This piece was originally published in 2013.
There we were a few months in—hunched on the sheets with our knees crushed up beneath our chins, covers flung out to make a malformed mirror-bed on the carpet at the feet of the terminal post—when something small crawled out of the silence and into my ear canal, the slightest of rustles, a bundle of miniscule prairie grass tossed onto a pile near a microscopic fire.
“I knew it,” I shrieked with something not quite like triumph, not quite like dread.
“Unbelievable,” my wife said.
“I’m telling you. It’s there—something is there.”
But there was admittedly difficult to locate, so I waved the back of my hand generally across a representative arc of the room.
Again the fluttering noncommittal hand.
“Oh right. There.”
She looped her brown hair behind her right ear in a motion that was either one of those unconscious movements beloved by men everywhere or—more likely—a subterranean signal of annoyance. A husband knows how much depends on a proper reading of signs like these. Only the skilled augur restores erogenous relations briskly. I squinted into the tea leaves of her eyes.
“Listen. It’s there. I promise.”
“I believe you. Now quit being so annoying about it.”
“I mean it!”
There it was again. The dead-leaf sound of a dragging carapace, the periodic pin-touch of a low but active intelligence slouching through a wilderness of school papers, something more than the aimless creaks and aches of an old rowhouse radiator-heated in winter. Then gone again.
“Surely you heard it.” A statement, an accusation.
“I honestly didn’t.”
But was there something tentative, half-hearted in her tone?
I leaned cautiously with a long foot over the expanse of floor—quarantined, in my mind,infested!—and nudged a stack of ungraded essays. Nothing. Clawing an errant magazine up with my big toe and index, I grasped the spine with prehensile strength and rushed it back to the safety of the bed. The written word weaponized. I rolled the thing deliciously.
A crinkle! A subtle brush of insectile limbs!
My head jerked around with involuntary haste. I pointed with growing horror to the base of the bedside table.
“There! For sure now! You couldn’t have missed that!”
My wife rumbled with laughter beside me.
“It’s just your imagination,” she said, poking at my seriousness.
“No it’s not,” I said. “Now hush!”
“But you can’t really—”
Corkscrewed paper, fists curling inward like a pinch-hitter up to bat, elbows bent and tendons convulsing visibly beneath the skin with wound energy, all senses purposeful as radar waves pinging across the room…
“This isn’t really about cockroaches, is it?” she said quietly.
I heard her as though through a filter and managed an answer somehow from out of the deep waters of my consciousness. Straining, straining, my perception stretched way out, bat-like, to the limits…
“What do you mean?”
“You’re trying to prove a point,” she said with hooded eyes.
Absent-minded, I gave a reply, still fishing in the deep, close now, close…
“I dunno, some point, how I never listen, or—”
I had him. Scuttling among the W-2s. On the bedside table—the violation! beside the very bed of our marriage!—an ambulatory thumbnail of brown and coagulated red. Serpent strike of arm, deathly arc of magazine cover, cottage cheese sign of death.
“What were you saying?” I said, and wiped him up in triumph.
And so began the roaches of our marriage.
There were dozens that first year. Nasty things, interminable, a great wheel of shivering wings and barbed legs, innumerable triangle heads. They would come as if by secret agreement into the very heart of our domestic bliss. At the most mundane moments, in the sweet tranquility only lovers know, they inserted themselves as though feeding on the excessive pleasures of matrimony itself. Our very cleanliness attracted them—all the more to blot our virtuous living, our clean counters, our polished surfaces and unblemished floors!
In memory their visitations compound as images. I see them in the wok we left out one night thick with peanut sauce, and the little slapdash trails of russet they left as they scattered. In mind’s eye, I conjure the speck high up on the eye of Jesus, an irreligious brute staked out on the stained glass, no doubt gloating as the prayers of confession arose to vibrate his ribbed antennae. Home again, we once laid about with a gloved hand, four, five, six times before catching a quick one between the shower and the sink. Then breakfast, some weeks later, between the weekend ritual of A6 to A9, a subsonic scritch almost lost in the wife’s scrapping of kettle on stove coil, found again in pot to white smiling lip of porcelain, now hidden in a reverse waterfall of steam caught in waxen light—there, there, the wisp of thin membrane rubbed together, femur on grooved wing, an unbending limb!
