Commentary Magazine


Falling Backward

The restaurant was pretentious. Even Dan could see that. Denver was trying too hard not to be a cow town. His father looked annoyed at the over-elaborate service, the constant pouring of water and wine, the constant setting and removal of unused plates when the food was no better than so-so. Dan had chosen to come to the University of Colorado, having heard that it was a party school, and comfortably far from his family in Mount Kisco. He had enjoyed lots of beer, climbing, and skiing, and he had been able, over his four years there, to spend only parts of each summer and two Christmases back East. Now, his parents had come to see him graduate, which he had just done with no distinction whatsoever. They were staying in Denver at its Landmark Hotel.

He knew what was coming and he dreaded it. His mother had left the two of them alone by what must have been a prior arrangement. She was on one of her continually changing diets and had said, “None of that temptation for me,” at the appearance of the dessert cart. His father had chosen apple pie à la mode; Dan, a large chocolate cube covered with chocolate sauce.

His father also ordered a liqueur and was busy pouring it into his coffee, trying for the right shade of mixture. Dan looked down at his own plate and saw a bulge on the side facing him. He teased at the bulge with his fork and dislodged a cockroach that must have been baked into the dough. For a moment he felt an urge to cry out and make a fuss that would deflect his father from what was going to be the topic of their talk: what Dan was planning to do with the rest of his life. Only in the last semester had the thought occurred to him that such a day of decision would come. He had carefully stayed away from any arduous study because outside of the time required to spend in classes, he had considered himself free, his time his own. He had skied from opening day at the earliest area to the latest one to close. He had ridden horseback, kayaked, hiked, involved himself in every activity of his fraternity, and dated a wide variety of girls. He had considered his four college years very well spent.

His father cleared his throat and Dan realized that the subject at hand was painful for him. Dan’s passivity was no surprise to himself, but seemed to be hurting his father. Let him tell his father anything, anything at all that would gain him breathing time to come to a decision, to choose, something he had never really done, and when his father, placated, had left, he would separate the cockroach with a good bit of the cake it was in, wrap it in the napkin, produce the cockroach to the maitre d’, threaten a lawsuit, settle for a hefty sum, and proceed to wealth with plenty of time for inquiry into a permanent career. In the meantime, he had to eat part of the cake—enough so that the presence of the cockroach would seem to be a revolting surprise and not a lawsuit foreseen.

His father was speaking. Four years of college  .  .  . Bs and Cs—never failing, but no particular distinction. They had hoped he would find . . . Uncle Jeffrey had an opening at the Connecticut store .  .  . learn the business  .  .  . was there anything, any interest  .  .  .

“Cockroaches,” Dan said.

He was unaware that he had spoken aloud. His father looked up, having caught the word. “Entomology.”

“Yes,” Dan said, because he couldn’t very well say that he was fixated on the creature in his piece of cake.

His father looked relieved, and sat back, ready to be convinced, proud, helpful. Then he seemed to think again. “You’ve never shown much interest before—I didn’t know you had taken many science courses.  .  .  .”

Dan saw that he was now close to getting an extension to his education. At that moment, a waiter flashed by and Dan’s plate, his salvation by cockroach, was gone and an underling was obsequiously clearing the setting of crumbs. Dan looked desperately after the waiter, thinking he might give chase, but the man had disappeared with his fortune. Dan was at sea, treading water.

“Biology, really,” he said, “insects.” He strained to look sincere, to remember anything about insects that Professor Jesperson had said. “Insects are the oldest and largest part of the animal world.” Did that sound convincing? He had only gotten a C from Jesperson. Dan could feel the room ease around them.

“In that case,” his father said, “I’m willing to go another year. After that, I understand there will be teaching positions or something available. Would you want to stay on here or is there some other university that specializes in that study?”

Dan knew that with his grades, no other place would look at him. He was comfortable in Boulder and had every intention of continuing to ski, hike, and drink with the juniors who would be next fall’s seniors. “Here,” he said.

_____________

Graduate student life was nothing like what his undergraduate days had been. He had squeaked into the graduate program on what might have been Professor Jesperson’s mistaking him for a better student. The dorm, which had given him contacts, and the fraternity house, which had pulled him through his courses while providing the best friendships he had ever had, were now closed to him. His off-campus digs were drab and meager. He didn’t eat well.

