Thinking of cockroaches made me think of my mother (and Hitler)
I just moved to the city this week, and have been struggling with the cockroaches. My girlfriend says that it’s because humans don’t like things that don’t move then move all at once, but I think its a Jewish thing. I was raised as any middle class Connecticut kid is raised; poorly but with a library card. The first time I realized I looked any different from any of my friends was when one said my eyebrows looked like caterpillars. I didn’t know why I looked different until the following year, my first year of high school, when my history teacher asked me if “my mother was Indian, right?” and I started to answer by saying “No, she’s normal.”
She looked different when I got home that day. Browner and fatter, and her teeth seemed more yellowed by the coffee she’d always drunk, but her hair is what stood out the most to me. She had a light mustache, made up of tiny dark hairs, and the more I looked the more revolted I felt. They covered her face and arms, making her look darker and uglier and, watching from the kitchen table as she made me a snack, I felt nauseous. I realized in that moment that she was animal, and her skin felt so oily when she hugged me that I showered after, replaying in my mind how she’d talked and smiled and cooked all at once, each action further condemnation, for how like an animal to perform the little actions it has been trained to do, over and over, responding to stimuli and outputting the ingrained reaction. She may have complex actions, I reasoned, but apes can learn sign-language. The basic building blocks were the same, biology and conditioning, all the way down. All the way down.
I’m the youngest kid by 8 years, but I wasn’t a mistake. My mom got lonely as soon as my siblings began to use compound sentences. She’s the one who taught me to fear. We’d watch documentary after documentary on the Holocaust, but by age nine I only tuned in for the part where dead jews, piled high, are being tossed out of a flatbed truck.
There was one moment, though, that disturbed me more than anything. It was of Hitler— but he wasn’t giving a speech, I’d seen all that footage a thousand times on a tiny screen with tinny headphones in some tiny corner of the museum “so as to not aggrandize him”, I’d been told. But one documentary had just a few seconds of Hitler waiting his turn to speak. Because of how cameras worked then it might have been a full minute of him waiting patiently to be introduced, but all I saw was the man who apparently wanted to kill everyone who looked like me, fidgeting just how I did as he waited his turn. He looked more like me than any of my friends did, he didn’t have blonde hair or blue eyes either, even though that’s what he was into, same as me. Then he called me a cockroach, and I felt a type of sadness I’d never felt before. It was sharp and made me turn away, and I only later knew it to be pity for the both of us. My mom asked what I was thinking and I asked why he wants everyone to look a way he doesn’t, and she said it was because he was an idiot.
Sometimes I felt like a secret agent, going to all these (secular) Jewish celebrations with the knowledge that I was the only one who had ever let himself empathize with the big one. When I got out of the shower I saw myself in the mirror. I was too skinny and my eyes didn’t recognize themselves, and my skin seemed stretched over my face. I got up close so that my nose touched the mirror, bent naked over the sink to reach, and watched as the remaining flesh hung from my frame. I looked myself in one eye, then the other, trying to catch a glimpse of the spark which claims to be having all these thoughts. They looked flat. I couldn’t believe there was much going on behind them. I bared my teeth and saw the chimp, but it hurt my face so I went blank again. I saw lips. They were full. Feeling awkward, I smiled, just a bit, nose still to glass. I pulled back, lightheaded. Just some boy making faces in the bathroom mirror.