This morning, like most mornings, my wife Susan let the rats loose to crawl along the counter top as she was preparing the kids’ lunches for school. Shnookums, the white one, found a gap in the tile beneath the mantel. Susan saw him go in and, afraid he might disappear, grabbed his tail. The fleshy exterior came off in her fingers leaving the tip exposed, one inch of bloody sinew and bone.
Now it’s evening. Susan is home from work, energized, full of purpose. My writing didn’t achieve any momentum today—too much sitting and waiting, perhaps, too much editing. I’m frustrated as hell. And too many battles with the kids have left me cranky. I know damn well my six year old boy can’t sit still at the table, but the rocking in his chair, the spilled soup, the insolence; it really irked me. Sure enough, my short temper is a symptom of something, but I don’t know what, and I don’t want to talk about it. This is about me and rats.
Shnookums-the-injured convalesced in a plastic crate. For most of the day he slept on, in and under a white cotton sheet. When he moved he left a red map of his ventures. The plan, Susan’s, was to cut off the damaged tip of his tail with a scalpel and put a stitch in the surrounding tail-skin. She gave Shnookums rat-sized doses of antibiotic and morphine and she rubbed the wounded area with antiseptic. She’s a nurse practitioner.
“Help me,” Susan said. “All you have to do is hold him.”
“Hold him?” The kids were finally in bed. I’d been sitting quietly with a Sudoku (gentle), and when I spoke my voice sounded weak, old man-ish. “Hold him?”
“Yes,” she said. “Hold him tight. I don’t want to hurt him any worse than I already have.”
To say I have musophobia, I think, would be a little too strong. A little. I don’t like to hold rats. We’ve had two for pets, one for more than a year. I’m getting used to them. I see the joy my son takes in them. I almost like the way they grip the thin bars of their cage and how they track us across the room, noses and whiskers twitching. It’s fun to watch as Winky Smalls or Shnookums retrieves a slice of carrot from my son’s fingers and stashes it down into their nest of straw. But then there’s this, a sensation, as if my testicles are in danger, as if they want to leap up and hide in their prenatal launch pads, and this, a sudden Involuntary Sphincter Contraction (ISC), and a wave of revulsion.
No rat, no anything has ever invaded my privates. We have a chinchilla with whom I can completely let my guard down, even though she leaves little seed-like droppings every time she visits my lap. Even though she bites. Rabbits, no problem. Mice? I don’t love mice, but when I see them I always think, at least they’re not rats. I’ve dreamed about rats. I’m sitting alone now typing this, but really what I want is a conversation. I want to ask you: Do you feel this way about rats? About anything? Where does this shit come from?
In 1983 I backpacked Europe, often sleeping on benches in public parks, witless and fearless. Why would I be scared in Munich or Dublin—nothing looked scary. If I encountered rednecks or gangstas, I wouldn’t know them as such. I was shoved by a German man on the stairs of the great Cathedral in Koln. It was no accident, I could tell by the look on his face. He said something unfriendly, but I couldn’t understand it. That was it! Three months and only one questionable encounter. Oh, there was a guy in County Cork who’d picked me up hitching; he wanted to take me to his home so I could watch him kiss his mother. Though he was exuberant, I felt sad for him, but not in the least threatened.
At the end of the summer of ’83, I returned to NYC. My fear came back like an ill-fitting jacket, tight in the neck and shoulders. An ordinary night ride on the subway and I felt like I was in the midst of a firestorm. I couldn’t understand it. Nor could I understand my dreams of rats; vicious, biting desperate things. They lurked in every dark corner. They slithered. It was the dragging tail, I think, that really got me. In one memorable dream the rat had six legs and could flatten itself and crawl under a closed door. In another, I stomped on a rat and garbage leaked out.
Here’s a theory. I was mugged a few times in New York, once brutally. Some neighborhoods, some situations made me tense all over, but I made a very conscious effort to resist my fear of people and places. I reasoned that living in NYC was expensive and it wouldn’t be worth it to me if I felt less than free to go where I liked. I’m white and I lived in Harlem, and it seemed then, and now, that if I were to have given in to fear of neighbors and neighborhood, then I would have been a miserable person. More specifically, and even now I’m finding this difficult to put into words, I was frightened of young black men in groups of more than one. To give in to my fear I believed would have, a) made me more of a target, and b) been a betrayal of who and how I wanted to be in the world. Perhaps, just maybe, the day to day fear I worked hard at suppressing manifested in this other way, i.e. an irrational sense of vulnerability vis-a-vis long-tailed rodents.
