by Sara Kate Ellis
This love story ends like most do, with rage and a can of pesticide.
I watch Mrs. Nozaki through the soap-streaked glass partitioning her narrow balcony. She’s tapping her foot on the fake wood floor as she waits for the deliverymen to load her bed through the entrance. She’s been living here a week, sleeping on a yoga mat, and then a fold-out cot. The men hold the mattress aloft, sweat dappling their pleasantly stoic expressions as they slip off their shoes.
It’s a good bed. Not one of those vulgar king-sizes preferred by the hicks next door. It’s just right for one, and when the men leave, Mrs. Nozaki – soon to be the former Mrs. Nozaki – covers it with a goose comforter smelling of lavender, a pillow embroidered with a single yellow butterfly.
She gives it a quick bounce before sinking back, arms outstretched as her willowy frame burrows into the soft down. I climb up the glass for a better look, sighing through my shell as she drifts into a well-deserved sleep.
The defenses she’s held in place during the move drift away and her face softens, providing the poignant glow of a modest tragedy. My mandibles constrict and my antennae droop in reverence to the privilege of witness. This vision will go unshared by my former nest mates, a horde of trash-eating provincials that, like Mrs. Nozaki’s husband, I have chosen to leave.
This can’t end well for either of us.
If you’re like me, you can sniff out hope in the least expected places: a crumb of fine French chocolate in a suit pocket, a shard of tangy charcuterie streaking a wadded ball of Saran wrap. Mine is Angus, a portly, foul-smelling stray. Angus, who saunters around the building, oily tufts of fur covering him like a mesh of rusty wire.
“‘Tis a good building,” he says in that brogue purr of his, “Yer a smart one fer leavin’ those others behind. They dunno what they’re missin’.”
I twitch my antennae in hearty agreement, for despite our cozy proximity, I don’t fear Angus. He’s far too fat to bat me around, much less catch me. What he likes to do is talk, spread his red girth across the roof like the carpet of an old movie theater and yammer until dawn.
“‘Twas in a book some little girl tossed in the dust box a year or so ago. Spilled her milk on the pages and when I hopped atop the heap to lap it up, I read the most amazin’ thing.”
He sees my cerci flutter in excitement and turns away to lick a filthy hind leg.
“Please,” I say. “Tell me.”
His eyes close languorously and he sighs. “If ye must hear it then, there was a frog that loved a human girl. And in the end, she kissed him and he became a lad. A handsome lad with a big chin and enough money to buy stacks of Crown Prince sardines. Now I’m not promisin’ anything, but get her to put her lips on ye, ye might have a go of it.”
Not impossible. I’m not entirely without charm. If you listen to the words they use to describe my movements—“glide, float, drift”—I’m the Baryshnikov of the insect world. And I am quiet, unobtrusive unless spotted, diffident to the point of being a wallflower.
Yet, my reception is always the same. They scream. Sometimes they choke on their silence, and sometimes, rage drips quietly over their features as they reach around for a newspaper. All I can do is gavotte to the safety of some dank, dark space.
And this is where I am when the doorbell rings, entrenched behind the grille of Mrs. Nozaki’s kitchen fan as the bell sounds again, then a third time.
Mrs. Nozaki’s eyes spring open. She rolls off the bed and inserts her feet into a pair of oversized slippers.
It’s a woman’s voice, older. The inflection is less a question than an order.
Mrs. Nozaki stops. She presses her hands to her sides and shuts her eyes as if she might blink herself out of existence. After another ring, she exhales and unlocks the door.
There’s no need for her to open it. The woman on the other side waltzes in like she’s been living there for years—like she knew this place even as Mrs. Nozaki was meeting with the realtor in secret. That’s when I first saw her. I was here on a lonely scavenging mission, enjoying a few missed drops of honey left behind by the previous tenants.
Mrs. Nozaki stays near the door. She does not offer her tea. She does not ask her to sit down. The woman has gray hair and a face scratched on like a scarecrow’s, and she’s already donned a stance of affront. She’s looking over the kitchen, an eyebrow ticking off every indulgence, the pricey bottle of cabernet Mrs. Nozaki has perched right next to the gourmet coffee.
“I thought you’d want to know that Keisuke has a cold,” she says. “He has a test this morning. An important one. And he was up half the night coughing.”
Mrs. Nozaki allows herself to smile now. Bitterly. She takes a step forward as if willing the now stagnant air between them to push her visitor back outside.
“Thank you for taking care of him, Hisako. As you’re fond of saying, you’re better at it than I.”
