Of Mice and Vegetarianism

“We have mice,” announced Kennedy when I walked in from work. She was sitting on the couch in the living room as I passed through from the garage.

“We do?” I set my purse down on a kitchen chair and walked to the refrigerator, anxious for my first meal of the day.

“Yeah. I opened up the bottom cabinet to get a pan out earlier and I found a huge pile of droppings.”

“Are you sure they aren’t old?” I was searching for sandwich components.

“Yeah, because I’ve been hearing them all day too. All kinds of scurrying and scratching in the cabinet all day.”

“Mmm. ” I had only lived with Kennedy for a couple of months, but I had learned during that time that given a choice between the most dramatic story and the most truthful one, Kennedy would always rather tell the better story. Still, maybe there was a mouse or two, although I had never seen one. “Maybe we should buy some traps.”

“Ugh. I absolutely can’t handle the traps that snap down. I can’t touch the mice.” Kennedy shuddered theatrically, then looked skeptically at my sandwich. “Is that turkey?”

“No, Tofurkey.”

“I can’t believe you eat that,” she turned up her nose.

“It’s actually not bad. Want a bite?” I offered her the untouched half of my sandwich to try.

Kennedy’s lips curled into a sardonic smile. She waved me off. “No, I already ate a really good bacon sandwich a little earlier.” I kept my face passive as she continued. “It was that good hickory bacon from Braums, the thick sliced kind.”

“Ok,” I replied, keeping my expression blank. “Suit yourself.” I smiled right back at her and took a bite. Kennedy’s new favorite pastime was to describe to me every piece of meat she ate. I supposed her intent was to create revulsion. She never succeeded in the way she hoped to, but it bothered me to know that she enjoyed causing discomfort.

“I’ll get the traps tomorrow,” she said as I bit into a pickle.

“Why don’t we just get the catch and release kind?” I said. “The mice just go in the little box, then you pick the box up and dump them out. We can just take them away from the house and let them go.” Then, seeing her eyes narrow, I added, “I can do it.”

“Won’t they come back?”

“Not if we put all the food away.”

Kennedy was silent for a moment, then shrugged. “Ok. That sounds better anyway. Then we won’t have to touch them.” She looked at me pointedly, “or kill them.”

“Right,” I agreed.

She stared at me a little longer than necessary before smiling sweetly. “I saved Glee for you from last night.”

I sat down on the couch with my food, and the rest of the evening progressed uneventfully. Kennedy had returned to her happy, smiling self, and I thought briefly about how she darkened each time we discussed food. She seemed to be focused on my vegetarianism in a way I couldn’t really understand. It made me uncomfortable.

In truth, I knew enough to expect  the surprise and concern of friends and family when I dropped meat. Vegetarians are few and far between in beef country, where meat is an integral part of every meal. My conversion to vegetarianism was viewed in much the same way as if I had suddenly announced that I was choosing to be celibate. The most common reactions included furrowed brows, a moment of processing, and an ire-filled “why would you want to do that?”

I had explained my feelings patiently to my family members, and anyone who asked. I felt (and still feel) that I am fortunate to live in a place where food choice is plentiful. I have witnessed many animals in moments of joy and grief and I would hate to think of causing unnecessary suffering when I might just as easily choose to eat something else. “Don’t get me wrong,” I would always explain, “If I only had the option to eat meat in order to sustain my own life, I would. That is nature, and if it is a choice between me or the cow, I pick me.” I would simply rather not, given a free choice (which I am.)

People generally nodded pleasantly and said, “Oh, I see,” and then they changed the subject. My father tried to explain his belief that animals don’t have souls, so it is alright to eat them. “Jessica, you mustn’t think that animals understand life and death in the same way we do. They don’t know what’s coming.” People offered all kinds of justifications for their meat eating when I had never asked for them, but nobody had reacted quite the way Kennedy had,  resisting it on a personal level through passive aggression.

The show ended. “Well, think I’ll go to bed,” I said, standing and clearing my plate off of the coffee table.

“Yeah, me too,” said Kennedy. “See you tomorrow, girlfriend.” She smiled openly and flipped off the lamp.

“Goodnight,” I said cheerfully, heading down the hallway.

***

On the following evening, I was surprised to see Kennedy waiting by the door as I pulled into the garage. “Hey,” I said, stepping out of the car.

“Hey,” she responded, “I caught a mouse, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I was waiting for you to get home.”

“Oh,” I said, “Did you get the traps?”

“Yeah, it’s in there. I’ll show you.” We walked into the kitchen and Kennedy opened the cabinet door. What sat on the shelf was not the capture and release trap we had talked about. It was a tray covered in sticky golden glue. A small, grey mouse lay in the corner of the tray, exhausted. Kennedy tapped the tray, and he began struggling against the glue again.

“These weren’t what we talked about,” I said, watching the tiny furry creature strain against the muck only to sink in deeper.

Kennedy’s eyes narrowed again, the way they did when we discussed food. “The man at the store said these were better.” She paused to glance at the mouse, then back to me. “You’re supposed to put the whole thing in the trash, or put it in a bag and step on the mouse, but I can’t stand to touch it.” She looked back at the squirming ball of sticky fur again, then back at me steadily. I said nothing, just stared at her in disbelief. “You said you’d handle it,” she prodded.