But upon further reflection, I remember an intense fear of rats dating back to the summer of 1980. I’d hitchhiked from Tucson to Houston, thinking, hoping there was some money to be made there for an unskilled laborer. A man, I believe his name was Roger, offered me not only a ride but a place to stay and a job. Roger was an investor/contractor and he owned a number of properties. After he dropped me off at home/work, I didn’t see him again for nearly a month. Suddenly I was one of a rag-tag team; we’d each been thumbing around greater Houston and each been hired to tear down and re-build one of Roger’s investments—the house we were living in. We had no electricity. We cooked over coals in a metal half barrel on the front lawn. As walls came down, we discovered the toilet was in the middle of the kitchen. Days were hot and humid and the work was hard—demolishing plaster, carting off old appliances, sawing, sanding, sweeping. Most nights, if I remembered to douse myself with mosquito repellent and pull a hat over my ears, I slept well.
We were Gorp, a biker without a bike who claimed to have spent a night in every jail from Virginia to Texas; Leo, a Mexican carpenter who had some skills but no papers; and Harvey, a strong, handsome young man brimming with energy and psychosis. Harvey was about 6’2”, 220 lbs., solid. In a still photo you might have guessed he was a marine, looking so husky, clean and polished. By day, Harvey was a nut with some very obnoxious ideas, but not unlike many nuts one meets on the road, and The Lone Star State seemed to have more than its share. He nicknamed me “the Yankee Jew,” for example. He read Soldier of Fortune. He instructed us on how to identify lesbians. (You can see it in the shadows on their faces.) He often talked about buying a gun and moving to Death Valley. But he did take instructions from our foreman Gorp, and we were glad to have him when the 80lb. rolls of roofing were delivered.
Nights, typically after a few beers, Harvey seemed to get progressively more agitated. He’d pace and rant about a girl he lost. She tiptoed upon crosses above the Lake of Fire and someone, one of us, let her fall. We were all going to pay, he thundered. Sometimes, for emphasis, he’d swing a sledgehammer at one of the remaining walls. Leo moved out because he could; he had a cousin somewhere with a couch. Gorp slept with a cat’s paw in his hand, and I stayed up listening, curious and frightened, until exhaustion overtook me. One such night I fell asleep with a box of crackers next to my head. In the morning I saw the box moving, one, two pink tails slipping in and out of sight from its open end. I leapt to my feet and looked for a safe place to stand. It was as if all of my anxiety had funneled, pinpointed into this moment of terror. No, honestly, it wasn’t like that at all. It was like Here Come The Rats Again And If I’m Not Careful, They’ll Crawl Up My Ass.
Yes, I saw it too. The word, Again. My fear of rats dates back to childhood. I was eleven and visiting my thirteen-year-old cousin Michael in New Jersey, 150 miles from my home in Baltimore. I didn’t know Michael well. He came into the family as the child of the divorced Jan, who’d married my mother’s brother, Jim. Looking back, I think I could safely say that Michael was a troubled kid. We spent a week together and he showed no interest in playing football, basketball or Frisbee. He didn’t like TV. He was most animated when he prepared to drown a bunny; an act of mercy, he claimed, because, he claimed, the bunny had maggots in its brain. His real enthusiasm showed when he gave a detailed account of the ways rock stars had died. Jan and Jim’s marriage did not last and after the summer of ’72, I never heard another word about Michael or his family. It’s been a long time, but I remember clearly the lusty way he said, “choked on their own vomit;” reference to the final tragic moments for Hendrix and Joplin. One night we camped out in his backyard with a few of his friends. Michael insisted on holding a seance. What counted as an omen seemed arbitrary to me, a plane flying overhead when we invoked the restless soul of Houdini, for example, but the signs were plenty clear: Michael got off on talking about death and dying, the gorier the better.
What I was feeling at the time was not like the fear concomitant with my rat-inspired terrors. Uncle Jim and Aunt Jan were scarcely around during my visit. They seemed to regard me as a little adult, entirely self-sufficient, or perhaps too foreign to understand. In any case, they seemed preoccupied. Michael was creepy to me, but not dangerous. More, I felt lonely in his company; as if I couldn’t really know him, and deep down I didn’t want to. I was homesick and the weight of my longing for family, especially my mother, was as palpable as a cement block on my chest. To be a little more precise, the sensation was like a time I’d gotten stitches in my elbow. I had a deep laceration, down to the tendon, and in order for it to heal properly I had to restrict my movement. When I forgot and tossed a ball or scratched my ear, I experienced a tug and ache in the inflamed tissue, and queasiness. That’s what it felt like, but it was as if the stitches were in my heart. Beneath my sadness, I think, was a gripping anxiety. I don’t want to equivocate here; gripping anxiety is not the same as pricking fear. What these three reflections may have in common was my very active, nearly constant effort to suppress feelings, to try to hold myself together. I remember that I moved slowly then. I spent hours sitting on the front porch looking at the sky, calculating time and distance, waiting for a sign. Sometimes, without any exertion, I’d find myself breathless.
