Friday, November 20, 2009
Thank the Water Bugs
When my husband was twenty-two years old he once spent an afternoon waiting in the basement of a near slum, hoping that an exterminator was actually going to keep a thrice made, and broken appointment to eradicate an infestation of what had been politely termed "water bugs". In reality they were cockroaches, and the apartment building in question housed only students at the nearby University of Ohio. As it happened my husband didn't even live in the building, but his closest friend Eric was the resident maintenance man. Tenants had been loudly complaining about the cockroaches, and were calling for both Eric's head, and his job.
Things in general had not been going Eric's way. He was on academic probation as it was, and the only way he could afford housing was to keep his job as the resident manager of the neglected apartment building. His rent was free in return for performing the building repairs, but Eric was unable to kill off the many roaches brought about mainly by the habits of the slovenly occupants of the building. A professional had been called, but had, up to that point, been wise enough to realize that the task was futile. No amount of bug bombing was going to do any good in a building where the average apartment was carpeted with half empty pizza boxes.
Still, Eric was trying. By the time the third appointment rolled around, Eric was unable to try and meet the man due to his class schedule, and asked my husband, his friend since high school, if he would await the technician in the basement. The main nest, it seemed, was located next to the furnace. My husband readily agreed, but hadn't anticipated waiting for hours.
Casting around for something to do he spied a milk crate full of discarded books and began to go through it, searching for something to read. Eventually he found Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy and settled in, reasonably content. The exterminator never showed up and my husband ended up reading for five hours as he waited for him. When my future husband finally gave up, he took the Hardy novel with him and finished reading it over the course of the next week.
That's how he ended up marrying me, by the way.
It would be nearly eight years later that I took a position at the same company for which he worked. I have no recollection of meeting him, although he remembers meeting me. It isn't that he fails to be memorable, it's that I must have met 75 people the same day I met him, whereas he met exactly one person; me.
I was a single mother, with a six-year-old son, rather jaded about love, I suppose. That might account for why I was reading Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy, during my lunch hours. I brought sandwiches for lunch, as I was trying to save money. I was always trying to save money then. Whenever there's a new girl at any company, and she happens to be single, chances are good she will spend the first two weeks of her employment life trying to run the gauntlet of ham-handed flirtation.
I was aware that the Controller kept trying to get my attention but I hadn't found him very interesting up to that point. He was almost an entire foot taller than I am. He was very thin, had a rather large nose and looked so much like Judge Reinhold to most people that several people at the company called him "Judge". He had such thick chest hair that it peaked over the collar of his undershirt and practically waved to a passerby. It wasn't that I actively disliked him, it was that at that particular point in my life, I was not interested in dating and men trying to flirt were primarily a nuisance.
"What are you reading?" He asked and I supplied the title while barely glancing up. He was blocking my light, and the first thing that caught my attention was that he immediately stepped to the side in order to stop doing that. "By Thomas Hardy?"
"Yes, by Thomas Hardy." I looked up again, and the Judge lookalike took this as an invitation to sit down next to me.
"I read a book by him, a long time ago..." he began, and started talking about Tess of the d'Urbervilles, getting most of the plot wrong, actually.
"Did you read it for a class?" I asked, because it was clear that he had read the book, but was mixing up the details.
"No, I read it because of bugs. Water bugs, in reality cockroaches."
What my husband remembers is that I suddenly smiled, turned the corner of the page I was reading down, and closed the book in order to continue talking to him, asking him how cockroaches had led to his reading Hardy.
He happily launched into a discussion of Thomas Hardy with me, and felt quite pleased that his literary knowledge had finally pried up the door he had been trying to get through all week.
Every single day of our lives we do small things, make tiny decisions, and go about our business never knowing exactly what each piece of our puzzle makes. Every now and then we can trace our actions, and our decisions back to key moments that made a huge difference in the course of our lives. That was one instance where it is easy to spot how that moment fit the puzzle.
By the end of that lunch hour I'd agreed to a lunch date with the tall, rather awkward Controller. I only stayed at that company for two months, and left to take a better paying job. I assumed we'd end up friends, and in many ways we did, but we also ended up married.
When people ask how we met, we generally say, "Through work." When friends ask, we usually talk about the irony of meeting ones spouse while reading a book that was considered a condemnation of the institution of marriage.
When my son asked not that long ago, I told him the truth, we met thanks to a water bug infestation eight years before we ever set eyes upon each other. It wasn't that my husband had read, and could vaguely recall the details of a book by the same author. It was that, generally speaking, men flirt with single women for a very slim set of reasons, and the moment the word "cockroach" left my future husband's mouth, I was struck by two rather important things. He was a terrible flirt, a truly terrible one. Who in the world brings up the most disgusting bug most people can name, when trying to get the romantic attention of anyone? He was so incredibly bad at trying to catch my attention, that he actually did.
The other thing was that he'd spent hours in a bug infested basement, trying to help his friend, and when he told me about that, it was as if he didn't even realize it was one of the most attractive things about him. It was said in an offhand manner, thinking he needed to get back to the subject at hand, the thing he was sure had caught my attention, Thomas Hardy.
But it was the water bugs, and I remain very grateful to those water bugs.
I did end up telling him that it was the weirdness of bringing up cockroaches apropos of nothing while trying to flirt that caught my attention.
"So I'd have been screwed if you were reading Kafka?"
I'm sure you can see why he's still one of my favorite people on the face of the Earth. We get each others weirdness.
Whatever seemingly mundane thing you do today, it may remain mundane and unimportant forever. Or it may end up making all the difference in the world.
That's one of the most wonderful things about being alive.