The last anniversary of their marriage, before my father became too sick to travel, spending his days laid out on his back, my parents took a plane to Australia. There, my mother recalls, was her first real taste of cockroaches. At night, when she had to go to the bathroom, they would venture out from the darkness and breach the light. They would lean over the thin ledge of the bathroom door, their anatine examining the air blistered from the stern glow of the room’s single, naked bulb. She would walk with footfalls of trepidation over the hostel’s cream coloured tiled floor, terrified that she would catch one by chance under her bare and softened feet. To hear the crunch, and to feel the thing’s intestinal gel glues her sole momentarily to the floor, the sharp flakes of his skeletal shell sticking into her moonlight skin. The memory of this fear lived long within her and at any mention of the creatures, her face would wince implosive into a ball and her body shiver, as she retold the story yet again. I was therefore, already sick of cockroaches, before I’d ever seen one.
I had never lived with cockroaches before we moved to a six floor walk up in Beijing’s west corner, romantically titled The Second interior village, which was closer akin to a narrow cluster of ancient red cement buildings, abandoned long ago, given over to aged, dried up vines having once crawled up from out of the mouldering piles of waste which marked every corner.
It had been our first place, living together, Christine and I. She had found the apartment, had brokered the deal and knew how to pay the bills. She could order drinkable water, chat to the woman from whom we bought our vegetables from. At work she would speak Spanish and Chinese, bridging the precipice between the two languages with effortless ease. She would take an incoming order for two hundred wooden pallets from a warehouse in Spanish and then convert it into fluent and near verbatim Chinese. At home we would turn to English as a neutral language, which she also spoke with a better accent than my own. As a teenager she had nurtured an obsession with Percy Bysshe Shelly and so when she spoke, often she would postulate great streams of lyrical poetry. She could make the rough fields and the ugly, repetitive estates of the city appear as close to sublime at they could ever appear.
During the day, while Christine was at work, I studied. Early in the day I made my way through relentless traffic and sat through hours of intense language prep. I wrote shaky, childish characters that didn’t quite fit the boxes that they were supposed to. I listened to a teacher with the spoken nourishment of an artillery gun. I made endless notes that were ineligible the moment that my pen had left the page.
I repeated dialogues out loud, held one-way conversations, practiced my phonemes and graphed homophones.I developed complex phrases.
I repeated dialogues out loud, held one-way conversations, practiced my phonemes and graphed homophones. I learnt to identity the change in tone to not call my mother a horse, and not to confuse the weekend and a fever, which I still do all the same. I developed complex phrases. The day I leant “not only…but also…” I repeated it until my mouth was dry and sore. At break times would I chat with fellow students in a dialect of Chinese that only we could understand, it being so peppered with errors and mistakes. I would leave the classroom confident of my developing skills (I learn how to say “everyday, make a little progress and not to worry), and as soon as I exited the classroom I became mute. To the taxi driver I showed my address on a tattered scrap of paper and then sat with my phone propped up close to my face so that he couldn’t try to talk to me. To the vegetable women I still point and smile. In situations that are new and unknown I look embarrassed and repeat my only phrase: I’m sorry. I do not understand.
Every afternoon I am in the apartment alone. I work the textbooks and try to decipher notes. Christine finishes at six and can be home by six thirty by the subway, but more recently has taken to arriving closer to nine. I have gotten used to only seeing her in the dark. Each evening, once I can no longer endlessly repeat the same fractured conversations, the sounds from my mouth having become gibberish, I cook. I cook for the both of us, and leave it on the table for when she comes home. Once she’s through the door we sit and eat, only at different tables. She eats with her Ipad propped up on its convenient stand or nestled between her legs, usually talking to friends, catching up on gossip or a show with her headphones plugged in, while I sit with my laptop and pretend to work on and instead watch sitcoms that I’ve seen before.
