by Julie Lunde
I have been afraid of spiders since before I can remember, since before I even knew the word for it; spider.
Two weeks ago, as I was getting ready for a night out, a spider jumped out from behind my lipstick and my breath thudded heavy to the floor. This one was too large to consider squashing, large in the thick way that made it also furry like an animal. I couldn't leave him alone in my bedroom, unsupervised, so I took the only reasonable course of action and sat myself on the opposite side of the room, a bottle of wine in one hand and a handle of vodka in the other, watching and waiting.
This is the worst thing about spiders: They show up and then you are expected to do something, to deal with it somehow. It being the situation of the spider. Last month I gave a different spider a paper cut. It was an accident. I’d slid the piece of paper toward this creeper's feet intending only to knock him from the wall into a Tupperware container and accompany him outside with that familiar shuffle to the door—guilt disguised, as if this act were anything other than what it really was, a sudden and brutal displacement: Here's your hat, what's your hurry? At the time this seemed like the merciful, if not wildly courageous, decision. But my shaky hands unintentionally caused the blade of the paper to nick him. He recoiled, then froze, and when he began to move again, his manic skedaddle revealed one leg that dragged slightly behind the rest. A paper cut.
I know the specific feeling of this injury—the nearly imperceptible slice of paper to skin, one layer unzipped; the subsequent rush of feeling, the bloom of blood. Nothing, in short, to lose sleep over. Yet I could not get the image of his crawl out of my mind. For the next week, I entertained scenarios all through the night: perhaps the cut was along a joint, where pain hurts most; perhaps he would never be able to bend it properly again and would develop some awful, wobbly limp that would make him the mockery (worse, the pity) of every member of his spider class. Perhaps he had always suffered from chronic nightmares of amputation, or lost an older sister to amputation-by-notebook. Or maybe it was his favorite leg of the eight. Maybe this leg was the only thing still persuading him of his value as a longlegs; perhaps without it he was destined to a wifeless, childless, loveless life. Or perhaps he wasn't injured at all. Perhaps he was faking it.
When I was a child I had a nightmare that two life-sized ladybugs were eating me alive. My blood ran and splashed over their matching red skin until we were all drowning in it. Now, the dream repeats itself with a cast of spiders. As I don't know where spiders' mouths are, the attack comes by way of various sharp objects appended to the tip of each leg. The spiders dance a jig upon my body and, with each turn of the beat, their blades take aim at my most important internal organs. Steak knife to stomach. Scissor blades to spleen. Three-tined fork aimed for the ovaries. I feel no pain as I watch it happen.
Awake, I nurse this nightmare. I try to work out what I would do if it actually happened. There is no assigned protocol for this particular crisis. If a spider was eating my body alive, I would yell—yes, certainly, I would scream for help. Or do I only think so? The fear and confusion of the moment might be paralyzing. I might shrink into myself and try to focus on anything else. Try to be okay with this, pretend that this assault is a transaction: look how much this spider is enjoying himself. Look how distant he is, and how much I do not care. Look how easily I, too, could disappear into the floor. Or I might yell. If I were a sparrow, I might warble. An armadillo, I might leap. Who decides what shape fear takes?
In a college psychology class, I learned the science behind arachnophobia—the studied curvature of it, the elevated heart rate, the way, even, to undo it: controlled exposure. The psych teacher, also a petrified arachnophobe, had participated in a study that slowly acclimated her to the presence of spiders. Five difficult hours after the study began, she was holding a tarantula. The spider's name was Therese, she told us; I played with her for hours. You can overcome any fear, she told us, but first you have to try.
Then let's say that this was a very specific kind of arachnophobia, an arachnophobia not of spiders but of a different kind of creature.
As it was happening I thought how I might write this one day: the silence of the night like a black vacuum, the two kinds of cries we were making, the vast space and difference between them. The future-tense writing happening in my head was not a calculation so much as it was a consolation to the present moment, the knowledge that one day this would be happening in the past tense. The face above me was familiar, a face that had kissed me, dated me, and broken up with me a few months prior. His fingerprints were stamped red onto my skin like a burn, one hand clenching snakes of hair, the other clasping my neck like a brace. Held in this position I was nothing more than my body, my body reduced to nothing more than an open mouth. I tried many times to crawl away and was pulled closer by the steel hand at the back of my neck. At a certain point, I let my body go entirely limp.
After it was over there was nobody to sit with me but him. He rubbed my back and kissed my mouth, and I kissed him back the way a teen seeking alcohol, or a child sugar, might consume even the very worst specimen of a thing—out of blind desperation. I fell asleep in his arms because the idea of being alone was worse. Or perhaps, in these acts of intimacy, I was already agreeing to rewrite the script. Perhaps I was thinking, without really thinking it, I can be okay with this. Look how much he enjoyed himself. Look how much I do not care. How easily I could disappear into the floor.
