That winter I lived in the attic of the art house next to a hoard of rats whose owner was studying oil painting in Barcelona for the semester. It was, to be fair, rats plural not rats wild. Just one little white spotted thing and one brown, scruffy hider. Scram and Vamoose I called them. My two roommates. Scratch that. There could have been more behind the pile of newspaper shavings. And possibly a few mangy, grey ones who only came out at night. Hell, there could have been generations of them, snuggled cheek to cheek in the hammocks that hung from the cage’s vast rafters. Scram, Vamoose, Scoot, Shoo, Hit-the-Road (HTR for short), and Elvis, as in “Elvis has left the building.” After that I ran out of names. My friend Tate had scored me the attic room even though I was neither art major nor stoner, the usual prerequisites for lodging.
“You’re lucky everyone peaced out this semester,” she had said.
I did not feel lucky. An attic dweller waiting out the winter while my girlfriend studied abroad, I was breathing at best.
“You’re up here,” the cheerful, half naked house manager motioned as I lugged my suitcase up the stairs.
“Thanks for letting me in.” Finally. It took a few minutes of gentle knocking, then desperate pounding, then pitiful shouts into the brass mail slot before Morgan appeared at the window half naked. By this time my socks were snow-wet, my phone dead.
“No problem,” she said.
I removed my hat and shook my hair out on the landing.
“Tate got held up at work and she forgot to tell me the door code, so.”
“It’s all good,” Morgan said.
It most certainly was not.
“Which room am I in?”
“Keep going. All the way at the top.”
The floor heaved with every step, sneezing dust and glitter up through the cracks. Murals of turtles and rivers and vaginas crowded the narrow staircase. Polaroid nudes and dog-eared Sylvia Plath’s dotted the baseboards. Down below, someone’s speakers bellowed Bob Marley. Someone else’s, dubstep. According to Tate, the house was once a 15-bedroom mansion. In fact, when my mother asked for a picture of the place I sent her a copy of the black and white photograph on the fireplace mantle, circa 1930 or so, when the columns were still white and the rocking chairs were not yet strewn with bongs.
I heard the rats before I saw them. They ticked their teeth against the rusty metal bars, begging for cheese or release. Ting, ting, ting, ting. A sound I hadn’t heard since elementary school, when we could sign up to take the classroom gerbil or the science lab cockatiel home for the weekend and learn, swiftly, how little interest we had in getting one of our own. All that fur. All that noise. It was always a relief to return Spotty or Spooky to the care and keeping of someone else come Monday morning. Here, we’d say to Mrs. Handy. All yours.
The rats stared at me as they lapped at the empty water spout. While Morgan explained that my heater would be fixed tomorrow, they kicked through a slew of empty bowls. Morgan fished for my room key.
“I know it’s somewhere in here.”
Ting, ting, ting, ting. I promised myself that no matter how lonely I got, I would not touch the rats. Not a quick stroke or a stolen cuddle. A hefty promise when I had already planned to get very lonely.
“Aha! Back pocket.”
Morgan opened the door to my room to reveal the usual suspects: mattress, dresser, hangers, lamp.
“No candles,” she said.
“And no smoking.”
“Nah, I’m just messing with you. Smoke all you want. But, seriously, no candles.”
Her kimono hung lazily on her shoulders, yawning open with the draft from the window.
“Let’s see what else,” she pondered. “The front door code is 6969. Meetings are Wednesday nights at 10. Hide your shampoo or everybody will use it. And that’s about it.”
“Let me know if you need anything.”
She patted the door frame and turned back to the stairs. Dust swirled behind her, the pantsless enchantress.
“Hey, Morgan? Whose rats are those?”
“They’re Eli’s,” she called from the stairs.
“Is he in the room next to me?”
“No that’s Jafar. Eli’s in Spain this semester.”
“It’s just, uh, they don’t have any water.”
“Oh, don’t worry. He’s got someone watching them.”
A moment of maybe passed before Morgan hollered from the second floor.
“Don’t be a stranger.”
I sunk down onto the bare mattress and faintly hoped it didn’t have fleas. As if I could do anything about them. What, call Morgan in and demand she perform a ten-point inspection? In her gossamer state? Ridiculous. Besides the faint sound of the orgy downstairs, for the first time in months, I detected the sound of quiet. A strange sensation after spending so much time talking, fighting, sweet talking, snoring.
Outside the sky turned night-blue, the snow dimmed in shimmer, and the cars left town for warm fireplaces across the frozen river. January, as always, would be as beautiful as it was brutal. I prayed it would, for once, be quick. No longer than the required 31 days and nights. The calendar above my bed—proof that the month couldn’t overstay its welcome—said something inspirational like hang in there or it is what it is. Maybe some Maya Angelou quote about poultry. Across town at the Nugget Theater, the previews had concluded. The popcorn had been popped, and the movie had begun. There was nothing left to do but unzip my suitcase and begin the long march to spring.
I pinned photographs to the door frame as if to make a portal. There was one from a picnic blanket afternoon in April. Blue dress, white stripes. I couldn’t recall who took it. And one of a staged kiss beneath the painted angels of a dingy Italian restaurant. The girlfriend in these pictures left this morning. Couldn’t stay the night like she’d promised. Something about the snow, about making it home. A little fib about packing for her flight five nights in advance.
“You may need to give her some radical space,” Tate said as we watched her drive away.
