When the heat comes I have to get out. I live on the top floor of a tenement walk-up, a flat filled to clutter with the detritus of a lifetime in New York City, my belongings packed so tight they seem to sweat and absorb all that’s breathable from the still air and deprive me of oxygen when I try to sleep. Such is the heat wave untempered by air conditioning. I haven’t slept in nights.
For air conditioning I go to the Italian wine bar on my corner. Occasionally, I end the night here feeling I’ve drunk too much, and I wind up sleeping badly perhaps due to the wine or maybe because of the heat or possibly because I find my apartment itchy.
Oscar is out on the fourth-floor landing as I take the five flights down, with his wild Jesus hair and ravaged fleshless torso, bare in the daytime heat. Oscar’s eyes are sunken and manic as a starving cat’s. He is prattling to his own cat, Boxer, who loiters another floor down. “Stop acting like a dog!” he natters to Boxer, and then, calling up to me, “He thinks he’s a dog!”
A wave of heat blasts from Oscar’s doorway, reminding me how in my apartment tonight, in order to keep cool I will place all the ice cube trays and cold packs from my freezer around my limbs in the shape of a policeman’s chalk outline of a corpse. I will do this on the floor because I notice a crawly feeling when I lie on my mattress. Last night I kept waking up with a slinking omnipresent tingle on my arms, legs and back, anywhere skin met mattress. But when I turned on the light there was nothing. No black disks, no pin-sized alien intruders affixed to my extremities or leaving marks on my sheets. Thank god it wasn’t bedbugs. In the morning though, there were a dozen bites, on the undersides of my arms and legs, running up and down my limbs like a junky’s open secret.
“God damned cat thinks he’s a dog! Come upstairs. C’mon now Boxer.”
I look at Oscar with a pleasant expression. He’s already told me about the cat thirty times this week. The cat bats noncommittally at one of the pet toys scattered in our hallway; Boxer seems to prefer the building’s shared spaces, where he prowls at the farthest point from the incense and other smoke wafting from Oscar’s doorway.
“You got a packet,” Oscar says.
Oscar steps inside to get it. I peak inside to the brick walls and a derelict wood loft from which hang all manner of kitchen gear and trinkets. Oscar’s apartment is packed floor to ceiling with artifacts dating to the 1950s, when he came here. The interior is narrow like mine but shorter, and stuffed to the linty ceiling with evidence of his life here since Burroughs and Lou Reed and Paul Bowles lived nearby. The space is vertical, with its loft and high shelving, and draws the eye to its ceiling blotched with fuzz balls.
It occurs to me that his apartment with its primordial clutter could be a nexus for bedbugs. It occurs to me that discovering the cause of these bedbugs might, by extension, make clear to me why everything has been so damned strange. I’d like to know why there are bedbugs; I’d like to confirm or dispel this sense of mine that they mean something, something big. I don’t know what.
As Oscar passes me the mailer, he mentions Boxer caught two mice today, and for a second I think better of Oscar, as less a culprit than a fellow watchman. There have been mice this week too, lots of mice, everywhere. And they seem to mean something too.
Emily waves from inside; she’s wearing a gas mask, so I can’t make out her facial expression. Oscar makes a face like a teenager who has just gotten away with something, and then inhales an imaginary stick of contraband between two fingers. The odor of incense from his apartment is thick today; it’s the first time since Tuesday a sweet smell has overpowered the acrid. “Have a smoke?” he offers.
Oscar often invites me to come get stoned with him. I’m not going to, this sweltering week, but I have before, and every time I get disoriented trying to remember if by strange coincidence I might have done so back in high school, when my friends and I cut class and smoked pot and made ourselves nuisances in people’s vestibules.
The tenement where I live is a relic from some past, many pasts. All the neighbors know each other because they’ve been here so long. Their rent is stabilized at something like a tenth of market and the landlord can’t make much profit evicting them the way the rent laws work. I also wonder if maybe one of the neighbors remembers my coming when I was in high school even if I can’t. I wonder if one of them has been harboring bedbugs since then—or earlier even, the 1930s. One guy’s in his nineties and his apartment still has raw wood on the floors and no toilet. He goes out precisely once a week—though this week not at all.
Molly, on the second floor, says everyone here’s a family, or at least that was her explanation last time she let her Shar-Pei, Alexandra, sniff me over and over while I was emptying my recycling. Molly released the leash to its maximum and showed no signs of pulling it in, so Alexandra was basically a free agent. “She really likes the people in the building. It’s one of the things I find so sweet about her,” Molly said in that tone you sometimes hear from parents doting on a child who has been conceived through the rigors of in vitro fertilization.
The dog busily kept sniffing.
“She thinks they’re all related to her,” Molly went on, oblivious to the dog’s poor manners. It seemed significant Molly didn’t use the word you’re in that sentence. I didn’t exactly take it as unwanted, this acknowledgment of a separation between myself and the people in my building. Molly let Alexandra keep sniffing, which felt like a sort of an initiation I wasn’t so sure I wanted, and then I said I had to go. “I guess Dani’s back,” Molly added in her same tone of indulgent good will that day, ignoring me again.
