Roach Farm by JT Baldassarre
JT Baldassarre’s “Roach Farm” is one of three winners of the 2021 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award, judged by Ira Sukrungruang.
What propels the essay “Roach Farm” isn’t the roaches planning their scratchy escape or the narrator’s day-in, day-out job at the “bug factory.” It is the narrator herself and how she is sorting out her life and relationship. It is how the essay moves breathlessly through days, through the pandemic; how we are given immediate access to her insecurities, her fears. In many ways, this is an essay that captures the neuroticism of this time when the mind revs and revs and sometimes stalls. And the roaches…oh, the roaches. —Ira Sukrungruang
We had gone to bed late, on usual terms: “Let’s just talk about this in the morning.” That night we did what we called “No Touch Sleep,” a nickname for exactly what it sounds like, lying next to each other like angry pieces of wood. I’d asked him a while back, in September, on a slap-in-the-mouth cold evening out back, if he resented me. He said yes, I said me too. It felt good to agree on something. We smoked in silence then, the tectonic plates beneath our relationship quietly rearranging themselves.
My phone had died overnight, I woke up stiff straight without an alarm, one hour late and forty minutes away from the factory. I was working a restaurant job and a remote job too, so I was chronically tired and late and obligated. I checked his phone. There was a notification, the white rectangle with soft corners, something about Biden touching a young girl’s back.
“I’m so late,” I said. “So fucking late.” I was crying. He rubbed my arm.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s my second month.”
He lifted his hand from my arm, placed it gently on the mattress.
“You should get dressed then,” he said.
There was a rave in my head. If I touched my forehead I’d feel it pushing back against my hand like a baby kicking, but joyless. I had drunk a full bottle of wine the night before, which I’d hid behind his couch a few days back so that no one would take it. All we’d done that night was watch a movie with a couple people, but I was hammered by 7:00 p.m. He used to sometimes take my booze and dangle it right out of reach, laughing, telling me I was his hoochie mama. We loved each other raucously and conditionally.
“God fucking shit.”
“It doesn’t matter, JT.” He gave me a look of confusion and concern. There was a distance between us in moments like this one. He didn’t understand where my mind went, or how to retrieve it.
“How the fuck am I gonna get there without a fucking phone?” I should’ve known how to get there by now, I’d been driving there every morning for two months, but somehow I didn’t even know which highway I was supposed to be taking. To memorize a routine is to feel comfortable with its consistent presence, which I wasn’t, in this new city, in this new life. I refused to look around, really.
In a half sleep, he said, “Take mine.”
I got dressed and walked to the door. “I love you. I love you so much,” he said, reaching his arms out to me. I stood in the doorframe and looked at him, pale and thin, reaching to me like a kid in the dark. I knew what his arms, long and handsome, would feel like around me just from looking at them, the phantom limb of a familiar, long-term love.
I ran out to my car in the darkness. It was 6:00 a.m. in Ohio, heartless cold and not gonna get any friendlier. The highway was long and dark. I smoked to stay up, drinking a two-day-old McDonald’s coffee.
Tino was an older Italian guy, he ran a bug factory out of his basement for a couple years and I guess enough people in Ohio had lizards that he moved it to a warehouse and made a real business of it.
There was a sign on the building, it said “Guns are permitted” and “This is a politically incorrect establishment.” I’d interviewed at the factory two months back, on a hot day in August. It was 11:00 a.m. I saw the signs and felt a little fear, which hardly ever happens in the morning. I was sweating through my jeans so it looked like I’d peed myself. Tino took me to his office, a plastic folding table in a dark room lit up by three or four neon chameleons.
“You’re Italian,” he said. “You’ve got the last name.” He hired me that day.
The factory was a squat, one-story building that smelled like rotten fruit and only had two windows. The first room was almost pitch black, and stacked floor to ceiling with a couple hundred storage bins. On my first day, Tino’s son Lorenzo gave me a tour of the place. He was handsome and quiet. I asked Lorenzo, “What’s in the bins?” and he said, “The roaches.”
