ratted out

BY MICHELLE EPHRAIM

I saw the hole in the car seat as I was pulling out of my driveway.

When I say "hole," I mean huge gaping cavity with tons of fluffy white stuff coming out of it. It looked like the seat had barfed.

I knew I'd be late for school pick-up, but it didn't matter. I needed to check this out.

Sure enough, there was another sign of trouble. Round black things on the seats that were not raisins. It was obvious what was going on: there was a creature in the car waiting to kill me and my family.

I shouldn't have been so surprised. Of course our car would attract a hungry animal. There are flaccid Go-Gurt tubes covering the entire car floor. And over the Go-Gurt tubes, crumbs from our last 4,000 trips to Dunkin' Donuts. A dried-up river of milk runs the length of the car. Rainbow Goldfish swim in it. It's completely disgusting. Someday, as soon as I can face them, I will hire professionals to make it all go away. I will roll my eyes and tell them that the kids did it. (Kids! Who can control them?)

But let me make something clear. My husband Marc and I are not victims; we asked for this. The car is the truest expression of our real selves. We are slobs. Sometimes I go to the gym and don't shower afterwards. And then I go to sleep. When I do wash my clothes, they rarely make it into drawers. At this moment, there is an expensive face cream wedged between my dresser and the wall. It's been there for months. It's leaking.

Marc is worse. When I met him, he slept with every single item of his clothing piled onto his mattress. He needed all his clothes to keep warm because it was February and his window was broken. The Styrofoam and duct tape he had used to repair the window, after some drunk guy broke it at a party three months earlier, didn't work. When we moved in together, he argued that we shouldn't clean the apartment. Ever. He said it just wasn’t worth it, not when we'd be moving out in 10 months.

Now that we're married, with jobs and children, the car is the only place I allow myself to let loose. When I had my first child nine years ago, I had no idea my messiness would be a big problem in Mommy World. If anything, I pictured Mommies as slovenly leaky vessels carrying smaller leaky vessels. I was also unfamiliar with the term "executive functioning," and I had no idea that my executive dysfunctionality would most likely lead to bad parenting and, possibly, my children's lifelong struggle to self-regulate, stimulate sensory perception, and master social pragmatics while executing gross motor planning. I just didn't know.

Here's the thing about having children where I live. You don't have to be as clean as you were before having them; you have to be cleaner. Cleaner and more organized. My neighborhood is filled with these Fancy Moms -- the skinny, well-scrubbed urban mamas who love high-end athletic wear and environmentally friendly products, and who host charity events. The Fancy Moms inspire me: before I met them, I had no idea how good you could look after 40. There's so much pressure: the sports teams, the summer camps, the recycling projects. The hardest parental hurdle for me to jump through, though, is the neat and tidy one. I'm not just talking about bathing and clean underwear. I'm talking about how you must have a designated mud room loaded with labeled baskets and brightly-colored hooks for each child's coat. Plus, the mud room must be located in a prominent place, where everyone can see your glory.

There's a part of me that wants to be just like the Fancy Moms, and to be adored by them. So, I have drunk the Kool-Aid of The Container Store. I have bought things like some kind of lunchbox ecosystem at Whole Foods that cost $32.

This is why I need my car to let loose in.

At least, until it was filled with fecal pellets. Of course, the day I discovered the hole in the car seat we were giving a ride home to the daughter of one of the Fancy Moms. A stunning woman who maintains white home décor and who smells like lilacs. Her daughter, unused to bad smells and therefore more olfactorily sensitive than my own children, immediately contorted her face as she got into the car: "Something stinks!"

My reaction was to play it super cool and blame it on something my toddler left in the car to rot. I craned my head around and winked at my older daughter: "You got a crazy little sister, dontcha?"

As we drove, I glanced every other second in the rear-view mirror, expecting to see a creature grinning at me with an arm around each kid. A creature about to sink its teeth into my daughter's friend's shoulder, puncturing her beautiful white down jacket.

