When Samantha calls, I am sitting on the living room floor contemplating the insides of the wall in front of me. She tells me she may have found us a coffee table and that I should be ready to help her move it home.
“I’ll be here,” I say.
“Please do,” she answers.
I hang up the phone and wonder: if I peel the plaster away from the wall like the skin of an orange, will I find the horror Samantha assures me is there? She says that at night she can hear them scratching, the cockroaches; she is certain they wait like voyeurs for the lights to go out. In the darkness, she tells me, they are free to violate the pristine surfaces of her flesh. Samantha is a genius at such things—she can and will envision herself the target for everything unpleasant. To her, a cockroach has no worldly purpose but to leave transparent lines of filth on her body, lines she claims she can never really wash away. To me the cockroach is all instinct, simply an impulse to find food and shelter and avoid being crushed. But I think about those lines too; these days it seems like I do little else. At night, in bed pretending to sleep, I try hard to keep from swatting at the sheets. I do this so as not to wake Samantha from her own feigned sleep.
She calls again.
“We’re bartering,” she says, “we’ve nearly agreed on a price.”
“Who’s we?” I say.
“The old man who owns the antique store,” she says.
“Stand your ground,” I say.
“Sage advice,” she says. “I should tell you, though, I’m beginning to doubt my love for you.”
“Really,” I say. “Well, just call me back with any news about the coffee table.”
“I owe you that much,” she says.
Actually, the scratching Samantha hears at night is mice in the walls. I have not told her this. Nor have I mentioned the squirrels in the attic, the rot in the floor by the bathtub, the carpenter ants, the possum skeleton I found in the small, dark room partitioned off in a corner of the unfinished basement. The realtor said all old houses have these rooms and in the old days it was where they stored coal, wood, and canned food. But to look at the room now—the single light bulb hanging without a fixture, the splintering plank wood walls, the small window cut in the door and the door with the heavy, iron hinges—you can’t help but believe that terrible things went on in there when the door was closed. If a home is said to have a memory, a room like this is where the worst of it resides.
Samantha calls again and says that yes, she is convinced she no longer loves me.
“I’ve met someone,” she says.
“The old man,” I say.
“No,” she says, “his son.”
“And the coffee table?”
She tells me they haven’t yet agreed on a price, but says she’ll keep me apprised on the affair.
I thank her at least for that.
We have been slow in furnishing our new home, partly for lack of money, partly for Samantha’s ‘intentionality,’ as she calls it. She is painfully frugal and has an inalterable vision of how she wants her home to look; in the end, she makes no decision quickly. A week ago Samantha bought a Persian rug and we laid it down over the hardwood floor in the living room. The idea was to set a coffee table on top, but the idea, like so many, has become a bad one. If the dread I feel now emerges from this—the coffee table or the cockroach clinging to the ceiling above where it will go—I can’t tell. I am thankful only that Samantha is not here to see how after lingering above in the living room, the cockroach races off to join the others.
Again, she calls.
“If I love his son,” she says, “the old man will give me a deal on the coffee table.”
“Is it worth it to you?”
“It is a lovely table.”
“And do you love him?”
“I’m beginning to. I don’t know. How can you ever know?”
“These decisions are important,” I say. “You must not rush.”
“I never do,” she says. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” I tell her.
We have, in each our own way, tried to make things work. Samantha hides the bills from me, knowing how it stings my ego that I am not a competent provider. For my part, I have pacified the cockroaches, if only temporarily. For Samantha, I begged them, do this for Samantha. They live in a nest behind the stove and they will keep out of view if at night I put out food for them. When they want steak, I give them steak. When they ask for garbage, I comply. But they have ears all over and even as I hang up the telephone, I can hear them crawling from their nest across the kitchen floor. The big ones peek their heads into the living room. Some of them are as tall as children, but not nearly as bold. When the phone rings again they startle and retreat.
“Philippe assures me,” Samantha says, “that in time I will learn to love him as much as I love the coffee table.”
“The old man’s son,” she says.
“Oh,” I say, “the table,” I say, “it must be very beautiful.”
“Yes,” she says, “it is.”
“You must follow your heart,” I tell her.
“I am,” she says, “and I’m leaving you.”
“It’s just as well,” I say, eyeing the host of cockroaches that surround me now. These are the size of small men and their antennae feel odd and soothing on my skin. I hold one antenna against my cheek, tenderly, the way I once held Samantha’s hand. When I hang up the cockroaches seem to offer condolences for my loss—Samantha, they say, she was not what you thought she was; we saw her do things when you were out; we can prove she never loved you. It’s just as well, I tell them, and, when the phone rings the last time, they’ve already bound my hands together behind my back, my legs at my ankles. A large, sympathetic cockroach holds the phone to my ear and looks on with concern.
“Samantha?” I say. “Is that you?”
“It’s me,” she says.
“Come home. Samantha, come home.”
The cockroaches do not like to hear me plead with her. Their antennae wave wildly, agitated and disgusted, and I am embarrassed to behave this way in front of them. No matter, I continue: “Samantha, please, think of all we’ve been through.”
“Don’t do this,” she says. “Don’t put me in this position. You know how unfair that is. I wouldn’t ask you to sacrifice your happiness for mine. You can’t ask the same from me.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
“And the coffee table,” I say, “is it yours?”
“Yes,” she says. “It’s mine.”
“Samantha, I want to tell you—”
But the cockroaches have heard enough. They take the phone away. They hoist me onto their backs. They parade me through the living room and kitchen, thrusting their barbed appendages into the air like they’ve achieved some victory. But soon the celebration fades into what sounds like a dirge, a melody of clicks and squeals so beautiful I’m nearly moved to tears. They bounce me down the stairs into the basement and when I land on the concrete floor I feel dizzy from the fall. A light bulb burns in the small room in the corner. The door with the heavy iron hinges is open and the cockroaches inside are monstrous, standing upright on two legs and rubbing four others on their smoky brown underbellies. Their long antennae curl and twist and twitch as they look at me. The cockroach nearest the door beckons me to rise and enter. “My friend,” it says, “we’re all so very sorry it’s come to this.”
And if I am not mistaken, there is compassion in its voice.