Of Mice and Women

With a mug of tea and a mystery I relaxed into the couch. Late night bliss. Halfway through one of those scenes in which jackbooted Nazi officers bang on a family’s door I saw a quick movement on the other side of the room out of the corner of my eye.  I sat up fast as something dark skittered into the kitchen. My kitchen. My flesh crawled. What if it was hidden in the stove now? Hanta virus. I tried to reason with myself. Human history was filled with terror; why should I be afraid of a few ounces of fur and a tail?  Yet there was something creepy about sharing my intimate sanctuary with some kind of filthy, darting little scavenger.  In the morning when I found a tiny mouse dropping on my kitchen counter I felt as violated as if it had been a human corpse—at least then I could have called 911.

The next evening in my bedroom as I was chatting on the phone with a friend, something rounded the corner of the bookcase and went under the desk.  I let out an involuntary scream, but pretended it was part of the conversation. I knew that two mouse sightings signified a nest somewhere—in the back of my closet with the old running shoes? I slammed the closet door shut tight. Behind the books? I didn’t dare look. I couldn’t sleep.  I thought about Orwell’s evocation of the fear of rats in 1984 and the scampering, nipping horror of them. I bought traps and set them and when I heard one snap at night, I rolled over in satisfaction and later happily threw the dead body in the incinerator.

So far, this is a simple story; simple stories are rarely true. Right about that time, my daughter came home from college with two pet mice she had saved from being eaten by a snake in a pet store; she had named them Romulus and Remus after the boys who were raised by wolves and founded the city of Rome. We made a cardboard plaque with the Roman motto Senatus Populesque Romanus, and hung it on the cage.  Romi was the roly-poly one. Reemie was the intellectual, a slender fellow who could almost be wearing horn-rimmed glasses on his pointy pink nose. When I refilled the food dish, Reemie always had to think about the pros and cons of birdseed before he ate while Romi jumped right in.  Romi was playful and happily ran up my forearm and peeked out of a rolled up sleeve. Reemie sometimes seemed sad, perhaps because of the trauma of having been almost eaten by a snake. Sometimes he refused to eat.  When this happened, I gently picked him out of the cage and cradled him in my palm while I fed him with an eye dropper filled with sugar water, reveling in the cunning way his tiny pink mouth opened for the treat.

How could I love one set of mice and be profoundly disturbed by the other set? How could I happily nurture captive mice and find them adorable while being so distressed by the creatures who ran wild in my apartment. Was it possible that I could only love captive creatures—animals who were entirely in my control?  I had often noticed that I loved my children most passionately when they were asleep; standing over their beds I was flooded by waves of connection and love so strong it almost felt as if I could melt. Did I want my children to be in cages? What about men?

The love affair with rodents that led to my confusion started when I was in Kindergarten and, after a lot of negotiation, I was allowed to bring the class rat home for summer vacation. He was my first pet and I adored his twitchy whiskers and beady red eyes and the way his nose would nuzzle into my small hand. His name was Templeton after the naughty rat in Charlotte’s Web, and by the end of the vacation I was convinced that he scurried to the door of the cage to be played with when I called him. Then there was my brother’s pet Barbara Freitchie, named after the Civil War heroine, the mouse who my family loved so much that we took her to visit Italy with us although we had left our dog behind.  We came home with two adorable Italian mice, Giuseppe and Renaldo complete with stamped sealed immigration papers.  When they died, each of these beloved companions got elaborate burial rites: Barbara rests forever in a corner of the Borghese Gardens while another beloved rodent, Percy Spender named after an Australian Prime Minister, was buried with full honors and a crown of wild violets in a decorated shoe box in our backyard.  We treasured the mice in literature, Steinbeck, Orwell, the white mice who played in the white suit vest of the evil Count Fosco in Willkie Collins The Woman in White.

As a family we had other pets too of course—dogs and cats—but it was the mice who were the fetching proof of our love for animals. We were a loving family we liked to think, open, humorous and never uptight. We were not afraid of our animal side; we embraced it. Our concern for animals was something that made us proud and I raised my own children in a household alive with scurrying feet: at one point in our Manhattan apartment we had two mice, three hamsters, two dogs, a cat and a diabetic pet turtle, Georgina of Devonshire, who got regular insulin shots.  So when my daughter showed up with Romi and Reemie she was in a family tradition that goes back for decades.

