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.

Ten Sentences: Doing What’s Best

There was a bra just sitting there, crumpled on the first step of the dorm’s main stairwell. Eventually, someone draped it over the banister, and then someone flung it up over the light fixture. It fell back to the step eventually, and someone doodled a smiley face on each cup. One day, I took a turn and drew a little heart (I’d slipped a Sharpie into my pocket for just this purpose). Every morning, it was, “What will happen to the bra today?”

That spring, I’d lost one of my bras—probably, someone took it from the laundry room by accident. You can see now what I couldn’t see then: the bra in the stairwell was mine.

When it finally hit me, I made my way to the stairwell, took a moment to acknowledge my bra, wrapped it lovingly in a t-shirt (I’d brought one with me for just this purpose), and then buried it in a nearby trashcan.

Sometimes, you just absolutely cannot see the truth right away. You can’t, you can’t, you can’t.

Saturday School

When you go to school on a Saturday, whether it’s for orchestra practice or for a yearbook committee meeting, you might make a sighting—a very rare sighting, indeed—of a teacher in her weekend clothes. She wears jeans and a crewneck sweatshirt layered over a white mock turtleneck. Her hair looks the same, though, because her hair generally doesn’t move. And you realize what we all have to realize from time to time: she is a person.

In college, our art history professor took us on a Saturday field trip to the museum. It was October—brisk, sunny. Believe it or not, he showed up in a sweater: navy, ribbed, pilled to no end, v-neck, and, I’m just guessing here, wool and acrylic. Suddenly, he who filled the room lit only by Rothko’s Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea (1944) with his hypnotic monotone was just a guy in a sweater, pulling back the branches of a fallen tree so we could pass through the wooded area to the museum grounds. He gets cold sometimes, too, I thought.

This is what I like about Saturdays and about cold weather and especially about working on Saturdays in cold weather. We all show up as uncanny versions of ourselves. The cold Saturday air sweeps away our sedimented social roles, and we’re mostly just bodies moving through space. We look the same, but we are so different.

Maybe it’s because it was cool, not cold, and rainy Thursday, and everyone showed up for work in the sartorial equivalent of mac and cheese. Maybe it’s because I took a grand tour of identity metaphors in an old article by Moje and McCarthy. Identity is dough! It’s gel! It’s condensation! Maybe it’s because I’m hankering for mille feuille or for bread pudding. But, for whatever reason, I’m thinking again about what it means to be a person. Only this time, I’m less interested in who I really am than in who the hell all those other people really are.

*

Last year, my friend (we’ll call her T for teacher) called me to complain about her principal. I know both women well, so T didn’t have to say much to convince me of the principal’s impulsiveness and imprudence. She told me how the principal had snapped to a decision about the quality of T’s lesson plan based on either some faulty evidence or some faulty reasoning. I don’t really remember which. But what I do remember is that the principal was the villain in the story. At that time, she was the villain in nearly every story. That much was clear.

Then, T pivoted to tell me something else. A parent had arrived at dismissal with her sleeves already rolled up, gesticulating wildly and barking at the teachers about whatever punishment they’d dealt to her daughter the previous day. And, in this story, the principal was no longer a villain. She was an ally, working to calm the parent, strategizing with T, and sticking up for the teachers. The principal was a figure whose narrative presence highlighted the craziness of the new villain, a figure, who, along with T, helped form a united front of reasonable people.

How quickly our mind compensates for this shift. Narrative structure helps us see someone who was, moments before, the most rotten villain, as the protagonist’s friend and partner. We tend to and want to see others as essentially something, but T’s dueling narratives reveal how we really can only see, and know, people in relation to other people, against the backdrop of a single moment in time.

I was the kind of kid who had sworn enemies and arch nemeses. Even then, I suspected that I could only be the hero in contrast to a horde of villains. These were the girls who didn’t call me ugly, but implied it because they were clever enough to imply. They beat me at Around the World in second grade and insisted on using evidence as a verb in a partner paper in tenth. They encouraged me to sing “Love Potion No. 9” in front of the class in fourth grade and befriended my Rachel in eighth. They were absolutely the worst.

But I see them on Facebook now, and they’re somebody’s mom. Their kids actually are pretty cute, crouching among the pumpkins or wearing that funny little hat. Their husbands—soft, gentle-looking guys in college hoodies—hold them tight in photos. They get cold sometimes, too, and bundle up for the A&M game.

