Upon moving into my one bedroom Manhattan apartment from my parents’ actual house in Midwood, I had a lot of adjustments to make. Most of the changes I dreaded like doing my own laundry turned out to be easy. What the naive, Jewish girl in me just couldn’t get accustomed to was something much greater. I knew that living in Manhattan I could expect lots of dust, I might tangle with difficult neighbors and I would have to deal with unpredictable temperatures of city apartments, but nobody back home warned me about the water bugs.
The townhouse next door was undergoing construction and the side effects were horrendous. Until my move, which simultaneously occurred with the onset of the construction, I had never shared an encounter with a water bug. In fact, when my building’s superintendent suggested keeping the door closed to prevent them from finding way into my apartment, I thought "water bug" was his nice way of saying "cockroach."
No sooner did I move in did the water bugs crawl up from the bowels of my East 62nd Street building and into my shower, under my sinks, between my couch cushions and in my shoes. Nothing on the floor was safe and I didn’t know how much longer my $30 Ikea dresser could sustain the weight of piling sweaters and boots. Some behaviors indigenous to water bugs were absolutely horrifying: the way their wings would flap when they ran away from my broom; the way their flat bodies would rest between the folds of my towels. They gave birth in my drains and welcomed their babies into my home. I struggled to maintain the exterminator appointments and I religiously sprayed cans of Raid.
Coming home became the most dreadful part of my day. My body flooded with anxiety whenever the N train conductor announced my stop.
One Saturday night after hours of bar hopping, I lazily lugged myself up the stairs of my building to find an unwelcome surpriseone of my water bugs dead. I cringed at the sight but then was touched by a drunken epiphany: These nasty creatures were my neighbors. I had to embrace the bugs as a new part of my life.
I looked down at the bug, lying harmlessly dead on its back, and named it Philippe.
Instead of hating Philippe, I embraced him, greeting him each morning and evening when we crossed paths. Before long, Philippe became a friendly face, a source of comfort. Whenever I felt lonely, I’d walk to the stairwell and check on him. I wished him happy holidays and prayed that nobody would take him from me. My mother would call me and ask about his well being as though he was the child she’s waiting for me to have. One day when I was leaving for work, I noticed a lady friend had joined him. I named her Maggie.
Walking back from the subway station free of heartburn that same afternoon, I actually looked forward to coming home and seeing the lovebirds. I stopped at the cleaners next door and picked up my mail before opening the staircase door to a terrible discovery: Maggie was gone.
This could only mean one thing: Maggie was alive. My body entered panic mode and I felt my lunch rise in my throat. I came face to face with my cowardiceI never was able to fully stomach the presence of living water bugs, just the dead ones. I tiptoed over Philippe and was about to open the door when I heard the sickening flapping of wings that can only belong to one creature. I ran frantically into my apartment, shooed Maggie away with takeout menus, slammed the door shut and triple-locked it. I grabbed a towel from the bathroom and blocked the narrow opening between the door and the carpet.
Suddenly the thought of Philippe made me nauseous, too. I was so angry with him for bringing his girlfriend over that I needed a hiatus. For the next few days, I shamelessly took the elevator up and down from the second floor. But by the time I was ready to confront Philippe, he was no longer there. I would never see him again.
Because Philippe and I never shared a proper goodbye, I now make sure to treat his fellow bugs well. Since the construction next door ended and the bugs don’t make as many appearances, this is easy to do. I still think about him from time to time and I know he’s with me in spirit. I like to think that I’ve become more accepting. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I found two baby water bugs in my shower. I thought about killing them, but just for a moment. Lucky for me, they were already dead.