There were a few hundred Dubia roaches in every tub waiting to get sorted, packaged, sent out, and hunted by reptiles. Dubia roaches are medium-sized, dark brown to black, and nonhissing, bless their hearts. They’re sexually dimorphic, which means that the males and females exhibit distinctly different characteristics.
The men are thinner, with wings. They move faster. They are also much easier to catch. The women are wide-bodied, softer, slower, and better at hiding. The men could fly, though they historically had no interest, and I never saw one try. The women had small, prepubescent wings if you looked closely, but no musculature to successfully fly, though I watched them attempt it many times.
It was so quiet in the roach room it was hard to believe it contained thousands of living things. I said “It’s so quiet” and Lorenzo stopped, pointed up, said “Listen.” He was right, if you listened hard enough you could hear the roaches’ legs scraping at the bottoms and sides of the bins.
Dubias are native to Central and South America, and very good at climbing trees. Imagine them: masterfully walking up some trunk the width of four humans, tucking their tiny sharp claws into the bark searching for hollows of decay, their favorite food. These roaches the size of a knuckle working towards the enormous green fold of leaves in the sky. They don’t know how to climb smooth plastic, though, so they were easy to imprison. All you had to do was walk into the roach room and listen for a minute. They wanted to escape as much as you would. Their desperation sounded a lot like rain. “That’s nice,” I said after a moment of listening, and Lorenzo said, “For you.”
I got to the factory almost two hours late, and ran in, saying “I’m so, so sorry” at Tino.
“Just clock in,” he said.
“I’ll stay late to make up for it.”
“If you want.”
I put on some gloves and went to the worm room, where I began every shift. I worked with Christine, a short thirty-year-old with long, curly red hair, who basically only talked about her wedding. She was quiet and calm, though if I asked her questions for long enough she’d come out with a crazy story about hitting some asshole guy with a baseball bat or something.
Christine was basically a beetle doula. She trained me in the art of ushering the newborn worms into their final beetle stage. Our job was to put each free-roaming worm into its own little plastic cup, count every cup, put them in boxes, and check on them daily to keep track of their metamorphoses. Each day they would shed a new skin onto the bottom of the cup like they couldn’t decide on an outfit. Once the worms had spawned into beetles, we uncupped them, put them in a big black bin, and weighed them out.
While we cupped, me and Christine watched a soap called The Teacher on her phone in silence. It was about a lady pedophile teacher. Each episode was cut up by ads. It was two months before the election, the Black Friday of politics, most of the advertisements were selling Biden and Trump for cheap. A last-ditch effort to win over the people who were still deciding if they were fed up or not.
The ads always came across like overbaked infomercials or old-people diss tracks. There was something slutty about it, an old dude interrupting our TV time to be like, “You want me.” We just wanted to watch our soap. Me and Christine’d just gotten to the scene where a teacher and her student finally hook up in a car. The screen went black, then faded into a montage of Biden’s face. Something about growing up working class, a desperate appeal, though he’d been a millionaire for longer than he’d been working class, and the other guy had been a billionaire the whole time.
“God,” Christine said.
“The episode was really heating up.”
She shook her head, dangled her face parallel to the floor, shook her hair out so it almost touched the tiles, and gathered it up into a stupidly tight ponytail. The commercial ended.
“You don’t like Biden?”
“Fuck that,” she said. A Progressive commercial was next, so annoying. “You know the wedding venue costs eleven thousand dollars?” Christine asked.
“Have you ever thought about just going to a courthouse?”
She looked at me like I couldn’t be saved. “That’s not romantic.”
We finished the episode and I put on my headphones. During that period of time, the only thing I was listening to was a couples counseling podcast. Over the course of my and his relationship, I’d gotten really obsessed with the mystery of closeness, the idea that no matter how intertwined people were, there would always be a distance. He let me tap his vein, but there was a limit, I couldn’t bleed him out. If it were up to me, I would’ve lived inside his brain. This episode was about a narcissist and an empath. “In order for you to make this marriage work,” said the therapist, an Eastern European lady who must’ve had an immaculate marriage and sex life, “you have to be willing to transcend yourselves.”