As soon as we’ve developed an idea of a person, the world has a way of disabusing us of that idea. But only if we let it. This maybe is one morsel of one sliver of what it means to be a person in the world: to let our perceptions of others remain pliant and permeable, to let in new ideas of who a person is and can be.

This One Ends with a Little Bit of Hope

We Learn NothingI know my love for Tim Kreider is true because it’s outlasted the honeymoon period. I just finished his book of essays and cartoons, the previously mentioned We Learn Nothing, and, under his influence, I’ve been writing this recent series of self-deprecating, all-I-have-to-offer-is-honesty posts.

When I’m in the throes, every little thing my beloved does is emblematic of his greater greatness. From early on, it was clear that Kreider is mighty handy with adjectives. The precision of his imperious and unalloyed filled me with a love tempered only by writer’s envy. His writing, I mused, is the strongest argument against the kind of MFA-in-Creative-Writing writing I’ve come to hate—heavy on verbs, light on everything else. He is a Man of Adjectives, I declared.

The honeymoon ended when, a few chapters later, he described something else as imperious and, then, something else as unalloyed. In another chapter, he used rueful twice over three pages. All of a sudden, I got it: he’s just the adjective guy. I’d thought I was gazing into an abyss, marveling at infinite mystery and wonder, but then I realized it was just a barrel lined in black velvet. How very disenchanting it was to realize that I could reach down and touch the bottom.

I’ve forgiven Kreider this because his offense is nothing compared to my ex-beloved Aaron Sorkin’s. This montage of Sorkinisms will probably not be a waste of your seven minutes if you’re a fan. Sorkin’s not for nothings and you bet your asses reveal the exact dimensions of his brilliance. Turns out, it’s a puny little thing. You can hold it in the palm of your hand and pet it with your index finger.

*

But this post is about how I’m the worst offender of all. I once admonished a wayward teacher by telling her, “Our work is so, so hard. There’s just no way we’re going to get it done unless we do it together, as a team.” A couple of hours later, I found myself singing the same tune to a group of eighth-graders who had fallen into some adolescent infighting. I could have sworn that the teacher I’d admonished hesitated as she walked by my classroom, listening in and, now smug, made note of how I repurposed my little teamwork speech.

Earlier this year, the guy I was dating kept interrupting my stories a few sentences in to remind me that I’d already told him that one on our first date. They were cute anecdotes, starring me—endearing, plucky, clever me. It was embarrassing to discover I’d told these stories on our first date not only because it proved that my charms are finite but also because it revealed what I think of as my charms, my best stuff, the stuff I tell on a first date to show off the set of traits I’ve so carefully curated.

But I’m trying to learn my lesson. Rachel just arrived in New York ahead of our trip to Spain. Over dinner the first night, I was ready to let loose all the good, juicy stories of recent events. I told myself and her that I’d have to keep the stories at a slow drip. We’re going to spend two weeks together, and I don’t want to share all my best stuff right away. After all, we know my best stuff is a nonrenewable resource.

*

A colleague recently told me a great story about her nephew who, embarrassed by his own misdeed, wailed, “I want a new name!” I know the feeling, little dude. Life is just so embarrassing sometimes. My shame is the realization of how little there is to me. I can fish around inside for new stories and ideas all I want, but I’m going to keep pulling out the same old stuff. I guess I don’t need a new name—just something new to say.

Kreider wrote, “If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” Sure, my honeymoon period with myself is over. I know all my tricks. But, in exchange for the mortification of being me, I’ll try to get my hands on some real self-love, love for that pitifully finite me who just keeps showing up.

How (Not) to be a Person in the World

If I knew anything about how to be a person in the world, I would have known how to respond to the man on the subway platform when he said, “You have summer legs.” It was early March, and I’d gotten a little ahead of myself that morning, hoping that sheer polka-dot tights were weather-appropriate. It was still first thing, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to make sense of the comment if my legs weren’t already freezing. But all I could think to do was bark back, “No, I don’t!”

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when another man said another baffling thing to me on a subway platform. I was reading a book, and he said, “I guess you’re carrying the banner for English literature.” Fittingly, I was reading We Learn Nothing. “No, I’m not!” I responded, but this time it came out all warbly because I decided at the last second to try to sound less hostile. I punctuated the whole exchange with a lopsided smile, ducked my head back into my book, and held my breath until I sensed he’d walked away.

