Mouse meets Mugger on the roof of a tall building one day when it’s raining and the wind blows hard. “Whose raincoat is that you’re holding?” Mouse asks.
“Nobody’s. I always bring an extra one, just in case,” says Mugger.
Mouse thinks this is sweet, romantic. She walks to the side of the rooftop where Mugger is standing and asks if she can wear his extra raincoat. Water streams across her face like the little beads that stretch across the windows of moving cars. She is hoping this makes her look pretty.
“No,” Mugger says.
“Why not?” asks Mouse.
“If I gave it to you, I wouldn’t have an extra. I always carry an extra one, just in case.”
Mouse leaves his side and climbs down the fire escape to her apartment. Mugger does not follow her.
A few years later, Mugger meets Mouse through a mutual friend. Mouse has just gone through a tough divorce. Her right arm is in a cast and from her right wrist she trails a wilted daisy.
“What’s with the daisy?” Mugger asks Mouse as he refills his glass of white wine. They are at a party.
“It grew out of my arm,” says Mouse. “I broke my arm playing soccer, and the space between my wrist and thumb filled up with dirt. A med student in the apartment next to mine set the bone for me, but he forgot to clean the dirt out. I went to get the cast changed, and underneath a bud had sprouted up. The new cast was smaller, so the bud got sunlight and it bloomed. But now my arm is healing and the flower is starting to die.”
“I broke my arm playing soccer, and the space between my wrist and thumb filled up with dirt.”
“I could move it to a vase,” says Mugger.
“That’s what my ex-husband said,” says Mouse. She tells Mugger she has to go to the bathroom, and walks off to talk to someone else.
Meanwhile, Mugger and Mouse have each grown closer to their mutual friend. One day, they all go on a picnic together in the same car, Mouse and Mugger and their mutual friend and their mutual friend’s husband. Mugger and Mouse share the back seat. Mouse hears Mugger’s life story for the first time. For the most part, Mouse stays silent.
When they reach the picnic ground, they realize that they’ve forgotten silverware. This will make things difficult because Mouse has made a mushroom stroganoff and the mutual friend has brought pudding for dessert. Mugger offers to drive back into town to buy some silverware, but Mouse has a better idea. Mouse snaps twigs off the low trees that line the picnic ground and whittles them into crude chopsticks.
Mugger tastes traces of bark in the mushroom stroganoff, which reminds him of his childhood when his older brothers would put pieces of peeled pine bark between two slices of bread and force him to eat it. He loses his appetite, but suddenly he can’t take his eyes off Mouse. (After his brothers made him eat pine bark, they made him wear his mother’s underwear on his head.)
The chopsticks don’t work as well for the pudding, so the picnic-goers have to use their fingers. Mugger is in a joking mood, so before long he is chasing after Mouse with a pudding-covered finger, tapioca smeared across his face.
On the drive home, Mouse falls asleep on Mugger’s shoulder. He puts his arm around her and lets her head slip down into his armpit. He steals a sniff of her hair, which smells like L'Oréal and pudding. For a moment he suspects that she is awake enough to know he is smelling her hair, so he breathes through his mouth and tries to think of something else.
When they drop off Mouse at her apartment, Mugger asks her for a date.
On their third date, Mugger takes Mouse to see a folksinger. The folksinger wears a ruffled polyester shirt and sings songs about the bayou. On the ride home Mouse tells Mugger that she’d like to see the bayou. Or any big old swamp with low tree branches fat enough to sit on. She tells him they should go to her place; she has some folk records she can play for him. Mugger says that someday he’ll drive her to Louisiana.
Mugger’s car breaks down on the way to Mouse’s apartment. The engine dies in the traffic outside a big arena where a professional wrestling event has just let out. They have to push the car into the arena parking lot and walk the rest of the way to Mouse’s house. Mugger is apologetic, worried about his car, and overeager to defend Mouse from the professional-wrestling fans who stare too long at her as they pass by. Mouse tries to calm him, but she is tired and longing for a taxi. No taxi comes.
When they finally arrive at Mouse’s house, she plays him the folk record (there is even a song about a wrestler on it) but falls asleep before it is over. Mugger sleeps on her couch. In the morning Mouse finds him there, wakes him up, and brings him to her bedroom. They don’t get to his car until after noon, by which time it’s been towed.
Mouse tells Mugger she needs personal space. They are waiting for a taxi in the rain. She says she doesn’t know who she is anymore; she doesn’t know what she wants apart from Mugger.
“So you do want me,” Mugger says.
“Not right now,” says Mouse.
Finally, a taxi comes. Inside, Mouse sits facing Mugger and there is no way he can put his arm around her. He makes her explain herself.
Mugger gets out at Mouse’s apartment. He isn’t done with this conversation. They talk until Mouse is too tired to talk anymore, and they fall asleep on Mouse’s bed. In the morning, Mugger wakes up first. For a few seconds, he does not remember that he and Mouse are breaking up. Mugger kisses the back of Mouse’s neck. Coming out of sleep, Mouse’s body feels the kiss in two directions. The first direction runs down her spine and into her arms and legs, and it tells her to turn around and embrace Mugger. The second direction, which runs up her spine and into her brain, reminds her that she shouldn’t let herself kiss Mugger anymore. Mouse’s brain receives the signal first; she pretends to be asleep.
Mouse and Mugger stay apart for a while, but they still talk on the phone once or twice a week. During this time, Mugger learns that Mouse has an eating disorder. She likes to leave her cupboard empty, wait for dust to settle, and make a thin, tasteless soup from the dust bunnies that gather there. She will live on nothing but this soup for weeks at a time.
Mugger decides that he should help Mouse, but he knows that he is the last person who can do so. So he enlists the aid of their mutual friend. The mutual friend explains to Mugger that the eating disorder is a relapse of an even more destructive neurosis. When Mouse and the mutual friend played kitchen as little girls, Mouse would brag that she never ate real food, only plastic apples and plastic loaves of bread. Mouse’s mother had to force-feed her before she would agree to eat real food again.
This explains a lot, thinks Mugger, who has been baffled by Mouse’s recent behavior. He invites her out to dinner with the mutual friend and her husband. Mouse tells the waiter that she’s already eaten. The other three order lasagna. Mugger tries to launch an intervention and make Mouse talk about her eating disorder, but, midway through, the mutual friend’s husband becomes pushy and aggressive. Against his wife’s pleas, he holds Mouse’s arms behind her back and shovels lasagna down her throat, clearing her palate with a cheap cabernet. He holds her nose to make sure she swallows.
Mouse cries for a long time, but the next day she reports she is cured. She and Mugger meet up for bagels. They have lunch a few times a week after that, and before long they reassume the trappings of romantic love.
“I’ve learned a valuable lesson about friendship,” Mouse says. “It’s not what you get out, but what you put in that’s important. And besides, people change. A real friend doesn’t stand in the way of that. You should never owe a friend money, and if you lie to a friend you might as well lie to yourself.”
Mouse and Mugger try for a long time to have separate friends, but they fail in this and wind up knowing all the same people. Each secretly lusts after the one friend that the other secretly hates.
Mouse misses Mugger when he moves to Suriname for a year to do his doctoral research in linguistics. Mugger tells Mouse he wants her to come with him, to live with him in a mud-brick house and together eat the pink flesh of dolphins they will catch in the river. But Mouse has her own career to think of. She is a voice coach and hopes to someday sing opera. What would the villagers think of her daily morning vocal exercises? she asks Mugger. They would say she was possessed by something.
They write each other twice a week and speak on the phone twice a month. Mouse is secretly sad to see Mugger so happy and involved in his field research. Mugger thinks of Mouse infrequently, until, four months into his field stay, he dreams vividly of Mouse lying with another man, the husband of their mutual friend. The next day when Mugger calls Mouse, he mentions marriage for the first time.
Mugger’s dream coincides with his contracting a stomach parasite which causes weakness and digestive pain. A Dutch doctor explains to Mugger that he has little creatures living along his intestinal track, stealing morsels of the food he eats. Mugger wonders if he could eat a larger parasite to eat up all the smaller parasites. The doctor refuses to consider the idea, even when antibiotics have no effect.
Mugger’s new weakness makes him want to go to bed every time he eats a meal. He lies there, he and his parasites digesting in unison, and he thinks of Mouse. He imagines the sounds of her vocal exercises (which he remembers more clearly than her face) as if they were echoing off the mud-brick walls of his undecorated house. He wishes he had someone to care for him besides the 16-year-old girl whom the tribal leaders are trying to offer him in marriage.
Mugger goes home early, in sickness and defeat. Mouse meets him at the airport, takes his bag, and drives him to her apartment. She won’t let him leave until he’s snacking on raw carrots again. From that point on, however, Mugger never has milk for breakfast, not even in his cereal. Mugger and Mouse also stop keeping in touch with their mutual friend and her husband.
Mouse’s landlord wants to double the rent on her apartment, and Mugger is tired of living in the same neighborhood as his undergraduate students. They decide to buy a house together in the rolling hills outside of town. Mugger hints that he will buy Mouse a horse, even though he doesn’t have the money. When Mouse was a girl, her father did the same thing.
Mouse takes Mugger to her sister’s wedding, which is held on an aircraft carrier. Mugger is seasick during the ceremony, and everyone wears military-issue ponchos to protect themselves from the misting rain. The bride seems proud though, her eyes reflecting something that may be joy and may be patriotism.
When Mouse’s sister throws the bouquet, it hits Mouse in the face and a rose thorn scrapes her below the eye. A military doctor on board insists on dousing the scrape with hydrogen peroxide and dressing it with gauze. Mouse comes back to the reception to dance and Mugger finds his sea legs. At the end of the night, Mouse and Mugger are the only two left dancing. The band plays “Wabash Cannonball” and he spins her around in the air. He knows this is the best they’ll ever be.
Late at night, Mugger convinces Mouse to jump ship with him. They sneak into the mess hall and fill a plastic garbage bag with pre-made bologna sandwiches. Then they steal two life preservers and slip quietly off the stern. They float for two days, pretending to be ill-fated lovers, squeezing inside a single life preserver to make slow, close, briny love. On the third day a helicopter comes to rescue them. Back on dry land, they are media darlings for a brief time.
Mouse leaves Mugger to follow a voice student of hers who is going to live on an ashram in India. Mouse never exactly has sex with him, but she rubs her genitals against his many times, while kissing him from above and making a sacred private curtain for them with her hair. Every Sunday Mugger watches from the upstairs window of the house they bought together as the hot-air balloons disappear behind the hills. For a while he misses Mouse very much, but he begins to miss her less and less.
Mugger meets a woman from Saipan, a small island in the Pacific Ocean. Mugger thinks she looks Hawaiian, with a tiny bit of Chinese mixed in. She is studying for a bachelor’s degree in communications, though she is much older than the other students in her classes, much older even than Mugger had assumed she was. When Mugger shows her the view of the hot air balloons, she wants to go up in one herself. This is how Mugger gets his first view of his house from above, there without Mouse in that silly wicker basket. The woman is a practicing Buddhist, and Mugger always mentions that an old friend of his is into Eastern religion, but he eventually learns that Saipanese Buddhism and ashram Hinduism probably don’t have enough in common to warrant a full explanation.
The woman from Saipan graduates and moves to inland California to live with her aunt. Mugger sells the house and moves to a condominium near the expressway.
Mouse goes to India, Thailand, and Indonesia. She wants to see a tiger but never does, so she goes to the zoo. When she sees a tiger there, she thinks it looks just like the tigers in American zoos but skinnier and sadder. She also wants to learn to surf, and she accomplishes this. An Australian man teaches her on the coast of Java. She lives with him for a while, and he convinces her that she should get her clitoris pierced. She doesn’t actually do it until she returns to America (because she is nervous about Indonesian body-piercing hygiene) and tells him in a letter. He writes back an e-mail saying he’d love to visit sometime to “check it out,” in the nonchalant tone of someone who never expects to see her again.
One winter, Mugger decides to grow a beard when he is on vacation alone in the Yucatan Peninsula. His facial hair doesn’t grow symmetrically, but he solves this problem by shaving his neck and the areas around his cheekbones.
