Vivarium, by Claire Ibarra

Stand on left foot, then right foot, back to left foot, switch to right foot, snap fingers five times, blink five times, count by fives to fifty and count down. That was Eva’s ritual whenever she felt anxious, which was many times throughout the course of a day. Anything–gusty winds, shrill noises, spoiled food in the refrigerator, a conversation with a stranger–was enough to set her off.  Now it was the monstrous, hideous cockroach that had just dashed across the room and hid under the kitchenette cabinet.

Eva was still adjusting to her studio apartment in Miami Beach, after leaving her parents and childhood home in Connecticut. She was twenty-three and working on her master’s degree in clinical counseling. This was the first time she lived alone.

She would look out the window at the suntanned girls in bikini tops and shorts rollerblading, swaying their hips from side to side, as guys rubbernecked. Convertibles cruised by blasting rap, and tourists wearing flamboyant colors strolled zigzag along the sidewalk. Eva would wonder how she had ended up there, before closing the blinds and returning to her studies. It was her father who decided that Miami Beach would force Eva to get out of her shell and socialize more.

Now she curled up on the lumpy cushioned armchair, and watched the crack under the cabinet. Her eyes never left the black, tiny crevice on the linoleum floor. 5, 10, 15, 20… Eva waited and watched.  Fifteen minutes passed.

Her laptop was within reach, so she googled cockroach. She read on Wikipedia:

“Cockroaches are insects of the order Blattaria or Blattodea, of which about 30 species out of 4,500 total are associated with human habitats. About four species are known as pests.” It went on the say that cockroaches live in a wide range of environments, prefer warm conditions found within buildings, and exhibit complex behaviors associated with group-based decision-making.

When Eva looked up, she let the laptop fall to her side and hugged her legs into her chest.  The monster had crawled out of the crack and was scuttling towards her. Eva crinkled her face into a tight ball. Snap five times, blink five times, and count by fives to fifty.

The cockroach stopped a few feet away. Eva shut her eyes tight. She held her breath for as long as she could. After several minutes, she opened one eye, then the other.  She and the cockroach were at a standstill.  Since it was frozen in its path, Eva took a moment to observe. It was the biggest bug she had ever seen, bigger than a dragonfly, bigger than a grasshopper. It had a flat broad body with a glossy exoskeleton, an armor a nasty color of brown tinged with green and yellow.  The color reminded her of the time she got food poisoning from tainted Mexican food.

Eva realized that most people would just squish a bug. But how does one squish a colossal-size bug, cope with real guts, not just a black smudge to be flicked away with a fingernail. This cockroach would be like scooping up road kill.

The cockroach waved its long antennae, and made a quick spurt closer. Eva screamed and tucked her legs into her chest tighter. She took the throw pillow from behind her back and tossed it onto the cockroach. The satin pink pillow landed right on top of it.  Eva let out a deep breath and moaned.

Eva cautiously tiptoed across the small room and grabbed her phone. She sat on the futon cross-legged so that her feet were off the floor. She had the apartment manager’s phone number under favorites, just like her dad had told her to do.

“Hello, Señora Gonzalez. This is Eva in apartment 5A. I need you to come right away, I have an emergency,” Eva yelled into her cell.

“What kind of emergency, niña?” the manager yelled back.

Eva held the phone away from her ear, and answered, “There’s a cockroach in my apartment. I need you to come catch it.”

“Ay, mi hija. I don’t have time for that right now. We have a leak from upstairs. There’s a plumber waiting for me outside. You’ll have to do it yourself.”

“But how?” Eva pleaded. She felt panic set in again. Blink five times.

“Escucha. You just grab it with a paper towel and flush it down the toilet. Or you can get a broom, smash it and sweep it up. It’s not a big deal.”

“I can’t do it,” Eva whined.

“Bueno, it’s your fault. Maybe next time you’ll let the exterminator into your apartment,” the manager told her and then abruptly hung up. Eva could imagine the thoughts going through Señora Gonzalez’s mind: spoiled gringa, little princess, Daddy’s girl.

