July 3rd, 2005: At 7:10 this morning I was enjoying the sleep of the innocent when I felt something tickle my knee. The sensation did not resemble the occasional trickle of sweat I ignore these sultry nights without air conditioning; it was definitely heavier, and was moving up rather than down my leg or over the side—it seemed to have a deliberate path and not the random meandering of a bead of liquid. An inner alarm roused me. In the dim, it appeared to my bleary eyes that my cell phone had sprouted legs and embarked on an early morning hike, but I quickly realized that my new bedfellow was in fact the largest cockroach I have ever seen. I shrieked and knocked it off my leg and kicked my sheet to the floor. Suddenly awake and full of horror, I hoped against hope that the last thirty seconds had been a hideously vivid nightmare, so I gingerly picked the sheet up off the floor to prove to myself that the beast was real. I found nothing under the blanket, and, thus relieved, might have believed the truth to be a dream and returned to rest, assured in my delusion that life was still beautiful; however, the brown mass clumsily scaling the side of my mattress robbed me forever of such peace of mind.
In the nine months I’ve lived in my tony upper west side apartment, I have never seen an insect in the building; I had almost begun to believe that domestic vermin were a thing of the past, like chamber pots and dial-up internet. My roach-infested childhood seemed centuries ago. To be woken by the mother of them all goose-stepping up my thigh was rude indeed, a cruel joke by fate on the most neurotic of victims.
I scrambled out of bed and out of the room. I had a friend staying in the living room and so could not seek comfort in the untainted fold-out there. The bathtub was too short and the kitchen table too cluttered. In the tiny one-bedroom apartment, there was nowhere for me to hide. I had to return to my room and face the beast. I pushed the door open and flicked the light on and waited. While positioned outside the room and peering in as the door slowly swung shut, I heard a ruffle and saw what I could have sworn was, were I not prepped to expect the worst, a butterfly, fluttering across the room to where my pants hang on hooks. The door closed, leaving me in a panicked dialogue with myself, “Wait,…. no, wait,..--I didn’t just see… what I think I saw,--did I??” The uncertainty was too terrible and I forced myself to kick the door open once more, and as I did, again the flapping of wings, only now the brown butterfly wheeled around and brushed against my forehead before it careened off towards my wall closet, landed, smoothed its wings, and bore back on its haunches, primed for battle.
Needless to say I “lost my shit.” A din of retching and lamentations replaced the early morning quiet of my abode, as well as senseless pleas to my bewildered guest to “shoot it”—we rushed out in our pajamas to Gristedes for roach spray but when we returned we found that we didn’t know where to aim it. The roach was gone. Or, I should say, it was still there, probably hiding inside the closet, nestling in my delicates, dropping a supersized birthsack in every bra-cup. Now my guest had to go to work and I was left alone with the monster. So I called the super. He served mainly to remind me of the hopeless futility of man, chuckling at my tears when I informed him of my unwanted visitor, and scratching his head and blinking when he opened my closet and found no mutant insect waiting in plain sight for a good clobbering. After a few timid sprays of Raid in the corners, and having picked up two jacket sleeves, only to find not a single mutant under either of them, he shrugged his shoulders, handed me the spray can, and shuffled away. I was left with a mounting horror at the realization that there was nothing anyone could do about this outrage. Momentarily I considered moving back to San Francisco (leaving all of my stuff behind to prevent stow-aways), but I realized that even for me that was unrealistic. I had to either find the roach and kill it or just wait for it to eat through all my skivvies, hoping it would eventually choke on some bit of synthetic lace and die. I decided to attempt an assassination, rather than risk its returning to my lap the next steamy night. I picked out a hiking boot, but then remembered a bit of wisdom I had gained as a child battling the legions: Sneakers and hiking boots are no good for roach-stomping, as their soles are ridged, and when one strikes at the insect with them, it often happens that part of the insect, or even its entire organism, falls in between the ridges and remains unhurt. The roach panics and flees under the nearest piece of immoveable furniture, usually a refrigerator or oak dresser, and, of course, you also panic, and start slamming the boot against the floor or glass tabletop or wherever you found the roach, and inevitably, wreckage ensues. Sometimes you catch part of the insect under the boot, such as a leg or wing, and have to keep from dry-heaving when you see the rest of it, flayed and dismembered, stagger off to die in a potted plant. No, one needs a flat-soled shoe, perhaps a man’s dress shoe or the standard flip-flop for the job. I chose one of my hostess’s mules and approached my poor room again, which now stank with the unpleasantly sweet odor of roach poison, like someone really sweaty stuck a sugar cube between his buttcheeks and farted through it. Suddenly a disgusting thought gave me pause—the roach was some five times as large as the average house roach. To murder it would leave behind carnage too vast and gory to simply mop up afterwards (if I owned a mop), and would surely ruin any garment against which I might kill it. I had to find another way.
