The Ants Come Marching In
The ants arrived the day Katie left.
One by one, finding their way through the black rubber barrier at the edge of the floor and wall. One by one, poking and shifting and marching and changing directions and mapping out the way for the rest of their colony. One by one by one as if they knew there was only one left in this room.
The ants clustered underneath my bookshelf as she stuffed shoes into plastic bags, hangers into spare spaces. Katie packed her half of our dorm room in three hours and moved across the hall, leaving me with her mirror (too small for her tall frame) and too many ants to kill under my feet.
That was fifty-one days ago.
Now, I stand on the rug I replaced, staring down at the black bodies that have come to share my space, my half of my room. I stare down at them, Birkenstock in my hand, and I cannot kill them. They wiggle on my tiled floor, wobbling their way to and from the ant traps I’ve scattered across this square space. The ants defy death by poison, and I stare, and stare, and stare, at the ants that I hate with everything in me.
“Why can’t you just die?”
* * *
It’s what Katie would call a negative phrase. An “unnecessarily rude” statement. A “displeasing character quality.”
“Why can’t you just die, little motherfucker?” was rude to the spider.
I argued that it was perfectly fine to swear at the spider nestled in our shag rug. Its black body was the size of my thumb nail times two, and its legs reached into the snuggly strands as if anchoring itself against the fight it faced with my hand-sanitizer bottle.
“To neutralize it,” I said.
“Just remove it already, Julie,” Katie said. Her Zoom class had her preoccupied, and after all, it was my duty to deal with the bugs in our room. If I wanted it dead, I made it dead.
A healthy dosage of Purell was gooped onto the black spider, sticking it into the rug. The spider struggled against the 99.9% alcohol confining it. My tissue swooped in, scooping both the hand sanitizer and the spider into my clammy hands before I dropped it into our trashcan.
I looked up, triumphant, to find her glaring at me. She pointed to her laptop, as if she would ever unmute herself, and mouthed, “Be mature.” Katie turned back to her class, and I watched her. She looked back at me only once, to frown and twitch her eyebrows at me.
I took our spider trash out.
* * *
The trash sits, overflowing. It has been days since I’ve taken it out and the Coke cans are spilling out of the recycling, brown liquid dripping onto the cardboard boxes stacked beside the bin. Takeout containers give the room—my room—an unnatural smell, and the ants have begun their procession toward my mess.
I have a spacious room and I use every inch to contain my disaster, my steady spiral into screaming at the walls that won’t tell me why she left. This spacious room is dirty, filthy, grimy to the highest degree.
Dirt clings to the soles of my feet with every step I take. I can’t take it anymore.
A Sunday afternoon in March, fifty-one days after the ants arrived, I clean my room for the first time.
* * *
We were a week into our freshman year college experience, and Katie and I still hadn’t filled out our mandatory roommate agreement.
I sat in the hard, wooden, school-provided desk chair, one leg tucked under me. Katie played Bleachers from her speaker as she wiped down our mounted mirror, both of us humming along to the melodies.
I was filling out the questions on the yellow sheet with a blue pen, the ink bleeding through from one side and onto my desk below. She answered every now and then when I asked her half— “Roommates agree that the bathroom will be cleaned every… day, week, bi-week, month, never.”
“Week,” she replied instantly. “I can’t stand a dirty room.”
“Well, good to know, since that leads us into our next section. Who cleans what?”
“I’ll clean everything,” she said with a wave of a cloth. “I like cleaning, and I like things done my way.”
“Are you sure?” I looked around our room. “That’s a lot to do on a weekly basis.”
“You take care of the fridge—it’s yours, you brought it—and your half of the room. I’ll do bathroom and mirrors and sweeping and all that. It calms me down.”
I stared at her, and she didn’t acknowledge me as she moved from one mirror to the next.
I wrote her answer down.
“Uhh, next question. ‘If roommates have a conflict, how will the conflict be addressed?’ Answer choices are—”
She didn’t let me finish. “I won’t.”
“What do you mean, what?”
“What do you mean by that? Are you just not going to address it, or do you think we’ll never have a conflict?” I fired back.
