Kate came home from work the other night late. I asked her if she could put the recycling out before she went to bed. She said that’s the man’s job. I told her she is the man.
“I’m not the man,” she said.
“Well, I’m not the man either.” I said, in my slippers and ketchup-stained shirt left over from the local, free-range, organic, hand-battered chicken nugget dinner (Kate won’t let me buy the normal chicken nuggets).
“Who’s the man then?” She asked.
“George?” I said. George, our 9 year old, shook his head.
We’re modern parents, Kate and I. We’re not Mr. and Mrs Don Draper. But, apparently, we’re not that modern. We hold onto gender roles at least enough to be thinking about them each night when Kate gets home. Maybe it’s because we’ve fundamentally blown it all up during the day, with me staying home with the kids, that we hold onto the rest of the stuff as much as we do.
Some of the tasks break down easily. For instance, I’m going to carry in the Christmas tree and curse the cheap-ass plastic tree stand. Kate’s going to sort out the ornaments and scold me for leaving the lights all tangled from last year. This is how it should go; this is the comfort zone. But then who’s supposed to clean the dog doo out of the kids’ sneakers when they walk in from the backyard and start decorating the tree and everyone goes, “Ok, who stepped in dog shit?”
It turns out, in our house, I’m in charge of anything that’s gross. This, amazingly, even includes flushing Kate’s toilet work. But it goes ok because, in our house, really everything boils down to “gross” or “not gross”. And way more of it is “gross” so it makes sense that I’m the one who stays home. Plus, I’m really good at it. Just the other day, in the restroom of a Red Robin, I wiped Theo’s butt while eating an ice cream cone.
The recycling, however, falls into that no-man/no-woman zone: Sorta gross (related to trash) but not really. Sorta heavy lifting but not really. It’s a tough one for us and thus, every Monday night, we’re thrown into a gender role tailspin of confusion.
But the real tricky one, the granddaddy/mommy of all tricky ones, came with the infiltration of the rats last winter.
The rats had been living in our basement for about a month I think. We had seen them now and then out on the back patio —mostly heard the scattering when we went out at night. We thought they were mice until one ran across Louisa’s foot. “A rat just ran across my foot,” she said one evening while we were outside grilling.
“Are you sure it was a rat?” I asked.
“Yup.” she said.
Then it was the basement. One dashed by me in the basement as I was doing laundry. I thought it was a cat until I saw it’s bald tail slip into a hole beside a heating duct. I didn’t mention it to Kate because I knew she’d be very unhappy about it. Mice were sort of reasonable. Rats, sort of arbitrarily, were not.
But these rats seemed content to stay down in the basement and thus, Kate, who didn’t do laundry, wouldn’t have to know about them. It was winter. They had nice fluff bedding they made from the insulation from the crawl space beneath the kitchen (cold kitchen floors!). I didn’t want to sound the alarms because, honestly, there was a part of me that felt pretty good about providing warmth and security to some fellow mammals during this tough winter. It’s partly why I’m a good stay-at-home dad. I’m very sensitive.Then one day a rat broke the trust and came upstairs. Kate found the turds in our pantry and was very upset about it. I told her it was probably a mouse. But she suddenly became Ms. PhD Zoologist and said they were waaay too big to be a mouse turd.
“I’ll clean it up.” I generously offered.
“That is so incredibly gross. I’m so freaked out right now.” She said, her hand over her mouth.
“Probably just a one time thing,” I said as I swept the rather large olive pit-like shits into a napkin.
“Ben.” She says this when she’s upset. “We have a rat living in our kitchen.”
“It’s not living in our kitchen. It’s living in our basement.”
“What? Seriously? You’ve seen it down there?”
“Them.” I smiled. I sometimes smile when I say something I know Kate won’t like. It’s weird.
“Seriously?!” She exclaimed.
Every day thereafter, Kate would come home from work and ask me if I’d called an exterminator. Finally, after two weeks of getting harassed about it, I told her I’d take care of it myself. We didn’t need to pay some dude two hundred dollars to come in and drop traps and poison everywhere. I could do that myself.
So I went online and bought two $45 Havahart traps. My plan was to trap the rats and drive them to the nature reserve up the road and release them. It was a plan Kate wasn’t particularly impressed with but she kept mostly quiet about it.
We didn’t catch any rats. And each day we didn’t catch a rat Kate grew more upset. She was trying to be nice about it but I could see there was something very primal going on here. We had a lizard that she held often and lovingly. We had ferrets that she loved dearly. The morning Pico, our second ferret, was killed by Greeley, Kate cried and cried. I had found him limp and matted with saliva in George’s room. Greeley sat next to him, her eyes sad, her tail tucked between her legs. Kate was in the shower. I walked in and told her that Pico died and she just cried and cried there in the shower.
