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Original Essays

How I Became Afraid of Bugs

by Nell Freudenberger
  1. "Every story in this remarkable collection reveals the emergence of a truly prodigious talent." Richard Ford

I'm afraid of cockroaches. Cockroaches are not generally beloved, of course, but my reaction is extreme: I tend to gasp, jump, and sometimes, if confronted with one alone in a small space — I'm ashamed to admit — sob. I'm not talking about the thin, brown ones that carry their bodies high up on flexible legs. I mean the bigger, beetle-like water bugs, also called Croton bugs, steambugs or shiners. I especially don't like the way that they can squeeze into very small spaces, flatten through ventilation slits, or fold themselves up, like miniature umbrellas, to emerge from the O-shaped drainage holes in the back of the sink.

Recently a waterbug crawled out of my drain. When I came home it was there on the kitchen counter, on top of the electricity bill. It was so heavy that its feet made a sound on the paper. ("Feet" is not exactly accurate; more like the ink blot at the end of a line, or the follicle at the tip of an eyelash). If you've ever examined one of these waterbugs closely — the flip side of a phobia is a sort of morbid interest — you've seen the fine, bristle-like hairs on their legs, and the little white spot, like an eye, that they sometimes carry near the base of an antennae. The wings are textured, translucent when lifted, with a reddish-chocolate sheen.

My favorite piece of cockroach literature is a William Gass story called "Order of Insects." The narrator is a housewife whose fear of water bugs — Periplaneta orientalis — turns into a fascination with their construction; "I...observed the movement of the jaws, the stalks of the antennae, the skull-shaped skull, the lines banding the abdomen, and found an intensity in the posture of the shell, even when tipped, like that in the gaze of Gauguin's natives' eyes. The dark plates glisten. They are wonderfully shaped; even the buttons of the compound eyes show a geometrical precision which prevents my earlier horror. It isn't possible to feel disgust toward such an order. Nevertheless, I reminded myself, a roach...and you a woman."

The one in the kitchen was sluggish. It made a sort of clicking sound. I kept my eye on it while I called a friend. He said I should remember that it couldn't hurt me, but the bug was making my palms wet, my hands tremble, and activating my gag reflex. I had run out of Raid (I'm a heavy user), but I had a bottle of Windex. "You're disgusted because it's ugly," my friend said. "It's an aesthetic reaction." I had to hang up then, because I needed both hands. It had darted under the drying rack, where I could see it: perfectly still and yet clearly alive, sleek, like a wet little stone. I was afraid to let it get behind the stove, where it could hide and wait. I knew from experience that I wouldn't be able to go to sleep until it was dead.

In the summer of 2000, in Delhi, I lived with a friend in a one-room prefabricated cottage which belonged to a Bengali woman from a Hindu Calcutta family. She had once been married to a famous Muslim classical musician and taken the title, Begum. There was a scandal attached to their break-up but the Begum would only say, mysteriously, "There were reporters on the lawn for days." Now the lawn was brown and dry, and the house was not especially clean. The first bug was in the bathroom. My friend, familiar with my fear, closed the door and killed it. Since they like the dark, he reasoned, we would leave the lights in the bathroom on; that way, they would stay down in the drains where they belonged.

Late that night I woke up. I lay for a second, waiting, and then something touched my arm again.

"I felt something," I said.

"I felt it too," he admitted.

I was up, out of bed and crouched in a chair before my brain registered that I was moving. He turned on the lights.

"Why didn't you say anything?" I demanded.

"I thought it was a gecko," he said. "It felt so heavy."

The next second, a monster crawled up between the headboard and the mattress. A second later, there were two, scattering across the clean white sheet.

"Oh," my friend sighed, as if they were bad children who'd gotten up after being put down for the night. Of course, our bedroom had been dark; they had flattened themselves, come under the door, clicked across the sisal carpet on their light and hairy feet. I remembered a moving shadow in the clothes hamper, which I had ignored, wishfully, when we first looked at the apartment, desperate to find something. I was itchy, rubbing my arms with my hands. And I was angry: that it was so hot; that we couldn't sleep; that these things had presumed to come up into the light. William Gass's housewife asks, "What do we live with that's alive we haven't tamed — people like me — even our houseplants breathe by our permission."

"We can clean the place out," my friend was saying. "We can cover the drains."

"We can find a new place tomorrow," I said.

But rental apartments are hard to find in Delhi, and the next morning we took all of the furniture out into the yard. The servants from the house next door stared at us as we wet everything and soaped it down with rags. The Begum came out of her house and looked at us.

"There were bugs," I said.

"There were never any bugs before."

I thought of the thing in the hamper. Clearly, our room had been a bug convention.