She caught my gaze in the mirror, her face distorted by the edge of the wall separating our sink area from her desk area. “I just won’t address it.”
Laughter escaped before I could catch myself. “That’s not an option.”
“I’m dead serious, Julie.”
I laughed harder. “We can’t just, not talk about things. If I have an issue with you, I’m gonna tell you.”
She stared at me, cloth now on the edge of the sink, hands braced as she leaned closer to her reflection. “And I’m dead serious that I just won’t talk about it. If I have an issue, I’m just not going to address it. It’ll go away on its own.”
My uncomfortable giddiness ebbed. “Katie, that’s not how functional people… function.”
“That’s how I function.” She broke eye contact, scooping up her cloth once more.
“Well,” I said to her back, “if I have conflict, we are going to sit down and talk about it.”
Katie took out her phone from her back pocket and turned Bleachers up higher.
The unanswered question sat before me, and I clicked and unclicked my pen several times before finally writing: Katie will not address conflict. Julie will address conflict. Might be problematic in future.
* * *
I don’t know where to begin.
I open and close her dresser—mine. My second dresser over and over until the hinges squeal and my nail breaks on the oval hole that acts as a handle. I pace my room, looking at the grime and the dirt and the decay.
I begin with screaming, finally, screaming about how much I hate this at the top of my lungs; I scream in dead silence in the center of my room, watching the ants circle themselves, looking for food that doesn’t belong to them.
The ants never stray beyond my side of the room.
* * *
My best friend from back home did not like her roommate, not at first.
Laila called me to complain yet again about the absurdity that was her living situation, how her roommate had put tape down the center of their dorm to divide what was Laila’s and what wasn’t.
I joked with Katie about this afterwards, about how we would divide up the room if we ever got into a fight like this.
“Just a single line of red tape, right down the center,” she laughed from her bed.
“No, no, even better—make it clear. Change it every day so our boundaries are ever changing, and we’re in this silent war with who owns what but unable to speak to each other about it.”
We laughed, and laughed, and the lights turned off and we laughed about how we would function with a split-in-half bathroom, only half a toilet to each of us, who would take the fridge—how we would live in a tape-divided room.
We never talked about what our fake conflict was, only that it was.
* * *
I can’t bring myself to put music on as I begin to clean.
I’ve figured out where I’ve got to start—the trash—and I’m gathering everything I don’t need and shoving it, stuffing it, forcing it into my overflowing bins. I’d need to take several walks down that hallway to get it all out—but I want it gone.
All of it.
Sticky notes with her handwriting, photos of the two of us, memories and memorandums and thoughts of moments to come—all of it is crumpled and crushed into the garbage.
I empty drawers, I slam dresser doors, I scream and scream and scream all the words she’d said to me until my hate is hoarse.
I scream outwardly when an ant crawls over my foot. It is dead not a second later, crushed under my fourth toe, and I stare at the black body.
Screaming only matters when there’s someone around to hear you.
* * *
We were screaming down I-40, barreling down backroads and stuffed full of cheesecake. My dad had given me money to treat Katie and two other friends to an “end of semester” dinner. We were full and happy, singing along to songs from our childhood until our throats were raw. I was driving with Rebecca next to me, Sophia and Katie in the back.
Music blasted from my car as I hurtled around corners back into our college. My car was parked, and we were falling out of my RAV4 before the night air had fully hit us.
“Three lactose intolerant people and one vegan go to Cheesecake Factory…” started Sophia’s joke as we’re speeding up the sidewalk.
“I’d laugh if I didn’t think I’d shit myself right here,” Rebecca said.
I did laugh, and I did nearly shit myself right there.
We’re in the lobby of our dorm and going our separate ways and Sophia says—“Hey Katie. After Julie heads out tonight…?”
Katie laughed and nodded.
We entered our hallway and I turned to her. “Whatcha doing later?”
“Don’t worry about it.” A snapped response, the jubilee of the car gone.
My steps faltered, and she didn’t see as I fumbled for my keys. “Gotcha. Well, I’ll be out late tonight, so I’ll see you tomorrow morning probably.”
