My room has cockroaches. In the month I’ve lived in my East Village Apartment, I’ve not seen a single roach in the kitchen, bathroom, or even in any of the corridors of my marginally-gentrified Jimmy Carter-renovated apartment building, where some of my neighbors confoundingly leave their trash bags for days before hauling them down to the street. Just in my immaculate, well-ventilated, never-been eaten-in, barely-breathed-in bedroom. The first one sent me into the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a panic attack when it scurried out of my make-up purse as I reached in to grab some lip gloss. I guess I should be embarrassed to admit that I burst into tears and called my mother in San Francisco and scooped up the purse into a garbage bag and threw it into the freezer, where it has remained ever since. The next day I bought Raid spray, roach bait motels, combat gel, and boric acid, and when I came home that night doused the roach I found exploring my bookshelf. Now I’ll never finish Anna Karenina. I then had to throw away an entire box of feminine hygiene products after I found a roach sniffing at it like a bloodhound. That night I was woken up by a roach crawling up my arm (I’m pathologically ticklish, more on that later), as it was heading for my ear to lay eggs in my brain. I scrambled out of bed and attempted sleep on the couch in the kitchenette area, bothered by the injustice of being safer from vermin in the kitchen than in my own room. The next day I powdered down the floor around my bed with baking soda. I would have used the boric acid but that might have killed me overnight and left my body to be eaten by roaches. This created a pleasingly sacramental-looking area of insect-repelling purity. When in bed I can rest peacefully with the knowledge that I have a radius of several feet, the boundary of which deflects the doubtless legions of roaches seeking body parts to lay eggs in. However, although I have not been bothered by any more roaches in my sleep (and I have also been taking sleeping pills to dull my now heightened-to-freakish-proportions sensitivity to the touch of foreign living creatures, so actually, who knows how many regiments of insects have marched across my drugged sleeping body?), I continue to encounter them on my shelves, along my wall, patrolling the edge of my underwear drawer, and even, and this was especially discouraging, brazenly straddling the spout of my Raid can. These are no creatures without agenda; they are clearly campaigning to leave me faceless, pantiless, exhausted and illiterate. Lord knows I’d rather set fire to the building than go back into the apartment and endure that Hitchcock moment right before I turn on the light in my room and scan it for brown scurrying objects.
And yet, with whom can I speak openly on this subject? New Yorkers laugh at people who object to the pervasive roach presence and seek to avoid them. I told one native I met that I found a roach in my bed and he said, “Just one? Where you live, Park Avenue?” Also, it is assumed that my horror of cockroaches is owed to a lifetime of sheltered, roach-free, immaculately-hygienic living. Whereas, this is NOT the case. My childhood years were spent in a cramped apartment in San Francisco’s western addition (pre-gentrification Hayes Valley), where I was haunted by those brown scurriers, with their foot-long antennae and evil forward-bending knees. Have you ever seen a pregnant cockroach? Have you ever seen one give birth? A cockroach carries its future brood of thousands in what looks like a turd half stuck in its ass. The turd, no turd, almost drags to the floor when the gestation period nears its end; indeed, when the roach gives birth it must wiggle its backside ridiculously and take several graceless steps forward, depositing the sack to break open later. A hideous sight. I witnessed this abomination (that’s right, abomination!!) of nature several times in my tender years and developed an ever-keener paranoia of the insects. I avoided door jambs after a roach fell onto my head from one. What would I have done in an earthquake? I never turned the light on in a room without immediately recoiling so that even though I could see eight or ten of them flit back into the shadows I wouldn’t risk having one fall on me in its retreat. Roaches make a surprisingly loud thud when they fall to the ground from a height. It adds an awful tangibility to their personae when their simple visibility is offensive enough. When I found one in the sink I let scalding water run for twenty minutes, ignoring the pleas of local environmental groups to conserve water in the then-drought-blighted state of California. When I felt safe in having both boiled and drowned the beast, I proceeded to brush my teeth when the roach subsequently crawled back up the drain. Sometimes I’d fill a water-gun with bleach (not recommended) and pause outside the bathroom door, a la Mission: Impossible, and then burst in and flick the lights on, hoping no roaches were perched on the lightswitch, then blast the inevitable two or three caught giving birth or eating toothpaste. The roaches would fall to the sink or the shelf with a thud, shake themselves off like puppies after a bath, laugh at me, and frolic off to their corners, dancing a path across my toothbrush bristles or my sister’s tampons and leaving a birth-sack in the soap dish. I became paranoiacally afraid of being touched, walked on, bitten, or used as a birth-place. Sometimes my horror flared up so intensely that I’d shake out a blanket over the fire escape and wrap myself up so tightly that only my head from the nose up peeked out from the blanket; I basically tried to seal-wrap myself. Of course, every faintest tickle, every piece of lint brushing my knee, every gust of air at my neck was a cockroach breaching my fortress and I swatted at myself like some epileptic Russian novelist and pulled the blanket tighter and buried my head further into my shoulders and pulled my knees up closer to my chest. Sometimes I’d sit there for hours, shrinking, twitching, swatting, and mystifying my parents, who I figured wouldn’t feel enough of an itch to scratch themselves if the skies opened up and started pummeling them with giant tropical pregnant flying snap-jaw waterbugs. I remember my father once, having fallen asleep with his glasses on and woken up with a big brown cockroach covering one of the lenses, saying he thought momentarily that he’d gone half-blind in the night. I thought he was insane not to stab both eyes out.
So the terrible thing is that I feel myself reverting to that tortured, twitching child who was never at peace in her own home and could not be touched without flinching a little. I came to New York to start a new life and I find myself in very visceral ways resuming my old hysteria. And who can live in New York who cannot stand vermin? There’s a line in Sybille Pearson’s play “Sally and Marsha” that goes, “Everyone in New York has roaches, even Greta Garbo,” and I try to console myself with this. But then I see a pair of those long, flailing antennae, peering over the top of my multivitamin jar, and know, just know, that this is insufferable. Greta Garbo did not suffer the roaches and neither will I. The boric acid is waiting, fellas.
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