THE MOUSE

This piece of memoir was longlisted for the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize. I decided to post it here because I think it’s an experience others might relate to. I’m proud of this piece, and of myself for how much I’ve grown since this time.

I start to see it everywhere. Out of the corner of my eye, a dark grey feather sweeping silently across the floor of my studio apartment. I’d never realized how silent a mouse can be. I’m sitting in my bathtub with the door open and I see it scurry under the stove in the kitchen. Then again, the next morning, I watch it run behind the washing machine while I brush my teeth. It must weigh almost nothing, the total mass of its bones less than a bundle of matchsticks.

            A wisteria vine has snaked its way in through one of my windows. A small pleasure, watching it blossom during a pandemic summer, but now I feel betrayed as I imagine the mouse scaling the plant to get inside. A reminder that something can be beautiful and wretched all at once.

The last time he’d stayed out all night, he came home with a painting that he’d bought off a man outside a club downtown. The painting was of a rose. It was crudely done, layers of acrylic paint that seemed to cover more layers below, as if the artist had painted image after image until someone wanted to buy it. I’d been up all night having a panic attack because he wouldn’t answer my calls. I didn’t used to be like this. I’d never called someone over and over before, but I felt like I had nothing to lose. I felt like a girl that someone warns you about—oh her, she’s crazy. I felt like my insides were on fire.

The morning when he brought the painting into our apartment, while he was in the shower, I took a knife from the kitchen and I stabbed it through the canvas, right through the centre of the rose. When he got out of the shower, we looked at the painting together and I said, triumphantly, I stabbed it. We both laughed. We shared a sense of humour, I thought. It wasn’t that serious. When he left for work, I took the painting down to the dumpster and threw it away, and we didn’t mention it again.

The signs are hard to see at first. Pieces of drywall chipped away near the doorframe of the closet. Tiny black droppings behind the garbage can in the kitchen. A faint but incessant chewing sound from the kitchen cupboard. The first time I heard it, I put on my boots and grabbed the broom and took a deep breath before pulling the cupboard open. I braced myself, expecting to scream at what would probably rush towards me, but there was nothing there. No furry body, no signs of force. Nothing.

When he lived here, there were never mice. Sometimes I think about sending him a text, telling him that I have a mouse friend now and that the dog has fleas that won’t go away, and that in the mornings there are spiders in the bathtub that I wash down the drain. I wouldn’t be asking him for help or sympathy, I’d just be making a point that things have continued on without him, and that what he pictures of my life and my space are inaccurate. That he has no power over anything. But then I wonder whether he imagined all this into being. If he’s somewhere in the city willing vines to grow in through my windows, and for the dog to keep me up at night with her itching.

He called me baby and it felt hard, like a rock being thrown.

            “You’re such a baby,” he’d say, when I got upset.

            “I’m not a baby,” I always replied, and he’d laugh, and he’d say that I couldn’t hide anything from him, that I wore my hurt feelings on my sleeve for all to see. I started to feel exposed and afraid, that perhaps he was right, that everyone could read my emotions on my face and everyone could see that I was indeed a baby masquerading as a woman. I knew I relied on him too much to soothe and weather my exposed feelings. When I got angry about his small betrayals, I felt bad because I knew that my emotions were a lot for him to handle, and that it’s difficult to be with someone who needs so much, and wasn’t he trying his best?

            “I’m your baby, then,” I’d say.

            “Yes, my baby,” he’d reply, gentle again.

Sometimes, when we walked down the street together, we’d see someone he knew from the past, and he’d call out to them, and they’d stop and look at him, their expressions searching at first, and then surprised. I didn’t recognize you! They’d say. You look so different, as if he were in disguise. He didn’t have many long term friends that I could ask about this supposed shapeshifting. Everyone changes, everyone grows, I thought.

Afterwards, I realize that all of our bills and leases were in my name, that he never posted pictures of me online or even kept them on his phone, so that if you were to look for physical proof of our relationship it would almost seem like it hadn’t existed, like I’d been forging my way alone all along.

The pest control guy sets traps around the apartment.

            “I think it’s just one mouse,” I say, hopeful. “I think it must have run in on the vine.”

            He surveys my space. The only people who’ve been in my apartment during the pandemic have mostly been men sent to fix things: the dishwasher, the toilet, now the mouse. I feel vulnerable in his presence as he sizes up my living space.