When he returns to America, Mugger’s beard grows and grows. It covers his soft chin, his slight face, finally even his habitual grimace and clenched neck muscles. Mugger loves his beard and spends time with it every night in front of the mirror, trimming the edges and combing out bits of food.
Finally, winter comes again, and Mugger learns that he will have to work through his vacation. Depressed and pining for the Yucatan, Mugger decides to take some sort of major action in his life. He tries to do a forty-day cleansing fast, but he gives up after two and a half days. He takes a course in boat-owner’s safety but does not actually buy a boat. One night when he can’t sleep, he tortures himself by writing lists of every book he’s ever finished and liked, every city he’s ever slept in, every time he’s ever been approached by a policeman, every professional sports game he’s ever attended, and every beach he’s ever been to (not counting rivers and small lakes). The month is December; morning will not come. Finally, at six o’clock, Mugger goes to the bathroom and shaves off his beard.
The next day he gets a call from Mouse.
Mouse comes back to Mugger for companionship in the months after the war starts. Even though the war is very far away, there are reports of possible dangers to the citizenry every night on TV. It’s enough to make Mouse want to pack up and move to Alaska. Instead, she beds down at Mugger’s condominium for two weeks straight.
At first, Mugger is surprised to see her reacting so strongly to the news of war. Mugger doesn’t watch the news (this is why Mouse likes his house so much.) Until Mouse moved back in, his biggest concern was whether to sublet his bedroom and move his mattress to the large, windowless utility closet in the back of the condo. Since he’s halfway moved already, he lets Mouse have the bedroom and he sleeps in the closet.
Slowly, Mouse begins to change Mugger’s bedroom. She hangs thick curtains over the windows and tapes the curtains to the walls. She brings the lamps and light bulbs from all the other rooms in Mugger’s house into the bedroom. Every time she passes by the light-fixture store (which is on her way to work these days) she buys something. Soon the room is full of standing, hanging, wall and desk lamps, night lights, and spotlights, all burning at different strengths and bouncing off walls and mirrors at different angles. It feels to Mugger like flying with a swarm of fireflies or being inside the Milky Way.
When Mugger presses her, Mouse tells him that she dreamt of the two of them in a room of infinitely variable and constantly changing light. They sat still and didn’t look at each other, and the room acted as a greenhouse, sprouting vines and stalks from their bodies. Mugger was transformed into an old, knotted tree.
Mugger takes Mouse to his closet/room, where he has recently discovered a colony of wide-capped mushrooms growing underneath his mattress. Mouse is embarrassed that something would grow here, in the dark, by accident, while all the seeds she’s secretly planted in the corners of the bedroom haven’t sprouted yet. They sleep together in the perfect blackness of the utility closet, and for the first time in a long while Mouse feels safe in the dark.
Mugger goes to a conference in New Orleans. When he comes back, Mouse doesn’t hug him or kiss him or tell him when she’s going to bed. The next night he asks her if there’s something wrong. She says there isn’t. When he presses her, she says she wishes she had been invited to New Orleans.
On this night there are fireworks, but the war is still on so they make everybody nervous. Mouse shuts the windows and turns on a record. She says, “I don’t like to be left alone.”
“I don’t like being alone,” says Mugger. Mouse looks at him for a long time.
Mouse asks Mugger to marry her. Mugger says he has to think about it even though he doesn’t. Have to think about it.
Mugger and Mouse get married on a cool day in June. The war is over, but there are rumors of another. Mouse’s dress is sleeveless, and she shivers the whole time. The officiator is an actor someone recognizes from a guest spot on a TV show. Before he leaves he passes out his card.
For their honeymoon, Mugger and Mouse go to Greece, where, two days into their travels, a major earthquake occurs. The quake happens at night, fifty miles from where they are staying. Mouse wakes up, but Mugger does not. She walks out on the veranda and listens to the dogs whimpering.
They veer north to avoid the wreckage and the sadness, and they wind up in Macedonia. Mugger decides to grow another beard. He sleeps in one morning and Mouse climbs a mountain alone. When she reaches the top it begins to rain. It’s the sort of rain she can see coming and going in the wide-open sky. She waits under a big pine tree until it’s gone, then she goes back to the hotel and tells Mugger all about it. They live happily ever after.