Eva did regret not letting the exterminator into her apartment two weeks ago.  He had appeared at her door wearing a uniform and dirty black boots.  He pulled a small metal tank with a hose attached and tried to coax Eva into letting him in.  “This is a building requirement, all of the units get sprayed,” he had explained. But Eva couldn’t stand the thought of poison contaminating her living area, where she slept and prepared food. And his boots were grimy and would have soiled the carpet.  After she had refused and he left, Señora Gonzalez called her on the phone, furious and warning that the next time he would be let in–pest control was part of maintenance and written into her lease agreement.

Eva felt tears spring up and her chest tightened. She let out a sob. She looked over at the pillow, and nothing appeared to move. She half expected the pillow to roll over, as if the titan cockroach could lift or scoot it out of its way.  She decided to call her mother.

“Hello?” her mother answered.

“Mom, I’m so glad you answered. I have an emergency, and I don’t know what to do,” Eva cried into the phone.

“Eva, is that you? What’s happened? Do we need to call the police? Tell me you’re okay, please.” Eva’s mother was hypersensitive by nature, or possibly by nurture from her twenty-six year marriage to a domineering husband.

Eva couldn’t answer right away, as she tried to stop the sobs.

Her mother continued, “Listen, Eva. If you’re in danger, I want you to hang up and dial 911, right now, do you understand me?”

“No, Mom. I’m okay. I’m sorry I scared you, but there’s a huge cockroach in my apartment. It’s trapped under a pillow right now, but I don’t know how to kill it. I know it sounds silly, but it’s huge and ugly, and I’m afraid to touch it.” Eva suddenly felt childish. She was angry with herself for being so weak and inept, just the way her father believed she was, the way he insinuated with underhanded comments, always muttered under his breath–Let me do it, this is a man’s job, girls will be girls…

Eva’s mom asked, “A cockroach? Have you been keeping your place clean?”

Eva was surprised by the question, as if there could be any doubt. She scrubbed and cleaned on a regular basis, since she couldn’t sleep at night with the thought of a dirty dish in the sink or even a picture hanging crooked on the wall.  Eva glanced over at the spray bottle of Formula 409 with bleach resting on the counter.

“Very clean, Mom. Señora Gonzalez says that this is their natural habitat, because of the humidity and warm weather. It’s not like up north, where they infest garbage.  The cockroaches in Florida even fly, and they’re as big as bats,” Eva felt herself on the verge of a hysterical rant.

“I’m sorry I can’t help you, sweetie. Maybe you could ask Señora Gonzalez, or a neighbor or, oh wait, what do you say? Here, honey–”

Suddenly it was her dad on the line.  “Eva, what’s this about a roach? Are you kidding me?”

“Dad, I really don’t like it here.”

“Listen, it’s all for the best.  Right now, you need to suck it up and calm down. It’s only a bug, so squash it. Women. You can’t expect a man to always be there to do your dirty work.  I’m passing you back to your mother.”

Her mother said in a gentle, soft voice, “Call me back when it’s over, so I know you’re okay.”

Eva crept over to the armchair, where she had a better view of the pillow.  Snap five

times, blink five times, count by fives to fifty and count down. She stretched out her leg and with her toes, Eva ever so slowly and cautiously, lifted the pillow an inch, two inches, three inches, then all the way over.  There was nothing. No cockroach. Eva quickly snatched her leg back up to her chest. She looked around the room.

The hideous beast rested in a corner of the room, right next to the bathroom.  It was still except for the thin, long antennae, which moved through the air as if searching for a signal.  Eva thought about her neighbors.  There was another girl who lived next door. They had spoken a couple of times, but Eva knew they could never be friends.  Victoria had a boyfriend always around, and lots of people who stopped by, and there were parties, music and the smell of pot.  Eva felt too mousy to hang out with a girl like that. Eva had never seen the other neighbor, she wasn’t even sure someone lived there.  There were other people in the building, mostly young, hipster types, and one outrageously cute guy. She would die before she talked to him.

Eva contemplated going to Victoria’s apartment to ask for help, but she felt embarrassed. She was stuck with the cockroach; they were bound together by fate.  Eva sat curled up on the armchair and watched the cockroach; it too seemed transfixed, perhaps by watching her. She listened to the tick of the clock hanging on the wall. Her eyelids began to feel heavy, and she relaxed her head back on the soft cushion.

