At first they really freaked me out.
I heard a friend talk about having a mouse living in her apartment she just couldn’t seem to get rid of. I’d be lying in bed trying to fall asleep and think about that every little noise I heard in my freaky old house. I thoguht about what it might do, diseases it might carry, but more than that, I thought about how it might feel if I woke up in the middle of the night to something wriggling under the covers—something not a part of me. Not human.
Then one day, I started hearing something specific.
It took me a while to figure out even where it was coming from, but when I finally heard enough of it to track, it was behind the bookcase. This kind of rustling, creaking noise that my brain kept translating as a squeak.
But I never did see a rodent in that place.
When I finally got enough of the big books off the bottom shelf, it damn near leaped out at me: a cockroach.
No. Not a cockroach, as I later found out—not technically, at least. It was enormous—almost the size of my thumb, I figured—but it wasn’t a cockroach. Cockroaches don’t fly. This was something called a waterbug.
I bludgeoned it to death with my shoe.
There were other things I caught in that little duplex I lived in. A couple of times, I came home to find a lizard flippity-flopping all through the cardboard boxes my frozen pizzas and Mountain Dew came in. I couldn’t bear to kill it—possibly because it was a vertebrate and I didn’t want blood everywhere or the tiny crack of bones—which makes me wonder what I would have done if I’d found a mouse.
One time, it was a snail. If you’ve never been disgusted in your life, try imagining a snail on the floor of your kitchen sucking a broken piece of uncooked spaghetti into its slimier recesses. I loaded that one onto a piece of cardboard Dr. Pepper twelve-pack container and brought it out into the slowly but steadily overgrowing backyard.
But the roaches.
I eventually came to know three kinds of insects. The full-grown waterbugs, the smaller spindly brown things—never did care to look up whether they were just some previous larval stage of the big ones—and then of course the itty-bitties. They each seemed to have their preferred habitats. The spindly ones shared the kitchen with the spiders that I never actually saw but for their webs. The spiders got the wide-open West end of the room while the spindlies conquered the counters. The itty-bitties seemed to prefer the bathroom. When I finally realized after two years that, yes, there was a medicine cabinet behind the mirror, I found droves of them there.
The waterbugs liked the bedrooms.
One night, for reasons I don’t care the remember, I slept on the spare mattress in the front bedroom that I had not yet converted into an office. I think I was reading, lying down, when I turned and saw one close enough to my face it might have been making a pass at me. By then I had roach-killer spray on-hand, but it took me a minute to get it, during which time the waterbug hid back in the corner, obliging me to toss the mattress across the room. I think that was the fourth one I killed.
The second and third had come as a pair. I’d been hearing that odd chirping sound again from the bathroom and thought I knew what it was this time. After washing my hands, I got the biggest book I could find that would still be easily wielded—somethign Mulisch, either The Discovery of Heaven or his nonfiction De compositie van de wereld—and chased it from my room out into the hall. Just dropping the book on it turned out not to be enough, so when the book moved, I stepped on it until I heard the crackign sound that had started to become familiar.
I breathed a sigh of relief then, but almost instantly another one came flying out of nowhere at me, an insect—an abnormally large one, but an insect nonetheless—trying to avenge its brother on the giant that had slain him.
That was the first one I got with my bare hands. I had to wash them again after that.
They were the vanguard. I think that even then, I knew it. Or thought I did. I used the knowledgeof their encroaching strategem as an excuse for leaving their bodies as they lay in the hallway. For many months. As a warning, I told myself.
Not that waterbugs were disturbing by their dead.
I sprayed every crevice with products that promised to make coated surfaces uninhabitable to pests. I stuffed powder into crannied nooks that promised to kill them slowly enough they’d track it back to their hovels and root out the whole nest. Then I heard about bombs. Cans of poison mist that would feel its way into cracks you’d never think of. But I lived in a duplex. “It’ll only chase them over to his side,” they told me, “and then they’d come back. Plus, it would poison the whole house for a weekend. You’d have to coordinate with him and both do it at the same time.” I suck at coordinating. I suck at talking to people.
I knew why they came to me. It wasn’t just my winning personality—well, no, actually, it was my personality. I’m lazy. I leave food out, forget to do the dishes in a timely fashion. I don’t like cleaning the toilet—I don’t even like wasting water by flushing when there’s no solid waste; and I never even bought a vacuum cleaner. They kept coming. More and more of them breeding in the walls, generations living and dying on my scraps and ineffectual traps. There were so many times when I thought to myself “this is it, I’ve had enough!” I never saw one inside the oven, but one time I saw a black speck on my pizza when I pulled it out—was that a spindly? An itty-bitty blistered in the heat? I never knew. I shouldn’t have taken the chance, but it was my last pizza that day, so I cut off the suspicious black spot and ate the rest. That should have been my call to arms.
I have a habit of opening cans of soda and not finishing them. One time, though, I raised a can of Coke Zero to my lips and something solid brushed my lips, something crunchy with appendages that could only be called spindly. I spat it out, poured the rest of that can down the drain. But did I change my habits? No.
I never had friends over. How could I? They were all over the living room and I had pretended for so long not to know how to get rid of them. I’d feel them brushing up my leg and at first, I would twitch and spasm, first flinging them off me and into the wall full-force, then pushing into whatever surface was nearest to kill them, but finally, I stared to change my thinking. I noted that I was still healthy in spite of them. I remembered that none of them had ever actually bitten me or hurt me in any noticeable physical way. So I let one of the waterbugs crawl up my sleeve. I tensed and trembled, fearful as he crested the cuff, but when she put her dainty feet on my wrist, I found myself releasing tension. “I’m sorry,” I whispered to this insect queen as she fluttered her wings. “I am sorry for killing your kind.”
I couldn’t tell if she cared one way or the other, but she seemed to nestle into my arm-hair and I blew a soft breeze over her head. I knew I should be disgusted, repulsed, but my laziness had left me weary of this endless war on nature. It was either do the dishes on time or live with the pests, and I had made my choice.