July 6, 2005: I have been sleeping in the living room for the past three nights. I only visit my old room to select necessary garments (usually the ones nearest the top of my drawers) and shake them out before dressing. When I come home at night I undress in the living room, crack my bedroom door, throw the worn garments in the general direction of my laundry basket, and slam the door shut again. I dread running out of clean clothes to wear, as that will necessitate spending several minutes in the bedroom sorting through the dirty laundry. This terrifies me because I don’t eat in my room, and so there’s nothing much to keep vermin occupied with but in feasting on the residual body matter infused in worn socks, blouses, underwear. If the roach is anywhere, it’s drunkenly stumbling through the pile of my soiled clothes, addicting itself to my phermones, developing an ever-keener nose for my scent. Surely the moment I step into the room I’ll look down and find that cockroach humping my big toe.
July 8th: Yesterday, in a moment of incomprehensible forgetfulness, I breezed right into my bedroom with nary a thought as to the danger that lay in wait for me there. In my obliviousness, I turned to my wall mirror and picked my mascara out of the tin cup on the shelf beneath it. Just as I was lifting the wand to my lashes, I caught sight of something else in the mirror, to the bottom right of my face. I spun around. There, in full view, smugly eyeing me from atop my nightstand, was the cockroach. It made no attempt to scurry away, hide, or even take flight; it just sat there like a sphinx, unmoving except for its antennae, inches long and all a-twirl. I half expected to see a lonely tumbleweed drift past us and hear plaintive whistling in the distance. I reached down with my left hand, picked the plastic bag from Gristedes up off the floor, and slowly walked to the shelf. With wrath swift and god-like I swung the bag forward over the stand while with my mascara wand I knocked the beast into it, immediately tying the handles together in triple knots. Crunch, crunch,…..crunchcrunchcrunch it went, imprisoned and frustrated. This Gristedes bag was the kind made of unusually thick, crinkly plastic, so every step the leviathan took crackled like hellfire, which I interpret as heavily symbolic. I was about to take the bag outside and throw it into a waste bin when I realized that, as I was now safe, my molester all imprisoned, I could just leave it where it was and let it think on what it had done for a while. I turned the nightstand lamp on next to it, so it might contemplate its sins in the harsh glare of righteousness. I slept that night in the living room.
July 10th, 2005: Crunch, crunch, crunch….The prisoner, whom I now call Gregor, shows no signs of wilting. Three days with no food or water has had little discernable effect on his vitality. I examine his bag every few hours and watch the almost beautiful play of light and shadow he makes as he crawls this way and that, his body silhouetted against the wrinkled plastic walls, now sharper as he bears down close to the wall, now blurrier as he ruffles his wings and stretches his insect legs. The scene is Chekhovian in its sadness: the seagull has wandered far from his home and rightful place and thus must die, unnaturally, and in a strange land. Crunch, crunch, crunch…I wonder how it all will end. I remember my mother telling me as a child that a cockroach can live for three months on a crumb of food too small for the human eye to see. Perhaps Gregor will enjoy such longevity, crunching away on my nightstand as summer ripens and fades into fall and the leaves start to change, as people marry and divorce, grandparents die and babies are born. He will wander till he expires in his crinkly white limbo, with only the memory of the bustling outer world, its sewers and basements, dropped icecream cones and spilt soda, sleeping females and closets filled with silks, to sustain him in his final hours. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, my Gregor.
Note to self: Must buy new mascara.