“If God loves us so much, why did he create roaches?” Debra mutters to herself as she edges closer to the bathroom, clutching a rolled-up Daily News. She had slipped into her pajamas when she spotted The Thing; that dirty creature with the six hairy legs and the swishing feelers and the gold flecks on its penis-shaped black-brown head.
It was in there.
She pushes open the door and gasps. Now it’s perched on the white plastic toilet seat. Debra is certain she’ll never again make a number two or two and a half in the bowl. There’s no other bathroom. Her itty-bitty apartment is situated in the rib cage of Harlem. She curses her lack of apartment-hunting skills. “It’s gentrified.” The real-estate agent had assured her. Debra had spotted white women cross the street from her second-floor window on occasion. But at night it’s when the mixed-race clans loiter outside, playing their boom boxes, trading put-downs; the white boys punctuating their pretentious hip-hop slang by calling each other ‘niggahs.’ and the black teens laughing along between slugs of their Forty-Fives.
Yeah, right. Gentrified.
Ex-president Clinton once lived just up the block, Debra was told. She bets he never had to deal with the Harlem Roach. This one is the biggest she’s ever seen.
“Stay put, you bastard”, she says to the intruder, her makeshift weapon poised. The roach scurries underneath the bowl, then pops into view. She shrieks and jumps back. Now it’s disappeared. “Where are you, home-wrecker? You evil-looking sonofabitch?”
The thing suddenly bolts towards her and she nearly trips back against the bright yellow sofa. Now it’s crawled under it. She skips to the other end of the living room and makes a call from her cell, her back pressed against the peeling wall.
His answering machine. Shit.
“Leave a message.” A beep. Go.
“Todd, you need to get over here a-fuckin-sap! I’m not kidding! Please?”
She clicks off, shuddering, staring at the sofa across the room.
Mice she can deal with, barely, even the so-called ‘German Cockroach’, the water bug’s less imposing cousin; those little ones. But this monster, hidden underneath the sofa, is lying there in wait, mocking her. Debra has to remind herself that Todd, her prized handsome fiancé, will soon take her away from here. Their wedding is just two months away.
She had met ‘Toddy’ at the Museum of Natural History where she works as a ticket printer behind a PC, doling them out to the mostly tourist crowds. What a cool guy. His parents are well-off financially and live in Connecticut. Todd’s a Yalie. Four years her junior. Yeah, well, so what? Six feet even, athletic, with thick brown hair and the bluest eyes. Hitler would have adored him. And clean-shaven! At age thirty-two, Debra thought she would eventually have to settle for a plump balding guy, pushing fifty, with a five o’clock shadow passing for today’s “mans’ look.” Please.
Pure luck their eyes had met the exact moment she handed him his ticket. Debra’s most striking features are her large green eyes and taut, slender frame. Added to this is her corn silk auburn hair, an eye-pleasing adornment. “Off-beat pretty.” he had described her during their first date, which was a visit to the Museum, the very place she worked for but never dared venture into. The sight of stuffed animals and those creepie-crawlies kept her at bay. Todd dismissed her phobia and guaranteed his protection should any of those beasts suddenly come to life and leap at her.
So considerate, her Todd; such a good listener. Who’d ever thought such a goofy, preppie- sounding name like ‘Todd’ could jack up her heart-beat? The age gap? No prob. And the guy can dress. Calvin Klein. Navy Yard. And Brooks Brothers for his gig on Wall Street.
After a two-month courtship and a quickie now and then in his tony East Side apartment, he had popped the question.
“I need time to think it over, Todd. Yes, I’ll marry you.”
The ring was dazzling. His only visit to her shithole convinced him she needed a change in location. After they married.
‘Living in sin’ was frowned upon by Todd’s fetid parents, who seemed crestfallen by their only son’s choice for a new girlfriend. Their look said ‘He could do better,’ behind their crocodile smiles. Yeah, stuffy, but well-off.
Todd loved playing practical jokes, Debra soon learned. “The girl I was seeing before I met you?” he said. “Freaked when she gagged and spit out a jelly bean I snuck into her coffee. I never called her again.” What Todd wanted was a woman who understood his ‘charming’ sense of humor.
Gak! Now the roach is racing across the white rug. The color contrast makes it appear even bigger. It settles beneath the DVD player, staring at her as if to say ‘Kill me if you dare.’ The thought of squishing it terrifies her. That crunching sound.
Oh, Toddy baby, please get here. Because if you don’t, I’ll have to book a clean hotel room just so’s I can sleep tonight. Gotta be up at seven, dude. Work tomorrow.
She thinks about calling mom, who moved to London with her boyfriend. Dad had passed away last year after a nasty stroke. Poor dad, he won’t get to pull me onto the dance floor at the wedding party. Mom’s boyfriend is a smug Cricket-addict. Life will go on without him.
Now Debra’s petrified, gazing at the roach, clutching her weapon. Go for it, Debs. Get it over with. She takes a step, then another. It seems to be waiting for her. Ugh. What a disgusting sight. Satan’s Bug. Oh, but wait! There’s a can of Raid somewhere. Shit! It’s on top of the player. Why isn’t it in the bathroom where it belongs? She suddenly remembers why. She had used the bomb to shoot down a renegade horsefly buzzing manically behind the living room window drapes. The ‘thing’ shifts and she yelps. She hears the doorbell buzz behind her. Todd! She presses the button, not bothering to ask who it is. It’s one flight up so any second she’ll hear the welcome din of ascending footsteps.
