portion of the artwork for Suzanne Scanlon's fiction

Rats
Suzanne Scanlon

It was that night or the night after that she saw a rat. Later when the lawyer helped her get the charts she saw a doctor's note that there was possibly a mouse or even mice in the apartment on MacDougal Street but there wasn’t a rat, he’d written in her chart. Not a single rat.

It would just figure, that his story would diverge from her own. But anyway. She saw rats. First just one. And actually first she didn’t see it, she just heard it. A rat. She had the baby up on the loft bed with her. The loft bed had been built by a guy from Scotland who lived in the apartment before her. He was handy. Michael could never build a loft bed. He couldn’t even put the crib together. They’d hired someone. She put the baby over by the wall so that he wouldn’t fall off the loft bed and die. She wanted very badly to keep the baby alive. There were boxes at the end of the bed. Storage. She didn’t have storage so she put the boxes on the ledge around the bed. Michael was somewhere else when she saw the rat. On call. Lying in the loft bed, she could reach up and touch the ceiling. At first, she felt claustrophobic in the loft bed but not now with the baby. That feeling wasn’t there or maybe it was that she didn’t notice her own feelings anymore. The baby made little noises as he slept. Michael was hardly ever there. She’d been off Klonopin and Ativan for months because she was pregnant and then breastfeeding. Sometimes she drank wine. A doctor said it was OK. He said it would help her relax. He said beer, too, but she hated beer. In Ireland the doctors gave women Guinness in the hospital. To bring in the milk. When she knew the baby was asleep, she listened. She listened to the sounds of the construction site next door. Work was winding down. Just one glass, though. She could look out the window to a brick wall. Dymphna was surprised that she’d taken Nardil throughout the pregnancy. Lyle said it was OK. Dymphna was surprised that he would put a young girl on an M.A.O.I. at all, but then, Dymphna wasn’t a shrink. She did have her opinions. Lizzie felt high sometimes on the Nardil, she told Dymphna.

“Hypomanic,” Dymphna said. “It’s a side effect.”

“I like it.”

The baby was asleep but Lizzie would be awake for hours, even with a glass of wine, because she couldn’t take a Klonopin or an Ativan and it was impossible to get anywhere near sleep without one. Her heart was beating very fast, because of the wine, she guessed. Wine was counterindicated with M.A.O.I.s but everyone Lizzie knew who took an M.A.O.I. broke the rules, often: coffee, chocolate, wine, beer. Derek Lipton, a unipolar she’d known on the short-term ward, said that he even ate hot dogs and had these special blood-pressure-lowering pills he would take to reverse the effects of the hot dogs.

Lizzie didn’t want to take those but did worry a little bit about the wine. Her heart was beating so fast and her mind was racing. Lyle always put it that way: “your mind is racing” or “racing thoughts.” This is what he meant. A thought after a thought after a thought and even counting back from one hundred still she had to force her mind or her thoughts back to the counting, over and over again.

She heard a rustling sound near her feet. She pulled her feet up to her chest and curled herself around the baby. She loved watching the baby sleep. Sometimes, with the baby, she was so unbelievably bored; other times, she was fascinated and couldn’t imagine being interested in anything else, not ever again. She put her face close to his. She kissed his cheeks. Sometimes as he slept he pumped his little mouth as if he were nursing. He was dreaming of her. He was perfect. What do they know? She told Dymphna that it made her crazy how much she loved the baby and Dymphna asked what she meant by that and Lizzie said she didn’t know. Dymphna said be careful. Lizzie said she was sure she didn’t have postpartum even though they’d been so afraid for her with her “history” (as they kept referring to it) and then an unplanned pregnancy. But Lizzie insisted she was fine. Because she was. Because the baby was perfect and sometimes in moments like this one when she was with the baby, the two of them, she had the feeling that she was invincible, that she could do anything. Dymphna told her that Sophie Freud had written about this—a mother’s passion, she called it—adding that Lizzie might want to read Sophie Freud. Lizzie said yes, she did.

Lyle had never mentioned Sophie Freud.

The thing about the rustling was that it could have been from outside. She told herself this after hearing it for a second time. But then she heard it again and was sure that the rustling was paper and that the papers were nearby, like in a storage box. Like at her feet. She didn’t think of a mouse or a rat, she thought of a person. How a person could fit in the box, she didn’t know. She pulled the baby to her chest and climbed down from the loft bed. She remembered a poster she’d seen at a gallery once, it was used to recruit soldiers before WWI, a photo of an Irish woman falling into the ocean, holding her baby to her chest. An Irish woman who had been aboard the Lusitania when it was bombed by the German submarine. ENLIST the poster read. Just that single word next to the painting of a beautiful young woman like a mermaid falling into the sea, her baby to her chest, her arm not letting go, not even in death.