Kate even loved our chickens, something even I couldn’t really get myself to do, before they met their own unfortunate end.
But it was all different with the rats. Rats weren’t animals. Not to Kate, not to our neighbor, who, ever time I ran into him, asked, “Still have those rats?” Then he’d shiver and shake his head. This is a former All-America lacrosse player who keeps his small talk small and wears NFL sweaters. Rats do things to people.
But to me, rats were just squirrels without the fur on the tail. I love squirrels. I didn’t want them in my house but I also didn’t want to kill them, particularly with poison or, even worse, a glue trap. I once spent an hour trying to free a shrieking mouse from a neighbor’s glue trap in New York City. The neighbor, who spoke very little english, sobbed as I tried to pull and pry the tiny, screaming thing loose with a butter knife. It was a super tense situation that had some unfortunate results.
So I told Kate I’d block up all the holes they were using to get into the kitchen. They’ll stay in the basement, I said.
“I don’t want them in the basement either!” Kate yelled.
“We do our laundry down there, it’s disgusting!” She yelled.
Kate’s face went squinty.
I assured her I’d take care of it. So, a few days later, I plugged all the holes I could find in the kitchen and in the basement with brillo pads and duct tape.
But then it got bad.
One bright morning, I skipped down the stairs, as I do, and found Kate on the couch in tears.
Theo is sitting next to her looking very concerned. “Mommy’s dying.” He says.
Louisa is sitting at the dining room table drawing. “Mommy’s dying?” Louisa asks flatly, focused not on her dying mother but on the sun she’s coloring in the corner of her paper.
“Mommy’s crying.” I say.
“Rats ate the amonados. Last night.” Theo explains.
“What are amonados?” Louisa asks, head down, still coloring.
“Avocados,” I say.
I walk into the kitchen and see in our three-tiered wire basket an avocado neatly excavated with the signature large rodent teeth marks.
“Are we sure it was a rat?” I ask as I walk back into the living room.
Kate looks up at me. All I see is black.
“YES!” Kate erupts. “It was a FUCKING RAT!”
I make a mental note to talk to her later about cursing so much in front of the kids. Then I decide I don’t really care because what are bad words anyway? So arbitrary and strange.
“Mommy’s dyyyying.” Theo says again.
I make a mental note to work on his hard ‘C’ sounds.
“You’re just not taking this seriously.” She says, sobbing now.
Kate lashes out when she gets sad. We operate very differently in this sense. I get more of a forlorn and useless sort of sad, I suppose because at some point I determined I was more likely to get what I wanted this way. Kate’s strategy is very different. She lashes out and curses and makes me not want to help her. I don’t know how this strategy was deemed effective for her but I know her by now and I know that just because she sounds mean, she’s actually feeling very sad.
It’s the last thing I feel like doing after she yells at me like that but I go over and put my hand on her shoulder anyway.
“I’ve asked you so many times to do something about the rats and you JUST DON’T DO IT!” She yells. “You just don’t CARE!
“I do care.” I say.
“Then DO SOMETHING about it!”
The other thing that happens when Kate yells at me to do something is it makes me not want to do the thing she’s yelling at me to do. I try to point this out to her.
“A lot of times, I feel like, when you bark orders at me? It’s just, I don’t know, it’s just hard to like…to feel like I’m the man of the house. You know?”
Kate’s eyes get small, her voice suddenly quite tender. “Is that how you want to feel? Like the man of the house?”
I’m a little wary of what’s happening here. “Um, yeah.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Well then BE A FUCKING MAN!”
This stings, no question. But I’m able to see that she really had no choice but to say this awful thing. It was an alley-oop. Sure, she probably didn’t need to hang on the rim like that (the profanity and the stare-down) after stuffing it but I understand that Kate sees me as a someone who is not doing everything he can to solve a problem that she feels is quite serious. She wants a man who takes care of business, takes initiative, doesn’t wait around for his wife to lose her shit before he takes control. I understand that. What readers may not understand, at this point, is why Kate didn’t just pick up the phone and call the exterminator herself. The answer, I suppose, goes back to the earlier sentiment: She wants a man who takes care of business. And hope springs eternal.