As a teacher, I’ve given more than my share of thought to how to be a person in the world. Yet, at this point, my best (worst and only) strategy is to careen through life, swerving to avoid collision not as much with other people as with the darker versions of myself.

My ears always prick up when a friend mentions a widely despised acquaintance—a member of their book club, a coworker, or someone clinging to the fringes of their friend group. I start sniffing around the story, hoping to discover the source of their grievance. Avoiding being the one everyone hates is of utmost importance to me, yet I’m always a little panicky hearing about how this minor monster dominates every conversation or doesn’t pick up on social cues or carries on about her problems. At any moment, that thing I undeniably do will be named, and the very utterance will erode the layers of obliviousness I use to protect myself from others’ perceptions.

*

These kinds of deliberate investigations are hardly necessary to identify undesirable behaviors in myself. In fact, I need only spend a bit of time with my niece and nephew, Harper and Luca, to see how little I’ve grown and how little I’ve learned. One thing about toddlers, of course, is that they haven’t yet covered themselves in good manners and pleasantries and, so, tend to lay bare the nastier parts of the human condition.

Harper Belly 8

When we all lived in Texas, we’d get together with my parents for Sunday dinner. While we cooked and set the table, Harper would take to the floor: running, scooting in a toy car for which she was two sizes too big, galloping, dancing, always in circles, always bellowing some nonsense and recruiting adults to chase her. At some point, invariably, above all that racket, we would hear the squeak of sneaker caught on hardwood, and she’d go tumbling to the floor. It always took a few seconds for her to realize she was embarrassed, and she’d start freaking out, letting out a couple of long wails that would disintegrate into sobs. Then, every time, just as suddenly, something would distract her—say, a toy dinosaur, a cupcake, or a new thought—and, with total nonchalance, she’d recover.

Watching Harper, I’d feel the kind of sudden indignity you experience when you realize that that person standing over there looking frumpy and ordinary is really your reflection in a mirror. I’ve seen myself do this very thing: I yell and cry and stomp and say, I am so sad. Just so sad. I will always be so sad. I am cursed with this sadness, a sadness heretofore unknown to humankind. Then, Marion Cotillard will wear a dress cut on the bias, or I’ll realize I have all the ingredients for pesto, and I’ll slink back into the world I know to be beautiful and glorious, taking comfort that no one but me was witness to my histrionics.

Recently, I awakened to some news that had me pulsating with anger. It was a national holiday, so sitting around being angry was the only thing on the agenda. After a few hours of this, I started to give some serious thought to smashing a plate against the wall. I’d seen people on TV do it, and it seemed like a good way to really commit to the anger. In any case, why else do I have all that exposed brick? I started thumbing through the stack of plates in the kitchen cabinet. I reasoned that I’d have to go with one of the easily replaced white plates but, of course, not one from Williams Sonoma. One of the ringers from Ikea would do.

In the course of identifying the perfect plate for smashing, I noticed that they weren’t optimally stacked. The blue and green ones I like best found their way to the bottom, rendered inaccessible by the stack of dinner party plates on top. See, I try to live intentionally, making each day more beautiful than the last. Why would I not treat myself to the blue or green plate at each meal? Bam, I had a project. And a new outlook. I resisted the urge to look over both shoulders, checking to see if anyone noticed my casual re-entry into normalcy.

*

Not long ago, we were all together in Houston for Luca’s third birthday, watching Peter Pan for the fourth time in as many days. Luca was mesmerized, so Ashley made use of the opportunity to tell him that she and I were going to the grocery store. It took him a moment to process. Then, he cooed, “But you’re my best friend.”

The others gasped at Luca’s sly sweetness, wondered where he learned such manipulation, and predicted a lifetime of breaking hearts. Meanwhile, I rummaged through my mental rolodex of people who have decided, in one way or another, to leave me and confirmed that my response was always, more or less, Luca’s.

A couple of years ago, on the occasion of my birthday and my move to New York, a friend wrote me an e-mail in which she revealed that, after five years of friendship, I wasn’t really her cup of tea. Far be it for me to express real feelings of sadness, anger, and betrayal either in response to her or behind her back to my actual friends (who, by the bye, didn’t seem to share her struggle to meet my “unreasonably high expectations”). No, as always, I’d eschew the full range of reasonable responses, and, instead, call her and leave a sniveling voicemail about how very important she was to me, how she could call me whenever she felt ready. I all but said, “But you’re my best friend.”

