This new and improved version published by Hawaii Women’s Journal
copyright (c) 2010 by Anjoli Roy
“You always have to think beyond the structure. Think about what is going on underneath and all around, because that is where the rats are located. The more you look into it, the more you will most likely find.” —John Murphy, an exterminator, quoted in Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
There are rats in the walls. Everybody knows that, but nobody wants to think about it. Still, they’re there, nesting nimbly in the cotton-candy insulation, smudging their musty hair along concrete walls and wooden support beams.
I’ve nursed a fear of rats as far back as I can remember. In my travels across the U.S. from California, where I knew rats to lumber around in garages and alleyways, to New York, where they got on and off the late-night subways as casually as human passengers, all the way back across the country to Hawai‘i, where I’d sensed but never seen them, I hoped with all earnestness that I might find a place, at last, without these hideous creatures. Still, I know that wherever I am, if I listen closely enough, I will hear their nails clicking and their high-pitched squeals squeaking across the still night air. But New York’s nights are never still, which means that to hear the rats, to note when they are scratching their wet teeth through the dry wall or gnawing on the plastic bags beneath your kitchen sink, you must have an ear alert to them.
My boyfriend, Dave, always spends the weekends outside the city. He says it’s his time to decompress—to “chill out with family” and “get away.” A born and raised Long Islander, he’s happy to spend Saturday and Sunday in the suburbs for a break from the crush of the city. When he’s gone, our small studio apartment is, for the most part, unoccupied.
After spending the better part of a decade in Manhattan, I found that I also wanted some distance from the city to decompress, but I wanted to get farther away than just a few hours on the train. I decided to attend the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa for an M.A. in English, but I felt confident that Dave and I would survive the two years and five thousand miles apart. Having grown up in a California community where parents divorcing was as predictable as puberty, I told myself that for a relationship to last, it needed a test, and I couldn’t think of a greater challenge than being so far apart. Dave and I were great, sure—I knew that from the six years we’d been together—but what would happen if our relationship were inconvenient? If we weren’t in the same apartment/city/continent? Would our sometimes papery attempts at communicating withstand the distance? What furry beasts might surface if I were gone?
We’d survived my first year away already, each of us going to great lengths to see each other. Our pattern was to visit after no more than seven or eight weeks apart—a time period, we soon recognized, that was our breaking point. If we went longer, Dave was sure to be increasingly distant, and I was sure to pick fights that ended in tears. Silently, we’d decided that we’d each do whatever it took to find each other before more than seven weeks passed: Dave found the money and the time off from work to surprise me for a long weekend in California when I was visiting my family just as the final sprint to summer break seemed too long to bear; I, on a whim, spent the last of my savings to brave the half-days of travel, each way, so we could be together on Valentine’s Day weekend. I imagined us traversing the endless maze of walls that had shot up between us; once we were together, the struggle to find each other always faded away.
Though we’d begun quibbling about small things—like where we’d live when I returned, how long it might take me to find a job with a degree that didn’t mean much of anything in the city—and bigger, foundation-rocking things—like if I’d open myself up to trying to hear “the message” at his church rather than continuing to hide out with the babies in the nursery—I hoped that after braving this great distance, we might average the space between us and move to some place between New York and Hawai‘i, some place closer to my family in California, some place that wasn’t as gritty as New York. Some place without rats.
At nine p.m. my time on an October night, Dave logged online. Calculating the time difference—it was three o’clock in the morning his time—I was surprised to see him there. I accepted his request to audio chat, especially excited to hear his voice since it’d already been close to a month and a half since we’d seen each other. I remembered that since he didn’t have a webcam, I wouldn’t be able to see him and glanced up at my wall calendar, where I’d circled his upcoming arrival date with a fat red marker.
A slew of excited, indeterminable—not cursing, Dave doesn’t curse—words came through my computer from his end.
“Two in the apartment when I got back from work—their bodies as big as Coke cans!
“Rats, Roy Li!” he pleaded, using his nickname for me to garner extra sympathy.
The Rattus norvegicus is the only species of rat that lives in New York City, my quick Internet search would later tell me. Most likely misnamed by the English physician, naturalist, and writer John Berkenhout, the rats were believed to have come to England on board Norwegian lumber ships, though they hadn’t been sighted in Norway yet. Having originated in Southeast Asia, this rat—also known as the brown rat—is said to have traveled through northern China and Europe, arriving on Turtle Island around the time of the American Revolution. Their port of entry was most likely New York City, and they spread out onto the continent in hordes, a “manifest infestation.” Thanks to global warming’s more tepid winters and humans’ ever-wasteful food habits, the brown rat is now common to all continents in the world, with the sole exception of Antarctica.
In the midst of my research, I would be most loath to discover that, as stowaways on European ships sailing the Pacific, these same rats had landed in Hawai‘i in the nineteenth century. Though there were rats here before them, the brown rat is the largest on the Hawaiian Islands today.
In New York, winter is the best time to exterminate since rats are already combating the cold and relative lack of food. However, as a Times article I read had said, every garbage can without a lid, every window screen that had been nudged aside just enough to let a rat slip by, encourages the existence of this ever-present population.
“Did you call the exterminator?” I asked, horrified.
This was a silly question. I knew Dave hadn’t had a phone for the past year. Was being so difficult to reach his way of punishing me for moving all the way to Hawai‘i to go to graduate school? I didn’t want to believe that, unlike me, he wasn’t addicted to technology—didn’t need a Blackberry for e-mail, BBM, text messages, Facebook, the bus schedule, Internet searches, and, oh yeah, for telephone calls, too.
My mind immediately flashed to the teeth and nails I was convinced that I’d heard in the very apartment I was sitting in, halfway around the world from Dave. On those nights, I’d lamely hunker down into my sheets, hoping nothing would eat its way through the cinderblock walls.
