by Melissa Wiley
All my life I’ll know I ignored them, my cousin Kevin and his wife on Royal Street in New Orleans. Nothing could have been simpler than saying hello to them. Instead, I turned toward Jackson Square and away from all the street musicians.
Kevin’s beard had gone gray in patches. Gibbous moons bleached tired jowls hung heavy as damask curtains, and he’d gained thirty pounds since last time I’d seen him. I used to wonder how he found Courtney attractive. The hair on her head curled the same as that on my labia while her calves closed over feet without ankles to interrupt them. Now they looked so similar, their bodies equally shapeless, I imagined real sympathy thickened between them.
They stood drinking beer from plastic cups, their lower lips both hung slack as those of groupers changing sexes. Once a female grouper grows to eight inches, she becomes a male lusting on his former female companions. Kevin and Courtney made love like fish sleeping, I supposed, with their eyes always open. They closed them for hours afterward to replenish moisture when breathing through their noses.
As they wrapped bloated arms around each other’s waists blurred into their buttocks, I sucked air from my stomach deeper inside a dress I’d bought the evening previous in a shop near where Courtney and Kevin were standing when I saw them, each with their legs spread wide to prevent them from rolling my direction. My dress was tight and olive, but from the back Kevin would hardly recognize his cousin. Ten years after my father’s funeral and he knew next to nothing of me or others not as happy and corpulent.
In our hotel, my husband and I slept better in the day than at night after we’d both had too much to drink without waking dehydrated. After dusk, invisible bugs also ravaged us, because our bodies’ heat grew more visible to them in darkness. Maybe they were lice, maybe bedbugs, though if so we were the ones who brought them. We were their hosts, with no way of leaving our skins, not even in New Orleans.
They’d attacked us the past three weeks in our Chicago apartment, where my husband kept telling me to make it a meditation, because my bites swelled while his stayed too small to notice and he didn’t want to pay for fumigation. Sleep was becoming less and less of a respite, to the point I couldn’t help wondering what will happen once my eyelids atrophy into a gossamer hymen. Time and again, I asked myself how I’ll survive once I’m forced to sleep with my eyes always open. I asked without answering the question, because I am not a fish but merely a woman.
We bought bug spray to combat every kind of pestilence. We sprayed until we choked on fumes we read might be cancerous. Cancer, though, we were fine with so long as it allowed us to sleep while our eyelids were still with us. The insects we’d rather be phantoms, which one article suggested—a sign of psychosis—only slowed their hunger to a grazing when we emptied two bottles within minutes. We were depleting the supplies of all the Walgreens in a five-mile radius.
It’s been a month now since we’ve returned from New Orleans, and I still feel them crawling down every orifice, which could also signal the beginning of multiple sclerosis, I’ve gleaned from sundry sources. Whatever my assessment, even that they’ll leave us once we move all our furniture into another apartment, the body’s reality remains primary, the feeling of teeth marks along your wrists the same as being bitten.
Rain was predicted for all three days of our trip to New Orleans. But at least we could escape some of the stinging, from the bugs themselves or our nerves begun to blink like electrical wire frayed by rodents. In Chicago, I’d begun seeing blue sparks rioting along our blanket. Maybe they were small bug bodies glowing as they fed on my thighs and stomach, maybe only the exchange of static electricity. Or maybe every small movement now hurts me. I wake with twice as many bites as my husband if we go a night without spraying.
Some things, though, had to be simpler in the Big Easy, where the wind is warmer so close to the Mississippi. On our flight from O’Hare to Louis Armstrong on Christmas morning, I sat between two older men while my husband sat two rows behind me. The man on my left resembled a long-dead great uncle and worked a crossword puzzle. The other played solitaire, shuffling the cards with his finger across his phone screen. I put my head down on the tray table, tired of wanting more love than was given me, tired of hoping for love to multiply into an insect colony embedded deep within my mattress no amount of poison would poison completely.
As we were dressing for dinner later that evening, our first in New Orleans since a couple years before, I told my husband I thought my sister, whom we had visited recently, had become so radiant I had to squint when I saw her. He only smiled, nodding his agreement. She was a beautiful woman, he added, though looked nothing like me.
I was applying mascara in the bathroom when I wondered if my husband realized my eyes were not brown but golden while ringed in aquamarine, like a cow paddy eclipsing the ocean. Only I didn’t bother asking, because my sister’s were rounder and yet more golden and saw better too while mine both have astigmatisms. At dinner, however, he reraised the subject, saying my sister had such a pretty face and he didn’t understand how people assumed we were related as I ate my gumbo and kept silent. I had tried applying my mascara carefully, but a streak settled in a crack below my eye, I later noticed. There’s no real help, though, for a face molded this crudely. I’m the oldest sister, the oldest of all the cousins.
