It might have been a different story had there been more than two of them. In the case of an actual infestation, I can’t say I wouldn’t have pulled out one of those fly traps that unspool into a sticky ribbon of death. But I decided I couldn’t get rid of these two even if I tried. They must have come in on a grocery bag from the outdoor market. Or on the back of my shirt. In the five years I have been living on the eleventh floor, I have never had any fruit flies. These two were relentless. I tried opening the apartment door to the hallway, but they flew into the kitchen. After several frustrating hours, I realized they were definitely here to stay. The only question was for how long. I googled the life span of a fruit fly. It was two to three weeks.
Their favorite place to land seemed to be the top of my head, right on my bald spot. They also liked to hang out on both of my arms. I assumed that they were getting some kind of nourishment. From sweat?
When I sat meditating, I had to put my meditation shawl over my head, because the constant coming and going of the two flies began to compete with the thoughts I was already trying to tame. They also liked to explore my face. It was impossible not to instinctively swat at them. They were sentient beings. I didn’t want to kill them, I just wanted them to go away.
If I got out of my chair, they followed me. If I stood cooking dinner, they got excited and dive-bombed me. When I came home, I would spot them immediately because they would just be hanging out on the armrest of my recliner. As soon as I sat down, they’d go walking up and down my arms, and fly up to my head. Every once in a while they did zoomies and went hell-bent for leather in every room. I knew they were tiny little flies, but they were beginning to seem ominous.
During the week, my irritation morphed into all-out rage. One afternoon, right after repeatedly snapping a dish towel at them, I sat down and had a hard talk with myself, while all the while they kept spinning around my head. (By the way, they were never alone and always traveled as a pair.) I told myself to get a grip, and then remembered something I had heard from a therapist on talk radio. He was an anger management coach, and I could recall him yelling at that very moment, “Don’t get furious, get curious!” These five words had the effect of a whole dharma talk.
So, I wondered what they ate. Unsurprisingly, it was rotten fruit. I didn’t have any around the house, nor did I want to conjure up any. They seemed to be getting nourishment from somewhere, and were certainly sparky enough for me to feel they were getting what they needed in the apartment. I continued being curious. I discovered that fruit flies were coveted by geneticists for research because of their short lives, which could create hundreds of generations to track in a short time. When I told this to a friend, they laughingly accused me of becoming a fruit fly apologist.
I began to find ways to tolerate them. When I cooked, I covered all the ingredients before they landed on them. I did the same with a simple glass of water. Bedtime required a strategy. I would turn out all the lights in the apartment, except for the bathroom, reasoning that the one light would appeal to them. I would then make a dash for the bedroom and slam the door behind me. This didn’t always work.
I had no idea, and still don’t know, if fruit flies sleep. What I do know is that I awoke one morning to find them both perched on my pillow, completely still. Were they just waiting for me to start the day? In my drowsiness I found myself in a Looney Toons cartoon, actually imagining that they were both having a conversation with me in teeny screechy voices that I couldn’t decipher. At that point, I believed we were becoming friends.
I came across Pema Chödrön’s book, Welcoming the Unwelcome. It couldn’t have come at a better time. The book spoke to me; it was the very dilemma I found myself in. What synchronicity! Reflecting on one chapter titled “Welcoming the Unwelcome with Laughter,” I realized that I had been chuckling to myself more often than not about the whole dilemma these days.
Of course, this would soon stop in the face of a new anxiety: Fruit flies lay hundreds of eggs at once, a Google search told me. Was I unintentionally promoting a real infestation? Was I going to have to pull out those sticky strips after all? I wondered if they were a breeding couple. As it turns out, one needs a microscope to be able to identify their sex. I essentially wished upon a star that they were either both females, or both males.
Toward the end of this week, I began to see that both of them were getting darker and smaller. They had gone from their original brown to jet black. And they did seem to be less active. They were indolent. When I’d swoosh them away with my hand, they sometimes didn’t even move out of the way. And then one morning, one of them disappeared. Two days later, the other was gone. They were so small by then, I could never have found their bodies, but clearly they had lived out their life span, right on the dot of three weeks.
I’ve thought about how they gave me the opportunity to be virtuous, not because I didn’t (or couldn’t) kill them, but because I had found a way to live with them through those three weeks. I had gone from an entitled human to one who, in spite of himself, was forced to take on the challenge of “welcoming the unwelcome.” At least in some, admittedly, clumsy way.
I felt sad. I had followed them, in a near blink of an eye, through their entire lives. I was reminded that any sentient being’s life and death is something sacred and cherishable. I know, now, from Pema Chödrön, that there are innumerable paths and ways to experience bodhicitta. I’d gone from nearly blind rage to a tenderness toward “my” two flies. And in that very moment, in the tiniest of ways, I felt my heart grow larger.