But Jesperson was a good professor and Dan found the work more compelling now that he was concentrating on it. He was being drawn in slowly, studying the fossil creature, the remarkably similar first cockroaches, unchanged because so perfectly adapted to their environment, the generalized environment of warm, dark, humid places. He was interested to learn that only a few species interact with humans, and he was amused when he was able to identify the ones under the sink in the house he shared with five other grad students. Blattella germanicus, now spread worldwide.

During his Christmas break, he had planned a ski vacation, working some light job that would give him lots of time on the slopes, but in October, he heard about an assignment through the United Nations Health Organization studying methods of eliminating the damage caused by cockroaches in Malaya. He had been tutoring a slow high school student and he took the ski weekend money and spent it on airfare and incidentals. He returned with an idea.

The Blattus genus was worldwide, but what was the relationship between people and cockroaches worldwide? In Malaya he had seen roaches deep-fried as ubiquitous as potato chips. The roaches that affect humans were immensely destructive. Their diet was truly omnivorous: animal products, paper, clothing, sloughed human skin, other insects. Wood roaches were able to digest and be nourished by decaying wood, but the Malay attitude—the cockroach as a snack—was surely different from ours.

He told Jesperson he wanted to study this relationship and the professor was encouraging. When the Vietnam War broke out, a colleague of Jesperson was contacted by the army because of a need to find ways to minimize their destructive effect on the troops and their equipment. Jesperson gave the job to Dan.

His three years of study in areas all over Vietnam resulted in recommendations that the army did not follow, but they resulted in studies establishing Dan as an expert in the field of what would become environmental entomology.

Most of the time, in those years, interviewers from the popular press—he had written papers on his Vietnam trip—used his interviews as comedic. “An expert on cockroaches—ugh! How can you bear to have them around? The sound of the name gives me shivers!”

And he would say, “We get the name from the Spanish: cucaracha. Does it sound better? It reminds me of castanets,” and then he would give the name in several other languages. There was always the subject of his having eaten them, and yes, fried and quite good. “For some people—the indigenous people in Australia and New Guinea—they’re an important part of the protein,” and then the interviewer would shiver prettily and Dan would realize how far he had come into this world.

He respected the genus Blattus for its adaptations, its range and capability. Once, to a bridling interviewer, he said, “Our local type eats bedbugs. When there’s a bad bedbug infestation, you might  .  .  .”—only to be cut off for a commercial and reminded that some people might be eating while listening to their program.

_____________

As time passed and Dan’s reputation grew, he found himself asked to speak at conventions and meetings beyond his limited field. He learned about cockroaches in art, in cuisine, in science. Do cockroaches learn? How do they learn?

Because of their reactions, he found many women to whom he was attracted were made squeamish. They seemed to find him bizarre. When he met them socially, he began the habit of saying he was a scientist.

“Are you a rocket scientist?” If they persevered he would say research. “Do you use rats?” He would say “roaches.” By the time his thirties came around, he had more or less given up the dating scene and was going out with entomology grad students exclusively.

He met Gillian at a bookstore as he was looking through a collection of prints made by Hiroshige, and had come on one of Blattus orientalis. The woman beside him was selecting something from a flower collection. She stopped as he pulled up the large print from the others and looked at it.

“Excuse me, what is that?”

He looked over at her. His first impression was of sufficiency; beauty, but not the flamboyant kind. She dressed to make the most of a good figure. Her hair, which was fine and black, was gathered at the back of her neck. He breathed in and out. “It’s a cockroach,” he said.

“Oh?” and she looked again. “It’s beautiful—elegant. I like the way its wings enclose it so that it looks neatly turned out—compact.”

He thought she looked like that, elegant as a cockroach—but he knew he couldn’t say it. He did chat with her for a while and then asked her out for coffee.

She laughed when he told her. “I don’t like to let people know my study,” he said. “They think cockroaches are disgusting.”

“I guess your secret and mine met when we did. My family is rich—so rich that I’ve never seen a cockroach. I have no history with them. If they exist in kitchens, our servants would have encountered them.”

“How many servants do you have?”

“I don’t have any, but my parents do.”

“How many?”

“In which house, and does that include the boat and the plane?”

“You’re laughing at me.”

“A little. I’d have to count them. I do stay in the New York apartment when I’m here. Do you live here?”

“No; I’m here for a convention. I slipped away for a while.”

Dan was disappointed. He liked her and she wasn’t a social climber in his world, but he lived in Denver, traveling many times a year. To cover his disappointment, he asked her what she did.

“I buy art for people.”

“Business people too busy to look for it?”

“Some of those,” she said, “but we’ve worked ourselves into a bad place in art. Only people with no pretensions to culture at all buy what they like. People don’t want their taste to be laughed at and they’re not sure that their choices are good enough.”

“No cockroaches on the library wall?”

“No, beautiful as that cockroach is. In fact, if you’re not really interested, I’d like to buy that print you’re holding.”

He said, “Why don’t you live in Denver?”

“I have the afternoon free,” she said. “Why don’t I come back to the convention with you? It might be interesting to hear about what’s under the kitchen sink.”

And so, they went back to the convention, where he saw her surprise and then delight at the respect he was accorded. He couldn’t have produced a better set of circumstances had he lined up five actors.

Two Indonesians came over as he and Gillian were looking at the list of papers to be presented later in the afternoon. They said they had heard his paper on the diseases affecting woodlice and were excited at a potential use for his information. He was stopped by a Jamaican who was asking his help in a project. Two professors greeted him. “Good paper you gave,” one said, “very interesting slant on the problem. Are you free for dinner?”

Dan looked at Gillian. “Am I?”

“I’m afraid not,” she said.

_____________

How did you get to be an expert?”

They were at a small sushi restaurant a block from the hotel.

“Once it starts, it’s not difficult,” he said. “People come with problems in one place that you have seen worked on in another. Soon, you see that the solutions or adjustments in one problem may be applicable to another. People bring things to you so that you become a kind of conduit. It’s a natural progression.”

“I’ve never seen a picture of a cockroach before,” she said.

“They’re pictured in the art of other cultures, not ours. It’s the company they keep, I think, and some of their habits.”

“But eagles and crows eat carrion.  .  .  .”

“It’s a prejudice, I’ll admit.”

“I have clients in Denver,” she said, “and in Santa Fe and two in Aspen. How did you become interested in cockroaches?”

When he told her, she was incredulous. “So you’re saying that had there been no cockroach baked into your dessert, you would have had to say something else?”

“I’ve thought about that. Chocolate, perhaps, or metallurgy—I was eating with a fork. I was desperate, remember, in a crisis. All I wanted was some time to figure out what to do. The luck was in Professor Jesperson.”

“Did you ever tell him?”

“I think he might have guessed the general outlines,” Dan said. “In the beginning, my feigned interest must have been easy to spot. I remember his look of surprise when I told him that I was interested in entomology and wanted to pursue it in grad school. I made my lie as close to the truth as I could make it—time wasted on beer and babes. Did I ever tell him I was grateful? Yes, but the way we do it is indirect. His name shows up here and there in my papers.”

“Your parents must be very proud.”

“My dad died when I was in Malaya that first time, but he would have been. My mom isn’t really sure what my being interested in cockroaches is about. I’m not a college professor or an epidemiologist. She’s seen pictures of me half naked with completely naked people in New Guinea and Brazil. I seem to be having a lot of fun, which makes what I do a bit suspect.”

She smiled up at him. “I aimed my life when I was fifteen and followed it with no interruptions. You seem to have fallen backward into yours.”

“Are you still so rigorously aimed?”

“I’ve eased up a little.”

“In two months, I’ll be in the Philippines. Do you want to come along?”

“I can’t,” she said. “I have a client ready to let me buy him some really good art. I do plan my life step by step. I’m not the kind to fall backward.” She took out a card, handed it to him, and rose.

He took a breath. She might be too focused for someone who traveled as extensively as he did. Her wealth was daunting. There might be other women who thought, as she did, that cockroaches were beautiful.

Then he placed the card, carefully, into his wallet.

About the Author




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