It began with bug bites. Actually, it began with an infestation of flies, a nearly literal pox upon my house. My kitchen was clean–I mean, as clean as an un-rehabbed 1940s kitchen ever gets. (See: rent control.) Which is to say things were scrubbed and put away but a film of age and general erosion prevailed. Yes, there was a tiny hole in the window screen but, again, it’s a hole that’s been there for forever and a day. And, yes, temperatures were soaring that day–the kind of grueling heat in which only pests seem to flourish–but it had been nasty hot, slap-you-with-a-dirty-boiling-towel hot for weeks.
So really there was no reason for my kitchen to suddenly be infested with hundreds of flies on that particular day, but that’s what happened. I swear, as I type this, a fly just landed on my computer. And now another one, as if to remind me this story doesn’t already have a moral wrapped in a pretty little bow.
It’s really not that kind of summer.
It’s really not that kind of country.
When the first fly appeared last month, I was working in my front room. I clocked its progress but made no move; getting worked up over the occasional vermin in a NYC apartment is a no-win endeavor. Even Grace, sprawled dramatically in the heat, watched it sail it by without batting so much as an eyelash.
But the fly was followed by another, and another, and another, and eventually I heaved myself to a standing position and padded into the kitchen for a swatter and a can of Lysol disinfectant spray, which, disgusting as it is, will stun any bug long enough for you to gain the upper hand. Grace trotted at my heels, keen for bloodshed so long as she didn’t have to commit it herself. She is a notoriously terrible hunter, though I have admonished her countless times that Rosman girls earn their keep and one of her few responsibilities is vermin control.
There in the kitchen swarmed enough flies to qualify for a horror movie scene. I mean, a black cloud right out of The Exorcist. I could pretend I screamed and ran out of the apartment, but really I just sighed and picked up my trusty Lysol. I’ve lived in rundown abodes my entire life– in the vestibule of my last apartment building, I was once forced to kill a full-grown rat–and I was never especially precious in the first place. In high school I made a small killing charging shy boys a 100 percent markup on condoms since I had no problem buying them myself.
It took a few hours and two cans of Lysol, but eventually I killed every fly in my kitchen. Afterward, I called B, who reminded me it was time for my monthly burger. Though she herself is an avowed vegetarian, she’s well aware of how wan I get if I don’t eat red meat when I’ve got my frenemy.
I pulled some ground lamb out of the refrigerator and promptly set a grease fire.
It was so odd, that fire. I shaped one modest little patty and placed it right in the center of a big cast iron pan–something I do at least once a month (ahem)–but this time the grease leapt dramatically from the pan into the burner. Before I could even say
flames were licking the cabinet above the stove and every alarm in my apartment building was wailing and Grace started screeching and even after I flung open the windows one alarm kept ringing. Bawling, reallly.
I started bawling too, and phoned B back. “Someone from the other side is trying to contact you,” she said calmly. I knew she was right, and felt surprised I’d missed all the signs. A second later I felt less surprised; I’d been oblivious for the same reason the spirits had been forced to go to such lengths to nab my attention. I was being avoidant. So I cleaned up all the ash and carcasses, including that of my dearly departed lamb burger. Then I lit a white candle and folded myself into a pretzel on the floor. “Whatever you have to say, please do so in a clear and constructive manner,” I said aloud, and braced myself.
Instantly I was flooded with images of the book pages I’d written over the last week, and knew I was hearing from my grandfather Nathaniel and his mother Rubenfire, my great-grandmother. They’d been the topic at hand, and it seemed clear they were saying if I was going to share their misdeeds, I also was going to have to share their backstory. Somehow I’d convinced myself I could skip those macabre chapters of my family history, but their message was so clear and constructive (spirits tend to heed direct mandates) that I had to listen: Your story requires our story. Our bloodshed is the backbone of your bloodline.
So I spent another week rewriting that chapter, sweating and white-knuckled the whole time, and then it was time for my research trip to Massachusetts. If I’m being honest– and why write if you’re not?–I was dreading the trek. It was hard to pinpoint why. I’d missed the region terribly, missed my goddaughters and hometown friends even more, and was excited about visiting all the key spots featured in my book. Yet the dread was huge. HUGE, to quote Julia R.
Woe is the intuitive who doesn’t heed her own intuition. For while the trip had some serious high points, I also regressed to a place I haven’t visited since the last time I’d logged some significant Greater Boston time. This is not to say that I revisited anorectic or addictive behaviors (see that little disclosure I snuck in there?) nor that I got into a confrontation with a member of my biological family. Rather, all my unacknowledged feelings–my ancestral sorrow, my familial rage, my profound sense of dislocation–landed on the blueprint of my body, and I physically fell apart.
Fact: I have been in the emergency room three times in the last thirty years, and though I have been a NYC resident my entire adult life, each visit has taken place in the Greater Boston area. I believe the psychological term for this is displacement. I’d call it hysteria, except that the symptoms have ridiculously real consequences. Once I broke my arm by tripping over a sidewalk crack. (Extrapolate away.) Once I was hospitalized for five days for a life-threatening staph infection that entered through my knee though no break in the skin was apparent. And once I broke my foot and a vertebrae in my neck while attending an avant-garde audience-inclusive theater performance (blergh). This time the culprit was–you guessed it–bugs.