It was in this context that Jim or Jan, I don’t remember, returning home from who knows where, suggested we go see a movie. Ah, I thought, that might be a relief, a few hours respite from my misery. I will survive. I will not confess my homesickness, I will not plead for the next train to Baltimore, I will not live up to the moniker Michael and his friends had given me: total pussy.
Michael knew exactly what we should see—Ben.
Maybe you don’t like spiders or snakes or flying in planes or driving over bridges. Maybe when you look at a public toilet you see a ballet. Maybe you break into a cold sweat at the sight of Regis Philbin. Really, I’m interested to know. I’m not talking psychoanalysis, because a) I’m not qualified, and b) I’m dubious about all the hidden mechanisms. I’m more interested in the stories we tell ourselves. Some stories are windows. I turn to the Internet. The movie had a plot, though I couldn’t have remembered it on my own. There was a boy with cancer who befriended a rat, name of Ben. Boy and rat went deep. Boy wrote and sang songs of devotion to Ben. But there were others who wished harm upon the rat and the rat’s many rat friends. And there were some bullies who wished harm upon the boy. With a few squeaks Ben mobilized his army of rats and brought justice, Hollywood B-movie style. Had I been feeling strong, loved, self-confident I might have experienced the horror/drama as intended. I might have seen the rats as my allies and enjoyed the swarming vengeance they brought. Was that the intention? Who knows? All I’m sure of is that the long dark scenes in the sewers with rats leaping and crawling upon people’s open wounds gave me the willies, and the willies stuck. Even all these years later as I click on the quarter inch square icon of the film’s promo poster, I can’t help but recoil.
“I’m ready,” Susan said. “Shnookums, I think, is ready. He shouldn’t feel too much pain.”
“Wait,” I said. “I’m not ready.”
I want to refine my theory. I mean what’s all this about crawling up the ass? While on the Internet, I visited Freud and his famous case called The Rat Man. The man had heard of a torture during WWI that involved strapping a metal bucket to a prisoner’s bare backside. Inside the bucket was a rat. The image was troubling, as you can imagine. And the man imagined the same terrible fate befalling his beloved fiance’ and his deceased father. I won’t go into further detail here, except to say that Freud deduced the man had deeply repressed homosexual fantasies. If I have any such fantasies, they are so repressed that I’ve never been aware of them. The idea of a rat invading my darkest orifice is not in the least titillating. It is simply what it is, an invasion. It threatens my integrity at a very fundamental level. I mean, Yuck! And it’s not simply suppression of fear that brings on the rat terror, and the ISC response. Rats show up when the guard comes down. The guard comes down when it is tired, when it has been working too hard for too long.
I came to the O.R. (our dining room) with a thick garden glove on my left hand. Susan gave me a look. I took Shnookums from her. She grasped the wounded tail and held it firmly against a cutting board. “Are you ready?”
“Stop saying that.”
“Poor Shnookums,” she said. “Okay, here goes.”
The tail was thicker, scalpel duller than hoped. The first cut did not go through. Shnookums squealed and clawed for freedom. I tensed all over. I squeezed Shnookums, perhaps harder than necessary.
“I have to do it again,” Susan said.
“Wait,” I let out my breath and then took off the glove. I didn’t want to crush him. His heart beat like a tiny hammer in the palm of my hand.
With the second and final cut, he squealed again and clawed recklessly. I held on tight, but not too tight. Our moment of truth!
I held Shnookums as Susan put in a single stitch. His heart slowed down. So did mine. I really felt for the little guy.
Now what? That which I don’t want to talk about seems to be rising to the surface. Maybe this isn’t about me and rats. My theory: Rats are my canaries and this is about coal mines, those dark deep hidden places within, if you’re willing to come in on this conversation, ourselves. And my other theory: If you or I dig deep enough, we’ll find what’s common about us. You see, I’m the father of a six year old boy with impulse control problems. Yes, his. Yes, mine too. Crankiness on my part is not helpful. I’ve noticed that his worst behavior stirs in me such frustration, it borders on rage. Not at all helpful. At such times it feels as if nothing I say makes any difference. I feel that all my thought and effort is wasted. I want to scream. I want to throw a chair through a window. What I want most is the quiet that would follow such a dramatic act. At such times I want him to look up at me frightened and I would say to him—see what I can do? See what can happen? Don’t you feel this way sometimes?
But I don’t really want that at all. It’s my body that seems to want that. Beneath my immediate frustrations is a much bigger frustration. And beneath that, a host of fears: impotence, that I haven’t the will or the talent to complete what I start, that time is running out, that I am an empty vessel, that my muses have abandoned me. Musophobia—a bad pun. I’m not scared of my muses, but maybe my response to other fears has kept them out. That’s what this is about—a deeply self-involved essay about writing. But, now I’m holding a rat! And this is about the next thing, holding counsel in the dark, confronting those more amorphous existential fears. This is about the conversation I want and don’t want us to have.