|My daughter Harper came home from school the other day with a booklet she made about spiders. It’s a small packet, about the size of my hand. Each page has a picture and a fact written in Harper’s sweet handwriting about arachnids.
The last page is titled “Spider Reflection Worksheet,” with a space for students to write how they feel about what they have learned about the eight-legged creatures. Harper wrote, “I do not like spiders because a wolf spider jumped on a piano when I was going to play it.”
I am not sure what is true about Harper’s story. We do not own a piano, so I know this story didn’t happen in our home. I had never heard of wolf spiders, and after learning about what they look like, I thought she was perhaps exaggerating a tad. However, I am a practitioner of creative nonfiction, and it doesn’t concern me that these facts might not be facts at all. I’m wondering about the truth Harper might be trying to get at: how surprised and scared she was. Was she alone? What happened after the spider—wolf or daddy longlegs—jumped on her hand?
I find writing creative nonfiction redemptive. It allows me to begin with a story I believe (or really want to believe), but it won’t stay that way. If I’m willing to sit with the story, and allow it to be revised, something else is revealed: a different or deeper truth that could not have been seen had I not begun with a lie.
Harper’s spider story prompts me to take a look at a spider story of my own. I’m not sure what all is true and what it is I want to believe.
The story begins a few months ago, in the summer. The setting is our front step (we just have the one). Hadley and my other daughter, Harper, and I are admiring the most mysterious spider web we’ve ever seen. It’s more gauzy than the orb web design that holds morning dew. This web holds wasps the size of my thumb, grasshoppers, cicadas. The three of us regularly stand in front of her web in awe.
“How is that cicada just hanging there?” Harper would say.
“That’s how strong the web is,” I’d say, unlocking the front door and holding it open for my girls.
“Where’s the spider?” Hadley would wonder, walking past the web, but not taking her eyes from it.
“It probably went to go find its friends to help it eat the cicada,” I’d say. “It’s like Thanksgiving for that thing.” We would chuckle and head inside.
The spider was a black widow. We didn’t know that until September, and now she is gone, and I wonder about her almost every day. Is it true we were in danger of being bitten? Was I foolish for allowing my girls to look at her work? I shudder with guilt, remembering how close we got to admire the web. But maybe it’s foolish to feel guilty. Maybe she wouldn’t have hurt us. I don’t know what’s true.
I’ve heard that once sharks smell blood, they enter a state of frenzy. They’ll do anything to find the source of the blood and eat it. I wonder if this is the case with black widows. I wonder this because about three days before we find out about our resident’s identity, I have a bit of a bloody accident at the front door.
The girls and I are coming home from school. We have a packed afternoon: orthodontist appointments, soccer practice, dinner, homework, baths. I have grading and lesson planning to work on for the next day. I park the car in front of our house, and while I’m parking, I give Hadley and Harper a list of what they need to do and how much time they have to do it in: “Go to the bathroom, wash your hands, grab a snack. Hadley, put soccer gear on. Harper, bring something to do while Hadley’s at her appointment. Bring homework. We have 20 minutes.”
We walk up to the front door. I put the key in the lock, turn it, and the key snaps in two. I broke a piece of metal as though I was snapping a dry twig.
“Oh no,” I say. “Oh, no!” Over and over I say it again. This is the only key I have to our house. Jesse is out of town for the week. The truth in this scene is I was agitated by all that needed to be done and my agitation manifested itself in using more force than necessary to open the front door. I don’t like to think about this part of myself, and I don’t like to think about what comes next.
I grab my phone from my bag and call Jesse to tell him what happened. “I need a locksmith and he has to get here and fix this in 15 minutes. I need to take Hadley to the orthodontist. Then there’s soccer.”
Jesse’s doing his best to calm me down, but he’s known me since we were 19, and he knows there’s not much that can be done when I’m like this. The truth is that if he tells me to calm down, take a deep breath, or any variation on these phrases, I will bite his head off.
“This is not an emergency,” he tells me, and when I take a sharp breath he quickly adds: “Let me look on Yelp, and I’ll call a locksmith.” We hang up and that’s when I notice all the blood: blood on my phone, blood on my pants and the tips of my shoes.
“Who’s bleeding?” I ask. “Hadley? Harper? Are you hurt?” I think surely someone who is bleeding this much would be sobbing.
“I’m fine, Mommy,” Harper said.
