This is what you named the rat you bought
from the pet store. White fur and red eyes
that narrowed and darted and never met yours.
Because you couldn’t afford a cage,
Valentine lived in a cardboard box
though it took him less than one night
to chew his way out and move into the cupboards.
But the apartment you shared with three other girls,
none of you yet eighteen, was empty of food
and furniture and parents and anyone
who could make a decent decision. You lived on
school lunches and leftover desserts
from the restaurants where you washed dishes. You slept
like four orphans curled together on one mattress.
You read poetry sometimes, for entertainment,
but mostly prowled the night streets, stealing
toilet paper from hotels and tampons from the machines
in gas station bathrooms. Scraped knuckles to prove it. Who knew
how adults made their way in the world?
There was no guidebook. You were often hungry
but you didn’t need much food. When you’re young
you can go without a lot. Sleep, love, letters
from home. You lie awake and listen to the sounds
of the neighbors below, or the trucks on the highway
or the rattle of a pet rat gone feral
in the ductwork. Your father stopped by once
with some things. A winter coat, maybe, and fifty dollars.
So the four of you ate like lottery winners. Grilled cheese
and fries in a diner, the windows steamed over
like it was your own world. And you only wondered a little
how far you could have gotten if you’d kept the money
to yourself. But you didn’t know where to go
or how to get there, so you stayed
close to the rattle of the radiator and the other
night noises. The girls with their profiles sharpened, mean,
a shield against everything. Even the good things.
They brought boys home sometimes, for warmth
or distraction. Played cassette tapes of German punk,
ate shoplifted Grasshopper cookies. Minty and green
as a dream of a birthday party. Spring was close
when you finally caught the rat, trapped him
in a corner of the kitchen. Naked pink tail,
no kindness left in his face. Or maybe you’d imagined it.
That’s what you did. Like how you imagined Valentine
happy, living like a king in the dumpster
behind the apartment building. You should have felt sad
about letting him go, but you were only relieved. The night
had fewer teeth, and sleep circled steadily closer.