It wasn’t easy climbing down the ladder with a swaddled baby against her chest but she was getting used to it. She opened the curtain and turned the light on in the kitchen. She heard a movement behind the sink or the stove. She couldn’t tell. It wasn’t a rustling now but a scratching. She held the baby tight. She creeped to the stove and she could see not one but two rats, one black and one white, circling some crumbs that had fallen from the stove.

When she woke she was in the E.R. in Washington Heights.

“Where’s my baby?” she asked a nurse who was putting a blood pressure cuff around her arm.

“He’s with your husband. He’s fine.”

Lizzie saw a curtain pulled shut. She could hear people talking on the other side of the curtain. She saw a wall of glass at her feet. She could see two women, nurses probably, behind the glass.

“You’re in the E.R., honey,” the nurse said, after she’d written down her stats.

“How did I get here?”

The nurse shook her head.

“You don’t know?”

“No.”

“You walked here. You carried your baby. You were talking about rats. You’re one lucky girl.”

“The baby is OK.”

“Seems to me he slept through it all. You’re one lucky girl.”

When she woke again she heard a nurse speak loudly into the phone, describing another patient: “She has a history, multiple hospitalizations.” The nurse who was speaking had silver hair. Her tone was less clinical than dismissive. A history. Lizzie didn’t imagine, not until much later, that the nurse was talking about her.

She was taken in a van to a private hospital in Westchester. As hospitals go, it was lovely. It had a campus. On one wall hung a board listing activities: yoga classes and nature walks. Lizzie had never been in a woodsy hospital that offered yoga. She wanted to see her baby. Michael said he would visit.

“When?”

“Soon?”

The hospital had a specific philosophy, described by an antonym: D.B.T. A lot of the activities involved learning acronyms.

A nurse led a group called Assertiveness Training.

“Today we will learn how to get our needs met.”

The nurse wore small round glasses.

“One way to do this is to use D.E.A.R. M.A.N.”

On the dry-erase board set up in the living room she wrote the letters of the two words in a very large font, all spaced far apart.

Mostly Lizzie waited for Michael to call. She waited for Michael to tell her when he would bring the baby. Michael said he would bring the baby.

Lizzie was in the Westchester hospital for a week before she taught herself how long she could allow herself to even think about the baby. When she thought about the baby for a minute too long, or even thought about Michael who said he would bring the baby, her whole body started to ache and she felt like she was missing an arm or a leg and that if she didn’t have the baby back in her arms or on her chest like the drowning woman she would die. She was sure of it. She would die right there. That was how it felt, she told Michael, who didn’t answer.

Or maybe it would have been better to die than to feel that thing that was more than loss or emptiness or need. It was death itself. In life. She couldn’t explain it.

But then that moment passed, in the way that Lyle taught them, back when she was aboard the S.S.: he taught them to watch the moment. The moment of suffering or the moment of joy. Do not get attached to the moment, Lyle would say. And so Lizzie convinced herself not to get attached to these agonizing moments that promised death. Instead, she watched them. She taught herself not to think for too long about the baby. At first this felt like a betrayal but then she discovered that she could do it. When she saw that she could do it, she realized that she was a terrible person, but she let that thought be there, too, a thought, and she didn’t get attached to it. She refused to get attached to the thought, the knowledge, that she was terrible. She guessed that this was how terrible people lived with themselves. It was possible, she realized.

Lyle told her that she had not allowed herself to move on from her own mother’s death. That she held on to the horror of it for ten years and that it kept her from life. He told her, only after some months had passed, that this was why she was aboard the S.S. Lyle. He called it complicated-grief syndrome.

She told him that it would be a betrayal.
He agreed that grief was noble.

But it was Dymphna, years later, who told her that she guessed her mother would have wanted her to live. Dymphna who told Lizzie that her mother would not want her to be grieving, still.

The next group Lizzie attended was called B.A. Lizzie didn’t know what B.A. stood for. It didn’t seem like it mattered, the decoding of the acronyms. 

“Today Sally has volunteered to present her B.A. to the group.”

The occupational therapist leading the group was named Gretchen. She’d been there, doing crafts of some kind at a table with patients, when Lizzie was admitted to the private hospital. Lizzie didn't like her, but tried not to get attached to that feeling.

A woman stood up to present her B.A. She wore too much makeup, was sickly thin. There were serious scars on her arms. It was all pretty standard.

“Well, Behavioral Analysis is one of my fave D.B.T. skills. So, thanks, Marsha!”

