This is a story about me and a big bug. I’m warning you in case you’re the kind of person who can’t read a bug story without losing a week to nightmares.
I hate when bug stories come without warning. Recently, someone started telling me a story about a “weird thing that happened” to her; next thing I knew, I was hearing that a freaking cockroach crawled across her chest. That is not a “weird thing”. A weird thing is if a Velvet Underground song comes on your Ipod and just at that moment, you pass by Lou Reed.
A cockroach on your chest is not “weird,” it’s horrifying. And a story like that should come with a warning. And possibly blinking lights in case I wasn’t listening.
So, now you’re warned.
I’m not bothered by all bugs. When I went to summer camp they had those skinny Daddy Long Legs spiders, which apparently aren’t technically spiders. They ran up your leg in that tickly way. I didn’t love it. But I was in the freaking woods. It’s their territory, not mine.
But the city is for people. Sure, there are wild turkeys in Riverside Park and Red Tailed Hawks nesting atop fancy buildings on the East Side, but I’m not for any other creature, here, besides us and cats and goldfish.
But of course they are here. And I know, each year, that as soon as I have celebrated the Melting of Big Mountains Of Dirty Snow On Every Corner, I have to prepare for Big Bugs. I’m not talking about generic cockroaches. I don’t like those, but they don’t show up unexpectedly. Some people’s apartments have them and others don’t, and if you don’t, you’re OK. Several years ago I had two clients in a row who both had cockroaches. It was super creepy and I will never forget their buildings, but, you know, those bugs stay put. They’re not going to jump out at me on the sidewalk while I’m walking in my strappy sandals. They are homebodies.
The ones that really freak me are the Big Ones. You know which ones I mean. People call them water bugs, but they’re just as likely to be skittling down the sidewalk as creeping around a drain.
They’re huge. They’re armored, defiant, impervious, like those young people in the East Village completely covered in tattoos and piercings, or those older, rich people uptown, hidden under Botox and Keratin treatments. In some ways, water bugs fit right in in a city where so many people inhabit armored shells.
I can remember each one I’ve seen. Where I was, where I was going, my footwear at the time.
Once, my sister was apartment-hunting in my neighborhood. When I heard the address, I thought, “last summer there was a water bug on the sidewalk right in front.”
She moved elsewhere.
A couple times, I’ve seen one in my own, (gasp, cringe, twitch) apartment. I’ve lived in the city almost twenty years; it happens.
Once, one ran by my feet – centimeters away, in my bedroom!! I grabbed my children and hopped into the living room, stopping very quickly to pour myself two fingers of bourbon. I planted the three of us on the couch, cross-legged, saying, “We are staying right here until Dad gets home.” Two drinks later, after my son had killed the thing, I still insisted we leave the city and spend the weekend at my parents’. Even in the country, where Big Bugs aren’t, I jumped at every tickle and breeze for two days.
And yet. When you live in New York City, you know, in the summertime, that you’ll likely see one, especially if other conditions are present. Which is why, recently, when my building was getting a new stoop, I was in a chronic state of panic. The front door to the building was completely blocked; there were three weeks of construction. To get in or out, you needed to walk down to the garden level and out the back door.
New York + June + construction + walking downstairs into a garden.
It was only a matter of time.
I feel I need to digress for a moment and just say – there are lots of areas in my life where I’m confident and competent. I think most people wouldn’t meet me and immediately think, “that is the kind of woman who completely loses her petunias over everything.” You’ll have to take my word.
I was leaving my house to see a client. I work with new moms, and if you are, or ever have been a new mom, you know it can be kind of freaky, at first, when they let you loose with a new baby. Half the time you have no idea what to do and the other half you’re too exhausted to notice. New moms need lots of things to help ease the transition, but more than anything, company helps. Because when they’re all alone, moms can start to lose it a little. When you’re isolated, normal worries can become epic. Spending hours/days/weeks without talking to other adults can make anyone a total whack-noodle.
