I hadn’t begun to worry about the locusts until the end of winter. Sure, I had a peripheral awareness that a brood of cicadas was expected to swallow up the Northeast come summer. And I knew that, as an avowed insectophobe, I’d be in trouble when they came. (I once asked a cable guy to stop installing my high-speed Internet and please, please, please kill the spider that had crawled into my closet). But winter was so bone-splintering cold that the threat of summer and all its beasties seemed like a dimly remembered dream.
The locusts became real to me one evening as a friend and I walked my dog Tova, our boots treading on the hard-frosted ground. She asks me how I’ll keep Tova from eating them.
“They’re canine delicacies,” she says with a laugh, driving her heel into the grass to make the crunch-crunch-crunch of snapped shells, teeth clicking shut. She describes a Biblical plague: Cicadas clustering on light poles and canopies; flying dumbly into car windshields, into people’s open mouths. They are prehistoric monsters muscling their way through the earth: fat-bellied locusts with hot coals for eyes.
It takes a lot to honest-to-God disgust me. But I am queasy as my friend continues, with a little sister’s impishness, rhapsodizing about cicadas tangling in human hair, glomming on to dog fur, fucking themselves to death along screen doors. She clinches my shoulder, turns her fingers into creepy-crawly bug legs: “And then they land on you!”
I feel molten. I feel frozen. A white star erupts in front of my eyes; its combustion echoes in my ears. I speak in a tiny, teary voice — a child’s voice. I say the one thing I learned not to say as a child: “Please stop.”
* * *
I’ve spent most of my life being tough. I’m the friend you ask to come over when you have to call the cops on the neighbors who won’t stop fighting; the one who coaches you in negotiating for a new car, a raise. I’ve slept through storms and piloted my car for blocks with a shredded tire. But a GIF of two cicadas shagging reduces me to a 1950s housewife in a “Tom & Jerry” cartoon, standing on a chair and shrieking.
My fear takes the shape of the cicadas’ song: a single click before it becomes an ever-present buzz, and then, for weeks on end, it’s a full-throated thrumming. I read articles that follow the same essential structure: a recitation of the facts (cicadas usually come out every 17 years, but this is Brood II, which is different from the one that emerged in 2004; and the apocalyptic noise they’re known for is actually just an en masse mating call); quotes from local scientists who welcome them (something about “the miracle of nature” and the cycle of life writ small); and, of course, the stories of people who also dread their coming. A simple Google search for “fear of cicadas” yields more than a million results; there are more than two million hits for “phobia of cicadas.”
This year, the cicadas coincide with a triptych of human-born pestilence. Like Brood II, the Adam Lanzas and the Tsarnaev brothers and the Ariel Castros of the world were always underfoot. Each of them was somebody’s next-door neighbor: that too-smart-for-his-own-good kid you felt sorry for, even though he creeped you out; that goofy dude in your group project who occasionally got political on Twitter; that quiet guy who had a great barbeque recipe. But they were always primed and ticking, always ready to emerge from these pale identities and into a monster’s green shell.
Perhaps this hoopla and la-dee-dah about these stinger-less, venom-less slugs of bugs is our national equivalent of a monster movie: reveling in our terror at something that can actually never hurt us. In a few short weeks, the cicadas will be dead husks moldering on the ground. There is no way to gauge how far, or for how long, the aftershocks of what these men did will rumble on.
So maybe these fluff pieces are really just turning the pressure valve on our national dread, and maybe that’s why, in each of them, the cicaphobes’ dread is potent, yet inchoate. We hear from mothers who can’t cross a cicada-strewn parking lot to take their babies for a check-up; women who load up on ramen, frozen foods and toilet paper so they don’t have leave their apartments; Spanish interpreters who beg their bosses to let them work from home for over a month. The severity of their phobia is always vividly, even salaciously, described, yet the causes of such catastrophic fears seem insipid, almost babyish: Things with that many legs squick me out; flying insects can dive-bomb me out of nowhere; their sound is so loud, it feels like they’re inside my apartment.
Though these women’s fears (and they are, almost always, women) are played for laughs, I know how primal their terror is. I find ways to work the cicadas into almost every conversation: If a woman behind me in the check-out line muses that we’ve had an unusually chilly spring, I say that at least it’s kept the cicadas at bay. If a co-worker laments the sudden frequency of storms, I tell them to be grateful for the rain; it’s held the cicadas underground. And if anyone tries to tell me that cicadas are “just loud, but harmless,” I spin images of insects covering car windshields, causing pile-ups. I lose myself to this strange rapture of fear.
Some of the pieces I read have a joking tone, with descriptions of fearless dachshunds and urban homesteader types alike noshing on unique sources of protein. Others are more proscriptive: Walking through a cicada swarm? Distract yourself by tallying up each red car you see. Haunted by their constant call? Count backwards from ten.
