I would have been far more troubled by the mouse in our house if I’d been able to see it. This was a strange year, though, the first after graduating college, made stranger by the fact that I’d contracted a rare allergy to my contact lenses and was dropping steroids into my eyes in an effort to stave off surgery. My ophthalmologist had warned me that I might see stray blurs streaking across my vision. This one, grayish and darting along our baseboard, was just like the rest.
Except my best friend Emily was pointing at it. “I think,” she said, “we have a house mouse.”
This should not have taken us by surprise: The house was technically an attic. It was in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, and the specialty doughnut store hadn’t yet gone up a block away, which is the only reason Emily and I were able to lease the space at all. I was serving with AmeriCorps, earning little, and Emily was starting medical school, earning nothing. Our landlord was a jovial Russian guy with a limp who we won over by vowing never to throw a party. I remember spinning around the living room, which was also the dining room, which was debatably also the kitchen, when we moved in. In this happy little attic, we’d make a home.
To everyone except we who lived there, our house was a joke. The walls were either green-yellow or yellow-green. The floors were so uneven that a dropped tube of chapstick would roll clear across the room. When open, our refrigerator door blocked the stairs. But this was not a stepping-stone house for us, which is perhaps why we were oblivious to its shortcomings. Both of us had graduated high school in 2011, coming of age with the ghost of the housing crisis. Though our families—Emily’s in New Jersey and mine in Ohio—had been lucky enough to emerge unscathed, we went into renting with the attitude of two ladies who had arrived. Since we’d be renting forever, this house was as close to our own as we’d ever get.
So we nested. We strained our exposed beams with houseplants we named Steminem and Wiz Khaleafy and with a hanging sign that said “Best Day Ever.” We invited friends over to play Scrabble and drink wine from coffee mugs. And, while we stir-fried veggies, we talked about our days, the thrills and minor victories. I brought in stories from my high schoolers that made me laugh, and Emily practiced taking my medical history on a snow day.
There were also stories we didn’t share. She didn’t tell me how much she dreaded a lifetime of fitting her friendships and relationships between emergency room shifts. And I didn’t tell her about my student who had died by suicide. I didn’t tell her about his friends, who were still, weeks later, coming to me asking how they’d know, next time. I didn’t tell her I had no idea if my training was enough, or where to carry their grief, or mine.
The arrival of the first mouse jeopardized the carefree space we’d so deliberately cultivated, and the first mouse quickly turned into several. At first, we had faith that if we ignored them, or treated them as temporary guests, they’d simply go away. They did not. We consulted a WikiHow article called “How to Get a Mouse Out of the House” and began to refer to Step 1, Track Down the Mouse, as “the staredown.” They stayed. Friends who moved away after college would FaceTime us and ask about our house. We’d give a resigned shrug and tell them about our new roommates. “It’s extremely welcoming,” we said.
The mice traced the geometry of our apartment, scurrying from wherever they emerged under the cabinets or behind the fridge along the back bank of the countertop, then curving eastward behind the sink and continuing beneath the dials of the stove. We barricaded the kitchen with a shoebox, two board games, my toolbox, and Emily’s instructional but very real box of human bones. Then we had the problem of dealing with the trap we’d created. Once, Emily heard a mouse scuttle across the stove and managed to frighten it enough that it tumbled into our sink, where it became stuck, futilely scrabbling up the sides like a skateboarder on a halfpipe.
We called our landlord, who called an exterminator, who strategically placed poison around our house. The mice, now both alive and drugged, dashed erratically across the floor. We bought live cage traps and liberated their occupants on the driveway we shared with our neighbors. Then a friend told us that mice can find their way back to a food source from anywhere within a radius of nine miles. Emily and I glanced at each other. We lived one mile from the medical school, but the high school where I worked was 16 miles away. The next morning I went to work with the shoebox in the passenger seat, repurposed from barricade to mouse carrier, with holes poked for air. I chickened out, though, and released the mouse at a gas station before the highway. It was a baby, it turned out. It made a mad scamper for a nearby truck’s wheel well, where it hunkered, trembling, small.
Our living situation, we knew, would not be permanent. But the responsibility we felt to our space meant that if we couldn’t own the house itself, at the very least we had to own what threatened it while we were there. The mice felt within our control. They felt personal. We had to do something about them.
And so, one bright morning, we walked to the hardware store down the block and bought snap traps. They looked like mailboxes—even came with a plastic flag that would automatically pop up when a mouse was inside—and they worked. I’d come home to a raised flag, stand over the garbage can, turn away, open the hatch, and wait for the grim plunk. The thing about that sound is there’s no way to pretend it’s anything besides what it is.
It was amid all this that Emily turned to me one evening on the old futon. “Honestly?” she said, “This has been kind of a shitty year.”
Our ambiguously colored walls had done a terrible job keeping the world out. But walls aren’t always built to form a fortress; they’re meant to delineate and bear weight. They make room to call a hard time what it is, to own the ordeal of navigating it, to share it anyway. So, finally, there in our living room, we did.
We didn’t know we’d rid ourselves of the last of the mice until weeks had gone by. We voiced it gingerly: Maybe we were done. The days that had passed without a sighting had not been the Best Days Ever. They had been exactly, perfectly fine.
Sienna Zeilinger is a writer and educator based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salon, Real Life, Post-, the College Hill Independent, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @siennazeilinger.