“Just don’t tell me who you sleep with,” Katie snipped. She deposited her leftovers in our—my—our fridge, breezing past my frozen frame in the doorway. She’d entered the back stairwell a moment later, up towards Sophia and Renee’s room.
I felt the door slam in my gut before getting ready to play an illegal game of hide-n-seek.
* * *
The ants play hide-n-seek with me.
They trick me into thinking they’re dead and dying and I’ve created the next big insect genocide in North Carolina by disappearing for a few days. They pool into the ant traps, dead friends stuck in the sticky tack.
But all along, they plot. They plot at how best to make me lose my mind, to scream at the walls that won’t tell me why she left, to cry and call my mom and have her talk me down from the anxiety these ants, this anger, this atmosphere—this all-consuming presence of poison gives me.
I live in a room that Katie left because she found it toxic. Negative. Harmful. Anxiety-inducing. I live by myself in a room I created that ants have invaded, and I can’t take this idea that I live in a negativity she assigned me.
Books fall when the white shelf is jerked away from the wall. Dishes rattle on their shelves and utensils clink and I can only hear the sound of scraping. Scraping, scraping, scraping until I’ve revealed the hole in my wall, the crack between the rubber floor-runner and the tile ground where the ants have crawled through.
This crack runs across my entire back wall. Some sections are larger, and some are smaller but it doesn’t matter when ants are the size of… well, ants.
I sweep. I sweep up what I have just swept when I sneeze and scatter the dust. I figure out how a dustpan works. I try again when I realize I don’t actually know how this dustpan works. I spread more dirt and clean more dirt and play music to fill up the void she left. To stop the sound inside my head.
“Calming” is the playlist name, and the first song I hear is by Three Days Grace.
What would Katie say that says about me?
It comes unwanted into my head, this desire for her invalidating opinion.
It lingers in my head when I shift her bed and clean underneath and pile my items on top of it so that I can organize my half.
Half. Half, my half—but isn’t it all mine by this point?
I’m staring at her bed when my phone rings, cutting off “Calming.”
My mom’s voice echoes through the speakerphone. “Hey, baby doll. Just checking in to see how you were doing. You texted me earlier saying you weren’t feeling too well and I hadn’t heard back from you.”
“I’m cleaning my entire room.”
Silence takes the place of her voice and I check to see if the call has dropped.
“You’re what?” she asks, and it sounds like I’ve told her I’m moving to Mars.
“I’m cleaning my room. All of it. It hasn’t been done since she moved out, and I need to. It’s filthy.”
“… Well. I wish you the best of luck.”
I survey my room, the lack of progress, as she considers if she believes me or not. “I’ve still got ants,” I say, to say anything.
“Really? Did you put the ant traps out?”
“Yup. They’re in there, those little fuckers, but they’re not dying. I moved my bookshelf and discovered the cracks in my wall. That’s where they’re coming from, the tiny bastards.”
“Do you have packing tape?”
“Do I look like I would have packing tape?”
My mom sighs. “Packing tape will seal the base. It’ll keep the little bastards from coming through the cracks.”
* * *
I hadn’t seen Katie in six days when she knocked on my door.
“Oh God Almighty,” I swore, standing directly behind it with a yogurt spoon in my hand, not expecting to be startled by a sharp rap on the wood.
A quick glance through the peephole told me Katie was standing in the hallway with our RA.
“One minute. Gotta wash something and grab a mask.”
I received no confirmation my words were heard as I washed my yogurt spoon, put it away, and then put on my closest face mask.
When I opened the door, Katie stood to my left, Nate our RA to her right, crumpled in on himself. The way he always did when he dealt with uncomfortable conflict.
A shockingly benign statement to the roommate I hadn’t seen in a week, the roommate I was told was going through some personal things. The roommate who was in a “safe” location across campus, the roommate who had blocked my social media and told our dormmates to stop speaking to me.
“This is going to be an uncomfortable conversation,” Katie said, as if she intended to have any conversation.
“I’m moving out.” She looked me in the eye when she said it, arms crossed in her trademark jean jacket paired with her washed out jeans and white vans. A washed-out girl in a fluorescent mask.
My first thought was grief—a leave of absence to deal with hardship. Something I’d had to consider after my January surgery, something that made sense.
