“I woke up, and there was one on my window. And… it was there because it was making fun of me.”
Hannah tells me this as we sit on the floor, our backs against our shared locker while we wait for the first period bell to ring. When I first told her about the cicadas, she thought I was messing with her. Surely this Northern Virginia suburb was not prone to plagues of locusts. But summer neared and people started to talk; the newspaper ran articles on its front page and her skepticism turned to horror. Frankly, I’m flattered she thought me imginative enough to dream up such an elaborate lie.
“Do you think bug repellent would keep them away?” a girl in my chemistry class asks as she braids the teacher’s hair. We’re supposed to be doing a lab. But it’s warm out and the sun is shining, and with summer break fast approaching it’s hard to motivate high school students to do much of anything, and the teacher isn’t interested in trying.
“They’re not naturally attracted to people,” I object, twisting around in my seat to face them. Insect repellent only works on mosquitoes because they’re out to suck your blood. To a cicada, you’re just another surface to land on.
At first they’re sparse. The one on Hannah’s window is among the first to appear. A few can be spotted clinging to a tree here and there, but nothing like the swarm we’ve been told to brace for. Most of them are still underground, still have yet to shed their skin. My mother and I uncover hundreds of them in the garden one afternoon while planting the flowerbeds. You only get a second or two to register your disgust before you shrug and shovel them aside to make way for the impatiens. I’ve seen the shells before, grew up seeing the ones left behind by the annual breed, bigger and louder than the seventeen-year cicadas but fewer in number. The shells don’t deflate like snake skins do, but maintain their shape, thin brown membranes with exit-wound slits down the back. When you squeeze them, they crackle between your fingers like dead leaves. In summers past I would find them stuck to a tree trunk or the side of the house. Their hooked legs made it easy to affix them to an unsuspecting victim’s shirt. They aren’t dead things, technically speaking, just discarded skins, and it never occurred to me that at one point they behaved as living, moving organisms crawling about or tunneling below ground. The larva state. Or is it pupa? They remind me of the crickets that inhabit our shed by the thousands and reappear year after year in the basement, in spite of my dad’s repeated fumigation bombs.
Night is when the shell-creatures emerge from the dirt and crawl toward the trees. There’s something haunting about the writhing masses on the sidewalk under the dim glow of a streetlamp, something extraterrestrial. Adrianne and I step carefully to avoid crushing them as we walk to the Seven-Eleven to pick up a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. We haven’t known each other for the entirety of our seventeen years, but it’s close enough. Simple pleasures are what I think of when I reflect on our friendship: collecting Beanie Babies and spending the night at her house during a snow storm, her overstuffed calico cat draped across my feet; watching The Simpsons and roller-blading through the neighborhood; feeding our mutual obsession with the Sex Pistols. It’s a friendship built on convenience. Having lived on the same block our whole lives, we’ve reached the point where we don’t really need to make plans, just pick up the phone and then turn up at her house as needed, slipping in through the side door without bothering to knock. Her house is as inextricably woven into the fabric of my childhood as my own. I could say she’s like a sister to me, only she already has a sister with whom she shares a relationship that’s deeper and more complex than anything my only-child’s perspective could comprehend. In middle school we waited for the bus together in front of her house until she abandoned me to attend the nearby magnet school. Still, it’s so easy to slink over there in the evening. Sometimes there’s no need to even talk, just dig into a tub of ice cream and let the television do the talking for us.
A girl in my music class likes to eat them for money and for shock value. She’s a nineteen thirties blues singer, beautiful, crass, playfully self-destructive, with a husky voice cultivated by years of underage smoking. She claims they taste like popcorn and describes how to first bite their heads off so the legs don’t move on the way down. As the cicadas become more numerous, the newspaper starts posting recipes and local eateries provide an opportunity to try them out. People sport t-shirts proclaiming to the world, “I ate a cicada!” We’ve all read Things Fall Apart: In Nigeria, the arrival of the locusts is met with celebration for the return of this delicacy.
My father objects to this practice. “It’s not right!” he says at the dinner table one night. “They wait for seventeen years!” He has an affinity for insects most people find repulsive or threatening, raised me empathize with earwigs and bumblebees. “They mean well,” he says in their defense. When I was a child he had a cicada keychain sang a repetitive, two-tone drone for about fifteen seconds while its eyes glowed red when you squeezed its middle. The cheap piece of plastic seemed like a treasure to me, only to be brought out on special occasions. The last time the cicadas came out, I was less than a year old, but I grew up knowing it would happen again. Many of them will never make it to the surface; too much of the ground has been paved over.
“I hear they cover entire cars,” Adrianne comments as we sit on her back porch contemplating the evening sky. Her shoulder-length hair is tucked under a shower cap while she waits for the latest application of bright red hair-dye to set in. I check the display on my cell phone for the third time in ten minutes. No calls, no texts. The fireflies have returned for the season and they float through the gathering darkness, intermittent spots of light. I imagine a cicada the size of a pterodactyl engulfing an entire automobile, daring the owner with its beady red eyes to fetch a broom and shoo it away. The image makes me smile.
Soon the phenomenon has begun in earnest. Before heading to school, I walk around the side of the house to look at the forsythia bush which is coated with them in various stages of shedding their shell. The air is swollen with humidity and leaves its sweat on everything it touches. They hum all day long in the mounting summer heat.
Two weeks before school lets out, they are at their peak. The noise is deafening. I shamble onto the back porch in my pajamas, unwilling to believe that such a sound could be created by insects alone. It’s like nothing I have ever heard before, like the dull roar you hear when you hold a seashell to your ear, but amplified and in surround-sound.
