by Kamala Puligandla
When it was over, there had been a small amount of poison left that Lucy kept on a cocktail napkin on her shelf. The three, square turquoise pellets sat gravely beside her two modest tubes of lipstick. It was a reminder that though sometimes it didn’t feel that way, she did indeed hold power in her hands. It had been her choice to use the poison then, and she could use it again.
It began the weekend that Lucy moved in with her boyfriend, Jarle. “Okay, so you’re moving to Chicago and you live with me.”
This was how Jarle presented the idea of them moving in together, like it was first and foremost a practical arrangement. Both of them had been living in Western Massachusetts: Lucy as a photographer for a private college and Jarle on a farm. When the growing season was over, Jarle wanted to try out a new American city before his visa expired. He was Norwegian and this somehow prevented him from experiencing the kind of existential crisis around moving that afflicted everyone else Lucy knew. He just did things and they were always okay.
“How did you end up in America?” she’d asked Jarle on one of their early dates. They were seated across from each other in the dim lighting of a French-style pub that was owned by Susan Sarandon’s brother.
“Well that’s easy, I got on a plane.” He smiled and ate a French fry. “Oh,” he said, in the ensuing silence. “Are you asking me why?”
Lucy had taken a sip of her beer. Because that’s what she did in order to feel comfortable, but Jarle didn’t even drink. He didn’t like that it made him feel out of touch. “Yes,” she said. “I guess that was my real question.”
He tilted his head to the side and thought for a moment. “Norway is small?” Jarle often employed the vocal uptick that people claimed made women sound stupid, but which apparently just made tall, Norwegian men sound approachable. “You know, so I wanted to see more of the world and try to live in a new way? But I got sick of New York? I wanted to see more nature? So I came here because I heard it was a place with a tight…” he knitted his fingers together and shook those clasped hands up and down on the table.
Lucy liked that Jarle wasn’t going to quit with this gesture until she let him know that she understood. “It is a tight-knit community, isn’t it?” she asked. That was how he’d found her in the first place: she was standing next to him at the front of a stage while she shot photos of her friend’s band. And now he was happy to just go on together, like this, not toward or away from anything, just slowly continuing.
Lucy didn’t mind letting Jarle pick the apartment in Chicago—he was a man of good taste. She hadn’t lived with anyone else for two years and it had spoiled her a bit, but with Jarle that didn’t seem to be an issue.
“I’m going to unpack all of my poetry and photo books,” she let him know, when she first arrived. “I’m going to let them take up as much room as they need.”
“Yeah, great,” he said motioning to the empty shelves in the apartment. Jarle’s things filled a small section of the bedroom closet and two drawers in a dresser he had picked up on the curb down the street. He just hoisted it up and carried it several blocks to the apartment. It was baffling the things that Jarle found to be no problem at all.
“Do you want to put some things on the walls?” Jarle asked at one point. “You’re the photographer, you’ve got all the art.”
Lucy was grateful that he was with the kind of man who didn’t need some ugly piece of crap on the wall to make him feel masculine in his home. She was scanning the room to decide how she wanted to divide her photo series. And that was when the first mouse showed up. It wasn’t even running, it was out for an easy saunter at best.
“Is that what I think it is?” Lucy asked Jarle.
“Oh yeah, those guys,” he said, smiling. “They live here too. Cute, huh?”
Lucy frowned. She was inclined to disagree, but then Jarle had always been so agreeable with her that it seemed selfish. “You like the mice?” she asked.
“Well, I don’t mind them. They were here before us anyway,” said Jarle.
Lucy wanted to be like Jarle and that mouse. She wanted to saunter carelessly around and haphazardly start acquiring the makings of a life that would be good no matter what. But instead, as the days and weeks passed, Lucy found herself haphazardly acquiring the words to describe what it felt like to lie in bed at night and listen for the tiny pitter-patter of mouse feet. To walk into a room and feel that someone had just left before her. To know that there was an entire production in her own apartment, built with her discarded things, which did not involve her at all. It was much worse than living with ghosts—which Lucy had done one summer in her grandmother’s old cabin in the woods of Wisconsin and at least, she thought now, the ghosts had had the courtesy to make her feel special in her own goddamn home!
Another mouse appeared one night in the middle of passionate sex—just when Lucy was letting loose and preparing to fall into an orgasm. She saw a movement out of the corner of her eye and turned to see a mouse curiously exploring a pile of their discarded clothing. Jarle took Lucy’s initial terrified scream as a sign to let loose himself, and so he was already coming when she pushed herself off of him and began hurling shoes across the room in the direction of the mouse.
“We can’t even have a moment of privacy together?” she shrieked. “Do they have no decency? We can’t even fuck on our own now?”
Jarle immediately covered himself and craned his neck around. “Who?” he cried with alarm. “Where? Who is here?”
She gingerly inched toward the other side of the room to investigate the clothing pile. “Of course he’s gone now, just gone back to wherever he hides out,” she muttered as she pushed the clothes around with a boot.
“A mouse?” Jarle asked, suddenly relieved. “You saw one of those guys?” he laughed and held onto his chest. “Funny guy just poking around? Wow, you scared me, Lucy. So what if he sees us enjoy ourselves, right?” He shrugged. “We do what people do, and he does what mice do, yeah?”
