David and I, both children of the West, call them stinkbugs, although we’re apparently supposed to call them pinnacate or darkling beetles. At any rate, they’re these guys. They’re also the same beetles that I mentioned seem compelled to drown themselves despite my efforts to provide climbing platforms out of the rain catchments. The stinkbugs are drawn to everything moist. The day after a rain, they scuttle about everywhere, following sedate and determined paths.
I’m quite fond of them.
So when David says that the stinkbug that hard marched across the patio, to visit me, I claimed, was now trying to climb my chair leg, I thought he was making fun of me for that old story, about the cockroaches climbing the brass bed and how I did one of the worst things I’ve ever done.
Turns out he’d never heard that story.
It’s an old story, from my college days. I think it came to mind because I’ve been reading Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It’s really an amazing book, kind of a novel formed of sequential stories. We come to have ideas about Olive from the stories of other characters. They talk about Olive, or encounter her in various ways. We don’t really see into Olive’s mind until a story about her son’s wedding reception, when Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law saying how awful Olive is and what a difficult mother she’d been to her son.
It’s brilliantly done. The daughter-in-law is talking softly to a friend, in a place they shouldn’t be overheard. She’s not catty or cruel, but Olive is deeply hurt. And enraged.
The cockroach story is like this. It started with one of my college roommates being freaked out by cockroaches in our apartment. They were waterbugs, it turns out, but that’s no never mind. Only she and I were home. She melted down to the point where she refused to sleep on her mattress on the floor or my futon, for fear the cockroaches would get her in the night. Around 2 in the morning, I convinced her to sleep in our other roommate’s brass bed, even though the fearful one declared that she’d be able to hear the cockroaches trying to climb the brass legs all night.
See? I told you there was a connection.
I told our other roommates the story when they returned in the next day or so. It was a very funny story. And I can milk a story. I would culminate with making scratching noises on a piece of metal, to imitate the cockroach legs. Other friends heard references and begged to be told the full story, which took 15-20 minutes to tell.
I admit it: I loved telling this story. There’s nothing like having a roomful of people laughing so hard they can’t stand.
Well, one night, we had a 4th of July gathering at our apartment. The roommate in question was working. Ten or twelve of us, including my visiting mother, sat around the dining table — which was a piece of painted plywood on blue-painted cinder blocks — talking and drinking beer.
Well, yes, someone asked me to tell the story.
You know what’s coming. I demurred, since I was normally very careful not to tell it anywhere my friend could hear. but I didn’t take much convincing. I had just gotten to the part where I’m clicking my nails on the beer bottle when that cold silence fell over the room.
Of course, she was standing in the doorway behind me, having come in through the kitchen door to the alley.
She slammed off to her bedroom and the party broke up. Everyone was horrified. I felt awful.
What’s funny is, she and I never talked about it. I’ve never known how much of the story she heard. She was the type to yell at you if she was mad. This she never said a word about, which made me think I truly hurt her.
She reads this blog from time to time, so if you see this: I truly apologize for that. I should have said so sooner.
So that’s my second in a series about careless words. Funny how certain themes rise up, for no particular reason. Old stories come to mind.
Life lessons, all of them, I suppose.