It was late at night and I walked into the kitchen to search the cabinet for some item I shouldn’t be eating, usually some kind of chocolate or pastry, and there it was: the silhouette of something scurrying across the countertop next to the sink. Okay, don’t panic. Maybe it’s not what you think it is. Maybe it’s just a lost little moth searching for the nearest lightbulb.
I knew in my heart, though, that I was wrong. And as I propelled my feet to take the steps over to the light switch on the kitchen wall and flip it up, that’s when I had official confirmation that my evening was about to take a horrifying turn. A roach. A word I can barely form my mouth to say…that’s how repulsive these brown antenna-headed speed-racers are. With my finger still on the light switch, it had already run behind a clear vase holding bamboo in water, a yellow etched, tinted wineglass passed down to me from my grandmother, and lastly, the Roasted Garlic Express: a giant plastic garlic that roasts the scented bulbs to perfection…according to my husband.
Not having taken a good, healthy breath in about ninety seconds, in one swift movement I exhaled deeply and stepped across the kitchen on my tiptoes to snag the blue flyswatter I had purchased at the 99 Cent Store that lived in the pantry next to the refrigerator. Gripping the swatter in my right hand, I raised my arm and prepared myself for war. Literally frozen in space, it took me another minute and a half to even contemplate trying to find this little fucker. It was hiding behind the garlic roaster, which I attempted to slide with the flyswatter, but given the garlic weighs about six pounds and the swatter weighs pretty much nothing, it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to work. I was going to have to physically move the garlic with the power of my hand. And with another huge exhale and a little bit of a whimper, I jostled the garlic just to say, “Hey! I know you’re back there and I’m gonna kill you with this flyswatter.” Before I could even finish that thought, there it went sprinting to its next hiding place…a place so hidden that I couldn’t follow. Somewhere between the countertop and the drawer it disappeared. And that’s when I got pissed.
Terrified and pissed is not a good combination. Especially for my husband, who was fast asleep in the bedroom and was about to be woken up by a completely freaked-out wife. Think Woody Allen as a woman, only hopefully slightly better looking, and then you’ve got a sense of what I’m talking about. I stood there, staring at him, hoping he’d sense my presence. After about a minute of him not sensing my presence, I sighed…loudly.
“What’s up?” he said.
Normally, I have the ability to ease into things in a calm manner. Usually there are medium-sized prefaces or intros leading into what I’m about to say. This wasn’t one of those times:
“Babe, I think we have roaches,” I said, grabbing my head in my hands and stomping and swaying like an elephant about to charge. “I don’t know how I’m going to sleep here tonight.”
“Oh, sweetie. You’ll be okay.”
I paced in the darkened bedroom. “No, no, I’m not going to be okay. This is bad. This is really bad.”
“I’m sorry,” he said and rolled over on his left side. He clearly wasn’t getting it. This was serious. And, I’ll admit that I was acting a tad passive aggressive. What I really wanted to say was, Can you please go in the kitchen and spray the shit out of all of our cabinets…like, now? I tried to pull myself together and get into a more rational place. I rolled onto my side of the bed and covered my face with my hands.
“I’ll call the landlord tomorrow and see if he can send someone over,” I said, taking on the role of a sane and together person. Okay, this is going to be okay. I can do this.
Thirty seconds later, I could no longer ignore the sensation of hundreds of roaches running all over my skin. I began slapping myself every two seconds. It was clear that I wasn’t going to sleep that night without some help. I remembered that someone had once given me an Ambien, which I had never taken. Where the hell did I put that pill? I rolled over to my husband.
“Either someone needs to knock me out or I have to get up and find a sleeping pill.”
And as he made a quick grunting sound, I knew that I was officially becoming annoying and needed to deal with this issue by myself. I was pleasantly surprised to quickly locate the donated Ambien, which I popped into my mouth followed by a chug of bathroom sink water. Okay, this was good. I was drugged up and looking forward to being blissfully unaware of whatever demonic works were occurring in my kitchen.
You should probably know that I had an experience in college. Well, I had a lot of experiences in college, but I’m referring to the one that directly has to do with this current situation and why my behavior may appear to be a bit extreme.
In brief, a roach-infested apartment in Boston. It was my senior year in college, and my friend, Heather, and I decided to become roommates. We found a place close to Fenway Park. It was sort of like another version of a dorm only there was no RA and you couldn’t just pop into anyone’s room to smoke a bowl or drop a tab of acid.
I entered the apartment with my ridiculously large suitcases that could’ve fit a family of giraffes standing upright. That night we shut out the lights and curled up in her room to talk and get more comfortable in our new place. After a little while, I decided to get up for some water. I turned on the kitchen light and that’s when I saw an image that, on my deathbed, I will remember vividly. What looked like hundreds of roaches scurried around not just the kitchen countertops, walls, and floors, but throughout every room of the apartment.
“Get up! Get up!” I yelled to Heather.
“What?” she yelled.
“Oh my god! Oh my god!” I flipped on every light switch in the place and then ran into Heather’s bedroom and jumped on her mattress lying on the floor.
“There’s roaches everywhere!”
“Oh, that’s so sick,” she said.
