My Life With Rats

“I hate rats. I had a pet rat to try and overcome it. I even gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when he had a heart attack. But I couldn’t conquer it.
~ Sam Taylor-Wood

whiskersWhen I was about ten years old, my brother killed a rat in front of me. We were on the side of the house trying to fix a flat tire on my bike when he lumbered up the narrow concrete walkway. It was early in the day, rats being nocturnal, this one couldn’t have been well. His dark coarse hair and fleshy reptilian tail repulsed me. I was afraid he might try to leap at me or bite me. My brother had used a square-headed shovel to smash his head sideways against the ground. The life seemed to ease out of him in one motion as his body untensed. Dark red blood welled up from his ear. I felt regret and relief when I realized he was dead.

The following year Sal and I had another experience with a rat. This time it was a white rat with brown spots all over his chubby body. I thought he was very cute, but he made me nervous. I again feared being bitten, so I didn’t try to pick him up and hold him, but I did work up the courage to pet him on the back of his soft head a few times.

Our new friend was almost as unwelcome as the rat we had encountered outdoors. When it came to pets, my father only allowed us to have fish tanks in our rooms. There was no way we ever would be allowed to have an animal like this in the house. A lot could be accomplished while my dad was noisily distracted by his own piano playing. During one of these episodes, my brother was able to sneak his rat into his room and make a hidden place for him in his dresser. He took his clothes out of one drawer and set him up in there with food and water. Before we could spend much time settling him in, my dad was calling us for dinner. We rushed through eating and cleaning up the kitchen, eager to spend time with our new pet. But when we got back, the rat was gone. It took a lot of sneaking around the house, making excuses to our father for the odd behavior, before we found him. As a desperate last ditch effort, we had rolled back the door to my father’s closet and peered inside. There he was, sitting in one of my dad’s brown shoes. He looked back at us, twitching his small pink nose and long whiskers. My brother managed to keep track of him for the night, and the next day we rode our bikes to the pet store and returned him.

When I was sixteen I worked for the family business my mother’s father started. I was paid less than minimum wage to do clerical tasks in the office after my school day ended. A new employee, Sonny, had just been hired in bookkeeping. One afternoon he mentioned a special clearinghouse account that was set up specifically for my small paychecks. He explained that this account was fed from the small estate my mother left behind when she had passed away almost a decade before. A look of surprise and concern crossed Sonny’s face when I told him I had never heard about this account.

I confronted my uncle, my boss, with what I had been told. He became livid. I was amazed. I had never seen him lose his polished exterior before. He brought his face very close to mine when he began to yell at me. I could see his skin flushing, and the whiskers of his mustache vibrating with his anger. I thought he might actually strike me, and in a way, he did: He told me I was a perennial liar. Then he left the room, slamming the door behind him.  Stunned, I sat on the edge of the bed for a while before picking the dictionary up from the small bookcase and looking up the word “perennial.” I was surprised to discover the meaning, to find that he considered me to be the dishonest one.

After that, I found a file in the basement with instructions and account numbers for this payroll arrangement. It was all there, just as Sonny had outlined.

The office was housed in an older converted home, and despite many extermination efforts, the basement seemed to remain hospitable to rats. I always tried to rush through any task that had to be done down there for fear of hearing their movements and feeling their presence.

Weeks after the confrontation, I bolstered myself and went back down the narrow stairs to the basement. I intended to make copies of the contents of the file, prove that I wasn’t a perennial liar after all, but by then it was gone. The subject was never brought up again.

When I was twenty seven I bought a townhouse in a very small, picturesque complex. The home inspection I ordered during escrow referred to a mouse living in the exterior wall of the small kitchen. The advice was to set a trap and live happily ever after. The first night I spent in my new home was amidst too much wet paint to set up the bed. I slept on the couch. I woke up around midnight to a view of the back of my small scruffy terrier’s head cocking from side to side as she growled at something in the kitchen. Becoming more aware, I could hear it too. It sounded like someone was using a hacksaw to carve their way into the house. I got up and slowly made my way closer. The sound was coming from the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink. I put my broomstick through the handles of the cabinet to secure it, and inwardly cursed the home inspector who labeled this obvious wombat as a mouse on his report.

The next day an exterminator came and said it was definitely a rat – or many – nested in the wall. He dumped a white powder in the holes this rat had made and said that would do the trick. Apparently the powder would get on the rat’s coat, and being the fastidious little self-groomers that they are, it would ingest this poison and soon be out of my wall.

