Hey, it worked for me!
The rustling of the curtains that cover my bedside window woke me around 4 a.m. I opened my eyes just in time to see a rat jump down from the windowsill onto my comforter.
I sprang from bed, screaming, but my foot got twisted in the bedsheets, and I crashed to the floor halfway across my studio apartment. Getting up, I switched on the lights to verify that my visitor was not a nightmare vision. The rat, now skittering around under my bed, must have crawled up the fire escape to my third-floor window.
I had heard about other dramatic rodent sightings in Manhattan’s West Village, where I had moved just in time for the pandemic to close restaurants, sending rats in search of new food sources. As I shakily put on a robe and poked through my cabinets in search of impromptu rat-catching supplies, I cursed myself for leaving the window open — and for deciding to live alone.
I thought about my girlfriend, Celeste, and her plant-filled Brooklyn apartment. Why wasn’t I asleep in her bed with her cat, Teaspoons, snoring beside us? The first time I slept over, Teaspoons spent the night rubbing herself so enthusiastically on my sandals that I had to throw them away, their Velcro straps irredeemably clogged with her long fur. Now, several years later, I found myself wishing I had kept the sandals, both as a souvenir and, with their cat odor, a potential rodent deterrent.
I dated so many people the year after my marriage ended that my therapist couldn’t remember their names. He dubbed a sensitive socialite the “Hothouse Flower” and an economist whose accent and muscles I swooned over the “French Übermensch.” There was also a violinist, an English banker and a lexicographer with a thing for kilts and vintage cocktails. They were all fun, but Celeste was different.
When I saw her waiting for me on our first date, perched on a stool at a hipster tequila bar, her sea-green eyes and delicate neck made my heart beat faster. As I laughed at her stories and answered her insightful questions, I felt even hotter. Literally — I was starting to sweat in the packed bar.
As I waved my arm in a gesture, I caught a whiff of myself and realized that my rising temperature had awaken years of body odor locked in the fibers of the vintage dress I was wearing for the first time. At the end of the evening, when Celeste leaned in for an embrace, I gave her a hug using only my forearms, my upper arms tight against my body to contain the stink.
“I should have kissed you,” I texted her after I got home.
“How about Friday?” she replied. We have been kissing and talking ever since.
I didn’t start dating women until I was nearly 40. Celeste, my first girlfriend, fortunately found my vintage misfire and subsequent awkward moments endearingly funny. When we met, she also had recently left a long-term relationship. Neither of us wanted to jump into another primary relationship. But while my other dates focused on enjoyment, Celeste and I trusted each other with the harder parts of our lives.
But on the night of the rat (which clearly qualified as a hard, if brief, part of my life), Celeste and Teaspoons were miles away. Our arrangement of living apart while continuing to see each other usually worked well. On the nights we were apart, we would call to dish about details of our other dates. But my freedom also meant that I had no one to help me with crises like the rat, who seemed to have taken refuge in a cardboard box under my bed.
I took a deep breath, looked at the drawing of the feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir hanging above my desk, and told myself that I didn’t need help. I used a broom to push the box into the hallway and slammed my apartment door shut, congratulating myself while mentally apologizing to my neighbors in case the rat failed to show itself out of the building.
When I came home from work that afternoon, Ms. de Beauvoir was askew. The rat hadn’t been in the box after all. After I left, it had explored its new digs — gnawing at the shower curtain, knocking over the wooden mannequin hand where I hung my jewelry, and, I imagined, probably gazing wistfully out the closed window while regretting some of its own life decisions.
Finally, it had climbed up the dresses hanging in my closet and burrowed into the back of a shelf, making a cozy nest amid my sweaters. I couldn’t see it in there, but I knew it wasn’t anywhere else.
I closed the closet door and went in search of my building superintendent.
“Maybe it’s a mouse?” he asked, holding his fingers a few inches apart.
“A rat,” I insisted, holding my hands wide.
He raised a skeptical eyebrow and told me that I was in luck, because the exterminator was scheduled to visit the following week.
I called Celeste to ask if I could spend a few nights at her place and maybe borrow some clothes, since my new roommate was using all of mine. She said yes. A few minutes later, she texted me another message: “Gary volunteers to come trap your rat.”
Gary, an artist who makes a living by reviving historical construction techniques, is both strong and delicate. He’s not bothered by New York City’s less savory wildlife. He often spends days cataloging the grimy bivalves, fish and occasional car parts pulled from the muck during the ongoing cleanup of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. The first time we met, when he led a canoe flotilla down the canal into the New York Harbor, he gleefully described the dangers of his childhood hunts in Somerset, England for strong, sharp-toothed river eels.
Gary could face a rat. But I wasn’t sure I could face Gary. He and Celeste had recently fallen in love, brought together by their shared passion for reclaiming urban waterways. They were talking about moving in together.
Celeste said she didn’t want our relationship to change, even as she and Gary became each other’s primary partner. Still, I was worried. Celeste and I mixed cocktails, spent hours talking in coffee shops and went to museums.
Gary helped build some of the elaborate installations in these museums. And he not only made delicious cocktails but also volunteered with a project shipping grain down the Hudson River on a sail-powered schooner to brew more sustainable alcohol. He frequently pulled up to coffee shops with his bike loaded with branches he had sawed off storm-downed trees, which he carved into beautiful spoons.
My insecurities meant I wasn’t entirely comfortable around Gary. But I was a lot less comfortable around the rat, so I asked Celeste what time he could come over.
Gary met me at a hardware store.
He asked me about the rat. I held out my hands. He nodded and picked up the largest trap available, a supersized version of a mousetrap.
Back in my apartment, I handed Gary a utensil to scoop peanut butter to bait the trap.
“My guilt spoon!” he said.
Celeste had given me the spoon as a gift from Gary months before. Now, Gary explained he had carved it while feeling guilty that he was intruding on my relationship.
We set up the trap, cracked open the closet door and went to Celeste’s apartment to wait. I sat on the couch with Teaspoons purring on my lap, shedding welcome white fur on my black jeans. Celeste and Gary cooked pasta, because I love pasta, and kale, because Celeste insists I cannot live on pasta alone.
Because I was there, Gary wore an apron over his clothes instead of his preferred cooking outfit of just an apron and nothing else. Even more considerately, Gary left after dinner even though he had planned to spend the night. Instead, I fell peacefully asleep with Celeste — my love, even though we love others, too.
The next morning, Gary and I went back to my apartment. I unlocked the door for him and waited outside.
“We got him!” he called to me. “And he’s a big one!” Gary put the rat into a garbage bag, but I asked him for one more favor. He opened the bag again and took a photo I could show my building’s skeptical superintendent.
Bag in hand, Gary hugged me goodbye. “I consider you family,” he said. I hugged him back. Gary had believed me unhesitatingly, jumped to help and shown that he was keeping me in mind even in the distracting swirl of a new relationship.
A few months later, when Celeste and Gary moved in together, I was no longer nervous. I hadn’t lost a girlfriend but gained a friend. While also gaining and losing a rat.
Erin Thompson is an art historian and lawyer who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
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