From Where She Stands

By Heather Leah Huddleston

he never wanted to have babies.

At least that’s what she told herself for most of her life.

But every time she found herself in a chance encounter with a baby on the street or in the market, whenever she was in the presence of something so small and vulnerable and powerful, she transformed into someone unrecognizable: giddy, unbridled.

But today, she stands in her kitchen, a rag in her hand, staring at the ants that crawl on the floor, over the countertop, down the wall into the closet where the trash is kept, and back up again, two lines moving in succession.

No matter how much she cleans.

No matter that it’s the beginning of November.

The ants come in through the sliding glass door off the deck. They come in because, unlike her neighbors, she refuses to use the sweet smelling poison that the creatures would then carry back to their—what is it, a den? a nest? a lair? She knows she should Google it—at least that would be productive—instead of just standing here, staring.

Her husband has told her that the ants will stop coming if there is no food for them.

“From where I stand, you have two choices,” he has said to her more than once, “learn to live with them or learn to be OK with killing them.”

“But I couldn’t…”

She cleans to the point of obsession: taking the trash out twice a day; wiping all surfaces with the drenched rag until lines of water streak the counters and table; sweeping the floors, especially around the cats’ food bowls, so much that they hiss at her if she comes near the bowls without food in her hands.

But the ants still come.

There was an illusionary reprieve for a few weeks when the temperatures dipped to the low forties at night, but the seventy-degree days keep them coming back.

They’re desperate.

“You’re too sensitive,” her father had said when she called him to ask his advice on how to humanely remove the critters. “They’re just ants! Get rid of them.” He informed her about ant bait. “It’s simple. All you have to do is put the bait trap on your counter or by the door, and voilà! They’ll be gone in a day or two. Like they never existed. From where I stand, doll, that’s your only option.”

But that couldn’t be her only option. After that conversation, she called an exterminator to find out what happened to the ants, after—what the bait actually did to them. But his too-cheery way of discussing their certain deaths, his too-eager desire to get rid of the “things that were inconveniencing her,” and the free consultation he offered caused her to hang up the phone on him mid-sentence.

Then she went to the Internet.

Which was far worse than what the exterminator had told her.

The destruction, the boasting and selling of products that end life, the ease of it all.

*     *     *     *     *

You’re too sensitive, that’s what everyone said about her after she accidentally hit the mourning dove while driving around the bend onto the highway. She had seen its mate on the right side of her car, had said aloud, “Stay there, little guy.” A flash of wings on the periphery of her vision. Left side. Then the thud. “No!” she had screamed as she looked in the rearview mirror, the car plowing through feathers; she stopped to look under the hood, inside the grille, around the car, but there was nothing, no evidence that the life had been there, outside of the single down feather stuck to the roof that stayed attached through the highway speeds until she got home.

Sensitive. She locked herself in her studio for months after hitting the dove, and all she could paint for two years were two doves in flight, each version had the space between the doves growing. She learned that mourning doves mate for life, and she often spent hours at a time wondering which one she had killed. After that, everything that darted on the edge of her periphery caused her to startle and skitter behind the wheel, resulting in her braking a little too quickly, for a little too long.

But the baby raccoons on the side of the road were the things that caused her to stop driving altogether. She had not hit them, and there were no bloody entrails, no blood at all in fact, just a sleeping softness to their ending that disturbed her more than any “roadkill” she had ever seen. Every day, when she drove to meet her husband for lunch, she saw them, two of them with at least ten feet between them, curled up like stuffed animals against the curb. The fact that no one tended to them made her wonder if they were even real, and when suddenly, after two weeks of daily sightings, they disappeared, she questioned if she had ever seen them at all.

Or was it just a dream?

An illusion?

“The raccoons are gone,” she had said to her husband over lunch as she imagined their mother waiting by the side of the road. In mourning.

*     *     *     *     *

She’s tried everything to get rid of the ants, all the recommendations the humane sites offered. Rescuing them from the sink and dishwasher before washing the dishes. Licking lollipops and putting them out on the furthest corner of the deck to divert their path. That worked for a day or two until the candy dissolved completely. Cream of tartar, cinnamon, coffee grinds, chili pepper, cloves, lemon…she infused them all and spread a line along the seal of the sliding glass door—all the things that repel them together would surely make for a stronger resistance. But somehow their presence lingered: Several stragglers, or scouts as she learned they were called, remained.

Just in case.

When none of the natural remedies worked, she decided on the one thing she could live with: coexistence.

Until she couldn’t anymore.

Until today. She stands with a wet rag in one hand, drip-dropping onto the floor, an unopened box of ant poison in the other.

“What’s this?” her husband had asked the day before while unpacking the groceries. He held the box up to her. She didn’t answer. She couldn’t.

“Is this what took you so long?”

