By JULIE METZ
Somehow, we have to get Eden, my daughter’s pet rat, from Brooklyn to Portland, Ore., where Olivia will start college next month. Like E. B. White’s Stuart Little, Eden has become part of our family, a kind of miniature sibling to my only child, who is about to leave home. Eden is one of a klatch of pet rats we know (picture three young women and their animals at our kitchen table, eating tacos, our two cats asleep in a corner). According to Robert Sullivan’s book “Rats,” “fancy” descendants of the homely gray Rattus norvegicus had an earlier moment as women’s companions during the Victorian era. Is Eden part of a revival zeitgeist thing, a moment soon to be documented by pop culture media?
All I know is that our plane tickets are already booked, and it never occurred to me that Olivia couldn’t carry Eden in a cat carrier on a plane. The word from the woman at airline customer service is an emphatic no. Rabbits, yes. Guinea pigs, sure. Hamsters, fine. Rats? No. Rats are lumped in with “exotic, potentially dangerous” pets, like snakes and spiders.
“Would it help if we got a letter from a vet?” I plead.
“No,” the woman says. “No rats.”
“But — ” I try again.
“No,” the woman repeats, with a sigh of exasperation. “No exceptions.”
Our choices are to cancel Olivia’s plane ticket and send her out to Portland by train, which would take up the last days she hoped to spend with friends before they all disperse to different colleges, or to find someone driving out West who would take a rodent passenger. I call an insanely pricey door-to-door pet transport service. I post an ad on Craigslist, offering to pay gas money in return for Eden’s safe transport.
“I have to meet them first,” Olivia insists.
When Olivia presented the idea of a pet rat last September, I was overcome with revulsion. The only rats I knew were the darkling monsters skittering along the subway tracks. It was my opinion that in spite of the charming film “Ratatouille” (those gray rats were comfortingly animated and lived in a gorgeously rendered Paris), their bad rap as carriers of disease since the time of the medieval plagues was well deserved. My partner, Clark, loved to tell a story about killing just such a rat years ago, as it scampered through his Brooklyn kitchen in the middle of the night. To dispatch the creature, he and his roommate had to whack it repeatedly with a broom, an epic battle worthy of a horror movie.
“No, Mom,” Olivia said, frustrated by my resistance. “It wouldn’t be like that! This would be a lab rat. You’ll see. They’re so sweet. And really smart.”
After several months of Olivia’s patient lobbying, and our having emerged from her college application process with faculties intact, I relented. Olivia brought home her new rat the very next day. She was small and white, with a pink, hairless tail and ruby eyes, a rescue from the snake food cage at PetSmart. At first I could observe Eden only from a safe distance across the table as Olivia fed her tidbits from her own plate. The sight of Eden’s ropy tail curled around Olivia’s neck or wrist made me go all tingly, but after a time I had to admit that watching her hold a noodle in her oddly human paws, gobble it up and wash her face afterward was pretty adorable.
Eden’s true role became apparent quickly. High school had not been the happiest place. Let’s just say that Olivia, no extrovert, didn’t fit into the Girlworld cliques that thrived well into senior year. Eden’s unconditional love proved to be a soothing balm at home after a long day (there was just one infamous day when Olivia sneaked Eden into school, with consequences). Olivia seemed to relish having a companion who was a misunderstood outsider, like herself, and our acceptance of Eden raised our parental coolness factor by some measurable ticks.
“Eden is my wingman,” Olivia said to us one evening as she headed out to a weekend party. And so she was, perched on Olivia’s shoulder or tucked in a sleeve, like a secret talisman. Perhaps Victorian women carried their rat companions in their voluminous blouses or under their hats to fend off their worries, as they struggled for breath in constraining corsets and bustles.
Even though she chewed holes in a few bath towels, and littered the table with nibbled bits of the morning’s scrambled egg, I couldn’t deny the beautiful way Eden softened the hard edges of school social craziness and academic pressure. When I was a teenager I smoked cigarettes, got stoned and drank more than I could tolerate to alleviate my own social anxiety. My daughter now had a rat to calm hers. I only wish Eden had come into our family a few years earlier.
Olivia remarked recently, “When I care for Eden, it’s like taking care of myself.” Enough said on the value of a portable pet whose simple but essential needs keep Olivia mindful of her own best interests.
Eden has also proved to be a world-class icebreaker. When Olivia and I have traveled on the subway together — Eden peeking out of a sweater sleeve — I’ve marveled as fellow passengers first notice her wriggling ears and twitching whiskers in their peripheral vision and then cross the aisle for a closer look, their curiosity penetrating Olivia’s natural reserve. Eden is also curious, sniffing visitors, but never strays from Olivia’s arm, the most loyal animal friend. Eden has changed Olivia. That’s a big accomplishment for a small animal whose destiny was marked out as a meal for a pet python.
As the last weeks of summer wind down, I must prioritize the tasks that threaten to overwhelm me while I grapple with imminent separation. Books, clothes, artwork and rain boots to ship out to school, last-minute college forms to fill out, tuition to pay. Getting Eden to Portland is important. My daughter will want her wingman with her as she begins her next chapter and I want to make that happen. Somehow.
At last, we find out that at least one airline will ship pets as “cargo.” Antonio, the soft-spoken customer service agent at United Airlines, arranges Eden’s transport, reassuring me that all will go well. He insists on calling her a “mouse,” but I don’t mind. I know that “rat” is not a beautiful word for most people. But as he coordinates Eden’s flights — she must change planes in Chicago — with our own arrival in Portland, I can tell he gets it.
“Animals, they are such good comfort,” he says, pausing a moment, before giving me final instructions on how we can safely prepare Eden for her cross-country journey.
How I will miss my Olivia. We had some rough years during her adolescence, but we are solid again. It feels right for us to separate now, when we can be held together by our love. I never thought I would feel this way, but I know that I will miss Eden, too.