On day 4 of my trip–the day I’d originally promised my therapist I would get out of dodge (get your research done first, she’d advised)–I sustained four bug bites that initially seemed banal. After an extraordinary discovery at my mother’s mother’s grave that I’ll write about elsewhere, I’d spent the first three days of my visit with my goddaughters. This fourth day I’d spent with Rachel, who was undergoing a mini-kerfuffle of her own. At her house by the sea, we’d inhaled steamers and 3-pound lobsters dripping in butter–Rachel and I never do anything halfway when we’re together–and stretched out in Corgi Village, her backyard strewn with puppies. I drove home in a glorious haze of dairy and shellfish. Which, yes, I do speak fluently, semi-semitic heritage aside.
It was only when I got back to my aunt’s Northern Massachusetts house (she was in Maryland) that everything hit hard. That my beau was four thousand miles away and having a legendarily terrible time of his own. That Aretha had really left this plane. That my biological parents would figuratively be a million miles away even when literally a half-hour away. I looked down and saw my leg was four times its usual size, ditto for my arm. The only visible culprit? Two bites on each limb. Were they the work of an ant or a spider? Perhaps. But I suspected they were garden-variety mosquito bites.
B and I joke about how mosquitos love we witches, but it’s really not that funny. The truth is both of us are extremely allergic to insect bites, and, at least in my case, my response is extremely amplified when I’m already fighting off bad energy of another sort. In this case, I knew that the most sensible response to the taut red sausages that had become my left limbs would be yet another Massachusetts emergency room visit. And yet: Who would watch Grace since I was staying alone thirty miles north of Boston? Who would pay the enormous bill given that I have not had health insurance since I left my cushy media job years ago? Who would ensure that I would ever really escape Massachusetts, a state I always feel is more psychological than geographic, if I surrendered my physical autonomy now?
From overseas, Beau exhorted me to drive back to NYC once it became clear I had no intention of stepping foot in a New England hospital. “Baby, you’ll get better once you get home.” I knew he was right but hadn’t yet accomplished the goals of my trip: to find new 1940s chairs at the legendary antique mart in the region, to revisit all the hotspots featured in my book. And most of all to soak up the magic of the region–the fried clams, the scrubby seagulls, the sarcastic sweetness–which once had saved me when nothing else could.
Besides, where was home exactly?
I took a antihistamine and fell into a haze so powerful that I chopped off the tip of my finger while chopping the beautiful tomatoes of my aunt’s garden. Even I knew I should go to the ER then, but instead I superglued the tip back on, kissing the fingernail goodbye with no small regret. It had been a while since I’d had such nice fingernails. I turned off the stove, fed Gracie, and passed out.
While I slept, Rubenfire and Nathaniel–whose house this originally had been–continued to chastise me. You’re not getting any younger, said Rubenfire, never one to mince words. You’re living too close to the edge, said Nathaniel. He’d said as much to me during the last six months of his life, when the Twin Towers had just fallen and with them, my first planned life. I tossed and turned and tossed some more.
This was the state in which I remained for two more days. I stirred only from my anti-allergenic haze to reup medications and to drink water and feed Grace. By the third day the bites had been reduced to welts, and I talked to Beau again. “Now go home,” he said. I tried to explain that I had things to do on my list. He cut me off: “Now go home.”
I compromised, and, in one day, bought four terrific chairs and visited every Greater Boston spot required for my book. The next morning I piled Grace, my laundry bag, the new chairs, and my self-esteem into Minerva, my teeny-tiny Hyundai (so practical for NYC parking and traffic, so impractical for New England winters and baggage). It took six hours to wend our way back to Brooklyn. I don’t pretend to impact the weather, but it does seem suspect that thunderstorms follow me every time I travel between the two cities no matter what the weather prediction.
When I finally pulled up to my apartment building, K and his kid were stationed in front, ready to load my treasures up the three flights of stairs. K examined my bites and bum finger and shook his head. “Boston,” he said. I was inclined to agree.
He had spoken. Beau had spoken. My ancestors had spoken. And my body had spoken. I still wasn’t sure of all the fine print but I groked the overall gist: You can’t go home again! Really really really I couldn’t return to Boston until I was solvent. Until I could afford health insurance and quick getaways. Until I’d become who I wanted to be when I grew up.
I was being irritated, literally, so I that I would be moved to action. But how to act–what to do, where to go next–remained the question. As it does as I write this. My account balances are ever-dwindling, my book is not yet in the bag, and none of the old ways I made money really apply anymore. I’m not sure where next to focus my energy and Labor Day looms like the ugliest period to the 2018 summer sentence (and to the Jewish old year as well). It’s time to take care of business, but I don’t yet grasp what that business is.
Another fly just landed on my computer, I’ll have you know.