The other Mrs. Nozaki looks away, shakes her head. “A boy sick without his mother.”
“There’ve been worse things.”
“So irresponsible,” the woman continues, glancing at the coffee. “So frivolous.”
This is the cut off point to Noriko’s politeness. She places a hand on the older woman’s arm and nudges her toward the entrance.
“I’m very sorry, but you’ve come at a bad time. Can you find your way back toward the station?”
The older woman bristles, incredulous. “My son should not have married you.”
“That’s not a problem anymore.”
The younger Nozaki opens the door, barely masking a smile as her mother-in-law’s mouth opens, then closes like a feeble trap.
“Goodbye, Hisako. Tell Keisuke I’ll visit once I’m ready.”
“Not at my house.”
With three smooth strides, the older woman steps back into her shoes and is gone.
Mrs. Nozaki locks the door and refastens the chain. I’m creeping along the dark wainscoting of the kitchen as she slogs back into the bedroom and collapses onto the bed. This time she is on her stomach, face buried in the butterfly’s wings, and no matter the angle or how many views my body affords me, I cannot see her face. Just the slight trembling of a shoulder as she struggles for breath.
When she’s out, I explore.
Mrs. Nozaki keeps her kitchen spotless enough to discourage the boors from other nests who like the easy pickings. There are fewer scent trails to guide me, for such slobs are unappreciative of her exquisite taste. I, however, can always find a smudge of flavor, follow traces of subtle aromas that waft from her countertop or a half open cupboard.
Last night, she lit candles, shaved Parmesan over sliced beets, and poured a glass from a fine, cold bottle of wine. I watched, mesmerized as she swirled the clear golden liquid, aroused by scents of cinnamon powder, persimmon peels usually dropped in the wastebaskets of her fellow tenants. As she savored each mouthful, I entwined my cerci in a quiet prayer that she’d leave behind a single fleck of cheese, stain the floor with one vermillion drop of that sweet and fragrant juice.
Her kin, like my former nest mates, were happy to shovel in whatever garbage they could, as long as they didn’t have to prepare it. I got a look at the lout and their issue this afternoon. That boy shares no part of her. He is his father through and through.
They were at her door when she arrived, rain dripping from the mangled umbrella they shared as the boy whined and jammed a finger into his nose. When they followed her inside, Mr. Nozaki, like his mother, stood in a perpetual stance of expectation. A cup of tea, a beer, a towel. It didn’t matter. Her not handing him something was a grave wrong.
He wasted no time either.
“Noriko. This demonstration of yours has gone too far, don’t you think?”
“I want ice cream!” the boy said.
“I don’t have any.”
Mrs. Nozaki glanced at him coldly. He was rolling a grimy toy truck over the kitchen counter.
I thrilled at this. For there was ice cream, an entire creamy pint dotted with cherries and chunks of dark chocolate that she would spoon up right after she whisked them out the door. One lie to a child and she’d turned that cliché of female loneliness into a victory flag.
“Hideki, bringing him here in the rain so you can beg is irresponsible. And pathetic. Your mother said he was ill. Aren’t you ill, Keisuke?”
The boy didn’t answer. Mrs. Nozaki’s eyes followed the toy truck as he wheeled it over the cupboards and then the cutting board.
“Don’t do that, Keisuke. It’s dirty.”
“Don’t speak to your son like that.”
“Like what?” She kept her eyes locked on the man’s as she stepped backward and snatched the car from the child’s hand. Then she hurled it toward the waste bin. She missed. The boy wailed anyway.
“Noriko, please. I’m eating from the convenience store, three, maybe four times a week. He wakes me up with…”
“Learn to cook.”
“When do I have time?”
“When did I ever have it?”
Mr. Nozaki starts, then twists his expression into one of frustrated tolerance. “A mother should love her son.”
Noriko’s eyes drifted over his gray, rain soaked suit, the body that sprawled daily, unconcerned and inconsiderate, on the seats of crowded trains.
“But you aren’t a mother, Hideki?” she said. “What makes you think you can even say such a thing?”
“Crawlin’ over her mouth ain’t gonna work,” Angus says. “Has ta be by te force of her action. Those lips must touch ye, not the other way around.”
After hearing this, I wallowed despondent for a week in the garbage bin of the Chinese restaurant downstairs, enduring random jeers from scouts who’d scurried out from other nests. “The lovelorn gourmet,” they’d call me, “The sticky brown swain.”
“Get a room already,” said one, his wings shimmering red beneath the restaurant’s paper lantern. “Preferably one where the floor don’t stick.”