She didn’t use her blinker, so really, she could have been going anywhere. Anywhere fast. By seven-thirty she still hadn’t texted to say she was home or dead. Radical space, eh. Looking around, it seemed I had no choice. I absolutely lived there now. There in that house. There in January. There—besides the rats—alone. Maya knew why the caged bird sang, and I supposed I would find out, too.
At last I made the bed. It seemed entirely possible that this could be the last time I made my bed all winter. The last unwrinkled moment before it became home to blizzards of tissues. Buried sweaters. Snowy Saltine wrappers. I smoothed the small, green squares of my quilt and sat back down. Was this a joke? Someone downstairs cranked up the volume on Pharrell’s “Happy.”
“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof,” Pharrell sang while I smelled the sweater my girlfriend left me.
“Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.”
I adjusted the heater to see if it was really broken like Morgan said.
“Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.”
It goes without saying, I did not clap along.
The night my toothbrush went missing I finally broke down and watered the rats. The house was throwing some gargantuan party based on the phase of the moon or the saturation of glitter particles in the atmosphere—I can’t quite remember now—and Morgan had advised everyone to clear the bathroom of anything we loved before the crowd arrived. The only thing I loved was backpacking in Zurich. Or maybe praying in Provence. Her calls went to voicemail either way. Still, I figured I might as well salvage what had been a loyal toothbrush these past few weeks rather than let the wastrels and sculpture majors ravage it. I passed the rats on my way downstairs. Heard the nick of their nails siren-songing me. Ting, ting, ting, ting. Tonight, I felt compelled to act.
“Fine,” I told them, “but don’t get used to it.”
They cheered like I was cheese. It felt good to be needed.
Someone pissed in a shower stall as I filled the drinking bottle up in the sink. Gurgle, gurgle, gurgle. I looked around for my toothbrush. The pink cup where it usually hot tubbed remained beside the faucet. Gone was my dignity as well as my toothbrush.
“Dammit,” I swore, screwing the nozzle back on.
The rats lapped up the water so quickly I had to run back down and fill the bottle again. And again. And again. I played waterboy to a pack of rodents while my girlfriend Frenched a Swede in a sweaty nightclub in Berlin. Her text was brief but descriptive. We were kaput.
“Fuck her!” Tate advised. “Fuck her and get dressed.”
“I don’t feel like it,” I whined.
She dumped a pile of Morgan’s see-through-iest rags onto my bed and snapped her fingers.
“Pity party ends now.”
Fifteen minutes and three pounds of glitter eyeshadow later, I descended the stairs. The house was packed. Morgan was right. That party would have taken anyone’s toothbrush, passport, or firstborn. The walls teemed with long haired men in velvet. Oozed fishnets and smoke. Tate and I snaked our way to the first floor as every sedated Virgo in New Hampshire stroked our waists and groped our asses. Nobody had touched me in weeks, much less sought out my soft parts.
Tate snatched a fur coat off the banister and tossed it to me. She shrugged into a forgettable, brown duster—coats like that grew off our couch like moss that winter—and shoved us outside. Out past the hammock packed with snow. Past the tarped-up Jeeps and the fox tracks and the sleeping retired neighbors with the Drive Safely road sign.
“Where are we going? I’m freezing.”
“Here,” she said. “Liquid blanket.”
Newly single, I kissed her pewter flask with gusto.
“There you go!” she cheered.
“This is rancid.”
“It’s free is what it is. Keep going. I want you nice and light.”
The college Zambonied Robert Frost Pond daily. Both for New Englanders accustomed to pick-up hockey games and also for mystified Southerners like me who found it hard to believe the ground could withstand so many pucks and schmucks shuttling across it each day. The pond technically closed at eight. Who can close a pond, though? Who was to stop us from returning like fish after the thaw?
I followed Tate onto the ice.
“Sit down,” she said. “And put your hands up.”
“You’re not getting this coat off me.”
“Not yet,” she winked.
I took another sip of the blanket. My ears burned.
“Hands up. Trust me.”
The fingers of her scarf grazed my neck. Tate stole scarves the same way she stole hearts and booze: swiftly, before you even realized it was missing. She had at least thirty. Gifts from loving grandmothers, cheap knits from GAP, even a cashmere number she fished from the neck of a pretty girl in her figure drawing class. She grabbed me by the mittens—firm grip, warm glow beneath the wool—and began to spin me. At first it was a great effort. My ass, no object in motion. Her boots, hardly hearty. My resistance to just about everything must have added a few pounds, too. Soaked the coat. That same force kept me inside my room whenever Jafar down the hall played his guitar. Instead of pulling up a beanbag and singing along to whatever Janis Joplin tune he was shroom-strumming, I felt compelled to stay in bed. Tate dragged me forward.
“Be a little lighter, will you?”
Gathering momentum, she swung me in wider and wider circles, endless loops of snow and pine trees, until finally she lobbed me full speed into the center of Robert Frost. The wind bit me all over. The snow found my cleavage and the small of my back. Can a person be baptized in ice instead of water? I wondered. Tate’s laugh rose above the trees, the library. I did not stop spinning.
The rats, finally hydrated, goosed the latch on their cage and joined the party.
Mary Liza Hartong is a Dartmouth grad, a Fulbright Scholar, a Virgo, and a proud aunt. She lives and works in New Orleans. When she’s not writing she enjoys reading and hunting for treasurers via antique mall.
Lawrence Bridges is best known for work in the film and literary world. His poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Tampa Review. He has published three volumes of poetry: Horses on Drums, Flip Days, and Brownwood. As a filmmaker, he created a series of literary documentaries for the NEA’s “Big Read” initiative, which include profiles of Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Tobias Wolff, and Cynthia Ozick.