And she had, in fact, lingered in the pesticide and home care aisle, not because there were stacks upon stacks of options, but because she couldn’t will herself to raise her arm, couldn’t command her hand to grab a product. Any product. Instead, she cried for thirty-five minutes until a nice old lady picked one off the shelf and said, “This one has worked for me.” She nodded her head at the woman as she dropped the box into the cart. Not a “thank you” offered or needed.

Her husband pleaded with her to just wait it out—the temperatures would soon shift and the ants would retreat underground to hibernate. It was a dance they did every year. But this year, it’s different. This year, she can’t wait. Besides, the ten-day forecast promises temperatures in the 70s and 80s: an Indian summer.

“What’s wrong, baby?” He started asking the question two months ago after he got back from his business conference. He asked it every day from that moment on when he got home from work and she was still standing in the same spot as when he left—in the kitchen, staring at the ants. And when she couldn’t answer, he asked: “Baby, are you OK?”

He kissed her; she nodded. This was her sign to move; otherwise, he may require her to “see someone.” His dinner was always ready. They ate together, talked about his day; they had sex and fell asleep sometimes in each other’s arms, sometimes with their backs touching. They woke together. She made him breakfast as he showered and got ready for his day. They ate together. He left. She cleaned, tried to create art in her studio. This was the pattern they walked together.

But today is different. The dripping rag, the box of ant bait that she can now see is in the form of a cute little hotel, at least that’s what the cover promises.

Today, she stands in front of the ants. Pregnant.

She never wanted babies—at least that’s what she always told herself.

But then she met her husband, and as soon as she saw him, as soon as they occupied the same space, as soon as she heard his high-pitched laughter that almost mirrored a dolphin’s, as soon as his fingertips grazed her skin, she knew she wanted to have not just any baby, but his.

When he told her, almost in the same space as the falling, as if he were used to this, as if his telling was a preemptive requirement that freed him to fall in love, that he had had a vasectomy, she had to mourn the baby she knew she was meant to have with this man (and the urgent desire to have it), the one that would be the pure expression of the UNION OF THEM. She mourned this before they had sex, before they had even kissed.

The freedom of her not having to worry about getting pregnant too soon made their sex raw and primal, something a step beyond passionate. But the weeping always came after, when she had gone to the toilet and his sterilized essence dripped out of her. Only if it’s meant to be.

The mourning.

The entire first year they were together, and even though he was forty-three at the time and had an adult child who lived across the country, he would whisper to her, “I can get it reversed, if you want me to.”

Her pillow talk returned: “It’s not a hundred percent. If we’re meant to have a child, our love will make it happen.”

“That’s what I love about you: your sensitive spirit.”

But for the last five years, neither of them have approached the issue. They’ve been content, happy even, with their life together: Him + Her = THEM.

*     *     *     *     *

Her husband had gone away for a business conference two months ago. He had asked her to go, but being away from her studio would only increase her anxiety. She was no good to him in those settings, and he was OK with it. While he was gone, she dressed like she used to when she was single and had frequented bars, back when she was the brooding college artist. Her body still fit into her size eight jeans, but most of the makeup was either crumbling or had a strange organic smell to it and had to be thrown away. The mascara and lipstick were another story—they worked well enough for her to feel like she did before the sensitivity had overtaken her entire life. She felt like someone altogether different. Instead of calling her one friend outside of her husband, the one she would meet once a week at the local museum to discuss art over lunch, she went to the bar alone.

Other people, all life outside of her small, contained house, drained her. But that was OK, she had an artist’s disposition, “a gift,” her husband learned to call her sensitivity; he learned that it was just part of her personality, that he didn’t have to worry.

Until she started standing in the kitchen, staring at ants. If she could just bring herself to tell him: It’s all for art. Then everything would be different. But she couldn’t. She doesn’t believe it herself. She’s taken to the staring almost the entire time he’s away from the house, when she’s supposed to be locked away in her studio, creating.

*     *     *     *     *

Slipping away to the doctor’s office was easy enough; she had sold a small painting to her friend and used the cash she had given her to pay for the visit. She was foggy, she had told the doctor, even more sensitive than usual, enough to make her worry. I spend my days staring at ants, she almost made the mistake of saying to him. Instead, “I can’t stand the ants in my house,” she wrung her hands. “Normally, we can coexist, but now…”

“It’s perfectly normal to want to exterminate pests.”

The word made her teeth clench, her jaw muscle bulge.

“But we’ll take some tests just to see if there’s anything wrong.”

Urine, blood, the whole works. When to doctor called and said, “Congratulations!” in a singsong voice, followed by, “That explains the nesting.”

“What?”

“You’re pregnant, my dear!”

“But…” His words sounded as if they were delivered from underwater.

“Happy news!”

Silence.

“Are you OK?”

She couldn’t breathe.

“I’d say you’re about two months along. You need to start on a prenatal right away… Hello?”

The phone slid to the cradle.

“From where I stand, you have some choices…”

A gentle click.