I took off my gloves, went to the bathroom, and opened his text messages. He’d given me his phone as a gesture. I knew I’d break that sanctity the moment I was alone with it. His best friend had texted him something about a plan they had that night. They were very close. The best friend was nearly a member of our relationship, which even I learned to appreciate. It kept me and my boyfriend from admitting that we didn’t know how to talk to one another. I knew that he would choose the friend over me.
He had no female friends, and nearly only straight men in his life too. He’d always existed in a vaguely and, in college, literally, fraternal context. He insisted that he’d never felt a kinship to masculinity. He curated his identity with what felt like an intentional bent towards femininity. He was afraid of himself, I think.
I scrolled down to May, back up to October, down to July. I paused, read. “I wish we could’ve tried this out in the real world.” I didn’t even read her response, I just read through the blue, overcome by the strange feeling that I was close to him, to being him. Both of us alone in a room in Ohio, hunched over this very same phone, this very same conversation, fingers contemplating. I went back into the beetle room and kept sorting.
“All good in here?” Tino stood in the doorframe. Christine looked up at him, finished her text, put her phone down.
“This batch is more dead than the other,” Christine said. The recent worm shipments we’d been getting were at least a third dead. Worms went from pus color to pitch black pretty soon after death. They also stank like human corpses, so opening the new boxes was pretty dismal, just a bunch of black-crusted worms crowd-surfing on a sea of living ones.
“Fuck.” Tino walked over, stared into his livelihood.
“Yeah, mine have all been pretty dead,” I said.
Tino swore for a couple minutes, then left the room. I turned back to my worms, distracted by what I’d read, and accidentally knocked all my cups to the floor.
The worms broke free, moving nasty and fast towards the door. How they’d perceived which way was out, I don’t know. I was tripping out watching the floor squirming. Meanwhile Christine had gotten a broom and was sweeping up the worms, singing a Christmas carol in mid-September.
It was 12:00 p.m. I moved to the roach room.
“Hi there.” Mo waved to me from his stool, positioned over a bucket of roaches.
“How are ya?” he asked.
I lifted a bin off the ground, placed it on the sorting table.
“Do you think it’s appropriate to text your ex?”
Mo didn’t answer.
“Like, romantic kind of stuff?” I continued. “Has that happened to you?”
Mo was the oldest guy who worked at the factory. Sixty-five, maybe. His head was a perfect circle. Mo’s eyes were big and blue, he always looked sweet and hopeful, and he essentially was, from what I could tell. We sorted roaches in the same room, just the two of us.
Our job was to sift through the fuck bins and separate the adult males and females, who, after successfully making babies, would be weighed, packaged, and shipped out. Sometimes they’d spend full days in transport. Cockroaches were a convenient export. They gravitated towards warm, dark areas anyway, even in the wild.
Once the adult roaches were airlifted and sent over to the shipping room, me and Mo would spend hours picking through the sawdust at the bottom of the bins to find all of the newborns, who were never bigger than a tooth. We’d dump the babies onto a multilayered metal sieve. Each layer of the sieve had different-sized holes. The smallest babies were tiny enough to fall through to the bottom layer. The second-smallest roaches fell to the second-bottom layer, and you know. By the end of the process, we’d have sorted all the roaches based on size and newness in order to await their growth into adults, so they could also fuck and be sent to death.
It was hard to talk over the fans in the sorting room. From what I could hear, Mo was a hairdresser. He had his own business about thirty minutes west of the farm. He told me he’d run his shop with his wife of many decades. During COVID, Mo’s business took a hit, so Tino, his hunting buddy, invited Mo to come work at the factory whenever he wanted.
The first time we met, Mo mentioned he’d seen the Biden sticker on the back of my car. Politics, especially that fall, had become so divisive that it felt important to indicate who you sided with even on the highway. Sometimes it felt to me like an embarrassing virtue system, but I still bought the sticker.
“Is that your Prius?” he’d said.
“Oh yeah. Yeah it is.”
“Thought so. I like it.” Mo, without saying it, was pledging allegiance to my beliefs, to the tramp stamp on the ass of my car.
