There is a stain on our wall in Wilson and we haven’t spoken about it for a few days, my roommate and I. Streaked and coarse, a stain ground into the whitewash like graphite. It’s not visible if you don’t look for it, not something Building Services would fine us for. A stain, the length of two bobby pins held end to end. The diameter of a champagne grape. It doesn’t come out with Windex or Seventh Generation dish soap or OxiClean, left instead as a perpetual effigy of my fury and my guilt.
It wasn’t a cockroach because I’ve seen roaches before and there was only one of these not five thousand; not a beetle because this thing had an abundance of legs, not wings; not a millipede because millipedes always intrigued me with their sinusoidal leg movements —tiny instruments of motion whirring and ebbing like a miniscule tide— and this creature instilled only strange, deep-stomach dread. Whatever it was, it was large and crawling on my ceiling, perched upon crooked, spindly legs. I had gestured at my roommate and she squealed in response, threw me a single orange flip-flop and lurked back behind my shoulder in moral support. I steeled myself like a British artilleryman about to dive down into the trenches, clenched the flip-flop between knuckles that blanched pale at the edges, and shoved it forward. Sole and spine connected quick. I removed the shoe, only to find the creature twitching, spindle legs writhing on the floor. I shut my eyes and shoved the flip-flop back against the wall.
“Die, die die!” my roommate screeched. I wanted it dead, wanted to end its life quickly and furiously. But more than that I wanted it to know that I had done it, wanted it to arrive at the threshold of absolute transcendental time and see me, perched aloft, orange flip flop brandished and reeling in tremendous glory. I dragged the shoe against the wall. I lifted it, toe-first, expecting the insect to fall from the wall into the garbage in a shriveled heap. Instead, nothing fell—I had ground it entirely into the whitewash.
Perhaps I’m doomed to dwell on it, to leave my vision subtly and permanently blighted with each stare at my wall. To flip on the nightstand lamp, watch the stain as it’s quickly illuminated. To pull someone past the common room threshold, softly by the collar and upwards over the bed frame, only for him to stop, stare—“hey, what the hell is that?”
Only in moments of startling honesty, crystallized and pulsing, can I admit to it—leaving the bloodguts of a living creature, shameful and still strewn on my dorm room wall.
II. Excuses People Tell To Get Out of Having to Actually Kill a Bug
“I killed the last one.”
“I’m not afraid of all bugs, I’m just afraid of ___”
“I’ll wash out your peanut butter knife instead.”
“Give me a magnifying glass.”
“My nails are wet.”
“I’m cheating on you.”
“It’s not in my contract.”
III. What We Talk About When We Talk About Killing Bugs
Insect killing is a litmus test for our own morality. When we talk about killing bugs, we’re talking about ethical priorities, our immediate and vital concern for our lives over those of others. Utilitarianism vs. Deontology: What is the cost of sacrificing one life if the happiness of more undergraduates can be maximized? Does the life of one insect possess sufficient dignity to allow eight suitemates to suffer at its expense? What about 1,000,000 suitemates? Can one human quantify the value of the life of another living thing? We don’t consider it because it’s ingrained in our histories and our candy-colored flyswatters, something we feel deep within us, controlled by our integral annoyance and urban entomophobias. When we talk about killing bugs, though, we’re really talking about ethics. It’s the closest we come to the carnage of our Paleolithic kith, and the only ordinary time we get to ponder the deepest of issues—life, honor, murder, defense. But when we give ourselves up to our primal, crawling urges to squash infestation, we close any avenues for contemplation—we don’t think about the ethics before picking up the gym shoe. Perhaps this is the true test of our internal moral compasses, finding the moment fear eclipses Kant and we flush the cockroaches down the toilet.
We can only know what we’re made of when we’re staring down a bug that looks like it could be a sea monster only smaller, when we’re alone and there’s nothing left for us but to decide: kill the bug, or try to fall asleep without imagining it twitching past our pillows. Pick up the orange flip-flop: your time is now.
IV. The Things They Killed
The things they killed were largely determined by location. Among different locations the targets varied: in Chicago, the pests were mainly house spiders, bigheaded ants, carpenter ants, cintronella ants and field ants, strawberry beetles that collect like seeds in the bottom of a sink bowl. There were the blow flies and drain flies, sometimes pillbugs or camel crickets near the lilac bushes.
They killed them all, irrespective of threat or necessity. On their feet they wore high socks and gym shoes, tied up at the ankle to avoid mosquito bites and to ensure the maximum stomping effect. In New Jersey it was different, the territory expanding to include rice weevils and German cockroaches, sawtooth grain beetles, Indian meal moths, drugstore beetles, cigarette beetle, confused flour beetles. They killed earwigs, silverfish, carpet beetles, crickets, clover mites, camel back crickets, drain flies, fruit flies, house and bottle flies, subterranean termites. Romie Desrogéne, who never slept, kept a Dixie cup and note card perched at the side of her bed. Rachel Stone carried six tissues in her front pocket as a precaution. McKenzie Clarke, who was scared, carried a flyswatter with her to IR class because of the mosquitoes in the standing water in front of Woody Woo.
For the most part they killed bugs with shoes. Now and then, however, there were times of panic. They used photograph backs and beaded wallets, sheets of cardboard, eye makeup-removal pads, tissues, two-ply toilet paper, “Essential Readings in World Politics” (the Mingst and Snyder version), bare hands.
The things they killed were determined by fear. As a rower and a suite-member, Bridget Jacques killed two spiders in the shower to demonstrate her strength. While everyone else was on OA, Haley Chow killed a cockroach the first week on campus out of duty and of kindness. Cailin Hong, next to the window, killed three crickets on the first week.
After Rachel Stone killed the scary bug on her dorm room wall, her roommate McKenzie Clarke led her fellow suitemates into their common room. They sprayed everything with insect repellent. They sprayed windows and doors, they trashed the TV stand, they called in backup from the suite below and opened all the windows, and then at midnight, while Rachel Stone attempted to write it down for the Nassau Weekly, she found herself trembling.
Like cement, McKenzie whispered in the dark. It fell like cement. I swear to God—boom, down. Not a word.
V. A Short List of Childhood Traumas We Can Blame For Our Irrational Fears
Overturning a tipped-over garbage can, only to reveal a swarm of red ants streaming out from the center of a hollowed-out apple core.
Lips closed around the mouth of a Minute Maid can, waiting for the last drops of pink lemonade corn syrup, meeting a drowned wasp instead.
Entertaining parents’ business friends’ kids, a set of twins who screamed and tried setting the spider the garage on fire with a magnifying glass.
Shaking out dirty sweatpants in the bunkroom of a JCC camp cabin, mildewey flannel unfurling to release a shriveled bumblebee corpse.
James and the Giant Peach.