Something that made more sense than: “Because of you.”
I looked from my RA to her, from her to my RA, who crumpled further in on himself instead of doing something, anything, to defend me. To explain.
“Can I ask what I did?” My voice only shook a little, wobbled around the second “I” and broke around “did.”
Katie looked to Nate, who shrugged, unfurling. His posture straightened as her back curved ever so slightly inward.
She looked at the door frame when she spoke. “You’re interrogative, stalkerish, rude, anxiety-inducing, and overall a negative person. I can’t live with someone who makes me anxious. You scare me, Julie.”
Each word struck me, every adjective more painful than the last as my breath caught in my chest, trying to capture meaning in what she was saying. I stared—I didn’t have anything else to do.
“I’m moving into Veronica’s room.”
That—I was proud to say I hadn’t cried, but the act of moving across the hall, a mere five paces away from where we stood now—tears welled in my eyes.
“Normally room changes wouldn’t be allowed, given this year’s weirdness,” my RA said, examining the hole his shoe was wearing in the carpet, “but since Veronica is in a single, and it’s in the same dorm, an exception was made.” He stopped fidgeting and looked me in the eye. “And of course, the reason she’s moving out.”
Because of me. Because of me. Because of me me me—
“Well,” I said, “I’m sorry for whatever I did to cause the hurt. I didn’t know that you felt that way, and I apologize sincerely for any unintentional harm I caused.” Katie nodded, looking as though she wanted to slap me. “Can I ask, though, if there was anything specific that I did?”
Katie looked to Nate, and Nate shrugged. “Most of it is personal, but I felt stalked by you. I’ve been tracked down before, and the way you were asking around about where I was, texting Sophia to ask where I was, constantly blowing up my phone to check on me, I was scared of you. I don’t want to be stalked by someone.
“And the way you were asking about everybody’s living situation when you came back? You were totally interrogating everyone. Everyone thinks so. The way you were bombarding people with questions and accusing them of leaving you out, that’s so awful, Julie. That’s why people don’t like you.”
“Katie,” Nate warned.
She ignored him. “And I knew when I came back to the room that night,” the Saturday of Nate’s birthday, the start of the week I hadn’t seen her, “I was going to be interrogated. You gave me a panic attack, Julie. All because I knew I was going to be on trial for something I didn’t do, and instead blamed for your own fucking insecurities!”
She spat the words at me, and I’m sure would have spat on me if a mask didn’t block her mouth. She seethed and I stared and stared and stared at her in the way she always told me was unnerving, uncomfortable, unnecessary.
Because what the fuck else was I supposed to say?
“And don’t go talking to everybody else in the house about this, Julie.” The scolding came from Nate, and my face burned. He knew; someone must have told him I was asking around about her wellbeing in the time she was gone.
I lived up to her accusations—her stalkerish, interrogative, negative, anxiety-inducing portrayal of me wasn’t entirely false, not in that moment.
“Can you leave so I can pack up? It’s going to be awkward if you’re here.”
Going to be awkward. As if this entire thing hadn’t been utterly mortifying, hadn’t shattered whatever semblance of confidence and friendship I had within this house.
“Yeah. I’m nearly ready, and I have to head for physical therapy anyways.”
The door shut without waiting for her answer.
Hand over my mouth, I did my best to stifle my sobs as I backed away from the door. I shoved my feet into whatever shoes I found first, brushed my teeth with no toothpaste, ran a rough comb through my smooth hair.
In five minutes, I was facing that door again, opening it, stepping out as I said, “The room is yours. I’ll be gone for a few hours for physical therapy. Oh, and by the way, when I was trying to replace the toilet paper, I accidentally knocked off your giant bottle of hand sanitizer. It shattered on the ground. I threw it away.”
I didn’t make it to the end of the hall before the tears came again. I was shaking with heavy sobs by the time I pushed through the second double doors to exit our lobby, nearly doubled over by the time I reached the sidewalk leading to the parking lot.
Sal, my not-boyfriend who Katie always said wouldn’t love me properly, called to tell me she was wrong. He calmed me down as I cried in my car, as I recounted every word she said to me, as I sobbed and heaved and screamed. As I told him she was right—she was right. I was negative. I was harsh. I was anxiety-inducing.