“It’s amazing, amazing mileage, great gas situation.” I didn’t know fuck all about cars, but the gas situation really was great, objectively.
That was weeks ago. Now, we were good friends. “Like, this is someone you’ve been with for two years,” I continued.
“I’m not sure,” Mo said after a bit. I accidentally ripped off a roach’s wing. It writhed in pain and vomited a little orange milk into my hand, a common roach response to stress. Orange because of the fresh oranges and carrots we fed them every day. “It probably depends,” Mo said.
I went outside to have lunch. I’d packed myself a full pepper, a full cucumber, and a warm yogurt. I stole some of the roaches’ oranges and carrots. Derek was outside already.
“Do you think it’s okay to text an ex?” I asked him.
Derek thought for a moment. “Sorry, I’m high,” he said.
Me and Derek were becoming friends slowly. He had “Go away” tattooed across his knuckles, and didn’t speak very fondly of his twin sister.
Besides our age and the nicotine thing, Derek and I essentially had nothing in common, except that he dressed in a way that was familiar to me, an art student with an indecipherable background that I somehow knew must only be a few degrees removed from my own. This felt like a certain protection to me in an unfamiliar space, though Derek very clearly couldn’t have cared less whether I lived or died. He was gay, and had been on what he described as a “national Cleveland bang tour” for years.
A couple days later, we were out there smoking again. It was on Pizza Wednesday, and Tino had gotten a mushroom pizza for all of us because Derek was a vegetarian. We’d finished eating and still had to weigh out a couple shipments of roaches before the end of the day, but we had a nice boss who let us abuse our privileges.
“I found a Blue Lives Matter mug today in the cabinet.”
I said Oh, he said Yeah, I said Fuck.
“I don’t feel comfortable being gay here,” Derek said. “I’ve heard people say shit too.”
“Like what shit?”
“Do they know you’re gay?”
“I haven’t told anyone.”
And then Derek looked down at his phone. He pressed his fingers hard into his palm. We stood in silence.
“I read my other boyfriend’s texts too,” I said. “My first one. But he was cheating on me, so that was actually really positive.”
“But this time it’s different, I think. I’m just worried I didn’t respect his privacy.”
“I guess you didn’t.” It was hard for me to understand why people bothered putting up walls, how they were able to keep their own secrets.
I drove to his house after work. It was midafternoon and he and his best friend were watching Godzilla. Over the past couple years, he’d taught me how to relax. He’d convince me to skip class, to smoke a joint and watch a couple movies in a row. Make nachos, sit in his backyard and chain-smoke with little guilt, read next to one another, though we couldn’t get through a page without talking. We spent a lot of time getting high and going to the movies, me sticking a hand up the sleeve of his shirt and us drinking our secret wine, imagining the fuck we’d close the night with, or at least I was.
These moments of peace used to punctuate the intensity of our excitement about each other. More and more, they were becoming the apex of our relationship, and more and more, we were sharing them with a group of his male friends that seemed surprised by how much I talked. I worked overtime around them. The repetition of my decision to guiltlessly unwind and party started feeling like shit. I spent most of my time in his house. They smoked inside, I smoked inside, the air was almost unbreathable, but I had grown a kind of gill at that point. Anyone who didn’t smoke was encouraged not to critique the way things were.
I walked in and sat down on the couch beside him. We watched Godzilla.
“Can we go up to your room?” I whispered to him halfway through.
“We’re in the middle.”
He had revealed to me, over time, that he hated lying in bed when the sun was up. It was something we’d done a lot when we first got together. In bed, I could turn into the pillow if I felt shy. We could have sex or close our eyes or be moved just by the privacy of being naked together. Sometimes, lying like that is less intimate than finding a way to talk through a whole dinner, to look at someone from across a table without flinching.
Over quarantine, we’d fallen basically out of touch. He’d told me over and over again that he was too depressed to text or call, that I didn’t understand him or his depression or any of that. We’d fight on the phone, not even about anything really. Just wanting things from one another.
He was from Cleveland so I’d moved there, after all that.
