|ANTS GO MARCHING
I was a bit offended when he laughed at my offer.
It was more of a chuckle, I suppose, and a distracted one, since most of his attention was focused on the endless rows of cars lining the Henry Hudson Parking Lot – er, Parkway. Traffic was less than ideal.
A lot less than ideal.
Less than sucky, in fact.
“Why don’t you want me to drive?” I demanded, hurt.
“On a Friday afternoon, to the country, in the summer? Didn’t the mayor outlaw that?”
“Very funny.” I scowled.
John cast a glance at me. “Road rage doesn’t become you, darling.”
I let my head flop against the back of the seat. “This traffic is a bitch.”
John released one hand from his beloved ten-and-two grip to tap my thigh. “Hey.”
“Sorry.” I scowled. “But it is.”
“That’s why I’m driving,” he said mildly. “So you can enjoy the scenery.”
I nodded, somewhat mollified.
I watched out the window as an SUV edged us out. I took in the other cars. Everyone behind the wheel looked hot and cranky.
I drummed my fingers on the console.
“Tris.” John didn’t even have to glance over. “Drink some water…relax…play the license plate game…it’s not going to be a short drive.”
I sighed. “Let’s talk instead.”
He smiled. “Sounds good.”
“Do you think there are a lot of bugs in Bedford?” I asked just as John asked “Do you think this one will be a girl?”
“Jinx.” I grinned. “Buy me a Coke.”
“That’s only when you say the same thing at the same time, and you don’t drink Coke anyway,” John reminded me.
“DO you?” We both asked at the same time.
This time we both laughed.
I had forgotten that road trips can be kind of fun.
“I’ll buy you a club soda the next place we stop,” John promised me.
Hm. Not quite perfect, but I suppose it would do.
“She’s carrying high, so it’s definitely a girl,” I informed John.
“I thought high meant a boy?”
“Oh. Who can remember? Anyway, about the bugs…”
John sighed. “Yes. There will be bugs. There are bugs everywhere, sweetheart. We share the earth with them.”
I glared at him. “The earth is fine. I’m not sharing a HOUSE with them.”
“There are bugs in the city too…”
“There will be bugs. And we will deal with them in a mature, adult fashion…which means I expect you left your holsters at home?”
I blushed. “That was years ago.”
He let go the wheel again, this time to rub the same leg he’d tapped earlier. “I know. But remember: flyswatters, rolled up copies of the Post…”
“or tissues. Those are the weapons at your disposal.”
I rolled my eyes. “I know, I know. That was a long time ago,” I reminded him. “Things are different now. We’re in a different state, for one,” I pointed out.
“That’s true. There you go. Aren’t you glad we won’t have to fight this traffic all the way to Connecticut?”
I considered the question.
All the way up the New England Thruway, all the way back three years…it was a long trip…
East Lyme, Connecticut
It was a typically hot, sticky summer. I was uncomfortable and I was just sweating for one; my officemate and all-around pal Mel, about a month from her due date, was doing everything for two. Sweating, walking, talking…and, of course, eating.
As I left work on a humid Friday afternoon I realized I missed her very pregnant presence, right down to the odd cravings she often requested I fulfill. Last week it had been ripe cherries, which would have been fine if she hadn’t demanded that they come from a particular open fruit market in the depths of SoHo.
Mel had taken the rest of the summer off; she and her husband had rented a house in Connecticut and John and I were off for weekend duty in (I checked my watch) about twenty minutes.
I met John in the lobby and gave him a discreet arm thump, the classic gesture of extremely repressed affection. It looked positively caveman from a distance.
Not that people didn’t know we were together. It’s no secret in the industry that reporters are great big sluts, or at least that’s what I’ve always heard. Everything’s a scandal or an affair. My first year at the Sun rumors flew that I was involved with Mel…
…a proposition I resented, of course, considering her married state, my sexual orientation, and the fact that I was sleeping with John at the time.
That was back when we shared an office.
Now he worked three floors up and one corridor over, with the Movers and Shakers.
I loved him anyway.
He looked delicious that evening; being rumpled works for John in a way it doesn’t for anyone else. It sort of rubs the hard edges softer; his tie was undone, his shirtsleeves rolled up, and his lightweight pants hanging off his hips in a way that made me a bit dizzy.
He grinned at me. “Sure you want to go to Connecticut?”
He can read me so well.
I sighed. “We promised.”
I fought the car from the office to the West Side Highway, no easy feat and one that requires a great deal of cursing, glaring, and the occasional finger extension.
John’s own fingers were extended to his temples most of the time, pressing to soothe what I assume was an unfortunate headache.