The powder only served to bolster my varmint roommate. He seemed to thrive on the stuff!  Never missing a beat, but instead boring new holes in the drywall over the ones I had just plugged up. We jousted this way for weeks, and I felt like he was winning. He wasn’t just getting through the walls, this rat was breaking me down too. I couldn’t take it. I got so distressed by the idea of this animal being in my home indefinitely, that I welcomed the suggestion of putting out trays of poison.

One-and-a-half trays did it. Rat didn’t die at home. I have to assume that he went to the creek bed nearby to try and get water. That’s the thing with rat poison. The decoagulant makes one thirsty as hell while dying by way of internal hemorrhaging.

If you closed the windows, the noxious odors from the nest permeated every corner of my small place. The bottom half of the wall in my new kitchen had to be opened up so that the nest could be cleaned out. I was amazed at the industrious creativity of the little mammal I had killed.

The rat had stowed stale saltine crackers and perfectly cleaned chickens bones in one neat pile. Bolstered up by a two-by-four stud, he had a few pizza crusts and some shredded paper towel. In the dishwasher bay is where he kept his egg shells and mouse trap, a chunked-up yellow kitchen sponge was nearby. The unintended yet perfect touch of the mouse trap is what did me in. A remorseful discomfort came to me then. I realized I had oversimplified this rat’s existence.

Still, ten years later, I committed another crime against vermin. I aided and abetted another suspect in a series of strategery that took a small rat’s life. It seemed justifiable enough at the time. He was jumping up on the kitchen counters, dragging his hairy little rat balls and ass across classic American snack foods while we slept. He occasionally nested in parts of the stove, rendering it foul smelling, electrically shredded, and useless. He bored creepy little succubus holes into my just-ripe avocados. And the last straw, a perfectly tiny hole was chewed into the corner of the pink box of fresh doughnuts I had bought earlier in the day.

I wasn’t the one to put the hit out on this little guy, but I didn’t do anything to stop the hit either. The set up was a  small cylindrical trap that had a metallic, electrified base. Any animal that goes inside it would be electrocuted. Baited with tasty vittles, it sat for three nights before we got him. I was the first to discover his stiff body, laying on its side in the thing. His small feet were balled up into little pinkish fleshy fists, his thin scaly tail hung out of the trap, dangling off the counter edge. By the small size, I was guessing this to be a young rat. Regret washed over me as I forced myself to look at him in the trap. I felt like an asshole for not suggesting a catch-and-release option for this animal.

I was engaged to the guy who owned the house and set the trap. When it was over, I officially moved in and brought my brand new stove with me to replace the one that the rat had ruined. It was the nicest appliance I had ever bought. It had a convection oven and what the manufacturer billed as a Super Burner, or “Supah Burnah!” as I liked to call out loudly when I flamed it up to heat things particularly fast.

After months of degradation, the engagement ended during a phone call later that year. He was on his way to a tee time, so we cut the conversation short and I prepared to move back to my own home. He kept the stove. I didn’t have the courage to insist on its return. Whenever we discussed the stove being brought back to my house, he would get irritated about this or that detail of having it moved, so I finally let it go. Many months later we spoke on the phone and he mentioned how underwhelmed he was with my most favorite appliance. Other than the Super Burner, he didn’t really see much in the thing.

My life is mostly rat free these days. And while I wish to bring no more harm to ones I may encounter, I also hope to avoid the ones who may bring harm to me.

When I think back on my life with rats, it’s mostly with regret. Regret for my own ignorance. Regret for the hurt I caused. Regret for the hurt brought upon me. I wish I had been more forgiving. I wish I had been able to simply see rats as they are, instead of falling prey to my own trap of deciding whether or not I considered them to be villainous or virtuous.

Bloodletting

“Bloodletting [or blood-letting] is the withdrawal of blood from a patient to cure or prevent illness and disease. Bloodletting was based on an ancient system of medicine in which blood and other bodily fluid were regarded as “humors” that had to remain in proper balance to maintain health.” Wikipedia

“We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”J.K. Rowling

“Haven’t you ever heard that quote? We’re all everything, Sal – even the shit you’re uncomfortable being. For you, I would guess that’s being even a little bit gay.”

I heard a snort on the other end of the phone just before my brother shot back, “Shut up, daniella. I’m not gay.”

