The rats are back.
I’ve read that the peak of rat season is September, and just a few days in, they arrive as if on cue. While watering my lemon tree in the backyard, I spot one darting out of the grass. It’s a baby and, perhaps because of this, I don’t scream, but keep watering.
I haven’t always been afraid of rats. When I was in college, rats lived in the kitchen pantry of my co-op, right below my bedroom floorboards. I could hear them scratching at night, and once or twice caught them gliding along the pipes above the stove. But, somehow, I managed to co-exist with them.
In Boston, they lived in and around the garbage cans behind my apartment. It wasn’t pleasant greeting them when I took out the trash on my way to catch the bus to work, but I’d run through the alley as nimbly as I could, stepping carefully so as not to slip on the iced over puddles and snow.
It wasn’t until I moved back to the Bay Area that I began to live not only with rats, but also with the fear of them. Maybe they came too close for comfort, hit too close to home. After catching one slithering between the two flower patches in my front yard, I started hearing them in my walls, skittering across the floor of the attic while I tried to sleep.
At first I thought I was going mad, like the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” banging on the walls (rather than peeling off paper) with the slightest sound. But a rodent control expert confirmed that rats had infiltrated my home and set up camp in the attic and crawl space. He sealed up the cracks to trap them out, but it was nearly impossible for me to venture outside of my home (let alone attempt to water the plants or take out the trash) until several months after September subsided.
It was a textbook example of conditioning. Each time I would build up enough confidence to approach the backyard, a rat would hop out. I couldn’t predict when I might see one, so did what I could to avoid encountering them at all. Eventually, the fear generalized to leaves rustling, birds, really anything that moved quickly and could potentially be a rat, until I literally was frightened by my own shadow.
Maybe my fear of rats is some form of self-loathing. After all, according to the Chinese zodiac, I was born in the year of the rat. But I think that it’s the unpredictability that frightens me, the uncertainty, the not knowing.
Around that time, my (then boyfriend, now) husband moved overseas for work. It was our third month of sharing a home after 7 years of being long distance (CA to NY, CA to Boston, Boston to NY). We had started talking about getting married, started looking at venues. Then, out of nowhere, this news and these rats.
He returned in May, but that sense that the future was not locked in place, that plans could unexpectedly change, would only intensify.
The rats returned with a vengeance in September. They brazenly skipped along the pipe that drains the rainwater of the house next door at 11 in the morning. At dusk, they scurried along the gutter, chased by a neighborhood cat that had taken residence on our front porch. Each night when we came home, the cat was waiting for us, intently focused on the flower patches, tail twitching side by side, an ominous reminder of unpredictability lurking.
At the same time, I was wrapping up school, without a clear sense for my next step. I had sketched out a future that wasn’t very clearly fleshed out beyond the present, so felt like an early explorer, perched on the edge of a flat universe, with no idea what lay beyond. I was concerned that I was nearing an abrupt, steep, drop.
But now, I meet with a friend over tea, and she reminds me of the benefits of living inconclusively, of balancing on a high wire like a rat on a drainpipe. With uncertainty, she says, comes possibilities, flexibility. If rats have one thing going for them, it’s that they are masters of balancing precipitously on edges, of remaining sure footed, while suspended. Maybe the next time a rat crosses my path, instead of running from it, I should examine it more closely. I might learn a thing or two.