Mouse

mouse

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.

Mouse

mousepartone

© 2016 Caitlin Rain Rainy Day Drawings

Nestled in the armpit of my couch, pillow on my lap, laptop on the pillow, a stack of books beside me, I spotted the mouse across the room. I watched as it climbed up out of the steam pipe hole in the floor and walked—not scurried, walked—toward my bookcase. It was brownish gray and furry with beady little eyes and whiskers and a long thin tail… It was, you know, about the size of a mouse. It took a moment for the sight to set in, but eventually I screamed a classic sort of scream, and the mouse turned around—OK fine, it seemed to say—and walked back into the hole. I gathered my belongings.

Out in the hallway, I called my parents who were driving across Kansas. You’re a real New Yorker now was their take on the situation. They took turns explaining how I could go about killing it, should it reappear. My mother’s method was horrifying in a straightforward way; the horror of my dad’s was subtler yet also deeper and longer lasting. They didn’t offer much besides these methods. They wanted me to claim the New York cred that inheres in cohabitating with a mouse. Or just don’t think about it, my mom advised. With that, she found some excuse in the vast and undifferentiated Kansas landscape to end the conversation and hung up.

Halfway to the drugstore, I remembered all the calls I’ve made to my parents in moments of crisis: the approach of a hurricane, the end of an engagement, the diagnosis of cancer. All the calls I’ve made and the way my mother would mobilize me to action. I remembered how she made Zach and Ashley take me to the psych clinic at UT after One dumped me. Ashley sat with me in the waiting room, hour after hour, watching old men pace and rant and battle the nurses and themselves. When they finally called me in, the doctor diagnosed me as having just been dumped and sent me on my way. Apparently, it’s only in my family that having been dumped is considered a condition worthy of immediate medical attention.

And apparently, according to my mom’s taxonomy of crises, having a mouse doesn’t warrant such immediate action. Her laid-back response was of no use, so I made Jay meet me at my place and sit there while I tried to make my home home again. I had bought new trash cans with lids and a real vacuum. I stuffed the steam pipe hole with steel wool and peppermint oil-soaked dryer sheets. I scoured the dishes—for real this time—scratching off crusted food with my fingernails and abrading the nonstick surfaces my mom raised me to respect.

When I was ready to let Jay leave, I double-checked with him that all was right in my home. “So you think the mouse is gone, then? You think it won’t come back?”

“No, I literally never said anything like that. I’m sure it will come back,” Jay responded, nullifying the whole point of his visit. “OK, good luck, buddy.”

With Jay gone, I felt vulnerable roaming barefoot through my apartment, my toes exposed to little mouse teeth and little mouse claws. So I put on my leopard print ankle boots. I reasoned that, because they’re boots, they’d make my feet seem huge to little mouse eyes and, because they’re leopard print, they’d make my feet seem scary to a little mouse mind. Then my legs felt naked in pajama shorts, so I pulled on a pair of sweatpants. I thrust one booted foot then the other through the narrow pant legs, tripping across the living room floor on my right foot and then back the other way on my left. Suddenly, my arms felt cold, so I put on a sweatshirt. And a bathrobe too. It was just good safety sense.

Sufficiently armored, I crept toward the bedroom, panning the apartment with the flashlight on my phone. Knowing that mice, as monsters, hang out under beds, I thought it’d be best to keep my toes away. So I backed up to take a running start and dived toward the bed from the hallway, making it only halfway and clambering the rest of the way into the precarious safety of my covers.

I sat straight up, comforter draped across the front of my shoulders, my phone as my flashlight, still panning, boots still on. It wasn’t that I was afraid that the mouse would nibble on my flesh while I was asleep. I was afraid to catch him in the act, to wake up and find him perched on my forearm, enjoying a late-night snack. Seeking assurance that this scenario was improbable, I googled “do mice…” and up came “…crawl on sleeping people.” I took comfort in the popularity of the search. After all, disabusing people of their irrational fears is what the internet does best, I figured, desperate. That comfort was soon subverted as I scrolled through result after result detailing just this nightmare scenario. I clicked on each, hoping to find just one that described why it wouldn’t be in the mouse’s interest to nibble at my flesh while I slept.