The fact that she should have been happy, that his swimmers, what they both affectionately called his sperm that first year when she was still feeling hopeful of “divine intervention,” that they wanted her after all and had worked extra hard to make their way to her…

But she wasn’t. Happy. She was terrified. After the call, she noticed the ants, a circular swarm, as they overtook a piece of wet cat food that must have either dropped off a whisker or been flicked from the tongue as the cats tried to consume it. Her old cats did that—abandoned food they couldn’t quite fit into their mouths on the first try; they always knew there would be more. There was a pattern to the swarm, a place where they entered the circle, where they left it. The pattern of the utilitarian relationship, the trust. She walked to the ants in the closet that housed the trash can and watched them, her nose grazing the surface of the wall on which they climbed. In a line, she could learn to accept them, how each individual had a meaningful purpose, the one that carried a piece of food three times its size, the one that trailed behind empty-handed in order to pick up pieces if they were to fall. Was it this trust that kept her from eliminating them? She could see it: Each ant would be drawn to the poison, carry it, and think they were doing what was best for the collective; they’d never suspect anything, never see it coming. But then…

She couldn’t. It seemed utterly cruel.

Right before her husband came back from his conference, she had stopped emptying the trash twice daily. The crumbs around the toaster oven, the trash piled to more than a quarter way up in the can, carrot slivers and dehydrated onion skins on the floor, these were what prompted his questioning:

“Are you OK?”

She simply nodded.

“But the ants…”

She shrugged her shoulders: “Coexistence.”

*     *     *     *     *

Standing in front of the ants with the dripping rag and the bait, she remembers how she went to the bar, not to pick up anyone or to even be noticed, but just to remind herself of who she was before the sensitivity, before the confines of her house and studio and husband were all she wanted or needed. At the bar, she had gone to the bathroom, returned to her seat, finished her drink, and hobbled home on shaky legs with a foggy brain. None of this surprised or concerned her. She never drank more than a glass of wine every couple of weeks. The GNT at the bar had hit her hard. That was all. She held her head the entire three blocks she walked back to the house; she unlocked the door; she woke at noon the next day, the sheets of her bed torn from her husband’s side like she had wanted to wrap herself in the scent of him. Only they didn’t smell of him. The entire room reeked of something organic, something metal.

Her body hurt—her breasts, her vagina, her head, the places so deep inside of her she could only imagine and paint but never actually see. Because of this feeling and the fact that she could barely remember why she even felt this way—oh, yes, the bar, the larger-than-life GNT that she will paint life-sized on a different day—she decided in that moment that she would never drink again; her painting would be an ode.

When she slid into the steaming bath and her skin turned to fire, she saw what looked like four thin claw marks trailing down her abdomen from nipple to groin. Not a gouge. Just deep enough to break the skin’s surface. And red-and-purple bruises that would later darken on her inner thigh. And the ant floating in the clear water.

“No!” Water sloshed over the side of the ceramic claw-foot tub. The black dot bobbed on the waves. Making a scoop of her hands, she let the water drain carefully from them as she stood and got out of the tub. The black dot she knew was browner when not wet clung to her hand. I never wanted this, she thought. Not this. Just my own space. She tried everything to save the ant: blew on it, used toilet paper to suck the moisture from its limp body, even the rebellious act of prayer. After several seconds, the ant started to wiggle and inflate, as if pumped full of air. Two of its legs were damaged, but it crawled a micrometer, waited as if catching its breath, and crawled again. She howled, then quieted her joy in case the volume traumatized the resurrected ant. The ant’s unfolding back into life was so beautiful, so mystical that she simply forgot about the tenderness of her own bruised body. She placed the ant on a washcloth on the bathroom counter, where she left it crumbs and drops of water, and there it stayed for four days until her husband returned from his conference. Then, it disappeared.

By the time he came home, the scratches and bruises had calmed enough to be either nonexistent or unimportant.

“An ant made its way into my bath a few days ago.”

“All the way up here?”

She nodded.

“How odd.”

She nodded again.

“I saved it from drowning.”

“That’s my baby,” he said as he held her close and kissed her on the forehead. He started to undress her and she did something she had never done before: She turned off the light.

*     *      *     *     *

She had never wanted babies; at least that’s what she told herself for most of her life. Until she met her husband and she dreamed her daughter into being and mourned her within the space of a few breaths.

And now she stands, a dripping rag in one hand, drip-dropping small puddles on the floor that the ants dance around, an unopened bait hotel in the other, watching them crawl on the floor, up and over the countertop, up the wall, into and out of the trash can, two lines in succession, working together to survive.

___

Heather Leah Huddleston’s work has appeared on the TEDx stage, in the Listen to Your Mother (Baltimore) show, in Reader’s Digest and other print and online media. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and is a certified AntiGravity Fitness instructor and yoga teacher. She also teaches a writing workshop, “Writing the Body,” which combines yoga, meditation, and creative movement with writing prompts.


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