By Katie Guinn
I work at home, alone, with lots of bugs.
As lively as these insects are, various sizes and luster, many frighten me. I admire them. But mostly they remind me of death. But that’s because most things remind me of the inevitable ending. No one knows exactly when, but “if” doesn’t exist when it comes to death. I love my life so hard that death would be such a buzz-kill if it robbed me at an early age. Or if it took my precious daughter. Or my husband, or his daughter, and from there, well, this is just a sampling of how my wicked brain works against me.
Does death taste like kerosene? Like the sharp, bitter flavor of ants that crawl around my computer desk, dancing gleefully around the rim of my boring water glass? The very ants that if absent from the peony plants, their blossoms would not emerge.
Sitting at this desk I often hear shrill screams echoing from the school one block over. The school my daughter attends. The screams shock me into visuals of terror, of guns, of attacks, of my daughter falling victim with other unlucky children to a madman’s unattended rage.
“It’s happened to other children. It could happen to us,” I tell my therapist.
“Yes, but it isn’t happening to you right now,” she says.
They’re only playful excited screams, I have to remind myself. Children still know how to shriek with absolute elation when released from their studies, the endless direction to be quiet, to stand in line and not talk, touch, or move. To sit at their desks and shut up. These screams signify their freedom. It’s OK.
Is this what death sounds like? The same as ultrapure happiness?
The ants keep me company at my computer desk. Not that I invite them. In fact I’m constantly trying to kill them.
I’m a driven career woman, tackling many facets of creative work. The corner desk handmade by my lover, stained deep red, solid wood, this is where I attend to my various computer tasks.
It sits so perfectly in front of the window, so when I stop for a second to think about things, I can peer out on to the street. I see my neighbors coming and going. My role as “head of neighborhood watch” is just an excuse to spy on them without seeming creepy. Often I see houseless humans pushing carts, scoping for cans and bottles left alone in driveways. Some appear to be on the edge of death themselves, holes in their shoes exposing black rotting toes, 5 months of dirt piled on their winter coats, skin so weathered it’s sunken in and wrinkled well beyond their years. Some of them twitch and gnaw at their toothless jaws, gums deteriorated by white poison. We housed one of these humans once.
I often see fellow parents hurrying off after collecting their children from the school we share, paying no mind to ones who live and play on this block, as their cars race down our wide side-street. This triggers visions of my child being run-over as she mistakenly goes in the street without looking.
The ants play death with me as they find their way into my bra, biting my tits for escape. Their only solace is to escape breathing as I smash them furiously and call them mother-fuckers for biting my beautiful fleshy orbs of life. I’ve tasted the bitter death of more than 10 of these tiny soldiers as I blindly put the rim of the glass to my mouth and drink naively. It doesn’t take much to smash their tiny bodies between the tongue and bumpy roof of the mouth.
What happens when you go hunting for scraps of bacon in my house, little ant? Death. It’s waiting for you everywhere here.
These same ants give life to the precious peonies in my yard. They will not bloom if the ants refuse to slowly pull them apart, allowing them to live.
Does death smell like musty basements? Times a million? My grandparents’ dirt-walled cellar seemed close. My basement is semi-finished and hosts my sewing studio. This is where the real big gnarly siders dwell, along with the centipedes who are furiously faster and eat the spiders.
On a gloomy, rainy day, I was sitting at my machine stitching away and listening to an interview with my first favorite woman author, Monica Drake, when I saw it, It ran so fast up on to my machine that I screamed loud and jumped. That centipede was the swiftest runner I’d ever seen and it was barreling straight toward me! It slid across the fabric barely missing my hand and flew at me as I jumped up and back. It was as if it had been an arrow released from a bow aimed at my body. It landed at my feet and I fumbled, heart thumping, I chased it trying to squash it, but it found a hidey hole and stayed there. Its long flat brown body carried into hiding by its 28 feathery legs. I was done sewing for the day.
The week before that when I got up to take a lunch break from my sewing, I felt a light tug on my head and a tickle. I looked in the adjacent mirror to find a spider had woven an entire web from the ceiling beams to my hair and I didn’t even notice as I sat there for a half an hour. I screamed and maniacally tore at my hair as I rushed my head to the bathtub faucet. These stealthy little assholes can crawl in your ear at night and nest, they can find your mouth and tunnel down your throat to squat inside your body. They can bite you as you roll over on them or hunt for your neck, looking for a bloody snack. The amount of days I’ve woken with a swollen neck and face, a pussy wound, itchy and bruised from God knows what is more than I can count. Every time I truly believe I’m going to die.
Spiders are beautiful creatures, yet freakishly ugly, maternal yet ruthless, scared yet brave. I love garden orb spiders because they stay outside and live off the bugs that eat my beloved plants. I cannot technically claim to have a “spirit animal” because I’m a Scandinavian white girl from north Portland, but I am deeply connected to garden orb spiders. They can carefully dismantle and re-build a web in one day, acting as nature’s artists. They collect the nasty afids and mosquitos that eat us and our roses. Their markings are like a piece of delicate art. I love to admire them as they sit so gracefully on their prized homes. They protect their eggs as furiously as a black bear, willing to splay their vulnerable, smashable bodies over their unborn babies. I too, would do anything to protect my daughter from death or pain.
I had a year of panic attacks that created a cycle of living on the edge of death. Or so it felt.
It all starts here. I’m in the car, my husband is driving. We’re taking our kid to her grandparents’ house so we can go to his company picnic. A tight sharp pain grabs my chest and holds tight for a few seconds and stops my breath. I’m having a heart attack is what I tell myself. No you’re not, you’re fine I say. No, it could have been a small one. No, if it was you’d be passed out or dead or whatever. My heart is pounding so hard, so fast, and my body starts to constrict. I cannot escape my body, it’s all I want and the last thing I want.
I pace the premises once we get to the parents’ and I decide I need to go to the ER to ascertain I did not have a heart attack and that I won’t.
Since this incident I imagine the worst things happening while in the car. Like my body awakened this panic beast that won’t settle with chest grabs. We fly off the Banfield Loop ramp, straight in to the murky Willamette below. Intersections are where cars run red lights and blast straight into our car, forcing us to crash all around and die. A delivery truck loses control and lurks over the yellow line on a highway destroying us on impact, head on. The east wind shoves over a semi just as we pass on I-84 crushing the metal roof, then us. I once was T-boned by a bicyclist on Burnside. She pedaled past the stop sign and straight into my ‘65 Galaxie, toppled over the roof and fell off the back. So of course every bike that comes out of nowhere takes a few beats off my heart and sends it to straight to my barbed-wire stomach. I’ve always had an over-active imagination, but these visions, these moving pictures that play in my mind’s eye while I’m driving have escalated, they ensue panic so deep I often have to pull over.
In the several months following the original panic war, I had 6 more of these episodes with 3 full weeks of constant panic. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The looming cloud that hung around me, inside me and through my body controlled my every second of being. I had pains that convinced me I was about to die, and the stress was so hard on my body that it agreed I was to die, and therefore more pains arose. The cyclical manipulation of that bully called anxiety is infuriating. The power of panic. Like your body acting as its own worst enemy, no escape. Heightened awareness, yet lost conversations and interactions; the complete inability to perform basic tasks like unloading the dishwasher or reading to your child before bed.
Is this what the ants experience as they risk seeking crumbs for their Queen in my breasts, on the counter, in my water. Do they have a split-second of panic right before my lips squish their tiny bodies and release that bitter taste of their being? Do centipedes go through their entire lives panicked and running? Are their legs a vehicle to save their over-active bug brains? Do spiders’ hearts beat quicker and louder when a predator appears near their spawn? Do we live on a mile wide ant hill, that’s slowly deteriorating from their cave trails, and one day we’ll just sink down and be eaten by the ants? That would be a hilarious reversal of fate, and I’d deserve it. They do all that work to unleash lacy pink petals of the peony and I make sure to eradicate every one before I bring the stems in the house.
I was convinced for that year that I was going to die and my child would grow up without a mother. I was convinced that my husband was going to die on his way to work or on his way home so I made him tell me when he arrived at work and when he left. I was convinced that my daughter was going to be run over in the street, shot by a mad kid who had access to a gun or kidnapped from the playground. These fears ruled my every breath, my every step and every tear. This is the worst way to live in fact, morning and night being afraid of death while simultaneously killing small helpless creatures. Being afraid that this wonderful happiness will be taken away because I don’t deserve it is a dangerous way to exist. My fear of sudden or too-soon death bullied my life for a couple of years until I started painting again. Getting that nasty shit out of my body through the process of art saved me. I started writing poetry and dancing again.
I still have these thoughts on a daily basis and some bugs still make me believe they’re out to kill me. I feel genuinely guilty for killing each one that harasses me, but sometimes I can’t sleep otherwise. I take the less swift spiders outside. I still have visions of horrific events occurring. Planes overhead will never stop that rise in my chest and wide-eyed fear. Being in a car will always give me visions of what could happen. But for now that bully that tries to ruin my life by teasing me with death every god damn second can fuck off. I’m fine now. I’m living now and so is my family. “I see you.” I say, “but you can’t have me today.” I have too much love to give, too many clouds and forests to admire, too much art to make, too many flowers to attend to and too many ants to kill.
Katie is an artist, mother of blood and non-blood children, designer and writer, wifey, flower gardener, art teacher and lover of the beautiful, of the female brainwaves and form. She’s spent time as a contributing freelance writer for the Portland Mercury. She’s part of the corporeal writing tribe, which has changed her artist self significantly, bringing about work that’s been hiding in her lungs, liver and heart for years. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, daughter and cat.
An excerpt from this essay first appeared in Nailed Magazine in June, 2017. This is her first published personal piece.
Katie is a fourth generation North Portlander, and Columbia Gorge wanderer.