At least I’m not alone in my ambivalence. A friend who lives a few blocks away and was plagued with mice adopted a cat. One night she heard a scuffle and found her cat had trapped a mouse in the bathtub. “The little guy had his fists up like Rocky,” she told me, “he was a fighter!” She rescued the mouse. Another friend had a vet release a mouse from a glue trap through a complicated application of solvents on the creature’s stuck foot. “He just looked at me,” she said. “I couldn’t throw him out!” 

Do we really love our pets, or do we love the idea of our pets? Are we loving owners who refer to ourselves as our pet’s parents—when in fact we summarily separate them from their real animal parents—or are we just in a frenzy of anthropomorphic nuttiness?  Romulus and Remus were adorable, yes, as long as they were in a cage.  They seemed to understand. Once they managed to escape, and when I got home they were sitting patiently at the top of their cage waiting to be recaptured. They reminded me of my daughter’s great heartedness. They were a badge of my own tolerance and ability to love. The mice in the kitchen, on the other hand, were not in my control, they were wild.  They frightened me. They stood for a household in chaos, terrible discoveries of nests, dirt and disease.

We humans have an urgent need to love. Sometimes it seems to me that we go through our lives desperate to love someone or something, so desperate that the things we choose are often quite loony: a teddy bear, a scrap of blanket, a beautiful painting, an aging Labrador dog.  Our choices when it comes to human love sometimes seem almost as irrational. If we chose to love a human being, we are often faced with disappointment and conflict as well as pleasure.  With pets there are no heartbreaking, painful surprises. A pet will never tell us that it needs more space, or ask if we don’t think it would be a good idea to see other people or remind us that we said we were going to stop drinking Diet Coke.  A pet won’t turn out to have been secretly married or alcoholic or carrying on with someone at work.  When there is conflict with a pet, the pet always loses and loses gracefully.  We own them! To love an animal is to love without fear.

Perhaps this is all about power.  Do some people need power over the beloved in order to love while others, perhaps, need to be dependent? Full disclosure: I once wrote a novel about a woman who keeps her husband in a cage.  It’s an elegant cage where her father once kept a menagerie. The moment when she turns the key and locks him in begins the sexiest, happiest few days of their marriage—a perfect intersection of pathologies–her possessiveness and his passivity—which doesn’t last long.  Since that novel was published in 1982 there have been hundreds of books exploring our relationships with our pets and our relationships with partners. In the end, our connection is like many many things in life—both confusing and mysterious.

My son and daughter have left home, but my son’s dog, a dachshund, still lives with me. In the evening the two of us cuddle up and remember my children and miss them. I remind the dachshund how much fun we all had; he looks up at me as I scratch his ears and he agrees.  If dogs don’t have souls, as some people think, then I am certainly fooled. Cutie has a wonderfully mobile face and when his dinner is late his look of pure reproach is as clear to me as when his lips curl up in a smile and he lets out bay of joy when my son comes home to visit from college.  When he feels down, I cuddle his furry body and hand feed him with a tiny spoon, he reaches out with his whiskery long nose and uses his long pink tongue.

There’s a wildness to most kinds of love, to that moment of recognition when you know that a relative stranger is going to be important in the story of your life. Over time though, that wildness dissipates. Is that when true love begins, or is that when it ends? Looking back at my connections to men both serious and ephemeral, I wonder if a lot of the energy I spent was an attempt to tame them, to domesticate them and to keep them from frightening me by darting around in the dark. The men I fell in love with were often wild or unavailable when I first fell in love with them. In the end they sometimes told me I was too possessive; I always thought they were too possessive. You spot it, you got it, I like to say. But what does it mean to possess another living creature or another human being? Did I really want a tiny husband whom I could keep in a cage and let out to play when I felt like playing?  What is love anyway and how is it connected to our power over each other? These are big, big questions. It’s always a good idea to start small.   

About the Author

Susan Cheever

Susan Cheever”s biography of Louisa May Alcott was published this winter. She is the author of two other biographies, five novels and many works of nonfiction. She teaches in the Bennington College and The New School MFA programs and lives in New York City. 

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