Warning: If you're squeamish about cockroaches, perhaps you should wait until after breakfast to read this column.
I think it's safe to say that most people dislike roaches. My feelings go beyond squeamishness and distaste; I have a ridiculous, illogical fear of them. It used to be a lot worse, a full-on phobia.
The little tan German roaches don't bother me, nor do the two-toned brown garden variety that scurry for shelter when you water the bushes or move a flowerpot. It's just the beeg bambucha B-52s that send my heart racing and my palms sweating. More than once, upon finding one in the bathroom, I've backed out, closed the door and waited for it to leave or my husband to come home. That's right, I'd rather surrender my space than attempt extermination.
I've even been held prisoner by a roach. When my job required a weekly commute to Honolulu from Maui, I spent weeknights in a friend's spare room, adjacent to the washhouse and garage. Concrete floor, hollow-tile walls, lush garden outside. Roach heaven. One evening, as I was getting ready to go out for dinner, one of those cock-a-roaches, as we called them small-kid-time, wandered in under the door. I jumped onto the bed and stayed there, locked in a standoff with the little wretch. I yelled, clapped, banged on the bed frame, but he didn't budge. I tossed a book in his direction, not to hit him, just scare him, but he only skittered a few inches - closer to the bed. So I finished my makeup and played solitaire until he finally got bored and crawled back to the laundry room . . . two hours later. Really.
I was just grateful he didn't take flight. Once, in that same room, I was reduced to tears, huddled under a sheet while being dive-bombed by a crazed cockroach. This is why I never tried killing them - if you miss on the first strike, it annoys them. And they retaliate.
I've traced this silliness back to an 8th-grade science class assignment. On the day our insect collections were due, our team was still missing a cockroach. Science class was right after lunch recess, so we ate as quickly as we could and rushed out to the ball field to look for a suitable specimen. We found one just as the bell rang, which didn't leave us much time to properly prepare our catch. We put it in our makeshift gas chamber and as soon as it stopped wiggling, one of the boys stuck a pin through it and placed it in the glass case, completing our collection just as the teacher called the class to order. Our exhibit was perfect, except for one thing - the roach had only been stunned, and now it was regaining consciousness, impaled above a hastily scrawled label. All six legs were groping the air, independent of each other, like hairy, spastic snakes protruding from its abdomen (or was it the thorax?). It was a horrid, pitiable sight and it gave me nightmares for weeks and a lifelong fear of roach revenge.
About 15 years ago, I tried hypnotherapy, and it helped a little. I was no longer immobilized by the sight of a roach. But until I was widowed and had no husband to do my dirty work for me, I still couldn't bring myself to stomp, slap or even spray the miserable creatures. The first one I saw after Barry died was a 2-incher, lurking in my bathtub. It took 10 minutes to psych myself into it, but I finally dispatched it with a rolled-up newspaper. And then spent another 10 minutes crying tears of relief and triumph.
Writing today's column has been a therapeutic exercise, the last step out of roach hell. When I began "Sharing Mana'o" over a year ago, I filled a notebook page with ideas for future columns - random thoughts, snippets of childhood memories, bits of daily life on Maui. "Cockroaches" was one of the first entries, but whenever I looked to the list for inspiration, I quickly dismissed it. I worried that any mental energy spent on the topic might attract the real thing. Each week, though, my inner tita has grown louder and louder, challenging me to stand up to the cock-a-roaches and my own folly. So today, I finally am. It has been quite a challenge, trying not to visualize the critters while writing about them. But here we are at the bottom of the column, not a roach in sight, and I do feel somewhat liberated, no more a slave to superstition and fear.
Of course, I replenished all the roach baits in the house before sitting down to write. No sense tempting fate. Or revenge-seeking cock-a-roaches.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.