Most moms navigate just fine through this transition, but some become overwhelmed. And one of the things that makes it all harder is, almost no one wants to ask for help. We kind of all act like asking for help is a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength. We pretend that the goal is to have everything under control all the time, to never feel overwhelmed, scared or doubtful, and certainly not to admit it or depend on anyone.
But when you have a baby, it’s not under control, and it’s not meant to be handled solo. And so a big part of my work is helping moms recognize when they need help, and learn how to ask for it – from each other, from me, from their loved ones, from specialists when necessary.
Anyway, I was walking down the stairs thinking about my client, got to the front door and idiotically tried to open it, forgetting, for the 30th time, that it’s blocked off. Then cursed a little and turned down the stairwell to the basement. There’s a little half-staircase that leads downwards, and then a small vestibule. At the far side of the vestibule, a fire door leads out towards the garden. I rounded the corner and stood atop the stairs, facing the vestibule.
At the foot of the stairs was a bug the size of my fucking hand.
It was on its back but very much alive. It was trying earnestly to right itself, flitting and flopping and moving very frantically. And it was blocking my path. A normal person would (a) walk by it or (b) step on it. But I have this Thing.
I considered my options.
Option 1. Cancel Client.
Option 2. Be magically beamed out of building and, ideally, off the planet.
Meanwhile, the bug is buzzing, flitting and vibrating on the floor making a thwick, thwick, thwick sound. But faster than that: Thwick!thwick!thwick!thwick!thwickthwickthwick!
Now comes the part of the story where I say “fuck” a lot.
I can’t just cancel clients. I’m a fucking professional. And I had crap to fucking do that day. I really did need to leave. Plus, what was I going to do, go back upstairs and tell my kid and her babysitter, “oh nevermind, I think I’ll just stay home all day”? With a mouse-sized bug thwicking around a few floors below us?
The obvious thing to do was to walk past it, so I geared myself up for it. I spoke sternly to myself: ”Dude, just walk past this fucker. Right this minute. Get over yourself. Don’t be a baby. Just fucking walk. One foot and then the next. Just. Do. It.”
Thwick. Thwick. Thwickthwickthwickthwickthwick.
I couldn’t even lift my foot to take the first step.
I switched to a gentle, encouraging voice. “Come on honey, you can do it. You are much bigger than the bug. Just, easy now, just take one step. Just take one breath. Slow your heartbeat. Breathe down to the floor. Good. And now. One step forward.”
Thwickthwickthwick went the guinea-pig sized bug.
Looking, now, at the words on the page, it’s embarrassing. I am a grown woman. I have endured worse shit than this and managed to keep going. This. Was. Just. A. Bug.
But. I couldn’t walk.
You know how usually your thoughts come in chunks, but sometimes you get an actual sentence in words? Well, this was one of those moments where an actual sentence went through my mind, and the words were: “I can’t get past this without help.”
And I stood there, with the rabbit-sized, thwicking bug before me, and laughed bitterly. Because how many times have I sympathized with a client, saying I know how hard it is to ask for help, but pushed her, encouraged her to reach out to whoever was available?
It is easier to say than to do.
On the other hand, if I expect my clients find a way to ask for help, I need to be able to do it, too. And so. I walked up the half-flight to the first floor and stood outside apartment 1A.
Karen, who lives there, is probably 60. I know her vaguely — she has cat-sat for us sometimes and she is always nice to my kids. She has always seemed a little depressed to me.
She opened the door, barefoot and in a house dress with no bra and unbrushed hair. I managed to say, “Um. Karen, Hi. Uh. There’s a, um. Well, there’s a big water bug down in the vestibule, and I’m kind of finding that I … “
She pressed her eyebrows together and said, “You want me to kill a bug?!”
She got a pair of slippers (Slippers! For the armadillo-cockroach!) and the New York Post. We rounded the corner to the little half-stairway and I hung back.
“I can’t see it,” she said.
"Well, fuck, it was on the floor."
"It’s gone now."
My face obviously said, “It might be on its way to my bedroom right this fucking moment!”
Karen began to laugh and said, “Well, anyway the coast is clear—“ when suddenly she stopped and said, very quietly, “OHHH. Oh. There it is. On the wall. Wow. OK, it’s big.”
