“The Nature of Being” by Elizabeth Alexander

Herman Davis was a cockroach. He had been a cockroach all his life and his Ma and Pa had always told him it was a very distinguished thing to be. After all, his species had once fraternized with the dinosaurs, they had survived hundreds of millions of years and were thriving still. When he was just a nymph, Herman used to contemplate his misery. The life granted to him, in his eyes, was not a fair one. His Ma told him, though, that he was special. Other creatures on Earth may survive in less contempt, but think, she would tell him, think of all that you have been given, Herman. You can turn on a dime in a single stride! Tell me, what other creatures can do that? Herman would dip his antennae in agreement. Ma always knew how to make him feel better.

Herman had matured into a full-grown roach. He had come to love every centimeter of his scaly body. He had moved from his parents’ nest and was living with a woman in Brooklyn. He found that her pink and white wallpaper tasted sweeter than most, and she had the most wonderful collection of books, the bindings of which always satisfied his hunger. His parents had approved of his new home and bid him farewell and good luck. If only they knew, Herman wondered, why he had really chosen the small apartment above an artisan bakery. While the books were sublime, and the glue in the walls divine, it was the woman who resided there that made Herman quiver with delight. She was the most remarkable creature he had ever seen.

Irene Fisher was twenty-three. She had just graduated from college with a degree in pharmaceuticals. She had chosen her major as the result of several traumatic childhood experiences. When she was three, her brother had put a dead mouse on her pillow. When she was twelve, he convinced her that if she touched a doorknob in a public place, hordes of germs would cling to her skin and eventually kill her. As many times as her practical parents begged him stop these idiotic pranks, her brother continued to torture her throughout the better half of their childhood.

Now, Irene had to sanitize every surface of a room before she could breathe normally, and she left the plastic on all of her furniture so that no germs could collect in the fabric. With her degree, she was able to secure a job as a cleanroom technician in a pharmaceutical laboratory. A room which, much to her delight, employees had to wear masks and gloves just to enter.

Herman watched everyday as Irene made herself breakfast and left for work. He would scurry to the trashcan to see what she had made that day, and what she had left for him. Banana pancake day was his favorite. When she came home from work, Herman would wait in the walls. When she watched Grey’s Anatomy at night Herman watched with her from under the couch. The plastic cover on the couch rubbed his back unpleasantly and irritated his antennae, but he didn’t mind.

It was a Wednesday in January when the harmony that existed in the small Brooklyn apartment was shattered forever. Irene made her breakfast as usual, waffles with strawberry topping. She ate while reading a copy of the New York Times, which she had arranged to be sent to her apartment. Last week’s crossword answers had come in and she was meticulously correcting her work. She rubbed the eraser over every mistake enough times that a casual observer would think she was writing the correct answer for the very first time. When she finished, Irene scraped the remainder of her meal into the trashcan and proceeded to scrub the countertop clean with a vigor that guaranteed not a speck of food would survive. Placing her hospital ID next to the sink, she washed her hands, twice, and threw her purse over her shoulder. Mulling over this week’s crossword, Irene walked to the door and stepped out of her apartment.

As soon as the door clicked shut, Herman scrabbled out of his hiding place and across the kitchen counter. He dove into the trash and nibbled on leftover waffles. The strawberries were almost too sweet for his finely tuned sensibilities, but Irene wouldn’t have known that. He then crawled back out and headed toward the cupboard. On his way back, Herman spotted a flat piece of plastic sitting next to the sink. He noted that this was quite unusual, and abnormality in itself was unlike Irene. He was a naturally curious roach, as his parents always reminded him. When he was younger, he would always leave the nest to explore. Never leave the nest! His parents would say, there is nothing more to be feared than humans. They aren’t like us Herman, they’re angry and violent. As Herman made his way to the plastic slab he thought that his parents couldn’t have been more wrong. He had always nurtured the hope that even humans must harbor some goodness, but it wasn’t until he met Irene that he knew for sure. When he reached the slab, Herman saw that on its surface was a picture of Irene. She was smiling up at him, her hair pulled back to show her kind face better, and her eyes just as bright as they were when he saw them every morning. Herman wondered if there was a way he could bring this slab to his nest. He was musing over the physics of hauling the plastic, when the door to the apartment reopened. He didn’t hear the door, and he didn’t hear her footsteps. What he did hear was the shriek that followed. He looked up and saw Irene staring down at him her face twisted with a look of fear and revulsion. His parents had told him humans were angry and mean, but nothing had prepared him for the disgust that he saw in her eyes.

Irene was momentarily paralyzed. Her brother’s cruel jokes ran like film through her mind. The dead mouse especially, crawling with malicious parasites. She thought for a moment she might throw up, but managed to fight the urge which was repulsive in itself. After she had taken a moment to recover, she reached for the New York Times and, hyperventilating still, threw it in the general direction of the bug. The newspaper smacked the wall, but the cockroach scurried away unscathed and disappeared behind her toaster. Irene thought she might faint. She was shaking, she couldn’t breathe. Every surface of the apartment seemed foreign and deadly. She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed her landlord. He promised he would be up later that evening to see if he could sort out her pest problem.

Herman burrowed under the toaster until he heard her footsteps fade. When he crawled out he half-hoped to see her there. The image of her horrified face filled with loathing was trapped inside his tiny mind. He had heard about heartbreak when she was watching Grey’s Anatomy, and he supposed this was it. His small chest felt like it might burst. If she hated him, then he hated himself. He cursed a God that would make him anything less than the man he wanted to be for her. His Ma and Pa had told him that being a cockroach was a very distinguished thing to be, but he knew now they had lied to him.

That evening Irene’s landlord came to her apartment. She let him in and showed him where the cockroach had fled after she had thrown her newspaper at it.

Herman watched this strange man poke around the toaster, and watched Irene’s anxious hands clutch at her body. It was all too much for him to bear, so he reached a solemn conclusion. He must be brave for her, for this wonderful woman who could never sleep in a home where he lived.

Irene screamed until she felt her lungs might give out as the cockroach skittered across the kitchen counter. Remarkably though, it stopped in the middle. She guessed her cry must have frightened it. Her landlord whipped around and she pointed a trembling finger at the bug. Her landlord took measured steps over to the counter. The bug sat still. Her landlord raised a knife (he was new to the business of extermination) and lopped off the creature’s head in one smooth motion. The head actually flew across the counter, but Irene’s eyes were squeezed shut, so her landlord didn’t say anything. He wasn’t in the mood for head-hunting. They disposed of the body and Irene was able to breathe again and begin the disinfecting process.

Herman thought to himself that being a cockroach was in fact a very special thing. As he watched Irene from the dark space beneath the toaster, he remembered that his parents had once told him cockroaches could live for weeks while decapitated.

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