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The Year of the Cockroach

Oct. 24, 2014


Dumbarton Oaks Centre for Byzantine Studies

In 1978 I had a one-year-long junior fellowship at the Dumbarton Oaks Centre for Byzantine Studies in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington D.C. , during the course of which my ex and I were housed in a nearby apartment building otherwise known as the Roach Motel. There are a number of things I remember about that year, which I spent mostly writing a first draft of The Virgin of Bright Leaf, my perennial work-in-progress, all the while pretending to write my PhD thesis on the life and times of Athanasius of Alexandrea.

Yes, I know.


Very Bad.

There are a number of things I remember about that year.

There was the couple next door who, at least three times a week, fought until the wee hours of the morning and, what was particularly annoying, endlessly and stupidly repeated themselves, as in:

“You shut up!”

“No, you shut up!”

"No, YOU shut up!"

Around 2 a.m. I would march out into the hall, bang on their door, and yell, “Will you both PLEASE just shut up!” at which point this noisome twosome, rendered momentary allies by the intervention of a third party, would yell in concert, “No, YOU shut up, you bitch!” “Go to Hell!” “Mind YOUR own business!” “Yeah! Fuck off, why don’t you?”

Then there was Naomi (her real name), the wife of one of my fellow Fellows. For some reason I could not fathom, Naomi LOATHED me. Now I’m at a complete loss when it comes to handling people whose dislike of me is palpable. Not that I’m actually nice, but I do expend a considerable amount of effort trying to appear nice.

So why did Naomi hate me? Did she know I wasn’t really working on my dissertation all those long hours holed up in the library? Or was she just one of those Mean Girls, the kind I might have learned to deal with in high school had I ever been truly present while in high school.

In the end I dealt with the problem of Naomi in the same mature and reasoned way I’ve dealt with similar situations my entire adult life: every time I heard her voice in the hall, I ducked into the bathroom and cowered there until I judged the coast to be clear. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time in that bathroom. Which begs the question – why was Naomi, who didn’t have a fellowship, prowling around the Institute all day long, terrorizing aspiring novelists?

Then there was the Fellow who shamed me for being so steeped in arcana that I was blissfully unaware of current events. I cannot conjure his face or recall his name, but, entirely because of the scorn he heaped upon me, I bought a subscription to Time Magazine and made a pact with myself that I would read it cover to cover each week – including the sports stories. Thirty six years later, I still subscribe to Time and I still read it cover to cover each week. Now, there will be those among you who say, “Time Magazine! What a terrible rag! You should be reading The Economist!” To you I say, “Next lifetime. The current me is not bright enough to read and digest The Economist and my faculties are growing dimmer by the minute.”

The strongest memory I have of that year, however, is of my ex gleefully sprinting around our perpetually Raid perfumed apartment, trying to dust random cockroaches with boric acid; the exterminator, a frequent visitor to the Roach Motel, had explained to him that, since cockroaches are "casual cannibals", there was a good chance that a roach dusted with boric acid would find itself the dinner of a second roach, resulting in the deaths of both -- a kind of two-for-one. I suppose it empowered my ex, gave him a sense of purpose, made him feel less helpless in the face of such overwhelming odds. In the meantime, within the walls and in all the cracks and crevices of the apartment, a gazillion slithery cockroaches roiled and churned.

And that, in a nutshell, was 1978, my year at Dumbarton Oaks: novel writing by stealth, BAD neighbors, !NAOMI! and an insecticidal spouse. Oh, and Jonestown -- the cover story of the first issue of Time I ever received.

But not the last.

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