Becca Krock is an ex-neuroscientist and works in science communication. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband.
I was never much of a dancer. When I took a tango class in my freshman year of college I could see, in the self-assessment videos the instructors kept filming, that I was floppy, without either precision or verve. That’s why I loved it so much when my usual partner was home with the flu and I was paired instead with one of the instructors: Once he stopped telling me to make my steps tighter and just led, I felt like I was really dancing. When Mark came along and suddenly my life became interesting to me, I started to wonder if something like that was going on. In retrospect, I’d done this before, too. Maybe that was why all my relationships had gone limp within a year. The other got tired of being enough of a person for two people. Yet here I was, doing it again, this time with a man who made such an art of self-absorption, I almost admired his technique.
But things would be different with Mark. All I had to do was not date him. We could go on forever like this, having sex, sometimes even hanging out, mixing contempt and flirtation, if I didn’t succumb to the drive to merge emotionally. I felt it could be done, because he was such a jerk. There was a built-in barrier. I once asked Mark what were his favorite taquerias in the Mission, and his face grew dark and he snapped at me, You have to find your own favorite taquerias. He wouldn’t put up with me getting too cozy, adopting his hobbies as my own, and all that.
I met Mark at a party where I was alienating my roommates’ friends and drinking too fast. I had four roommates, Jorge, Ingrid, Erik, and Susan, all upbeat software engineers, except for Susan, who was a data scientist, and Jorge, who was reserved. They spent their time playing sports and pickling vegetables. I found them when they advertised on Craigslist, and out of the dozen applicants they interviewed, for some reason they accepted me, maybe because I am a developer and said I played frisbee golf, although I was kind of lying. I mean, I have played frisbee golf. The building was a Victorian that sat halfway up Potrero Hill. Our apartment included the first and second floors. The third floor housed Fran, an eighty-something recluse, occasionally sighted transporting her recycling to the curb. On these trips she wore a uniform of gardening shoes, wide-legged khakis, a red bucket hat, and a woolen poncho of a slightly different red. We shared a patio with her, but she never used it. Neither did my roommates, making the patio the best thing about my situation. It was overgrown, with tall grass coming through the paving stones and weeds among the giant jade bushes, but I found it lovely, especially the monstrous ivy on the high brick wall that separated us from the school for delinquent children. Once, there had even been a tiny pond with a cherub fountain, though dysfunction had transformed it into a basin of dirt and a statue.
After almost two years in San Francisco I still didn’t know many people. My roommates took me along to parties where the only things anyone talked about were their bicycles and their commutes. As soon as I managed to speak up around these people, they would all seem to skitter away. I could have said anything, like that there were nice gardens along my commute, or that sometimes I couldn’t help but imagine throwing myself in front of the train, which always led to the question, whether I would accidentally make eye contact with the train engineer on my way out. No response. I don’t know, maybe I was being a little aggressive. Then Mark walked in and made a beeline for me. I later learned that this was because I matched his type—small, impassive, long dark hair—but of course at the time it made me feel magnetic. I went for what I had learned was virtually always an acceptable direction—Got any plans for the weekend?—and he scowled and said, I don’t plan. I’m here. Are you going to plan every minute until you die? With Mark, anything you said was an opportunity to begin talking about mortality. He liked thinking about the train engineer, and while he did that, I enjoyed his dominating jawline. Later I nearly ruined the conversation again when I mentioned that I was a web developer—I bet you call yourself a maker, he said; he was a tech journalist, he resented all his subjects—but I saved the day by making fun of burners. He said he went to Burning Man every year, but he also hated people like that, and this emotional paradox mired him in speech for awhile.
He was doing his most alluring thing. It happened whenever I stumbled upon some traumatic landmine. He would turn his eyes directly upon me and they would take on a sudden desperate openness. He would send up a signal flare: I’ll never live up to my father. Sometimes my work seems so pointless. I mangle every relationship I have. This called to me. I longed for him to let me in, so I could fix the pain. But if I offered any help, he’d slam shut again.