The courtesans of Venice walked crowded streets on stilts when their line of customers grew low. Three heads taller than any other pedestrians, they knew that if they fell it would only be into the arms of a stranger who would likely pay their next month’s rent and grocery bill also. Famously erudite as well as beautiful, they walked certain they need not perambulate long among so many faces upturned to watch a woman too alluring to be too virtuous.
Yet stand close enough to another person’s face and her pores become the more obvious, the holes through which her skin breathes. You see all too clearly the loveliest woman in the room is only a series of spaces through which you may fall or keep your balance, courtesans no more solid a body than anyone less attractive.
And as I sat there, chewing softened rice with sausage, I told myself I was wrong to have come to a place where life is supposed to be less difficult because there is so much music. Because that was the only reason I traveled, I realized at last with clarity. I bought airplane tickets to somewhere I looked less porous to strangers who saw me only at a distance. I traveled the same as a soul who kept self-killing, reincarnating in yet more broken bodies only to commit the selfsame carnage. Wherever I went now too, bugs on my skin came with me. I was their earth, they the fire below my surface.
Kevin and Courtney, my sister told me, had a daughter named Sidney I didn’t see while I watched them watching a woman play ukulele. Maybe Sidney’s grandparents were watching her in Indianapolis, where they’d bought a home, my sister had also told me. I was glad in any case not to have to meet her and pretend she was pretty. However cute as a toddler or baby, she stood little chance of attracting men better looking than her father once she entered puberty. The odds she’d become a man when she grew taller were higher than average.
I told myself this was the last year I could travel to New Orleans and wear something slutty, because I’m three years older than Courtney. Buying dresses, though, almost too small for me is what I do when I feel myself unraveling. They allow me to enjoy for a little longer this body, whose eyelids I blink consciously only to ensure they haven’t started thinning prematurely.
When I slipped into the dress I bought the evening before I saw Kevin and Courtney, my husband said it fit me tightly as a Band-Aid. The color resembled military camouflaging, and I hardly needed too to spend the money. Wasn’t there something better I could be doing? Didn’t I need to start saving? he asked me rhetorically. Didn’t I need bandaging? I asked without listening for any response he made.
After I bought the dress, I stood outside the shop and watched a block of dry ice dissolving from a sewer drain. Gray plumes clouded an oyster bar ringed with a wrought-iron balcony. Dry ice passes from solid to gas directly, refusing to liquefy in a kind of purgatory. Instead, it sublimates itself into vapor. And I have long been seeking the same, the same metamorphosis into purity, but have given up trying. I’ve abandoned living for the soul rather than the body, done with extracting meaning from pain. I’ve stopped trying to be a better person than one who runs to New Orleans to buy another dress she doesn’t need. A drab Army green.
When I was seven or eight, my vagina began to itch and burn late one summer evening, interrupting my sleep then worsening in the coming weeks. I never knew why—a yeast infection probably, from wearing a wet swimsuit worn for too many successive days so it never finished drying—but I lived with the burning, never telling anyone, unaware there were such things as vaginal creams, unaware still partially what it was that was itching. Only when I rode my bicycle down the gravel roads radiating from our farmhouse like phosphenes, the bicycle seat lit another fire I had no way of cooling. Wild dogs chased me, snapping at my ankles rotating faster with my bicycle chain.
Two Dobermans began to overtake me while one nipped at my leg. I rode into a ditch purposefully, deciding to let them have their way with me. I rode into a ditch so I wouldn’t have to keep living with the fear of them attacking me every time I left my driveway. Once they ate me, they would also end the burning between my legs, so I crashed headlong into grasses grown sharp as blades. I vowed to remain until the dogs had bloodied all their teeth with me.
When they didn’t follow me but left me there crying, I didn’t have the courage to ride back home past them. I preferred that they wholesale devour rather than continue chasing me. Toward dark, my mom eventually drove and found me, but she was too late, by several hours. I had already reconciled myself to a death there alone and hungry, because prey can grow just as famished as their predator species. By that time, the dogs had become friends to me. I had given them on all my bones. Had given them everything.
The wish for a quick end to torment has never left me. Now if my vagina begins burning, I buy myself a tube of cream. Secretly, however, I still want the dogs to come finish me.