Molly was referring to the lady on the fifth floor, who is recently back from two years in Italy. Just now Oscar and I hear Dani rant and scream and complain to no one, as is her habit, imaginary foils who are destroying her life or so she informs them. Oscar looks up for a second before his interest passes.
It’s hard times for crazy folk, this week. They are a part of our ecosystem, a little off always, but this week blossoming and redolent and fecund in the ways they are strange.
Continuing downstairs, I see my neighbor from the third floor, Colette, whose eyes can’t hold a gaze and who has a small poodle in her arms most times accompanied by several department store bags filled with I don’t know what. That’s my building, a collection of old New Yorkers who seem cogent only by virtue of being slightly more coherent than the person next door.
“I’m not happy she’s back,” Colette confesses about Dani. I’ve bumped into Colette before out in public, far from prying ears. This perhaps explains her tone of confidentiality now, though we’re now in earshot of eavesdroppers. Oscar, for instance, is peering over the rail at Boxer, who has skulked downstairs and lies belly to the ceiling near us. Oscar’s dialog with Boxer nevertheless fails to intercept Collette’s with me. Her good eye pierces mine and doesn’t retract as she goes on, in her confidential whisper, about everything there is to know about knitting. Without warning she shifts topic back to Dani. “She’s schizo. She forgets to take her medication.”
Today, Colette seems more sane than less, as if calmed by all the ambient trouble. Her poodle is gone too. That’s another thing gone wiggly this week: a reduction to the population of pets.
As I leave Colette, I notice Oscar eyeballing me from above. His glance scales me up and down. I’ve been casting things off, anything that makes me itchy—a duffel brimming with towels, two garbage bags of pillows, a suitcase filled with bedding. This time I’ve got a pillowcase with sheets for the laundry. Oscar thinks I’m nuts.
I am Natalie Petrovsky. I am not schizophrenic, depressed or delusional, and I am well-groomed. I am a witness. I am smart, and I am sensitive to the fine points. I am good at languages and crossword puzzles and music, meaning I see patterns in things, and notice connections. I was depressed and a little manic once, and I went to a therapist who taught me how to put all my problems in perspective and tackle them one at a time so they didn’t overwhelm.
He also pointed out that when I got depressed I stopped brushing my hair and paying sufficient mind to my appearance. Ever since I’m attentive. I wear makeup most days and put together my outfits with thought to the normal matters: looking pretty and not scaring anyone off. My legs are shaved. The soles on my shoes may be heavy in the punk-rock style, but that’s because I grew up in the East Village and this is how we dress here.
In real life, when I am not noticing new strains of odd occurrence and errant behavior, I am completing a PhD in the grammar of obscure dialects of medieval French, such as Oc, which no one has heard of if they haven’t drunk wine from the Southwestern region of France. The name of the language I study means “yes” in itself, which is one of the things that drew me to it. I like that optimism. I am now one of fewer than one thousand people who speaks Oc and one of just ninety-seven, as of last year, who speaks my sub-dialect.
Just now I am on fellowship to finish my thesis, bit since Eruption it’s all on hold. Everything. My dissertation. The future. Planning. Hope.
Now I have a different job, and that job, like all labors of love, is unpaid. It is to notice.
I think Oscar doesn’t know about the plagues yet, though he knows about the mice. I’m not sure whether he knows about the bedbugs, or the bacteria traveling in the smoke. I think he is innocent this week. But it could be he is like me, watching, waiting for what the signs bring.
When I saw the bites this morning, I took a quick shot of espresso, scratched up and down, everywhere, and sprayed the room with roach fogger. Then I lifted my sheet and shook it, and there confronted my adversary. A barely live bug was gasping its last breath in an arduous sojourn across my bedding. It looked like a tick, if remotely. I picked it up and told myself it was a tick. It was firm, fat and round, with an unexpected hardness to its orblike carapace. It actually looked more like a scarab than a tick: luminous red and bulbous, oddly gorgeous. I held the thing on the point of a needle and observed it in hopeless paroxysms of post-fumigant asphyxiation, its multiple legs flailing, its attenuated motions, its last lugubrious spasms of defeat. I let it struggle. I placed it in a plastic takeout container and watched it, still extant, squirming, too weak to scramble a centimeter.
Google Image delivered the verdict. I identified the specimen employing a technique I describe, now, on the cell phone to Annie: “Take magnifying glass in one hand, Google Image in the other. Compare carefully.” Now past the scrutinizing eyes of my neighbors, I walk through the heat. It is like unguent.
“What did you Google?” Annie asks.
“Squashed bedbug?” Annie clarifies. “I would Google Squashed bedbug.”
“I didn’t squash it.”
“I wanted it to die naturally.”