The young woman smiled and shook her hips in a cheerleaderish way that made some of the patients smile. Lizzie felt sometimes that she was in an afterschool special or a movie on the Lifetime network, for all the weird sentimental pathos of the place. But then she would remember it was her life, and that made it even worse. That her life could be a Lifetime movie, completely devoid of irony or humor. She hoped Sally would finish soon.

“And so yesterday I did my B.A., with the aim of—and I quote—‘aiding the practitioner in understanding and/or eliminating both Destructive & Quality of Life–Interfering behaviors.’”

Lizzie guessed that Sally was a performer, a dancer, maybe. She spoke with a weird lilting inflection and she occasionally looked up from her notebook to wink and smile.

“OK, OK. So. I had to wait until after the breakup to do this. But. Well. The precipitating factors of the breakup. The pre-identified Destructive or at least Q.O.L.I. behaviors. Well, the B.A. allowed me to see more clearly and thus reflect upon—I mean with my D.B.T. coach—the behaviors that led to this breakup and its aftermath. And I came to understand it.”

Lizzie watched Sally stop, then drop her notebook, and put her hand to her face. She was crying, weeping in a heavy way that made Lizzie feel bad about comparing the whole thing to an afterschool special. She didn’t know a thing about Sally or what it was like to be her.

“Sally. Can you verbalize what you are feeling right now?”

Gretchen spoke from the back of the room. It was a living room or a sitting room, well-appointed with Queen Anne’s chairs and a coffee table, a far cry from the plastic institutional furniture of the S.S. But it was a terrible place, Lizzie decided an hour into her stay. Why did Gretchen have to say “verbalize,” for example?

Sally took a deep breath and then spoke again.

“I pushed him away. It is a habit of mine. It is beyond habit. I know it about myself. In the way that you can know or understand anything about yourself but this doesn’t mean that you can do anything to change it. To change yourself.”

Lizzie wanted to run from the room, screaming. She looked at two women on the floor in front of Sally, both nodding wildly as she spoke. She expected one to shout Amen.

“I mean self-knowledge. What if it does not lead to change? Maybe it gives you a greater tolerance or compassion or empathy for yourself and your flaws, but on the other hand maybe it makes these habits more difficult to bear especially if at the time you couldn’t have done anything differently. Like, you are not surprised. Like you saw yourself walking right into it.”

Lizzie put her head in her hands and listened to the wind outside, which was blowing the branches and the leaves on the large trees just beyond the glass. The leaves were green, mostly, though a few had turned yellow. It would be a mild winter. The clouds were low. A cable wire hung in front of one window. On the back of the sofa where Lizzie sat there was a tiny plaque engraved with the words “From the Family of Magdalena Marriott 1988.”

“Sally. Can you tell us about the B.A.?”

“I am telling you.”

Gretchen wasn’t convinced.

“You said that it was your favorite skill. I want to hear how it worked for you.”

“I am susceptible. I extinguish things. Whatever.”

Sally was looking straight at Gretchen now, her cheerleader demeanor gone. She looked pissed off, out of nowhere; there was an intensity about her that Lizzie admired though she would have done anything to be anywhere else at that moment, to be out of this particular D.B.T. Activity Room.

“I trace this to a particular if errant manifestation of my fear. My fear of losing the love object. It is the same fear I feel over the potential loss of the love object which causes me to behave in a way that makes actual that very loss. Do you see? It’s perverse.”

“I think you are over-intellectualizing here, Sally,” Gretchen said. “Why don’t you draw the B.A. on the board so we can all understand.”

“But why do I continue to enter into relationships with intimacy as the goal? Well, there are a few reasons.”

“You forget. You delude yourself.” Lizzie mumbled from the back row. She didn’t intend to speak it aloud.

“I delude myself by thinking it will be different this time!”

Sally was looking right at Lizzie now, who still didn’t look up.

“I think that if say the love object could possibly understand my dysfunction she might then be able to show me compassion and forgive my superficial—because she’ll understand that’s all they are—attempts to extinguish love. She’ll understand that’s not what I really want.”

Sally stood still. She wasn’t crying now. She looked possessed in a way that was holy. She was a seeker, Lizzie thought. She admired her. She wanted her to get out of this place. She was too good for it. We are all too good for this place, Lizzie thought, watching Gretchen stand up and move toward the dry-erase board. She hated Gretchen.

“Thank you, Sally. Thank you for sharing.”

Sally looked at her then and said, “There is something so sad about the way relationships begin and then end. You know that? It makes me feel old.”

Gretchen nodded and gestured for Sally to sit down. She put her hand on her shoulder.

“Thank you, Sally. I’m sure lots of us can identify. Let’s give others a chance to share.”