“You okay?” I asked, swinging the car into the left lane.
He grimaced. “Tris, if you cut off another car without signaling, I’m going to make a citizen’s arrest.”
“I’m not joking.”
I gave him a nervous glance. “Okay, okay. Don’t you want to get there?”
“Yes,” he said. “Alive and without a criminal record, if you don’t mind.”
I eased up, and freed a hand to flick through the radio.
The house in Connecticut had exposed beams and a pool.
It also had a wealth of wildlife inside.
I tiptoed into the dark-paneled den, careful not to disturb a spider spinning something (“Some Reporter”, perhaps?) into an intricate and utterly repulsive web behind the bright yellow curtains.
There was also an ant crawling across the kitchen counter. I elbowed John when I saw it.
He elbowed me back.
“Look!” I hissed.
“Just don’t leave food out,” he advised.
I rolled my eyes. I was not about to share a house with those disgusting beasts.
Then again, I didn’t have much choice. No way was I fighting three more hours of traffic back to the city.
Plus, there was Mel.
I was never quite certain how I felt about Josh. He seemed like a decent guy, I suppose…they were college sweethearts; Josh had abundant curly brown hair and a passion for the Yankees, which were probably his two best features. He was also an investment banker, which was probably his worst.
At first I covered my mouth with my hand to yawn surreptitiously whenever his job was mentioned; later even his name could produce that Pavlovian response.
I know, I know. I’m so mean.
Anyway, Josh wasn’t even there that Friday – he was on business overseas and wouldn’t be back until Sunday.
So John and Mel and I did what three well-educated reporters do when the odd one out is gone from the bunch: discussed current events and office gossip in equal proportions, barbecued hamburgers and hotdogs and corn on the cob…and plain chicken for me, of course.
So Friday turned into Saturday, with Mel modeling her lovely maternity bathing suits – apparently poolwalking is good for developing babies; who knew?
I swam enough laps to put me into a deep sleep Saturday night. By Sunday morning we were all feeling lazy and John and I lounged in the double-wide deck chair on the patio, sharing a paper, while Mel took an air-conditioning break inside.
She reappeared suddenly, leaning back into the extra weight, one hand resting on the Hulk as it often was. The Hulk, of course, was her bulge, so nicknamed for its size and propensity toward violence in utero.
John and I sat up as one. “Are you—”
“Shht.” Mel put up a hand. “I think I’m…I think it’s time.”
I swung my legs over one side of the chair as John did the same thing on the other side.
“Do we need to boil water?” I asked anxiously. “Call the doctor? What, what, what?”
John put a hand on my shoulder. “Mel…you need to get off your feet. Let’s go inside.”
I threw on pants while John settled Mel on the soft chair in the living room to wait and called the doctor.
“Um…what are we supposed to do?” I asked again, heart pounding. I mean, a baby! A baby, for crying out loud!
This was crazy!
I cast Mel a wary look, just in case the baby might pick that particular moment to slide out of her and onto the living room carpet.
“What about Josh?” Mel cried suddenly.
What about him?
“He’s going to freak if no one’s here,” Mel said miserably.
“Okay, it’s fine.” John shouldered her bag, hooked an arm under her elbow. “Tris, help us to the car, okay? Then you can stay here and wait in case Josh calls or arrives…sound good, Mel?”
“What about the baby?” I asked, dismayed.
John shook his head at me over Mel’s much shorter one. “These things take time,” he said. “I’m sure you’ll be there long before the baby makes its appearance.”
“Great, let’s remind me how many hours of labor I’m in for,” Mel snarled, in one of her famous mood swings of the last few months.
I gulped, gave both members of the departing party a kiss, and backed toward the house.
“Keep me posted!” I called as they drove away.
The alone time was actually rather relaxing. I washed the dishes, swept the deck, listened to music, got some sun…portable phone in my pocket the whole time. John checked in at regular intervals.
All systems go.
Everything was going fine until I ducked into the guest bedroom to start packing and saw a dark stain on the carpet.
It had been fine this morning. What could I have spilled?
I crouched down beside it and nearly threw up.
It wasn’t a stain at all
It was a swarming, industrious tribe of ants.
There were so many. They were swarming. And what could they possibly want from my room?
I’d been meticulously neat.
They appeared to be focused near the closet. Tentatively, stepping among them, wincing, in my flip-flops, I pulled open the closet door. I recognized the smell before I noticed the fruit: a handful of sweet, crushed blackberries I’d stuck in the pocket of my swimsuit yesterday.
Why, Tris, why?
I ran out of the bedroom, slammed the door, and threw myself onto the living room couch to regroup.
