“Walls” (original version)

Originally published by Diverse Voices Quarterly

copyright (c) 2010 by Anjoli Roy

There are rats in the walls. Everybody knows that, but nobody wants to think about it. Still, there they are, nesting nimbly in the cotton candy insulation, smudging their musty hair along concrete walls and wooden support beams. I have nursed a fear of rats for as far back as I can remember, and as irrational as it may seem, 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 subways with the ease of human passengers, all the way back across the country to Hawai‘i, I have hoped with all earnestness that I might find a place, at last, without these hideous, disease-ridden creatures. Still, I know that 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.

Dave always spends the weekends outside the city. He says it’s his time to decompress, to chill out with his family, and to just get away. The problem is that when he’s gone, our small studio apartment is, for the most part, unoccupied.

It was three o’clock in the morning, his time, when Dave logged online. Nine p.m. my time, I was precariously balanced on the back two legs of my desk chair, shamelessly watching a bootleg version of a reality TV show on my computer instead of doing my reading for the graduate program I was enrolled in. I had left Dave a few months prior to pursue a higher degree at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. It was on a lark that I traveled so far for an M.A. in English, but I felt confident that we would survive the two years and five thousand miles apart. We’d even be stronger for it. In the back of my mind, I conceited 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 that was warm, that wasn’t as gritty as New York. Some place without rats.

Checking my clock and calculating the time difference, I was surprised to see Dave online. I accepted his request to audio chat, and a slew of indeterminable (not curse, Dave doesn’t curse) words came through my computer from his end.

“Uhm, what?”

“Two in the apartment when I got back from work—their bodies as big as Coke cans!”

“Two what?”

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 Internt search would later tell me. Also known as the Norway rat, this brown creature is said to be, inexplicably, from northern China. After making its way through northern Europe, the rodents arrived, it is claimed, on Turtle Island in the 1700s. In fact, 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 online research, I would be most loath to discover that, 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 recent Times article has said, “Every garbage can without a lid, every window screen that [can be] nudged aside just enough to let a rat slip by,” encourage the existence of this ever-present population.

“Did you call the exterminator?” I shouted, losing my balance on my chair. I slammed my hand back onto my desk to keep from falling over.

This was a silly question, actually. I knew Dave didn’t pack away possessions the way I did, despite my continual travels, and he certainly didn’t have a phone. He hadn’t had a phone for the past year. Or, scratch that, he hadn’t hooked up a phone since then (he’d spent months purchasing one, then never bothered to activate it). It was his way of punishing me for moving away all the way to Hawai‘i to go to graduate school, I told myself. I didn’t want to believe that, actually, unlike me, he wasn’t addicted to technology—didn’t need a Blackberry for email, BBM, text messages, Facebook, the bus schedule, general Internet searches, and, oh yeah, for telephone calls too.

My mind immediately flit to the teeth and nails, I was convinced, that I’d occasionally 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 that nothing would eat its way through the cinderblock walls.

Dave recounted the scene he stumbled into after his 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 the concentrated peppermint Castile soap that I stored by our shower. In addition to the toilet water, the rat also drowned in, okay, urine too. (Those were the only two fluids he had 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 any food in sight (he hadn’t grocery shopped since I’d left months earlier), finally shifting 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 tap and “something else,” he said.

“What else?” “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 pricey mineral foundation and blush, among other things, thinking, Who needs to look cute 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 already move?”

I sensed him smirking behind the screen. I flicked off my computer though, without a webcam, 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 a touch too loudly, yelling at each other, smoking weed and laughing. I imagined the rat making a big splat on the sidewalk below. Would the grandma I saw in my mind pull her light, fall scarf a little tighter around her neck and scuttle away? Or would she even notice?

“The exterminator came,” he said. “He gave me glue traps.”

Perhaps like Dave, I imagined the hulking beasts laughing with the sticky mats clung to their muscled, furry bodies as they scurried back into the walls and to their underworld 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 start the walk to the bus, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. I breathed in, considered not bothering to acknowledge what I knew was there, what I could smell rising up from my feet.

I exhaled and looked down.

There, just ever so slightly too close to my left foot was a large, furry mass. I shrieked— muttered an ineffectual “Yuck!”—but didn’t move the large, motionless body to the slim trashcan in our garage, yet. I knew it would still be there when I got home—my roommates left the apartment through the garage when they dipped into their cars—but I vowed that, 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 our street, I would pretend like it hadn’t been there. I definitely wouldn’t tell Dave about it.

After all, it was either not tell him, or settle on moving us to Antarctica, I mused.

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