I dug in, “Yes you are; I can prove it. You have those grey cotton short shorts you love to wear despite the fact that they still don’t come in men’s sizes, and you have a pretty extensive Mariah Carey album collection.”

Silence drew out as I waited for the barrage of protest. “Daniella. This conversation is over.”

And it was. We went on to a brief exchange over some mundane bullshit, and then we both hung up and went about with the remains of our day.

I live for giving my brother shit, but what I had thrown out was proof of nothing. Technically, he was right. My answer didn’t shine a light on anything real about him that could be considered to be of a homosexual nature/origin. I didn’t have the courage for that conversation.

But what about me? I started to wonder how things would have gone if Sal had started poking around the dark recesses of parts of myself I’m uncomfortable with. What lives in me that I haven’t changed, can’t accept, and still feel shame about.

Racism.

On the surface, it would be easy for me to make a dismissal of that term as a personal character trait. I’m a pretty socially liberal person, I have zero white robes and pointed hoods hanging in my closet, I don’t think people of different races are below me, and I consider diversity to be one of the great gifts in this world. So I’m not a racist, right?! (Yay!)

But wait a minute, there was last Friday.

Love your phlebotomist as you love yourself.

I had to have some blood drawn and had made an appointment at a diagnostics lab I have never been to before. I stepped in just before my appointment time and looked across the waiting room to the front desk. Three petite, brown skinned women in pastel hued scrubs moved about helping people. One of these women was speaking fairly loudly into the phone, and I realized I had trouble understanding what she was saying through the thickness of her accent. The other two were working at computers with paperwork, inputting patient information.

I signed in on the counter’s clipboard and took a seat. After a few minutes, one of the women who had been working at a computer called my name. I hesitated before answering. Had she actually called my name? A few minutes before, I had answered to the name called, thinking I had heard the tones and syllables of my own. I hadn’t. It was someone else who has been called, and I felt like a bit of a heel.

I still hadn’t said anything, and now she turned to look at me. I smiled and stood up to walk towards her. We politely exchanged the cursory dialogue required to get my information inputted into they lab’s system. As I leaned against the counter looking slightly down upon her where she sat, I was relieved I had understood enough to get through that. But even so, I couldn’t shake a feeling of unease I had picked up very soon after arriving.

I was instructed to go through the door to my right and wait in area one. I checked myself at that door. Why was I feeling so nervous and scared? Normally, I would chalk it up to my rabid hypochondria and fear of public humiliation, (You know, like when you jerk away from the needle and dislodge the vial, spurt blood everywhere, slip and fall in that puddle of blood trying to run out of the place, conk your head on the floor, fall into a coma, and die two weeks later. That sort of public humiliation.) but I could feel that wasn’t it. Just a few weeks before, I had had blood drawn, so I wasn’t nearly as worried about this appointment as I had been when I went to the earlier one.

It was something else entirely this time. I had been ratcheting up to higher and higher levels of discomfort as soon as these women became known to me as immigrants to this country. But I don’t have a problem with Asian people, and I don’t generally have an issue with immigration, so why would that bother me.

I’ll tell you why: deep down in some little shitty dark nougatty bit of my core, I was worried – I held an unexamined belief – that these women possibly weren’t trained to do their job well because they weren’t born in this country. My prejudice made me feel like I was in danger, and I was scared. Racism.

As I passed through that doorway, quickly fleshing this out in my mind, I felt like an asshole, but that was the truth of it.

And that was also the end of it. Bringing awareness to where my head was at wasn’t easy, but it had calmed me down, and helped me to realize how full of shit I was. I was also relieved that the bullshit of my fears was a much more real thing to contend with than the chances of the negative outcome I was so afraid of before.

The woman who had been working with me at the computer was also the woman who drew my blood. She had come in and sat down next to me just a few minutes after instructing me where to go. With hands cloaked in deep purple latex gloves, she adeptly found a vein in my right arm, inserted the needle, and filled the necessary vials. I don’t think the whole thing could have gone any better – or faster.

As I held the tiny gauze wad to the fold of my arm, she gently taped it in place and advised me to leave it on for at least thirty minutes and avoid lifting anything heavy for the rest of the day. We exchanged smiles, goodbyes, and good weekend wishes before I turned to leave. I hadn’t had any trouble understanding her at all. I left feeling like maybe I understood myself a little better too.