I wanted to be useful, to be beautiful, to make beautiful and useful things. But I couldn’t even get up the willpower to curl my hair. Or maybe it wasn’t willpower that I needed, exactly, but something like a more articulated desire. But Mark’s goals—to look mysterious, to entertain himself, to protect himself—were so forceful a tide that that didn’t matter, it was pleasurable enough just to get sucked along for the ride. And his desire for me made me both beautiful and useful.
He fingered me in the bathroom and then he left and texted me from the bus. I told him I couldn’t get involved with anyone right now and he said he knew what I meant and told me to come over to his place the next night. After that, sometimes I would go with him to parties, but most of the time, I went to his place or he came to mine. He decided which. We could lay around talking all night so long as we had sex first, to show that the conversation was incidental to the sex.
Mark was going to come to my place the day Fran put her rats out on our back patio. I’d gone outside to let Mark in. It was dusk. I usually waited on the patio for him to whistle at the side gate, since he didn’t like to come in the front. Mark was taking longer than I expected, but instead of going back inside, I just brushed the leaves off a patio chair and sat and watched the sky change—the part I could see between the neighbors’ houses crowding in, anyway. I heard a noise, but when I looked up, instead of Mark at the gate, I saw a red poncho descending our back staircase.
Fran was carrying something bulky, made of wire. I saw her almost miss a step as she reached the deck on the second level, and I started up to help her, but in a moment she’d caught her balance, set down her armload, and headed back up the stairs. I had an approximate idea of what she’d left. Recently, Fran seemed to be preparing to die. Small groups of well-kept belongings appeared on our patio every two weeks or so, each with a note that said, in an elegant, hardly shaky script, “Free! Please do not contact me regarding this. Thank you!” or “These are my things and I’d like to give them away. Please do not approach me to thank me for this later.” I had already bagged a large illustrated dictionary and a globe that had the U.S.S.R. on it. Mark showed some interest in these artifacts, inventing stories about the crazy old hermit in the attic and what these belongings could have meant to her. Susan would scoop up everything I didn’t and deposit it in the living room, and then Erik, the neatest, would throw it all away a day later.
I went up to investigate. It was a white wire cage with two stories, each story holding a black-and-white rat. To leave your pets at someone else’s doorstep—that was strange, pathetic, possibly heart-breaking, maybe presumptuous—I had no way of knowing which. There was also a cardboard box with plastic bags of food pellets and bedding. The rat on the lower story was running on a wheel at a nervous clip. Maybe she’d told them, I can’t take care of you anymore, I’m dying. You have to go on without me. Or maybe she felt hollow, relieved to be rid of this last attachment to the world.
The rats were tagged with the unusually terse message: “They’re females. Please take!” I squatted in front of the cage. The one that wasn’t on the wheel was snuggled up under a plastic igloo, asleep. They were about the size of baking potatoes, but soft of course, and heavier around the bottom than the front. Their fur was perfectly clean and white all over except for the black that covered their faces and trailed down their spines like nuns’ habits. There were white hairs on their tails too, but those were stubbly and short. The rats were madly interrogating their new situation, using their noses like eyes, whiskers swishing.
I wanted them.
Mark whistled. I sat looking at the animals for a moment before I retrieved him.
Take your time, June, he said through the wrought iron gate.
Keep your panties on.
Take yours off.
Ha-ha, I said, though I loved it when he pretended to order me around.
I made him carry the supply box inside; I took the cage. Jorge and Ingrid were in the living room playing a tabletop game where each party competed to lay down more communications and transit infrastructure. They paused the play to follow us upstairs.
My room was not a bedroom. It was a box sticking out of the side of the building, with wall-to-wall windows on three sides, so that I baked in September and October and froze the rest of the time. But I was flooded with good light, except in late afternoon, and outside one window was a tree hung with golden flowers like downcast trumpets. The flowers were supposed to be hallucinogenic, and my roommates sometimes talked about making them into a tea, but Erik always reminded them that the flowers were also supposed to cause pericarditis, so they never did. The space was almost perfectly filled by the bed, a nightstand, and a dresser.
