I think I was twenty-five years old, but it’s hard to remember for sure. I tend to block some of the truly scarring moments from my comprehensive memory, though shards of the experiences always remain, the edges still sharpened and capable of chipping away at the protective layers that shroud what really happened.
What I just wrote above is a rather dramatic way to embark on the story of my encounter with a rat, but this I tell you: the moment was terrifying, and I want you to understand my almost catatonic reaction. Also, please know that I genuinely pray that neither you nor I ever will have a moment similar to it ever again, not even in the afterlife, if that’s something you happen to believe in.
So my mother had been married to my stepfather for about two or three years, and after eight months of living with them, I moved out. I took my only-months-old puppy with me, fleeing from the noise I didn’t create that spawned from all the random people who always seemed to be wandering through the house: the nanny, Jack’s assistant, the guy who fed the fish and cleaned the tank, the woman whose only job was to water the plants. I hated the intercoms in the house I’d once thought so cool before I realized that all they did was just make the house even louder. I needed peace and quiet, and I really needed to get into the headspace where I could begin to enjoy my family again. I realized early into living with them after college graduation that I could only appreciate them if I wasn’t around them daily.
I think it’s important to understand what you really need in life.
The first apartments I lived in after moving out were not particularly luxurious, and they were paid for initially on a non-tenured teacher’s salary, so they were places that didn’t have a lot of sunlight – or a washer and dryer. I would go over to my parents’ house to do my laundry and to go grocery shopping in their cabinets and in their refrigerator.
“What did you take?” Jack would ask as I hoisted my laundry and a few plastic bags stuffed with his food out to my car after spending a few hours over there. Sometimes the crazy chaos in their house made me crave solitude so desperately that I would pull my still-damp clothing from the dryer, telling myself I could leave it draped across the back of my couch or on my kitchen table overnight to fully dry. But I always had time to raid their provisions.
My mother never asked what I had taken. Only Jack did.
“Not much. Nothing special,” I would answer. And then, if he looked at me and the look became probing, I’d actually give him a rundown of what I had snagged from their house: decaffeinated tea bags, string cheese, wrapped Rice Krispie treats, a roll of paper towels – the pretty, more expensive kind that had flowers printed on it – a few bottles of water, a can of black olives, two rolls of toilet paper, and a handful of bendy straws.
“Those Rice Krispie Treats are for your brother’s lunch,” my mother would then say, and I would try to justify that I was stealing my brand new seven-year-old brother’s snack by launching into eloquent complaints about how she had never bought me yummy snacks for school when I was little.
“Remember when you gave me a baggie filled with sprouts and told me they were candy?” I asked. “Remember that?”
“You liked them!” she would answer, but I could see her resolve weakening a little, knowing what was coming next.
“I liked them until I told the other kids that they were candy – and they laughed at me for believing that,” I would say back, allowing a flutter of anguish to creep into my voice. I didn’t follow up by saying that only a few years later I would get back at one of the kids who laughed at me for the sprout thing by telling her that Santa did not really exist. Okay, it was a cruel move, but we were twelve; time to get realistic about where the Barbie Dream House really came from.
The sprout-guilt usually worked, and I’d be allowed to cart my bags to my car, conveniently forgetting to tell them that I’d also managed to sneak out a 12-pack of Diet Coke. I figured deep down they already knew I’d taken it. Why else would I need all those bendy straws?
But I guess the point is that, while I could not live with them once I became sort of a grown-up, my parents were always very generous to me, so when they asked for a real favor I would never say no. The favor they asked when I was about twenty-five was to come stay in their house for a week and sleep over while they went on a safari in Africa. Their trip was planned during school; Devin would be home. The full-time nanny would be there too, to get him on the bus in the morning and to get him off the bus in the afternoon, but they wanted me there for dinner and to make sure he went to bed at a proper time.
I didn’t want to stay there. I liked being in my own space. But then I realized that I would be even closer to work than usual, which meant that I could sleep a bit later in the morning, and that I could use their amazing four-jet shower and that I could eat all of the Rice Krispie Treats I wanted without penalty or verbal justification – and that, most importantly, they were good parents and I should help them out.