“Me too, I’m good,” Hadley added.
I turn to the door and see blood splattered all over it. I hold my right hand up and examine a jagged gash on my index finger where I held the key. How do I not feel this, I think. I am ashamed about the way I’m acting, but I won’t stop. I won’t calm down. I won’t take a deep breath. I believe this is an emergency. This is the truth.
Blood was pouring from my finger, and this is why I ask whether black widows can smell it. That day, I was standing inches away from her home. My blood was probably on her web. Had she crawled out to see what happened? Could she see me standing on her front step; my two daughters behind me waiting for what’s next? She could’ve bitten all of us so easily. Surely there’s no truth in thinking she was like E.B. White’s Charlotte, or I am his Wilbur, overwhelmed, terrified, and in need of a strong, clever friend.
Here’s what happens next: I walk to the car and sit in the passenger seat while Hadley unzips our first aid kit. I ask her to pull out alcohol swabs, open them, and hand them to me. I clean my wound enough so I can put a band-aid on it, wipe the blood off my phone with a baby wipe, then Google “locksmiths” in my ZIP code. I call the first one on the list. The man on the phone tells me someone will be over in five minutes.
An old caravan with no business sign on it pulls up to my house, scraping the curb as the driver parks. A woman with stringy blonde hair is at the steering wheel, and before the car is turned off, a man opens the passenger door and hops out. He pulls his jeans up over his stomach, but they fall as soon as he walks towards me.
“You locked out?” His breath reeks of cigarette smoke. I step back.
He examines the lock with the key jammed in it.
“You have an extra key?”
He laughs and shakes his head. He tells me it will be $300 to open the door, but I’ll need a new lock, doorknob, and key. He tells me that will cost $500. I tell him I can’t pay that.
“You have a back door?”
I take him to the back door and he lets us in.
“Three hundred dollars,” he says, standing in my kitchen.
I get the checkbook and begin to write. He touches my wrist to stop me.
“Leave it blank,” he tells me.
“I can’t write you a blank check,” I say.
“Yes,” he says, and he hasn’t taken his hand away. “Leave it blank.”
“I need to write your business name down,” I say and begin to walk towards my front door.
“Hadley! Harper!” I yell. They had gone upstairs to play. I figure if anything happens, I have enough strength to get to my front door, open it and tell the girls to run—to the library, to Starbucks; they all know me there—somewhere down the block to tell someone their mom is in trouble. Tears form as I think about living this narrative I am weaving in my head. Could this story be true? Or am I just observing things about this man and allowing these observations to creep me out?
When they reach me, I hold onto each of my girls, open the front door, and we walk outside. The man follows me.
“Do you need a name?” he asks, standing on my sidewalk.
“Yes. I cannot write you a blank check.”
He pulls a credit card out of his wallet, and with a very shaky hand I write a check to him for $300.
He drives away and Hadley, Harper, and I go inside.
I call Jesse to tell him what I did. He’ll be upset. It won’t be so much about the money, though that’ll annoy him. He’ll be upset with my behavior, that I acted so fast without thinking. We have this conversation all the time; I get so worked up and I can’t calm down, or, more accurately, I refuse to calm down. Harper is the same way, which makes me think this isn’t a learned behavior. It’s in our genes. This doesn’t mean the behavior cannot be unlearned, but I choose to believe there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
While the phone rings, I sit down at our kitchen table. Jesse built this table for me last year. It was a present for earning my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. He and I were in Georgetown three years earlier when the dream of a big, thick wooden table came up. “When I graduate,” I told him, “I want a big, ol’ party.” We were holding hands, walking down M Street towards the Potomac River. Georgetown is my favorite place in D.C. It’s such a cliché, but it is my Disney World, and Jesse takes me there on dates and listens as I entertain my petty dreams. “We could afford a place here someday. I could stay at home and write bestsellers, and work at the library on the hill, and I’ll take my lunch breaks along the Potomac or on the Kennedy Center rooftop terrace, and we’ll throw glorious parties with champagne and fancy dresses.”
Jesse laughed. “How about we throw parties around a bigger kitchen table?”
“One with thick slabs of wood,” I told him, looking at the boats on the water. “And the wood shouldn’t be all perfect,” I added, sliding my hand across the air so it’s parallel to the smooth river. “I want some nooks and bumps. I want to see the tree’s life, OK?”