Before things fell apart, when I was still at school and he’d just moved back to Cleveland, moving seemed like a natural next step. Later, it was just the completion of a promise I’d made to myself before shit went down. He’d ask me, over the course of my senior year, “Where do you wanna go? After.”
“Maybe Pittsburgh, I don’t know.”
“Pittsburgh is just like Cleveland,” he’d say. “Just in Pennsylvania.”
“They have a good theater scene.”
“Everywhere’s got theater.”
Almost a year later, the first night I got to Cleveland, he showed up at the doorstep of my new home, which was huge and red and ugly, a big birthmark on our otherwise vacant street right off the highway. He’d brought me a ceramic pear. It was huge and misshapen and very sweet and didn’t even fit on the mantel, but I put it there anyway. That night, he stayed for dinner and invited some friends. He left a couple hours later, and I walked him to the door. He held it open while I kissed him goodnight, and his friends filed past us. They beckoned him to the car, and he let the screen door swing shut on me. A few weeks later, my roommates and I were making a TikTok, and we must’ve shaken the mantel. The pear fell off and broke into two clean pieces.
Godzilla ended and I dragged him into his bedroom. There was always a mountain of clothes on his bed, which took up his entire room, which smelled like cigarettes, which we’d smoke in there before bed. His roommate’s cat, Vivian, sat at his windowsill, watching the birds calmly and wanting to murder them.
I lay down on his bed and started crying. He sat next to me, leaned against the wall. He was looking down at me, I was being a wet pancake.
I didn’t tell him I read the texts but “Give me reasons to trust you” I was saying over and over again. I was doing this shit all the time, totally possessed by the terrible feeling that our relationship was defined by the things we didn’t tell one another. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” I said that too. Sorry was a reflex that year, a protection against the risk of being perceived as unsavory while still being unsavory.
Then his mom came over. She lived in Louisville, taught in Ohio, and visited for dinner often, she loved him so much. She always brought me vegetarian options. I wiped my face and went downstairs to spend the night trying to prove, both to her and myself, that he and I were being good to one another.
One time, one of his friends looked at us and said, “God, I love you guys together.”
“You can take a picture, but it’ll be $500K,” I’d said. “If that’s cool.” I would’ve killed, though, to be inside that guy for a second, to believe what he was seeing.
Multiple times a week, I worked directly with the roaches who had fucked overnight. They had done their duty and given birth, and now we would send them to death. I did it a couple times a week, listening to my couples counseling podcast and crying under my mask about my own shit. I also killed mice to feed the maggots, and filmed the feedings to send to my friends.
The temperature in the factory was always seventy degrees and above, because the roaches refused to breed in temperatures below sixty-eight degrees Fahrenheit. They wanted it steamy, roaches fuck with a mood too. Mo and I dumped the two sexes into the fuck bins, turning the temperature up, and lidding the bins so they could have some privacy. It was like presiding over an insect freshman dorm.
The two sexes never interacted in a nonsexual context. They were very different, and really didn’t seem to understand one another outside of the context of multiple one-night stands with multiple fuck-bin partners. I guess I’d expected them to get coupled up, I don’t know. It was interesting to see such a reduced, in some ways more transparent, relationship between men and women. He used to tell me that I hated men, but really I just didn’t understand them. It didn’t feel completely realistic to try to bridge the inevitable chasm between me and them with a serious relationship.
I left his house after dinner and called my best friend.
“I just couldn’t admit it. That I’d read them.”
“Of course you read them.” Then she called me by my first name, which no one did except her.
“I couldn’t admit it, so I just tortured him.”
“Juliana. Juuuuliana. I would be so upset.”
“Right! Right! Fucking right!”
“Mhm. I know it.”
“I fucking know it!”
A pause and then, “But maybe it’s not what I think. Maybe I’m just completely misunderstanding him, and always have.”
“You are not.”
“I am! I am. I’m being ass. Just complete ass.”
“Well, tell him then. Tell him.”
