This Means War
I’m standing in front of my open kitchen cupboard, my only spray bottle of disinfectant in hand, finger on the trigger.
Streams of ants are coming from the tiny cracks in the mosaic between the cupboard and the windowsill, forming a superhighway along the bottom rim of the cabinet, then dispersing into a chaotic swarm, gleefully weaving in and out of my carefully curated COVID-19 stockpile of pretzels, raisins, quinoa, and black beans like a herd of feral kindergartners finally freed from the confines of the classroom.
One by one, I remove and inspect the bags of food, spraying individual ants in the bottom creases of pouches and smashing lone roamers into a paper towel, sending each one to a forceful and unique death.
I discover their precious treasure, a plastic bottle of honey with a sweet and sticky rim. I toss it in the sink, its blank little bear eyes staring down the barrel of the faucet, its friendly little bear smile frozen as I blast it in the face and watch the ants go down the drain. I imagine their tiny little ant screams.
I turn again to the swarm in the cupboard, which is now moving frantically. This brings me great satisfaction. They’re scared, too. I lift the spray bottle, and for a split second I feel guilty. I’m better than this. And yet… “Not today,” I whisper, and let loose across the cupboard and the rim of the cabinet and every real or imagined crack in the mosaic with spray after spray of disinfectant. All motion stops, and I add another spray or two just to prove a point.
It is not lost on me that I’m wasting my disinfectant fighting a battle I could win without it. In fact, this feels like the only battle I can win. I can’t change the course of our global pandemic. I can’t shake the heartbreak of being away from people I love. And I can’t, I’m finding, force my two reactive teens into compliance with my naïvely optimistic homeschooling daily schedule while simultaneously showing up in virtual meetings and nailing my own work deadlines.
But I can kill these ants, who have the audacity to go along without a care in the world, just business as usual, whistling while they work together side by side to care for all in their happy little ant communities. I want to obliterate them.
My friend Sadie calls. She’s fighting her own war with the tenants in the other half of her duplex, as they’re all cooped up under shelter-in-place orders. The tenants refuse to stop smoking indoors, and her townhouse is being fumigated with second-hand smoke drifting through the vents. She’s holed up in her third-floor bedroom, she explains. On the first floor she put a speaker up to their shared wall and is blaring an obnoxious local radio station. The second-floor battlefield is equipped with another speaker, lobbing a YouTube channel of inflammatory political speeches loudly in their direction. Their landlord has the coronavirus and can’t come over to handle the situation, so she figures it’s time to gather up the pitchforks and overthrow the system. Viva la revolución!
Amidst our current battle stories, we remind each other of all the victories we’ve celebrated together over the past decade: divorces, escaping abuse, job changes, getting sober, staying sober, ending relationships, moving away, and then moving back home. We’ve watched each other’s kids lose their first teeth and get their first jobs. We’re still standing and, we say again and again, the kids will be okay.
Every story we recall together resurrects my confidence in our resilience—both individually and together, in sisterhood. We’ve been lonely before. We’ve been heartbroken before. We’ve been scared before. We’ve fed children and sent emails and checked homework while being heavy with grief. We’ve hidden tears, hidden rage, even hidden joy—and then released them on each other’s couches like a tsunami when the coast is clear. Before long, this time in our lives will become another story of victory—but it won’t just be the tale of winning a fight. This victory is coming because we’re up against something so unfathomable that we can’t win unless we know how to surrender.
I hang up and once again survey the cabinet, bare now except for soggy little ant corpses scattered across the bottom and plastered to the sides. I feel ashamed. I mean, really? This is my big win? I wipe it all down using too many paper towels from my last roll. The cabinet is spacious, gleaming, the way it was when we moved in last spring. One small corner of life has been restored to its original pristine condition. That’s all I’ve got to show for myself. For now, that is enough.