We watched the ferry pull away from the dock. It would sail under the Memorial Bridge, towards the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument and end up in Old Town Alexandria.
“OK,” Jesse said. “You finish your degree, and I’ll build you a table.”
I slide my hand across the wood now and listen to Jesse, who’s left his meeting in Alabama to talk with me.
“Why didn’t you wait for me to call a locksmith? I would’ve helped.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” I think about all the blood. I can’t believe I was worked up enough to break a key. Why did I have to get so worked up? Why do I get like this? “I just wanted to take care of it myself.” Tears splash on the table Jesse made me. They seep through the cracks between the planks of wood he laid. He was so upset when they came apart a few weeks after he built it, but I like the space. It shows character.
“You have to call that company back and tell them what happened,” Jesse says. “You need to get a receipt.”
I call the company and explain what happened, and they have the locksmith call me back. “Why didn’t you ask for a receipt?” he demands. “I would’ve given you one. Why didn’t you ask?”
I tell him I thought I did ask.
“No, you didn’t.”
“I’m sorry,” I say and I hate myself for saying I’m sorry.
“I’ll be there in five minutes.”
But he’s not. The girls and I have dinner. Hadley and Harper take showers and I read stories to them before bed. I pack our lunches for the next day. I pour myself a glass of wine, sit down on the couch and turn on the TV. That’s when he shows up. It is 9 p.m.
“I’m sorry,” he says when I open the door.
“I just need a receipt,” I respond, but I wonder what it is he’s sorry for.
He hands me a triplicate form on a clipboard. The business name and address is typed on the upper left corner and he’s written his services in the boxes below.
I sign my name and give the form back.
“Is your husband home?” he asks as he rips my portion of the receipt off. He tries to look around me, into the house.
“He’s on his way home.” I put my arm on the door, ready to slam it shut.
Of course the black widow spider wasn’t out when I split my finger. I’ve heard they don’t come out in the daytime. But she could’ve been there at night. She could’ve crawled up his leg, or crawled into my house while I lied to him about Jesse coming home that night. Or maybe she did what all spiders do when they sense danger: freeze and wait it out. If she were E.B. White’s Charlotte, and this guy decided to do something, I wonder if she would’ve attacked.
I suppose if this story were fiction, she would’ve, but I’m trying to work with the truth. The truth is, he gave me my receipt; I slammed the door, locked it, and watched him get into his car and drive away. The truth is I slept on the couch that night, too afraid to sleep in my bed. The truth is, Jesse found the black widow three days later when he was fixing the lock on our front door.
“That’s a black widow!” he said and slammed the door.
He would wait until dark, after the girls had gone to bed. During a break in the Notre Dame football game, he would throw on a jacket, grab a flashlight and the spray can, and leave through the back door. He would walk around to the front of the house, crouch as close as he was brave enough to get to her web, and spray.
About a month later, Harper comes home with her tale about a wolf spider. I’m certain she made the story up, but I ask her about it one day as we walk to her ballet class. I’m interested in trying to do what I try to do for myself when I write creative nonfiction. That is, I’m interested in redemption.
“I read your story about the wolf spider,” I tell her.
“YES!” she exclaims as she leaps into the air. Harper never walks. She skips, prances, runs, leaps. “I was so freaked out, Mommy!” She proclaims it as though she is happy remembering how afraid she was.
“Harper, when did this happen?” I reach out my hand for her to hold because we are about to cross a street. She takes it.
Harper explains it was at a friend’s house, in the basement. She was playing on a keyboard when the wolf spider jumped on her hand.
What Harper wrote was true, I think as I watch her twirl into the dance studio. There is no need to think of the spider as a metaphor or find some other truth in the story she told. She’s in no need of redemption.
I walk home careful not to step on the fallen leaves. They’re dead, I know, but I feel bad stepping on them after they’ve put on such a gloriously colorful show before they let go of the branch and fell. I think about the wolf spider that scared Harper, and I think about the black widow that I never knew.
I step up to our front door careful to slide the key in the lock slowly. I’m careful to turn it slowly. I’m trying—with great difficulty—to do things slowly these days; to take deep breaths, to stay calm. I hate this sort of work.
Before I open the door and walk inside, I look at where the black widow’s web used to be. I see a little hole where she must’ve crawled in and out of.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper towards where she used to be.
I walk inside to the kitchen, and pull out plates to set on my table for dinner.
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