Back at home, having safely returned the girl, I knew what I had to do. I took a deep breath and Googled "animal poop in car boston." This was very helpful. I learned that some decent, clean, Back Bay residents who park near the dumpsters have discovered rat nests in their Lexus engines. None of the websites I looked at mentioned rat occupancy on suburban streets far away from mass accumulations of public trash. But apparently, explained one of my sources, if there is a car with an extraordinary amount of food remains, a rat will find it using his amazing "Junk-dar" powers. Once a rat selects his car, he is dedicated to it for life and will return to it even if you chuck him out the window in another state. The only way to reclaim your car is to kill the rat.

Initially, Marc would not believe that there was a live animal in our car. This was not surprising. When I get worked up about something, Marc tends to lie down and play dead. And that makes me spin completely out of control. But, humoring me, he purchased a rat trap and set it up in the car. He checked the car at midnight, and announced that there was nothing in the car.

"What about the hole and the poop?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Maybe there was something there, but it's gone now." I could see the large gears in his head churning forward; the issue had now completely left his mind.

After I dropped off our older daughter at school the next morning, I got a call from Marc. I had taken his car because I'd decided never to use my car again. No amount of Lysol and paper towels would convince me otherwise. "Come home now," he breathed. For a brief moment I thought: mid-morning booty call? But then common sense kicked in: this was a guy who kept a sack of food in his desk so that he never has to leave his computer.

When I drove up, Marc was standing on the sidewalk. First, he just pointed to the car. "The rat?" I asked, feeling a delicious tingle despite myself. Marc nodded slightly, staring at a distant point just beyond my shoulder. He looked like he had had the wind knocked out of him.

Finally, he managed to get the story out. He had seen the rat as he was getting our two preschoolers into the car. The rat's leg was caught in the trap, but he was otherwise in great shape.

Then Marc had run into the house, grabbed our entire collection of CVS plastic bags, and put them on his hands like giant mittens.

Then, back at the car, he whipped the door open, grabbed the rat, and hurled it onto the sidewalk.

As families strolled by on their way to school and work, Marc grabbed the ice-scraper from our trunk. (Here I like to imagine him breathing heavily, walking in slow motion toward the frantic rat, his CVS bags flapping like wings in the cold winter air as he let out a primal yell.) Then he used the ice-scraper to bludgeon the rat to death on the sidewalk.

Part of me was delighted and satisfied with this outcome. Marc always thinks that I'm exaggerating everything. Now Nice Marc, Good-Cop Marc, had murdered an animal, possibly in front of the fancy neighbors.

Marc and I looked in at the murdered rat, now shrouded in his CVS burial clothes in the passenger seat. Soon, he would be in a dumpster and it would all be over.

"Where are the kids?" I asked. This having just occurred to me. He tells me that he locked them in the house when he got the plastic bags. Two preschoolers in the house? Alone? For an hour? As I ran wildly to the front door, he yelled after me: "They're in the house! What can they do?" I could hear his eyes rolling. Marc will never learn how to panic.

I found the kids playing nicely in the living room, dressed in full snow gear. The 2-year-old had pissed through her snowpants. But that's nothing after you've cleaned up rat shit. It was almost cute.

The rat incident ended happily. Luckily, we have a mechanic who enjoys screwing "The Man" and he managed to get our insurance company to pay for this "freak incident." It took two months to repair the car.

Even though that rat was uninvited, I'd like to thank him. Because of him, I've got nothing more to hide. I don't give a crap if people think I’m a slob or know our family, as some do, only as: "The People Who Had a Rat in Their Car."

But the truly amazing thing is that it's not just me. Ever since word spread about our rat massacre, the Fancy Moms have been telling me some of their own dirty secrets. One is finally starting on medication. Another one has a hemorrhoid that just keeps coming back. It turns out that the really pretty one who always wears white jeans is still traumatized by a bad waxing experience in 2000. "It's a mess down there," she says.

Because I am a filthy space, I am a safe space for them. The rat in his afterlife has become a kind of therapeutic object. A reminder that it's okay to come out of that organized closet every so often.

In his own little profound way, that rat forced us -- all of us -- to come clean.

Michelle Ephraim lives with her husband and three kids in Boston. During the day, she is Associate Professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Her essays have appeared in publications such as The Washington Post, McSweeney's, Lilith, Tikkun, The Morning News, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Along with fellow Shakespeare Professor, Caroline Bicks, she writes a blog: Everyday Shakespeare. Michelle is currently working on a book about Shakespeare and other stuff.