Unsuccessful, I turned again to Jay. I texted him to share the results of my search. He wrote back: “You are the predator. To them, you are a giant who takes huge, thundering steps with a booming voice, and they are a four-inch-long critter that can barely be heard even at the quietest of times.”

I read and reread Jay’s text, breathing in its logic, but also scanning the room, holding still, creating the quietest of times, listening for a squeak. That was when an idea slipped in: maybe I would never see the mouse again. Maybe all of this—the boots, the flashlight, the covers, the google search, the journaling, the call to my parents, the late-night vigilance—maybe it’s all insanity. Maybe this hell is one of my own design, made in my own image, brought about and bounded only by my own imagination. This idea slipped in quietly, the way a mouse slips into an apartment one day when you’re not paying attention. And then, also like a mouse, it slipped right out.

I sat there. Sitting there is what I do in moments of crisis. I sat there in bed that night, waiting for the mouse to reappear, just like I sat there in the waiting room of the psych clinic with Ashley. In the clinic, I sat among things that didn’t move: chairs, magazines, plants. I was one of those things, just as I was that night in my bedroom, sitting among stacks of books and racks of clothes, the clock, the lamp, the metal cow figurine I stole from my parents.

Years earlier, I sat there in front of the TV at Zach and Ashley’s, watching a hurricane approach the city I loved and abandoned. Years later, I sat there in the radiology center, among old women who held their eyes on me, eyes full of pity and calm. All those times I sat there, feeling like I was both falling and stuck at the same time, a kind of emotional motion sickness, as if my inner ear had evolved to tell me I was moving while my eyes told me I was still.

I sat there thinking of Jay. Jay, who I used to think of as my ex-boyfriend, whose face, whose name in my inbox were once shorthand for my inability to control anything, is now my friend Jay. And he’s texting me to say how threatening I am to a mouse, how powerful, how impervious I am to its mischief.

I couldn’t get myself to turn the lights out that night. But I drew the covers up over my head and breathed. I held still and tried to fall asleep, whispering to myself, “I am the predator. I am the predator. I am the predator.”

VIPs

vips

© 2016 Caitlin Rain Rainy Day Drawings

I arrived at the hotel just after 10 pm. The lobby was brimming with 20-somethings in branded t-shirts tucked into pencil skirts, probably. They wore nametags slipped into nametag holders attached to lanyards, probably. They were probably putting away, by that point, their second glass of pinot grigio. Four-thousand of my closest work friends, these people were.

At the entrance, I rooted around in my bag for sunglasses or a hat or a stick-on mustache. Sunglasses would do. I ducked down, pushed through the revolving door with my forearm and swept through the lobby and up to the front desk in one continuous motion.

I didn’t claim victory until later, when I reached room 418 having said hello to no one.

The next day, I met four friends for lunch in the banquet hall. The tables were draped in white polyester and erected at their centers were cards designating which teachers were meant to sit where. There were tables for English teachers, for math teachers, for elementary teachers, and so on. There was no such designation for us, a bunch of over-the-hill-at-32 hangers-on who show up at these things for nominal speaking fees and free food and drink.

We found a table on the periphery intended for school psychologists. Cole plucked the card from its stand, turned it inside out, scribbled “VIP,” and replaced it. It was a brilliant, economical move, we all thought. Those three letters announced our rightful status and, more importantly, guaranteed our safety from the hordes of strangers and, worse, professional acquaintances who might otherwise want to join us. We’re the kind of introverts who don’t mind addressing an audience of 500 but do very much mind making small talk with strangers while sawing into herb-crusted chicken breasts and getting smacked in the face by the hunks of ice lodged in the goblets of tap water they serve.

