BAD LITTLE BOYFRIENDS
Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is check all the traps.
They’re always empty. I choose to see this as a good thing.
Though I can still hear various strange, small scraping sounds—sounds that seem to suggest a certain amount of industrious movement, perhaps involving the use of tiny carts or wheelbarrows as a means of crumb conveyance—inside the walls when I go to bed at night, and though I understand, intellectually at least, that I will never be truly rid of them until I have removed their dead, deflated little bodies from my fifth-floor walk-up via a double-layered garbage bag, I am simply not ready to deal with the reality of the situation. Just thinking about things on that physical level fills me with terror, black and abject.
But then, I was never very good with breakups.
On the night we met, I was the uninvited guest with my nose in the icebox, bending deep to browse the bottom shelf’s selection of bottled beers, domestic, mostly, in mixed-up six-packs.
Behind me, I heard your voice: “You here for the party?”
What could I say? I was and I wasn’t.
I was sixteen when I saw my first, standing stock-still and straight upright, like a statue, in the dark, cool cellar of my boyfriend’s mother’s weekend house.
That may sound late, and maybe it was, but really, back then, I was spared a lot. Solidly middle-class, I grew up smack in the middle of a mid-Atlantic state, in a somnolent subdivision with clean, shimmering streets as wide as a four-lane highway; each beige or light-blue house ostensibly built especially for its eventual owner, every detail done to exact specification, nice, even if the “exclusive” options were exclusively multiple choice. (On the day we moved in, even the fireplace sparkled, as if brand-new birthstones had been ground into its pale bricks. My big sister and I—both still very small—begged to be allowed to eat lunch in it, amongst the andirons, just that once.)
So my suburbia, for all its faults, was not overrun by rodents. The only mice I ever heard about were the city kind and the country kind, and the only mice I ever saw were the ones that the boy next door got from the pet supply store to feed his glassed-in garter snake. They were snow-white and small, with long pink tails that he used like handles to lift them, wriggling, into the cage. Slightly squeamish, I always turned away when I saw that the snake was about to strike, but I’d look back again as soon as the boy assured me that it had unhinged its jaw and started to swallow: I liked to see the still-squirming lump start to slide, inexorably, towards the snake’s long, slippery tail.
I’d been dispatched to my boyfriend’s mother’s basement in search of some soda—Sprite, 7-Up, even Squirt if it was all she had, anything to dilute the charcoal-filtered vodka we’d been swallowing straight from a big plastic jug in preparation for our planned mutual de-virginization. I was braver then, I guess; when the switch at the top of the steps illuminated only one distant, dim bulb, I descended, utterly unperturbed, into the semi-darkness.
But as I tugged open the refrigerator door, a sliver of light slithered across the cement floor and I saw him: a little Stuart Little, sitting up on his haunches, tiny paws raised in protest, like a sleeper disturbed, in front of his miniature face. I tiptoed nimbly towards him, but I could just as well have stomped—he didn’t move a single muscle at my approach. So, after a second, I turned and fled. As a child, I’d been taught to be afraid of anything wild that didn’t run away; it was likely either rabid or already dead.
My boyfriend, when I told him, was wholly unimpressed. “Did it bite?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“Did it scratch you, like a cat?”
He took another swig of alcohol, and I undid the button on his wide-wale corduroy pants. What transpired then was significantly sub- what I’d soon enough come to consider standard, but it was efficient: a few stabs, a little blood and, less than ten minutes later, it was done.
We were driving down a semi-deserted side-street downtown when I felt the car slow, suddenly, and then stop. I looked up and saw two swallows swooping crazily at each other above the road ahead. Arcing, they’d intersect in mid-air and then plunge, in tandem, towards the asphalt; at the last possible second, just as it seemed that they were going to hit the ground, they’d pull apart and soar skyward again.
“What’s wrong with them?” I wondered, folding my right foot under my left knee and leaning forward in my seat until my forehead almost touched the windshield.
“I think,” you said slowly, “that they’re doing it.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “In the middle of the street?”
“I know,” you said. You smiled. “It’s like, ‘Get a tree.’”
I spent the summer I turned twenty in a college town by the coast, selling ice cream at a scoop shop affixed haphazardly to the side of a gourmet clam hut. A particularly non-evocatively-named new flavor had just been introduced, so at least seven times a day I was forced to take a break from scraping half-frozen brownie chunks from the bottom of a cardboard barrel to deliver, in a theatrically bored monotone, an inventory of its ingredients. “Chocolate-covered, peanut-butter-filled pretzels in a vanilla malt ice cream with chocolate fudge and peanut butter swirls,” I’d say, finishing, for effect, with a sigh big enough to blow my blunt-cut bangs up.
Every evening when I got off work, smelling of sweet cream and deep-fried batter, I’d head home to take bong hits with my roommates while we cooked our dinner; it was the first time that any of us had ever really lived on our own. In the den, we arranged three full-sized couches into a U-shaped cul-de-sac, and there, we’d sometimes pass out, leaving our macaroni-and-cheese-encrusted bowls beside us on the floor. This was how we discovered—and, in all likelihood, attracted—our live-in little Mickeys; we awoke one morning to find their droppings in the sink, alongside stacked-up dishes dirtied while making from-scratch chocolate chip cookies the night before.