I was exactly the person she claimed I was.
And Sal, through a video call, “looked” at me and asked me if I really thought he’d stay with me if I truly was this monster she had created in her mind.
I said something about rose colored lenses, and he sighed.
“Julie, sweetheart. You’ve had twelve surgeries. You had a cancer scare and she told you that you were negative for not reacting better to the ‘not cancer but we don’t know what it is’ news. She thinks you’re negative because she doesn’t understand even half of what you’ve gone through.”
I sniffled, my throat too swollen to reply.
“I’ve gotta go to work now, but I promise you that you’re none of those things. She’s projecting. If anything, she’s the negative one for not being able to communicate her issues sooner.”
“Yeah,” I muttered, if only to say something.
“I adore you, and I’ll see you in a week.”
I echoed him, and the call dropped.
Sun slanted through my windshield, reflecting off the black of my car hood. I turned my car on, knowing I’d be uncomfortably early to physical therapy, and began to drive.
My mom finally called to repeat Sal’s words, telling me to “fuck her and drop her body in a ditch.”
To “leave that negative ass bitch behind.”
To “know that she’s the toxic one.”
To have fun with friends tonight, to go out with people I know love and care about me, to forget this “stupid bullshit.”
That’s how I end up drunk off my ass on the floor of the Shack. The Shack, the improv boys’ apartment, belonged to Jacob, Bryan, Silas, and Eli. The Shack, where I’d been frequenting this last week to play chess and card games and laugh as I was purposefully stupid to being flirted with.
Hadley had answered my text, sent after my phone call with my mom, my request of “do you wanna do that drinking thing tonight?” with a “oh HELL yes! I’ll text Bryan!” and made our plans for me. Hadley had driven me over here, after holding me as I sobbed at dinner, after watching me gaze around a Food Lion with empty eyes. Hadley laughed next to me on the floor of the Shack, and finally, finally, for the first time in a week, I felt something that wasn’t anxiety. I wasn’t anxious in this social setting, wondering if I was truly loved by these people.
I was happy.
I was drunk and I was happy and I was dancing and I was falling and Bryan was helping me up, holding me by the hands, telling me I had to stay standing. I was drunk and I was so tired of feeling empty and I told him he was gorgeous. I told him he was so goddamn hot or maybe it was just the room but I was pretty sure it was his presence in the room and I was, in that moment, in love with the idea of this night.
I was destructive, and my entire spring semester can be traced back to this night, this day, this moment where I ended up drunk on the floor of the Shack, texting Bryan we should hook up.
I was sober enough in his bed and he wasn’t quite matching my level of “not as drunk” that it wouldn’t stay up. I was giggly and girly and in bed with a guy I’d found attractive since August, texting my Sal that I was doing this, to tell him because I respected our two week rule, to tell him because I was self-destructing, taking and breaking every good thing in my life.
I was sober at 7:30 a.m. when he woke me up to kick me out, and I should have known.
When someone asks you to leave a room at an odd hour, it’s not because of their roommates potentially finding out you slept together; it’s because he regrets you.
* * *
Lowe’s sells packing tape.
For the low, low price of $3.96, I get a miniature roll of packing tape. When I get back to my room, the ants are still marching, oblivious to the seal they’re about to be trapped under. The tape makes a ripping noise as it stretches out from the roll, shreds as it’s torn on the gleaming metal teeth. For the low price of the rest of my dignity, I get down on my hands and knees and seal the base between the black rubber seam and my floor.
Ants, curious, wiggle out of the cracks and bump into this boundary. They change directions, splitting into groups to see if there’s a way around this wall.
They discover it is insurmountable.
My entire baseboard is taped along my back wall, clear plastic blending in and reflecting my lamplight. The ants are frantic, calling out to loved ones trapped on the wrong side as I show no mercy with the heel of my foot.
I am taping over the cracks.
I am moving back my bookshelf, hearing the tape rip up and stopping my process to fix it.
This is a war, and I will win it.
* * *
On the Wednesday after Katie left, before the ants introduced themselves to me, she spoke her final words.
