The men on the lawn looked like aliens as Michelle watched them pulling the industrial vacuuming equipment out of their van. She kicked her car door shut behind her as she looked them over- white uniforms all tucked in at the ankles and wrists like they were going into a quarantine zone or a surgery. They had parked in her driveway, behind the black sedan, and she had to park on the road. Wrangling her groceries, she tried not to look too irritated as the workers in white uniforms waved at her despite the fact that, with her arms full of bags, she obviously couldn’t wave back.
The house was one of the only ones situated on their street, small and pale with vinyl siding. It faced north and had three azaleas, two boxwood shrubs that still had the new topsoil piled around their roots near the living room windows, and the two tiny sage plant cuttings from Michelle’s mother that sat next to the sidewalk. All were bordered with diatomaceous earth.
These details, which Michelle hadn’t cared about (or even known) before, were known only to her now because of the problem that her new house had come with a few months ago. She fumbled with her keys for a moment before the door opened in front of her.
“You look angry, Mitch,” Nicole, her girlfriend, informed her as Michelle handed a few of the plastic bags to her. Michelle sighed.
“Yeah, well, the bug guys parked in my spot.”
“Don’t take it personally. We can take your car into town.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just on principle, you know? I just wish people wouldn’t do that.”
As grouchy as she felt, the gentleness in Nicole’s voice made it impossible to get too snippy. They walked into the kitchen together.
“How was the store?”
Michelle shrugged a little. “Some good, some bad. There was a pretty good bread sale, but when I was leaving, some asshole in the parking lot called me a Mexican and told me to go back where I came from.”
“It’s whatever. You know, considering most of Texas was annexed anyway, it wouldn’t even make any sense even if it was true. Besides, he had one of those Ron Paul bumper stickers, so I don’t think any important friendship was lost there.”
She heard Nicole laugh softly at her quips as she pulled out the eggs and margarine from the bag and set them on the counter. Against her better judgment, she found her eyes drawn up to the crawling, shadowy shapes on the window that faced the front yard and the bug men beyond it.
“They’re just ladybugs, baby.”
She looked back at Nicole. She was a dark-skinned, beautiful woman with almond-shaped eyes that always seemed thoughtful and kind, even when she was pissed off. Privately, Michelle thought she was probably way out of her league, if everything was evaluated by what Nicole, in her studious, teacherly way, would call mainstream cultural standards. She was hourglass-shaped and naturally toned, whereas Michelle herself was, as Nicole put it lovingly, “reubenesque.” Sometimes straight men liked to try to hit on her and scoot Michelle off like she was some kind of token fat friend, but Nicole always found a way to shut them down that made her feel a lot less irritated. It happened less since Nicole had cut her hair short, but now there was a wretched minority that tried to get her attention by talking to her about sports. It didn’t matter how much Nicole insisted she was a lesbian, most people selectively ignored it.
“I saw the bug guys outside. How long is it supposed to take?”
“I’m not sure. They said a few hours because of how bad it is. They said they’d be done by tonight.”
“Good. Hopefully this’ll finally get rid of them.”
The ladybugs had been on them like a biblical plague since they had moved into the house. They were on the walls, the floor, in the bed, in the dishes and the pantry. They had put the diatomaceous earth around the house, burned lemon candles, sprayed mint oil, vacuumed up as many as they could, but it never seemed to have an impact. They had moved in over the winter, and at first they had assured themselves that they would leave sooner or later, but now it was getting to be summer and nothing seemed to have changed. They had fussed about it and eventually decided that professional help was the only recourse they had left. The bugs were too much, and their efforts were futile.
“I bet if your mom had heard that guy in the store, she would have flew off the handle.”
“Yeah, and make me look like a freak for being with her. The only time anyone here cares about Shoshone people is for five minutes in seventh grade when they talk about Lewis and Clark.”
Nicole snorted into her coffee.
“Don’t laugh, it’s true!”
“I know, that’s why I’m laughing. I’m sorry.”
She wasn’t really angry. Michelle’s tongue in cheek attitude served her well enough and kept her temper in check (for the most part). Even if the weird racist had genuinely gotten to her, she was too relieved at the prospect of finally getting rid of the bugs to let it spoil her mood. One of her cousins managed the company, and she trusted her employees, as far as bug companies went.