“What are we gonna do? How are we gonna sleep?”
And in the middle of a huge yawn, Heather replied, “Let’s not worry about it tonight. I’m so tired. We’ll call the landlord tomorrow.”
Apparently, she and I were not living on the same planet. I mean, was she insane? Sleeping? I felt completely alone and totally freaked out. Needless to say, I was awake and shaking the entire night. I strapped my Walkman to my head and tried to think happy thoughts, but they quickly vanished as soon as I opened my eyes to witness the community of roaches that had made this place their home. I imagined them gathering in groups, creating buffets, playgrounds for the little ones, drum circles. And while Heather lay fast asleep, I paced in the living room in my nightgown and Doc Martins ready to stomp the living crap out of them. By 4:15 a.m., I had finally managed to doze off on the oddly stained gray sofa that Heather had brought from home. My eyes popped open at 8:05 a.m. when Heather’s alarm went off. Oh yeah, I had to go to school. Well, this should be a productive day.
“Is it too early to call the landlord?” I asked.
“I’ll get his number,” she said.
Six hours later, Anwar, the landlord, was in our apartment. He was a large man in every way. Tall and round, his belly protruded over his waist like he had swallowed three basketballs. Anwar was not a happy guy, and as he sprayed the toxic chemicals under our kitchen sink, he spoke.
“You know, these are hard to get rid of. The last tenants had the same problem, but you can blame them. All the walls in here were covered with beer cans.”
“What?” I asked.
“Beer can walls. That’s why there’s roaches. This place will always be infested, I think. But I’ll keep coming to spray if you need me to.”
At that moment, I experienced a variety of emotions. Terror, rage, hopelessness. I wanted to take a shotgun and shoot the shit out of the former tenants; then I wanted to aim it at Anwar, who didn’t seem to care that his apartment was riddled with the lowest form of life; then I wanted a plane ticket back home to LA…in that order.
The weeks that followed were devastating. Roaches falling out of my clothes hanging in the closet, running rampant across my bed, spending quality time with me in the shower. You couldn’t sit, stand, sleep, bathe, or take a crap without being accompanied by roaches. Getting dressed in the morning was truly horrifying. First, I’d reach for my Docs that sat by my bed. I’d turn each shoe over and shake it. It was a good day when nothing fell out. Then, I’d put them on and walk to the closet, where I’d open the creaking door and proceed to shake every item of clothing. I’d select an outfit, pull it out with my fingertips, and then continue to shake it until every roach had vacated the premises. If it was a shower day, I’d find my flip-flops, open and shake the shower curtain at the same time, step on any roaches that had fallen on the floor, then check the ceiling for anything crawling, get into the shower, turn on the water, and watch the remaining roaches slide toward the drain and spiral down to the sewer. I’d reach for my shampoo, but not before checking every angle of it, and as I’d suds up, I’d swivel my head up, down, and all around. Those few seconds while rinsing my hair when I had to shut my eyes were some of the scariest moments of my life. I thought our cat Elijah would be helpful in terms of killing the suckers, but all she’d do was eat them, throw them back up, and eat them again.
At this point, Anwar was making weekly visits to our place. I finally lost my shit.
“I can’t live like this anymore! Do you have any idea what it’s like to be here? I haven’t relaxed in three and a half weeks! And I’m in college! And every time I open a book to study something, I have to kill these things. It’s hard enough to retain Great American Playwrights on its own! What the hell is the problem? Can’t you spray anything more toxic? How about just pure poison? Do you have any of that? Or, how about we move apartments? Maybe one on the top floor. I’m sure it’ll take them longer to find their way up there. I need help, Anwar! You’ve gotta help me, man!”
By now I was sobbing uncontrollably, and Anwar was staring at me with great concern. I was hoping he wouldn’t call the asylum and send two men with a straitjacket to drag me away. Actually, that sounded like a much better deal than my current living situation.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. Don’t get upset.” It was the first time he sort of smiled. It made me feel better…like I wasn’t so alone.
Over the next few days, Anwar had practically moved in with us. He’d work in the kitchen all day, gutting the cabinets, pulling out drawers. I’d pop home between classes, say hello to his legs as the rest of his body worked under the rubble, and after about a week, things were much better. Anwar had done it and now I could sleep without clutching a flashlight, shower without wearing shoes, and open a textbook without slamming it to the floor and stomping on it.
So, yes, I had an experience that was truly scarring. But now, with the Ambien surging its way through my brain waves, and my body gently sandwiched between my softly snoring husband and my purring cat, I could feel myself being carried away to a dreamlike state. And I whispered to the cat, “Let’s not worry about it tonight. I’ll call the landlord tomorrow.” Then he touched my nose with his paw. I wanted to tell him not to eat any of the roaches…that they weren’t good for his tummy, but I could sense that he was already falling asleep, and I didn’t want to disturb him.
Hali Morell is an actress, writer, teacher, and co-founder of The Missing Peace. Her work has appeared in Borfski Press, Evening Street Press, Avalon Literary Review, Broad River Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Forge Journal, The Paragon Journal, Pendora Magazine, The Penmen Review, and Tower Journal.