            “Lots of the apartments I see in this neighbourhood are disasters, but you’re clean, so the mouse must be starving.” I think of the mouse cowering in some dark corner eating dust and fingernail clippings. “Have you seen any other evidence of it?” I tell him about it running under the stove and behind the dishwasher, but then I falter. Had I really seen it there? Most of the lights had been off, perhaps it was a trick of the eye. It hadn’t gotten into the bags of rice in my cupboards or the dogfood in the closet, which seemed strange.

            A new exercise: stopping in these moments of doubt to recall the chipped drywall, the gnawing sounds in the cupboard, waking to my dog’s frenzied chase in the night. Yes, I think, these are the facts.

            After pest control leaves, I read online about the poison traps. The mouse is meant to eat the bait and then slowly, over a matter of days, the poison will cause internal bleeding and the mouse will make its way back to its nest where it will die. I feel sorry for killing the mouse in this way, but then I worry that perhaps I don’t feel sorry enough. That there is something inherently unkind about me that I can live comfortably with poisonous traps all around. Or if not unkind, then perhaps I’m missing an alarm system that most people must have, one that sounds when danger is near.  

I didn’t tell anyone about the frequency with which he stayed out all night, or how many times I caught him in lies. I didn’t tell anyone that he criticized everything I did to the point where, after he left, I couldn’t remember how to dress myself in the morning or what it felt like to be healthy and certain of something. I didn’t tell anyone, and I still don’t, because sometimes I think that I imagined it all, that I’m exaggerating, that my own deficiencies attracted a person who disliked me, and I was hellbent on trying to change that fact. I used to think abuse meant someone screaming at you and calling you names, but he only ever called me baby while I threw things and cried. The problem is, now no one knows, and so when they ask after him, I fall even deeper into a sense of unreality: yes, how is he doing? How could I be so cold to have stopped talking to his family? Why am I being such a baby about this? Is that a feather or a living thing that I see out of the corner of my eye?

A new exercise: A hand over my heart to recall the fire that burned there while I waited up all night for him. Reciting the texts that I’d found from another girl, is she next to you? Was that me, throwing a water bottle across the living room while he laughed?

Yes, I think, these must be the facts.

Sometimes I’ll be walking down the street, or sitting at my desk at work, and I’ll think I see the mouse out of the corner of my eye. Not any mouse, but my mouse, the one that refuses to leave my apartment. Shouldn’t you be bleeding internally, I think, as it scurries past in my periphery. Then I think maybe it’s already dead, and its ghost is haunting me for subjecting it to such an inhumane death.

I worry about finding its body, so there are places in my apartment that I just don’t look.

After he left, I made a vision board by cutting pictures out of magazines and gluing them to posterboard. Usually, I’d be too embarrassed to do something like that, display my desires in a physical form, but I was willing to try anything to sway what felt like a terminal fate. I cut and pasted pictures of women who looked self-sufficient and happy, confident and in control. I cut out beautiful tiled bathrooms and tree lined pools in the south of France. I hung it on my wall for a while, but I got tired of friends asking me about it when they came over, so eventually I folded it up and put it in a drawer in my closet.

            One day, a few weeks after I discovered the mouse, I pull a chair into the closet to reach a stack of pillows that are stored on the top shelf. I pull down the top pillow and then the one below it, and a confetti of magazine pages rains down on the carpet. Oh, the horror of finding something in your home that you aren’t expecting. There on the bottom pillow is a small and tidy nest made out of pictures of smiling women.

            I think of the mouse sleeping on a bed of my hopes and dreams and I think that it must look kind of cute there, all curled up, and that it must have taken a lot of work to tear the pictures off and carry them up to the top shelf, and I admire the mouse for surviving on pure tenacity, by the skin of its teeth. Touché, I think.

I start to see the mouse less and less, and I wonder where it went. They trimmed the vines and fall came, so I keep the windows closed anyway. I feel sorry for taking away its little magazine nest, and I feel certain that one day, months or years from now, when I decide to move, I’ll reach into an old purse or a forgotten pair of slippers or a dark corner and I’ll find what’s left of the mouse. But then I wonder whether such a small body that weighs almost nothing, less than the mass of a bundle of matchsticks, might not just crumble into dust and eventually get sucked up by the vacuum cleaner anyway.

            I imagine a future me, unknowingly vacuuming up the ashes of my mouse friend, and I wonder if future me has figured it out yet, how it feels to be healthy and to be loved. I laugh at this thought. Is there any other way to survive than through tenacity, by the skin of your teeth?

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