I cleared off some room on the dresser while Mark stuck his hand in the cage and tried to pull the rats out of the igloo. I don’t know anyone with rats, he said (a compliment). They’re more like familiars than pets.
The rats didn’t emerge. Jorge and Ingrid got bored and left.
Why had Fran given them up? Was she okay? Were the rats okay? I couldn’t ask her about it, because the one time I’d tried to say hello she’d hinted that she’d rather be left alone.
I apologize if I don’t respond to you in the future, she’d said, I’m nearly blind, and don’t recognize people without my glasses.
Now I worried aloud, I don’t even know their names.
I’ll come up with something, Mark murmured, also newly bored. Don’t talk anymore.
In the morning—it was Sunday—I could smell that Ingrid was using her machine that made special European waffles, and Mark named the rats Heaven and Earth because of a dream he’d had that he wouldn’t recount to me. He didn’t tolerate that. Why, he would say, would you expect me to be interested in your dreams, when they only mean anything to you, and vice versa.
Which one is which? I asked. He just shrugged. I decided that the one who spent all her time on the running wheel—she’d been back at it on and off all night—would be called Earth. The one who stayed on the upper level should be Heaven.
He was half-dozing again. Almost taller than the room was long, he had a thin, muscular look that I always liked. There was something arresting about him, that made people pay attention. But there was also something forbidding and rough, kind of how I imagined Mr. Rochester, so people were afraid to ask him questions. I wasn’t used to feeling especially attractive, but there was something about me that he liked, too. I ran a hand down his side. All he did in response was complain that the rats smelled. I didn’t think they smelled and said so. I went and got a bowl of granola from the kitchen, ignoring the roommates, who in turn ignored Mark as he walked out of the apartment, and then I went back up and started trying to entice Heaven and Earth to take some of the wet granola from my hand.
It took only a week or two for them to start trusting me. The first day, they would only leave the hut to retrieve treats if I left the room; the second day, if I sat on my bed. On the third day, they would take them even if I stayed close to watch. On the fourth, they accepted avocado cubes from my hand when I held very still. Another week later, they would stretch their front paws out of the cage to reach the sunflower seeds I offered. Then it seemed like overnight they decided they liked me. Well, Heaven liked me. Earth liked escaping underneath my bed and chewing up my lamp cord. If I turned my back on the open hatch for even a second, I’d have to spend the next twenty minutes under my bed, rummaging for her in the boxes of old shoes, one of which she’d be destroying. I bought a plastic tub with a good locking mechanism on the lid to hold my remaining shoes, used Ingrid’s staple gun to attach all the power cords to the wall, and still Earth found things to shred. Meanwhile, Heaven asked nothing of me. She just wanted to ride around on my shoulder, or behind me in the hood of my sweater. If I were reading, she would climb inside my sweater and cling to my shirt beneath my armpit like a goat on a mountainside.
If I succeeded in keeping Earth inside the cage—she wouldn’t sit still to cuddle—she stayed right by the door, visibly pining to leave. As I grew more skilled at preventing her escapes, she grew listless. This caused me to worry about her mental health. I walked over the hill to the hardware store and bought a bunch of PVC pipes and elbow connectors to make her a system of tunnels. I was a bit stymied as to where exactly all this would go. It had to be in my room. Ingrid, Susan, and Jorge said they wouldn’t mind me moving the rats to the living room, but Erik just looked at how they pushed bits of bedding through the wire every day (why? for fun?) and pursed his lips. Eventually, I clipped away a few inches of wire from a couple spots on the side of the cage and stuck the entrance and exit pipes through the holes. The tubes wound around the foot of my bed and along the windowsill. Earth started spending most of her time running out through the tubes, then back in again, doing a bout on her running wheel, and then another lap. I used a drill to poke ventilating holes in the tops of the tubes, and so that I could scatter seeds inside them for Earth to find. That seemed to satisfy her. For a long time I tried to coax her out to play with me, but she never came.
