He showed up in May, a flash of fur and tail that my husband mistook for a cockroach and my mother identified swiftly as a mouse. He came flying out of my home office; then, skirting the wall of the dining room, made his way into the kitchen, where he would, over the course of the next four months, set up homes under the oven, in a hole at the base of the back door, behind the refrigerator, and, in what still seems like an optical illusion, inside the dishwasher. Vacation homes for a city mouse, maybe: one toasty for Chicago’s Arctic clime, one with proximity to the main road, one cold for the hottest months, one for a casual swim on a warm summer day.
In May, he was small enough to be mistaken for a roach. By June, when he appeared in the main bathroom after the happy perusal of our master closet, he had grown fatter. Still, I thought I could plug the bottom of the bathroom door with towels and hold him hostage. It was a foolish thought. Mice don’t have collar bones. Their bodies are tiny, but squish easily, and if their heads can make it through some passageway, so, too, can the rest of them. He made it past my terrycloth barricade with hardly a squeak and zipped down the central hallway, taking rest behind a bookcase he probably knew I didn’t have the strength to move.
Then he disappeared for some weeks. When he resurfaced, he had developed a more adventurous disposition. Now, he did not fly about or run at first sight of me, but happily walked around the kitchen floor and even found his way, leisurely, to the crumbs underneath my toddler’s booster seat. This was too much for me to take. I shouted about the mouse; I complained about him to anyone who would listen; I beseeched my husband to get rid of him by any means necessary. Non-violent, of course. The thought of a mouse corpse was the only thing worse than the impudent mouse himself, whom I imagined, like the dolls in Toy Story, came most alive at night while we slept, when he had the run of the house and ample opportunity to memorize escape routes, even invite over little murine friends—in short, to terrorize me. For his part, my husband didn’t worry much about the mouse, and Mrinalini, age two, found the idea of him thrilling (she’s never actually seen the little beast).
Yes, my mother had spotted him first, and Brandon had seen him as well, the slip of tail disappearing between the floorboards, but the mouse seemed to come out most often when I was home alone, working on my dissertation. If I set up my computer on the dining table, he would appear in the kitchen, just close enough that I could spot him out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t even have to turn my head; he somehow registered my presence, then disappeared into the dishwasher, which I was planning, just then, to unload.
I started talking to the mouse, announcing my presence with heavy, marching steps before I drew within sight of the kitchen (where he appeared to have settled). I tried to sound menacing: “Mouse! I don’t want to see you!” I supposed that my neighbors below could hear me and would think I had gone a bit mad. But it was worth it if it meant that the mouse didn’t come out of his hiding spot, ruining my equilibrium, momentum, and day.
By now, I’d decided that the mouse was a harbinger of doom. Well, not doom, but of a bad working morning, of a dissertation chapter’s certain unraveling, of research gone awry, of time inevitably wasted, of my falling down the rabbit hole of Twitter. Not seeing the mouse was akin to wresting control, to self-determination, to seizing the day by avoiding the unavoidable intruder who had found his way into my life and whose presence kept me awake all night sometimes, and whom I feared I would never be rid of.
With my brother’s help, we set up a humane mouse trap: a paper towel roll smeared with peanut butter, balanced precariously over a trashcan that was supposed to double as a prison. The mouse didn’t fall for it, or into it. Then there was the expensive mouse house we ordered on Amazon, all plastic green and gabled roof. Then the more subtle black contraption that was supposed to be an enticing cave that would close tightly over the mouse, so we could release him far away, drive him out to pasture, essentially, maybe spin him around a few times first so that he’d be disoriented and not know how to find his way home.
To date, the dissertation mouse has proven too clever for our schemes. He senses, I think, my ambivalent desire to avoid and yet deal with him, to tame and dispense with him, to keep him alive (I wouldn’t, no matter how many times he asked, permit my husband to buy those deadly spring traps) and yet within my control. He knows my attempts at containment are only half serious, that part of the issue is my inability to commit to a course of action: come down on him hard and mercilessly, or give up and let him wander free.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.