Okay. They had be stopped.
Raid. I needed Raid.
I pored through the cabinets under the kitchen sink and all the bathroom sinks, hurling spray cans and bottles and powders about. I grabbed a large red bottle that looked promising, barely looking at the label (one spray is the same as another, isn’t it? It was probably just the generic knockoff), and bolted back to the bedroom, where I sprayed the carpet in billowing clouds, coughing, eyes tearing, until the bottle was empty.
Then I took off, closed the door, leaned against it, trying to catch my toxic breath. I would let it sit for a few minutes, I decided. I needed air anyway…as my throat started feeling like it was closing, I kicked off my ant-covered sandals and headed for the backyard, where I flopped into the grass, breathing in sweet, fresh summer air.
I must have fallen asleep there, worn out from the ant battle, because I woke with a start at the sound of tires in the gravel driveway. I sat up, went to greet the car.
“False alarm,” John said tiredly, going around to the passenger side to help Mel out of the car.
Mel looked weary as well.
“Is she okay?” I asked worriedly.
“Fine,” John reassured. “Doctor said bed rest, though.” John blinked a few times after saying that in a way that informed me Mel wasn’t particularly happy with that pronouncement. Poor John.
“Everything all right here? Held down the fort?” John rumpled the back of my hair.
I nodded shakily, and the two of us helped Mel inside.
We got her settled in bed; I brought her a drink; John arranged the entertainment in the hopes of keeping her there. She complained bitterly about the Evil!Baby, then dropped off to sleep almost immediately.
John pushed a hand through his hair. “I could do with a nap myself,” he observed ruefully.
“I’ll join you,” I offered.
He linked his fingers with mine. “It’s a deal.”
We strolled down the hall and too late I opened my mouth to protest as John opened the door to our bedroom…
…and a cloud of intense flowery perfume wafted out and into our faces. John coughed, put a hand up to his eyes.
“Tris? What’s going on?”
John waved his hand through the haze, trying to clear a path. “Tris?”
“There were some ants…” I said miserably.
John closed his eyes briefly. “I suppose I should just go inspect?”
I nodded wordlessly.
He entered the room, my brave man, crouching low to the floor so he wouldn’t be overcome.
“Tris!” It was a loud whisper – he didn’t want to wake Mel – but it did the trick.
I darted over, trying to look as innocent as possible.
“What?” I covered my eyes with my hands, not wanting to see the ants.
“Look,” he said through gritted teeth.
At the ANTS?!
“Now,” he said firmly, so I did. I peeked through my fingers, not sure what to expect…
The carpet was sticking up in stiff peaks and there were ants glued to it. All over it. I sniffed the air again. The scent was sort of familiar…
John picked up the empty can, shook it, looked at the label.
“You used hairspray on these ants?”
That would explain the smell.
“I thought it was Raid,” I whispered.
John pressed his lips together for a moment. “You sprayed a full can of…something…on these ants and you didn’t check what it was first?”
“I figured it was generic?” (Upspeak: it happens in situations like these WAY too often.)
John squeezed his eyes shut. “Tris…why are there ants here in the first place?”
He probed the carpet for a moment while I wisely didn’t speak.
“I forgot they were in my pocket,” I mumbled.
John rose to his feet, shook his head. “Where do I begin?”
I swallowed hard. Um. “That you love me?’
He gave me a very firm look. “That’s a given. And it’s a good thing, too, because…”
“I’ll clean it up,” I offered quickly.
“Yes, you will.”
“Except…can you pick the ants off first? They’re so disgust…ow!” I whispered fiercely. It was a light swat but the sting caught me off guard anyway.
“I’ll clean it ALL up,” I hastened to add.
John sighed. “Tris…spraying an unknown substance into the room we’re sleeping isn’t using particularly sound judgment, is it?”
I shook my head. No argument there. Too bad it didn’t seem that clear at the time, huh?
“Not to mention the blackberries…I told you we wouldn’t get ants if you were careful…”
“I MEANT to be careful!” I protested.
“Tris, we’re guests here. You owe it to Mel to be neat, not just to your own…antophobia,” he said, stifling a smile.
I winced. “Sorry.”
He ruffled my hair. “Why don’t you get started with the cleanup.”
“Wait, I need shoes.” I gestured at my bare feet. I’d been staying a foot or so back from the ants.
“Shoes are a good…” John trailed off. “Were you sleeping outside like that?” he asked suddenly.
Of course I hadn’t.
I wouldn’t go into the grass without long pants, socks, and sneakers.
They called this town Lyme for a reason.
My stomach clenched involuntarily.
“I didn’t…” I whispered.
