ecently, one of my worst domestic fears came true: there was a big cockroach in my bed. Fortunately, I was not actually in the bed. When I came into my room at bedtime, I saw it scuttle across the top sheet. I froze and so did he (I have no idea if the roach was in fact male, but for whatever reason I always see roaches as male.)
Then, as if knowing he was being studied, he crawled under the top sheet. I turned the light off, shut the door, and went to sleep on the living room couch.
Like many people, I despise roaches. It’s not that they disgust me, or that I worry about the germs they carry. I’m simply terrified of them.
Growing up in Iowa, we didn’t have roaches. Daddy long legs, yes. Ticks, yes. Crickets galore. But not roaches. The first time I saw one was when I moved from Rome to New York City for graduate school. As I lugged my suitcases to the front door of my apartment building in Washington Heights, there he was: a brown roach the size of my thumb. I gasped. I’d never encountered a bug in the eight years I’d lived in Rome.
Fortunately, he was the only big roach I saw that year. I saw plenty of smaller roaches, but they concerned me less. Their antennae were still undetectable; their beady eyes the size of a pepper grain.
Several years later, I moved to Florida, a very buggy state. Gainesville, the town where I live, is a roach haven because of its lush trees and subtropical climate. Roaches nest in wet leaves by the sides of houses, and make their way inside.
Sure enough, on my first Friday night in town, I encountered a roach. I was renting the master bedroom suite of an old Southern mansion, with a wonderful rocking chair I sat in while reflecting on the huge risk I’d taken in accepting a reporting job in a town where I knew no one.
During one of my mind’s characteristic wanderings, I suddenly saw something out of the corner of my eye: the familiar brown, slightly domed body of a roach. I was in such a good mood that not even a roach could unfetter me. But then, the roach surprised me: it jumped from the wall to the ground. I panicked. If he could jump, that meant he could fly. Flying roaches were a known presence in Florida, and in my mind, the worse of the worst.
I got up abruptly. My revelry was over. I approached the door of my room, phone in hand, and began Googling beetles. I was in denial. I wanted to convince myself that the roach was in fact a beetle. I couldn’t make out roach tentacles in the dim light, so in theory, it could have been a beetle. Did beetles fly? I wondered.
I stood there stiff with fright, Googling beetle images for the next hour— until my housemate came home. Tom was a Florida boy in his twenties, and as soon as I heard him come up the stairs, I relaxed. “Hey, I think there’s a bug in my room,” I said, casually. “Could you take a look, and maybe do something with it?” My pleading tone belied my efforts to seem cool.
Tom went over to the roach, lifted it (I think with his bare hands—gasp!), went into the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet.
When he came out, I asked anxiously, “Was it a roach, or a beetle?”
“A palmetto,” he said, without hesitation. Palmetto was the name for flying roach. That roach, it was now safe to ponder, could have flown in my face.
In the years since that evening, I’ve had other close encounters with roaches — though none quite as traumatic as the first one. But my fear has not subsided. I see roaches like some people see eye floaters. I duck or jump if I think one is in my path.
I know my fear is irrational. I am afraid of something that I could crush with one foot. In fact, I once did this. I was so proud of my feat that I snapped a picture of the roach I’d killed, only to quickly realize how profane a gesture it was, given the pacifist that I am. A more courageous person would have simply ushered him out the door.
I also know there is an answer to overcoming my fear of roaches: conquering it. I used this strategy once with roller coasters, another Florida feature. At Universal Studios, I rode a roller coaster with my much-younger cousin, who loves them. I shut my eyes and screamed the whole time, but the scariest moment was not the ride itself, but the moments before it began — after we got strapped into our seats, and I looked up at the nearly perpendicular climb to the top, imagining the descent. As FDR famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Letting go of my roach fear should be doable in a town teaming with entomologists and exterminators. I could go to a roach lab and pet the roaches, touch their tentacles, let them crawl on me and even fly in my face.
But, I would still not let a roach in my bed.