A close encounter with our dark and dirty friends
When the heat comes upon the city, I see your carcasses scattered along the sidewalks. I imagine you took your last breath under the sneaker sole of a jogger, or maybe the wheel of a cargo trolley trundling the streets at dawn. Once, I saw a fruit vendor pour boiled water from an old metal kettle down the grate of a sewer, just a few feet away from his plywood racks stacked with papayas and mangosteens. It was early evening. I had bought some persimmons and was waiting for my change. A stench, like rotting vegetable and wet mop rose from the pit in the ground, along with the steam from the water. Out you came, disgorged from the bowels of the sewer, along with dozens of your shiny black friends with their yellow-rimmed heads and reedy antennae. You and your tribe scattered onto the road, disappearing into the night, or perhaps into the fruit stall to make a warm bed amidst a pile of too-ripe bananas. A group of tourists stood on the pavement dabbing sweat off their foreheads. They jumped back as you scurried past their sandaled feet. You brutes always have right of way. You are faster than us, less conspicuous than us, and have lived in this, and in almost every other city, longer than the tourists, longer than the fruit vendors, longer than the old sooty shophouses that were here when this metropolis was just a town. On the roads, I see your children, still too slow at dodging traffic, desiccating in the robust midday sun, flattened and flaky like wafer. If I ground them all up, they would be black dust. If I mashed up all of your dead and scattered them into the air, the skies would darken, as if a storm were perpetually on the horizon.
I never thought much of you until right after I got married. I suppose you could say that’s when I started to resent you. You ruined what could have been a perfect first night with Charlie. The pool villa we had rented for our honeymoon couldn’t have been lovelier. We were old fashioned, so we had waited till that evening. We had just returned from a romantic dinner in a lantern-lit restaurant that overlooked lush paddy fields glistening under the moonlight. During our meal, intoxicated by the aroma of sweet frangipani, and the thrill of finally being man and wife, we had linked fingers across the table and talked about how long we should wait before starting a family. I was twenty-five that year, Charlie was twenty-seven. We had talked about how grown-up this all felt. “You’re stuck with me for life now,” Charlie had said laughing. “I hope you don’t get bored. I don’t know how long I can stay interesting for,” he winked, and made a silly face.
When we returned to the villa, I went into the bathroom to prepare myself. I showered, flossed and brushed my teeth, then put on my new lingerie. As I brushed my hair, I saw Charlie through the reflection in the bathroom mirror. He was lounging on the bed, playing with his iPod, trying to pick the perfect song. I was excited by what was to come, but I had drunk too much wine at dinner, and my bladder was full, so I removed my panties to relieve myself. That’s when you showed up. You must have been hiding under the rim of the toilet bowl. I felt your feathery feet tickling the back of my thigh, near my naked buttocks. I stood up and you dropped to the floor, then rushed under the door and out towards the bedroom, taking cover under our bed. I was horrified, and the mood was ruined, so Charlie and I did not make love on our wedding night.
In the early weeks of summer, there are still more of us than you. When we move into the hotter, muggier days of the season, and the city begins to reek, you breed with gusto. As the days get longer, I wait for you. I know it’s only a matter of time before one of you reaches the balcony of my thirty-fifth floor apartment.
Because I have eczema and rhinitis, I assumed that frequent cleaning would get rid of whatever substances were aggravating my skin and nose, so my apartment is always clean. I had believed you only liked filth, so I wondered why you kept visiting me in my dirt-free home.
I once watched a documentary about the rapid rise in allergies within urban populations. The show’s presenter had said that the increase in conditions like asthma or hives in city dwellers is a result of people today growing up underexposed to germs from livestock. It seems our agrarian ancestors, who had more frequent contact with livestock, wildlife and communal diseases, were actually stronger than us because their bodies’ defenses were kept busy doing what they was designed to do – fight potential infections. One immunologist explained that it was as if modern man’s immune system, bored at no longer having any truly threatening microbes to fight, turned on itself, overreacted, and caused allergies. After watching that show, I realised how misguided I was in thinking cleanliness might relieve me of my ailments, but at this point, cleaning had become so soothing a habit that I was unable to stop. It crossed my mind that perhaps I should move to a pig farm in the countryside. That might fix me. I didn’t, of course. I stayed, put in more hours at work, and despite what the documentarian had reported, cleaned my apartment even more often, in the vain hope that this would somehow alleviate my distress, and keep you and your kin away. What creatures of habit we are, my kind. Even when those habits do us more harm than good.
