It happens quickly, this fondness for a spider living in a corner of my bathroom. She’s been there for weeks, and one day, I look down and watch her. And we come to an understanding, or at least, I pretend to understand her, as if I’d just misunderstood a reflection of myself in a mirror and was shocked for a moment to discover a twin.
When I began grad school, I moved into a garden-level apartment within walking distance of campus. The apartment flooded occasionally and let all kinds of insects in its windows. Its neighbors made endless batches of curry, the smell of cumin and turmeric always in the hallway. I got a job at a café several blocks away and worked evenings, walking home after midnight with a large cup of leftover coffee I warmed on the stove and drank while I did my homework.
I’m sick much of that summer, with migraines, with stomachaches caused by statistics classes and eating only food from the café. At night, when I sit on the bathroom floor with my legs tucked under me, rubbing menthol on my throbbing temples or curling my chest over my sore middle, I am nearly eye to eye with the spider. What does she do all night? I am only learning to live alone, to trust the long moments of quiet, the afternoons reading with my legs on the top of the couch, the walk down the dark and narrow hallway at the end of the day, fumbling with my keys and pretending I am being chased as I did climbing the basement stairs as a child.
I’m fascinated by the spider’s choice of a solitary life, or whatever it is that choice is called when it’s governed by instinct in a species that must follow certain behavioral rules. Funny to think I would overcome arachnophobia with a healthy admiration for a spider’s lifestyle. I watch her like other girls listen to Bikini Kill or analyze feminism on Sex and the City. I want an example, a model for how to live independently, with the smallest bit of indifference and anonymity, without fear, for a while, for the summer.
Morning customers at the café are all students and professors on their way to summer classes. Evening brings in the regulars. Every night, a motley group of men push tables together, spread out a chessboard, and play until the cafe closes. On any given evening, the chess players include:
An African-American man with a high voice who wears loose, thrift-store t-shirts and eats chocolate cake;
A physics professor, ten kinds of skinny, hair bleached and spiked like Billy Idol, always black leather pants, always a red leather jacket;
A man with dark and floppy hair, large plush features, uses his forefinger and thumbnail to flick a quarter into the tip jar after ordering (I hate him a little for this);
The boy, at least fifteen years younger than the rest, awkward, needs a haircut even when he’s just gotten one, loose hands.
Two of them play while the group, sometimes larger, offers ongoing commentary and advice. A playwright, handsome, with a strong jaw and a shy way of flirting with the waitresses, sits at the table nearest the bathroom and records snippets of their conversation for his next play.
The other regulars:
A student here from the Netherlands for the summer. We are attracted to each other, but neither of us can overcome our shyness to do much about it. I know I like him because I spill things when he’s around. He orders coffee after coffee and frowns at his book. I spill more coffee beans, a cupful of ice, a bowl of orange pulp. He occasionally wears a kilt, a long tan-and-red pattern that drapes past his knees.
The biker, tall, a dark beard, leather jacket adorned with chains. He comes in ten minutes before closing, orders a bottle of root beer, and tips a dollar for it. He opens it quickly with a turn of his large wrist. It is not a twist-off.
The man with hair spaced shorter and longer, lighter and darker, across his scalp. He said they had to fix his head from the inside out. He talks about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and his voice is hedged with genuine pain. He wants to move to a peacenik commune in Indiana after this summer. Sometimes his eyes are bloodshot, and sometimes he hasn’t appeared to have slept in days. Usually he is talkative, sexually inappropriate in a vague way. When he doesn’t feel like talking, he reads stacks of anatomy books, like the beauty of a vessel, an organ, is the only thing for making sense. Some nights, he sits with his daughter and buys her caramels.
The bouncer from the club across the street, the biggest man I have ever seen. He wears long dreadlocks and asks me about the books I’m reading. He likes blended drinks with lots of sugar, cream and caffeine. He watches out for the waitresses when we close up at night, makes sure we are safe, that no one is bothering or threatening us as we try to lock the doors and walk home. It is a college campus surrounded by bars, and someone is always bothering us. We give him all the free, heavily sweetened drinks he wants. It’s unspoken, of course, this exchange of frappe for protection.
They are all men, the regulars. I like to watch them, learn what brings them into this warm space every night. Most are men from the neighborhood, the campus, men with joking voices, ways of flirting with the waitresses, ways of wanting company and coffee, ways of wanting to be left alone.
The Dutch man stays late one night until everyone has gone, and we talk as I clean. I spill an entire plastic tub of coffee beans. He finds this funny and smirks as I stare at the mess. He helps me clean, although we must look silly, me with a broom and dustpan, him scooping handfuls of coffee beans from the just-mopped floor. He asks me if I like movies, and I can’t think properly. All that I have in my mind is that day several months ago in the woods, with the man I trusted, the man I couldn’t get away from, the man around whom I froze and tried to be nice so he wouldn’t get angry, why didn’t I fight? And I’m shaking my head, no, I don’t like movies. He looks perplexed, and I feel awful. It wasn’t a lie. I really don’t like movies. He hangs around until I lock the doors, and he waves goodbye. The bouncer lifts an eyebrow, and I grin and wave him off.