John took my arm, guided me into the small bathroom off the guest room, and locked the door.
“What are you—”
He turned the shower on full blast, turned me around and swatted me very hard, several times. The sound was drowned out by the water and I covered my mouth with my hands to drown out my yelp. Tears sprang to my eyes.
John looked extremely severe when he turned me around. “That will have to do for now,” he said between his teeth. “Take off your clothes…”
John sighed. “The light is better in here.”
I sniffed hard. He kissed my forehead. “We need to make sure you didn’t get any ticks, Tris,” he said firmly. “Clothes off.”
“I wasn’t out there very long…” I said doubtfully.
I stripped and let him examine me. Until he found one in the fleshy part of my ankle. And then I burst into tears.
John turned the shower on again, sat on the closed toilet lid, and pulled me onto his lap. “Tris. Calm down.” He rocked me for a minute. “Stop crying.”
I tried to.
“I’m going to sterilize these tweezers. Go wait for me in the bedroom…there’s not enough room in here. Tris, now,” he said when I opened my mouth to respond. He slid me off his lap and sent me toward the bed with a pat.
He joined me a few moments later, looking far too determined for my taste. I gulped back more tears.
“Am I going to get sick?”
He sat down next to me, stroked my hair. “Not if you cooperate, I hope not. Just stay calm and let me take it out.”
I lay on my side, one foot warily extended.
“No…what are you doing? Wait!” I kicked, pulling my foot out of his grasp.
John sighed. “Tris. Lie back, I need to look.”
“You ‘look’ with your eyes. NOT with tweezers!”
“Tris.” John took my foot in his hands again.
“It’s probably not a tick. Just leave it, okay?” I tried to pull away again, but this time he was holding more tightly and I panicked, kicking out and half sitting up. “John!”
“Tris, stop it!”
“No, I don’t want you to look! Let go!”
He let go of my foot and leaned over me, one arm on either side of my body. “Listen to me.”
I sniffed hard, feeling sorry for myself and also a tiny bit frightened.
“Tris. Look at me.”
“You know I would never do anything to embarrass you in front of Mel, or anyone else,” he said quietly, meaningfully, moving one hand down my rear. He rested it there, firmly, as he spoke. “But that tick needs to come out and it needs to come out right now. This is very serious. Do NOT push me.”
I swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean to go out without…”
“I know. That’s not the issue right now. We need to get the tick out; we’ll talk about everything else later.”
“Do we understand each other?”
Slowly I nodded. In three years the hardest he’d come down on me had been when I’d put myself at risk or where safety was a concern. And we’d had a rough enough time the last year with my health; I felt guilty putting him through more.
He leaned over and kissed my forehead. “It’s going to be fine. Lie back now, and don’t move.”
Nervously I lay down.
“Don’t look,” he said. “It’s okay, I’ve got you.” He took my foot in his lap and I threw an arm over my eyes. His touch was firm but very gentle, every inch John. I wound my fingers in the sheets and tried not to flinch as his hand grazed the spot.
“Hold still!” he said sharply, then I felt the tweezers start to tug.
My eyes filled with tears as much from his tone as the discomfort; I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to distract myself.
He held my foot tightly between his legs, needing both hands to remove the tick.
I heard his voice again, much gentler this time.
“When Elizabeth was about five and I was about three, we decided to play hide and seek with the baby,” he said. The tears started to fall in earnest. It was one of my favorite stories; John had gotten in the habit, in the last year or so of long, ill nights, of distracting me with lighthearted tales, some from his childhood, some from his early days as a reporter, anything long and full of detail that would keep me from thinking about the pain, give me a chance to relax a little until the meds could work or, in this case, until John could pull that nasty little creature out of my leg.
In spite of myself I relaxed a little, and John was just getting to the part where his mother found the baby in the dryer – unharmed, don’t worry! – when he stopped and said “There! Finished.”
“I’m done. Got it all.” He leaned forward and brushed the hair out of my eyes. “You all right?”
I blinked a few times. “Yeah. It’s out?”
He kissed me. “It’s out.”
Slowly, shakily, I sat up. “Thanks.”
He pulled my head down and kissed my forehead. “Stay there, let me just put some ointment on and you’re good to go.”
I sat quietly while he dressed the bite.
“Tris?” His hand closed around my shoulder. “I’m sorry I snapped at you before,” he said softly. “You scared me badly getting bitten like that, and the longer it was in there, the worse…”
“I know. It’s okay.” I looked down at my hands. “I know you told me not to go outside without Cutter or socks…I’m sorry, it was stupid…”
He moved his hand to stroke my head. “It wasn’t very bright, no, but we’ll discuss that when we get home. The important thing right now is that you’re all right.”