*

My trouble being a person in the world is matched only by my trouble baking, pulling off self-deprecation, and remembering to close out my iPhone apps. And, as in all of those pursuits, I know enough to know that I’m doing it wrong but not enough to know how to do it right. But that’ll be okay. I’ll go to Spain, have surgery, start another semester, celebrate another birthday, and that’ll be okay. It’s the best I can do for now.

Rereading Foucault

Aside

Foucault

I pulled an old copy of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish off my shelf this morning and spent some time with it at a coffee shop on 79th. The markings of a dried-up orange highlighter hadn’t budged in the ten years since I last read it. They’ll always be there to remind me of my clumsy first effort to understand.

It just so happens that I’m wielding an orange highlighter today, but today’s is a nice and juicy florescent. All morning, I was waging a minor war against my instinct to highlight the same parts I highlighted ten years ago. Sometimes, my initial reading of a thing wears grooves in my mind, and it’s hard to resist rereading in those same grooves. But I’ll work on having two experiences of Foucault rather than one experience two times.

Luckily, it looks like I only ever read the first chapter and a half, so I won’t have to wage this war much longer.

A Juice Glass and Nothing More

Image

If there’s one thing to know about people, it’s that they’re not things. People have feelings. They need to be listened to and loved. Sometimes, you have to flout social convention and give them a big hug in a public place and tell them that everything is going to be okay. Other times, you have to open your eyes real wide when they tell you that surprising story, and you have to shake your head and say jeez when they’re finished. When they call you first thing on a Saturday morning, and they’re sorry because they didn’t mean to wake you, you have to pretend like you were already awake, saying, oh, no, I’ve just been lying in bed, thinking.

So it’s completely inappropriate to compare a person to a juice glass. It is wrong to do so over the phone one Thursday afternoon as you await news from the doctor. You might think, my meeting was cancelled at the last minute, and I have some time on my hands. If the news from the doctor is bad, this metaphor will never get its due. Why not call that man right now and tell him that he’s like a juice glass? How else but through this metaphor will I illustrate why I cannot be his friend?

Even still, it’s a completely inappropriate comparison, one you should avoid making altogether.

But what if it’s a really nice juice glass? What if it was made in France of the thickest, heaviest glass I’ve ever had the pleasure to hold? What if it has four perfect fleurs-de-lis just like the juice glasses my family used when I was growing up?

I’m saying, even if those conditions are met, it is still a bad idea to compare a person to a juice glass.

If you do place the call and you do make the comparison, don’t discuss how, in college, you spent $50 on the set of four glasses even though, at that point, you were wearing $5 second-hand bolero jackets that you would tailor yourself with the needle and thread you borrowed from the girl down the hall who always had a sewing kit and Band-Aids and batteries to spare. Don’t go into that because out of that story will sprout a whole other conversation about second-hand clothes, and it’ll take five minutes to tend to that one. And any conversation about how a person is like a juice glass is long enough as it is.

Also, don’t under any circumstance—that is, if you do place the call and you do make the comparison—blame the whole episode on functional minimalism. It’s not functional minimalism’s fault. Functional minimalism didn’t jump off a cliff, and you didn’t jump off after it.

If you do place the call, make the comparison, and cast the blame, don’t start laying out the tenets of functional minimalism. The very least you could do would be to not lay out the tenets. You may think it’s helpful for him to understand that, just as every little thing in your apartment has a place and a purpose, so too does every person in your life.

And while it’s true that coffee mugs are for coffee and juice glasses are for juice and that no amount of time will make you more willing to violate these immutable truths, remember that some truths are best left unspoken. Excuse yourself from the call and go for a run. Central Park is beautiful this time of year, especially as the sun sets, which is what’s happening now.

Being friends with you would be as absurd as pouring coffee into a juice glass, you will feel urged to add, alluding to that one otherwise lovely morning when he tried to do just that. Please, resist the urge. Go for that run.

And, for God’s sake, don’t tell him that there may be a better juice glass out there for you. This, after all, is a metaphor of your own design, one based on the assumption that he is not just any old juice glass–he’s a spectacular juice glass.

Though your metaphor may be airtight, holding within precious truths, and though he may be a writer himself and apt to appreciate the finesse with which you developed and extended it, don’t call him up one Thursday afternoon as you await news from the doctor.

It’s okay, though. He knows you thought it would be good if you did, it would make everything better if you did.