She had known me for so long that she had a reflex sympathy for my temperament. Most other people thought I was difficult and basically delusional, even my sister and my dad. I could tell by the way they asked me clarifying questions all the time, as if to say, “Why did you do that?” without really going there.
The next morning, I was awake again at 5:00 a.m., running to my car in the cold, an unpleasant return to darkness, and the irrational fear that I’d be attacked in the three steps between my house and my car. I was not a city person, even a city that left me loads of room to find nonmetropolitan pockets, that unfurled its palm and offered me a despicable amount of natural beauty. By the time I got to the factory, the sun was rising and everything was looking pretty beautiful out there like it always did.
It was late October. Mo had quit a week before because of COVID concerns. Over time, everyone had stopped wearing their masks, or done the under-the-nose situation. Mo was the oldest guy working there, and had experienced more COVID trauma than anyone else at the factory. It had ruined his entire livelihood. Like most things, because the rest of us hadn’t been personally touched by COVID like that, we were just waiting for the go-ahead to get more lenient. It was selfish and sad, a rebellion against the desolation of the whole past year.
Occasionally, Derek and I would have deep conversations about it that consisted mostly of “Yeah, it’s fucked” while sharing a cigarette. Tino held a meeting with Mo and the rest of us, taking the pH of everyone’s comfort levels and precautionary expectations.
“I’m sorry for my blind spots,” he said.
These were conversations my boyfriend and I were having all the time. These were conversations I had had so many times I’d lost track of my opinion, if it was maturing, or even baseline logical. There was no math for it, we pretended there was, it was a deeper, more personal arithmetic. He had a lot of roommates and a lot of friends, so his house was a point of major exposure for me and my friends. My roommate was from Cleveland, so she was seeing a lot of her family, and didn’t want to wear a mask to family gatherings. My other roommate was babysitting a little kid and didn’t want to give him COVID. Here I was, at the apex of their safety, the safety of two families I’d never met, the safety of a profession, of my friend’s personal economy, and then, of course, bodies. My own too.
He’d say, “My friends and I are already so exposed at work, this is our one thing. Our one good thing.” My roommates and I were all working too, a fact he wouldn’t acknowledge. I get it more now, that survival means different things to different people. He’d say, “You’re all being elitist,” an argument he had been falling back on for the duration of our relationship, obsessed with the abstraction that he had somehow had it harder than us. Of course, we’d ended up at the same fancy school, with the same outsider complex, and the same level of institutional success at the end of it all, a degree that would buoy us for our entire professional lives. He got laid all the time at school, and I was hot and well-liked and there was endless free soda there. Ultimately, he was a frat bro and I was a groupie, how mad could we be.
So Mo was gone, and Derek had been moved into the roach room with me. We were sifting through the bins in complete silence. Tino came in to check out the situation. He kept track diligently of how many roaches were surviving.
“How we doin’ in here?”
I paused my couples counseling podcast and took off my headphones.
“Good,” I said. “How are you?”
“I’m good. Tired,” he said, in a rare instance of intimacy.
“There were some kids partying in the abandoned house next to me. Some Black kids.”
Derek and I exchanged a look of preemptive, specifically white-person “Oh shit.”
“We couldn’t sleep,” he said.
“Oh damn,” Derek said, with the hope that we might end this all here before the conversation edged into territory that would force Derek and I to make a choice.
“So I went outside,” Tino said.
“Oh god,” I said, an instinctual social awkwardness and femininity violently kneading a response out of me.
“And I knocked on the door and told them they were trespassing and I’d call the cops if they didn’t leave. And they scattered,” he said, laughing. “I was just bullshitting, but they scattered like roaches.” Derek and I were startled, whether or not we should have been, surprised in the way most white people were in the face of an aggression that had always been central to the way things were.
He said, “Oh.” Dumbfounded, which was just dumb really, a naïveté that was part of the white existence, forgiving oneself over and over again for chosen ignorance. We were allowed to be surprised.
Tino fell silent, pawing through the roaches like nothing. Derek and I exchanged a glance again, white guilt on high. The question: We know what we should do, but what should we do?
“We should’ve said something,” Derek said. It was fifteen minutes later, we were smoking outside together.