The previous night I’d decided to forgo the Friday festivities in favor of staying in and crying myself to sleep. The arrival of summer brought with it more than a flock of bugs. For two weeks now he’s been home from college, settling in and finding excuses for why we can’t meet up. Last night he finally gave in, telling me he’d be there to pick me up at eight. At ten o’clock my father was is on the front porch wanting to know why I’ve been lingering out there all evening. “Isn’t Adrianne home?” he asks, which is what he always asks when he notices me hanging around the house idle. I shrug and wait for him to go back inside because I’m seventeen and the last thing in the world I want to do is discuss my romantic problems with my parents, and because I’m not really sure I could speak just now even if I wanted to.
It’s a mating call. All those cicadas are saying, “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” or maybe, “Nice shoes, wanna fuck?” Something banal. They’re not too bright.
I spend Saturday night watching a Twilight Zone marathon at Hannah’s house. Her neighborhood contains more cicadas than I have seen in one place to date. They swarm the streetlamps like enormous moths and carpet the ground.
Hannah still feels new in town. She and her mother have moved four times in the past four years. Each time something gets lost in the move, boxes remain unpacked and no one gets around to hooking up the VCR. But the things that make it Hannah’s house are always there, always arranged in a similar fashion, the South Western decor, the picture of her as a child pinned to the refrigerator, the bowl of fruit on the table and the yappy little dog that accompanies her mother everywhere. It’s just Hannah’s luck that she happened to move to this part of the country in time for the swarm. Inside I discover one hitching a ride on my shirt and take it outside to set it free.
I tell her about last night because I feel like I have to, because it’s the sort of thing friends are supposed to share with each other. She listens and nods sympathetically and then we make a point not to talk about him. She dislikes him the way any good friend would, the way I would if I could be rational about it. She’s too polite to mention it though, too sensitive to my mood. None of my friends have met him; for all they know, he’s an invention, an excuse to throw the word ‘boyfriend’ around now and then. And about time, too; it only took the girl seventeen years. The cicadas are lucky to get seventeen days in which to find a mate before dropping dead and out of my life forever.
Later that night I’m in my room sifting through my things, looking for photos of me and him together from when we met the previous summer. I try to convince myself I’m not troubled, reassure myself that whatever rough patches we encounter everything will work out in the end. It’s clear we’re meant to be together. Instead of photos, though, I stumble upon my dad’s cicada keychain. Somehow over the years it migrated to my desk where waits with the rest of the bric-a-brac stashed away in the bottom drawer. It no longer sings when I squeeze its belly, and I wonder how it ended up here and whether my dad would even remember it if I were to show it to him.
After they peak, they begin their rapid decline and are all but gone by the next weekend when I take the Red Line to Silverspring to see him. I no longer ask him to come to my neighborhood. It’s too easy to make excuses for not showing. I got lost, he told me last time. My phone died.
He picks me up at the station. In the car he tells me he won’t be going back to college in Virginia. He’s thinking of moving to Boston to live with a friend.
He’s disappointed by the cicadas. They haven’t lived up to his expectations. “They look so badass,” he says, “with their red eyes…” But they’re so, so dumb. They get flipped onto their backs and can’t get up. They fly directly into walls, windshields. He was two the last time they appeared. I don’t ask if he remembers them.
He takes me to a park where we stretch out in the grass behind a deserted basketball court and he tells me it won’t work out between us if he goes to Boston, which, he says, is looking more and more likely. He won’t be able to come home to visit; he looks me in the eye as he says this. I don’t point out that in all his nine months at school in Lynchberg, a mere two hours or so away, he never once found time to visit me, so what difference does it make? We stare at each other in silence and then I wrap my arms around his neck. It does make a difference. Words make a difference, and titles too. I don’t want him to go.
The females lose half their abdomen when they lay their eggs. My friends and I discover this in the park during our end-of-school cookout. While the guys encircle the grill and douse the coals with obscene amounts of lighter fluid, Hannah and I sit at a picnic table and examine some of the last remaining specimens. We pick one up to find half of its body is missing. Further investigation reveals others with the same malady.
Hannah has come to find the critters endearing, just as over the past four years she’s grudgingly come to prefer Arlington to her native Albuquerque and grown fond of her mother’s neurotic, inbred dachshund. They’ve got the charm of being so ugly they’re cute. She’s fascinated by how stupid they are. It’s hard to stay frightened of something so helpless.
There was a time last year when it looked like Hannah would be moving back to New Mexico. She could have avoided the infestation and left me to fend for myself senior year. But she didn’t. By some miraculous twist of fate her mother’s plans got scrapped and she stayed. I don’t tell her my conviction that I would have had no real friends in high school without her. She probably already knows. Adrianne and I grew up together; I can see Hannah and me becoming Old Maids together.
The half-cicadas signal that the end is near, though their shells and carcasses litter the flowerbeds for the rest of the summer. The vegetable garden doesn’t do so well that year. My mother and I blame the cicadas. The newspapers report the greatest number of rats in the area in seventeen years.
By the end of summer he’s gone, up and moved to Boston, away from seventeen-year plagues, seventeen-year-old plagues too. Left without even telling me.
In August Adrianne accompanies my family on our annual vacation to Myrtle Beach for the fourth year in a row. The brood didn’t reach this far south; the region has its own insects to contend with, massive spiders, grasshoppers the size of your fist. Late at night, Adrianne and I huddle by the dunes, cupping our hands around the lighter as we struggle to spark a joint. Above us the sky is impossibly clear and the stars glitter so brilliantly, constellations immediately identifiable, that to two city girls they seem unreal, the product of projectors at the local planetarium. Stoned, we stroll barefoot along the beach, watching sand crabs scuttle out of our path and race into the surf. The waves crashing to our left sound nothing like a seashell, nothing like the cicadas. The roach burns my fingertips and the paper is soggy between my lips as I try for one last hit. Simple pleasures change.