City Sprawl: Fear No Boll Weevil

Is there a way to get my daughter to quit bugging out?

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

My toddler daughter’s eyesight has, seemingly overnight, advanced. Something optical inside her little 22-month-old skull has clicked, which is so magical and specific and precious, and she’s using it to see, for the first time, flies. The flies, in turn, have tipped her off to an entire universe of bugs. Now she looks at a tree and sees a swarm of caterpillars. A park bench teeming with ants. Her own finger, sticky with leftover blue cotton-candy residue, the unwitting host digit to a single persistent gnat.

For my daughter, is it a whole new world? It certainly is. Jane is scared of the bugs, and she breaks into Edvard Munchian wails the moment she sees one. My son, who was nonchalant about them before, has realized she knows something he doesn’t. If you’re wondering whether there’s a cure for tinnitus, there is not one. We’re all over here, learning to live with something new.

We’ve tried telling Jane there’s nothing wrong with bugs, that bugs are our friends! Buggies won’t hurt you! You see? I’ll give this one a kiss. There’s your smooch, little buggie, now off you fly to your buggie bounce house at the end of the rainbow, the happiest place on Earth.

Except Jane sees right through my crap because the truth is I’m not wholly enthused about bugs. Our measures to comfort Jane are no match for reality; I’d go so far as to say the measures have exposed, even highlighted, the reality.

At Home Depot, you see, they have these free kiddie craft days. They come around once a month, and they’re adorable: Everyone gets a little orange apron and a hammer and some wood glue. It’s largely unsupervised, but you march in there feeling vaguely rugged and capable and just generally hoping for the best. On the day we went, we were supposed to make bug houses, and I must give credit where credit is due; my husband’s wood-glue application was simply first-rate. The kids both got their free balloons, and we all left pretty happy.

The only problem came when they didn’t forget that we had it. Family rules about not running into streams of fast-moving traffic—very difficult to retain! But the bug house stuck in their minds in the manner of its quick-drying wood glue. The next day, they managed to hoist up a large rock in the backyard. Under it, there dwelt something black and segmented and squirming. Bring out the bug house! We had a new pet.

Then they remembered I simply love bugs, so they brought it into the house for my smooches and nursery rhymes, though since rules of the universe dictate that it could not have been otherwise, they had forgotten to replace the cardboard lid on the house. Are there some bugs so gross that the bug discoverers just skip nomenclature to slam back down the rock? Whatever it was wriggled free of its home and found itself loose in our living room, which is how my children came to witness the slaughter of their first pet. At my hands.

So, yeah. Jane’s not a fan of the bugs, per se.

My dad has a similar story of once having been surprised by a snake in the side yard and, in his shock, killing it in front of my sister. My sister hates snakes. My dad blames himself. I’d heard the story enough times to promise myself I’d never do something like it to my own kids, and here we are. Time is an infinite loop.

Is it possible to break the cycle? I’m not sure that it is. I probably had it in me to not kill the bug that day—only I can’t say I could have held back the next day, and the next day, and so many days after that. With fears, you have to be on guard so much of the time, and it only takes one well-placed whack of the shoe to seed somebody else’s phobia forever.

Peering further down the spiral, how many more of these do I have to worry about? I can’t say I’m crazy about snakes, either. The problem there is that, unlike bugs, which you encounter on a semiregular basis, I can never predict when I’m going to see a snake, which throws my reaction to one way out of proportional whack.

My aunt has a snake story, from a time when she had to drop some papers off at a co-worker’s house. She pulled into the driveway and left the car windows down; it was a quick errand and a hot day. “What a beautiful black sculpture you have there in your yard, hanging off the branch of your tree,” said my aunt, once inside the house. “What statue?” said the co-worker. Again, universe, laws, dictation: When they went out to look for it, the snake was gone. My aunt’s car windows were still down.

Twenty years later, still no sign of the snake. I, for one, am ruling out nothing.
My mother fears getting lost, a fear that’s easy for most of the people around her to disregard because of the GPS devices they all carry in their hip pockets. But I’m proud of my mom for holding out on the smartphones, though I must say I’ve wanted to throw mine into a river a million times and the single greatest thing holding me back is Google Maps. My mom knows about Google Maps. She still hasn’t caved, instead choosing to face her fear, which is more than I can say for myself and my leggy black friend.

What really scares me? The subconscious fears. The ones I can’t control, that slip out of my mind in the night to rear up in all shapes and directions, including—possibly—my son and daughter’s shared bedroom. I had terrible nightmares as a child, and I still do, about once a month. I’ve tried everything to stop them. Nothing works. I’m powerless over them. Am I powerless to not pass them on to my kids? And how far removed are they from my son’s “monsters,” the ones I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to convince him simply don’t exist? Does Agathina, the auburn-haired woman who follows me home once a month from the park and tries to force herself into my house, not exist? Right. She does not. Only try telling her that. She’s very persuasive.

So I’m taking it a day at a time. For now, we’ve put the bug house away. I’m keeping the doors and windows largely shut. Doors: an excellent protectant against most bugs, snakes and redheaded phantoms. A better-than-nothing protectant. I don’t want to live in fear, but there’s no reason to invite it into my home and provide it with my children’s Social Security numbers.

What’s more, there’s a reptile expo scheduled for this month at the Prince William County Fairgrounds, where I’m sure they’ll have snakes and the things they feed to the snakes—only this time, in a reasonably controlled environment. Is it brave or mind-achingly dumb to gather up the family and plan an afternoon out? By the way, it’s the second one.

Only maybe I’ll find a few minutes to drive by on my own and look really hard at the sign. Know that they’re in there. Speed away fast. Doesn’t matter where to. I never go anywhere without the GPS.

(October 2017)