I tried to love them both the same. It didn’t work. Heaven needed me and Earth didn’t. It was Heaven who wanted nothing more than to ride around the house on me. Mark never developed a favorite. He couldn’t stand the clicking noise from their toenails and the squeaking of the running wheel on its axle. Plus, the tunnel system ate into what was for him critical real estate at the foot of the bed. He had to start sleeping curled up. More than once he kicked the tubes loose in his sleep, and I had to wake up and chase after Earth. Heaven, always the good girl, would be watching innocently inside the cage, not a thought of escaping. Mark complained about their odor too, which I could hardly perceive unless their bedding wasn’t so fresh. Besides, you could hardly blame them for peeing. It put a cramp on the acquaintances-with-benefits situation, however. I was always having to go stay over at his place, which I used to like because I could get up in the morning and snoop around his apartment before getting back into bed and kicking him to get him to wake up and start having morning sex with me, but now, it made me feel guilty because I had to leave the rats alone all night when I normally would have been playing with them. You had to give them four hours of attention per day, according to the internet, to make them optimally happy.
There was also another girl on the scene now. This was to be expected, since we were not and would never be dating, and also, Mark was polyamorous and had a stable of girls rotating in and out. But usually I didn’t hear so much about them. He would just drop a casual mention that he’d been to a gallery opening in Oakland or an invitation-only sex party with someone who had done something outré. Now I was suggesting we meet up and being told, I’m out with Leila tonight—come over tomorrow. Of course, I was working to be open-minded about the whole thing. And, like Mark, I liked offhandedly describing the situation to my friends and watching their reactions.
One Saturday I was sitting in a coffeeshop reading a magazine and texting one of these friends, who I could tell was strenuously withholding opinions about this man (not understanding, obviously, that the sex was worth all of it) when Mark texted to ask whether I was free that night. He was trying to set up a threesome with me and Leila. It had been her idea. Mark insinuated that, in the history of his polyamory, group sex was commonplace, though he had never yet mentioned it to me. I’d seen Facebook photos of Leila and Mark at a party, and she was glamorous, with a piercing gaze, so I cleared my agenda for the night.
You can finally be bisexual, Mark texted. He never believed that I was already bisexual, since I wasn’t sleeping with anyone but him. I went home to shave.
When I got home my roommates were all bounding down the front stairs to do a beer mile. I swam upstream against their thumping and whooping.
Have fun, guys, I called.
When they got back I was standing next to the fridge eating cold spaghetti out of the tupperware. They heaved and sweated as, laughing, they filed past me to get bottles of beer.
Ooh, we should go to Till in the morning, said Susan.
Oh god, yes, said Erik.
I love their lemon ricotta pancakes, said Ingrid.
Yes, said Erik.
I don’t get the point of fancy food, I said. They all looked away. It’s all the same at the other end. Then I choked up because they looked back at me with those eyebrows and I fled to my room with the spaghetti.
Sometimes, when I was alone at night and didn’t have any plans, this strange, clenching nausea would overcome me. Sometimes I would cry a bit, but I could never pin down a reason I felt sad. I just had to sit there until it passed, like a kidney stone. Now the clench came even though I did have plans, but instead of crying, I reached into the cage—half-frozen—and drew out Heaven cupped in my hands. As I stroked her she began to purr, which I’d learned they do if you scratch them behind their ears or under their chin, almost like a quiet cat. Then she was also bruxing, which is when rats grind their teeth from joy. Maybe I would just stay here for the night.
But Mark texted to see when I was coming, and so with Heaven riding on my shoulder, I splashed cold water on my face and put on some makeup. I chose a long skirt with a slit up the back and a see-through blouse. Too much? I asked myself, and then laughed because—who knew what was too much? Not me. On my way out the door, because I’d run down my stockpile of new chew toys, I went to the fridge and took the pit from half an avocado and tossed that in the cage for the girls to gnaw.
His place was a studio on the outskirts of the Mission that he paid something like 75% of his salary to hold on to. Mark buzzed me in without a word. I could hear high laughter as I climbed the narrow stairs to the second floor. In a glance I could see that Leila, Leila the glamorous, was nervous. I liked her right away. I ignored Mark, sat myself next to her, and lobbed over my bad pleasantries.