“We should’ve,” I said. I knew I wouldn’t forget our shittiness, but because it happened in front of relative strangers, I wouldn’t have to carry it as heavily either. The fact of the failure would become a secret that’d stir a questioning inside about how willing I was to activate my beliefs, but it wouldn’t carry the sting of social repercussion.
“I think I’m gonna quit,” Derek said.
I knew what my dad would say. He would say, “Next time say something. But forget about it, a job is a job.” My dad had a very particular mindset, passed down by his mother and father, Romanian and Italian immigrants, a bent towards intense endurance and stubbornness.
“Okay,” I said. “Maybe I will too.”
That night, I was lying in bed with him, my secret aching inside of me.
“I read your texts,” I said. “I read your texts with your ex and I saw everything and I read them and I read it all.”
He paused. He said, “What’d you find?”
I told him. He paused. “You know I don’t wanna be with her, right?”
“I know. I just don’t—I don’t know. I don’t trust you.”
He paused. “You shouldn’t be with someone you don’t trust.”
I paused. “Am I in your heart, still?”
“Goodnight,” I said.
Quieter, and then we slept.
The next morning, I stood at the door wrapped in a blanket as I told him to leave and he listened. Then I begged him, for the final time, not to. I felt all of these things at once. There is nothing linear about choosing to lose a person. I followed him to his car, got in, he drove me to Dunkin’ Donuts and bought me my iced coffee and my sandwich. He drove me home. I went inside.
Change, with reflection, feels like it must’ve been gradual. I know it’s got phases, that it evolves and we move on, painfully then quietly, until we choose a side and it becomes a rigid mythology. We can retell it without getting lost in the impossibility of explaining its complications and our own mistakes. But it’s not gradual really. There’s always the moment, the singular moment of breathtaking change. And what do you do, right after the revelation? Personally, I microwaved my coffee from earlier and sat on the couch. I invited my best friend over and we had wine and Indian food and went to a remote birthday party.
The next day was Derek’s last day at the factory. We had a final smoke together, not that we called it that. We weren’t close enough for ceremony. Honestly we didn’t give a fuck about one another.
“We broke up,” I said.
“Yeah. I told him about the texts.”
“With his ex. How I read them.”
“Happy quitting,” I said, taking a long pull of my cigarette.
“What’re you gonna do now?”
“Get in a van and travel.”
I hated him, actually.
A month later, the whole bottom of my car got stolen. I had no way of getting on the highway and driving to the factory anymore. It was starting to snow. The roads would be icy. I used this as an excuse to quit.
A month of desperate unemployment that happened on a green couch, accompanied by my best friend, YouTube, and ketamine, and I finally got a job helping out with COVID stuff. I was officially contributing. In reality, it was a bunch of bureaucratic bullshit, and a huge raise for me. The programs we were using to track COVID exposures in the Lower Hudson Valley were dinosaurs, totally useless in the face of controlling the virus. This felt like a health department secret, here we were claiming that this was the only way, that civilians were failing, not us. I’d call people and tell them to quarantine, they’d basically say “I have no money” or “I have a kid” or “Fuck off.” And then I’d write it all down in an Excel document, and that was that. I made so much money that year. I did a ridiculous amount of cocaine and texted him. I spent a lot of time in the basement. I walked late at night. I argued with basically everyone. I chain-smoked. It felt very different without him. I quit. I drove across the country. I moved.
Mo had said, one time towards the end of his stay at the factory, that he wanted to cut my hair. He had walked over to me and touched it.
“I love your hair,” he said. “What beautiful hair.”
“It’s so greasy,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize. It’s lovely.”
“Thank you,” I said. This old man’s hands in my hair, a forgiveness.
JT BALDASSARRE is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn, New York. In 2020, she won the James E. Michael Prize in Playwriting. She just finished filming a pilot, and is currently writing a four-part miniseries. She is also developing new personal essays and nonfiction pieces. Find her current work and contact information at her website linked above. She’s on Instagram @jtbaldassarre.
Featured image by Erik Karits courtesy of Unsplash