But then I got an idea.
Each night, Mrs. Nozaki places a cup of water next to her bed, reaching for it in the dark when she awakens. All I need to do is be there when she takes a sip. And tonight, she is certain to suffer a terrible thirst.
I can see it in the resolve with which she places a bottle of Vin jaune firmly on the table, pouring the ochre liquid to the rim of a large glass. A Russian soprano’s aria ripples from a small compact stereo, tickling both sets of my wings.
She is ritualistic in her arrangement of a cheese board topped with Mimolette and Munster. There are plump, cold grapes purchased from a local market—a place my nest mates claimed was too far for a raid—and a fresh baguette.
Husband and brat child be damned, she’ll have a taste of what she could not at that house, where the idea of good food was sloppy cream stews and curries.
But I ruin it.
I was going to wait for her to get drunk and climb under the covers before making my way toward the glass, but the smell of the cheese is intoxicating, and despite my safe vantage point beneath the refrigerator, I glide forward, just an inch.
Mrs. Nozaki spots me and stifles a scream. She stands and pushes her chair aside, breathing heavily as she backs away.
“No, no, no,” she says. “Not now. Not now!”
I back up into the darkness, listening as she yanks open a drawer and unrolls what sounds like an endless bolt of Saran wrap. She mutters angrily as she seals over the comfort I’ve so thoughtlessly destroyed.
And then she does something I never would have foreseen. It’s almost unspeakable.
When she speaks, she whispers into the receiver like I might be taking notes.
“My father’s all the way in Yokohama.”
Her father? A single view of my shiny brown shell has stripped her of her independence. I back further into the darkness, hoping to find a route of escape, but I am blocked by the cupboard and stark white walls that would only make me an easier target.
“I checked with the landlord before I moved in. She said the exterminator had just been here.”
Phone pressed between shoulder and ear, she gets down on her knees, hands flat against the floor as she peers beneath the refrigerator.
“I can’t see it anymore. Hideki, please.”
My wings vibrate with fear and the rage of insult. I will not die by his hand. Not by someone for whom she feels true disgust.
It seems I won’t have to.
“Buy some spray.” His voice is a tinny whine through the receiver. “I’m tired and your son, by the way, is asleep.”
Mrs. Nozaki rises and slams the phone back on its stand. Her shadow darkens the floor as she downs the wine in thick, methodical gulps.
“Useless shit,” she whispers and snatches her coat from the rack.
I’m halfway across the ceiling when she returns. I thought I’d have time, that I could climb up the table, find a nibble of cheese and disappear before she came back. I’ve been going without in her meticulously clean apartment, telling myself that quality was more important. And now I am too weak. A fool.
I freeze, hoping she’ll be too distracted with her mail to notice, but Mrs. Nozaki trains her eyes right to where I am, and I feel strangely elated. How good it feels to finally have her full attention, to have her thinking of no one but me.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she planted you here. You’re just like him,” she whispers. “A pest. Hanging around, eating my food, keeping me from living my life!”
She pulls the spray bottle from a plastic Family Mart bag and steps directly below me, her mouth upturned and determined. Lips puckered as she raises the nozzle.
This is my chance. My last chance. I release my grip on the ceiling and fall.
The air buoys me as I descend toward her mouth, her teeth slightly visible, jaw clenched in a sneer of determination. But Mrs. Nozaki is faster. She screams again, batting me away from her face. I barely feel her skin against my outer shell as I am flung into the corner of the kitchen.
I race beneath a shelf housing a toaster oven and a few scattered cloves of elephant garlic. The smell of it tinges the air as Mrs. Nozaki curses a long string of epithets, aiming the can again as she tramps across the kitchen floor.
As her shadow envelopes me, so too does a strange, gum like mist. It smells like licorice and Allspice and I try to run, but I can’t to move. My legs spasm violently and as I try to inch across the floor, I curl instead onto my back.
I lie there, almost completely immobile as I take one last look at her smooth skin, the swathe of dark hair hanging over one eye like a peep show blind. She’s covering her mouth with one hand as she puts down the can and waves the spray from the air. She backs away, opening the front door to ventilate the room. But as she reaches down to snatch a catalog from the recycle bin, her foot alights on a tiny red truck.
She yelps as the cold metal digs into her sole. Her leg slides sideways, sending her into a partial split. She pitches forward, arms spiraling as if in flight, her face a moon on a collision course, and I feel a last surge of joy, of hope.
Then she crushes me with her lips.