A few weeks ago, I was in our basement when I smelled it. It was this stinking rotting smell. At first I imagined that one of the dogs sneaked downstairs to leave us a present. I checked the floor and my shoes, but found nothing. With that hypothesis off the table, I knew what it had to be. Mice.
When the inspector walked through our new house a year ago, mice traps betray the fact that the house had a pre-existing rodent problem. But we fell in love with the house anyway, in spite of the nagging voice in my head that told me I had a battle on my hands. Within the first few weeks of moving in, I pulled down the basement’s drop-down ceiling, only to be rained upon by thousands of tiny mice droppings. Disgusting. I went out and bought a heavy-duty mask, goggles, and gloves, and started bagging up stained ceiling tiles and nest-laden fiberglass insulation. The neighbors probably thought a serial killer had moved in, as they watched me in my hazmat gear, hauling black trash bags out of the bulkhead in the middle to the night.
Since then we’ve had exterminators set traps and I’ve plugged up exterior holes, but we still hear scratching in the walls from time to time. So, when I caught a whiff of that smell in the basement the other week, I shouldn’t have been surprise when I found a tiny decomposing body in one of the former owner’s old snap traps in the rafters under the basement stairs. Gross. I went upstairs to let me wife know.
“Time to be the man of the house!” I announced reluctantly, searching for a cardboard box. I stepped up. Got the thing into the box and pitched it. Cha-ching: Man of the House.
Frequently I take care of some really gross jobs. Things that I’m somehow “in charge of” include vomit (cat, dog and child), pests, sewage leaks, and toilet replacement/repair, just to name a few. At these times, my wife and I will joke about me manning-up to take care of things. Mind you, however, that I have very flexible gender role identity. I mean, come on, I studied feminist ethics in grad school and spent a short stint as a cosmetologist in San Diego…I’m not what you call a man’s man. So the whole “Man of the House” thing is really our family joke on stereotypes. Regardless, there’s still a joy in claiming it.
Then came the incident last week.
We adopted a new cat from the local SPCA, who’s been acclimating to our home very well. He’s a beautiful, strong male cat who instantly felt at ease, and will even cozy up around our dogs. The only issue is that he wakes up at 4am with a wild hair up his ass, running all over the place, pouncing on objects and dashing up and down stairs.
Amid his early morning nonsense the other day, I heard the unmistakable squeak of a mouse. Damn it. I shot straight up in bed, and saw the cat on the floor, tracking a darting brown blob on the floor. I woke my wife up right away.
“He’s got a mouse!” I exclaimed, as she awoke, while I remained pinned on the bed. There’s something about a scurrying mouse that gives me the creeps. A dead one? Okay, I can handle that, but once things start moving and crawling, I get the creeps. My wife was the first one out of bed, with a cup in hand to catch the thing. Only after my wife had safely tucked the thing away was I okay to bring it outside and toss it into the woods. Man of the House title? Definitely lost.
It was kind of embarrassing. I like to think of myself as unflappable, especially if there’s a job to be done that affects my family’s safety and security. A mouse in the house is hardly a threat to our safety, but it’s a sort of an incursion into our home, and so it brings out my need to step up and take care of business. I was even worse the following day, when that darn cat found another mouse (how infested is our house?) and chased it under the sofa. Only my son and I were home, so I had to do a lot of internal coaching (“Not a big deal, dude. You’ve got this,”). It was one thing to show my vulnerability on this issue around my wife, but for some reason, I was just couldn’t let my son see me shy away.
We got down on hands and knees and looked under the couch. His jacket on the floor obscured our view, so I crept to the other side of the sofa and lifted the jacket. The mouse raced toward me. I let out this odd yelp that I caught mid-escape. It started as this high-pitched squeal, but midway through shifted a few octaves lower to a more manly exclamation. I think I even ended with a, “Damn!” or something equally tough sounding. I was embarrassed as hell.
I think vulnerability around kids is tricky. I don’t want my son to think of his father as stoic or unemotional. So, when it comes to love, affection, and tenderness, I find it easy to express all those feelings. I tend to hide my anxiety from my son, because I think it’s important that he feels protected and safe. I tend to be an anxious person. So, I try to put on a good face when interacting with the world in my son’s presence. With this mouse thing, it took everything I had in me to keep it together.
I guess it’s okay for him to know that everyone has something that gets under their skin and makes them squirm. It’s just that when you’re the only one in the house, the role of parent (more so than Man of the House) wins out, and you do what you need to do….even if while doing so you let out a childish squeal.