Sally wore Frye boots, leggings, a ripped t-shirt. Lizzie admired her boots as she watched her sit back down on the floor next to the nodding women, holding her notebook to her chest.

When Michael finally came it had been two weeks since Lizzie had seen the baby. She was afraid to see the baby now, afraid to remember the feeling of the baby. But she didn’t tell Michael not to come.

Michael was distant. He didn’t smile. Lizzie didn’t know if he was angry or sad. Lizzie held the baby, the perfect baby, and tried very hard not to get attached to the feeling of the baby’s perfection.

It was after Michael left, with the baby in his arms, promising to visit regularly even though Lizzie said, “Don’t,” because it hurt too much to hold the perfect baby and then to let go. Lizzie, back with herself and her own incomplete body, looked around at the other patients in the game room, sitting on couches and watching television. They were watching Friends. They were always watching Friends. Friends made everything so much worse. She had always hated Friends, which evoked in her an excruciating sense of her aloneness. She wasn’t sure why she hated it so. Maybe she hated the apartments they lived in. Or the way the laugh track would always sound after they said something that usually wasn’t funny or real at all. She wondered how all of the patients could watch the Friends without feeling completely betrayed and deeply sad and even more alone than they must already feel, as psych patients. If she took enough Ativan or Klonopin or Thorazine she could probably also watch Friends and tell herself that she liked it. Sally was not watching Friends, Lizzie noted. Lizzie especially hated the one Friend who acted ditzy. If Lizzie herself were type-cast as a Friend, she would be this Friend, the ditzy one. Everyone else loved this Friend and she realized it was perhaps misanthropic to feel so disturbed by the Friends. Most of the patients watching the Friends were overweight. All wore pajamas or sweatpants. Many laughed when the laugh track went on, after a Friend said something clever or ironic or silly. Lizzie wondered how you could actually laugh in real life at the same time that the laugh track laughed. Even if you had genuinely wanted to laugh, wouldn’t the sound of the laugh track keep you from actually laughing?

On the day she arrived, Lizzie heard Gretchen telling a student intern that many of the women there—and Gretchen had gestured to the women watching Friends—were “career patients.” Lizzie had tried to ignore this but it stayed in her mind. The idea of a career patient. She heard Gretchen say that a lot of them were hooked on their illness, on the idea of being sick, on the idea of suicide. A lot of them had been trying to commit suicide for years, Gretchen said, and Lizzie had seen her mouth twist when she said trying to. And so ended up in hospitals, over and over, Gretchen said. It was a cycle, she told the intern. Career patients. They go in and out of hospitals, day programs. Sometimes they actually do kill themselves, but not always. They end up here. Over and over again.

Lizzie remembers trying not to listen and then deciding that she hated Gretchen. That was the last she could remember of it. Until now. Looking at the women laughing at Friends and recognizing something. Women who also had babies somewhere, babies of whom their husbands or parents had taken custody. Husbands who wanted divorces. Or the women without babies, the women who would never have babies because they would never do a thing except try to die. She admired those women in the abstract. It was their protest she admired.

But she did not admire these women watching Friends.

Lizzie knew something then, at that moment. It was an epiphany, and the recognition of what it was seemed as important as the insight itself. She even thought of Joyce; she’d first read Joyce in The Death Class, which was her favorite class at Barnard. Her teacher had assigned “The Dead” and—though she hadn’t really understood then what an epiphany actually was—she did now. This was one. This recognition that she was becoming a career patient. That she had to stop trying to kill herself. Or that she had to kill herself. But that she could no longer live in this liminal state and spend days or weeks in woodsy hospitals where everyone spoke in acronyms and watched Friends. That this was far worse than death. She was Gabriel in “The Dead.” Only she was a lot younger than Gabriel and there wasn’t any snow softly falling or falling softly. 

She remembers The Death Class now, which was her favorite class ever, with the teacher she loved so much she would turn bright red any time she’d stop in for office hours; the teacher who read the last line of Joyce’s story as if the classroom were a church and Joyce’s words were gospel. Lizzie wanted so badly to understand his gospel, to be moved in the way her teacher was moved, this same teacher who cried when she read parts of Beloved aloud, a book that also made Lizzie cry. At the time, she didn’t understand “The Dead.” It was now, here in the living room of the woodsy hospital, that she saw what seemed so obvious she wondered how she couldn’t have seen it all along.




Suzanne Scanlon’s Comments

This story is part of a larger project, an investigation into female identity and grief and, in particular, the ways in which identity might be formed in response to grief. “Rats” was inspired by a woman I once knew; beautiful and lost, she was a seeker—to me, this is what matters most. The minute we stop searching, we’re dead.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 33 | Summer 2011