Notes on (wild) mice and men

With our jackets piled in an empty plush seat, my son and I settled comfortably in the dim light and surrendered to the bliss of the moviegoer. Popcorn, check. Clear sight lines, check. Tom Cruise as a sexy hired assassin, check.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a quick movement on the floor nearby. Then another. I suppressed a shriek as a mouse skittered across the aisle and into the shadows underneath our row.

On screen the music crashed and swelled, but my eyes were scanning the darkness near my feet. My flesh crawled in the air- conditioned cold. Where was the mouse? Was it about to move again? Eeeek. What if it climbed up and nested in our pile of coats? Hantavirus.

I tried to reason with myself. A mouse couldn't hurt me, really. I wasn't afraid of a killer who had a signature three-shot execution style. I was afraid of a few ounces of fur, whiskers and a tail.

The pest didn't reappear, but I missed a lot of the movie worrying that he might. Instead of watching Tom Cruise, I spent the movie wondering what is the difference between the pest at the local cineplex and the two adorable little critters in a cage in my living room? My daughter saved them from being eaten by a snake in a pet shop in Princeton, N.J., last year and named the mice Romulus and Remus after the founders of Rome.

Romi, as we call him, is a roly-poly sort. Reemi is the intellectual, a slender fellow who could almost be wearing horn-rimmed glasses on his pointy pink nose. When I fill their food dish, Reemi always has to think about it before he eats, while Romi digs right in. Romi is Lenny to Reemi's George in the Steinbeck classic that Reemi would call "Of Us and Men."

When I was growing up, we always had pet mice -- my brother had some fancy Italian dancing mice named Giuseppe and Giovanni once. One dowager mouse named Barbara Freitchie died soon after my father got so sick of her smell that he doused her with my mother's perfume -- Guerlain's La Griffe. We had hamsters, too, and guinea pigs and dogs and cats, of course, but the mice, with their miniature, complete lives were always especially fascinating.

There are wonderful mice in literature, in Steinbeck and in the pockets of the evil Count Fosco in The Woman in White, and in Stuart Little. When Reemi, my favorite, is playing on my arm, I can almost imagine as he peeks out from a sleeve with his little wise face that he's ready to discuss the imagery of mice in his reading. I love these little creatures. I admire the tininess and symmetry of their bodies, their inquisitive noses, their spiky whiskers, their silky fur.

If I love tame mice and fear wild mice, what does that say about my relationships with living things or even with people? Can I love someone only when he is in a cage -- even a metaphorical or metaphysical cage? Does wildness frighten me so much that it drives out affection? Can fear and love co-exist? Is control a prerequisite for love? Is this why parents adore their cute little dependent children and fight with their gawky, independent teenagers? Is this the problem that has caused my marriages to fail? What is it about captivity that renders the threatening movements of the movie mouse into the adorable scampering of the pets?

There's a wildness to any kind of love, to that moment of recognition when you know that a relative stranger is going to be important in the story of your life. Over time, that wildness dissipates. Is that when love begins or when it ends?

Looking back at my connections to men, I wonder if a lot of the energy I spent was an attempt to tame them, to domesticate them and to keep them from frightening me by darting around in the dark.

The men I fell in love with often were wild or unavailable when I first met them. In the end they always told me I was too possessive; I always secretly thought they were too possessive. You spot it, you got it, I like to say.

But what does it mean to possess another living creature? Did I really want a tiny husband whom I could keep in a cage and let out to play when I felt like it? Did I really want a man who would peek adorably out from my sleeve? What is love and how is it connected to our power over one another?

That's something I have yet to figure out. I'm starting small.

-- Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.


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