Cassandra A. Clarke
On the street of the home where we used to live, construction workers still stand. I can’t remember the date when they arrived. When did the trucks with their pistons and rollers and plans set up shop outside of our apartment door? It had to been some point in June, when the weather was warm enough for them to be in shorts and we’d keep the windows open, listening to their buzzing and whacking and cursing. They seemed quite determined to build something new, but, to do that it also meant that they had to dig deep into gravel, to unearth all the layers and layers of concrete that had been covering up what once were the pipes circulating water all throughout Somerville. When we walked to our commutes we had to skip over all the cracked pieces, all the leftovers that no one knew what to do with, and neither did we, so we just kept a-jumping our way to the next street, hoping someone else would clean it up.
See the pipes on Summer Street had gotten old. Pipes don’t really have a way of telling anyone that on time, and so it gets forgotten by the city. It’s always not an urgent matter, a not now matter, but the time had finally come to admit that the pipes were tired and run down and weren’t working the way they should. Do you remember how long it took to get water to fill a cup? It felt like minutes went before we could fill something full for our thirsty mouths. I imagine all the aches and groans that we heard through our bedroom and bathroom walls were the pipes screeching for our attention: We’ve been waiting over one hundred years to be replaced! Just so that we can do exactly what you expect us to do, to run all your shit and water and shitty water through all these rooms and faucets that we will never be asked to use! How fucking rude. We just got used to the moaning. It wasn’t our place to change them or tell anyone.
When the pipes were being replaced it did something funny to our water. It wasn’t toxic, per se, it’s just that the water came through ruddy. Sometimes it didn’t come out at all. Sometimes we stood over our sink cursing because we couldn’t get a thing out, no matter how hard we tried. Other times, we were so annoyed that our water wasn’t clear enough, so we rolled our eyes and swallowed that high pressure sauce imagining it brought tiny rocks and gravel with it, and that was what made our stomachs bloat.
We could have lived with the weird colored water. We could have lived for the moments where no matter what we did, there just wasn’t enough water. We could go to bed thirsty because we knew that we had hope for another day. What we didn’t know how to deal with were the gnats. Those fucking gnats. After the water pressure changes, and after the cracking of asphalt, our apartment started to house gnats. They’d flutter around our bowls of oatmeal. They’d clutter around the overflowing glasses of red wine in the living room. They’d stick to the walls as if they were listening to each and every word we said. They were so much everywhere that it took an effort to find a place where they weren’t. We tried to remove them in the ways we heard could work. We used vinegar. We used prayer. We used bleach down the drains, hoping it’d kill each one. At some point, you became obsessed with removing them all.
I admit, I didn’t care if the gnats left or stayed. In time, the cold winter of Boston would kill them anyways, so I figured this was just a temporary situation. I had mentioned once or twice to you that maybe the pipes outside were to blame. I had figured that when you dig deep, when you are really committing to removing the old, the rot, that you’re bound to find the ugly. You’re bound to find the inescapable confrontation that comes from years of abandonment. Like how forgotten wine bottles in cellars sometimes grow mold and even though you meant to save it for another time, your pausing, your desire to leave things unopened just happened to spoil the whole thing. Of course, you disagreed.
You began diagnosing the apartment. At first, we needed to close the windows tighter. You went around like a sergeant general of windows, policing the lock and the strength given to each closing effort. Windows were not permitted to be open, even if it was July, even if the walls sweat. Then, it was the garbage. I had not taken it out in time. I tried to explain that it wasn’t full yet but you seemed to think that if I waited too long for the garbage to fill then it was just asking for more gnats. So, I began to take out the garbage as soon as it was half-full. Then, the recycling bin! I had left too many wine bottles and speaking of wine bottles, perhaps I might want to not have as many? Perhaps it’d be better if I went for a run or got outside the house more? Perhaps I could not sit down and watch three hours of Parks and Recreation after work because you disapproved of it? So, I started buying less wine and rinsing each glass out and wiping them dry so as not to attract more gnats with the wet rim and went for walks so long that I ran out my shoes. So, I started buying more shoes. I couldn’t buy them fast enough because I kept needing more grounds to cover that weren’t in our house. Somehow the shoes also got involved so then I stopped wearing shoes inside and texted you when I left and when I would return from walks. Then, the bathtub, oh, the bathtub! It had grown a pinkish film on the tile and so then I started to remind myself to clean it weekly. There were so many things to remember to do or not do, that I started to get tired.
I was so tired that I’d take a day off from work sometimes just to clean the floors, just to wash the sinks and dry them, just to vacuum the house and light lavender scented candles, just to remember to do it all and not forget until I was exhausted and I’d plop on the couch and open up a can of beer. Of course, you’d then walk in and see the beer at 5:00 pm and sigh as if I had been born on that couch and lived every waking moment there. You didn’t notice the clean dishes, the clean walls, that I wasn’t wearing shoes, that I locked all the windows, that I scrubbed the toilet, that I emptied all the trash. You saw the gnats though, even if there were only a handful of them. You clapped your hands all around the apartment like you were more Venus flytrap than lover. In a lot of ways, that is exactly what you became. You, the gnat-hunter, and I, the person who cohabitated within the battle. When I didn’t follow suit, clapping my hands or caring that the gnats hadn’t left yet, you asked me if I just wanted them to be here. If I was just ok with it? At that point, secretly, I wanted the gnats to win. I had tried so hard to remove any traces of my being in our apartment that I had begun to feel as if I wasn’t there at all. Let the fucking gnats come. Let them speak. Maybe it is their time to rule our home. Lord knows that I tried to rule it in all the ways that you’ve given. I imagine they’d have something crucial to tell us about how to get by on scraps.
