Many years ago I was in Niagara with my then-boyfriend Jesse, who is/was a partner in the bar. As per our usual Saturday night we were there til well after close with remaining staff members and friends, getting our last drinks in. Those nights always went longer than I really have the stamina for, and I was tired and very drunk. I stared woozily into space wishing I was home in bed while Jesse talked to our friends and his partner Johnny T moved around the room unplugging things.
When Johnny got to the cigarette machine (told you this was years ago!) he screamed and then shouted, “Agh! Get me a bucket! Get me a broom!” The barback ran to him with a bucket and we sort of half paid attention as he continued to shout curses and something about a rat. To which I perked up and responded automatically, “Don’t hurt it!”
Johnny bent over a little further and peered downwards intently for a moment, and then said, “Shit! It’s a domestic rat. It’s standing up looking at me!” He stretched out his arm and picked the rat up, walked back to the bar, and handed it to me. Because everyone knows if there’s something alive and squirming it should be handed to me for further inspection. People are always handing off their unwanted bugs and furry creatures to me.
I held the rat up in my hands and touched my nose to hers and Jesse grimaced. “Blech.” He said. She was a fat little female, white and yellow in coloring, and very obviously used to being handled. Florentino the barback said, “Oh yeah, there was a punk rock girl in here who said she lost her rat in the bathroom.” Which meant that the little rat had traversed from the back of the bar all the way to the front where the cigarette machine was located during a packed Saturday night, managing to avoid being spotted or stepped on. I admired her plucky rodent courage. What I did not admire was the dumbass idiot trying to relive the 80’s who left her damn rat in a bar without even leaving a phone number, proving once again that most people are assholes. But I shrugged and shoved the rat in my coat pocket and we took a cab home.
Once we got to Jesse’s apartment I told him that he would have to keep her because I had too many cats in my apartment. He made a face and I put her in a box with torn newspaper for a nest, along with a shot glass full of water and some bread, and we went to bed. During the morning hours I heard a lot of squeaking from the box and as I lay there listening Jesse opened his eyes, turned to me and said, “I don’t think I can handle having a rat.” I wasn’t surprised and told him I was expecting to have to take her anyway.
Jesse breathed a sigh of relief and got up and started moving around the apartment while I laid in bed lazily feeling sorry for myself that I was stuck with a pet rat. When he got to the living room, where the box was located, he started making a strange squealing/moaning noise. “Aaaaaaaah…Eeeeeeeeaaahh…”
I gave him a look. “Geez, it’s just a rat. Don’t be such a wuss.”
He pointed at the box, shaking his hand. “Aaaaaaaah… Babies. Babies! There’s BABIES!!“
Whaaaa? And there they were. Eight pink newborn rats, all squirming and nursing around their pleased looking little mother. “You little slut.” I said, and sighed. I have never in my life wanted one rat and overnight I had obtained nine. NINE rats. It was so typical of my Lucy Ricardo life. And I was fully stuck because not very many other people in this world want pet rats either. A few friends claimed they would take one when the babies got old enough, but they all changed their minds when it came time. And I just didn’t have the heart to drop them off at the pet shop to be eaten by snakes because I’d watched them all grow from tiny hairless infants. They were so cheerful, it just didn’t seem right. So I simply separated the boys from the girls into large aquariums as early as I deemed possible to prevent any more “surprises”.
The cats laid on top of the lids and the rats spent all day trying to get out with little or no regard for the danger of the cats. They chewed great holes into the screened lids and dangled from the edges of the holes by their front paws like athletic escape artists. I was constantly shoving someone back into the box. I covered the lids with large books and they chewed through those. I bought more lids. And I changed litter and bought rodent chow and changed litter and bought rodent chow and waited for them to get old and die, my only thin comfort being the knowledge that rats don’t live for very long. I was working as General Manager for Popsmear magazine at the time and we had a very loose office, so I brought the boys up there and they lived in the staff kitchen. They lounged around on top of the lid like beach bums and the shipping manager cleaned the aquarium for me and the people who didn’t like rats in their kitchen had to keep their mouths shut bc I was the boss. Sometimes people would carry one around and it was always fun to see outsiders freak out at the sight of a fat yellow rat crawling across someone’s keyboard.