Our one commonality was our place in our college’s honors department. Our spring semester seminar was one that we shared, one that all of our—her—friend group shared. I sat behind her and to the right, staring at the back of her dyed blonde head.
After class, six of us stood around and talked about dinner plans. Some wanted one dining hall, others were vehemently opposed. No consensus was reached before we began a procession down the stairs, Katie and three others in front of me, Alex and I taking up the rear, two steps behind.
They laughed, and I knew it wasn’t my place to be with them anymore, but still—I wanted.
I wanted enough that I walked behind Katie to the set of two double doors, one after the other. She was directly in front of me, a pace or two ahead, an appropriate distance to hold the door.
Katie looked back, looked me in the eye, and dropped the door.
The words flew out of my mouth, “Gee, thanks, Katie.”
And this time, this time she did spit in my face. Katie whirled around, her mask had fallen down, and she seethed, every hurt and anger falling out of her in short bursts.
“You know what, Juliette? You’ve been a really fucking bitch to me. So thanks,” as she whipped forward, slamming the second set of doors.
I stood dumbly as she jogged to catch up to the group that was no longer mine and could never be mine again.
I stood dumbly as Alex brushed by me and said, “You coming, Baker?”
I stood and remembered how to be a person as I said, “Nah, I actually don’t think I’m that hungry. Next time, though.”
But that was my last invitation. Every negative thing—my report against John for calling me a “volatile woman,” and other ableist aggressions; my panic attack at walking alone late at night, for “exaggerating” the severity of my pain, the way I “always made a big deal out of everything so it was hard to know when something really mattered;” my road rage; my 3 a.m. arrivals where she never woke up, not once; my tendencies towards questions, invasive ones, when she didn’t know how to tell me that they were crossing a line; my everything—me, I, it, had all caught up to me.
I have never spoken to Katie again. When someone asks you to leave at an odd hour, you go.
* * *
Ants don’t die instantly. You can step on them, and they’ll find the gaps in the treads of your shoes. You can smush them with tissues as they crawl across the keys of your laptop, and they’ll dip into the cracks between the letters. You can press on them with the pad of your thumb, and still—their legs will twitch in a sign of life, a metaphorical last “fuck you!” to the thumb of their demise.
Ants don’t die instantly, not from the five ant traps scattered under my bed and around my bookcase. Not from the spray that sickens me and chokes me until I can’t tell who’s dying. Not from the fierce desire ebbing from every single one of my pores that they leave and never return.
The ants will come and go as they please, in the middle of the night when you’re dead asleep and wake shrieking to the tiny little feet tap dancing across your eyelids; in the dead of day when you’re crying over an emptiness you can’t articulate and they race across your knuckles, reminding you that you’re tangible in the worst way possible.
People don’t change in a weekend. A semester’s worth of bitterness festers and grows until it is all you can think about when you see my blonde head across the room. A life’s worth of trauma is impossible to reconcile with a life’s worth of lucking out of the worst of it. A life growing up with ants every spring, to the point where Amazon has “Terro Ant Traps” as a suggested purchase for my mom at the beginning of March, belongs to me. Katie only knows the bugs that bite in June, the summer mosquitoes that come from happiness outdoors, that come with freedom to be yourself and not what life has determined you will be.
People don’t change from a lifetime to a lifetime. You either kill the ants before they ruin your leftovers, or you are fortunate enough to not have ants.
I’ve never found a single ant on Katie’s side of the room. The only insecticide is under my bed. The ants—the tiny little black bugs, no bigger than your smallest eyelash—only infest my side of the room.
I don’t know if that makes me negative, poisonous, resiliently unkillable. I don’t know if that makes me saccharine, something for a forward moving force through the cracks I’ve left behind.
Katie left me to the ants.
Originally from Stafford, Virginia, Jessica Baker is an undergraduate at Elon University studying media analytics, statistics, and creative writing. She is a writer for Cripple Media, Elon News Network, and her nonfiction work has appeared in Bridge: The Bluffton University Literary Journal and Sink Hollow. She works as a nonfiction co-editor for Colonnades Literary and Art Journal. In her free time, she enjoys bullet journaling and caring for her plants.