Michelle and Nicole had planned to spend the evening doing something fun together, and to some extent, they succeeded- the early summer weather was very mild, and they went out to dinner and ate outside in a restaurant blessedly free of ladybugs. Michelle told a story about one of the classes she was teaching, how one of her students that played the clarinet was already offered a scholarship despite only being a sophomore. They expected the workers to be done (and gone) by the time they returned, but some hours later, the men were still around, loading the vacuums into the van. When they approached, there was only one worker left outside, a tall man who was sheepishly milling around it. Michelle assumed this must be the manager, since the other two seemed to have taken the chance to avoid conversation.
“What’s up? I thought you were going to be done a while ago,” Nicole asked him as he avoided eye contact.
“Well, I mean, we are done.”
“Are the bugs gone?”
“Honey, I thought you said you were done?”
“Yeah, I’m- I’m sorry. We sucked up the ones we could, but we had some trouble. We could come back again and try it, maybe half off-”
“No, no, nope. If it didn’t work the first time, why would it work the second?” Michelle demanded, and the man’s cheeks turned red. She was embarrassed for him. She knew he was just trying to do his job, but clearly, he wasn’t very good at it.
“Listen,” she began, more compassionately. “I know you boys did the best you could, but really, I think we’re going to keep trying to handle it from here. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right, ma’am. Sorry we couldn’t do more for you.”
“It’s okay,” she said, patting him on the arm. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” he said, and pulled out of the driveway, heading down the road.
Nicole shook her head. They headed back inside.
“This is some shit,” Michelle sighed as they shut the door. Nicole kissed her on the cheek.
“Don’t take it too hard. I’m sure they did their best.”
Michelle shrugged. To her, it seemed like some nerve to screw up what was supposed to be your job and then ask for more money to fuck it up again. That night, while watching TV, they chatted back and forth and pretended like it ‘really did seem a little better,’ and tried to convince themselves that maybe there had been an impact, although they both knew it wasn’t the case. The following morning their conversation was sparse and marked by disheartened silence, and they went back and forth debating solutions, although there wasn’t much that they hadn’t already considered.
As Michelle styled her hair, she heard Nicole from the other room.
“You should call your mom.”
She stared into her reflection’s annoyed dark eyes.
“I don’t really… I’m not sure I feel up to that,” she called back.
“I’m not trying to push you, I’m just saying-”
Michelle turned her head without thinking. She jerked the hair curler away from her jaw as she felt the sudden shock of the heat, and let it clatter into the sink as she examined the cylindrical mark as they darkened on her face. From the bedroom, she heard Nicole talking over her yelp of pain.
“I just think she’d really appreciate it-”
“Christ, Mitch, I fucking burned myself! Can you just cut me some slack for five seconds!?” She yelled, and her girlfriend fell silent.
For a moment, she did too, partially regretting her reaction but knowing, deep down, it was probably justified. She unplugged the curler and put it on the counter to cool off. She heard the sound of Nicole’s shoes on the wood floor and the door shutting behind her, and sighed. She wasn’t sure whether to be angry at her partner or herself. Sure, Nicole could have rushed in and tried to console her, but she could have also not have snapped at her.
From the hallway, she saw Nicole sitting in the loveseat in the living room. She lay out across it with her head craned off the other arm, staring up at the ceiling, her arms crossed across her chest.
“Nicky?” Michelle called, gently.
“There are a hundred bugs on this ceiling,” she responded flatly.
Michelle glanced up at the tiny red shapes ambling across the uneven white plaster and looked away in disgust. She’d never seen ladybugs stick to the ceiling, and it made her think of roaches.
“Nicky, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone off on you like that.”
Nicole uncrossed her arms and sighed, running a hand over her short hair.
“It’s all right. I’m sorry you got burned.”
“It was my fault. I’m okay,” Michelle assured her. Nicole sat up and turned to face forward on the loveseat as Michelle joined her.
“I’d really like to see her, Nicky.”
“I know, it’s just- you know it’s complicated with my family. I don’t always want to hear about where I came from,” she sighed, running her hand over Nicole’s knee. Nicole scoffed.
“Yeah, well, at least you get the chance.”