On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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In June of 1992 my roommate moved out of our Brooklyn apartment. Her teaching year was over, and she was done with New York. Our place was cheap, and I thought I could manage the rent by myself.
As soon as she’d left, the waterbugs moved in.
If you’re not familiar with waterbugs, if you’ve confused them with some kind of delicate creature that skips along the surface of a lake, you are adorable. Waterbugs are enormous cockroaches. Specifically they are two to four inches long: meaty, definitive proof that there is no God. I’ve tried to gather more information on them, but to do that, I have to look at close-up waterbug photos, and then I learn that they can climb across ceilings, and then I have to run around in circles for a spell, flapping my arms to dispel the thought of one of those monsters thwapping down from on high and tumbling down the back of my shirt.
The waterbugs began to visit the apartment in the summer, because that is when waterbugs typically emerge from hibernation, or whatever it is they do when it’s cold. There was nothing sinister about their arriving at the moment I found myself all alone. It only felt that way.
The first day I came home from work as a solitary apartment dweller, something skittered into a crevice along the living-room baseboard. A few nights later I heard a noise in the kitchen. I hoped it was ghosts. Every time I turned on a light in any room, a shadow flitted in my peripheral vision, tucking itself into a corner. I knew it probably wasn’t ghosts, but I wanted it to be so badly.
Then one morning I met two of them hanging out in my living room. One was parked on top of the television while the other investigated the floor underneath the coffee table. The waterbugs didn’t seem to register my presence. As I backed away, they waved their antennae at each other.
I fled downstairs, where my landlady, Mary, and her husband lived. They were an old Italian couple who’d rented the apartment to me because my aunt was their neighbor, and I’d looked like a good girl who wouldn’t have boys over at all hours. I had disappointed them in this respect, and they now kept their distance.
Mary (she’d wanted me to call her Aunt Mary before I became a disappointment) was unmoved when I told her about the monsters who had invaded the apartment. “This is their time of year,” she said. “They come from the canal.”
She meant the Gowanus Canal. We lived a couple of blocks from one of the most polluted waterways in the world. Filled with raw sewage and toxic chemicals, the Gowanus seemed an unlikely source of anything living, but Mary had been in the neighborhood for decades, so who was I to argue?
“They get in from the outside,” she said. They came up through the drains, any openings anywhere. There was nothing she could do. “We can’t exterminate the outdoors.”
I understood her inability to debug the outside world, but couldn’t she fix my screens? Keep the waterbugs out of the drains somehow? Fix the linoleum that had peeled up along the walls of each room, where every night these new roommates of mine would slip underneath, such that I thought about them scurrying an inch below me, reproducing in the damp subfloor?
“I don’t think so,” Mary said, squinting. “That’s expensive.”
So that was that. I would live with the waterbugs. They were too big for me to think about killing. Stepping on a bug of that size would be like crushing a baby mouse, only gooier. I’d tried to spray one with roach spray, but it had come at me as if I’d angered it. Peaceful coexistence was the only way.
As the days and weeks dragged on, I saw that this was a mistake. Sensing weakness, the bugs began to take advantage. Come by Alice’s place, I imagined them telling their friends as they emerged from the Gowanus, shaking off toxic sludge. There’s a ton of cereal lying around.
My ex-roommate had left a baseball bat in the apartment, and I placed it by my front door: when I arrived home at night, I turned on the overhead light, shut my eyes against what I might see, and thumped the floor with the bat, hoping the bugs would think it was a giant coming and vamoose. If I was lucky, when I opened my eyes, they’d be gone, or at least reluctantly retreating to their hidey-holes. Soon enough, though, they learned that the thumping was harmless and ignored it. Three, four, five waterbugs would continue hanging out near the front door, sometimes even moving slowly in my direction. She makes a lot of noise, they told each other, but she’s more scared of you than you are of her.
My place was what’s called a “railroad apartment,” which meant that each room led into the next with no hallway in between. The kitchen was on one end; the bedroom, on the other. I rationalized that if I gave the kitchen to the bugs at night, then they’d have no reason to make the trek into the other rooms. I turned off the lights in there, believing it would make them more comfortable. I never bothered to find out that, in fact, waterbugs like light. I had invited them to join me.
Having never seen a waterbug before moving to Brooklyn, I was now learning about them through observation. For example, I learned that when they ate a cereal nugget off the floor, it looked as if they were humping it. I also learned that they can fly: When one of the kitchen crew ambled out of the inky void and into my brilliantly lit living room, I chucked my book at it, and it rose into the air, flapping around as if to show that it could. My horror was compounded by the thought that this waterbug had somehow evolved new capabilities. It flew into the lamp, and I ran into my bedroom and stayed there until the next day.
I’ve since read that, in addition to flying and eating whatever you have handy, waterbugs will bite when threatened. Specifically they will “inject digestive juice into the body, and then extract liquefied tissue.” I repeat: There is no God.
Whenever my boyfriend, Mark, came over, he’d kill the waterbugs for me while I hid. He’d stomp them with his sneaker as casually as you might stamp out a cigarette, then wipe up the gore with a paper towel.
