On the morning of my thirty-first birthday, Rachel woke up early to make me lemon-zest pancakes from scratch. She felt an ant on her arm and looked at the box of sugar in her hand, and then I heard her scream from across the house. It’s my birthday, I thought, and fell back asleep.
She threw the box in the garbage and substituted Splenda, which was untouched. After breakfast, I did the dishes and cleaned the counters with bleach. I get a few ants every spring, I explained, embarrassed and squashing them under scraps of paper. With the counter cleared and shiny, I promised they’d be gone soon.
The next morning, I stumbled into the kitchen for yogurt and granola. As I was squeezing honey over my breakfast, I noticed a black fleck, like a hair. I held the bottle of honey up to the window. Ants would have had to shimmy their way through the tightened cap, only to drown in sixteen fluid ounces of honey. I threw it out, along with the maple syrup we’d just bought.
I’d seen ants behave this way before. When my dad was alive, I cleaned his room on one of his yearly vacations to the Philippines. Carrying a garbage bag and holding my breath until I got his windows open, I threw out his old soda cans and cookie sleeves, and I vacuumed under his computer and around his bed. I bleached his bathroom and washed his sheets. And the next morning, I went into my bathroom and found dozens of ants on my counter, clustered around a puddle under my Listerine. I’d cut off their food supply, and in desperation, they wandered into the next room, where they found and drank my mouthwash. Most were on their backs, antennae swirling dizzily from the alcohol. One was trying to walk. Gently, I slid a piece of paper under them, dropped them into the sink, and turned on the water.
This was the first time I had an ant problem since he died, but these ants were especially small, like the razor stubble was around his sink. Ant traps, I noted, and we left for her place.
Rachel lived in an old apartment in Park Slope, across the street from a new, ultramodern building with floor-to-ceiling windows and no curtains. She liked to compare it to a fishbowl. Every time she looked out her window she saw her neighbors eating dinner, getting ready for bed, walking around in their pajamas. I gave her my dad’s old binoculars.
On a date, we took the F train to Coney Island. The rides were closed for the winter, but there was an aquarium at the end of the boardwalk. I lingered near a small shark tank with three sharks, two tortoises, and a ray. It seemed a precarious mix, but the sharks just circled around and around with vacant, unfocused eyes. One tortoise faced the corner like a disciplined child, looking uneasily over its shoulder.
We watched a lobster, and agreed it was disgusting. I told her a lobster is largest animal I have ever killed intentionally. In culinary school, I was assigned to hold one down with my bare hand and split its head open with a chef’s knife. Watching that lobster in the aquarium, I was glad. It had a surly way about it, keeping its back to a corner and its claws aloft like a 19th century boxer. At least my ants were docile, like sheep. I would herd them safely outside if I could.
My kitchen sink appeared to have drooped over time, causing a slight dip in the counter and leaving a gap in the edge along the wall. That’s where the ants were coming from. I placed traps over their routes and watched them walk around them.
When ants gathered in the sink, I turned on the tap to wash them down the drain. Some ants can survive in water if they’re clustered together. They grab each other and float in a ball, which spins in the water so they can take turns breathing. These ants, as soon as the tap water hit them, started flailing around for something to grab. Every ancient religion has a great flood, over which each god grieves. I pretend the water is herding the ants out of the kitchen, giving them a shot to be castaways underground. The alternative is my thumb and a scrap of paper.
“I just killed the biggest ant I’ve ever seen,” Rachel said one morning, pointing to a crumpled paper towel on the counter. “I think it might be the queen.”
“I think queens are pear shaped,” I said, remembering an encounter from my childhood that gave me nightmares.
Since these ants were unusually tiny, I assumed she saw a regular ant that had wandered inside. But I looked up ant queens on the internet, and she was right. I had covered the gap behind the sink in Combat Ant Gel, which advertises effectiveness
against the colony as a whole. It’s slow-acting, so the ants could eat it and still bring some back to the queen. Like most insecticides, its active ingredient is a nerve agent. In humans, a nerve agent causes nausea, burning of the eyes or lungs, followed by persistent seizures. Death comes later via asphyxiation, after the lungs stop working.
The morning after application, scores of dead ants lay on top of each other, like they’d washed up on a beachfront behind my sink. A few marched over the fallen. There were so many more than I’d expected. Now their queen lay among them, wrapped in a white paper towel, which I placed softly with all the other paper towels at the top of the garbage.
We watched The Matador on my computer. I was at the refrigerator, getting something to drink. Tiny ants still wandered my bare, spotless kitchen counter. For dinner, I had prepared our food on the table.
On the television, a Spaniard hid a sword behind a cape, pointing it at a watchful, bleeding bull. Its horns reminded me of ant antennae, the matador’s cape of paper towels. As I stood over the counter and flattened some in quick, decisive motions, I imagined that they never saw it coming. When I killed one, I tried to get the onlookers right away, in case they understood.
Later, as I washed the dishes, stragglers circled my kitchen counter. They were gathering in the halo of light under the lamp, maybe twenty ants, all loitering around one spot. My conjecture was that they were lost without their queen and following the light. I’d never seen so many in one place without purpose. The ones moving slowest, I guessed, were either poisoned or starving. Given their unusual clustering, I took out my near-empty can of Raid and held it over the counter. Only vapors came out. The aroma of insecticide filled the kitchen.
There are an estimated ten quadrillion ants on the planet.
I reached for a rolling pin.
Ten minutes later, a dozen more were in the same spot. One crawled up the lamp toward the bulb. They reminded me of islanders trying to appease a volcano.
When an ant dies of poison, it folds its legs under its body and drops its antennae, making a compact husk. In the light, one ant hovered over a husk. It started to walk away, then circled the husk several times before walking right up to it and, almost touching, stopped.
My big head was right over him, and his little head was right over the corpse. He waved his left antenna, then his right, over and over, the way an EKG machine records the wavy signals of a heart. He did this for a long time.
A week ago, its colony was thriving on sugar. Now they were decimated, the few survivors exploring a horror show of curled-up bodies on a Formica countertop.
Another ant approached. The first ant snapped out of it, and they walked away toward the sink. I left the lamp on, crept quietly upstairs, and crawled into bed.
Jonathan Seneris is an MFA graduate of The New School and is originally from New Jersey.