Karen eased into the vestibule and although I didn’t dare look in the direction she was looking, I could see her head tilted way back. That fucker must have been way up high.
She approached slowly, holding the newspaper back like a bat. She braced herself to take a swing, muttering, “it’s big, it’s big, it’s big.” She took a deep breath and did that little backwards motion batters do right before they swing.
But then she stopped and lowered the newspaper-bat and appeared to deflate and said, to the floor, “Oh, Meredith, I’m sorry. I’m not going to be able to help you. It’s – it’s too big. I’m scared.”
She turned to me, her shoulders slumped down and there was a very clear moment where I saw that I had just put all my hope in a depressive 60 year old with bed-head. That was stupid, stupid.
And yet – what next? She could go home to her housedress and New York Post, but I was still stuck in the vestibule.
Karen was walking back towards me and looked up sadly at my face.
I tried to muster the Calm Face. I have a lifetime’s experience telling people it’s all OK. But I’d stretched myself a little, to ask for help this time, and I wasn’t springing back into the usual “It’s All Under Control” mask so easily.
By now Karen was right next to me on the steps and in the pause, she looked me in the eye. And what she saw was someone very vulnerable, and very frightened. She took a big breath and said, “No, wait. I have an idea. How about I stand in front of it and you walk in front of me, so I’m between you and it?”
I felt a wave of relief. Karen was obviously scared, too. But she wanted to help me. And she was already walking back down to the rhino-sized-bug-zone and waiting for me. She was stretching herself — pushing out of her comfort zone to try to help me, and, I thought, I had to try to do the same.
“OK, Karen,” I said, “Thank you. I’ll try—.
And at that exact moment, the thing FLEW AT HER HEAD! She screamed, and batted at it frantically, and it fell to the floor and she jumped on it about five times and then pounded at it with the Post.
Actually all that is just how I imagine it, because the moment she shrieked I ran, screaming, up the stairs.
Finally Karen called out, panting, “OK, it is totally and definitely dead now.”
I tiptoed back down, shaking. I felt horrible that I’d done this to her, but when Karen looked at me, her face looked, sure, totally grossed out, but also kind of alive in a way sometimes women look after giving birth, like, “WTF, I did it!”
And she grinned at me.
So, I thanked her profusely, but the funniest part was that afterwards, as I walked through the garden and then to the train to meet my client, I felt a little bit high. I asked for help, and the help helped. I got out of the house. I didn’t lose the whole day. And my life, now, included Karen in some way. Karen the unlikely hero.
And I had the distinct feeling that Karen felt awesome about it, too, afterwards, having been able to do something for me. Happy to be considered for the task. She got to be included in my life, to make the world better for someone. It feels good.
Later, I bought flowers, and as I brought them to Karen’s door, I felt the embarrassed, exposed feeling. She was, after all, basically a stranger. Here we were, living in the same building, possibly for decades to come, and she now knew the depth of my craziness. She would know it every single time she saw me. She would give my kids Halloween candy and think, “Their mother lost her shit once over a water bug.” Perhaps she would tell others.
It’s easier to imagine that if I keep everything to myself, they might all be walking around thinking I’m perfect, right?
On the other hand, so what? So Karen, and now everyone else knows I’m a little whackado on this issue. It means, also, that they can help me, in whatever way they turn out to be able. And help helps.
And here, finally, is why I’m blogging this story:
Keeping the hard stuff secret keeps us all apart from each other, but sharing it—asking for help, stretching out of your comfort zone to give help, having courage to accept help you’re offered– weaves a net under us all. And that net is the community that holds us together. It’s the net, safely beneath you, that helps you remember, even when you’re at your worst, that overwhelmed isn’t the same as “helpless.” New moms can feel low, weary, out of their depth. What helps is reaching out, asking for help.
I know it’s hard! You’ve got to weave that net yourself and the thread is made of your own courage. But when it’s there, it makes our passage through this messy and surprising life a little more manageable.
This month they’re replacing our roof. I hope Karen hasn’t gone on vacation, oy.