Dave recounted the scene he stumbled into after his most recent weekend with his family in Long Island. He saw one rat scurry back into the wall behind the refrigerator. The other was in the toilet. Captive, the toilet rat suffered a painful drowning in concentrated peppermint Castile soap and urine. (Those were the only fluids within reach, he told me. It was the heat of passion.) After the drowning, Dave lifted the rat’s limp body—“at least 30 pounds” (his words)—with the plunger and dumped it down the garbage shoot just a few steps outside the front door of our studio. Then he went to work scrubbing the apartment, dumping the crumb-filled pizza boxes and greasy Styrofoam takeout containers he’d abandoned days and weeks before on our small counter (he hadn’t grocery shopped or cooked a decent meal since I’d left). Finally, he shifted the stove and fridge away from the wall enough to reveal the fist-sized hole the rats had eaten through the wall. He stuffed it with a dirty towel.
In the morning, the towel had been eaten straight through and a new hole gaped in the wall, though the rats, thoughtful guests, had disappeared by morning. Dave patched things over again, this time, covering the holes with duct tape and “something else,” he said.
“Well, you know how I told you the holes are, like, perfect circles?”
“Yeah . . .”
“I plugged up the holes with your makeup thingies and then used the duct tape.”
Packing up for Hawai‘i, I’d left behind my plastic cylinders of pricy mineral foundation and blush, thinking, who needs to maintain in a long-distance relationship?
“Dave! That stuff’s expensive!”
Home again that evening, he found yet another rat, this time “chilling out” (again, his words) in the planter on our windowsill, sunning itself. Its legs were kicked out to the side; its face, resting against the warm glass, looked out dreamily at the setting sun.
“I swear to God!” I yelled into my computer screen. “We aren’t living any place with rats or—or—or snow! When my program is up in May, we’re moving! So get your isht together!” (Out of respect for Dave, I didn’t curse either.)
“Didn’t you move already?”
I sensed him smirking behind the screen and flipped off my computer—although I knew he couldn’t see my angry finger.
“Funny, guy. I’m serious.”
“And are you saying there aren’t rats in Hawai‘i or something?”
“Not that I’ve seen!” I snapped. I instinctively drew in my limbs; eyed the walls for gnaw marks, the surfaces around me for droppings.
“So what’d you do to the sunning rat?”
“I opened the window and pushed it outside.”
Never mind that we live three stories off the first floor. Never mind that there are always pedestrians dappling our street, playing music too loudly, yelling at each other, smoking weed, and laughing. I imagined the rat making a big splat on the sidewalk below.
“The exterminator came,” he said. “He gave me glue traps.”
I imagined the hulking beasts laughing, the sticky mats clinging to their muscled, furry bodies as they scurried back into the walls and beyond.
Dave created his own tactic instead of the glue traps. He cut up circles from the wire-mesh strainer I used for draining pasta, then duct taped those circles to the wall.
The next morning, there was no rat in sight, and his patches were intact. At work that day, Dave beamed through the phone.
“And get this, Roy Li! I was walking out of the apartment, and I heard our neighbor through the wall saying, ‘They’re effing huge! I think they must be coming through the gas line!’ I guess they’ve moved on.” He laughed.
On my way out that same morning, I stepped into the bright Pauoa sun and was thankful that I had encountered no such rats in my house on this island, so far away from Dave’s. On its way down the valley, a cool breeze sped down one of the many green folds of the Ko‘olau mountains and hit my upturned face with a playful smack. I smiled, appreciative for my good fortune, and clanked shut the chain link fence behind me.
Turning to walk to the bus, I spotted a prone, furry lump out of the corner of my eye. I closed my eyes, held my breath, and considered refusing to acknowledge what was at my feet. But, I knew that even if I kept walking, even if I shrugged and hustled to the bus, it would still be waiting for me when I got back.
I exhaled and looked down.
There, just ever so slightly too close to my left foot was a large mass. I shrieked, my body jolted as if thrown from a blast, and scuttled down the street with increasingly fast staccato steps.
I chose not to move the large, motionless body to the slim trashcan in the garage just then. But even after its limp, light-brown body stiffened and rotted away, even after I would shovel it into a plastic bag that I’d then carry with the tips of my fingers to the trashcans at the end of the street, I’d pretend like it hadn’t been there, at least for a little while. I couldn’t tell Dave about it, I told myself. It was either not tell him or settle on moving us to Antarctica.
But rats have a way of surfacing, and relationships only work if we are brave enough to confront the ones that make homes in the walls that separate us from our loved ones. Feeling swift rivers of sweat running down my slumped spine, I reasoned that I’d have until May, when I’d graduate, to ready myself for what I knew would be waiting for me in that many-walled city of New York, where I’d continue my campaign to live somewhere else.
Beneath my feet and ahead of me, the steaming asphalt, still slick from the morning rain, seemed to radiate back up at the sun, blurring the line between the ground and the already sweltering air. I imagined the mirage of Dave’s smiling face glimmering just ahead of me, and I laughed, straightening my back a little.
Thank you to Jenn Hee and Mayumi Shimose Poe for their wonderful editing and encouragement—they’ve improved this text greatly and inspired me to make it better. I’d also like to thank them for drawing my attention to Sullivan’s text, which contains a number of fantastic quotables on rats, including this story’s epigraph and the term “manifest infestation.” Diverse Voices Quarterly published an earlier version of this story in volume two, issue five.
Notable References Consulted
2008 Mapping the Rats in New York City. Time, December 15. http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1866594,00.html, accessed July 25, 2010.
2004 Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. New York: Bloomsbury.