Mouse Trap

I found myself in a state of panic at the thought of having to enter my daughter’s flat in the city. My daughter lives in a mouse trap. There’s mouse shit behind the furniture; mouse shit at the back of the kitchen cabinets.

It was about a year after Leah had finished college, found a job downtown and moved to a small bachelor apartment near work. She had moved in with her boyfriend, a great idea at first, but as that relationship fell apart and others started and crashed, life for her spiraled downwards and her apartment saw little in the way of care. I had been there some weeks before and thought it looked like a hellhole. This time I figured it might be worse. With no-one to share the rent, she’d given notice so that she could find something cheaper, but was mired in her misery and mired in the mess and couldn’t seem to get on with the clean-up so that prospective renters could see the place.

I crossed the entry courtyard, the one redeeming feature in this block of older, somewhat dingy flats, and stood for a moment taking in the fountain gurgle and lush planting, bordered by a backdrop of open, external corridors that served each floor. A moment’s peace before heading for the clunky elevator to reach the third floor. I let out a long sigh. I so don’t need this.

“This place smells like dog pee,” Leah said as I entered. She was lying on her bed, burrowed deep into the covers and, I guessed, deeper into her inner shell.

“Hi sweetie.” The place did have a sour smell—dried-up food in addition to pee. Something else I couldn’t place. Junk was stacked in the middle of the room, dirty clothes hanging off chairs, chaos bearing down on her. She had been crying. I knew that Mat, the latest in a series of failed relationships, had broken up with her but that she still had to see him every day at work, a place where she played the role of happy young design professional, self-possessed and successful. I wasn’t surprised to find her in bed, ship-wrecked. I suspected that her time was spent alternating between sleeping or surfing online, anything to distract her from the depression that consumed her.

“Shut-up Pug, for God’s sake.” The dog was yowling his head off, protecting his turf, running on instinct. Turning to me Leah said “I’m sorry Dad,” as she tried to discipline her dog to no avail. “He’s getting worse and it’s driving me insane.”

I logged the layers of rubble scattered here and there: kitchen sink full of dishes, spaghetti leavings in a pot and, what was that on the counter—a shoe, discarded tights, underwear? Negotiating my way through the debris to her bed, I rammed my toe into an exercise dumbbell that was lying in wait under a jacket. “Damn it, Leah—.” There was nothing I could say that wasn’t plainly obvious.

Why is this happening? What a mess. Can’t she just get up and start to put the pieces together?

She was losing time to find a new place but couldn’t seem to take the next step—even the step required to get to the kitchen to deposit used dishes, let alone clean up the place, find a better apartment, get a better routine.

“Another sick day?” I said, wondering if her employers would be questioning her all too frequent absences by now. The dog continued to bark.

“Mom said you might need some help. What’s up?”

“I don’t feel well. I hate this fucking place. There’s mouse shit everywhere and I can’t deal with showings and all that stuff to get out of here and get my deposit back.”

“Why can’t you clean up?”

“I don’t know where to start. Nothing’s clean and I look awful.”

“Oh Leah, You can—.” I stopped, knowing what would happen if I jumped into a lecture. Moving to the bathroom I found the light was burned out and remembered that Leah used to leave the bathroom light off anyway. For her, the hall light was enough to see by but not enough to unmask the raw and naked soul inside.

Feeling unloved, I’m sure. Unwanted, repulsive—despite the love we poured on and which she takes for granted. Crap. Did I even teach her to change light bulbs? Are we responsible for this?

“Leah, are you sick, or depressed—.” I stopped short from adding ‘again’, knowing it wouldn’t be fair. I didn’t know what real depression was like.

“Leah, honey?”

Shoulders hunched further in reply.

“Leah?”

“What?” Spoken with an edge this time. Not buying into this.

“Sweetie. Let’s make a plan. It’s not insurmountable.”           

Eyes squeezed shut, head turned away to the wall. “It just gets messy again. I can’t even do simple things.” Her body shook as sobs started to punctuate the pause.

I knew that recently her best girl friend had turned on her, criticizing her relationships with guys and then passing that on to a bunch of their acquaintances. I imagined that in Leah’s mind she was picturing her world of friends receding from her, a world getting smaller and smaller, replaced by vague figures that didn’t notice her, who thought of her as nothing at all, but nevertheless sucked up all her warmth.

“Sweetie, cleaning up can give you a new starting point, so let’s clean up. I’ll help.”

No response.

I can’t get through to her. It’s like a huge chasm is growing between us and I’m incapable of doing anything about it.

“Leah, what’s the biggest problem. Can we talk a bit about it?”

“I hate my life.”

“Would you feel better if the place got cleaned up enough to at least figure out the next step? You know, start from a clean slate so to speak.”

“It’s impossible, I tried.”

“It’s hard to do it alone”, immediately regretting my choice of words. Of course she’s alone! “But I can help.”

“I don’t want to stay here.”

“Do you want to come back home with me and Mom?”

“No.”

“Do you want to clean up together?”

“No.”

“If you take just the smallest step you’ll be part of the process.”

“Jesus Dad stop sounding like you can fix everything. Just leave me alone.” A small cry, then a deeper cry. “Just go.” Words hurled at me through heaving sobs.

I was stunned, but not really. I’d seen it before.

Moments passed.

I so didn’t want to do this again. But what were the consequences. I knew it would be taken as proof to her that she was unlovable.

“Oh honey.” I moved close, wrapped my arms around her and rocked her. “I’m not going anywhere. Mom isn’t here right now but if she were, she wouldn’t leave you right now either. Nobody in your family is leaving you.”

The dam shoring up Leah’s internal turmoil exploded as she twisted her already coiled body tighter and tighter and sobbed uncontrollably. Still crying, she managed to blurt out, “I know you and Mom love me, but I should be able to do this on my own.”

Desperate to be independent, to be an adult and successful, to not fail. Something deep driving it, some distorted measure in her mind of how to get beyond being a baby that a mother didn’t want. To show it didn’t matter to her she would be strong, she would be successful with all the trappings, all by herself. But feelings exist beyond comprehension. The wounds from her perceived abandonment permeated every cell in her body before she had the words to understand what was happening to her. Now new clothes, neat haircuts, cool jobs and a bachelor pad could do nothing to address the core hurt.

She sobbed in my arms for a long time and I continued to rock her gently, keening a soft melody, drawing on the musical connection we shared.

When she was little, when everything seemed perfect. Her thoughts were still pretty much concrete. With her immediate needs met, with the love of a Mom and a Dad, playmates on the block, not much was wrong. But with puberty, with new questions about identity and adoption, with the unrelenting obsessions of high school, with hormones driving anger and jealousy and peers being at turns gushing then bitchy, a cycle began that rocked from the presentation of a carefully crafted mask of who she wanted to be, to huge crashes, shattered self-esteem, self-loathing. A cycle of ups and downs that controlled the years up to young adulthood and almost drove us nuts.

We stayed like that for a long time. Slowly I tried to introduce the bits of a mission she could hold onto, one that might ease her into starting the climb back up. A long time passed.

Eventually I said, “Sweetie?”

“Mmmm?”

“Do you have any laundry soap?”

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