Sunday, February 26, 2012

How Not To Kill A Wasp

Last Saturday morning, I discovered an uninvited and unhappy houseguest clinging to my kitchen window. It was a wasp, spindly and long, with narrow brown wings that lifted, as I watched, in a threatening V shape over its dark body. I bounded backwards with alacrity that was truly surprising given my pre-caffeinated state. And how was I supposed to make coffee? The French press was clean in the dishwasher, but the dishwasher is just next to the window. The wasp’s domain, now.

This wasn’t the first wasp to appear in my mysteriously porous apartment. The first wasp, which came last September, died on its own after a day of desperate starvation. I called my apartment company when the second showed up a few days later; they sent a maintenance man to find the leak in my walls. He did not do that, but he did kill the wasp.

Never again, I decided. I would not be the girl who cried for help when confronted with an insect smaller than a Cheeto. But I also wasn’t quite the girl who could boldly smush the little intruder into oblivion. And why bother? Why endure the fear, why risk the painful sting? The new wasp would surely die naturally. I suspected that turning off the heat might urge it along to death. Until it succumbed, I would just have to arrange a few minor protection (and warming) strategies. I donned a hoodie, hood included, and tied the strings tightly under my chin. Then I slipped on my yellow dishwashing gloves. It wasn’t a terribly uncomfortable way to putter around a kitchen.

I had never been stung before, you see, and the prospect incited almost as much anxiety as the thought of a Santorum presidency. Who knew how much a sting would hurt? Who knew if the wasp’s venomous prick could swell my throat closed? Best to avoid the errant insect piteously tracing the window’s edges, always seeking a nonexistent exit. Best to let it fret itself to death.

But the wasp refused to die. Every morning I expected to find its featherweight husk supine on the kitchen floor. But even if it were hiding at first glance—the wasp tended to crawl into a covered space at night—it would soon zoom into my presence.

“You see, wasp, your plight is just like the human condition,” I said one evening, while chopping an onion to begin dinner preparations. The wasp was pacing the black rubber perimeter of the window, its sticky yellow legs and antennae in busy motion. “We too face an impenetrable barrier to an all-to-visible utopia, and spend our days fecklessly trying to reach it.” Timidly, I approached the trash bag beneath the window and disposed of the onion peelings. Outside the window, clumped remains of the season’s first real snow gleamed in the streetlamp light. “And if we could reach that paradise, it would destroy us.”

The wasp took off from the windowsill and I fled the kitchen.


Yes, the wasp had to die. And it became increasingly clear that I had to be the one to kill it. The maintenance man made it look easy enough last summer, just slammed a wadded paper towel on its unsuspecting form and thrust the bundle in the trash.

I had my paper towel ready to go. Armed with it, I would stand by the window, staring at the still wasp. The ordeal would be over in a moment, a single moment, I knew. But like a grad student Hamlet, I hesitated again and again. The wasp would move; my nerve would fail.

“Do you really deserve death at my hands?” I would ask the wasp, who would sometimes fan its wings and sometimes not. I could argue that the wasp had no right to loiter in my apartment, that it didn’t pay rent here, that it was threatening my safety. But the wasp could equally argue that I, as a human, had taken over its rightful habitat, and that it, as a wasp, could not be expected to acknowledge such concepts as private property and trespassing. And what was so bad about having a wasp in the house? As long as our bodies remained at a respectful distance, we could probably be friends. Yes, I was as indecisive as Hamlet, though clearly no questions could be raised about my sanity.

But I really wanted my kitchen back. So on Tuesday night, after giving up on reading at last, I decided it was time to take action. No more delaying, no more awaiting a natural death. Now I’ll (actually) do’t, I said to myself. I went to the kitchen and picked up my waiting weapon. But the wasp wasn’t in sight. I searched around its usual resting spots to no avail. The tension in my chest started to ease. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

Or maybe the wasp had disappeared for good. How wonderful, I thought, undressing in my bedroom, that I might actually be spared the horror and the guilt. I slipped on the nightshirt that had been lying crumpled on my bed and immediately wondered why the fabric felt so sharp.

Reader, the wasp was in my shirt.

I shrieked as loudly and pointlessly as a car alarm. Idiotically, I shook the shirt out, trying to dislodge the wasp but succeeding only whipping it into such a panic that it into stung me again, again, again. At last I froze. I could feel the wasp creeping down the shirt’s interior. I screeched again, ripped off the shirt, and ran from the bedroom naked except for my underpants.

Events then took a humiliating turn.

The stings — on my shoulder, chest, and back — were rising into mean white welts against rapidly reddening skin. What if I were allergic? How long would it take to start dying? Remember that kids’ movie, “My Girl,” where Macaulie Culkin dies from a bee allergy at the end? For the first time in my life, I called 911. The dispatcher sent out EMTs. Dave called while I waited—responding to my hysterical text—and reminded me that I was, in fact, breathing and therefore probably alive.

The EMTs concurred (I did put on a bathrobe before letting them in). There were four of them, mortifyingly enough, all cheerfully amused by my panic. Some of us sting when we’re scared, I wanted to say; some of us call 911. The burly middle-aged EMT asked where the wasp was. I pointed to the shirt. After some poking, the wasp revealed itself and the EMT ended its life.

I, on the other hand, survived. I would like to be able to say I miss my insect companion, but I don’t. It has been a pleasure to enter my kitchen without my neck hairs raising like a suspicious nun’s, without feeling compelled to sheathe every inch of my skin in protective rubber and cloth. But here’s the thing: wasp stings aren’t that bad. The panic was worse than the pain. The wasp’s welts had calmed by the time I woke up the next morning; indeed, the five little wounds barely existed.

Yesterday, another wasp squeezed its way into my habitat. I grabbed my paper towel and smushed it into eternity.