The decision to squash a spider is always a complicated one. The spider, with its eight-legged squabble, has the strength to lift a leg and make a person cringe, but the person has a greater capacity for damage. This may be empowering in theory, but is difficult to enact in practice. It becomes even more complicated when the spider has a face that you know. Even if you do decide to squash your spider, it might be trickier than you originally imagined. It might prove systematically ineffective, might leave your hand hitting the counter, ringing out in pain.
So I bided my time. I waited a few months and then, on a Wednesday afternoon, confronted him. It was a planned meeting, initiated at my request. We met at an outside picnic bench. It was sunny. I told him exactly what he had cost me, nothing more or less. I could not meet his eyes and not because of the sun. He did not try to meet mine. Instead, our eyes lingered diplomatically on my hands held forth between us, shaking; not unlike a peace offering, but also not unlike a river without a bridge, uncrossable. At times I stuck my fingers through the metal grates of the table to steady them; the holes were set wide apart and they stretched my hands into angry, bird-like claws. Sometimes I picked my nail polish off into white flakes, which piled around us like snow. Only once did I look up. Out of hunched shoulders, he said the best sorry he could, trying not to cry. His head was hung like an animal reprimanded for breaking one of the house rules. Like he was folding up into himself so he could disappear out of sight.
To do this—to procure this kind of reaction—is a privilege that is not afforded to all. Yet such an apology can also be a problem because it demands a response; it shows up and then you are expected to do something, to deal with it somehow. Accept or reject. What may seem like an opportunity for agency can also become another burden on the victim to make yet another decision.
I have been responsible for the killings of many spiders, at times when I was impatient or afraid, and felt that my safety had to be put first. I have squashed them under shoes and science textbooks, with wads of toilet paper and under blasts of faucet water in the sink. I have smashed them repeatedly, long after they were dead, just to make sure.
But I had never thought much of it. I had never thought that it might be possible to want to squash a spider—to loathe them, to feel their itchy crawl caught in your gag reflex—and yet to mourn their minor injuries, to feel a pang as if their paper cuts were your own. In that moment, the man before me was not a spider, but another soft animal; a boy catching sight of his reflection and seeing himself as I did, cruel and eight-legged, an object of fear.
"This is not the right time for empathy," counseled my Rabbi, his face reddening on my behalf when I confided in him. But my empathy did not mean forgiveness, nor was it designed for the benefit of anyone but myself. If I empathized with my spider, I was no longer the only victim in the situation. I could reverse the power dynamics between us and pretend that he was the injured party, that his actions had hurt him as much, if not more, than they had hurt me.
This line of thinking may have been comforting, but no amount of self-protective projection can erase the agony of fear that follows such an incident. This is how it feels. Wake up. Convince yourself there will be no spiders outside your bedroom door. Eat breakfast. Lock the door behind you, take your usual commute to work. Already you see some small ones—spiders that yell things, come here sweetie; some that don't say anything but just stare, and the way their eyes look you up and down they are spiders; there are wolf spiders who raise two spindly legs to their mouths, someone taught them how to wolf whistle. There are spiders who do not even realize the ways they make you scream silently inside. Damage can occur without malice, without intent, without awareness. That does not make it hurt any less.
Far worse than strange spiders are the invisible threats of familiar ones, ones who you have come to know as safe. Spiders can be very good at camouflage. You walk back home and they are there in your doorframe, lingering when you try to close it, asking are you sure it's a no? as if they know your answers better than you do. Spiders can have cute smiles and be good sons. They are your friends, your bosses, your teachers, your coaches. Spiders have pastimes just like the rest of us, have houses, pay taxes, buy groceries. It is easy to see only what you'd like to see.
I still squash spiders just as regularly as I did before, but first I take a moment to sit with my spider for a while, because it would be an awful thing to be a spider and know yourself as such. That, too, is a kind of pain. We met once more, my spider and I, and I told him this—exactly what I have just told you. You're a spider, I said. It was true. You can overcome any fear, but first you have to want to.
Published June 17th, 2018
Julie Lunde is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her poetry and prose have most recently appeared in Underwater New York, IthacaLit, and The Esthetic Apostle. She is a recipient of the Arch Street Press prize and received her BA from Northwestern University.
From MIT: “In their recent talk at the MIT Museum ‘Reverberations: Spiders and Musical Webs,’ CAST Visiting Artist Tomás Saraceno and MIT Professor Markus Buehler (Professor and Head, Civil and Environmental Engineering, MIT) discussed their research in materials and structures inspired by the intricate geometry of spiderwebs. Using the data from his digitally captured three-dimensional spider web, Saraceno reconstructed the web 16 times its original size for his installation 14 Billions (Working Title), 2010. Buehler’s lab created a computer simulation of the data set generated by this project to reveal how the strands behave and interact in the physical web.”