And so on. But two catch in my throat like craggy ootheca—even there they have colonized!—and rise in time like twitching forelimbs from the muck of memory.
In fantastical inward mirrors she is there at the sink, a copper light burnishing the windows of the condo behind her, framing my wife in quicksilver. I enter the room at her back, without her knowledge, not even a period point in the relentless novel of her consciousness. An apron string encircles the small loop of her waist. She is poised at the edge of some great work, like an empress surveying the empty deserts where her palace will rise.
“This bastard basin,” she says to herself, looking evilly at the heaped grave of dishes in the sink. “Waterproof. I wish I were waterproof.” She sighs and looks down at the wet line transcribed across the midriff of her apron, soaked through to her blouse.
And there behind her, emerging from beneath the cool refrigerator, I see a fish-hooked leg, slowly at first, and then another, and then the whole ugly rest of it, one huge elongated pebble dressed in folded onion skins. I watch as the creature languorously traverses the tile floor toward my wife’s exposed ankle—unprotected, as bare as the day she was born—as though it were an old friend on an evening jaunt determined to stop in at the neighbors. A crawling horror convulses my stomach. My God! It desires her abalone limbs!
She remains wrapped in her innocence. The thought of this blemish on the purity of her moment, this disease on her being—at the dishes, with the light turning the sky into mystic colors just over her head, the exquisite essence of herself alone with herself—no, no, no, I could not allow it, I dare not allow it. The creature continued in that curious clap-clap-clap, plopping up- down gait of its kind, like a playing card in the back of a bicycle wheel—and I rushed forward and clutched it up silently with my bare hand before she noticed.
She turns. Her eyes find me. She smiles.
“Oh hello darling!” she says, radiant in the dying sun. “What are you doing there?”
“Nothing,” I say, smiling back. The lie in my eyes. My hands behind my back.
I crush the creature bitterly in my palm.
Her presence lingers in the glass. I am returned to the apartment, a month hence, lights flashing on with a Pavlovian finger flick, coat already off one shoulder, face flushed still with the evening’s debauchment—and in my abode, dear God, my own home, there met with the terrible pressed penny, the unhurried backside, the foul oval adhering to my lady’s Valentine roses, cruelly, cruelly. Not even dislodged by the sudden springing to life of an electric sun—what vanity, what brash ignoble maleficence! I felt—feel—myself impotent. Yes, I could see it—first a sailing shoe; then the vase tipped, possibly broken; greenish water bleeding out like a melting clock onto the floor; and it, the damned thing, disappeared in the commotion. Alas! Alas! How could those flowers which proved yesterday so stimulating to my lover’s amorous attentions today appear so limp, so unable to resist a hurled paper, so powerless to provide enough resistance to crush a bug between two green leaf nubs?
A solid wall! My kingdom for a surface to be crushed against! Never before had I longed so keenly for the firmness of things.
So it would have to be close quarters, then. I espied the most likely route the creature would take when disturbed. A creeping hand to shake slightly—a touch, the merest touch—one slender stem and then it would be off stage-left for the relative protection of the underside of the table lip—a stronghold it must never be allowed to reach, as a sort of protective triangle could then be achieved by which expiration by shoe or paper would prove difficult. Death on the flat field of wood! Quick death, as on the plains of Troy! I shook my wife’s roses and the thing fled predictably into the existential crevices of my impending boat shoes.
How difficult it was to get the mark out before she came home!
Why these above all the rest? Why these islands only in the stream of time? Where the other sunnier climes? I don’t know. I offer these alone like cigarillos in a gentleman’s sterling case—you take, you pick. Read the signs if you will. Light up. Applaud.
