Last night my roommate tapped on my door at midnight. I was naked in bed watching Fleabag (apt), launched myself out of bed in a panic, scraped my knee, wrapped myself in a towel, and answered. She was in her underwear. Such are the luxuries of living in a house of women; none of us strictly speaking are required to wear clothes.
She led me to the kitchen with an expression of advanced nausea on her face. There was a strip of sticky paper on the ground, in front of the sink. She had placed it there about two hours before. An hour before, when I got home mildly inebriated and decided to do all the dishes, I had not noticed the strip of paper, had stepped on it, had suddenly found a square of trap and three wriggling miserable roaches stuck fast to my sock, had hopped around the kitchen on one foot, howling.
An hour later now and the sticky trap was a nightmare. Blatta orientalis, the “oriental” or waterbug cockroach, is a glossy black-bodied roach of intermediate size—fairly diminutive by cockroach standards, but large enough to give any normal member of human society quite a fright. And here were they all (or not all, I suppose, but some), stuck to this paper under my sink. It occurred to me now that the dust collected there must represent a roach highway, bugs excavating the drywall to get wherever they’re going, and this trap had interceded perfectly in their plans. There were now 15, 20, 25 of them – somewhat too horrifying to accurately count – some stuck by one or two legs, and struggling; some stuck properly but still waving their antennae like people waving, “Mayday!”; some already dead. All shiny-black humongous beetle-bodies. Something about the sight of 20 or so lump-like black beetley bodies in the same place produces in the human brain an impulse to evacuate the premises. The very sight is pestilential. The Black Death was so named for the emergence of raised black boils in people’s armpits before they died; they probably looked like this.
So why, when my roommate suggested informing the landlord, calling an exterminator, was I overcome with sadness?
I have a confession to make: I like the roaches. I think they are swell.
First there is the name: Waterbug cockroach. Whenever I see one, I think, “Hello, waterbug.” They skitter across the floor desperately pursuing who knows what. They are very black and shiny, like scarabs, and keep their heads delicately upside-down, chin tucked into chest, so that their long, elegantly filamentous antennae can quest out before them, tickling the world like whiskers. I doubt they have a very good sense of sight, as evidenced by the fact that they tuck their heads in and have almost no eyes at all; they probably navigate globally by scent, locally by touch. A landscape of smells to move towards and away from, with the antennae to stroke whatever’s in front of them, to determine what’s what. I like them. One was caught in my mailbox once, I opened it up and there was the poor roach having found itself in a smooth-sided metal box with no food and no way to escape. So I admired it for a moment. Its perfectly black and smooth chitinous shell, with segments in the armor for flexibility. Its six strong but fragile legs with their pointy, grippy feet. It had odd little unexpected white hairs peppered across its back, in soft places, probably another way to feel the world around.
I am reading a book called The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. It is about the ways we silently commune with the non-human world. Early in the book, David describes a time spent with the family of a Balinese shaman, in his family’s house in the rainforest. Every morning, the shaman’s partner took three little bowls of white rice into the forest, “for the house’s spirits,” she told David. Every afternoon, the bowls were retrieved empty, and upon watching the author surmised that ants were coming to fetch the rice. Almost as soon as the bowls were put down in the forest, the ants came – as they do, in the tropics – and began to pilfer every last bit of rice, ant by ant, grain by grain.
“I walked into my room chuckling to myself,” writes David. “The balian and his wife had gone to so much trouble to placate the household spirits with gifts, only to have their offerings stolen by little six-legged thieves. What a waste! But then a strange thought dawned on me: what if the ants were the very ‘household spirits’ to whom the offerings were being made?”
David goes on to reason that there may be an internal logic in this transformation of ants into spirits that need to be appeased: That perhaps in offering rice daily, the shaman and his family were keeping the ravenous insects with whom they shared their forest at bay. Humans are a source of food; we are as much part of the ecosystem as ants. They have every right to prey upon us. Perhaps the ants, riceless, would instead storm the kitchen. It is no less theirs than ours.
So perhaps this goes a little way toward explaining why, to my roommate’s reasonable astonishment, I hesitated at the word “exterminator.” Our household is an ecosystem – an impoverished one, but one nonetheless. Humans are excellent producers of shelter and food. The structure of a coral reef will be inhabited by swarms of creatures taking shelter: Baby fishes, tiny crabs, eels in crevices. A tree is runneled by bugs, nested-in by birds and squirrels. Some humans built this apartment complex out of inorganics, which is a difference – the structure is made of drywall, concrete, iron, and is therefore a perfectly terrible structure on which to build organic lives. Nonetheless the building is infested by humans – as well as roaches, often mice, carpenter bees on the roof, chimney swifts in the chimney, house sparrows in the drainage pipes, at least one pit bull who is hosted by a young man, and several cats.
I prefer the roaches to the mice. They’re cute, like the mice, but unlike them don’t seem to shit everywhere. And the roaches stay out of my room. The mice have no sense of personal space, they have a bumbling awkwardness that strikes me as particularly mammalian. I was preparing dinner for myself in the kitchen one night in my underwear, and a mouse flung itself off the counter, bounced off my naked torso, and plopped onto the ground. The roaches would never horrify me like this. When I come into a room, they make themselves scarce immediately. I like this order of things. The inhabitation of my apartment seems inevitable, and the idea of its being a problem or somehow unhealthy is, I think, an idea perpetuated by pest control companies who have somehow convinced us all that they are pests and we are not, I suppose because our species constructed the buildings and this, for some reason, makes us feel that they should be ours alone. Perhaps if there were more things living here there would be an ecosystem in healthier balance. We would not find 25 roaches in an hour, but rather fewer of them, along with some other bugs, some birds nesting in the walls, some tiny predators, the roaches kept in check by something else. Alas, we have tried to kill most things, so the roaches persist unchecked. Because humans are a source of food and warmth, we will always be inhabited by something. If not the roaches, I am sure, something else. Maybe the mice again.
And so the trap filled with antennae-waving, dying waterbugs fills me with an odd and socially unacceptable sadness. I will permit the entrance of an exterminator into my home, although I believe the chemicals they use are as inhospitable to me as to the roaches; and although I believe that the presence of roaches indicates the presence of food in this building, which indicates to me that even if we rid ourselves of roaches we will become infested by something else. We are large mammals, after all. We exude nourishment. If we lived outside our eyes and hair would be feasted-on by oxpecker birds. There will always be critters that consider our homes and our bodies their own, because the sense of separateness, of containment, is nothing more than a lie we tell ourselves.
But I love my roommates, and they deserve to live in a roach-free home, and I should probably keep my damn opinions to myself.