It was almost dark outside.  The room was dim, and she could hear the deep bass of music playing next door. There was shouting in the street. She looked over, and the cockroach was still in the same spot.  Eva began to think about her resources, tools she had inside her apartment that could be used for capturing, if not killing, the bug.  In the kitchenette, there was a broom and dustpan–probably her best bet for getting the job done.  There were also Tupperware containers, and plastic grocery bags. Any of these items could be used to dispose of the monstrous creature.  It was just so massive, and repulsive, and most likely quick when the chase was on.

Eva ran into the kitchen, grabbed the broom and dustpan from the pantry closet, and jumped back onto the armchair. She held the broom out like a sword.  The cockroach was eerily still, except the antennae, always waving and searching. As Eva prepared her attack, she began to realize the logistical difficulties of the long broom handle and the small, short handled dustpan.  She couldn’t see a way to avoid getting her hand perilously close to the creature. Grasping onto the dustpan meant putting her fingers in harms way. Snap five times. Blink five times. Eva was exhausted.

She suddenly ran back into the kitchen and grabbed a large plastic Tupperware container.  It was round and wide.  Without overthinking, Eva approached the cockroach, hoping to catch it by surprise, and quickly placed the plastic container over the bug.  Afraid of the cockroach’s perceived mighty strength, she tapped the side of the makeshift bell jar to test its durability.  Eva felt triumphant.

Eva kneeled and cautiously crawled around the specimen, observing it through the transparent plastic. It slowly moved itself to the rim, and Eva didn’t flinch, even though she could see its legs go up and down, as if it were doing push ups, and its long feelers scanned the air, as is surveying Eva’s aura.  Now that it was trapped, Eva discovered that she could observe the bug at her leisure, without fear.

She sat and watched, listening to shrieks of laughter and Coldplay blasting from Victoria’s apartment, while something she had read on Wikipedia nagged at her,  “Cockroaches exhibit complex behaviors associated with group-based decision-making.” She began to think that perhaps she and the bug had solidarity in their loneliness.  They were both social creatures, stuck alone, longing to connect to their species.  Count by fives to fifty and count down.  Eva crawled over to the futon and fell asleep.

The next morning, Eva checked briefly on the cockroach before getting ready for the day.  It lay motionless, so she showered, dressed, and poured a bowl of Cheerios. While eating, she thought again about the cockroach living in her homemade vivarium and what it would need to survive. How much water?  What does it eat? She thought most likely anything. Eva googled and learned that cockroaches could survive days, up to a week without water.  And indeed, they would eat anything, even hair and books, any sort of decaying matter.  Eva shuddered at the thought, then blinked five times, and snapped fives times.

It was Saturday, so Eva spread out her assignments and books to study, making herself comfortable on the futon.  She could observe the cockroach from there, while reading “Adolescent in Family Therapy, Second Edition.”  Being at the center of a dysfunctional nuclear family had inspired Eva to become a family therapist.  She figured she could relate to kids with OCD and depression, help them learn to manage and cope, even if they were never completely cured.  Eva knew these were life long battles.

A couple of hours passed, and Eva took a break to make a sandwich and check on the cockroach.  To her surprise, the cockroach was lying on its back, with its long legs wiggling frantically in all directions.  It had most likely tried to climb up the side of the slippery container, and had fallen backwards. Once on its back, a cockroach cannot flip itself over, Eva learned by observing the creature. This was a surprising defect for one of the most ancient evolutionary species, for a species thought to be able to out survive all the others after a global disaster.

Its abdomen was grotesque and frightening, like an alien creature. Its six long, hairy legs protruded out from a segmented stomach, and they jerked through the air desperately. Eva was mortified by its ugliness at first, but gradually she got used to the underside of her beastly companion. Then she felt sorry for it, in its helpless state.  She thought for a while about how she could aid the bug without actually touching it. Eva remembered that she had ordered Chinese food a few days ago.

Eva opened the drawer in the kitchen and pulled out a set of chopsticks.  She broke apart the wood sticks and took one over to the cage.  Tucking the stick inside from the bottom, she gently flipped the cockroach over.  Eva then felt compelled to do more, so she took a small piece of foil and molded a tiny dish, filling it with tap water, and a piece of bread crust, quickly lifting one side of the vivarium and placing them inside.  With her mission complete, Eva blinked five times, snapped five times and began to count.

While eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Eva read more on the Internet.  She learned that cockroaches have a brain, heart, colon, reproductive system, and that their eyes have over a thousand lenses allowing them to see from multiple angles at once.

There was a knock at the door, and Eva was jerked to attention. “Who’s there?” she called from across the room.   There was another bang on the door.

When Eva looked through the peephole, she saw Victoria holding a pitcher.

“Dude, my water was cut by the imbecile plumber, do you have water?” Victoria asked with irritation, while holding the pitcher out to Eva.

“Oh yeah, hi. I do.” Eva took the pitcher and gestured for Victoria to come in.  Eva had forgotten about her pet cockroach.  At first, Victoria didn’t notice, as they stood together at the kitchen sink while Eva filled the pitcher.  There was an awkward silence, until Eva asked, “How’s school?”

“I dropped out for now. My mom got laid off, so I had to get a job.  Now I’m waitressing full-time,” Victoria said casually.

Eva admired Victoria’s tough, cool attitude. She liked Victoria’s jet-black hair with one streak of hot pink, her eyebrow piercing, and the heart tattoos on her wrists. Eva responded, “Well, there’s always next semester.” She felt like a major dork.

But then Victoria’s attention was drawn to the plastic Tupperware on the carpet.

“What’s that over there?” Victoria began to approach with curiosity.

“It’s nothing,” Eva replied nervously while trailing behind Victoria.

Victoria bent and peered down into the container, getting the full 360 view.  “Oh my God. What the hell is that?”

Eva tried to imagine how it would look to someone else, the tiny foil dish of water, the crust of bread, and the disgusting cockroach in her homemade insectarium.  She began a rant, “There was this cockroach loose in my apartment, and I didn’t know how to catch it, and the pillow didn’t work, and the dustpan has a short handle, not a long, standing one like my mom’s, and then it fell onto its back and couldn’t roll back over, and it can survive one week without water, but I learned that cockroach fossils date back 280 million years, and they have a heart and brain, and they make group-based decisions, which means they are social, like humans, but this one is alone, like me–” Eva paused for a breath.

“Okay, hold on.” Victoria kneeled and peered more intently into the cage.  “Relax for a minute. Look, it’s eating the bread,” Victoria pointed at the bug.

Eva kneeled next to Victoria, and both girls watched intently as the cockroach sat on top of the piece of crust, moving its head from side to side.  Just then, Eva thought about her father, and his probable outrage at her handling of the bug. She could imagine his accusations: tree hugger, socialist, and vegetarian like those degenerate, flakey hippies.

“Does it have a name?” Victoria asked.

“Chico.” The name just popped out.

Victoria said, “Chico la Cucaracha, that’s fucking awesome. I didn’t know you had it in you, Eva. You got your freak flag flying!”

Eva smiled at the thought of a freak flag. She was always timid, more concerned with doing everything right, everything perfect, than having any fun, or even being happy.  “Yeah, I guess I do.”

“Hey, can my boyfriend come over to see this?”

“Sure.”

“We’ll come over around eight, and then we’re headed to a party in North Beach. You wanna come with us? It’ll be cool, I promise,” Victoria had softened her voice.  She looked Eva in the eyes, like a much wiser, kinder version of yesterday’s Victoria. “Do you want to take Chico with us?” she asked.

“No, he’ll be better off here.” Eva was worried, and she felt a pang of guilt.

Cockroaches live in groups, and make decisions collectively. Eva realized that he was a social creature and shouldn’t be left alone.

***

Claire Ibarra is a writer, poet and photographer residing in Miami, Florida.  Her fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, includingNatural Bridge, The MacGuffin, Amoskeag, and The Broken Plate.  She is also a contributor to the anthologies An Honest Lie, real: Pure Slush, and Dysfunctional Family Story, among others. Claire is currently in the MFA creative writing program at Florida International University.

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Comments

  1. Reread with delight! I almost like Chico, but I LOVE your writing! 🙂

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  1. […] Arts by Carolennys, Madison Poulter, and Marcin Majkowski. Fiction by Claire Ibarra, Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams, Jeremy Townley, John Hough Jr.,  Justine Manzano, Matthew Dennis, […]

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