Of Mice and Women

Who’s really in charge here?

Addie Stuber
The Haven

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Photo by: Taton Moïse on Unsplash

New York City is a gigantic experiment. An island of stimuli and learned responses, one of which involves my ankles. It doesn’t matter what is moving near them. A balled-up newspaper. Or dried leaves. Or crumpled foil wrappers. Or torn caution tape. Or Chinese takeout menus. Or tear-away strips from a Man with a Van flyer. Or the plastic dollhouse tables they put on pizzas to keep the toppings from sticking to the lids. My reaction is always the same. I shout garbled profanities, leap backwards and run, run, run! I have been trained to associate all types of sidewalk scuttling with a particular enemy: rodents.

For a while, I was naive enough to think my apartment was a safe zone where I was free from gross encounters of the furry kind.

This response was developed with help from real rodents. They’ve grazed my toenails during sandal season, become accidental, screaming speed bumps while biking and attacked me when I’ve heaved trash into their dumpster tenements. For a while, I was naive enough to think my apartment was a safe zone where I was free from gross encounters of the furry kind. I had never experienced a pest problem, a fact I smugly attributed to my zealous cleaning habits. But that was about to change. The city had decided it was time to invite the outside in.

The night it happened, I woke to a noise coming from my living room radiator. A creature the size of a fingerling potato and the color of dryer lint materialized and made a beeline for my fridge. I vaulted myself over an armchair, stuttering “SH-SH-SHIT!” Crouched down low, I gave myself a pep talk: It was fingerling potato-sized, not russet-potato-sized. A fingerling is a mouse, not a rat. If it was a rat, I would’ve immediately lit the curtains on fire and let the whole place burn. A mouse was manageable, though. And the first step to managing the situation was to get him out from under the fridge.

The packaging featured an illustration of a rat rearing up while being hit by lightning, as if the jolt was transforming him into a supervillain versus striking him dead.

As he continued to scramble around the grimy recesses of my kitchen, I hastily plugged the cracks under my bedroom and bathroom door with books. I opened my living room window and propped its removable screen at an angle on the sill, creating a makeshift ramp I reasoned any mouse could easily climb. A detail I didn’t bother to dwell on was my apartment being on the third floor. The angel on my right shoulder congratulated me for being ultra-accommodating and the devil on my left cackled at the gangplank disguised as an exit. Armed with a bucket and broom, I rapped on the kitchen cabinets, hoping to scare the mouse out of hiding. After twenty minutes of this, I had almost given up when he shot out and planted himself under my couch. I hadn’t anticipated the move and having no plan B, resumed my awkward jabbing, praying he moved in the direction of my homemade Stairway to Heaven. When I finally summoned the courage to lift the couch, all I found were dust bunnies.

Yet, I refused to play dumb. I knew the bastard would be back and when he returned for round two, I’d be waiting. The next day, I went to the Home Depot. The store’s pest control aisle was a collection of medieval torture devices. One trap called the Rat Zapper looked like a tiny, plastic coffin and promised to deliver a “humane, 8,000-volt electric shock to instantly kill rodents.” The packaging featured an illustration of a rat rearing up while being hit by lightning, as if the jolt was transforming him into a supervillain versus striking him dead. There were also old-school devices that offered results by way of decapitation or spring-loaded bludgeons. Pop culture had led me to believe that mice loved cheese, however the traps recommended using peanut butter as bait. Crunchy? Smooth? Jelly-swirled? These details were not specified.

A woman with hair that resembled the scouring pads in Household Cleaners tapped me on the shoulder. “If you have a mouse problem, you need to get ultrasonic repellents. I have one of ’em in every room and haven’t had an issue since.” The repellent looked like a teardrop-shaped speaker attached to a plug. According to the label, it emitted a high frequency, ear-piercing noise that could only be heard by rodents. The instructions included a warning not to use it around guinea pigs, gerbils or similar pets. I was pet-free, but what if the noise traveled through walls? I pictured my neighbor lazily drying her hair while the hamster on her bedside table foamed at the mouth. Feeling sufficiently disturbed, I settled on the mini units that covered less square footage, plus latex gloves, traps, steel wool and a weatherizing strip to block the gap under my bedroom door. The total came to $60 at the register. Now, I was doubly annoyed. In addition to invading my space, the mouse owed me money.

Had they died one after another like star-crossed lovers swapping poison? Or simultaneously like teenagers making out near a scenic overlook who forgot the parking brake?

Back at the apartment, I snapped on the gloves and began poking steel wool into every crack and hole I could find. The only hole that proved to be a challenge was the one surrounding the radiator pipe. Every time I packed it tight, the wool would disappear under the floorboards. I emptied a full bag before I realized what was happening and was forced to duct tape patchy clumps around the pipe, adding a ceramic succulent holder on top of the mess for extra weight. The traps were the final line of defense, placed carefully in all four corners of the living room. Then, in my best hostage negotiator voice, I addressed the mouse: “It’s not too late to back down. No one has to get hurt. I’ve got a bus on standby ready to take you to Time Square. Plenty of restaurants with C ratings, my friend.”

As I crawled on all fours to retrieve it, I sensed the city was laughing at me. A low, subterranean rumble that could have easily been mistaken for a passing train.

Weeks turned into months and the mouse remained MIA. I muted my late-night sitcoms to listen for shuffling behind the drywall. Nothing. I pulled out dishes from my cabinets, searching for fresh mouse turds resembling chocolate jimmies. Still nothing. Then one day at work, my phone buzzed on my desk. It was a text from my Super about an apartment repair. “Fixed the heat and found two dead mice.” I gaped at my screen. Two mice? As if he heard me, a snapshot of two splayed, hairy torsos appeared. The mice’s heads were obscured by the trap’s claw mechanism, shielding me from the peanut buttery gore found within.

I’d emotionally prepared myself for the possibility of one mouse murder, but didn’t know how to process a double homicide. Had they died one after another like star-crossed lovers swapping poison? Or simultaneously like teenagers making out near a scenic overlook who forgot the parking brake? By the time I arrived home, the Super had disposed of the mice’s bodies. A few smears of blood marked the scene of the crime. I bent down to scrub the stains and a Lysol can rolled towards my feet. I leapt back, sending my sponge flying. As I crawled on all fours to retrieve it, I sensed the city was laughing at me. A low, subterranean rumble that could have easily been mistaken for a passing train.

The mice were gone, but I would continue to take the bait. I was an animal in an urban lab, primed for conditioning.

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Addie Stuber
The Haven

Essayist. Storyteller for brands. Ride or die Brooklynite. addiestuber.com