Our self-designated VIP status reflected some salient features of my personality, I thought: misanthropy, self-importance, and introversion. Looking at this list of salient features now, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t a bit redundant.

*

I’ve always felt that claims about personality—whether in the form of internet quiz results, drunken late-night ramblings, or the manager of TGI Fridays telling me I’m not cut out for the food service industry—were just a notch realer than horoscopes. Recently, Jay told me that even psychology research suggests that contextual factors dwarf the influence of any stable set of traits we might call personality. Still, I do nothing if not trot around the city proclaiming my introversion, sidling up to people having a terrible time at parties and finding a way to ask if they, like me, self-identify as introverts. What could be so appealing about the introvert designation that I’m willing to embrace these essentialist ways of thinking just to claim it as my own?

I’ve attributed to introversion everything from my tolerance for repetition (songs, TV shows) to my sense of grandiosity to my bad grades (high school) to my good grades (college) to my love of sitting down to my lack of Saturday night plans to my meticulous planning to my hunch that I’d be good at the drums to my tendency to hold forth to my tendency to say nothing to my lack of any sense of direction to my powers of observation to my absentmindedness. There are plenty of think pieces and TED talks (and more than a few internet quizzes) that explain how introverts are not necessarily shy and don’t necessarily have social anxiety, so I won’t bother laying out the evidence here. I’ll just say that we introverts are oriented inward.

If we can’t find the exit in the Bed Bath & Beyond, for example, it’s not that we’d prefer moving in to the Bed Bath & Beyond to asking someone for help. It’s just that we’d consider moving in to the Bed Bath & Beyond before it would occur to us to ask for help. It’s also that we very well might envision the life we would make for ourselves in the Bed Bath & Beyond, imagining how we’d make a pillow fort to live in, complete with an air mattress, a lamp, a mini-fridge, and a George Forman grill—and an alarm clock so we could wake up in time each morning to disassemble it. (OK, I’m almost done: We might also imagine how, like Natalie Portman in that one movie, we’d keep a log of what we owe Bed Bath & Beyond and find a way to compensate them for whatever we used.)

*

In contrast, most of my exes—notably, Jay and Two—are oriented outward. They’re classic extroverts. They make as many friends and enemies walking from the 1 train home as I’ve made in my entire life. On the plus side, these totally inexplicable investments in people they don’t know usually lasted long enough for me to quietly steal their wallet.

These extroverts can’t stomach doing just one thing. They always want more and more. If you watch a movie with Jay, he’ll pause it in the middle of a scene to show you a related YouTube video and then pause the YouTube video to tell you a related story.

Meanwhile, Two couldn’t simply eat at a restaurant. He needed a garrulous Sardinian bartender and a wall full of liquor to quiz him about. That’s why he insisted on eating at the bar. I always assumed that he needed more and more to distract himself from the sinking feeling that everything is nothing and that, no matter how many handmade shoes one buys or how many pisco sours one drinks, we’ll all wind up dead one day anyway.

I don’t know. Do I call myself an introvert because it gives me license to act weird and quiet when I feel like it, because apparently it gives me license to be whatever I claim to be?

It could be that. Or it could be what we five learned that day in the hotel banquet hall: that absent any other suitable category, we are the people who invent one of our own. Then again, maybe that’s just the misanthropy and self-importance—the introversion—talking.

Then again…

 

Breakup Advice

A very wise person on the internet once said, “A relationship is an expensive way to watch someone like you less and less.” It follows, then, that a breakup is a cheap way of liking yourself more and more.

As a person who has been left by many men, I have developed some expertise in the art of overcoming a breakup and, in doing so, liking yourself more and more. I share it with you in flow chart form. Happy breaking up!

How to Make Ravioli

Last week, I was asked to teach some of the loveliest people I know how to make pasta. There was some confusion over the meaning of “making pasta,” and, long story short, I wound up showing them how to fry up eggplant, smash tomatoes, tear mozzarella, and stir it all into preexisting pasta.

