I’ve never liked doctors’ waiting rooms, especially when I’m scared. One day I was waiting in a doctor’s office in Manhattan to have my eardrum pierced, and the receptionist told me the doctor couldn’t use anesthetic. His assistant would have to grip my head in his hands, and I wasn’t supposed to move; if I fidgeted, I’d lose some of my hearing. This was the sixties, and I was twenty, working as a reporter at a small country newspaper and hiking in the woods every weekend. I’d been reluctant to come into the city to see a specialist.
I sat in the waiting room, hoping I wouldn’t flinch, wondering how long it would take and how much it would hurt. I stared at the plush carpet and listened to the other patients shuffle the pages of magazines. The mahogany furniture gleamed. A mother shushed her daughter, who was leaning against her and complaining about the wait.
I was in pain because my ear was full of fluid, but I was afraid the discomfort would be worse afterwards. At that moment, more than anything, I wanted to get away from that building with its offices full of stuttering typewriters. I knew I’d feel better if I could just see something wild, even a tree or a pigeon.
I got up and stood in front of the window and looked out: no pigeons, no trees. Steam poured from a manhole cover, and a delivery boy veered in and out of traffic on his bike. From down the street came the sound of a jackhammer.
Then I looked at the window ledge below me, and there, leaping along the granite, sixteen floors above the ground, was a grey jumping spider. About the size of my smallest fingernail, she flung herself into the air, and bounded along, trailing a thread of silk.
She fell off the ledge in mid-leap, but reappeared in a few seconds, pulling herself up by her thread, and kept on jumping, apparently unaffected by her fall.
I leaned over and my shadow fell across the spider, and she swiveled to look at me. She had a square head and eight eyes, and I knew she could see me, because jumping spiders have good eyesight, are able to see in color, and have been known to follow images on television.
They’re among the smartest of spiders: they can navigate mazes in labs and steal up on their prey—flies and other spiders—more efficiently than some mammals. Their feet are full of thousands of tiny hairs that allow them to climb roofs and trees and leap sideways and backwards. They can jump twenty times their body length, and are found all over the world, even on the ice on Mount Everest, eating whatever insects the wind blows their way.
The spider stared at me, stood on her hind legs, and waved her front legs like a tiny horse rearing, as if to get a better look at my face looming overhead. She was probably assessing me to see if I was any danger as a predator, but still, I felt pleased to be acknowledged.
Finally, a nurse looking down at her clipboard called my name. I walked into the office and sat in a chair lined with crinkly paper; the doctor’s back was turned and he fiddled with some instruments that clanked as he moved them around on a tray. The doctor’s assistant also had his back turned; I never saw his face, because he approached me from behind and clenched both sides of my head in his hands. His palms felt like iron bars against my temples.
“Now, don’t move,” the doctor said.
When the needle went in, I didn’t flinch: I thought about that spider, and how she would spend the night on that ledge in a shelter of silk.
I know that New York spider is long dead, blown into the street or swept into a drain. She’s had thousands of descendants by now, and some are probably still leaping across that window ledge in Manhattan, while I’ve moved to California and live in a wild place next to a marsh. But I’ve never forgotten that spider, who was the only being in New York all day who truly looked at me.