Suddenly, we spotted one: inky-black and almost boneless, it darted deftly across the back of the stove and disappeared behind the refrigerator. Cued, we jumped on chairs and screamed, like cartoon elephants. We shrieked and shrieked, zealous in our disgust, until the landlady, who lived next door, came running in her quilted housecoat, swinging a little-league baseball bat. When she heard what we were hollering about, she shot each of us in turn an unmistakable look of contempt and left, without offering to hire an exterminator.
As the screen door slammed shut behind her, I looked around, and, for just a second, I could see what she saw: three silly, skinny, long-haired girls who ate garbage and smoked grass and lacked even the sense to clean up after themselves. Every Sunday, we set big bags stuffed full of empty beer cans by our shared curb, even though she’d told us, at the start of the season, that she preferred to rent to “young ladies” such as ourselves; in no time we’d begun to treat her little mother-in-law apartment as a fraternity house.
I felt a wave of shame, deep in my seasick stomach. But then my roommate Brooke leapt from her chair, landing neatly by the sink, and her smile broke the spell. “Looks like we’ve got some work to do,” she announced, picking up a sponge and covering the inside of the sink with liquid soap. “C’mon baby,” she said, imitating my own imitation of my perpetually chocolate-sauce-stained boss. “Let’s bang this shit out.”
Slowly, your stuff began to accumulate, like snowdrifts, in the underutilized edges of my apartment. T-shirts. Boxer shorts. DVDs. The medicine cabinet now contained Speed Stick, and on top of my ten-year-old television you displayed a pair of over-sized green-plastic fists—“Hulk Hands”—that fit over your own and emitted a dull, electronic roar whenever you crashed them together. There was whiskey in the freezer and beer in the fridge.
At the movies, you’d tip two-thirds of a flask of Jack Daniels into a large Coke and then sip it, slow but steady, throughout the show, emerging blinking and obliterated when the lights came up. I tried taking bigger pulls off the plastic straw when you placed the cup between us, to lessen your chaos by assuming it as my own, but you simply switched to an extra-large. Poured in the whole bottle.
They’re like bad little boyfriends.
They come over in the middle of the night, take what they want without asking, and leave their shit everywhere.
They evince an unwholesome affinity for my unclean underwear.
All they ever want to do is watch late-night television and eat corn chips, and the worst part is, they make you feel responsible for them, because they just can’t live without you. One plunged to his death while I was away for the weekend, jumping, like a love suicide, from the push-top lid of my empty garbage can; I came home to find him broken at the bottom of a cavernous plastic crypt that must have smelled of something he wanted but which no longer contained it.
You said: “I’m not trying to hurt you.” You said it again and again, many times, in many different months. And I believed you—I still do—even though you lied about so much else. One night, after I’d come home from a party early and you stayed out, I awoke later to find the lights on, the apartment door open, and you, sprawled out on the couch; two small plastic bags, almost emptied of white powder, lay on the floor, like unconnected dots.
So I started with poison. Everyone always does, because it’s supposed to be the easy way out. You want them to die, but die elsewhere, out of sight.
I was sitting at my desk, balancing my checkbook, when my first victim lurched into my line of vision. I screamed. He staggered around in a jagged little semi-circle, coughing over-dramatically like a summer-stock Romeo; he may as well have been clutching at his heart with one tiny paw. I ran to the kitchen in search of something with which to cover his convulsions, wanting to spare myself the sight of his final throes, and, after too much deliberation, decided on a little-used saucepan my mother had sent me. Le Creuset.
But instead of growing quieter in his green enamel tomb he seemed, after a couple of hours, to revive himself, eventually emitting an ever-escalating series of frantic squeaks. I felt frantic too; I could hear him tapping at his cast iron cell wall like a prisoner testing for weaknesses. Finally, I put on a pair of oven mitts and my knee-high rubber galoshes and lifted the pan. He looked at me like something had been forever broken between us, and he scurried off down the hall.
Second: glue. Utterly brutal. I found two of them stuck, screeching, on the trap’s slick, shiny surface. I hadn’t realized that they wouldn’t be dead. I was confused: was I expected to send them, as they were, sliding down the trash chute? I double-checked the directions, but there was no indication of the proper course. I couldn’t let them loose as I had the first—it was one thing to pick up a pan, and quite another to pry eight little feet from a patch of gelatinous synthetic quicksand—so I simply grabbed my coat and fled.
By the time I returned, hours later, one of them had apparently starved to death and the other was missing. The body that remained was bloodied, desecrated. So much for brotherhood—like a cannibal who absorbs the strength of those he consumes, the surviving mouse had fortified himself on the flesh of his friend, broken free, and slipped into the night.
And me? Maybe, just maybe, what I really need is a cat.
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