So, this morning, my mom and I made some ravioli, and I made a little pictorial tutorial out of it. Here’s how we did it:

Slide1Slide2Slide3Slide4Slide5Slide6Slide7Slide8FixedSlide10Slide11Slide12Slide13Slide14Slide15Slide16Slide17Slide18Slide19Slide20Slide22Slide23Slide24

 

Optical Illusion

profiles

January 2015, Buenos Aires

He has eyes like the sky in winter. He smells like two hundred dollars’ worth of bath products you buy in a store decorated with dead leaves and a canoe. His legs are uncompromising, like trees or fortresses. He says words like aberrational and sublimate like other people say want to see a movie? and don’t forget the eggs. In the morning, he crawls up close while I’m sleeping, puts his mouth right up to my ear, and yells, “Mr. Pickles!”

I’m in Argentina with a stranger. He’s my boyfriend. I’m in Argentina with Two.

He thinks he made pesto last night, but he did not make pesto.

He runs three hours every morning. What he never says when he comes home panting and red-faced is that he stops to eat pastries and make friends along the way.

*

I don’t understand Two. I mean that as a statement of fact, not as commentary. I look at him across the table every night, searchingly. I study him as I’d study an optical illusion. In the optical illusion, I can only ever see the young woman, never the old woman. And those squares look like such different colors to me, even as I learn they’re the same. The vase I can kind of see, but I can’t hold it in my mind for more than a second or two before it morphs back into two silhouettes. How does one come to understand the person sitting across the table?

*

He asks the cab driver to take him to the cueva, which is Spanish slang only he knows for a place to exchange money at the street rate. He thinks I close the cab door too hard. He thinks it and says it and says it and says it. He changes his mind about the restaurant mid-stride. He asks to eat at the bar.

Wisps of gray hair are starting to curl up under his ears. He looks like a founding father. He says he looks like Graydon Carter. He doesn’t understand why the founding father thing is funnier.

He thinks my favorite phrase is “I don’t know what to tell you.” What he doesn’t realize is that he always says whatever he’s saying many times in a row.

He can’t believe I never read that book. He can’t believe I never ate that food. “Reeeally?” he asks.

He speaks English like it’s his second language to people for whom English is actually their second language. “The bar is called Rosario. Is near to here, no?” He either means to or doesn’t mean to. It’s one or the other.

He purses his lips when he doesn’t have anything nice to say. He speaks in a voice like suede when he does.

*

The thing about an optical illusion is that when you start out looking at it one way, it’s hard to ever see it any other way. You unfocus and refocus. You tilt your head. You look away and look back.

Our brains want to organize stimuli into meaningful information–at least, that’s what I read. That’s why we tend to keep seeing optical illusions the way we saw them initially. That’s what makes it hard.

It feels radical, dangerous even, to let go of our structures of seeing, to allow those data points to blur and then sharpen again into a new image, a fuller image. I think I see Two sometimes. I think I understand why Graydon Carter is funnier to him, why he can’t stand the sound of the cab door slamming shut, why he can never choose a restaurant. I think I see him, but I stop trying for one second, and he’s gone again.

*

He wants to go to a diner in Koreatown in the middle of the night. If I say no, he’ll make himself pasta e fagioli and smoke weed while I sleep.

He wants more salt, more spice, less light, more room, better wine, warmer days, longer nights. He wants more me, less me. He wants it all.

He’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, as he runs out into the freezing-cold ocean and calls out for me.

The Mozart of Bitterness

Mozart

September 2014

One evening, late this summer, I declared myself the Mozart of Bitterness. I was sitting neatly on the end of the couch that doesn’t get sat on. It was one way to be less hot. I felt high up, tilted. My legs dangled. I had opened the window too, but it was of no use. The air wasn’t moving.

