Sometimes it is difficult to figure out where a phobia begins. Other times, not so much.
It was just a small hole. Down by the baseboard in my bathroom, to the left of the toilet tank, right next to the shut off valve.
"What did you do to the wall?" my mother asked.
"Nothing!" I swore. I was telling the truth. Eleven year olds don't always do that. My mother gave me the side eye, but let it go.
The hole got bigger.
"Mouse." my father declared from bended knee, peering at the hole and poking at it with one of his thick fingers. "I'll put out a trap."
I didn't like mice. I hadn't liked them since the nights I'd spent with my grandparents, listening to them run across the roof of the greenhouse, looking for bits of food and birdseed. I didn't like the idea of one in my Miss Piggy themed bathroom, with it's lavendar walls and pictures declaring "There is no one on the planet to compare with moi!" It was obscene, a rodent. It was gross.
It was attached to my bedroom.
My father put out a mousetrap. Every night, I would lie awake, waiting to hear the telltale SNAP. I would lie there, a barrier of stuffed animals surrounding my body, just in case the mouse should decide to come into my room and into my bed. I would lie there awake until the house grew silent and my eyes itched from sleep. I could hear the tick tick tick of the grandfather clock and it became the scritch scritch scritch of the mouse slowly eating its way through the wall.
I was certain I would never fall asleep, but of course I did. And when morning came, I would creep slowly into the bathroom, peeking through my fingers, trying to discern the shape of mouse beside the toilet. Morning after morning, the sight was the same - an empty trap.
And the hole grew bigger.
My father decided to switch tactics and get a 'humane trap'. It was a metal box, half the size of a loaf of bread. The mouse would enter to get the bait (it was always Velveeta cheese, the cheese known by people everywhere to be the choice of discriminating rodents), and then find itself unable to get out. Fully encased, unharmed, unseen.
The next morning, I walked into the bathroom without my hands over my eyes. The trap had been moved across the room.
My father began referring to the mouse as Willard. And the hole grew bigger.
One morning as we went about the business of getting ready for work and school, my mother came breezing through the kitchen on her way to the bathroom. "There's cupcakes in the pantry." she said. I had a special weakness for Hostess Cupcakes. As I took one from the pantry and put it into my lunchbox, I heard my mother scream.
She had gone into the hall bathroom, where my father stood at the sink shaving. She sat down on the toilet and reached across to the wall opposite where the toilet paper holder was mounted. A towel had fallen across it, and she tossed it aside and came face to face with Willard. But Willard was no mouse.
Willard was a rat. A giant, hairy, motherfucking rat.
My mother screamed and ran into the kitchen, her panties still around her ankles. My father soon followed, slamming the bathroom door behind him. My mother had jumped up on the kitchen table and I, knowing that the cause could only be Willard, joined her.
"OH MY GOD OH MY GOD MICHAEL! DID YOU SEE THAT? DID YOU SEE THAT FUCKING RAT?" my mother is screaming. My brother, who was no doubt off lighting something on fire or selling pilfered cigarettes to the neighbor kids, came running in.
"OH WOW? A rat! A rat! Douche!"
Sometime around kindergarten, my brother decided that 'douche' was another word for 'cool'. My mother never bothered to correct him.
My dad leveled his stare on me. "Get my boots."
I ran downstairs to the bedroom and grabbed his heavy, steel toed work boots. He shoved his feet in them and then rummaged under the sink and pulled out a plunger. He stood before us in all his glory, our hero. My father, the rat slayer.
This would be a good time to mention that for my entire childhood, my father slept only in his underwear. This is forever my image of a capable man - wearing work boots, plunger in hand, shaving cream on his face, clothed only in tighty whities.
By this time, my brother has joined us on the kitchen table and my mother has stopped screaming. But with the first whack from the bathroom, Willard starts. The sound of the heavy smack of the plunger followed by the scream of the rat, interspersed with the curses of my father, was sickening. At some point my mother reached across to the kitchen counter and turned on the old radio she kept there. She cranked it as loud as it would go, and Emmylou Harris singing 'Pancho & Lefty' filled the room. All the Federales say... SQUUUUEEEEEE...they could have had him any day...SCREEEEEEEEEEE...
It seemed like an eternity, but I'm sure it couldn't have taken more than a few minutes. My father came out of the bathroom and got a black trashbag. My mother turned off the radio. My brother and I went to school and when I got home, there was a fresh piece of sheetrock over the hole in my bathroom. It was sanded and painted by the weekend and it was if it had never happened.
I have had the nightmare ever since, less frequently in adulthood, more frequently in times of stress. I am in my bed and, though the room is dark, I know that my Miss Piggy bathroom is only a few feet away. I can't move, and I can't see them, but I can hear them. Scritch scritch scritch as they eat through the wall. The rustle and shuffle as they make their way through my stuffed animals. And then I can feel them, they are on me, but I can't move and I can't speak. Then one is right next to my face and his nose is in my ear and right before he takes a bite of my fat little lobe, I say his name...
2 weeks ago