi had taken over the world, but sales were slowing for the first time. The conditions were perfect for the kids in our lower-middle-class area to grab one at a discount for the first time. Soon, I was 13 years old and struggling under the pressure to settle down and start a family.
I’d barely noticed Tamagotchis when they first arrived on the scene. Pokémon Red and Nintendo 64 games had my full attention. Before long, though, it seemed someone at every party had their little LCD alien baby on a keychain in whatever style and colors spoke to them. Couples would pass theirs to me and the girl I was there with, making us hold it and asking when we were going to have one of our own.
That relationship was on rocky ground, like every relationship between 13-year-olds. Maybe I was stupid. Maybe I thought I could change fate. But after a night of indiscretion at a Toys ‘R’ Us, we found ourselves with our own little bundle of toy and no idea what fresh hell we were about to unleash.
Back in the presence of our couple friends, we pulled the laminated tab to start the process. No turning back. Our little egg appeared, bouncing gently and waiting a seemingly arbitrary five minutes to hatch. Two minutes in, our friends were asking us how far along we were and promising everything was about to change.
When it hatched for the first time, I held it up like Rafiki on Pride Rock, showing everyone in the room.
There he was—a tiny Pac-Man baby. I called him Little Abraham, and for some reason it stuck. We all watched as he bounced around the screen and devoured thick slices of bread in a few bites. He was so precious that no one minded pitching in to clean up the him-sized shit piles he left or splash the little stink lines off of him. When he got sick, whoever was within reach would give him a shot of whatever was in that mystery syringe. If it didn’t work, they’d just keep doing it until he bounced right back. No one questioned that sort of thing back then.
It was a shared custody situation, even when we were together. I stepped up to take over when she was busy or simply needed a night off. She still had a chance at finishing high school, going to college, and launching a successful career–she didn’t deserve to have it ruined because of our impulsive mistake.
With a full course load and strained social life of my own, I entertained Abe, fed him, and got up with him in the early hours. In the modern age, everyone checks the same model iPhone when the default text tone goes off at a restaurant. Imagine being conditioned to hear an electronic beep in the 1990s and worry that a little alien just shit himself.
Abe’s spirited Child and Teen phases eventually came between us. We made good-natured jokes about having another one before the first one grew up, but soon we got our first look at our drastically different worldviews. She wanted to go straight to strict punishment any time Abraham beeped inappropriately. It was the obvious choice if you trusted the instruction manual, but I had questions about what kind of maniacs were programming this thing to test boundaries with us in the first place. What was their reasoning? So it wouldn’t grow up to be unattractive and bad mannered. Those are their real words. Who were we to proscribe a set of traits or behaviors in his little plastic world?
The differences got the best of us. This was more than she’d bargained for. She wanted to return to the carefree days of the previous week. No baggage; No beeps. We told everyone we were casually going our separate ways. It was me and Little Abraham versus the world.
The chaos at home took its toll on him too. He evolved into what turned out to be the more troubled Teen form. This resulted in more neediness and discipline issues. He needed more from me precisely when I had the least to give. I’d heard they could be potty trained, but I dismissed it as an urban legend. I kept cleaning his floor shits and made time to entertain him. It wasn’t his fault he wasn’t part of a big, happy family.
I was pissed to learn that later-model Tamagotchis had a Pause feature.
As Less-Little Abraham continued his evolutionary journey toward deeply-flawed adulthood, I found myself sneaking him into school to keep up. This was explicitly forbidden in schools everywhere. You didn’t have to see one in class to spot the kids who were raising them. You could tell from the unkempt hair, the bags under their eyes, and the knowing looks we traded that said, “these are the hard times, but it goes by in a flash.”
I’d heard rumors about outlier Tamagotchis living for months, but their accelerated alien aging trait meant that the inevitable loomed ahead of Young Adult Abe. I provided care as I was able. It would be some time before Bandai would implement its infrared pairing technology which meant he couldn’t make friends, marry, or have a little Tam of his own. It was me and him until the bitter end.
Eventually Abe evolved into the statistically worst adult form–the one that looks like an Easter Peep with two baby carrots for a mouth. Surpassed in unlovability only by the one that looks like a snake with a duck’s head. She’d been right about the discipline. He did whatever the fuck he wanted now and needed nearly as much babysitting as he had when he was a child.
My pride in his progress slid steadily into guilt that I felt for thinking about life after Abraham. Yet, as I noticed his health start to decline, I knew I couldn’t give him any less than my best efforts. None of his life up to now had been his choice. I wasn’t going to impose myself on the end of it. I kept cleaning his shits. I kept the bread train rolling. I even tried to play some of his favorite games with him, but he no longer had any idea what was going on.
He eventually passed while we both slept. I woke to find him floating around the screen in angel form. I felt a sense of relief and a great weight lift from my shoulders, then I felt guilt for feeling that way. I put the plastic egg in the closet and didn’t see it again for years.
Bandai rereleased the Tamagotchi 20 years later, including my “Gen 1” model, still free of the quality-of-life features afforded to later children. I noticed them on discount at the same Toys ‘R’ Us–a real parent now with a spouse that was in it for the long haul. I forced a little laugh as I felt the familiar pain in my stomach. I gave my young son a piece of bread and took him home to wash away his stink lines.