Clarice Lispector. Perhaps the only person in history who could ever make a cockroach empathetic. Or at least try. In The Passion According to G.H., the eponymous protagonist–or antagonist, depending on how you look at it–recalls the day prior when, in her stead as a rich woman of Rio de Janeiro, she found herself somewhat ill-at-ease while cleaning out the room the maid inhabited (apparently, working for G.H. proved too tiresome–which is why they say good help is hard to find).
In her dainty, affluent woman’s style, G.H. is flabbergasted to find that the room needs neither emptying nor cleaning, for it had been transformed into “the opposite of what I had created in my house, the opposite of the soft beauty that came from my talent for arrangement, my talent for living, the opposite of my serene irony, of my sweet and exempt irony: it was a violation of my quotation marks, of the quotation marks that made me a citation of myself. The room was the portrait of an empty stomach.” The only thing that empty stomach has to gorge on is a lone and single cockroach. Horrified not only at the presence of this detestable insect, G.H. is also faced with the revelation that her maid, whose name and face she can’t seem to recall, loathed her. This much is made clear by a crude and enigmatic etching on the wall, perhaps of a woman, a man and a dog. Already questioning the very nature of her existence–who am I?–as we all must from time to time when we reach a certain plateau in our lives, G.H.’s fragile state is further compromised when she, like any instinctual human being, kills the roach by slamming the door shut and renting its body in two.
The oozing matter within trickles out to the delighted horror of G.H., suddenly frozen by the implication of her action. And it is maybe because, “The mystery of human destiny is that we are fated, but that we have the freedom to fulfill or not fulfill our fate: realization of our fated destiny depends on us. While inhuman beings like the cockroach realize the entire cycle without going astray because they make no choices.” Is this, then, the ultimate freedom–being incapable of making a choice?
I have no time to ask myself as I kill my own contemptible cockroach. The one I find myself alone with one Fourth of July weekend, when all of my roommates, whose rents are paid for by their parents, do the reasonable thing and leave town. For only the true dregs of New York City remain in town on this increasingly meaningless holiday. I was–am–one of those true dregs. That’s why when I smashed the roach multiple times with the chunky heel of a boot that belonged to my gay roommate (he had better shoes than the female one whose name I don’t even know because to live with someone in Brooklyn is to do your best to know as little as possible about them), I found myself having perhaps a similar mystical experience. Though not exactly on par with G.H.’s.
I sort of rose up outside of myself and saw how depraved with blood (or, rather gut) lust I would appear to any other bystander. What was it about the roach’s existence, its encroachment into my own life, that I found so abominable? Was it not just another being, like anyone else? I couldn’t look at it in its eviscerated state to truly answer that question. I had to walk away. I wasn’t about to examine its contents with anywhere near the same level of scrutiny as G.H. So I went into my roommate’s room (he had the better one, the one with all the natural light flooding in and his own personal TV equipped with whatever apparatus it was that tended to give you, again, too many choices) to think about the prospect of how to fully get rid of this corpse.
Sure, I hadn’t been the first one to kill this type of animal, but there is something uniquely forceful about the way a cockroach enters and exits your realm. It’s almost as though it wants to challenge you to exterminate, dares you to try. For, somewhere, deep in the recesses of its ancient composition, it knows you will likely fail. But I did not fail. But maybe G.H. did. Because she let it get to her. She let the creature literally enter her so as to be overtaken by its strangely seductive aura. Because, yes, in many regards, it is something of a superpower to be as repugnant to people as a cockroach. Something in you gets off on being repelling after a certain point. It’s like a constant test you’re waiting for everyone to fail. I guess that’s what I’d been doing, how I’d been living. Here in this hell hole with a temperature to match.
I didn’t open the door all weekend. I didn’t want to see it yet. I had taken to pissing in cups. Luckily, this heat made me so anorexic I didn’t need to shit. I opened the window to air out the smell. It didn’t much help. Maybe, in fact, it only hurt–as most “solutions” tend to. They wouldn’t be home until Monday morning, I’d been told. So as I lay there practically immobile from the emotional blow of having committed my latest murder, I was almost moved to abrupt motion when David and his boyfriend, Sam (yes, I knew their names because they were less nondescript than the girl roommate), opened the door to find me on their bed in a pool of my own sweat surrounded by urine funneled into various cup-like structures and substitutes. I think, at the time, Cruel Intentions was on. The latest in an endless series of films Broadway felt the need to adapt with its tongue in its cheek, preventing it from fully laughing all the way to the bank.
There were no words to say. I had taken away their ability to speak. And when they peeled me off the bed, for I refused to move, I could see out of the corner of my eye, the innards of the cockroach had spread further out on the hardwood floor. They rinsed me off, sure. But they could never rinse off the psychological exchange–transference–that had taken place between me and that roach. So while it wasn’t entirely a roach experience like Clarice Lispector’s, I did feel something in me change that weekend. Maybe it’s why I moved out of that apartment and New York at the end of July–not even needing to be asked by my disturbed roommates.