After coming home from class one afternoon, I notice another spider in the web. Because I have never seen mating or killing look like this, I can only describe what the spiders are doing as a dance comprised of beautiful, painful movement. I don’t know it is painful, but if I were in pain, this is how I would move – slowly, reaching toward something that might help – the kinetic equivalent of keening. The larger spider – my girl – is leading, instigating movement from the smaller form. She plucks the end of a leg, guides motion with a vague stroke, backs off for a moment and comes back to touch and roll and slide her partner again. The smaller spider is – do spiders writhe? Do spiders undulate? Picture a spider in space, falling over itself in heavy movements, its legs splayed and squirming outward, away, trying to escape, its body caught in the command of something larger, something that is barely touching it at all. I can’t stop watching, and it seems like it will never stop. I don’t know if this is sex or death or both.
I leave to eat dinner, and when I come back, the only thing left of the smaller spider is a few shards of black. I shut the door and wait until morning to take a shower.
These are the only places I go: the café, school, my apartment. For a while, for the summer. The neighborhood becomes the universe, and on the sidewalk, it’s nice to be known as the girl who serves coffee from five to midnight. It’s nice to watch the men straggle in every night, to watch, to oversee from the counter. To give them sweet pastries and warm coffee, to add extra whipped cream because I know they are too embarrassed to ask for it, to prompt a smile when I have jasmine tea ready for the Egyptian cigar shop owner before he can ask. To watch their faces soften because I care about how they wish to eat and drink.
I love that they want only small things, only a spot of sweetness or warmth at the end of the day. When I lock up at night, I put my headphones in and walk the eight blocks to my apartment, ignoring the frat parties, ignoring the drunk college students. I wear my apron home. It’s a talisman, I suppose. It tells people I’m a fixture in this neighborhood in a way they aren’t, that I’m the girl who serves them coffee. It is a terribly powerful thing to be the girl that serves coffee.
I want only small things. For a while, for the summer. I want to eat leftover chicken Caesar wraps from the café and drink warmed coffee in the middle of the night, and I want to sit on the bathroom floor and watch the spider.
I was terrified of spiders as a child. At night, I lined up stuffed animals along the edges where my bed met the wall to impede their imagined progress onto my sleeping body. When he found them in the house, my father killed them and chased me with the tissue containing their crushed forms. He meant no harm. It is the way of boys and men, I think, to tease fear, to be encouraged to face and overcome fear so often that laughter is the default response.
I suppose there are many reasons for fear, especially unexplained fear of beings that rarely cause harm. We find their movements uncanny, our genes are wired to protect us from animals that could be venomous, phobias are implanted in the same way as a distaste for carrots or a love of chocolate. I lose my fear of spiders that summer, and I don’t know why, other than that I identify with this particular, solitary spider. I see in her that my current way of being is okay, that it is fine for a while, for the summer, to live in a corner of the world, to venture out only when it is desirable.
I hope she isn’t frightened of me. The more I think about my arachnophobia, now draining away, I think I was more afraid of the crush, the fragility, the killing of a life, the total destruction of its form, than I was of a living spider. It’s too easy, to eradicate what they are. To be big, to be something they cannot get away from, to be a threat from which they cannot run fast enough. It’s easy to take their lives, and to take their bodies, their structures, to leave them only a stain on the floor, a dark smudge on the phone book. More girls than boys are afraid of spiders. More girls than boys fear their bodies’ permeability, its potential to be rendered into something broken.
The Dutch exchange student asks me out again. He has tickets to A View from the Bridge, and for a moment, I know he sees my eyes light up, because I love Arthur Miller. I tell him I have to work that night, and he’s disappointed. He sees me walking around campus that night. I smile as if I were just taking a break and heading back to work, but he ducks his head and drops and his eyelashes because he knows I am not working. He comes into the café only rarely and does not talk to me. I try not to catch his eye when he looks up from his book. I wish I could tear my belly open, tell the truth, let him look at the panic still sitting inside me, make him know that sometimes there are days in cars with men where you don’t know why you didn’t yell. I wish I were just the girl who serves coffee. I wish everyone only wanted small things, a slice of cake, a warm-up for their tea, a date to a play. I wish the small things didn’t have so much potential to break open. I wish I were not just the girl who serves coffee. I wish I wanted only small things.
There are different kinds of fear. There is phobia that floods your body with chemicals even as you try to reason it away. There is panic like a white light illuminating your muscles, charging you with electricity and liquid muscularity, a way to run, a way to lift and push and fight. There is terror that pulls your reason and your thinking mind out of your body, hustles it away to safe space while your body can’t think to move. There is dread that drips out of your past, a drop into the bloodstream here, a hold on your actions there.
No one will talk about it, but there is fear you deserve and fear you don’t, the fear that gets compared, the what really happened? how bad was it for you? are you worth what keeps you stuck to the floor of your bathroom? There are good reasons for wanting to be alone, for wanting to watch, to bury understanding of how the world behaves into your mind, to learn to love the men and spiders that fill your nights. There are good reasons to want only small things, to want to observe, to learn. There are good reasons, for a while, for the summer.