Do you like dogs, she said. I have a golden doodle.
Mark poured us all a lot of whiskey and told stories about himself until I couldn’t take it anymore and leaned over on the couch and kissed Leila, awkwardly, since she wasn’t expecting it, but she picked up the thread, and in an instant we were all touching. I could smell the spice of her perfume and Mark’s careless musk all at once.
Mark got up and went to the bathroom, and Leila fell upon me. We moved to the bed. She was soft, sinuous, electrified, with glossy hair I loved pulling back to kiss her neck. When Mark reappeared in the doorway holding the bottle of whiskey, we were unclothed and making out with intensity. I looked past Leila and observed him gazing upon us, motionless. He furrowed his eyebrows. I’d never seen him look insecure before. Finally he set down the whiskey, stripped off his clothes, and inserted himself between me and her, and there he stayed for the rest of the evening.
I didn’t sleep there, but instead called a Lyft. I sprawled out in the backseat, giddy, and texted dirty things to Mark along with polite messages for him to pass on to Leila. I was sweaty, and smelled of sex and alcohol, and my hair was a mess, and my outfit was ridiculous, the driver was for sure rolling her eyes, and I felt like some new species of gazelle. To top things off, on the patio a new Fran bequest was waiting for me. This one was a neatly folded wool poncho, identical to the one she wore to leave the house, but in cadet blue. Pinned to it was a note shaped like a speech bubble. She’d written: “Please never contact me about this. Enjoy!” The tag said it was llama wool. I planned to keep it forever.
On my way in I dug some blueberries and kale out of the fridge to bring to Heaven and Earth. When I opened my bedroom door Earth started running on her wheel. Gir-lies, I called. Earth came running to the door. I put her on my shoulder and reached into the cage to stroke Heaven, still in the hut. But when I touched her, she didn’t react.
I was fuzzy, and it took a few more unanswered nudges for me to become alarmed. I lifted the hut and pulled her out of the cage, putting Earth back in it when I sensed her preparing to leap from my shoulder to the ground. Heaven was taking infrequent gasps. I couldn’t think what to do. Heaven, I said out loud, what happened? There was an animal ER in SOMA. I’d have to call another ride. While I waited—how long could it take?!—I put Heaven into their travel cage. Cancer. Rats get mammary tumors, I remembered, and respiratory infections, Heaven must have cancer, or an infection, and if so she would get surgery or antibiotics at the ER.
But as soon as the driver left me at the ER parking lot, Heaven stopped breathing.
In the morning I didn’t know what to do so I called Mark. I half-expected him to berate me for burdening him with my emotions. Instead he said only that his cat died when he was five, and he had a friend who could make a nice tribute. An art piece.
He’s a spectacular taxidermist, he’s the student of one of the big suppliers for that store on Valencia.
I don’t know why, but I let him come and pick up the body. Susan dug up a shoebox for him to put it in.
My roommates were very kind to me. Ingrid made waffles, and Jorge went on a coffee run, and they binge-watched TV with me all afternoon. It made me feel guilty for all the scorn I didn’t work that hard to hide.
It was hard to stay busy enough. Once, Leila texted me something flirtatious, but I put off responding until I felt less crushed in the hopes that I could come up with something energetic. I had to hope she wouldn’t be insulted by the lag. My job had always been pointless, but that had never seemed like a problem until now. It became apparent that Mark was sort of right about that: It wasn’t that I needed to do something more exotic, like he said, but something was off. I’d thought I hated my roommates for being engineers, but in reality what I hated was being an engineer myself. I’d just felt trapped, since I’d already tricked myself so far down this path. All week, I waited for the art piece, tracing escape routes over and over in my head.
It turned out to be the avocado pit that killed Heaven. I’d had no idea. She’d died of congestive heart failure, because of the toxins. The ER vet had asked me whether she’d eaten anything unusual, and I was plagued by shards of thoughts about trumpetflowers blowing in through the half-open window while I neglected the rats to see Mark, but finally I thought to look up about the pit. Why had I not googled this beforehand, like maybe ‘avocado pits rats die’?