I arrived there after work one night, stopping by my own home first to pick up my clothes for the next few days, my makeup, my dog, and all her stuff. She needed her bowls and baggies filled with her kibble and her treats. She didn’t go anywhere without her stuffed yellow duck that had already been ripped open and emptied of its stuffing and was now just a yellow rag she insisted on carrying around in her mouth for the first twenty minutes of every morning before laying it down carefully before she would jump onto the couch and bask in the sunlight.
Wookie has always had a rough life.
The first days were okay. Devin seemed happy to have me at his house, and I would take him to dinner and he was so cute and so small then.
“Will you watch a movie with me tonight?” he would ask, looking up at me with his huge brown eyes framed by lashes I would have killed to have without the help of mascara. “Please? It can be E.T. or Beauty and the Beast,” and I’d agree to those terms and I’d sit on the couch with this little boy who only a few years ago hadn’t even existed in my life and now he was my brother, and then I would tuck him in and smile at all of the stuffed animals he would sleep with, his yellow Woodstock doll always closest to him, and I’d take Wookie outside for her last walk of the evening and get into my parents’ bed to watch television.
They called frequently while they were away. They called for strange reasons sometimes.
“Tuffy!” my mother would exclaim to me in a phone call, using the nickname I’d been called by both my mom and my dad since I was a toddler. “I am in a luxurious tent in the bush and today I saw a warthog and it reminded me of you!”
I tried to tell myself the connection must have been poor or that I was hallucinating the conversation wherein my mother compared her own child to a warthog, but no; she watched a pack of them one day and decided that the way they scurried about reminded her of me.
Fair enough. It could have been worse. It could have been an anteater that made her think of my face and my smile. And at least she was thinking about me.
My sister got phone calls from them too. This one from our mother was her favorite:
“Leigh-Leigh! I got you an elephant! I’m having him shipped!”
Then the phone call cut out.
“I’m sure it’s not a grown-up elephant,” I reassured my sister, who at this time was living in a studio apartment in Manhattan and could not afford food or lodging for an elephant – or a goldfish. “Maybe it’s just a baby.”
“I can’t have an elephant!” she wailed, but she started to feel better when we began to discuss names for her new pet. I wanted to call him Rufus.
Only a day later, both of us received packages. Inside was a wooden elephant with mini tusks we had to screw in ourselves.
“I think I’d rather have a real elephant,” she said to me as soon as I answered the phone and was staring, puzzled, at my gift.
“Mine does not look like a Rufus,” I muttered back.
Don’t they sell things like diamonds and jade in Africa? What made my parents send us identical wooden elephant statues? Lord only knew what they had in store for us for the holiday season.
(Answer: steel giraffes. I’d love to be kidding. I keep mine in the back of my closet. It almost fell on me one day and it could have killed me – much like a real giraffe, or perhaps a pack of my closest ancestor, the warthog.)
It was almost the end of the week, and I was starting to like staying at their house. It was so much bigger than my apartment. Wookie liked to frolic on the big lawn, literally stopping to smell the flowers. She liked the daffodils the best. There was a full gym downstairs and I was playing on the equipment every night, acting like I knew what I was doing.
It was fun playing house.
But then it happened: I was in bed, but the bedroom light was on. Wookie was getting ready to spin in small circles near me before slumping into a happy ball of fluff at my side where she would sleep uninterrupted for the next eight hours, all seven pounds, five ounces of her becoming deadweight that I couldn’t shift so the two of us would be cramped into a corner of their enormous bed, me hanging partly off. It was something I had learned to accept, and I was just about to turn off the light when a huge black rat sauntered across the carpet, going from one end of the bedroom to the other.
I froze inside. There might have been actual icicles that all of a sudden formed on my spleen. Wookie stood up and watched the rat slink under the dresser at the far side of the room before almost shrugging and settling in beside me like nothing was amiss. I’d often wondered what Wookie would do if we were confronted by an intruder, either in human or rodent form. Now I knew. She would all but wave to it and then settle in for her hard-earned rest.
“It’s okay, Wookie,” I muttered, my voice sounding like a lobotomized robot on Valium, “we are just going to get up slowly and we are going to leave this room.”
She didn’t even have the decency to look concerned as I quickly gathered her, her duck, and my bag. Then I rushed into the bathroom and threw everything that was mine into the bag, grabbed some clothes while leaving others behind, and fled from the room, slamming the door behind me. The entire escape probably took less than forty seconds, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t breathe at all during that time.
