My love, I’ve written the story you never want to read.
I have always wondered what would happen if I wrote a story that I knew would horrify you. What would I do with that story? Share it, publish it, tell you about it–all the while insisting that you couldn’t read it? It’s an interesting hypothetical puzzle.
Yet here I am, having to confront that puzzle. This story is the only thing that will explain why we’ve grown apart. You really shouldn’t read it.
* * *
We had looked forward to a good night’s sleep at our hotel in D.C. I was in the chair by the window, reading the “Style” section of the newspaper to pick out what movies I could see while you attended the second day of your librarian’s conference. The bed was still made: you stretched out on top of the comforter, recovering from a long day of panels about reference strategies and electronic cataloging. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw what looked like a moth fluttering quickly across the room.
“Is there something in here?” I said.
You sat up and looked around. “I think I saw something, too,” you said.
Perspective can play tricks. It was actually a mouse. I saw it pause before it ran between my chair and the wall and scurried under the floor-length curtain. Its tail and small back legs stuck out from under the lace frill for a moment, then disappeared.
“It’s a rat!” I said.
“A mouse, I mean. A small mouse.”
And I’m really sorry I said “rat” first. I know about your phobia. It’s the reason we live in the suburbs, even though the city has better restaurants, bars, shopping, and theaters willing to show films with subtitles.
“We’ve got to get out of this room,” you said.
So we went to the check-in desk, and you told the clerk about the mouse.
He acted surprised. “I’m sorry to hear about that,” he said. “Would you like me to send someone to look at the room?”
“You can do whatever you want with that room,” you said. Your voice got steadily louder with each demand: “We need a different one. On another floor. On the opposite wing of the hotel.” The clerk alternated between watching your reddening face and checking his computer screen. After typing a few quick changes, he produced a new key.
“You go ahead,” I said. “I’ll get all our stuff from the old room.” I knew you’d be too afraid to go back there.
Funny how we can take on each other’s fears.
I turned on all the lights when I got back to the room. Each time I opened a drawer, I stepped back before something could jump out at me. I scooped up all our clothes and pushed them into one of the suitcases. As I moved from one part of the room to another, I stomped my feet or clapped my hands to scare away the mouse. I stuffed everything from the bathroom into one of the plastic bags the hotel supplies for dry-cleaning. It felt like something was crawling on me the whole time. I didn’t bother to check under the bed or behind chairs as I usually do to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. And I didn’t go near the curtain where I’d last spotted the mouse.
I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
We got a much better room out of the deal. Two beds this time, and a fold-out couch. An eighth-floor balcony overlooking a park, brick walkways winding through colorful flowerbeds. Two white bathrobes in the closet. If we had planned it that way, it might have been fun. But I knew you’d have trouble sleeping.
In my dream that night, I found the mouse and killed it. It was running around the floor, and I went after it with the phone book. I missed the first two times, but the third was a direct hit–when I picked up the book, the mouse was flattened to the bottom of the Yellow Pages.
There wasn’t much blood. A mouse’s skeleton is small and flexible–that’s how they are able to sneak through small holes in the wall. The skin was intact, the body flimsy like a used teabag; the little bones had crushed inside the mouse, tearing through its inner organs and killing it neatly.
I remember thinking, in my dream, that I could hold this corpse up by the tail and show it to you now. You’d know the room was safe.
* * *
There’s something I never told you.
Over a dozen years ago, when we first started living together, you knew about the mice in our apartment. You also knew about the glue traps. But there’s one incident I never mentioned.
We lived then in a dingy studio apartment off Wisconsin Avenue, near the National Cathedral in D.C. The location was great–nearby shops, including a local dime store, and a nice safe neighborhood to walk in. But our apartment was in the basement of a converted house. It was all we could afford, especially with my small graduate-school stipend. I’d picked the place out, and felt guilty about it.
Because of the mice.
Glue traps were $2.39, four to a package. I bought them from the dime store because they were easy to use–no loud snapping, no blood. The box said they were non-toxic and friendly to the environment. The animal crawls onto the glue pad, and that’s it.
There is no poison, which means the mouse is usually alive when it gets stuck in the glue. It didn’t strike me as particularly humane, but it was convenient.
These days, it’s pretty easy to find information online about how glue traps are really akin to torture. The mice struggle and starve on the traps, biting off hair, skin, even limbs, to try to escape. They soil themselves from stress and fear. The glue gets into their eyes and mouths, blinding and suffocating them.
That information wasn’t easily available, then. Besides, I had no particular love for mice. I hated them because they frightened you. I was constantly afraid they would make you wish you weren’t living with me. So I wanted the quickest, quietest way to deal with the problem.
