He appeared one day smack in the middle of the living room, and let me just say this: if it had been your apartment, your eyes he looked into as he twitched his adorable little whiskers, you would have adopted him, too. But Katherine was disgusted with me.
“Kill it!” she shrieked the instant she laid eyes on him. Now, we had been at a movie, and sure, I guess it is true that I had not quite yet had a chance to tell her about the rat, but Katherine made it out as if I had somehow meant to surprise her and piss her off.
“For fuck’s sake, Jeremy! You pull this kind of shit on me all the time.”
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what she meant by that. If there’s anything I do “all the time”, it’s apologize for random shit until she finally admits to what’s bothering her. But in retrospect, I guess she might have been talking about that one time my friend needed a little space to store boxes while he went backpacking, or that one time she was in Italy and suddenly I had to leave town so I couldn’t clean up after her cat, or that one time she had ordered something and the store called because they didn’t have it and I forgot to tell her until a day before her sister’s birthday. But it isn’t like she couldn’t go get another present, so there was no harm done. At least there shouldn’t have been. And as for my rat, he’s never hurt anyone in his life, now has he? And despite everything Katherine warned and moaned about, he doesn’t get into the cupboards and he doesn’t leave his droppings on the bed, which is more than you can say for her stupid cat.
You have to understand that I never intended to make any kind of fuss about keeping him. As I said, he just appeared one day, and yes, he was scratched up, had part of one ear bitten off, his fur was scraggly and he was a little gaunt, but Christ, he has a right to live, and the way he looked at me, so trusting, so comfortable, it was as if he had always belonged right there. Nevertheless, once Katherine realized I was serious about this, she changed tack and she browbeat me into a punishing list of rat errands.
“He looks rabid,” she said. So I got him to the vet, got him groomed, got him a flea collar, got his rotten tooth pulled, got him neutered, got him registered with the city (which took all day because they don’t have a regular process for rats), and finally got him a tag. The funny thing is, in all that time I hadn’t even thought of a name. It only came to me the instant they asked for it, I named him Et Ceterat. Building his station in the living room, however, that much was my idea.
Now, I know that some people might actually agree with Katherine that I should put more into the furniture and decorations around the apartment. It just hasn’t been a priority. I like my old posters, and although I know that the couch cushions are permanently squashed (some would say comfortably), a new couch just isn’t worth the thousand bucks to me. I’m not denying that the state of the apartment is less than ideal, I’m just saying that this did not literally “invite” the rat in.
“Well, how do you explain it, then?” Katherine asked. “No one else in the building has a problem with rats.”
“Baby, Et Ceterat is not a problem. And how do you even know about the rest of the building?”
Katherine talks to more of my neighbours than I do. She chats with them coming in and out the front door, in the elevator, in the hallway even as I’m about to let her in. She never talks to her own neighbours, just to mine.
At any rate, since she cares so much about my furniture, she should have been pleased that I’d made a bed and some climbing sticks for the rat. Instead, it only seemed to annoy her.
“You mean to say you’re too busy to pick up a couple of new cushions but not too busy to whittle down some branches for a fucking rat? Like you don’t care you have to throw a sheet over your couch for your friends to sit on it, but you have to make sure that the rat sleeps in a comfy little bed?”
Seriously dude, I don’t know which one of my friends Katherine thinks can’t sit on the couch. Have you even seen my old roommate’s place? Anyway, I knew she would never let this go, so I picked up a giant bean bag and I thought that would be the end of it.
But a few days later I caught Katherine just glaring at the rat and his set-up, so I asked her what was wrong.
“Nothing,” she said, “I was just thinking about something.”
The next day she showed up with rat poison. Now, she claims this was just an honest mistake, that she was looking for some rat treats and it all looked the same.
“What do you expect it to look like?” I asked her. “They’re supposed to want to eat it.”
She didn’t even look at me. “Well, you can still use it. You can spread it around outside to make sure no more get in. You don’t want some nasty sewer rat to sneak in and hurt him, do you?”
Katherine knows very well there is no way any other rat can get into my apartment. It’s a mystery how Et Ceterat did–I’d swear he just materialized in place. It’s either that, or he was here all along, and they built the whole building around him while no one ever noticed.
Intellectually speaking, I know there must be some other means, but damned if I can find it. Apparently, a rat can squeeze its way through improbable little cracks–this is something Katherine told me. Lately, she has spent more time reading about rats than I ever have.
“Did you know some breeds only live for three years?” she asked me one night, lifting her face from the booklet they had sold me at the vet’s office. I hadn’t known.
“Et Ceterat was fully grown when we found him, right? I mean, for all we know, he might already be two, even two-and-a-half years old?” She trailed off, tilting her head and furrowing her brow. She studied my rat, nodded and smiled before going back to her reading.
Later on, she came back to the topic. “It says rats are bad for children, they don’t live long enough. So when Et Ceterat does die someday, maybe you can get a rabbit. Rabbits are adorable! I could definitely live with a rabbit.”