Normally, I’d take comfort in such simple, tangible actions. I buy my snow shovels in October, and even though I have a GPS, I still print out directions from MapQuest — just in case. But when it comes to the cicadas, I am inconsolable. One day, I’ll wake up, and they’ll be out in force. The threat of their presence is as constant, yet indeterminate, as my father’s bad moods. They’re coming, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
* * *
Phobias are often rooted in childhood terror, and mine is no different. When my father was drunk enough (which was often enough), he would chase bugs with fireplace pokers or screwdrivers. One particularly unfortunate spider met the end of a hammer. Still alive, it skidded down my bedroom wall, its broken legs leaving a greasy smear. It twitched across the carpet, pulling itself along with its last good legs — toward somewhere, anywhere, God knows where, just away from that shadowy hulk with the swinging fists.
My father might have been the man who read me tales of King Arthur and snuggled me to sleep. But he was also capable of an indelible cruelty that didn’t need 17 years to come bursting out of some dark canal, only a few neat whiskeys.
I would not be as pathetic as that insect. I would get out, away from him. As a teenager, I babysat and dog-walked with abandon; I slung coffee and cut flowers and hoarded every cent I made so I was ready for a bus ride out of town and a down payment. My fake ID wasn’t (just) for cigarettes and booze. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t plan for — except for the job market, and the cicadas.
In 2004, the last time I dealt with cicadas, I was a newly minted college graduate, unmoored and uprooted, without prospects and with no place to sleep but my childhood bedroom (which still had pictures of Johnny Depp taped to the wall). At supper each night, my parents and I worked our jaws around overcooked London broil and benign lies about how good the dinner was.
I was spinning alone in my own cold orbit, propelled by an amorphous, ever-present sense of dread. Every day, I woke up on the edge of an apocalypse. I’d lost my future: a series of increasingly chic apartments before I found a rent-to-own; a job that would let me feign overwork during holidays so I could enjoy “Friendsgivings” and Christmases at the movies. I was curdling on my mother’s floral-print sofa.
Then the cicadas came, and with them, a true sense of the end of days. My daily dread — waiting to see which father would come through the front door: the man who taught me to ride a bike or the surly drunk — found a beady-eyed outlet. They blanketed buildings and sheathed windshields; they drowned out power lines. Through their sheer ubiquity, they conquered everything we’ve constructed to make ourselves feel permanent, invincible.
Their unceasing song turned my family’s house into a tuning fork. Everything pulsed and hummed. I had known a time of no escape before: I spent my girlhood suffocated by a force of nature. My father never slammed the front door — he didn’t need to. The house still shuddered. His moods announced themselves with the swell of pressure that precedes a thunderstorm. No escape meant shrinking into corners, hands thrown over my face; it was the truth that this ends when he says it ends.
That summer, I had two choices: sit across a table from a man who’d broken my nose and ask him how his day was, or sleep on the streets and feel the cicada legs needling through my hair, feel their thick, sticky bodies along my bare skin (and know that if I chose the latter, frankly, they’d be the least of my terrors). I was caught between plagues.
One afternoon, I heard his lawnmower cut through the din. Though we’d watched news report after news report warn that a motor’s drone could be mistaken as a mating call, my father rolled his mower over the grass, over mounds of cicadas.
Dozens upon dozens of them flocked to the sleek metal shell of the mower, only to be sucked inside the blades. That crunch-crunch-crunch was deafening: all those tiny bodies offered to a gnashing maw. My father laughed just as he had when he’d chased that spider through my room, when he crashed his hammer into my toy box and crushed my dolls’ faces.
I knew then why those bugs disgust me — it’s their aggressive helplessness, their mindless propulsion of a cycle that will only destroy them.
Nine years later, I will sit alone in my garden apartment (with its screen door that will soon become a tangle of cicada legs), and I will remember that sound of sex and death — that call for love and that sickening crunch-crunch-crunch of utter annihilation — and I will see my father’s laughing mouth.
* * *
The 2013 brood has not yet blighted Maryland, but I still follow a Facebook page called “Cicadaphobia,” which posts article after article about the cicada invasion. There are “trigger warnings” for pieces that feature particularly large — or multiple — photos of cicadas. I’ve read that exposure therapy is the best treatment for a phobia, that staring at a black-and-white photograph of a cicada, then graduating to a color picture and finally watching a video will someday, maybe, steel me to walk past trees that have been turned into throbbing lungs.
But each banner-sized image, each close-up of those hot red eyes and clear filmy wings revs my dread. I am back in my father’s house, breathing the same stale air. I want nothing more than to open the door, but the screen is a mass of black bodies. There is no way out.
I imagine walking into the office with cicadas clinging to my jacket; the image is as crisp, as lived-in as my memories of walking into homeroom with bruises under my clothes. Back then, I hid out in the open with a smile and an “everything’s fine.” Now, I’m tired of feigning that front. I count up my leave time; I wonder if, like the Spanish interpreter, I could telecommute for a month.
I don’t want to go to work and I don’t want to walk the dog if going to work and walking the dog mean that I must walk inside the cicadas’ ceaseless song. I don’t just feel bug legs on my shoulders, on my neck; I feel my father’s fingers sinking into my skin as he pulls me in for a hit, a kiss. His hot breath in my face is as potent, as pervasive, as any swarm.