I finished my classes by mid-afternoon. It was easy for me check the traps and remove the evidence before you got home from work. I carried any filled trap directly to the garbage bins in our gravel parking lot.
And for the most part I protected you from the situation. You knew, of course, but we rarely spoke about the mice. I think that made it easier for us both to pretend they weren’t a big problem.
One day, however, I heard some plastic scraping against the kitchen tile under the refrigerator.
A large mouse was stuck on the trap. One back leg hung over the edge and scratched at the tile, a weak attempt to move the trap along the floor. The mouse had given birth into the glue. Eleven babies curled together across the trap, interlocking like pieces of a puzzle. They were delicate, their bodies the size of the top joint of a ring finger. Their eyes were closed, their hairless skin the pink color of flesh. Many of them were still alive, trying to breathe.
Until that point, the mice were the villains; simply by existing, they created problems for us and deserved to be exterminated. But now I felt like a monster. That helpless mother and her doomed litter of newborns brought home what I was really doing when I trapped animals, threw them in the garbage, and left them to starve.
How could I put them out of their misery quickly? I thought about stepping on them, but some of the glue was still showing, a yellow triangle on the upper right half of the trap. The whole thing would have stuck to my shoe.
I should take it outside, I thought, and find a large rock. I picked the trap up by the edge.
It’s common wisdom that a mother will defend her young. But I wasn’t thinking much, and the adult mouse had looked exhausted from her struggles with the trap.
I was just ready to walk outside when the mother’s head lifted about an inch, strings of glue connecting it to the bottom of the trap. It seemed she could barely open her mouth; she let out a horrible, screeching wail before her head snapped back to the glue.
My arm jerked nervously, and the trap flipped up into the air. At the same time that I wanted to push it away, a strange instinct made me try to catch it. These conflicting impulses produced a muscle spasm that sent the trap whirling toward my head.
It stuck to the left side of my face, flat against my cheek.
I could feel the tiny animals squirming against me. I wasn’t sure how to remove the trap from my face: should I simply grab one corner and pull, or should I reach underneath and scrape it off? Should I do it slowly, checking for progress as I went, or should I just yank it? The more I thought about what to do, the more unnerved I was by the struggling movements against my cheek. I noticed a faint perfume from the glue, beneath the awful sick smell of dying animals. I needed to do something fast.
I grabbed the trap from the edges with both hands and pulled it straight away from my face. Mercifully for me, most of the baby mice had stayed on the trap, along with the mother. But it’s just like when you try to remove a price tag or a label–there’s always a trace left behind. My cheek had a layer of sticky film, textured with hair and grime.
And two baby mice.
I could feel them. One was just beneath my cheekbone. The other was stuck near the corner of my mouth, and was trying to wriggle off.
In a queasy panic, I set the trap on the floor then pulled the two newborn mice off my face–first the one under my cheekbone, then the one near my mouth. Each time, the mouse stuck to my fingertips. The only way to get them off was to press them against something stickier: I had to push each one back into its original space in the glue trap.
I looked around frantically and found a section of newspaper next to the kitchen trash can. I tore off a large strip and placed it over the trap. Then I pressed down hard with my thumb and fingers to kill each baby mouse. It felt like I was popping bubble wrap.
* * *
Afterward, I washed my face with hot water for what seemed like hours. The whole time, I knew I could never share this story with you.
That was more than a dozen years ago. It was horrible enough that I’ve been able to force myself to forget it. Or not quite forget: I could always remember that it happened, down to the last squirming, sticky detail. But the horror of it, the revulsion–somehow that got pushed back.
Perhaps not being able to tell you, then, kept it from affecting me. We were intimate; we shared everything, which meant that if we didn’t talk about something, it wasn’t real.
Over the years, I’ve been the strong one, able to warn you if they’re showing commercials for Stuart Little, or if movie detectives are searching for a dead body in the basement of an abandoned house. “The squeaking has stopped. You can look now.”
But last weekend’s hotel trip, the way your own fear transferred to me, my dream that night–all of it brought the memories back, with new force.
And I can’t get rid of them.
This time, not being able to tell you has made it worse. Any conversation we have avoids the one thing I need to talk about. It’s always present. I’m reliving it all the time.
So I’ve written it down, as if that might help. But you can’t read this, even though you’re the only one who could make any sense out of it. And it’s the only way I could explain why our relationship has changed.
I can look in the mirror to convince myself that they’re not there, but as soon as I turn away I can feel a slight sticky pressure on my cheek. It’s as if the skin under my face is wriggling.
I look down at my fingertips, and they seem to breathe, to let out a squeal of air and pain.
How can I touch you with these fingers? How can I let you kiss my cheek?