Cockroaches are extremely hard to exterminate, because even if the adult bugs all eat the poison, there’s always another layer of eggs waiting to hatch. When we first moved in, because of the infestation in the kitchen, I became fastidiously clean. I wiped surfaces near every hour, scoured the walls and the floor, even the ceiling. I laid out every kind of trap house and chemical container that I could find. I built walls out of the damn things. I sprayed whole aerosol cans while covering my mouth and then quickly bolted the door shut for the night. I kept all accessible food sealed away and lay out moats of bicarbonate of soda. And for a day or two they would disappear, then after a while I’d spot a small one scuttling back to safety alongside an open cabinet. The next day I’d find another in the sink, one in the trash, and soon it would be back to as it was before. When every evening I’d go into the kitchen to cook and turning on the light would watch a good twenty or so hurrying away.
One night I became so frustrated with my lack of progress, that I took a can of deodorant and storming into the kitchen, held a light up in front of its exhaust of chemical spray and tried to light them all on fire, illuminating the kitchen in the festive shadows of a bonfire.
Christine never did seem too bothered by them. She didn’t like them, but remained undisturbed for the most part by their presence. She ignored them. In the kitchen she didn’t turn to shouting and cursing beneath her breath as I did. When they began to venture out to the bathroom and finally, onto the bookcase and then the bed sheets, she either just brushed them away or stepped carefully over them, their bodies freezing under the sudden eclipse that was her frame passing over, as she headed out on her way to work, or to the bathroom to wash, or the bed to sleep. I tried to follow her in this pattern of acceptance, as I obviously couldn’t rid us of the things, but found that whereas hers seemed an expression wholly sincere and authentically felt, mine was one of repressed anger towards the increasingly ever larger black bodies roaming freely in our home. A submerged anger which made its release onto taxi drivers who could no longer read the shaky writing on my rapidly decaying shred of paper, or towards the student who performed better than me in that morning’s class.
In a restaurant famous for it’s whole fish course, where they serve a freshly caught river trout, garnished with tofu and vegetables of your choosing, I sat with Christine and a few of her colleagues as they digested office politics and gossiped while waiting for the dishes to arrive. The restaurant’s walls were a
deep claret red and the room’s lighting was low and comfortable. For the first time in months I was able to relax and feel myself sinking into the comfortable bench, where next to me sat a wonderful woman. And although I am here of course still mute, I felt no great need to talk or enter into a conversation wherein I have no real place. Just as I considered taking her hand into mine, for it felt so long since we actually touched, the dishes arrived. For the four of us, two fish had been ordered, arriving halved lengthways and garnished with potatoes, black beans, spring onions and whole gloves of sweet roasted garlic. As the others all rubbed the splinters away from off of their chopsticks, I began to lift a spoon to the bowl, to slice off a piece of the flesh, when one of the black beans shifted away from the edge of the implement. As I lifted a slice of fish from off of its bones, I saw another bean distinctly scuttle across the fish’s back and hide inside of the dead creatures mouth, and peering further in I saw that the bean’s antenna were still poking out, sticking themselves through the gaps in between the sharp teeth of the fish’s gaping mouth. I put down the sliver of fish that I had held up to my mouth and closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, I saw the whole head of the fish twitch, as if anxiously paralyzed in fear, and as I watched it’s oily black skin hardened under the restaurant’s dim light, as its newly sprouted antenna darted frantically around, its eye twisted round to stare directly at me in insect distress. Quickly I stood up and in the restaurant’s rancid toilet was violently sick. Then once at the table again, the smell of vomit still dripping down my throat, I took the bottle of Chinese liquor from the other side of the table and proceeded to get very drunk, taking shot after shot, all the while the creature’s eye stayed fixated, locked onto mine.
Throughout the dense heat of the summer, Christine will shower when she arrives home from work. Her showers are long and fill the rest of the apartment with humid climates of dense steam. As dinner still sat untouched on the table, I undressed and stepped into the bathroom beside her, as the shower head struggled to produce enough water to soak the entirety of her long, Moorish hair. I lifted my arms up to around her shoulders and from behind moved her back slowly towards me. Without a word, we pressed our bodies together. Through two small steps she turned to face me, and our kiss was short and tentative, near delicate and tender. My hands descended her back as she placed hers on my waist and our embrace grew in its intensity. And then a pause, not caused by either of us directly. We neither declined nor took the action to progress to the mattress. The only movement in the room came from the water falling endlessly onto the dark tiles of the bathroom’s uneven floor. Slowly, I moved away from her, as wordlessly as we had almost started, she returned to washing herself, while I dried my damp body on an old and cotton tarnished towel.