A few days later, at Best Buy, where I go quite often with Theo and pretend I’m a rich guy in the market for a high-end home theater system, I pass by some cool looking surveillance cameras. It occurs to me that I could put one of these babies in the kitchen and watch the rat(s) when they come out at night. It’s the only way I’d be able to see how they’re getting in and out. You can watch from your phone and move the camera around and everything. I’ve also been very curious about what Greeley does when the rats infiltrate the kitchen. We’d been shutting Greeley in the kitchen and putting down ‘Wee Wee” pads for her recent semi-incontinence. I say ‘semi’ only because accidents seem to only happen when the weather dips below a comfy 50 degrees and/or there’s some precipitation in the air.
I’m weighing the pros and cons of the night-vision remote camera —which basically entails figuring out how mad Kate will be with me for buying it— and I think to myself, how can I be the “fucking” man of the house if I’m not able to buy a surveillance camera when I want to buy a surveillance camera??? Plus, is the kind of guy that worries about what his wife will say really the kind of guy Kate wants me to be??? And also? What’s more manly than electronics?
“Ugh! How do you DO this!??” Theo asks from behind me.
He’s been carrying around a big bag of Cheetos for the last half hour and his orange goo-covered finger is swiping back and forth across the screen of an otherwise shiny iPad. A blue-shirted employee approaches. I’m a little nervous around authority figures so I take the iPad from Theo, wipe the screen off with my shirt, and quickly put it back. Theo cries for it. Then the employee walks the other way so I give it back to Theo. It’s their fault for selling food in an electronics store.
Later that night I embrace the inevitable and show Kate my surveillance camera purchase. She’s in the living room with the kids and her glass of wine. As I make my approach, package in hand, I tell myself that this is a pretty solid first step in solving this rat problem if you think about it. Know thine enemy, is what they say.
Kate’s feet are kicked up, the remnants of her workday lead all the way back to the door like a little trail of “Suck it, SAHD man”.
I gather my courage, tap into some resentment, and choose my strategy. Be enthusiastic about it, I say to myself. Enthusiasm is often contagious.
“Check this baby out,” I say, pulling it out from behind my back. “You can watch from your phone. It has night vision and you can even control it from your phone!”
“What is it?” Kate asks.
“It’s a surveillance camera!” I say.
“You bought a surveillance camera?”
“To see if we have rats.” I say.
Oh lordy. Her incisors are showing. Her pupils have turned black.
“We know we FUCKING have FUCKING rats!”
I very often pick the wrong strategy with Kate. In this case, I probably should’ve gone in sheepish, apologetic, saying immediately that I’ll take it back if she doesn’t think it’s a good idea. But I never ever go in like that because it’s really really hard for me to do that. Nevertheless, it’s clear Kate is nearing the end of her rope.
But here’s the problem, I really don’t think it’s fair to blame the rat(s) entirely. I think Kate is really stressed out at work and I think it’s hard for her to come home late to tired, ill-behaved children who she’s suddenly ‘mom’ to. The combination, it’s like two highly combustible gasses that fill a room over time and then…a rat walks in and BOOM! I operate differently. My noxious gas leaks slowly, like air from a pinched whoopie cushion. It’s squeaky and whiney and smells bad but ultimately it’s harmless.
Kate: “You’re taking that back.”
Kate: “We don’t have the money to buy stupidI CRAP like that!”
Me: “It’s not crap. It’s really cool. Anyway, you bought that dress last week at Anthropology. You didn’t need that.”
Kate: “I did need it. I have like three dresses for work.”
Me: “You take your dress back and I’ll take the camera back.”
Kate: Ben. We. Do. Not. Need. A. Video. Camera. We need a fucking exterminator.
Me: “Well…I want it.”
At this point, I don’t know who is providing a worse example for the kids —Kate with her sailor talk or me with my horrible example of an effective adult argument.
Kate doesn’t seem to appreciate the argument either. Her eyes are terrifying.
I forge on. “I want to watch them… see how they’re doing it.”
Her eyes shift down to my nose and then a little lower. It seems she’s trying to decide whether she wants to punch me in face or the neck.
I give in and tell her I’ll take it back if it does not lead to the capture of a rat within five days. She reluctantly agrees. Then I make some joke about how she has to then take her dress back if it doesn’t lead to a pay raise …or something dumb that she rolls her eyes at.
That night, I’m tired as hell (all that getting yelled at!) but I force myself to stay awake and watch the live feed from my surveillance camera. There’s no activity. It’s really boring. But the camera has this cool feature that let’s you draw two boxed areas on your phone –when there’s movement in those areas you’re alerted immediately. I set my alert loud so it would wake me up, and, possibly Kate.