“That’s your mistake, thinking there’s such a thing as natural death in New York. Natural like cancer? Natural like smoke inhalation? Natural like shock? Like adrenaline poisoning? Not this week.”
“No,” I say vaguely. As she speaks, I am noticing signs. Signs that might help me understand why. Why bedbugs? Why now? Why to me?
Mattresses. There are signs in the form of mattresses: signs that my single bedbug is a part of something large; signs that we are in the grips of a scourge grand and perhaps malevolent; signs that I am not the only person in my neighborhood afflicted with skin erupting in wens and malicious, six-legged aliens in my home depriving me of a good night’s sleep; signs that it’s all connected: bedbugs and mice and Eruption and air thick with ash and toxins.
Over five blocks before the subway I see four mattresses, heaped upon trash piles. There are also box springs, a comforter, three pillows, a sofa. Foam and quilted dregs from the shelter industry amass on every corner—easy chairs, futons, pillows. Lower Manhattan is divesting itself of furniture.
Uptown—where there is Annie and there is my French class—things are running. Down here, it’s quiet still. It is four days past Eruption, and I am two blocks south of the last line of cordons that, until five a.m. today, restricted the approach of uninterested outsiders into the vicinity of the Downtown Eruption Zone. Four days earlier, this was the closest thing I’d seen to a war zone, with floodlights and restricted access and smoke—lots of smoke—and uniformed people barking orders and disconcerting beasts rising apocalypse-style from the jutted pavement: mice, large cockroaches, rats. Streets closed to vehicles and nonresidents; sidewalks darkened; the population thinned to just we who live here.
It was martial law or something close. The lights went out at the movie theaters, cordoned behind tangles of yellow tape and rubble. On the marquee at Second Avenue were only the words god bless america. Neighbors skulked about depressed and coughing black. The few open restaurants, places where you once had to wait an hour even late on a weeknight, filled only one or two tables. We had to go uptown to see friends. When we came home, wearied cops and national guardsmen demanded IDs or rental leases. If your ID was out of date or your lease illegal, you made up stories and charmed them.
Today passage is open, and Annie has made plans to meet me.
And so no longer must we downtown reconcile the odd sensation that we maybe liked it the way things were: the way downtown we lived in darkness and quiet and privacy, and uptown there was no war. We felt, perhaps, a spooked and guilt-laden awe at the calm emptiness all around, the way the air felt still like during new snow when traffic halts and the sky absorbs the ambient static. Uptown they didn’t know that smell yet—of creosote and plastic and people’s clothes, the smell of our own skin now. They didn’t know how New York City looks different when there’s a billion-watt bulb shining from thousands of feet up and yet the lights at street level are blackened because, under quarantine, business is bad.
Downtown we still took calm assurance. We knew peacetime lay only a subway ride’s distance. There, our friends weren’t wheezing and didn’t have telltale lines of silt on their shoulders and calves from the rains of dust. They weren’t yet accustomed to seeing soldiers from southern cities whose names they’d never heard in the anarchist cafés. Last week, talk was of recycling and vegan shoes. Now it was about gas masks, on soldiers and neighbors. Uptown, they weren’t worried about pets. People weren’t yet set on trigger by three-legged dogs or pee cups at the doctor’s stained pink or cockroaches that seemed to have the wrong number of limbs but scuttled too fast for you to know, really.
When the rain of dirt came, the heat came with it. The rain carried all kinds of debris: frayed and burnt subway maps whose lines you could almost follow and pieces of subway-car bench and squares of Plexiglas and chunks of ash that looked like rock but melted to smudge when you grasped them. We noticed panels of caked creosote, jolted from primeval train tunnels; aerial viruses lifting from bomb spores; soot from fires; fevers of redeye.
Now it is the heat, convection of some sort, that keeps a pebbly grime swirling in our geosphere. It is a hundred and five degrees. Everyplace is keeping the air conditioning on low if it’s working at all, and for once it’s warm enough to sit without a sweater at Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, the NYU library where I work in my carrel. There is the feeling of unrest that comes every heat wave. Fuses keep blowing. Lights blink out. Air conditioning shorts. It’s not just Eruption. Something malfunctions every heat wave, turns people riotous: the Great Blackout of ’76 and its repeat in ’03; the heliport mishaps and the planes that flew too low; the Sewage Main Crisis and all those many subway tragedies that came before—the bombings and the rail splits and the conductors high on crank and the victims cast aimlessly before moving cars.
Elizabeth Kadetsky’s short stories have appeared in Best New American Voices 2008, the Pushcart Prizes 2005, Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. Her short story manuscript was the top selection in AWP’s 2004 Grace Paley Award, and her stories have been selected for the Iowa Prize, the Atlantic Monthly student fiction contest and others. She was writer-in-residence at the St. James Centre for Creativity in Malta in 2006. She is author of the memoir First There Is a Mountain, set during a year she lived in India as a Fulbright scholar, published in 2004 by Little, Brown.