Last summer, my allergies were so severe I had to take a week off work. My head felt like it was stuffed with cotton, I was wheezing and felt drowsy for most of the day. My eyes were red and watery, my cheeks puffy, I sneezed and coughed all night. I itched constantly around my neck, on the back of my hands, and all the way from my knees to the soles of my feet. My skin was lit up in ugly red bumps, and felt like sandpaper. I went for an allergy test, and the doctor told me my problem was you, or rather your excrement, your epidermal sheddings and dried saliva, which apparently permeates the air in this city, landing on us as micro-dust particles.
I’ve always wondered how you manage to get up to my balcony. Thirty-five floors, that’s a long way up for a tiny thing like you. Are you climbing up the façade of the building? Or crawling through the rainwater pipes, popping out through the drainage grate? I can’t figure it out.
Every summer, I see you on the streets, loitering in groups behind garbage cans, zigzagging across pavements, or meditating alone in dark corners, antennae flickering about. I had always believed your kind were like chickens, able to flap your wings and lift your bodies off the ground, but not very high. Then one Sunday afternoon, I saw one of you hovering outside my closed bedroom window. Up till then, I had always thought of you as a pedestrian or a subterranean dweller, not a denizen of the air, but it seems you’ve evolved and can now fly. It occurred to me that maybe those of you landing on my balcony were making pit stops in mid-flight.
I wish I could fly like you. I’d fly far away from here.
After Charlie died, I told myself I would sell the apartment, quit my job, see the world, maybe live on an island for a year, do nothing but cook, paint and take long walks. Stop working, stop cleaning. Maybe I’d meet someone nice. Probably not as perfect for me as Charlie, but nice enough. I thought a lot about leaving this city, but then the company promoted me to Head of Human Resources, tripled my salary, and gave me a corner office. The housing market plummeted and I didn’t want to let the apartment go at a loss. Excuses, excuses. You know the real reason why I haven’t left? It’s because I don’t want to leave the place that holds the most memories of him. This apartment is our first, our only home. It’s where we spent the most time together. It’s where we were meant to start our family. Where we were meant to hold hands and watch new lines appear on each other’s faces. It’s been five years since I lost him, and I’m still here.
I haven’t removed Charlie’s pillows, his toothbrush, or bedroom slippers. Sometimes when I’m in our bed, just as I’m about to fall asleep, I think I see him walking out of the bathroom, fresh and minty, ready to rest his head next to mine. I think about all the things we talked about. We talked so much, so I have many conversations to choose from.
One of our last bedtime talks plays more frequently than the rest. It was the night after I returned from my last visit to the fertility clinic. I was trying to convince the doctor to approve my IVF treatment, but she had said no yet again. Said it would be a waste of our time and money, that I had a uterus that was “hostile to implantation”. I couldn’t stop crying that night.
Charlie wiped my tears. “Don’t cry my darling. I really don’t care whether or not we have a baby. You’re enough for me,” he had told me as he held me in his arms and kissed my forehead. But you’re not enough for me, I had thought then, as I drove my head deeper into his chest, inhaling his scent, wondering if perhaps I should just leave him for not understanding how important this was to me.
“I don’t want it to be just the two of us. We’ll get lonely. We’ll get bored. If we don’t have a child, there won’t be a future to look to. It’ll just be us, like this, the same thing, everyday, then sickness, old age, then death, nothingness, finito, the end,” I had ranted. He released me from his embrace, turned his back to me, and fell silent.
Now, there are times when I lie in bed, going through the list of names that he had for me – Sweetpea, Pumpkin Pie, Snooks. I only had one for him – Pest, though it was often uttered with a good dose of affection, whenever he wanted me to shut down my computer and take a nap with him, or abandon the novel I was reading to join him on the couch for some lame action flick on TV.
“Why do I always feel like I’m bugging you? Like you have something more important you’d rather be doing?” he had said to me once.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, I reach out for him. He’s not there.
My friends – I say friends, but really they’re just people I meet for lunch or coffee on the weekends so I have a reason to be somewhere other than the office or the apartment – tell me I’m still young enough to date again. They tell me I shouldn’t work so hard, that I should go on vacation, learn a new language, pick up a hobby. One person suggested I get a puppy, another had the temerity to suggest I adopt a child. I can’t imagine why I would want to do any of those things. Without Charlie, I cannot imagine why I would want to do anything beyond waking up, eating, sleeping, working and cleaning, and in summer, killing you whenever you come onto my property and intrude upon my solitude.
