Andrew Bertaina

Winter in Washington, DC

In the evening, while the children were asleep, my wife and I texted about the difficulties of life—doctor’s bills, the election, sleep schedules—and later, why we were separating. We’d been married thirteen years, but things had been slipping away for the last few, one missed connection after another—another late night at work, another missed phone call or argument over the particular placement and cost of a rhododendron. Things unraveling like a thread from a spider, like a thread from a spool. I can no more tell you the myriad of reasons that things fell apart than I can tell you why we came together. Marriage is a mystery sometimes, even to the participants.

In the midst of our conversation, I heard a trap snap and then a quiet squeaking from the kitchen, death throes of the mouse that had been terrorizing us: pooping by the toaster, the fruit basket, the cutting board. Mice particularly terrorize my wife, a Type A woman who regards their intrusions into our lives and routines as a personal affront to her character. Once, years before, our daughter got caught in a snap trap two consecutive mornings. We heard the snap and then her cries of pain; we pulled it from her fingers, the webbing of her toes. That wild child, my first.

I sat in the house, our house, soon to become hers, listening to the mouse die. I do not encourage this behavior, death, though it comes for us all, is made no less insidious by its ubiquity. I asked her, my still wife, if I should show the mouse to the children in the morning, giving them some closure and an opening to talk about death. She said she was sad that this small mouse, once living, had been so quickly extinguished.

We both wished, from thousands of miles away, that it wasn’t suffering. Just as, years ago, we’d both wished that we’d stay together forever, not a decade, not thirteen years and two children, not a new car and a house, forever.

I put my phone away, switched off the light and started upstairs, the squeaking now silent. I stood there, morally conflicted: Is it ethical to leave the mouse dying on the counter? Is it somehow more ethical to kill the mouse myself? Eventually, I walked back to the kitchen. The trap had snapped, flipping the mouse over, and I could see its tiny chest moving up and down, its pink arms pawing at the air.

I took a paper towel and tried ineffectually to grab its small white body. I could see its breath—shallow, scared, dying breaths—as I clumsily pressed it against the wall. There was something intensely sickening about the way its body molded into the plaster, the way that it just gave way, like something already dead. And then, I grasped it briefly, before tossing it in the trashcan.  Despite my recent loss of faith, which was perhaps not so recent, I said a prayer, “I’m sorry.” And the mouse in the trashcan, still breathing, stared with its tiny mouse eyes into mine, and I stood there, looking back at death. I held its gaze, and it held mine, then I closed the lid and waited for it to die.

Upstairs, I found my son, three, sleeping in the hall, attempting to be closer to the big bed my wife and I had once shared. I thought of his question, “Where does mommy sleep in your new apartment?” I thought of how fragile life is and how she sleeps nowhere. I thought of the time when we’d met, she 20, when we’d thrown water on one another from balconies and laughed as though we were children. My children.

In bed, I read an essay by Natalia Ginzburg, “Winter in the Abruzzi,” about the years she passed with her husband during the war—quiet streets, quiet lives. And then suddenly, in the last two paragraphs, her husband dies, and she has a realization, years later about that time: “But that was the best time of my life, and only now, now that it’s gone forever, do I know it.” And then, finally, I started to cry wondering if those years had already passed—the trips through canyons in Utah, to Florence, to Rome; the quiet days spent playing with my first born; the lusty cries of my second. Perhaps I too, in my foolishness, have missed the best years of life.

 

Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. He obtained his MFA in creative writing from American University where he also now works as an instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The Best American Poetry 2018, The Three Penny Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, Hobart, Apt, Bayou, and Catamaran. His work has also previously appeared in Sweet; Cease, Cows; and The Forge. His favorite sweet treat is, undoubtedly, cardamom coffee cake.

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