"There must've been six in the bathroom — big ones." I showed her with my hand.

"Oh," she said, as if she were just understanding what I meant. "You need Lakshman Reika. You draw a line around the drains, and then they don't come."

"I'm sorry," I said. "It's irrational. It's just that I'm really afraid. I can't sleep when I know they're there."

The Begum looked away for a second, the way that people sometimes count to five, to control their anger. I understood later that my reaction was humiliating to her; it was particularly humiliating when I apologized and explained, as if she wouldn't understand my revulsion. It separated us.

"Tea," she called to her servant: "Manju, tea!" Then she went into the house.

But later, while we were watching the BBC in her living room, she handed me a little yellow box. The writing on the side said, "Highest quality poison, but not harmful to humans."

"Draw a circle around your drains," she said. "Nice and thick."

We were sitting in the living room. Occasionally the lights went down, the fan slowed, and the television flickered with the power.

"Thank you," I said.

"My daughter is afraid of them," the Begum said. "That is what makes them come."

"Your daughter?"

"Your fear," she said gently. "They can smell it."

My friend rolled his eyes.

That night, however, the Begum made us a bed on the floor of the spare room in the house, while our apartment aired out from its cleaning. Paranoid, I picked up my pillow before lying down. The large roach that darted out from underneath, over the side of the mattress and into the floorboards, was the first one I saw with that white sac. Maybe it's a decoy eye, or maybe those are the eggs.

The brand name, Lakshman Reika, comes, of course, from the Ramayana. In the famous story, Lakshman is charged with guarding his brother's wife, Sita, in the forest, while Ram goes to hunt a golden deer. But the deer, who is really a demon, cries out in the voice of Ram, and when Sita hears her husband screaming, she begs Lakshman to go after him. Lakshman is reluctant to abandon her, and agrees only when Sita promises to stay inside a particular magic circle. Predictably, as soon as Lakshman is gone, the demon king Ravana appears. Disguised as a beggar, he comes to Sita begging alms; incapable of refusing, Sita offers him food, and, in the process, her toe inadvertently crosses the magic line. All is lost, at least temporarily.

The Lakshman Reika didn't work any better on the bugs than it did on Sita. (Strictly, I guess, it wasn't that the line didn't work, only that Sita stepped over it). The solution to our problem turned out to be physical barriers: we invested in plugs for the drains, and a white mosquito net that tucked under the sides of the mattress. Inside that cocoon, our shabby house looked soft and romantic. The light was pinker, and the fans made the netting sway, as if we were inside a hot air balloon. ("At least it's that hot," my friend complained, but I was scrupulous about using the net). One day my mother sent us a package with some magazines to read; one of these was the New Yorker. We thought it would be nice to read a story from it out loud to each other, and over the next couple of nights we read Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Third and Final Continent."

The following spring I got a job as an editorial assistant at the New Yorker. That winter I was writing a little bit in the mornings before work. I was trying to write a novel, but it wasn't going very well. Most mornings I would find myself staring out the window, thinking about India. One morning I started a story about a woman who misses a man, sitting in the living room of a dirty house in Delhi, where there are cockroaches living in the wicker spaces of the couch. I liked working on that story because it wasn't work; it was simply an hour and fifteen minutes of nostalgia every morning, before I got on the train to go to my real job.

My story was published in the New Yorker the next year, with the title "Lucky Girls." That was something our landlady, the Begum, used to call her servant's children, Puja and Moona, who lived in her backyard. Their luck was at best intermittent. The Begum bought them clothing and promised to pay their school fees; a year later, however, we learned that she had sent the whole family back to rural Orissa, after their mother disobeyed her and got pregnant again.

Some friends have asked me what I mean by that title. I think I mean that part of being a woman anywhere is being taught to fear certain things — lightning, heights, speeds, darkness, snakes, spiders, bugs, etc. — until it isn't clear anymore whether we're surrounded by dangers, or whether it is our fear that's making the frightening things come. It seems possible that we've learned to fear the wrong things, and, in many cases, that our fear is only a function of having been protected.

When I was seven, my mother tells me, I would let large garden beetles crawl on my hands and even on my neck. I remember her expression: disgusted, and at the same time determined to encourage this curiosity in a girl. A biologist, she must have thought: an entomologist! Thirteen years later I was in a bar, on a first date with a man I was desperate to impress, when a cockroach crawled up the wall next to me. I screamed, almost fell out of my chair, and spilled the rest of my beer in his lap. In the years between those two incidents, between the ages of seven and twenty, something (or everything) had changed for me, as it does for everyone; a simple way of describing it would be to say that I had become afraid of bugs.

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