When I see your kind on my premises, I drown them in bug spray. I go heavy on the stuff, so a portion of the balcony floor is slicked with the poison. Last summer, I found one of your pals out on the balcony. He was on his back, so I thought he was dead. A crispy little alien with six, bristle-like twigs for arms and legs. When I went closer, he started twitching, so I grabbed a wad of toilet paper, picked him up, wrapped the wad tightly round him, squeezed till movement ceased, then flushed the ball of paper with his remains down the toilet bowl. If Charlie were still here, he would have gotten rid of your pal with much more panache. He would have simply slid a piece of scrap paper under him, and flung him off the balcony, no need for my level of brute force.
You wonder why I have to be so violent? I just had to be sure he was dead, you see. I mean, your kind are so hardy. You eat anything, and can go a month without food. You can even survive nuclear disasters, and make a home out of the most inhospitable of environments. I watched this YouTube video once. It was a brain scan of a woman who had complained about weird scratchy sensations up her nose. Of course, there you were, sitting on her skull, just between her eyes, alive and well, having a real party, feasting on her mucosa. Such tenacity. And I know about your zombie-like tendencies. I’ve read that your bodies can remain animated for weeks even after you’ve been decapitated. One magazine reported that even your severed heads retain life well past a week.
If only Charlie had the same capacity for survival as you. He didn’t smoke, hardly drank, ate oatmeal with flaxseed and acai berries every morning. He was a triathlete too, and had more energy than most twenty-year olds. He was only thirty-nine when he had the heart attack. Too young, not the right age for it, don’t you think? And there was no hanging around, no gasping or lingering, or twitching like your kind. It was just poof, lights out. I didn’t have any warning. The last thing I said to him that morning was “Are you expecting me to wash that mug of yours? I have to get to work too, you know. You’re such a slob!”
He didn’t come home that day. His colleague called and said they had found him slumped over his desk. They couldn’t say how long it had been since his heart had stopped. It didn’t, and still doesn’t make any sense to me. I was thirty-seven when I buried my husband.
I had assumed I would come out of my pit eventually, as I’ve heard and seen people do, but I’ve been here ever since. Now I seem to be stuck. When I look out of my window, I see sunlight, green trees swaying in a breeze, people doing qigong in the park. Sometimes, I look through the windows of the buildings across from mine, and I see families gathered around the table for dinner. All of these things look like ugly oil paintings, too bright, too colourful, and completely false. I hurt just looking at them. You, with your coffee-coloured cape and menacing feelers, are the only thing I can comfortably focus on.
You showed up yesterday, my first summer visitor. I was about to open my balcony door to hang the laundry to dry when I saw you, basking in the sun, looking as sleek and glossy as licorice candy. I went into the kitchen and grabbed the can of Raid. I slid the glass door of the balcony open just a few inches, and through the narrow slit I thrust my forearm out and aimed the nozzle at you. I had to make sure the opening wasn’t too wide. I didn’t want you getting any ideas, and entering my living room. I spritzed, but missed by a whisker. Some of the poison must have landed on you. Either that or the fumes got to you. I saw you whizz about like a drunkard, then spin like a top. When you regained your balance, you started teetering towards me, which gave me a fright. I pulled my arm back in, and slammed the balcony door shut so fast I almost crushed my pinkie.
I studied you from inside.
Would you die? Would you wobble about in a trance for a few minutes before turning over? You didn’t. Instead, you started flapping your wings, and raised yourself a few feet off the floor of the balcony. I looked at you as you hovered in one spot for a few seconds. With the glass door as a barrier, there was less than two feet of distance between us. Through the glass, you looked almost like a purposeful bee or a mighty hornet, maybe even a butterfly if I squinted. Then you flew higher, off the balcony, and away from me.
I wondered if you would make it.
If you live, you can go anywhere, see anything. Unlike myself, you are resilient, fertile, and untethered by memory, or by those strange treads of the heart that keep my kind in constant bondage. You mate with impunity, multiply, and reincarnate through your intrepid offspring. Love and death have no power over you. Your kind are ripe with new beginnings, and will always survive. Your eggs hatch, your larvae grow, a new partner awaits you at the next corner. You live on forever through your restless and enterprising spawn. As vile and offensive as you are, you have a million start-overs. You are resilient progenitor of a victorious species. You, who need, want and feel so little, will have all you require to flourish, while I, sanitised and dignified, bigger, taller, smarter, will watch my world shrink and wilt away in this glass and concrete tower, with all the doors and windows tightly shut. I will kill you every time, but you will show up again. Until, one day I am no longer here to do so.
Copyright® Michele Koh Morollo 2015