Knock at the door. She answers it. There he is, my savior.
“Todd, oh my freakin’ God. It’s over there!” She points with a trembling finger. He frowns.
“A water bug! Look! Over there! See??”
His eyes narrow, then widen. “Oh, Jeez! It’s huge!” he squawks. “It’s- It’s the American Cockroach!”
He turns to her, pop-eyed. “Why didn’t you tell me over the phone, Deb?” He begins shaking uncontrollably. “I’m not going anywhere near that thing. Sorry. You’re on your own.” he says, and throttles the doorknob, about to leave.
He breaks into a grin. “Just messin’ with my girl.”
She punches his shoulder. ‘Don’t do that, you prick!”
He touches her arm. “Okay, stay here and allow Prince Valiant to handle the situation. They’re blind, did you know that? That’s what makes them so scary.”
She hands him the tightly curled newspaper. He gives it back. “I’ll just stomp on it.” She screws her face, “Eeeuuw.” and remains in her spot as Todd approaches the roach. “Use the Raid!” she blurts. Todd nods and grabs the can.
The roach suddenly races straight towards Debra and she slams her head back against the door before hopping out of its range. She jumps on the sofa knees-first. The roach stops and Todd spritzes half the spray’s contents onto it. Debra curls her lips as the invader flops over on its back, writhing; its legs thrashing crazily like Medusa’s snakes. Todd bends slightly to inspect his kill. “it’s still alive.” he murmurs.
“Well, stomp on it like you promised, Todd!”
He shakes his head. “Nah, I’d rather watch it die.”
Debra grimaces and recoils on the sofa. “Todd, pleeeease, will you just toss it out the fucking window?? I don’t even want it in my apartment.” Todd slowly looks up and widens his eyes at her. “It’s coming to get you, Debra.” he says in a spooky voice. She stares at him. “Todd. Stop. I mean it. It’s not funny.”
His eyes expand even more, if that were possible. “It wants to connect with you, Debra.” He picks up the roach by one of its antennas. It’s still squirming. Debra springs out of the sofa and backs against the door, trembling, her own eyes vast and her heart pumping acid.
The roach dangles under Todd’s thumb and forefinger, lashing in its death-throes. Debra begins crying. “Todd, please, no more.” It looms larger, The Thing, with each passing second. Time seems to sink.
Todd tosses it at her.
Debra lets go a blood-chilling scream that could be heard in Japan; that her neighbors will probably ignore. They’ve heard screams before. Todd drops the roach and crushes it with his brown designer shoe. Debra’s tremoring won’t stop. She’s cowering in the corner, hugging herself. Todd pads towards her, frowning. “Heyyy,” he soothes, “I was just having some fun.” She glares at him for the longest time, then slips off her engagement ring. “What’re you doing?” he asks. “Come on, Deb.” He bleats a suppressed chuckle. She flings the ring at his chest.
“Get out.” she says, cold and flat.
“Deb, I’m sorry, okay? Look at you, you’re shaking.”
“Fuck you. Get out.”
He backs up like whoa, his eyebrows arched. “Because of what just happened? Are you serious??”
“I want you out of here.” she says to the floor. He stares at her and nods lazily. “You are one amazing piece of work, you know that? You’re a frightened little mouse and I’m not sure I’d want you in my foxhole.” He pockets the ring, swings opens the door, and slams it shut behind him. Adios, muchacho.
Debra stays rooted to her spot and gazes at the splattered “American” cockroach. “Everything okay in there?” she hears Mrs. Vasquez shout from across the hall. Debra has to side-step the six-legged corpse to open the door.
“I’m good, Mrs. Vasquez. Thank you kindly for asking.” She shuts the door, takes a deep breath, and lickety-split uses a broom and dust pan to scoop up the roach and sling it into the waste-basket.
‘Frightened little mouse.’
She paces east and west, her eyes scanning the room. Perhaps it was one of those derelict roaches that somehow lost its way and ended up here. She races to the bathroom and plugs up the shower drain. It had to have slithered from out of there last night. She sighs and plops down on the sofa.
As for Todd.
Whatever feelings she had for Toddy have vaporized. Is it possible to fall out of love so quickly?
No. I won’t kid myself.
But Debra knows she could never take him back. Todd needs someone stronger, more in tune with his immature sense of fun. I hope you find such a girl, Todd. Someone you can play your jokes on. Me, I’ll adjust somehow. I’ll find a way to adjust. I’ll dig my own foxhole.
She turns on the TV for comfort. Breaking News. An earthquake has rocked a city in Turkey. Thousands of lives lost. How insignificant her turmoil, compared to this. The perspective will change her, she’s sure. She will make plans to move elsewhere.
Meantime, Debra, expect the unexpected.
And whether or not Toddy calls her again, he’s history. One less monster to worry about.
I’m a filmmaker/author who looks forward to visiting Jane Austen’s home
next year. My short films have screened at various festivals and my stories
have been published at Writing Raw and (soon) at Every Day Fiction.
Thank you for the opportunity.