The Pink Rats Inside Us
There is a reason why no sleepovers at our house or at the houses of other girls, my mother told me the day I got my first period. Pink rats live inside us. Your grandmother had them too. While we sleep, they crawl out of our mouths, gnaw on the toes of people not in our family. For example, your best friend Sam, your only friend. She will wake in horror, flee into the night, tell all the girls on the lacrosse team. Keep this secret until your wedding night. That is when I told your father, who could have handled it better but didn’t flee. At least not right away.
While she spoke, my mother drank long sips of red wine, her mouth ringed as if she’d been chewing on my fingers, though I was the one doing that. I liked the taste of my nails, the heady stink beneath them from between my legs. My cuticles stung when she had me chop onions, bled over incorrect math homework and the pastel pink bat mitzvah thank you cards. A dozen families from our temple had come, had kissed my cheeks and given me faux gold bracelets with gemstone hearts I’d never wear. None of them were our friends. I wondered if they too harbored animals they feared would attack.
Sam gave me a chunk of Baltic Sea amber on a black cord. I wore it every day until the cord frayed, then carried it in the back pocket of my jeans. She wrote me funny illustrated notes during school, sculpted me a blue hot cocoa mug and fired it in her mother’s kiln. In her presence, I felt full of raspberries, salt, stars, and moons except when she and the lacrosse girls held parties and didn’t invite me. Then I’d want to scratch her from my life, would lie awake feeling pathetic and mean. I’d wonder what the rats inside me ate besides the toes of non-family. My mother said liver and onions, so make sure you clear your plate. Otherwise, they’ll gnaw your guts instead.
In Hebrew school, we’d learned what it meant to be called vermin. I somehow knew not to ask my mother about this, to not question if our rats were an internalized myth, twisted to keep us alone and safe, an isolation passed down from my grandmother who’d lost her whole family. It was the same way I knew not to ask, at my first gynecologist appointment three years later, if the doctor felt them when she pressed my uterus, an organ more alien to me than any story my mother could tell me about myself. When I skipped meals, I wasn’t consciously hoping the rats would eat it out, along with my ovaries and breasts, return to me the body I loved. Still, the sharp hunger gave me a rush.
My first boyfriend loved my flat stomach. When he took me into his parents’ lukewarm shower and bent me over without a word, the pain erased any memory of my before-body. I grunted as if in pleasure, bit the inside of my cheek. The shower curtain was patterned in tropical fish. Any rats inside me stayed put. I can’t remember how many times this happened. After, we always snacked on his mother’s dried apricots which she ate to stay regular. She and my boyfriend went to our temple, and I’d heard her discussing her bloat with my mother, who recommended she switch to prunes.
My mother had no remedies for loneliness. When I came home at thirty, single and on my fifth city, she said, “There are difficult phases of life.” I didn’t tell her that on first dates with men, a hirsute rustling filled my throat. I stilled it with glasses of red, then invited them to my meticulously clean apartment, fucked them on the grey comforter. Then I swept them back out into the stream of strangers, cleansed again. After, my head ached for days. The rest of me was a staticky blur my friends admired in skater skirts, in tulled Roxy dresses. Over the years, a few girls asked me out. I’d want to say yes but something always clamped down around my heart, big-toothed, afraid.
I’m middle-aged, back in town for my mother’s seventieth birthday, when she says, “I ran into Sam’s mother at the store last week. Did you know she’s married to a woman?” On the table, instead of the usual liver and onions, she has placed a golden roasted chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, a tangy spinach salad. She has switched from wine to sparkling water. My pink rats seethe. I chug the cheap Merlot I brought myself, take measly bites. My mother devours everything fast. “You know, I would support you if that was what you wanted,” she says, her mouth shining with schmaltz. “I’ve only ever wanted your happiness.”
She stands up, grabs the sides of the table to brace herself. Then she vomits onto my plate as if I’m a baby bird. What comes up is not our meal but a glowing pink moon. It’s the size of her heart, reflects my still-young face. It smells of strawberry shortcake. “Don’t you want it?” I ask. “I’ve got many more, it turns out,” she says, a glint in her eyes. “Please, take this from me.”
I’m drunk and angry—mostly at myself, at my nagging sadness—but I stab it with my fork, crank my jaw wide like a snake. My eyes water; the moon burns going down. It doesn’t hurt more than anything else. It tastes like alternate lives, like amber softening back to resin, like a joy that was always mine. My first beard bristles my chin. “Wait, not like that,” my mother says but it is too late. I burp berries. Stars bloat my belly. I lick my lips, whiskered and ravenous.
Meg Cass (they/them) is a queer, trans fiction writer and teacher who lives in St. Louis. ActivAmerica, their first book, was selected by Claire Vaye Watkins for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and was published in 2017. Recent stories have appeared in Ecotone, Foglifter, and Passages North. Their flash fiction has appeared in the Wigleaf Top 50 and in the SmokeLong Quarterly Best of the First 10 Years Anthology. They co-founded Changeling, a queer reading series focused on works-in-progress, and teach in the English Department at the University of Illinois Springfield.