I ran downstairs to the nanny’s room and knocked on her door.
“I just saw a rat in my parents’ room,” I stated in a rush. “And I’m leaving. Tell Devin I’ll pick him up for dinner tomorrow at five, but I am not staying here. It’s all on you. I’m sorry, but at least you’re getting paid. I’ll explain to my parents next time they call from the bush to announce that they’re having a lion made out of wax sent to New York.”
And then I left.
Yes, I left my new seven-year-old brother in the company of a nanny while my parents were exploring jungles in Africa because a rat had moved into their home and there’s maybe nothing that scares me more than rodents, any kind of rodent.
The next day I got a call from Jack.
“Sweetheart, I called an exterminator. You can come back to the house.”
“You called an exterminator from Africa?” I asked.
Clearly to him, placing that kind of long-distance call was no big deal. He obviously had a way better cell phone plan than I did.
“We also saw the Yankee game from our tent,” he continued, and then launched into some commentary on a catch that O’Neill had made in the outfield.
“Wait,” I said. “I can’t care about the Yankees right now. Did the exterminator catch the rat?”
“I’m sure he did,” was Jack’s response, but that wasn’t good or definitive enough for me. I told him I wanted to see the corpse of that thing before I reentered his house, and if that viewing couldn’t be arranged, I’d take his kid to dinner every night and call him before bed to say goodnight, but that was it.
And that’s what I did.
They came home from Africa a few days later. I finally went back inside their house, but I made sure that, with every step I took, that I was near a piece of furniture I could hoist myself atop of should the rat or any of his kin come strolling by.
“Why are you standing on my sofa?” my mother asked at one point that day. I hadn’t seen anything, but I still felt internally queasy. Being at the scene made me remember how terrifying it had all been. While I stood shaking, my feet buried in several velvet throw pillows, Wookie sauntered by with her duck in her mouth. Apparently she didn’t suffer from the same post-traumatic-vermin disorder that I feared I’d be plagued with forevermore.
“I’m afraid of the rat,” I told her, and I wasn’t kidding.
“It wasn’t a rat; it was a mouse,” she insisted. “A very small mouse.”
“You weren’t even on this continent when that thing made itself at home in your bedroom!” I screamed. “Don’t tell me what I didn’t see. I saw a rat. Now: do you want to move in with me? You can bring your entire wardrobe and the box of Rice Krispie Treats, but I’m not sure I’ll have room for Jack. He can visit, though.”
She just shook her head at me and walked away, leaving me standing on top of her sofa. When she walked back into the living room, she politely asked me to take my shoes off if I was planning to continue to stand on her furniture. As her request was more than reasonable, I complied, but I held my shoes in my hand so the rat I knew still lived there would not settle down and start a colony in the bottom of my soles.
Look: I get it. I know that my fear of mice and rats is somewhat silly. I know that they can’t genuinely harm me in a physical sense. But the terror will not subside, and I’ve spent some time trying to figure out why such small beings make me cower like I did the first time I saw Darth Vader onscreen when I was four years old.
The thing about mice is they’re quick, stealth. They have ideas that they don’t share. Their tail is not furry; it’s bony and pinkish and gross. They scurry instead of walk. You don’t know what they are thinking the way I feel you often do know what a reasonable animal like a dog is thinking. For example, sometimes I just know with absolute certainty that Wookie is verbalizing in her head sentiments like Why doesn’t she make brisket at home? Why do I only get the good stuff when I’m at my grandmother’s house? Seriously: I believe she has such thoughts.
I don’t like the unexpected, and I don’t like what I can’t control. I don’t like things I cannot reason with or things that don’t communicate in ways I understand. It’s probably not a coincidence that people who lie or deceive are often called rats, as they have scurried beyond what is true, hiding in corners, waiting for something valuable to drop from the hands of someone who believes she is safe and in control of her environment. Rats, the ones with the tails – but also the human kind – wait for a vulnerable moment to pounce.
I don’t like feeling vulnerable.
Many years have passed since that week when I bailed on my young brother and insisted that I did not imagine the rat sighting. We still bring up the story at dinner sometimes, I’m still told by people who didn’t see the thing that it was a tiny mouse, and my mother still has her life-size statue of a giraffe standing prominently in the den.
She had it shipped along with our elephants.