I have stopped trying to rid us of our cockroaches. I no longer cook, and what scraps of food were left moulding in the kitchen sink I’ve given over to them.
They no longer fear the daylight, and small dark rivers can be seen traversing our floors in the midday light.
The cubbords that are filled to over-flowing with rotten lettuce leaves and the trimmings of fat and gristle, I have not thought to empty. The counter surfaces are lined with layers of grease so think that they obscure the original colour. I have closed the door and not chosen to re-open it. They no longer fear the daylight, and small dark rivers can be seen traversing our floors in the midday light. At night I can sometimes feel the indentations of their feet passing my nose upon my pillow, and catch the silhouettes of their shells as they pass obscure from my eyes the windows bleeding in of artificial light. Last week for the first time, after eating alone in a small restaurant at night, Christine now eats out most nights with various colleges and friends from work, I brought home the leftovers in my pocket and placed them on the floor by my bed. Then as a handful of fist-sized cockroaches came over, I tore off little pieces of the meat and fat and fed it to them, their incisors flexing in anticipation. And as they ate I patted them on their backs, stroking their shell’s brittle indentations the way you would a faithful dog.
At school I have become an ostracised individual. After secretly doing so for the better part of a fortnight before I was discovered, another student having moved my bag from off of an empty seat and found that writhing within it, amongst the study guides and notebook paper, was a black mass, a density of scraping and clawing moment. And screaming as she dropped the bag to the floor, she and the others alongside her watched in horror as a multitude of monstrously large bugs ran at terrific speeds across the slippery classroom floor. After several days of being of being truly avoided, I stopped attending classes and now instead stay home. Most days I drink way before it is in the afternoon. Though I am sleeping and turned over to my side with back to the room long before Christine comes home, I don’t think she has particularly noticed, as we always slept each one of us nearly falling from opposite sides of the bed. I am learning though.
We went out, for our anniversary meal, just the two of us, alone amongst a crowd of chewing, gestating and digesting diners, and ordered a barbecue of lamb and chicken, which was to be cooked at the table by ourselves on a small hotplate resting over a gas lit flame. The meat arrived and we began to eat in silence, a silence that was not noticeable due to the general surrounding din. I felt the noise expanding, not as if it was getting louder or more chaotic, but in that my ability to hear it, and therefore suffer from it, was increasing. I felt my very sensitivity rise. And without really any knowledge about what I was about to do, I stuck my left hand deep into the roaring gas flame below the plate. It took a couple from the next table, their arms tightly wrapped around my shoulders to remove me, pulling me back onto the floor as my chair tumbled underneath, to get my hand free from the fire. After wrapping it with thick dishwasher cloths from the kitchen, Christine hurried me out of the restaurant and begged that we go to the hospital, but I refused. For the first time in so long that I cannot remember, I heard her cry. She wept loudly and unashamed, as on the street I sat like a child and cradled my burnt hand as it pulsated underneath the used dish cloths.
Christine is a heavy sleeper, she has always been. Even with her back turned to me, I know that her breathing is calm and solid, and that I could press myself against her as hard as I could and not wake her. But as always we sleep with our backs to one another, as listening to the soft, plaintive song of her exhaling breath, I remove the kitchen rags, which have already begun to stick to my open wound and begun to become an additional to my body, and picking a little at the seared flesh to rejuvenate the plasma and the growing droplets of blood, I beckon forth a small gathering of cockroaches, and invite them in, as they quietly and lovingly begin to eat the charred patches of my shaking hand. And I kiss them, lovingly on their rippled backs and whisper to them secrets of which only they will ever understand.