It occurred to me that I ought to tell Fran. But would Fran want to know? I was turning this question over when Mark texted to say he was outside with his buddy. I went and opened the side gate for them. The buddy had the shoebox.
I have sort of a Gothic aesthetic, was what his friend opened with. I didn’t bother asking this guy’s name. It was a monstrosity. Here was Heaven, who I loved, stiff, with glassy fake eyes, twisted into a pose that was intentionally grotesque, like she was reaching to pluck a tiny orange. Her fur stuck out wrong from under her neck.
No costume? I snarled. The ones in the store were dressed in tiny top hats and capes and dresses, which I now saw to be idiotic.
I’m developing more of a—the friend began.
I wasn’t serious, I shouted at him. Get out of here. Get out of my house.
The friend turned to leave.
You too! I shouted at Mark. After a pause, he followed out the gate.
I climbed the stairs slowly, out of my mind with rage. What had I been thinking? Mark was—no. Not another thought for him. I set Heaven’s desecrated corpse on the deck and texted Mark, It’s over. You’re such an asshole. But even while I was doing this, I knew that yelling at him, calling him names, declaring it over, was like trying to get glue off one finger with another.
Steps approached from below. I fumbled the lid back on Heaven’s box.
Why, hi! she said. We’d never again spoken since I learned her name.
How beautiful, she continued, to see you just now.
Yes, I’ve been thinking of you.
I took in your two rats. I named them Heaven and Earth. I hope that’s okay. I guess they already have names.
Oh, no, I never named them, in fact. So that’s good. It’s good to hear that you’ve made friends with them.
Actually, I wanted to tell you— But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Fran didn’t seem to pick up on my snag.
You know, I can’t recognize you without your glasses, but when you said my name, I remembered. You live downstairs. There are others, too.
Yes, my roommates. You haven’t met them?
No, said Fran. Now, this is a good and perfect home for me. It’s funny that we should be talking now, because I was walking in from the street and thinking, Thank you, God, for this good and perfect home for me.
Aw, that’s great.
I didn’t always have this. I used to live at Stanford. I had to move, but I remember it. See, that’s the intellectual property. I knew Ted, he was a lawyer in something called Intellectual Property. Now sometimes I think back, I moved away from the physical property, but it’s the intellectual property that you can’t let go of.
I smiled and said, Ah. It was dawning on me that Fran was about to explain, since I hadn’t taken the hint last time, that I should never initiate a conversation like this again. It was also clear now that she wasn’t throwing out her possessions because she was preparing to die, but because she was cleaning house. I decided it didn’t matter whether she knew what I’d done to Heaven.
Now, here, there are some scenarios I have to do, she said.
I didn’t understand this, so I waited.
For example, I am talking to you now. Or once, I was taking out my trash, when a woman downstairs—a different woman—was bringing in her bicycle. So I moved out of the way, and she said Hi, and I said Hi, but I didn’t say anything else. Now I know she was probably a little angry because people expect you to respond with something, but I learned this years ago, in Hoover Tower:
I heard Mark whistling. He must have seen my text message and come back to bargain. But I wanted to hear what Fran learned in Hoover Tower years ago, and when I had, I would take Heaven and a trowel and go to the park on top of Potrero Hill and bury her on the hillside overlooking the city like I should have done in the first place, and then I would come home and begin sorting out our garden. For starters, I would determine what could be done about the dirt basin.
Fran continued, I learned that one friend is enough for me.
She held up one knuckly index finger.
I have one friend, and we’re very dear friends.
Oh, that’s nice.
Now, he is on the other side. He passed away eight years ago.
I was unable to create a response to this. Mark called my name. Fran didn’t seem to notice.
But we’re still great friends, she said. We have a great time.
Well, I said, that is wonderful.
Mark seemed to give up, walk away. Then I heard him climb the front staircase and start knocking.
June, he called. June.
Wonderful, said Fran. Yes. •