I lure Harriet out from behind the mini-fridge and into my hand with a clump of cold, leftover white rice.
“It’s time to put you away sweetheart,” I say.
“Hold on, I want to hold her,” my husband says from the couch.
Our other rat, Ethel, has already scaled the two-story cage and is standing on her hind legs, blinking, waiting for handouts. I open the cage door so that Ethel can go in, but pass off Harriet to my husband. She keeps nibbling on the clump of rice, apparently oblivious to being exchanged in midair.
He cups her body in both hands, stroking the place between her ears with a fingertip.
“It’s so satisfying, right?” I ask.
He agrees, laughing, because holding her is satisfying.
Holding Ethel is not the same because she’s muscular, feisty, quick, and when you pick her up, her body tightens and she uses all of her strength to squirm free, digging her claws into your shirt (or skin) so that she can scale your chest and situate herself on your shoulders. I admire her independence.
Harriet has no fight though, especially if she’s sleepy or preoccupied with food. And there’s something about that weight in your hand – that fat, that squishiness – it’s so good. Excluding her little toothpick legs, you literally can’t feel her bones. Her warm, pure white tummy spreads and sinks into the spaces between your fingers like jelly. Her pea-sized heart beats rapidly against your palm. When I hold her, I focus on nothing else.
With my coat on, purse slung over my shoulder, keys in my hand, I turn towards the door, but pause to watch my husband holding her. He has his eyes closed. I’m jealous almost; I want him to tell me not to leave, that he needs me here.
My husband arrived home from work a few minutes ago, pulling off his pale blue hospital scrub top as he walked in. Losing the scrub pants as he made his way to the couch. This is our transition time – around 8:00 a.m. – our five minutes together. The rats are almost always involved.
Letting them out is part of my morning routine – they like to sit on my slippers while I brush my teeth, to take part in my breakfast. They scale my legs as I try to put on my shoes and I squeal, “but I have to go!” as if the rats are really communicating that they want me to stay rather than just signaling “hello” or “give me your leftovers.”
During most transition times, my husband hugs me in the kitchen, which is also the living room and entry hall, because that is the size of our apartment. We pause, silent, waking up or fighting sleep, but once we let go one of us always starts venting, sharing stories about work, always work: frustration, humor, anger, successes. His pager goes off and he has to call the hospital and say that he’s gone and he’s not coming back for another eight hours. I’ve probably missed my first train and shouldn’t miss my second. “We should get a dog,” I say, but I don’t actually want a dog, not now. And then I leave.
What I want is just a small connection, not a demand. When I’m riding the subway, hurtling through a tunnel, a baby screaming, only it’s little flailing limbs visible from inside the stroller, a beggar yelling, “If I could just have a moment of your time…” I wonder how this city has turned me into this person, a lost person. We are new to New York, new to marriage, committed to the fact that we miss each other too much to not see each other for those five minutes. No matter what happens: five minutes.
Leaving and going: I think this may be what my new life is. This routine has locked me in. Joining the masses, doing, doing, then hiding away in our little compartments so we can rejuvenate – not to fullness, but to an energy level just high enough to outlast the next round. Theoretically, I could get away, float away, be spun out into a train tunnel, or hit by a car, or pack up two suitcases and my boxes of books and leave. I could go anywhere. But I’m not going to.
Like my husband, I hold Harriet when I get home. I walk into a dark apartment and switch on the lamp, and the rats rustle around. While I set my things down, they emerge from the large straw tunnel in their cage like tiny lions from a den, stretching and yawning, showing off their two coffee-stain-colored bottom teeth. It’s so quiet that you can hear their minute intakes of breath.
He’s already gone for the night, and before I even unbutton my coat, I open the cage door, let it drop, and wait for them. Ethel is the first to leave; she either climbs on my back or jumps down to the floor and runs in circles, stopping and starting sporadically like a cat. She makes me laugh.
Harriet sits by the open door, motionless. Maybe she’s peeing, I think, but no, she’s just frozen, trancelike, waiting to be scooped up.
I scoop her up.
This time I hold her close and she buries her head into my chest. My throat tightens up – how sweet it is to think that she might have missed me. I wrap my fingers around her tummy and gently squeeze – it’s so satisfying – and I close my eyes and focus on the feeling of her little body, soft and weighty, keeping me pressed towards Earth. I hold her until she squeaks, asking to be let go.
Paige Towers earned her BA from the University of Iowa and her MFA from Emerson College. She’s currently a freelance writer in New York City and is at work on a book about ASMR. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baltimore Review, McSweeney's, Midwestern Gothic, Prime Number Magazine, Catch & Release: the online literary journal of Columbia University, So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art, BioStories Magazine, Our Iowa Magazine, Honesty for Breakfast and Spry Literary Magazine. To see more of Paige's work, visit www.paigetowers.com or find her on Twitter @paige_towers.