Lucy looked at him all relaxed and chuckling in bed. That was easy for him to say with his fully realized orgasm and his perpetually worry-free man mind. Yeah, she thought, that’s what people like Jarle did: came reliably, even in rooms with mice, even when their dicks had been ejected by their screaming girlfriends.
“Come on, I’m here with you,” Jarle said. He freed the boot from her hand, guided her back into bed and curled up with her. “See how nice it is with us?” he asked.
Jarle wasn’t wrong; he did feel both soft and strong against her. But she didn’t like that this ideal soft-hard feeling—one that wasn’t so easy for her to find—could be so casually arrived at. This wasn’t some deluded college shack-up that involved constant beer breath and paper-thin mattresses on the floor. This was fine aged cheese after a tropical getaway in Thailand. This was fucking good. And for a brief moment, it occurred to Lucy how it might be possible to just continue, not going toward or away anything, for just a little while longer.
Lucy had moved to Chicago in the first place to take a well-paying job at a medical center. At first she worried it might be depressing to photograph sick, dying and injured people for a living, but it turned out to be pretty amazing how many people did not go into the hospital and just die. Instead, so many of them were born, or otherwise found the resilience to heal, recover and enjoy their lives.
Then one day she had to shoot medical clowns. “Clown doctors,” they were called, as if there were some kind of science attached to them. As she watched these heavily painted performers awkwardly scramble about the young cancer patients, Lucy suddenly understood that the entire purpose of her job was misdirection. It was an awful trick to make people feel free to laugh and hope, when in fact, there was a great deal of misery between these walls, misery that would not just stop here, but would get carried home to grow more dank and consuming with time. It was a hoax she had been complicit in creating. She left the hospital that evening in a silent huff.
Back at the apartment when Jarle handed her a beer, she didn’t even have the energy to join in on their joke about him taking care of the housework all day, while she went out to win the bacon. Jarle smoothed out his apron and used his grandmotherly-pitched voice to announce that dinner was served, but Lucy still had nothing to say. It dawned on her that the premise of the joke was entirely sexist to begin with.
Jarle’s face fell. “You don’t like living here together,” he said in his regular manly voice, the one that she found so sexy, and at times so infuriating.
“It’s not that,” she said, and his face snapped back into its usual optimistic smile.
“Okay, I understand,” he said amiably and began folding up his napkin. “You want to eat dinner out.”
“No,” Lucy said. “It’s not that either.”
Jarle looked puzzled.
“It’s the mice. They have to go.”
Just as Lucy suspected, there was pain in Jarle’s drawn eyebrows. He had undeniably grown close to the mice. There was a reason they were going through twice as much peanut butter as they used to. She didn’t even like peanut butter.
“Who will trade me trinkets? Who will I talk to while I prep dinner? They’re perfectly innocent.” Jarle’s voice was strained and she realized she’d never heard him like this before. She felt a pang listening to him struggle, but there was a part of her that was satisfied. Now he would know what it was like to be everyone else in the world. To make choices and suffer the consequences.
Lucy sipped her beer. “Can you please get some mouse traps at the hardware store tomorrow?”
“I can’t,” he said quietly. “I’m going on a bike ride, and anyway I can’t do that to them.”
“You will,” she said firmly.
“I love you,” Jarle said. “Please don’t make me kill anything.”
Normally, Lucy would have found this proclamation of love astoundingly touching. Especially coming from a man who had said many things to her about the quality of her mind and body, but nothing about their affect on the placid lake of Jell-o that were his emotions. There was only a month left until Jarle would pack up his small backpack and fly home to Norway. Lucy considered that most people would not spend that month coercing the man they most certainly loved back into poisoning the mice he had befriended. She knew this, and yet Lucy couldn’t bear the idea of spending the final weeks of their life together in abject neutrality. Plus she had to admit there was something deeply moving, and partially erotic, about Jarle’s willingness to go along with her, against his own principles.
They worked it out so that Lucy was the murderer. She set the traps and laid out the poison, and Jarle was merely the bereaved collector of the recently fallen. The look of disgust that crossed his face sometimes when she put out a scone slathered in peanut butter, topped with a few poison sprinkles on top, it lit her up. He loved her more than that revulsion. He loved her more than the anguish he felt as he gently wrapped the mice in paper towels, and stepped forlornly out into the allley to toss them. After they’d spent a glorious afternoon chasing each other up and down hiking trails and fucking loudly in a secluded grove, it was important for Lucy to look at that face, to know the boundary Jarle crossed to meet her at her own happiness. There was no misdirection. Now every moment for the both of them was steeped in a kind of love that was also misery, which was also love.
After he had gone, Lucy would find herself standing in front of the sink, with the water running, not sure what she had come there to do. Jarle hadn’t called or written since the day he left, and she wondered now if she had pushed him too hard. The mice were gone too. It was just her and the sparsely furnished apartment, which alternately appeared like an armature and a skeleton. Lucy wandered the halls of the medical center, her camera bouncing against her stomach, and she watched the vacant stares of the pale, balding people, she touched the cool hands of the young cancer patients. Then she came home and stared at turquoise poison pills sitting primly on the cocktail napkin. Everyone made choices, she thought, and sometimes people got what they deserved.
Kamala Puligandla is a fiction writer, who lives and schemes in Oakland. She has earned many distinctions in her day, including Most Likely to Be Bribed With a Snack to Walk Up a Hill, and Best Impression of Robin Williams’ Hotdog Impression. Find her work at thatkamala.com.