Here are some things that remind me of death:
- Amicable interactions among strangers in the subway
- Recreational group texts
- Office supplies bought in bulk
How long can this possibly last? I always think, stiff with worry. These strangers should have run out of things to say to each other. These friendships should have frayed by now. Someone should have said the wrong thing. These pens should have been snatched up by those goblins who roam offices for stray writing implements.
How long can this possibly last? The correct answer is always until we die. Maybe it won’t last that long, but I can’t help but imagine it doing so. This thing, this good thing, this plentiful thing, could last all the way up until someone gets hit by a bus or a train, or has a heart attack or a stroke. Until my parents discover, in the wake of my untimely death, two untouched pens in the pen cup on my desk, just standing there, facing each other with the rigidity and opacity of a relationship gone bad.
Things that seem to go on and on remind me that nothing does.
I had never thought of that long stretch of my life before the mouse climbed out of the steam pipe hole for a 30-inch jaunt into my living room as mouse-free, particularly. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to define my life in those terms. It was the appearance of the mouse that prompted me to retrofit my memory of those years with that designation. Only now do I recognize how good I had it.
It took me three days after the mouse’s appearance to settle back into my apartment, to recognize myself in the mirror, to see my home as home, my life as life. That Sunday, I felt comfortable enough to cook again in my now hermetically sealed kitchen. The super had come and stuffed all the crevices with steel wool and sticky traps, so pasta with parsnips and bacon, it was. I felt safe enough to put on some music, to do the “One Dance” cha-cha as I fried up the bacon.
I don’t want to overstate any of this. I don’t want to be extravagant in setting the scene, but let’s just say I was swinging and swaying across the kitchen floor, belting a chorus that didn’t need belting, giggling to myself, funny memories bubbling up inside, daydreaming of being amazing. I was back.
I flipped the bacon and went into the pantry for a paper towel to drain the grease. There I discovered, utterly unmistakable on the plain white roll, something much worse than a mouse: mouse droppings. Just the sort of mouse droppings everyone on Facebook had warned me about. Just the sort that signify not mouse but infinite, unknowable mice.
I strained to remember if I had used the paper towels since the mouse walked in three days earlier. If I hadn’t, the droppings could have been old, suggesting a longer standing mouse problem. But, on the plus side, it wouldn’t rule out the success of all the scrubbing and sealing. If I had used the paper towels, and I was pretty sure I had, then the mouse had been back, revealing the scrubbing and sealing—and any future scrubbing and sealing—to be futile.
I did the only sensible thing: I threw out the roll, turned off the gas, slid the frying pan and all of its contents into the fridge, ran out, and resolved not to think of it again at least until I no longer had to resolve not to think of it again.
Freshman year of college (snowman print pajama pants, Anglophone novels, buttered pasta and pie), everything lasted forever. I was with One then (board games, bus rides, boxed wine). We were to last forever. It wasn’t a desperate belief, or even a naïve or romantic one. In fact, it wasn’t a belief at all. It was too immersive to be recognizable as a belief. We didn’t speak of it, per se, but our future together was the cool undercurrent of everyday conversation.
When he dumped me eight years later (phone call, fifteen minutes, deposits forfeited, a couch in dispute), I plunged, or was plunged, into a new awareness of the precarity of things. I had never thought of that long stretch of my life with One as finite, as even a long stretch of my life. It was just life. I never thought I’d one day enumerate the Toms I loved. Now I’m always expecting things to end, maybe quietly wanting things to end. Maybe wanting to end good things with my own two hands before death does it for me.
But back to the mouse.
Sticky traps are the stuff of nightmares. If a sticky trap does its job, it half-kills the mouse. The mouse will half-die by suffocation or starvation if you leave it long enough, which inevitably you will because no one taught you how to deal with a half-dead mouse on a sticky trap. (I know. Perhaps now, while temperatures are running high, I should avoid using the second person, even in its generic form.)
A sticky trap is nothing more than a square of card stock coated with adhesive. It has a picture of bananas on it because, I have to assume, the glue is infused with some sort of banana essence meant to lure the mouse to its half-death. (I’d like to think, in much the same way I like to think of Trump supporters as horrible rather than stupid, it’s not because the manufacturers actually think the picture of bananas will lure the mouse.) Anyway, I was too uneasy about the traps to get close enough to read the print and know for sure.
For weeks, when I came home, I’d open the front door just a bit, insert my head into the wedge of space, and check the traps. They were empty every time, but they forced me to consider what I’d do if they weren’t. I couldn’t make up my mind. I could try to set it free. I’d heard that, to release its claws from the adhesive, you have to douse it in oil. Otherwise, I’d have to kill it. I’d have to wrap it in two garbage bags, layered one inside the other, counter-couchant so their openings didn’t coincide, and kill it by blunt force with a rolling pin. OK, I suppose I did make up my mind: I would be the predator. But that didn’t make the task any less horrifying.
You’d think I’d want to kill the mouse. You’d think that, by killing it, I’d be reinstating the halcyon mouse-free days of my first thirty-three years of life. If the mouse signifies the end of good things, then its death should signify the end of such endings and the maintenance of good things.
But I wasn’t living with a mouse. I was living with the idea of a mouse. It’s the idea that a mouse could be anywhere, at any moment. And, while a mouse can die, the idea of a mouse cannot. It can’t even half-die, pitiful, gasping on a sticky trap. It can’t even whole-die from the blunt force of a rolling pin.
I prefer my tormenters concrete, real. That way, I can know for sure that they’re not me, that they’re other. And that way, I can destroy them. But I live with the idea of a mouse. It’s an idea that’s forced my heart to grow big—big enough to make room for chaos and endings. I live with the idea of a mouse, so I threw the traps away.