Raymond winced with each floor creak.
“Sorry, sorry,” he whispered to himself, hoping the woman in the other room was awake. If she was, she wouldn’t come alive with fright, her default reaction in their encounters. “Oh! you scared me,” when he returned from hours blundering around the city, or “Oh! I didn’t know you were here,” when he hadn’t left the apartment for days.
Raymond was no frightening figure. His tucked shoulders and averted eyes made him easy to ignore in public and private.
As the boards beneath him creaked, Raymond reminded himself he wasn’t an intruder. The small steps he took only seemed to lengthen, louden the creaks. What if he stubbed a toe on a piece of furniture? I wish I could stay in my room, he thought.
But his gut, that bottomless pit!
Finally he came to the kitchen. With his right hand he felt for the light switch, touching instead a power socket. He climbed around with fingers until he found the switch, and flipped it up.
The light came on.
Two shiny black beads rested on the throw rug in front of the refrigerator. Each an inch-and-a-half long, positioned at perpendicular angles.
One of the beads ran at him, antennae waving boldly, stopping in the center of a white square of chess-checkered linoleum, three feet away.
Raymond stepped back. He was used to ants in the apartment, so small he could squint and blur them out of existence. A sandwich tasted as good squinting. But could he squint away a cockroach? Two cockroaches? More?
The other bead hadn’t moved from its position in front of the refrigerator. It seemed Raymond had discovered some plot, interrupted a mission. That roach--C, he thought of it, was the brains, and this one that had run at him, B—the muscle.
“You tell him to back off, all right?” he whispered to the brains. “Tell him I’m not going for the fridge anymore. I’m going back to bed. I’ll forget I saw you.”
Neither insect moved. Raymond was struck by a flash of anger. He was thousands of times their size. They should be afraid of him!
He stepped toward the forward bug, expecting it to dart away, under the fridge or into some dark corner.
It didn’t flee. It didn't move.
He took two more loud steps forward. Still nothing.
Raymond stood inches from its body, in bare feet. A ripple of grotesque fear drove him back again as the cockroach lunged, swinging its beetle biceps at him.
What could they do to him? Bite? He thought of his current set of bug bites. Bites on his left bicep, his back above his right buttock, his left wrist, his right calf. Each oozed bloodily when scratched. He thought they were mosquito or spider bites, but that's what he always thought. Now, with B and C staring him in the face, he wasn’t sure.
If these two were his biters, they knew where he slept.
No more sleeping naked, he thought. Long-johns from now on. He had a vision of B crawling up the inside of his pantleg. What would he do, in bed with a cockroach in his pajamas? No brushing it away or flicking it aside—he imagined beating at the cotton, trying to crunch the roach to death against his skin.
The cockroaches hadn’t moved.
There was a phone book on top of the fridge, but he’d only be able to drop it on one of them. And the noise it would make! No, he wouldn't. He also didn’t want to turn and creak back to his room. Not in the dark. Not if he could imagine them following.
Raymond decided to try again to get on C's good side. Certainly they could come to a reasonable understanding. Raymond didn't want trouble.
“Listen,” he whispered. “Maybe I taste good. I don’t know. But I know someone who tastes even better. She lives across the hall from me. Always leaves her door open. Sleeps on the floor.” Raymond thought it was true. “If you’ll just…get your friend to back up, I’ll take you there.”
Cockroach C by the refrigerator rushed him, and Raymond froze, unable to move. He'd done it wrong. Cockroaches didn’t understand english. Or he’d said something out of place. Maybe it wasn’t proper among cockroaches to trade one’s freedom for another’s.
Instead of attacking, Cockroach C stopped and waved her antennae. B took note, and started backing up. One step at a time, still facing Raymond.
Had they struck a deal? Raymond wanted to believe the had. He turned the kitchen light off and led the way.
When they came to the bathroom, he crouched and pointed into Maryanne’s room. The door was open a crack.
The two bugs raced each other into the darkness. He could no longer tell which of the black beads was which.
Now he hoped his roommate was asleep.
Raymond went back to the kitchen, made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and ducked into his room.
He closed the door and pushed a towel under it, hoping the roaches would forgive his paranoia. In bed he ate his sandwich, wearing a t-shirt and a pair of boxer briefs. A happy medium.
The air conditioner thrummed, and when it started raining, the drops beat a rhythm on the trees.