These rendezvous ended one day in a curious manner. It was about six months ago, in the last furnace-blast days of summer, when I saw one scuttling through a crack in the plaster on my way out of the shower. The beastly thing got away but not before serving its purpose—a hooked pretarsus being the one thing needful to prime the mental pump. All day I felt my nerves on edge. Shapes crawled at the edge of vision but disappeared when seen full on. Strange shadows flared into horrid blooms of winged infestation for a few thrilling moments until the light passed. The footfalls of an upstairs neighbor became dens of writhing thoraces shifting a millimeter to the left in unison. I avoided the bathroom. Too many mouths gaped in the plaster between the tiles. Too much hidden watching. Where there’s one…
But a few glasses of water got the best of me by midafternoon. Midafternoon, midstream —it was a fitting symmetry dimly appreciated. I was doing my business when I registered by touch something tingling at my feet. How instantaneously an active brain can provide morbid furnishings! Immediately from my frontal lobe sprung the razor-edged image of two split antennae searching the long hairs just above my heel—a vision so obdurate I stubbed my toe swinging my foot into the garbage can—and my hand leapt to action also, swiping involuntarily, lashing blindly, wildly into space—kill, kill! Noisily my excess nutrients spilled into the orbed bowl only a moment more before pinching up.
It’s hard to describe what happened next. My hand came away empty; my vision registered no entomological anomaly. But a cord of liquid hung in the air, flung up, presumably, by the action of swatting at the encroaching insect. My brain, poor thing, failed to silence one member before engaging another! And there, weightless like an astronaut’s languid plaything (admittedly the accretions of memory may have embellished this last image), the stream doubled back in an impossible curve—some pagan god’s infantile mockery of physics—to land on my gasping face.
The humiliation was complete and immediate. Urinating on one’s own countenance! Impossible act! A degradation reserved for war camps or mass graves or the more pungent forms of internet effluvia. And not even a corpse to show for it, no sticky hand, everything clean, clean, unbroken tile as far as the eye could see! A quiet draft from under the door tickling the hairs of my bare legs. Sunlight through the frosted window. Shadows of leaves crisscrossing on the wall as though in mocking applause.
In the mirror, washing up, I feel time like a weight—and there my vision shifts, meanders into the past. I see my wife at the sink. Her apron is belted tight. She is wreathed in viridity devoid of guile. And behind her, creeping on its bristled feet, is the cockroach. The segmented wires dance across her flesh. She looks down. She does not react. I see the bitter word she forms when her lips touch, the gliding tongue ticking the ridge just behind the teeth, the cave of her mouth closing a second time, the final hiss from the back of the throat—and I was ashamed.
Did I imagine it? Did I really believe myself responsible to polish your immaculate luster? Did I think I could keep those cursed brown orbs from you? Even now, I see a smirking pair of compound eyes in the sink overflow. I observe an ovate silhouette imprinted on my optic nerve. And in your eyes, my love, I have put the shadows of fluttering wings.
No matter, you say from the mirror. Come.
But I cannot stop these greedy mouths! I cannot keep them from striking your heel!
No matter. What man can?
But I am afraid. I am ashamed.
No more cracks to hide in, you say. No carapace of lies to cover one’s nakedness.
Then where to? Where to go?
There is only light here. And applause.
Help me!—I am afraid to go!
Hush, child. You are loved. Come.
Your shape in the doorway as I mop up my piss: “Is it just me, or have all the roaches vanished lately?”
I wake from my reveries. She says vanished, but that isn’t quite true. Respite—even a few months of it, years of it—is not victory. It is easy to be careless after so many days have passed without the stain of their flat bodies on the margins of our lives. We live with the lights on. We know better.
Trawling the internet, trance-like, face aglow with pallid blue like a corpse underwater, I see them there, bleeding out from the corners of my mind. Always. Peel back the wallpaper. See beneath the sink. From what darkness are they? From what restless evil do they spin their existence?
For the roaches of our marriage wait, watchful. She sleeps carrying my burdens in the next room—and nightly we fear their coming, this dark matter I cannot contain, reminders of a world we cannot circumscribe, yes, these malicious bodies with whom I tremble to contend.