One day, mid-August or so, you went to the hardware store to buy more supplies for the gnats. I didn’t care what you bought. I didn’t listen to your voicemails. I imagined they’d be boring, that you wouldn’t ask about my day, that you’d just droll on and on about the gnats and tell me you’d be home soon with supplies and food. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the supplies or food. It’s just I knew the second I’d eat, it’d be too loud. I knew the second I opened up the wine you bought for me that if I drank too much or too quick, I’d be told. That when I put my glass down for a moment, and a gnat arose, that you’d swear and start complaining all over again and I wouldn’t want to eat a single bite of rice. I knew that when you brought home food, mostly sushi, that I’d accidentally spill some and you would tell me, kindly, that this is why we have bugs in the apartment. That if I was more conscious, if I was neater, if I took more care, then we wouldn’t have this problem. I couldn’t care to care enough, you imagined. However, that day, you came home and casually mentioned that you knew why we had gnats.
You told me that the store owner, this Southie guy, had told you that when pipes are replaced that often during the construction the workers uncover dead mice and rats. The gnats are coming from the carcasses of those lil bodies underground. It can’t be helped because these big machines can’t quite see the small and tiny things that they crush along the way as they are trying to make things better. They don’t sweep for these little feet. They don’t bend down real close and listen for the whimpering. They turn on the engines and put on their hard-hats and earmuffs and they just focus on the work of it. Of course they have some casualties in the process. Who would stop to think that where someone is currently is where they were meant to be? Who would stop to think that you could get elsewhere in time if you too knew of that plan, if you knew what was expected of you? Maybe the mice would have packed their bags together. Maybe they would have gotten to another home and then the gnats would never have arrived at all.
I didn’t mind that you told me this. I felt a sense of relief, at first. I thought that maybe that then if you knew it wasn’t me, that I didn’t bring the gnats, that I was trying and tried and tried to make our home as clean as possible, as suitable to you as you had ever asked of me. What I minded was that after you heard this, that you credited the hardware guy with the logic, and that you never took the second to turn to me and meet my eyes. You couldn’t say that sometimes we land ourselves in situations that require a lot of work, and brings a lot of mess with it, and that if we stick through it together, we can find our own kind of peace in the process. You didn’t hold my hand and tell me that you were sorry that you couldn’t have stayed home with me on days where I didn’t know if I could place my feet anywhere at all. You didn’t hold me when I didn’t know what to say or what to do or how to move off the couch. You could have lied down there with me. You so badly wanted to push me, to get me to get someplace else, that you didn’t know that all I wanted was you to join me, to be where I was, even if it was messy, even if it was a place that I hadn’t planned on finding. I remember the construction workers came around the same time that I started therapy. I remember seeing the pulled apart earth when I walked outside each morning, staring into the deep holes that looked like they held pockets of forever and thinking of what it would feel like to jump inside. I figured that free-falling sensation wouldn’t be much different than what I felt daily.
A part of me believed I had summoned the gnats. Or, perhaps the gnats had summoned me to bring out all the festering sensations, all the crawling under my own skin, all the thirst to get at something more without having the ability or freedom to ask for it. Maybe we summoned each other. Maybe I and the hardware guy was wrong. Maybe there were never any mice in the pipes. Maybe all that ever was what an inescapable and ever constant presence of each and every inadequacy I felt while with you.
We don’t live in the same home anymore and my home houses no gnats. I don’t live that far from where we used to, so perhaps I left the gnats there on purpose. Perhaps that let me go. Sometimes you will send me a message, wondering what happened. Sometimes you will ask me for a litany of reasons, of a kind of scoreboard that you can keep to understand why we do not home together. And I think, ah, it’s just like it was with the gnats! What you are looking to find in me, or not find in me, has always been what you were too scared to find or not find in yourself. Not once did you look at yourself like the problem or the solution. Not once did you say, Maybe I left the window open. To this day, I hope that you can leave a window open or two. That you sometimes forget to do the dishes and that it’s okay. That you sometimes think of me and remember the times when we left wrappers on the floor, when we were wholly ourselves, and not looking to clean up any trace of us living beside each other. I don’t know if you do and I don’t know if you still go searching for me in places, or if you’ve gone searching for all the ways to not see me in places. I don’t need to know that in the same way that I don’t need to know why the gnats came.
Cassandra’s work has been previously published in Electric Literature, Word Riot, Entropy, and other speculative places. She has an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. By day, she works in the nonprofit world, and by night she works at her Taekwon-Do dojang. Find her misadventures @cass__clarke and writings at: www.cassandraaclarke.com.