The ding wakes me up. I grab the phone and see a large dark mass moving about. It’s not a rat, it’s Greeley. She’s gotten up up to take a piss on the floor, right between the two wee wee pads I laid out.
“What an asshole.” I say.
“What’s going on?” Kate grumbles.
“Just watching Greeley piss on the floor.”
She sighs and rolls over.
I watch for a while longer. No rats, just Greeley milling about, tip-toeing around her pee puddle and checking the counters for food.
Who’s the vermin here? I wonder. The thought gets me thinking.
I wake Kate up.
“I think one thing that’s made it hard for me to wage war on the rats like you want is I can’t help but feel like they’re just doing the best they can, trying to find a warm place to raise their kids, eat what they can. We’re not that much different from them. And why is our way so much better than theirs? If anything, they do a better job of staying out of people’s way and sustainably using their resources.
“Kate? You sleeping?”
“Oh. Well, what do you think about that?”
Kate: “Really interesting.”
I try to take my mind off the rats with a few games of Candy Crush on my phone. But I keep coming back to them.
“You know they didn’t start the plague, right? It was a gerbil,” I tell her.
“Did you know that?
“Kate? Did you know it was a gerbil?”
“If we had gerbils I’m sure I’d take care them…if you know what I mean.”
“Kate? If it’s us or them you know I’m going to choose ‘us’, right? You guys are my family.”
Kate’s awake. I can tell. She’s just not happy with me. The rat problem, I’m starting to see now, is causing some legitimate problems in our marriage. I start to think maybe this isn’t something worth getting divorced over.
At the beginning of all this, Kate was clearly the bad guy —short-tempered, mean, blood-thirsty, etc.— but the more I think about it the more I see what Kate’s putting up with. She feels like I’m placing the needs of a rat —a rat I don’t even know—before the needs of my own wife. It’s her or the rats and I’m basically choosing the rats. It’s not really a fair dichotomy but it’s not totally far off either. I can see that because, again, I’m pretty sensitive.
And the truth is, Kate just wants me to take care of her. Kate is so self-sufficient and resilient it’s hard sometimes to remember that she, like everyone, needs to be taken care of from time to time. In short, she needs me to kill a rat in order to feel loved.
On my next visit to Home Depot, Theo and I stop by the “chemicals, traps and slow painful death” aisle. I sort through traps to find the one that could offer the quickest death. They’re all red and black with sneaky looking mice and rats on the packages.
“Ahh, Daddy, look a mouse!” Theo says, pointing to a picture on one of the snap traps. “It’s soooooo cute.” He gushes. “Can we get it?” He asks. It occurs to me, A. Theo thinks there’s a mouse or rat inside each of these boxes and B. Theo’s future marriage will be better off if I can somehow —sooner than later—stitch up this empathy wound I’ve clearly passed along.
“They’re not mice, honey. They’re FOR mice. They’re traps to kill them. Because people shouldn’t have mice and rats and things living in their homes with them.”
“Greeley killed Vito,” He offers, referring to an unfortunate incident with our pet ferret.
“Vito was our pet though. Sometimes rats and mice are pets but mostly they’re not.”
Theo looks confused.
“It’s a little confusing,” I tell him.
I end up with a TOMCAT® RAT SNAP® TRAP. It features a “Powerful, aggressive design (with) patented interlocking teeth (that) make escape virtually impossible”.
I put it under the kitchen sink and wait a night before checking on it. The following morning, I open the cabinet doors and find smears of dark red blood all over walls and all the bottles of cleaning supplies. In the corner is the trap, turned over with a leg in it. This grizzly result feels about right.
I put on my rubber gloves, clean up Greeley’s pee on the floor and go to work cleaning and disinfecting the bloodbath under the sink.
Later, noticing the sparkling clean cleaning products lined up on the counter, Kate asks if “we got one.”
“We got a leg.” I reply.
“Ew.” She says, sort of smiling.
“And a lot of blood smeared all over the inside of the cupboard. And some fur.” I say.
“But no rat.” She says, unfazed. I take a moment to think about her childhood in England, if there was a war, any instances of her family being abducted and tortured…I don’t think so.
“Still out there.” I say. “Three-legged, bleeding all over everything and super mad… But I cleaned this up so…
“Good work, honey.” She says.
A few days later, our oven stops working. I pull it out for inspection and find the electrical wires all chewed up. I pop a panel in the back and find piles of rat pellets. It’s really gross. And the thought that we’ve been cooking our food in an oven surrounded by piles of rat shit is, I’m willing to admit, super gross.