Here are the highlights:
One girl escaped and I simply couldn’t find her. Two days later the phone went dead and when the Verizon man came to check the line he discovered the phone cord had been chewed through. He looked at the cord, looked at the aquarium, and then looked at me and asked if any of them were missing. “Um…yes, actually.” Three days after that I started smelling something awful near my bed and after sniffing around like Dawn Davenport I discovered the body of the missing girl in a crevice in the wall. I felt really badly that I hadn’t found her in time and wondered if she’d died of starvation.
Another one of the girls was incredibly determined to live the free life. Every day she found a way out of the aquarium and over to the cupboards underneath my sink, and every day I nabbed her and shoved her back in with the others. Finally, after weeks of intense struggle, I gave in. She liked it under there and would come up when I washed dishes or brushed my teeth and sit next to the faucet washing her face and wiggling her nose at me. I would leave a little chow in a bowl or I’d hand her something tasty off of dirty plates and we got along fine. It was cute and funny—at least to me. Jesse was not as amused.
At night I would hear her scrambling around among the buckets and cleaning products and occasionally I’d open the cupboard and check up on her. She was always very busy but would stop what she was doing to look at me and hear what I had to say. But after a few months something seemed off. There was too much action under the sink at night and I got suspicious.
At the time I was going through a pretty major depression. Popsmear was near bankruptcy and my job was extremely stressful and not at all what I wanted to be doing all day long. My relationship wasn’t in the greatest state either. I felt powerless and overwhelmed and always on the verge of a complete meltdown, and was doing a lot of crying on a daily basis.
So when the noises started as I was lying in bed staring at the ceiling, I was not really in a good place for any surprises. But it seemed important to know, so I got out of bed with the lights off, grabbed a flashlight and crept quietly to the sink. I opened the doors as quickly as possible and hit the flashlight. And there it was: a big black, unfamiliar rat tail racing into the hole by the drain. My little blonde girl stood on the laundry detergent inside a bucket, her tiny hands gripped on the rim of the bucket. She looked at me openly like, “What? You never said I couldn’t have anyone over.”
I sat down naked on the kitchen floor and put my face down on my arms and sobbed. The cats sat on either side of me staring at the rat. The rat stared at all of us and wiggled her nose. It was not one of the more elegant moments in my life.
So now I had a pet rat who was probably pregnant with wild rat babies, and who was attracting actual street rats, who were most likely carrying fleas and disease into my kitchen. I decided the only thing to do was to let her go and I figured the garden next to the restaurant across the street from my apartment was the best location. The garden was really nice and there was sure to be food to be found near the restaurant. The next evening Jesse came over for moral support, and I picked her up from next to the sink and we walked down and across the street to the garden. It was the start of the fall and unseasonably cold out. I put her down in the leaves that coated the garden floor and instead of running she stood up on her hind legs and just looked at me. And then it started to rain. And then I started to cry.
I went inside and cried for a half an hour and then went back out to get her. I couldn’t take it. But she was gone by then and I felt like a really bad person for months after that, especially when snow hit. I still wish I hadn’t put her outside.
After that it got a little easier. Popsmear closed and I had to bring the boys back, but everyone lost their youthful urge to escape and for the most part stayed in their proper aquariums and slowly got old and died off one by one. The mother got really, really old and bony, and one day Kim and I came home from a night out, drunk and teetering on our heels to a horrible, yet familiar smell.
“Ick.” I said. “There’s a dead rat in here.” I went into snuffling Dawn mode again and found the mother dead and looking strange. I put on a rubber glove and picked her up by the tail and we woozily examined the body as it dangled in front of our faces. We finally focused and ascertained that the top of her head had been peeled back very carefully and the contents were missing. It was apparent that her children had eaten her brain, which I’ve been told rats will do. It was disgusting but fairly interesting at the same time. Yay rats!
And then one joyous and sunny day the last remaining rat died a peaceful and comfortable death. I hummed and lugged the aquarium down many flights of stairs and dropped it, along with the remaining cedar chips and rodent chow, on the street. And I never looked back.