My elementary music teacher Mrs. Jackson wore long cotton dresses with sneakers. During her first divorce from Mr. Jackson, she taught us to sing “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” which, in retrospect, was weird. The other thing I remember about her is that she told us that Mozart could hear in his mind’s ear an entire symphony in a single moment. Every beat, phrase, and measure, from the allegro to the adagio to the rondo. His mind could collapse it all into just one second. It was then only a matter of unfurling his masterpiece and bringing it to the page. This was the nature of his genius.

No one on the internet wants any part of this story, so I guess it was just another one of Mrs. Jackson’s pedagogical flourishes. That didn’t stop me from declaring myself the Mozart of Bitterness that evening, late this summer.

I spot a name in my inbox, and, in a single moment, I can conjure every wrong ever committed by the possessor of that name. I relive the pain of that time she stood me up at that one coffee shop with the fruit-free scones; that time she was thumbing through a stack of cropped pants at J. Crew and, just for my benefit, sighed, “I suppose I’m up to a size 6 now”; that time at the party in that warehouse when she gave me the look that I know meant I was talking too much about my ex and, further, that I’m a self-involved person generally and lucky to have anyone who’ll listen to me carry on at all. Yes, I can experience all of that in a single moment.

To be clear, my bitterness is not reserved for any one person in particular. It’s for anyone. It’s for everyone. And I conjure wrongs both big and small, both real and imagined. I relive them all.

This is the nature of my genius.

*

The Mozart of Bitterness. I chuckled at the thought in spite of myself. I’ve been depressed.

While I’ve always had the trappings of depression–extreme introspection, a tendency to leave rooms suddenly, a personal narrative blog–only recently did I start feeling depressed. Years ago, after my then-fiance summarily dumped me over the phone, my therapist suggested that I let myself feel sad. I tried to convince him that I simply didn’t know how.

“I don’t own sweatpants, and I don’t listen to Bon Iver,” I said.

“I can’t eat whole pints of Ben & Jerry’s. I’m lactose intolerant,” I said.

“I like Beyonce and pizza and jokes,” I said.

It seemed that grieving would be so much easier for me if only I knew how to feel sad. I dreamed that one day I would develop the depth of emotion and character to fully experience loss, to sit with it, to just be with it.

I’m here to tell you that dreams really do come true. Five years on, I’m not just an expert at experiencing loss. I’m a virtuoso. After all, I’ve managed to achieve this state of grinding hopelessness and despair in response to the most ordinary of disappointments. Friends of mine are divorcing, breaking up, falling out with me or with each other. It’s true that I’ve had my share of medical trouble, but, if anything, cancer wound up being a good excuse to start a blog and a great way to get people to show up to my birthday party. I don’t know how I got this way, but at some point in the past few months, life started to feel like nothing but an accumulation of burdens.

To wit, my mind can twist a monosyllabic text message into a grievous offense, a routine interaction with a customer service agent into a referendum on her character, a friend’s suggestion to keep a gratitude journal into cause for a 2,000-word e-mail laying out a critique of the neoliberal sham we call positive psychology.  

My imagination, once applied to daydreaming about being surprisingly good at karaoke or delivering stirring speeches before an audience that happens to include everyone I’ve ever wanted to impress, is now used to stretch my capacity to be cruel. I use my imagination to develop and refine diatribes, rants, condemnations, denunciations to suit all occasions and tastes. I select and arrange words in ways ever more punishing to their imagined target. In my daydreams, I’ve become as sharp-tongued as I was inspirational. I am, no doubt, the Mozart of Bitterness.

December 2014

Three months ago, I wrote that I was the Mozart of Bitterness. I liked the idea. It felt very me, but I couldn’t figure out where the piece was going. It needed a turn of some sort–a sign of hope. I wanted it to end with a breeze that felt just right on my forearm or a bit of sunlight breaking through the tree branches. I waited for the turn to come.

But as it happened, my life turned in the most utterly ordinary way. I was suddenly no longer depressed, and it was because of nothing grander or more poetic than 50 mg of Zoloft a day and a new boyfriend. It’s a hard thing for me to admit. I just hate to be so basic.