I’ve mentioned before my special relationship to biting insects, who come from miles around when they hear I’m outside and available. Despite this special relationship, I’m not especially scared of mosquitoes and gnats. I’m more goosey around stinging insects, who also find me attractive (sometime in my next thematic collection of embarrassing stories I’ll tell the one about accidentally kicking off my sandal into a professional tennis game while flailing to avoid a bee). Ironically, it’s the class of insects least likely to harm me that causes me the most terror: things that skitter.
My homes in Jordan had their fair share of roaches, of course. It’s the desert and we had no screens on our windows and our doors were open more than half the time. If they weren’t running rampant it was probably mostly because too many people were around. I’d quickly learned to keep the kitchen very clean and take the trash outside at least once a day. I also kept a pair of shibshib slippers next to my bed and didn’t ask questions at night if I felt something crunch on the way to the bathroom. I won’t say I became used to the roaches, but we seemed to come to a place of acceptable mutual avoidance, which is how you really want it to be with insects.
So I was totally floored when I came out of the shower one night, walked down the hall toward my bedroom, and found a tarantula* in my living room, regarding me calmly out of its many eyes.
I can tell you, because I know for a fact based on a night a month or so earlier, that if I had come out of that same bathroom and caught sight of myself in the hall mirror and seen the dull color of my own skull behind a gash bisecting my forehead, I would have been less horrified.
Of course, when the skull thing happened, there was probably some shock going on. Does shock make memories clearer and more vivid? I remember such weird details from that night. I remember coming to an absolute end of my rope with the cold. I hadn’t had a shower in days and my skin itched with oils and dirt. Even in the Middle East, unheated cinderblock homes can be really cold. Really cold. And it wasn’t until that night that the unpleasantness-of-filth factor outweighed the frostbite-as-soon-as-you’re-naked element and forced me to actually undress to bathe.
I need to say this again so you don’t totally judge me: really cold. And it had been a wet, gloomy week, and I was sad and homesick and lonely and I just wanted a shower that involved both hot water (okay, let’s be honest, it was tepid) and a room warm enough that my buttcheeks didn’t freeze off while I washed my face. So I did something that made sense at the time: I wheeled my big, boxy propane heater into the bathroom with me and closed the door. The bathroom was so drafty that even if I had thought about it (which I will admit I didn’t) it wouldn’t have occurred to me that this was going to be a problem.
Best shower all winter. I remember being warm and cozy and wondering if I would ever, ever stop being grateful for central heating and hot water heaters once I got back home. I remember the water heater flickering a little, but I had cranked that sucker way up so I didn’t think much of it. I remember stepping out of the shower and feeling the still-warm air on my skin and snuggling into my grandmother’s soft old robe.
And then I remember thinking that I felt like I’m told one sometimes feels after ingesting certain substances that are still illegal in my state.
I very barely remember deciding to open the window, because suddenly it was stuffy and —
I don’t know if you’ve passed out often, Dear Reader. When I do it, I always find that consciousness returns to me backwards. I am suddenly fully awake, in the moment; it’s the previous many moments that are missing. When I passed out at Merle Norman after having my left ear pierced, I woke up and wondered whose money was spilled all over the floor and why my sister was kicking me in humiliation. It took several seconds more for me to then wonder why I myself was on the floor and within kicking range.
On this occasion, I remember quite clearly coming suddenly to and being annoyed that someone had knocked over the pitcher I used for water to “flush” the toilet. It had spilled all over the floor, which was going to need to be squeegeed dry now. I managed to work up to a level of real pique before realizing that in order to see the puddle from that particular angle I would have to be lying down… half in and half out of the shower… with my face literally in the toilet in question.
The rest of the story is rather less entertaining, involving a hurried putting on of clothes, dragging my wonderful neighbors out of bed and asking for a ride to the hospital, and discovering that in some circumstances when you’re asked “How are you doing?” and you reply “I’d be better with a couple valium” they will actually give you valium. And then of course it led to the embarrassing shaving back of a chunk of my hairline — my students loved that when I went back to work, let me tell you — and eventually the itchy scab that came off and got stuck in my hair and when I pulled it out it was actually a two-inch long segment of suture that had not, in fact, been the dissolving sort and I almost fainted again. But I didn’t. And when the government med officer checked me out a few days later, she said “Huh, I think there’s another piece of suture still in there” and I said “What do I do about it?” and she said “You have an interesting souvenir. It’s string, you’re not going to set off metal detectors or anything” and nearly fifteen years later I’m pretty sure it’s still in there.
So when I looked in the mirror, with carbon monoxide molecules still clearly happily bonded to my blood cells, I remember seeing my skull, and I remember thinking “That is probably not good” and then going about doing what I needed to do with the barest minimum of anxiety.
Nothing at ALL like being scoped out by a spider the size of a grapefruit. Which is the worst thing ever.
We stared at each other for a minute, and then I’m pretty sure I spent some time making half-scream, half-whimper noises I’m glad nobody heard. I ran into the bedroom and slammed the door, hoping on one hand that the spider would flee, and realizing on the other that the one thing that might be worse than a tarantula in your living room is going to bed knowing there is a tarantula somewhere in your house and you don’t know exactly where.
Finally I managed to come up with some desperate courage and a kind of plan. You need a plan with tarantulas, because what else are you going to do, step on them? So I inched my way into the kitchen, back flat against the wall and facing the spider every step of the way. I lifted the curtain under the counter and pulled out a rusty old bucket my landlord had left behind. I inched back out and somehow — I don’t remember how — managed to get the bucket over the spider and get myself back across the room away from it.
I stood shaking against the wall. I needed to think of some item thin enough to slip under the bucket and substantial enough to use to carry it outside. I had taken all my cardboard out earlier in the week. My schoolbooks weren’t broad enough… the blankets were too floppy…
And then it happened. As I stood shaking and pondering, one furry leg slid out from under the rim of the bucket and tipped the bucket up.
We stared into each other’s eyes. We stared into each other’s souls.
But the spider was performing a feat of strength, from its size perspective, and after a few seconds the bucket dropped again.
I do not remember where I found the cardboard, or exactly how long it took me to work up the courage to push the bucket and board to the door and out into the courtyard. I knocked the bucket over with a broom, as far away as I could possibly get, and then ran back into the house and locked the door, in case this particular spider had mastered the operation of door handles.
And then I have a very clear memory. I remember sitting on the floor, head on knees, sobbing in the rush of post-spider adrenaline, and thinking of those television ads, late at night, where sweaty but happy Americans bring vaccinations or irrigation technology to grateful learners in Africa. I remembered feeling inspired by the phrase “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” I remembered what I thought that was going to mean, what it was going to be, and what it had actually turned out to look like.
Tarantulas and Harry Potter scars with pieces of string that would never come out.
*Not kidding! Turns out it probably was a tarantula. My gratitude and empathy to Sietskey in Beiroet and Lucy Knight for helping me identify it so many years later, and for helping me confirm I wasn’t crazy.