“Guys?” Mel appeared in the doorway, bent swayback under the weight of The Hulk, one hand resting on its bulk, the other supporting her back. “You okay?”
“Mel!” John and I jumped up as one and went to either side of her, taking an arm like two security guards and starting to escort her back to bed.
“What are you doing up? You should be lying down,” John chastened.
“Yeah! You could…y’know, contract again!” I added.
Mel rolled her eyes. “Appearances to the contrary, I’m not going to explode. I’m just hungry, okay?”
She caught John exchanging a glance with me. “What? I haven’t eaten in hours!” She glared at me. “You think I look fat, don’t you.”
“I…I…” I stammered, well and truly backed into a corner. Was John SMILING?
“What do you feel like eating?” he asked soothingly.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll find something to cook.”
“Cook?” John and I exclaimed in horrified unison. We were starting to sound like a sitcom…Two Men and a Nearly-Born Baby, maybe?
“You can’t cook. We’ll order something in,” I said.
“You need to lie down,” John said reasonably.
“No, I NEED to do something with my hands,” Mel said mutinously, glaring.
And that was how we ended up sprawled together, the three of us, on the king-sized mattress in the master bedroom, eating take-out Thai food from white cardboard cartons while Mel happily painted my toenails bright blue.
“Don’t say I never do nothin’ for ya,” I muttered, resting my good foot in her lap as she applied the second coat to my big toe. I wondered if it was possible to preserve even the slightest bit of dignity.
“Hello? Anyone home?”
Nope. Apparently it wasn’t possible.
Josh appeared in the doorway, briefcase in hand, looking disheveled and hot. “The house smells…strange,” he said, wrinkling his nose.
“It’s just AquaNet,” I said cheerfully. “Harmless really. Totally non-toxic. I mean, except for insects and…” John silenced me with a look.
“I thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow,” Mel said grumpily.
Unperturbed by her tone, Josh leaned over and kissed her full on the mouth. “She’s really happy to see me,” he explained with a wink. “How do you feel, honey?”
“Like a whale with indigestion,” Mel snapped.
I started to get off the bed. “No, don’t get up,” Mel ordered. She jerked her head toward Josh, glaring. “HE’S sleeping on the couch.”
My mouth dropped open.
“It’s okay,” Josh said to me. “I read all about it in What to Expect When Your Wife is Expecting. In the late-term stages of pregnancy,” he recited, “the mother-to-be may act somewhat hostilely toward the father of her baby. These feelings are not based in reality and should not be taken personally; in fact, the pregnant woman often feels this hostility rarely and at other times will act as if nothing is wrong, even affectionately, toward—”
“Would you PLEASE shut up and kiss me again?” Mel interrupted.
Josh lifted an eyebrow at me and I grinned. Mel sat up and Josh touched her shoulder. “Stay. You’re supposed to be lying down…”
“Stay? STAY? What am I, a dog?” Mel didn’t look annoyed, though; she held out her arms and John and I stood up as Josh replaced the pillows behind Mel, resting a hand automatically on The Hulk.
“You need to get some rest,” he told her. “I heard about the day you had.”
“He thinks he’s the boss of me or something,” Mel said to me, shaking her head.
“Yeah,” I said. I couldn’t help smiling as John slipped an arm over my shoulders, turning me slightly so we could leave and give Mel and Josh some privacy. “I kind of know the feeling.”
“That was THREE years ago!” I reminded John as we worked our way through the interminable traffic on the Cross County. “Do you ever forget ANYTHING?” I demanded.
He considered the question. “Well. Not the good things,” he said.
“That was a good thing?”
“Funny is good! And those ants…those sticky ants…” I heard him trying not to laugh.
“That’s not what you said then,” I protested. “Then it was all blah blah, unknown substances and Lyme disease and…”
“I’ve mellowed in my old age,” he explained.
“Well, it’s NOT funny!”
“I’m sorry,” he said, mouth twitching only slightly. “We won’t talk about it anymore.”
“Fair enough.” I settled back in my seat.
Traffic started to pick up slightly as we approached the Hutch.
“Let’s sing something,” I suggested.
What can I say? Long car trips demand it, don’t they?
“What do you want to sing?” John tapped the steering wheel invitingly with two forefingers.
“You start something,” I said. “I’ll join in.”
He nodded, looked thoughtful for a moment.
Then he started to sing, softly at first, then louder…
“The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah, the ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah…”
“JOHN! It’s NOT FUNNY!” I shrieked.
But our laughter drowned me out.