I glared at her, my eyes hard. “I’ll handle it,” I said deliberately. I crossed to the kitchen island and pulled out a bowl, filling it with lukewarm soapy water.

“You’re not going to get it out of that,” said Kennedy calmly, still watching the shivering mouse. He lurched forward, catching his whiskers in the glue and trapping his head at an angle.

“I said I’ll handle it,” I snapped back at her. I gathered up a dish towel, a butter knife, a pair of scissors, a roll of paper towels, and a dish of clear water. I wasn’t sure exactly what I would need, but I was determined to succeed in freeing the terrified animal from the glue. I carried the two bowls of water outside, then returned for the rest. Kennedy followed me outside warily and sat down by the supplies. She looked on silently as I dipped my cloth in the soap and began to dob it onto the mouse’s snout.

The soap began to break down the glue, and I pried with my blunt knife, quickly freeing his face so his head could turn and he wouldn’t drown. Then, I moved on to his paws. Lodging my knife under his stomach, I created a buffer to prevent him from sinking deeper. I worked the dish soap all over his legs and poured it down onto the trap to try to break down the thick goo. Then I began to pry gently, working with the creature’s exhausted muscles.

Kennedy looked on and cheered from time to time. “Go little mouse!” she would say when we would free a paw. “He’s got spunk.”

“Mmm hmm,” was all I said.

“Well, I’ve got to go to bed,” said Kennedy looking at her phone after about ten minutes. “Let me know what happens with the little guy.” She stood and walked toward the house. Abruptly, she turned back to me. “I’m sure he’ll be fine. Don’t you think?”

Was this a newfound concern, or another part of her game. I couldn’t tell, but it didn’t matter much. “If he doesn’t wear his heart out before I can get the glue off,” I replied tersely.

“Yeah. Well, goodnight.”

I continued working carefully in the dark, relieved to be alone. I was furious with Kennedy. This had been a coup. She had asked me to put the trap in a trash bag and stomp on the little life. She had had another choice, but she had chosen to use the needless fear, pain, desperation, and death of a little creature to prove to me that I wasn’t any better than anybody else.

It occurred to me right then that I had been incredibly naive. Despite our media saturated world full of instant-access horror stories, I had never encountered this desire to manipulate life and death merely for the sake of proving a point. I wondered with alarm that all of this had come from my seemingly insignificant personal choice about diet. I hadn’t thought of any fallout before. I had thought that my decision about what to eat was only about me, but I hadn’t been paying attention to what was implied in the explanations, and the justifications of my friends and family. Maybe Kennedy felt judged and defensive. Maybe they all did. I had been wrong in my assumption that my personal choice was personal.

I couldn’t deny the implicit judgement in my decision.  I chose not to eat meat because I didn’t want to cause pain. Therefore, if you do eat meat, you do choose to cause suffering. Maybe when my friends had said “Oh, I see,” it was actually code for, “Oh, I get it. You’re a good person and I’m a murderer because I ate a cheeseburger last week.” Maybe it had only been a matter of time before someone reacted out of self defense.

I looked at the frantic mouse, now resigned to being scrubbed and pried out of the glue. His once-soft fur was matted and hopelessly fused flat. His delicate legs stretched awkwardly to accommodate the unnatural position they had been frozen in, probably for hours. Maybe if I had just told Kennedy I was trying to lose weight, this…darkness…wouldn’t have surfaced.  I shuddered, but even as the thought crept into my mind, I knew that this was different. This was absolutely useless, preventable, and cruel. Meat eating may not be strictly necessary, but at least it serves a purpose.  In my heart, I knew that Kennedy was more willing to be cruel than anyone else I knew, regardless of how many cheeseburgers that person eats.

The mouse had stopped wriggling now. He was breathing slowly and raggedly. As I cut through the last strings of relentless glue, washed him off the best I could and laid him in the grass, I felt immensely sorry. He stood, walked a few steps, still sticking to the grass, then laid down and was quiet. It was completely dark now, so I couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. I hoped he was simply exhausted and would awaken during the night, but I knew he might not.

A mouse is just a mouse, but I imagine I will never be able to see one without being reminded of the power of personal actions, and their unintended consequences. While it is encouraging to realize that even small personal choices can speak to others, it is always necessary to be aware of what, exactly, they are saying. Little choices, it turns out, can provoke powerful emotional responses in others. They are catalysts for extreme brilliance or unspeakable ugliness.

As such, I’m learning to treat my vegetarianism (and all personal choices) more carefully.  My feelings have not changed, but I’m aware that my actions have a resonance I never knew they had. I always explain why when asked, but I try to be more specific now, and deal with the question on a more humble, human level. I’ll say, “I’ve never felt that I was a very patient person, but it’s something small that teaches me to be more compassionate.” or  “I feel overwhelmed when I think of all of the suffering that goes on in the world, but this feels like something I can control.” These are true observations about me, not statements of moral absolutes. I hope they don’t feel judgmental to others. In the end, we must all choose for ourselves.

I also realized that while I may have lacked delicacy, poor communication probably had very little to do with the problem where Kennedy was concerned. After a few days of thought (and a few nights of sleeping with one eye open), I decided it was time to move out. It was right for both of us. I found a small apartment and left a month later, much to the relief of myself, my more rational friends, and mice everywhere.

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