We're All Cockroaches

Isabella Gibbs

Boulder, CO

Fairview High School

Creative Nonfiction

I was wide awake when the sun crept up from the Congolese horizon, marveling at the humble beauty of dawn as if I’d seen it for the first time. It seemed as though God had blanketed the city with Saran-Wrap—according to my seven-year-old mind, that was the only way to account for the charming gloss of the iroko trees and static stillness of the sub-Saharan air. Golden beams of light created a lattice pattern on my coral nightgown as they met with the steel bars that guarded my bedroom window. The bars were the things that I enjoyed about the new house - although the concrete dwelling was rather plain, something had to be said for the intricate patterns of the window’s armor, twisted into looping hearts, spirals, and never-ending woven bridges. They don’t have beautiful windows back in Washington, I remarked the night we arrived in Congo. Of course, it was a single drop in an overwhelming sea of new experiences I had been thrown into with Mom’s new job in international-development, but the window bars were the only things in this country I cared to fixate on.

 

From the minute I stepped off the double-decker Air France jet a few days earlier, clutching Dad’s sweaty palm, I started understanding my parents’ warning about Africa being very different. The nearly-tangible humidity was the first thing I felt: my favorite Hello-Kitty fleece that once protected me from the frosty peril of New England Novembers was rendered useless. My eye caught on Dad, whose sweat stains were already creeping their way across the side of his Georgetown sweatshirt.

“Poor Dad,” Mom chimed in, elbowing me as she jokingly fanned him with a Skymall magazine, “but at least he won’t be able to turn down the air-conditioning and make us freeze tonight!” A chuckle escaped her glossed lips, hazel eyes crinkling as mine widened with confusion.

“Why won’t he be able to turn the air-conditioning on?”

“Honey, remember what I said about the new house? We don’t have air-conditioning… or lots of things that we had in DC,” she was using that high-pitched, over-enunciated baby voice I hated.

“I know, Mom.”

 

But I began to comprehend the reality of her comment when we arrived at the house. Our villa was surrounded by a seven-foot-tall stone wall, only penetrable by a checkered iron gate controlled by a nice Congolese man named Pascal who looked far too old to still be working. My heart felt lighter at the prospect of having what I thought was a personal bodyguard- how princess-like is that?! However, walking in, I suddenly felt like a character in one of those horror movies my cousin loved: a long ten seconds after Mom flipped the light switch, the yellowed fluorescent lights eerily flickered on, making a sinister eeeek sound. No matter how loud the noise it was, it couldn’t drive away the swarms of tawny moths that collectively covered half of each light. Red wires peeped out of the several holes that lined the stucco walls, and the smell of sulfur was so strong I could taste it. The water that emerged from the cracked bath faucet was dark brown, leaving my skin grimier than when I had gotten in.

 

Warily crawling into my bed that night, I noticed a dozen or so cockroaches lining the wall closest to me, and I heard the muffled shouts of far-away men in a language that I couldn’t understand. I missed everything about America - even the obnoxious whoosh of the air-conditioner.

Driving in our new Toyota on the first day of school, excitement fizzing in my blood as we departed the house, I was surprised to see that there were no stoplights whatsoever and driving was a sort of controlled anarchy, with my father slamming the brakes every few seconds, muttering curse words when another car cut him off. When we stopped in a traffic jam, people lining the dirt roads came up to our windows and tapped on them while begging for food, getting close enough for me to see their sunken cheekbones and hungry complexions.

 

My utopian vision of African school, complete with friends who rode on giraffes during recess, was shattered the minute my teacher might as well have uttered a grunt in an alien tongue when introducing me to the class, as my French vocabulary was limited to the word “bonjour”. Too embarrassed to utter anything back, I stayed silent the entire day as foreign phrases swirled around me a mile-a-minute, whipping around my ears as I realized I was in the eye of a hurricane of intense isolation. Big girls don’t cry. Nothing stopped the tears from oozing out of me as the boa constrictor of my mercurial life wrapped around my heart, squeezing the life out of me.

When I returned home, an Oxford Kids French-English dictionary sat on my bed. “It’s your choice to read it or not,” Dad commented as he noticed the icy glare I gave the book, the house, the country.

I decided to pick it up.

 

 

A few months later, I sat on our shabby leather sofa cheerfully munching on Nutella-toast as I half-heartedly tuned into a PBS-Kids special in French on evolution.

Morgan Freeman’s Francophone equivalent gestured towards a jar with a cockroach, the program cutting to a high-definition shot of the insect, so close that you could see the ridges on its wings and the spikes lining its legs.

“Do you see this cockroach?” he said.

The narrator went on to describe the cockroach as the most adaptable creature on the planet, with special anatomic features that would allow it to survive a nuclear-explosion.

“And the great thing about all forms of life on this Earth, not just with cockroaches,” the omniscient voice boomed, forever ingraining itself in my brain, “is that we’re all adaptable.”

 

“We’re all adaptable,” I repeated, somehow knowing that through the countless new countries and houses and schools I was yet to endure, those words would always stay true.

EDITORIAL PRAISE

The metaphor around which this piece stands is strange but affecting, the descriptions out of this world. With images so vivid, they may as well be real.

Isabella Gibb is a rising senior at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado, and this is her very first lit magazine publication! When she isn’t writing, she loves musical theater, speech and debate, playing tennis, and trying to figure out how the heck to bake at high altitude.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR