ANTS by Mary Mattingly

There’s an ant infestation in my bathroom.

They are relentless. Everyday, more squirming black dots swarm the sink, the countertops. Me, I’m fearless. I launch attacks on them with a safe-for-pets Ant and Roach Killer spray, twisting the green cap counterclockwise to cock it, holding it close to the sink to use the pesticide since at some point, the useless aluminum bottle broke and it no longer sprays confidently, just reluctantly pisses spray out. Still, it’s satisfying to watch the ants slow as the chemicals hit them. They drown in poisonous pools. I work methodically, chasing them to their home behind the counter, from which they’re inevitably swarming.

But no matter how many I kill, they keep coming back.

***

The first time I fell into obsessive depression, I was 16. I met him at a party on New Year’s Eve. I was immediately taken with his thick swoopy blonde hair and mismatched eyes, his full lips soft, softer than I ever thought a boy’s lips could be. We spent two weeks making out on and off in each other’s basements until finally he texted me during choir class, told me he wasn’t over his ex-girlfriend, a pretty and popular girl in my biology class. I told him it was fine but continued for months to spend every hour wondering what went wrong, replaying our various rendezvous in my mind and wondering why not me, what was wrong with me. It was remarkable the first day I woke up to realize he hadn’t been my first thought. It had been almost a year at that point. But, I was only seventeen. It’s normal for girls to be dramatic at that age. I wasn’t aware yet that I shouldn’t want to possess a person this way. To chase things denied to me simply because they are denied to me. 

He and I went on like that for a while.

***

I suspect the ants have a queen and she’s fat behind the sink counter. She controls all their collective motions, sends them out scouting for food to bring back to the nest. And they obey, bowing to that thick, segmented mass. All she needs to do is say the word and they go out in the world in patterns that serve her needs.

I will kill her once I find her. 

***

The first time I took a razor blade to the inner punchy flesh of my left arm, I was wrapped up in another obsession, over another boy. A musician (of course) with ropy tattooed arms and zero interest in being my boyfriend. I sat on my couch several vodka waters deep and used the blade I stole from his apartment. Instead of gliding through the tape that seals packages shut, I traced straight lines, which first appeared white, then thready with blood. I felt nothing thanks to the heavy cloak of alcohol I lay underneath. I realize all this information makes me sound hysterical, a scorned woman from a book with a heaving bosom on the cover. I cried as I did this, wishing that instead I was laying next to him in his purple-sheeted bed, knowing full well he wouldn’t wrap me up in his arms or rest his inked fingers on my hip. I knew then I was afflicted with something, but the only cure I could think of was at the tail end of a clear bottle.

***

My poor roommate doesn’t know what to do with the ants in our kitchen. It falls to me, then, to come up with some kind of plan. He complains, infrequently, wondering why the ants have migrated from the kitchen to the bathroom sink. It’s not like there’s anything in there for them to eat, he says. What is it they’re looking for? 

***

I don’t like my mind. It shouts unfair things at me, heightens my awareness of my place in the world and how minuscule it is, my past failures, points out all the things people likely don’t like about me. My crooked nose and my not-flat stomach and that time I said the wrong thing at the wrong time. I don’t know how else to get it to shut up. So I drink.

***

To my roommate’s point, I’m not sure what it is the ants eat in the bathroom or how they stay alive. I wonder what I look like to them gazing up from their tiny bodies. Some easily ignorable entity, some blurry giant. They see me and they don’t scatter. I scare me more than I scare them.

***

The first time alcohol becomes the opposite of a friend is when it starts keeping me company when I’m bored. Sobriety scares me. Since I was eighteen, I’ve stayed high on something – weed from the college dealers on my undergraduate’s campus, hydrocodone stolen from my parents’ medicine cabinet, booze, psychedelics, molly, nicotine. But it’s not like I’m doing heroin. Or meth. Only then would I really have a problem. Only then will I have lost control.

***

The first time my impulse decisions start to pull me down, I’m living in South Florida, one hundred dollars away from penniless and my father is telling me over the phone I need to come home. I make decisions recklessly and they’ve come at a cost. Yes, I have a problem with spending. But, deep down, I know purchasing this or that one thing is going to turn it all around for me. 

That’s how I ended up with a cat. 

I’m in South Florida because I quit my job to pursue an MFA in fiction writing, left stability behind to move across the country, convinced I have a special something unlike anything my new professors have ever seen. Surely, I’d graduate with some kind of prestige, a book deal at least. My undergraduate music degree had been a farce, see, no, writing, like Anaïs Nin or Jeffrey Eugenides, writing, that’s where my artistry really shines. 

Instead, I spend so much time at the local bar they learn my drink order and at first, I have fun. I meet new people, other writers, from all over the country and we get into spirited debates about teaching, about politics, tell stories. I talk too much and too fast, but I am devastatingly happy. I’m the fearless one, following an unconventional life path to the land of sunshine and overabundance. While my friends back home are forming dull meaningful relationships with partners and settling into gray careers and 401Ks, I’m following my dreams. 

It doesn’t matter that, well, I’m not really writing, and it doesn’t matter that I’m spending every dollar I have on a vacation to the Keys, clear drinks, my old vices. In my mind, I’m a star. And celebrities don’t pay bills. After one semester, four months, I’ve used up all my savings, owe the federal government thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes and fines, and have to cash bonds my grandparents bought once-promising, infantile me to pay my rent. 

Oops.

***

Some days, I consider not killing the ants. Maybe they’ve already won.

***

I’m sitting in a psychiatrist’s office in Boca Raton. I’ve told her I’ve come in for an assessment. I had previously gone to another psychiatrist’s office on the hunt for the cure of being me, but all I know was that place scared me, with its mildewy smell of aging concrete walls and unwashed humans, wandering, doped-up bodies propped up by endless amounts of chemicals, both natural and prescribed. 

This psych’s office is much nicer. It plays irritating, soothing music in the waiting room, where I jiggle on a white cushioned chair and wait to be called in. I have started taking Lexapro for depression, hurriedly prescribed during my ten-minute meeting with the previous psych and thus far the daily five milligrams has done nothing for me. I still obsess over people, wake up at odd hours and can’t find the motivation to finish my schoolwork. 

But I’m not always like that.

I tell the psych, a kind woman with concerned brown eyes, that I don’t get good days, I get good weeks, where energy and excitement thrum through me. It’s like being high. I yearn for those months. I can control a room, make people laugh, make them feel good about themselves. I start writing short stories, books, bang out half-conceived songs on my teetering Yamaha keyboard, attempt comedic screenplays. Nothing gets done. Then comes the inevitable, drinking too much, blowing through every dollar on random, much-needed fixations like ounces of CBD or two hundred dollar speakers, sleeping with strangers I otherwise wouldn’t. Snapping at my roommate over a coffee mug left in the sink. Crying. Pouring myself another glass of vodka. 

“Do you have any family members who are bipolar?” she asks.

I blink. It’s not something I’ve ever considered.

“I don’t know,” I reply. 

I just know I’m tired of scaring my parents, myself. I’m tired of my temper tantrums, the times I get so frustrated over being unable to accomplish everyday tasks, it escalates to me screaming at myself, pacing through my house and shouting about how stupid I am. 

I’m just tired. 

***

Can ants think? Or do they just react in patterns? Do they have plans to take over my entire house? Will they chew through the foundation, termite-like, until it snaps? Will I lay back and let them?

***

It seems like everyone is bipolar these days. I see Tweets on social media, people noting with a nodding wink that they’re having a depressive episode or posting blurred memes representative of being manic. I do it myself. Proudly announce my diagnosis. Mood disorder. Such a catchy hashtag. I read articles detailing why the millennial generation struggles with mental health. It seems like everyone wants a clinical reason for why they feel the way they feel. 

We all want to be special. Rather than be a little sad, we’re depressed. Rather than being nervous, we’re having a mixed episode. I familiarize myself with new terms: “hypomania,” “psych ward,” “anti-psychotic.” I see the rise in the discourse over mental health and I start to doubt myself. Am I really sick or am I playing into the allure of mental illness Instagram? I wonder how much of my problems are manufactured. Is taking medication a conspiracy by Big Pharma, convincing us that normal human emotions are unnatural, that there’s a pill to treat this and that? My friend has been on medication as long as I have and he says he doesn’t feel any different. I think I do. I think? I don’t know myself well enough to tell. 

***

I will have control. I finally go to the store and buy traps for the ants. It’s a big step, one I’ve been putting off, but one that needs to be done. Plus, I’m almost out of spray. 

***

These days, my brain and I continue to fight. But it’s easier now not to let it do me in. “You really have to take all those medications everyday?” My mother asks, reminding me that they’ll make me gain weight. And I don’t have an answer. Now I embrace society instead of rejecting it.  At least for now. It scares me though, what the almighty brain can say. Veer into traffic. Swan dive off the top of the fifth floor of your friend’s apartment building. Stock up on your anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication and take them all at once. Just to see what happens. 

My thoughts, they fritter around my head like swarms of ants. Everyday, they surface from behind the sink, make a beeline for me on the orders of their queen. And everyday, I take small pills, white circles, green and white ovals, to beat them back, a spray, a little trap of poison. I am doing better. My obsessions are still there, my circular thoughts still trap me sometimes. Some days, my brain might not want me here. But I want to be here. 

That counts for something. 


Mary Mattingly is a Metro Detroit native who recently graduated from Florida Atlantic University with an MFA in fiction. If her words do nothing but make you laugh, she’s satisfied. Her work has previously been seen in Arcturus and Barren Magazine. 
 

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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