We were watching a Christmas special the first time my boyfriend saw it. I was reaching for a handful of popcorn when the blast from Jeremiah’s throat caused me to jump. As he sprang up from the couch I tried to make sense of what was happening.
“Mouse!” he exclaimed as he ran toward the kitchen. By now the furry object of his excitement was gone; having scampered into a nook or cranny after hearing a voice that didn’t hint his presence was a blessing.
“I know this is going to sound silly,” I said, “but please don’t kill it.”
My childhood had been filled with a variety of furry pets: rats, mice, and a functionally retarded hamster (who decided one day that attempting to eat his foot was the best idea since the hamster wheel). I’ve always had a soft spot for critters scaly or furry, although smartasses will be quick to point out that I have no moral qualms wolfing down a chicken sandwich. Nonetheless, I would never attempt to kill an unwelcome apartment guest, even if its eyes had the crazed look of rabies.
Jeremiah smiled. “I wasn’t going to kill him.”
I learned then what Jeremiah’s family had known his whole life—that his was a heart filled with compassion. Like me, he had a history of rescuing nuisance animals from sadistic traps or the dreaded death by shoe. And so we went to Home Depot to buy a live trap so that we could catch the mouse and release him back into his natural habitat—the Arby’s on the corner.
It wasn’t long before we caught the tiny rodent, though it wasn’t via the trap. We found him on the kitchen counter one night, doing a swan dive into a pile of dirty dishes. Jeremiah quickly scooted the dishes into a giant trash bag, which we carried outside. I could practically hear the song Born Free in my head as we searched for a mouse-friendly spot to release our captive. We settled on a block full of shrubbery and sewer pipes. As we opened the bag the mouse leapt like a ninja into the air, diving into a bush. We saluted him and walked home.
An hour later Jeremiah was cleaning his pantry and kitchen countertops to remove any evidence of his former guest when I heard him gasp.
“What is it?”
“I—oh, boy. Come look.”
Behind the microwave was a tiny nest composed of lint and paper towel shreds. In the middle of the nest was a tiny wiggling mouse, barely the size of a quarter. His eyes were closed and his stubby hands reached out toward a mother that was five blocks away and probably gnawing on a half-eaten Poptart.
“Oh, god,” I said. “We can’t just toss him outside. He can barely move. He’ll get impaled by a stiletto heel within minutes.”
Mildly offended, Jeremiah said, “Hey—I wasn’t suggesting that. Give me some credit here.”
After doing some internet research, we were dismayed to learn that orphan baby mice need to be fed every few hours until they’re two weeks old. Another fun fact that wasn’t so thrilling to learn: baby mice can’t go to the bathroom on their own. The mother mouse—or in this case, two nervous adults— “stimulates” the baby’s nether regions until the fuzzy infant relieves itself. Our compassion would be far from convenient.
After making a 2 a.m. run to Rite Aid and debating the merits of generic baby formula vs. the big brand name formula with the smiling bear on the canister, we made our selection (Generic. Sorry, mouse—this ain’t the Ritz). We fixed a nesting box for our new rodent baby, fed him formula at a painstakingly slow rate with an eyedropper, and went to bed. When Jeremiah’s rustling several hours later roused me from sleep, I watched in sleepy awe as my boyfriend approached the nesting box, eased the baby mouse into his hand, and slowly began the half-hour process of feeding him. He did this again several hours later, forced to use a Q-tip to gently rub the mouse’s crotch in an effort to stimulate bowel movement (some Saturday nights don’t turn out exactly like you planned). I tried not to laugh as I was presented with an image of the man I loved “jerking off” a mouse. Later, when the Q-tip was in my hand, I didn’t find it quite as funny.
“It feels like I’m violating a rodent,” I said awkwardly. “And it’s a baby rodent, so does that make me a pedophile?”
Despite the strangeness of our situation, I found myself touched by the effort Jeremiah put into his mouse parenting duties. He knew how much I wanted this little critter to be alright, and thus he treated the mouse the way he treated our relationship: with attentiveness, compassion, and commitment.
Two days later our infant mouse still hadn’t gone to the bathroom. This, as I realized with panic, was not good. If Dangermouse (as we’d named him) didn’t relieve himself soon, he could die from toxic buildup. We doubled our stimulation efforts, rubbing Dangermouse’s genitals like crazed mouse molesters. We tried every bit of advice we could find from veterinary websites, but nothing was working. I’d learned online that baby mice had a 50% survival rate, which made every passing hour all the more nerve-wracking. I was growing attached to the sightless wiggling infant, especially the contented squeaks he made when it was mealtime.
During one of Dangermouse’s feedings, as I held the eyedropper to his tiny lips and watched him lap at droplets of formula, Jeremiah kept my spirits up, assuring me that we were doing everything we could to help this creature pull through. And then it happened.
“Oh—oh, God,” I said. “What’s he doing? Oh, no!”
I watched as the tiny creature in my palm coughed and contorted. I tilted him upright in a frantic effort to help him breathe. He shook and sneezed. He gasped and flailed. And then he stopped. The tiny body went limp in my hand. As my eyes went wide with shock Jeremiah took Dangermouse from me and gently placed him back in the nesting box.
My reaction was immediate.
“I killed him!” I wailed. “He’s dead and it’s all my fault!”
“Come here,” he said, drawing me away from the box.
Jeremiah guided me to the bed and I curled up next to him, distraught that the life I was so intent on saving had been snuffed out. Anyone else in the world—my friends, my parents, past men I’d dated—would have scoffed at me for being upset. Their words of consolation would have been something along the lines of “See? That’s what you get for not just killing it like any normal person would have done. And now all you have to show for your nurse duties is a lighter wallet thanks to all that crap you bought to take care of him. Next time you see abandoned mouse spawn, why don’t you just cut out the middle man and throw a twenty dollar bill out the window?”
But Jeremiah commended my efforts. He didn’t make me feel silly for spending an entire weekend playing life support to a creature generally categorized as vermin. “Your empathy makes you unique,” Jeremiah said. “You should feel good about that.” But what I suddenly felt good about was the fact that I was dating someone just as empathetic—someone that willingly slipped from bed at 4 a.m. to feed a baby mouse. Someone that would spend a Saturday night rubbing a mouse’s genitals in an attempt to keep life pumping through its body. You may not have an orphaned rodent stranded behind your microwave, but sooner or later you’ll have an issue that’s important to you, and no matter how trivial or strange your quandary may seem to the rest of the world, you need to ask yourself: Would my partner immediately back me up? I smile thinking about the fact that there aren’t a lot of people I know that would spend hours Q-tipping a mouse’s crotch. But I’m in love with the one that did.