Mark was older than I was and had grown up in the city. He couldn’t believe I was so helpless at the sight of a bug. To him this was one more example of how I wasn’t any good at city life. The subway was another. He told me I didn’t enter the subway cars right: “You sit down and immediately take out your book. You’re too meek.” I should have first looked around and established eye contact with the other people in the car. Otherwise I became a target.
But anytime I made eye contact, it seemed to be with a masturbator. New York City was teeming with masturbators. They were always whipping it out under their newspapers, or over their newspapers. All they needed was a microsecond of acknowledgment that they existed.
This was because I didn’t appear confident, Mark said. With my ineptitude, I was practically forcing these men to masturbate at me.
Mark also wasn’t impressed with how I looked. I should have grabbed my bag and made a run for it when he said, during our first date, “It’s interesting: in some lights you look pretty, but then you’re just this plain Irish chick.” I definitely should have lost his phone number after he evaluated my performance at a party we had attended together: “You need to learn to mingle,” he told me. “You followed me from one group to another six times.”
He had counted.
The year before, in my senior year of college, I’d broken up with another boy whose name was also Mark. I realize this makes matters confusing. I wish for all our sakes that he’d had a different name, but he didn’t.
I’d broken up with Mark Number One for many reasons, but primarily because he had gone from strange but fun to strange but scary: going through my belongings when I wasn’t around, pushing me or pinning me down to show how much he loved me.
I initially felt good about breaking up with him: I was standing up for myself.
Mark didn’t see it that way. He refused to agree to the breakup because we were meant for each other, he said. He then let me know he was going to kill me — or perhaps kill himself in front of me. Maybe both? It wasn’t exactly clear. He was a real mumbler.
We went to different colleges, but it was simple for him to grab a bus to my campus. The campus police of both universities were involved by then, but they couldn’t seem to do much. Mark would leave me notes or terrible short stories he’d written about a guy just like him committing suicide in front of the love of his life. I changed dorm rooms to make it harder for him to find and kill me — or kill himself in front of me. His therapist would call me for information, and also to let me know how disturbed he was.
The drama went on for the entire year. Mainly I remember feeling guilty. I’d decided it was all my fault. Sure, Mark was disturbed, but I had been cruel and insensitive. In a way, I’d made him stalk me. As a result of my actions, everyone — my friends and family, his friends and family — was scared and worried. All because of me.
I needed so much therapy.
After graduating from college, I floated along in a post-traumatic haze, fully believing that I deserved whatever came to me. Oversized, possibly homicidal bugs? Sure. Emotionally abusive boyfriend? Why not.
This is how I found myself, at twenty-three, allowing the bugs to annex my apartment while permitting Mark Number Two, a guy I thought was “mature” because he was twenty-seven, to critique every aspect of my person. And I honestly couldn’t figure out why I was so unhappy. I probably thought it was another personal failing of mine.
Finally Mark forced me to break up with him by making it as clear as possible that he was an irredeemable asshole:
One night after work I went to his apartment to meet him for dinner, and he wasn’t there. I waited and waited. This was before cellphones. I had no way of knowing where he was. He didn’t have a television, so I was alone with my thoughts, and my thoughts told me that he either had dumped me or was dead. Part of me was sure this was another test, and that I would be found wanting.
A little after 2 AM Mark stumbled in drunk. I was still awake, having waited up for him. I was probably wringing my hands.
“Lighten up,” he said. “I was just at a strip club.”
Mark liked strip clubs. I had known this from the beginning and had decided that I was cool with it, because he’d told me that cool chicks are cool with strip clubs. But staying at a strip club until 2 AM when we were supposed to have dinner together? Wasn’t that unreasonable? It seemed unreasonable.
I don’t remember how I reacted, with tears or yelling or a combination of the two, but I remember his response: he laughed and said, “It’s hard to take you seriously when a half-hour ago I had a woman shaking her tits in my face.”
Twenty-odd years later, I still puzzle over this statement. Was it a defense? Did another woman’s tits render me incomprehensible? Had her tit-shaking knocked the respect for all women right out of his brain? Was I now a ridiculous figure to be mocked, with my tits nowhere near his head at that moment? Or was he experiencing too much runoff glee from a night of wild tit abandon?
Whatever he meant, it was a cruel thing to say. But mostly it was stupid — so gloriously stupid. How had I ever thought his opinion was worth anything?
I would like to tell you that I set fire to his apartment and strode away triumphantly as it burned. I would like to tell you that I at least left. But I was tired. And there were bugs at my place. And Mark had passed out before I could even respond.
I would also like to say that I broke up with him the next morning, once I was rested, but it took a few days. By the time we got around to having that conversation, though, I had emotionally vacated the relationship. As he spoke, I reminded myself of what he’d said to me at 2 AM: Woman shaking her tits, I thought, while he agreed that it was for the best and wondered if I would be OK.
A month or so later, the day I was to move out of my Gowanus apartment, I came home to find a waterbug belly up in the middle of my bed. It was as if it had made the long, slow trek from the other end of the apartment, clambered onto my mattress, and died just to make a point.
I picked up the sheet with the bug still on it, knotted it around the corpse, and tossed the whole bundle into the garbage. Mark would have thought this a childish way to get rid of a dead waterbug, but I was pretty proud of myself, considering. It felt like progress.