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Coupling

The mouse that roared

A tiny intruder has had a big effect on the dynamics of my marriage.

By Todd Segal Washburn
August 7, 2011

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There’s a mouse in my house. I know this because the house is equipped with its very own “mouse alarm,” a no-cost, maintenance-free device of hairtrigger sensitivity that is planted somewhere in the reptilian core of my wife’s brain. When activated, the device produces an ear-piercing scream that I’m afraid can be described with no word more apt than “girlish,” accompanied by the sound of feet trampling so hastily and loudly in retreat that it brings to mind a herd of cartoon elephants. The alarm was recently activated.

Alarm activation leads to a well-choreographed series of remediation measures (more on those in a moment), but its most immediate effect is to signal an arresting shift in the social dynamic of the Washburn marriage. First, my wife, Tara, is transformed. One could fairly imagine her grabbing me by the collar after a mouse sighting, pulling me close, and saying with squinted eyes and gritted teeth: “I want that mouse dead. Understand? Dead.

This from a woman whose favorite film is Gandhi, “except for the violent parts.”

Once Tara’s transformation is complete, our relationship shifts. Where we normally make decisions together (example: “Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts?” “I don’t care, just pull over before I pee in my pants.” “OK”), now Tara gives orders and I follow them. Where we normally divide household tasks equally and without regard for traditional sex roles (example: I iron and make the kids’ lunches, and . . . hey, wait a second . . .), now the lines are sharply drawn. Killing mice is Man’s Work.

You might imagine the final transformation is mine – that I, the urban sophisticate, deprived by modern life of the outlets for aggression that my club-wielding forebears enjoyed but subconsciously yearning for them, will embrace my bloody assignment with enthusiasm. Actually, I’d rather be licking the sidewalk.

But I do undergo a modest transformation. There is no disobeying the mouse-killing order, and no seeking compromise through discussion, which is the normal method for working through conflict in our marriage. So I become passive-aggressive.

My first tactic is to pretend not to notice the mouse pellets decorating the kitchen counter and pantry shelves or to clean them up before Tara finds them. It’s a doomed approach, however, for a mouse sighting unlocks in my wife the unexploited potential of the human brain: She spots pellets the size of microns, hears them dropped even as she stands under the hair dryer, and smells them from distances that would shame the average grizzly.

Then, last year, I tried a second avoidance tactic. Shortly after a sighting, Tara asked anxiously if I thought we’d catch the mouse that night. “Maybe,” I said, “if she’s hungry enough.”

Tara paused, just for an instant, as she processed the dissonance. We had referred to every previous mouse as “he,” and my pronoun shift made conscious what had been invisible before: Imagining our quarry as a lone male, maniacally gnawing holes through boxes of cereal, was decidedly more morally comforting than imagining it as a potential mother. I pressed my advantage. “She’s probably got babies to feed, so I bet she’ll take the bait.”

But my wife’s pitiless resolve – and here let me note that Tara is a vegetarian, as well as a committed pacifist (at least on that majority of days when our house is mouse-free) – had returned. “Good,” she said.

Since then, we’ve had our infrequent but regular rotation of mice in the house, but the latest has taken us in a new direction. For nearly a month now, this one has left all manner of food in the traps, untouched. This mouse, it seems, has evolved a new intelligence.

“Not sure what else I can do, dear,” I recently sighed.

“I know,” Tara said. “Don’t worry about setting the traps.” Could it be we were evolving, too?

I heard her grab her purse as she called, “I’ll go pick up some poison.”

Todd Segal Washburn lives in Brookline and posts his writing at toddsegalwashburn.com. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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  • August 7, 2011 cover
  • August 7, 2011 cover
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