Katherine has a lot of opinions, it’s never just one thing. On the next topic that night, she complained about my broken fan and the slices of light that come through my blinds all night because they are stuck half-open and my window is under a streetlight. But look, it isn’t like I was out looking for a pet. I didn’t even particularly want a pet, it’s just, well, there he was, and what else was I supposed to do?
And you know what? That little guy might well be the best thing that’s come my way all year. He’s super chill. You know how some pets get needy, whimper and mew, and even if you feed them it’s not good enough? Et Ceterat doesn’t ask anyone for anything. He’s great that way. He’s always around but he never gets in your face, never gets underfoot, whatever Katherine says to the contrary.
Now, I never once said, and I’m not saying now, that Katherine was just making this up. But she took to insisting that the rat kept getting in her way. Like this one particular morning, I was at the bathroom window with my joint and a handheld fan–Katherine won’t let me smoke anywhere else in peace–and I heard her heave this enormous sigh and complain, “Et Ceterat, you’re tripping me again!” When I opened to look, the rat was pushing some sawdust not two inches from his station, and Katherine was navigating a huge arc around him. So all I am saying is this: that according to what I saw, there is no reason to believe that Et Ceterat was habitually getting in her way. I’ve gone to the kitchen and to the bathroom in the middle of the night and never once had any kind of trip-up. I think it must have been her mindset: she wanted the rat to be in her way, so that’s all that she could see.
And for a person who complained that the rat was always in her way, she sure didn’t hesitate to delve into his. One night she confronted me with a chewed up scrap she’d pulled from Et Ceterat’s station and asked, “What the Hell is this supposed to mean?”
I recognized it right away, some rough notes for a song I hadn’t ever finished, no big deal.
“Well it’s obviously about me, so fuck you,” she said, and locked herself in my bedroom. It was four in the morning before she let me in.
Look, I give Et Ceterat all of my scrap paper. There must have been the bits of twenty different songs in there, who knows how she found that particular one. But let me say just for the record that it was not specifically about Katherine. It was about a girl, yes, from her boyfriend’s point of view, and I think it probably resonates with a lot of people. It certainly did with her.
Maybe a week later, one of Katherine’s law school friends asked what Et Ceterat does all the time. I don’t know what projects you’d expect a rat to have. I guess he scratches sticks, climbs around, sniffs the floor, watches people. He doesn’t have any enthusiasm for the tricks Katherine suggested from that book. I offered him my hand so he could run along my arm, but he just curled up in my palm. I hid some treats around the apartment to see if he’d go back and forth looking for them, but he didn’t care.
I’m not saying he’s apathetic, and I definitely don’t agree that he’s “dumb for a rat,” I just don’t think he has anything to prove. So what if he never learns backflips or rolls, never solves mazes or understands commands? Does every human being have to be a professor of jurisprudence, a leader of some ecology action group like Katherine’s asshole ex, or get his band booked for, like, a different gig every other night? Christ, we’ve only been playing together at most for a year. This stuff takes time, right? I mean seriously, why do you think it makes one rat any better than another one, just because he shows off for you? If you honestly think you have to live up to what other people expect and demand of you, then I feel sorry for you, man. I don’t mean to sound harsh here, I’m not hating on anyone else’s accomplishments. I just don’t think it would be right to put Et Ceterat under arbitrary, undue pressure. That’s all.
Katherine has been talking about apartments a lot. Her lease is coming up end of June, and as she pointed out, so is mine.
“I’m looking around one way or another, so I’ll keep an eye out for you, too,” she said.
Well, it got to the point that pretty much every night she was talking about places she’d seen, and not just about the places as such, but about the kinds of places; their sizes, floorings, windows, locations.
“You could throw out your old furniture when you move,” she said. “You could leave it at the curb. That would be a lot easier than transporting that huge, disgusting couch across town, right? And, you know, I’m finding that a lot of places that don’t allow rodents.” Here, she paused and cast me a glance before continuing.
“Now, that might cut down on our selection, but it doesn’t have to, not necessarily. I’m just saying we can keep an open mind.”
She was watching my face, so I tried not to make any kind of expression. She finished her thought.
“If it were an issue, I mean, if we found a great place but it didn’t permit rodents, then we could find a nice home for Et Ceterat and you could get a new pet. Maybe a rabbit or a cute little kitten, just like we’ve talked about.”
At this point, I remember that I drew a quiet breath, that I was calm, that I looked right at her when I spoke. I remember it so clearly, but it was a lot more like looking through myself, you know, like watching a movie filmed through my own point of view. There was nothing in my head at all but this enormous calm. I don’t even know where the words came from. I just looked at her and said, “Yeah. Maybe I can get a new girlfriend, too.”
Man, I have no idea what happens next. I don’t even care. I’m not trying to get a hold of her. I figure I’ll let it be, either it will blow over or not. So I’m not worrying. I’m playing songs I haven’t been able to crank on since forever. I’m clearing my calendar and I’m going into deep chill with Et Ceterat. I’m writing a song about a man who reads his own reflection like a palindrome. I don’t even need to get off of this couch.