Kate’s muted reaction to the news is a little surprising at first. “That is so gross,” is all she says.
Then it makes more sense.
“We’re getting a new one,” she says.
It turns out this is the female version of that time Theo dropped and shattered the outdated iPhone I previously had no good reason to replace. The fact is, Kate had been coveting a new oven for a while now. A specific one. She just couldn’t rationalize buying it. The rats played right into her hands.
I consider for a moment how I might be able to get the rats to attack our TV, maybe my wardrobe. But this is a slippery slope.
The rats’ latest betrayal falls harder on me than Kate. I feel like I’ve just been stabbed in the back by the misunderstood vermin I’d given up so much to harbor. With only a little pleading from Kate, I call an exterminator. Calling in someone else to do a homeowner’s job never felt so manly. I feel like I’m Delta Force, calling in coordinates for a drone strike. Even Kate looks looks at me like she wants to get frisky.
The exterminator arrives the next day. He lays down three black, plastic boxes —two in the basement, one in the crawl space under the kitchen. $65.
“Should take a day or two,” he says, and heads for the door. He waves bye over his shoulder and I walk back into my kitchen and unplug the surveillance camera.
Back at Best Buy, the cashier lady asks if there’s anything wrong with the camera I’m returning. I tell her it nearly destroyed my marriage. She doesn’t laugh. I figure she gets that four or five times a day with us men returning our electronics.
We haven’t seen or heard a rat since the exterminator dropped off the black boxes.
Except for this one we found when we got rid of our basement fridge a few days ago.
Four legs, unfortunately.
So, at this point in my blog posts I like to extrapolate meaning from a gross, menial household event by forcing an overreaching metaphor.
All relationships have rats. Rats that lurk in the basements of our insecure minds. Rats that gnaw the wires of our warm hearts. Some get stuck in the glue trap, some get their legs chopped off and bleed all over the place. We’re all trying to get rid of our rats.
You can make space for them in your home and in your heart, if you like. You can watch them come and go in the night as they eat your proverbial avocados. Or you can put out poison traps and kill them all quickly. It turns out this last one is the much better approach.
So how does this translate in terms of the metaphor? It’s taken me a while to figure this out and force it just right but, see, Kate is English. In England, people don’t talk about their feelings a whole lot. Unless they’re drunk. And people also don’t really get divorced there. The poison? That’s the English method of stuffing it all down, doing what you gotta do, sucking it up, moving on. We don’t do that very well here. The English, however, are very good at swiftly killing their rats.
The glue trap? I don’t know, maybe that’s couples therapy. You eventually kill the rat but there’s a whole lot of crying and yelling to endure before it dies.
The snap trap? That’s an affair. The rat survives, just loses a leg and bleeds all over the place.
Finally, to put a positive spin on this dark journey, as I like to do: Our kitchen now has a brand new oven. Kate’s pretty happy about that. And thanks to the domino effect that takes place when you remove one small cabinet to make room for a bigger oven, we are in the process of renovating the whole rest of our kitchen. And the best part is, Theo and I are doing it ourselves.
I’m like the general contractor. Kate can’t keep her hands off me.
This whole experience, in fact, has really brought Kate and I together in a way we never imagined. Our marriage required a rat sacrifice. It’s crazy but sometimes voodoo works! We’re almost a little sad there aren’t any more rats around for us to unite against. There will be more, I’m sure.
The downside to this exciting project is that it’s going to take a while to finish (Theo’s not actually very good at this stuff) so there’ll be this pile of debris …
… on our back patio —the very spot where our rat problem began— for at least a few months. A few cold months. With no insulation in our walls, we’ll be just like the rats we evicted/poisoned last winter!
And thanks to the pile, we’re going to be right back where we started because who loves piles of debris more than rats!? Nobody. They’re setting up shop out there right now!
That’s actually a chipmunk. Chipmunks are location scouts for rats. Some people don’t know that. The rats will follow shortly and it will all begin anew. Of course this time they’ll have much nicer wires to chew.
But Kate and I will be better prepared. We’ve already decided our strategy. Poison works but it’s so impersonal, we decided. You lay the bait out and that’s it. It’s also not very earth/labor friendly. We’re going to take a more sustainable, more personal route with this.
A couple years ago, we discovered drowned baby rats in our recycle bin.
We’re thinking something along these lines. But instead of the impersonal ‘leave a bucket out and wait’ approach, we’re going to take the time, be respectful, and hand-drown each rat locally.
This is sort of how I’m imagining it: