Silent Stalkers

That is your trick, your bit of filthy magic: invisibility, and the anaesthetic power to deaden my attention in your direction.

-- D.H. Lawrence

'You won't believe what happened to me today," said Jenny, setting aside her laptop, ready to take a break from her web-design homework. "Try me," I said, ending an hourlong session of catching waves of online links to meet my sister's eyes.

"I was almost in a car accident. It felt like someone was holding a gun to my head!" If there's one thing we learned from our New York born-and-bred, Irish and Italian parents, it's that each story must begin with dramatic flair.

Jenny explained that she had been driving in her car when she noticed a spider making its way across the inside of her windshield.

"Suddenly, the road was no longer there," she said. "It was either the spider or me, Barb. The spider. Or me. I did what I had to do." Here she paused for dramatic effect as I sat forward, anticipating the worst. "I squashed it with the palm of my hand."

Squashing a bug with one's bare hand may not sound like a big deal to a lot of people. But for my sister, whose reaction to spiders squares perfectly with the definition of arachnophobia -- an abnormal fear of the arachnids (a.k.a. "spiders") -- having to come into physical contact with the insect as she killed it is the mental equivalent to someone cutting off his own arm to free himself from the large boulder that has him otherwise pegged for certain death.

There is a couch at my mother's house that Jenny refuses to sit on because she once saw a spider on one of its cushions. When we were children, she did not sleep in her own room for years for the same reason. I am not exaggerating -- she spent years sharing beds in other rooms or crashing on a "safe" couch.

These days, Jenny arms herself with her bug-killer (an old broom handle that allows her to kill eight-legged creatures from afar). She takes her time inspecting a room, leaving no corner or crevice unscrutinized, before she can relax enough to settle into the area. She stays vigilant to avoid the more surreptitious of spiders, those that never show themselves but manage to leave behind bite marks. "A spider bite is evidence that a spider was on you, and you

didn't know it," Jenny says, the way a newscaster might announce the newly discovered toxicity and potential threat of death harbored in what had previously been considered a harmless household item.

With no brothers in the family, my sisters and I were never drawn to creepy-crawly things -- bugs were freaky, not fascinating. When confronted with anything possessing six or more legs (roly-polies and ladybugs excluded on the basis of cuteness), we screamed bloody murder until Daddy came to the rescue. I wonder sometimes if there are deeper psychological reasons for the women in my family to be so...girly. Why, for example, should a feather-light sensation upon our skin inspire in each of us gyrations worthy of the top prize in a jitterbug contest? We are all afflicted with an obsessive, sometimes debilitating aversion to these tiny tormenters.

"You are tens of thousands of times larger than that bug," David pointed out to me during one of my standoffs with a mosquito in the bedroom. "You being afraid of a tiny bug would be like Godzilla being afraid of people!"

"Wasn't it 'people' who eventually destroyed Godzilla?"

"No, that was Mothra."

"Anyway, you don't understand," I said. "There is no way I can think about anything else until I know that it's dead."

My sister Jane explained my predicament best when she said, "If there's a mosquito in the room, you know it's just going to suck on you all night. How can you sleep knowing that?" When I was a child living on the East Coast, mosquito bites formed giant circular welts that covered my body. Apparently, I am hyperallergic to the saliva they inject into my skin right before they drink up. My mother became accustomed to drenching her daughters with layers of bug repellent before we went out, then coating us with calamine lotion upon our return, our itchy redness proof that no repellent is 100 percent effective.

"I'm turning out the light," David threatened. I stood in the corner of the room, certain I saw movement from the corner of my eye.

"I absolutely cannot sleep until I find it," I said. "And you know how cranky I get when I don't sleep well." As I waited for a glimpse of a slow-moving speck, I thought back to one late night when I was six and we were living in Alaska. Dad was out of town, as one in the Navy often is. There was a mosquito in my mother's room, and she rallied her daughters, including a few of us who had been sleeping.

"Help me find it, girls," she said. "We can all go back to bed after it's dead." The scariest thing in the world might be the buzzing sound of a mosquito by your ear in a dark room.

We never thought there was anything wrong with the way we reacted to these microscopic monsters. That was until our men. My sisters and I have learned to downplay our heebie-jeebies around our partners, who consider our responses to insects irrational. After first learning of our distaste for bugs, each of our men independently decided that it was of vital interest that we should know the "eight-spider rule." This rule states that an average human, in a lifetime, will ingest approximately eight spiders while asleep.

"Sometimes I wake up coughing because I breathed weird or something, and when that happens, I'm, like, was that because I just ate a spider?" Heather shared this with me recently after I bitched to her about David's habit of repeating the eight-spider rule every time I make him kill one. Heather learned about the rule from her husband Sean, shortly after they began dating.

Jenny is aware of the rule thanks to Brad, but she prefers to live in denial by refusing to think about it. I can't blame her. Who wants to imagine all those legs crawling down your throat and settling in your stomach? Just thinking about it kills my appetite and gives me the chills. Sean kills bugs for Heather without complaining, just as Simon kills them for Jane. Though I don't know for sure, I imagine that Brad has adjusted to hourly inspections and exterminations for his phobia-ridden girlfriend.

That leaves David, who acts as if God himself has called on him to teach me how to deal with my "psychological issue" with bugs. If I hear "Get over it, it's just a bug," one more time, I may end up explaining to a uniformed officer how, exactly, David came by that flyswatter-shaped welt on his face.

It may very well be "just a bug." But I can't control my quickened heartbeat, my shortness of breath, and the lasting itchiness that occurs when I must deal with a freaky-looking beast with wings and mandibles. Until someone develops a drug that numbs our reaction to bugs, the girly-girls of my family will have to come up with more clever ways to avoid them. I'm still waiting for an answer from NASA regarding my inquiry as to whether or not we've discovered an inhabitable, insect-free planet; it was my last resort and, if everything goes according to plan, it will make a great birthday present for Jenny.

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