After dinner at the Pelican Club, where we sat along a gleaming leather banquette beside the grand piano on whose bench were set pink poinsettias in place of any music, we walked inside the studio of an artist named Adrian, certain he’d forgotten us from our visit two years earlier when we had bought no paintings. He hugged us immediately, saying he never forgot a face as we reminded him of our names. A toy train was circling the room carrying a bottle of vodka, and he offered us a shot to celebrate our return to the city.
As the liquor ran through me, I looked up at a picture of Robin Williams, his lineaments drawn in steel with knives, Adrian told us. Then I turned toward a portrait of Hillary Clinton, looking wistful as if politics were a form of poetry, when Adrian said he only ever drew any person’s soul, which was always lovely. He said this implying he painted all his subjects fresh from waking, when their eyes were moistest, though his rendering of Robin Williams struck me as a little sinister looking. He appeared as if he were already planning his hanging, as if his laughter were a cardboard box hiding a kitten with no holes punched through for oxygen. As if he had thrown himself to the dogs years before the public became aware of any suicidal tendencies.
As we left, I looked for Kevin and Courtney and relaxed only when I didn’t see anyone of their shape walking our same pathway. I didn’t want them to have any of Adrian’s vodka after me. I didn’t want Courtney to compliment my dress of green gauze that kept me from bleeding.
At Café Amelie late next morning, I noticed my husband’s hair was turning grayer in sunlight filtering through waxen leaves that never browned but died fully green. After our waiter asked me twice if I’d like more coffee, my husband said he would sleep with me. I said nothing in response, only wondered how long before my hair turned as silver as his was now beginning.
The last time I saw Kevin was at a family dinner after my father’s funeral, when one of his eyes kept twitching as I told some anecdote I thought was funny while he stood shifting his weight, impassive. His eyes were always too close together, closer than necessary. Now one blinked as if he were trying to keep debris from falling down his pupil, that or trying to prevent it from drying after fucking Courtney. I started laughing at the end of my story as he drifted toward my sister. I stared at his ear and the pale, hard flower it made.
Any ear folds in on itself like petals around a pistil. Only it takes longer than a violet to wilt and decay. In the absence of flowers then, in too long of a too cold months on end, those starved for beauty can be excused for paying more attention to the human ear than they might have done were the wind only warmer. Van Gogh cut his ear off deep in a December frost, when the only blossoms left were those he’d painted the previous summer, glazed in turpentine and smelling of vinegar. And I cannot think this insane, the hunger for the loveliness that has gone missing. Of making a hole in your head while pulling the only surviving flower.
A painter with his watercolors hung from a fence had eyes so blue that when I looked at him I felt as if I were swimming then drowning. My husband was with me—we’d taken another nap together, longer each afternoon—and he fired a fusillade of questions at him regarding his technique. The artist and I kept looking at each other as he answered, and I decided that I loved him. Because his eyes were blue, though I would not have minded were they green. Because they were equally vulnerable to desiccation once his eyelids thinned into nothing. Because he was a little old, though his skin was smooth.
And because he washed all his watercolors in the bath, he said, so the colors were running off their pages. They looked as if they had tried to sublimate themselves into vapors but had become only more liquid. He liked the look of paintings that were water-damaged, he acknowledged, when my husband pressed him for a reason. Me too, I said, in order to look in his eyes again and feel myself afloat in them.
While the calliope started playing, we walked to the riverbed, where no one was sleeping, though I felt tempted.
The Mississippi had grayed since we last visited while becoming more restive. People wearing plastic gloves the color of seaweed were collecting garbage. The seagulls sat stationary in the shallows as the waves around them splashed in ludic spirals, and I wondered why the birds didn’t fly with the wind, letting it carry them somewhere with less detritus than in New Orleans. Yet they remained strung along the ripples, song notes left on a page of music, indifferent to whether anyone was playing them.
I could not play the music they had written, only watch it lie silent. Staring into wind, my eyes usually burn and I have to shut them. But the wind here was warmer than we had expected. In warm winds I can stare longer without blinking. I had almost forgotten.
I saw a man pulling the strings of a puppet, struggling to fly a kite stuck in a hackle of juniper bushes. The puppet’s hair was threaded with silver, and the wooden hand holding the kite string twitched with exhaustion. Why the man controlling him didn’t release his kite from the twigs I could not fathom.
At first, I thought the puppet wore a small mask. Bending closer, however, I saw that beneath his eyes darker rings only shadowed them, as if he had not slept for longer than I liked to imagine. He was so tired from staring into a kite that kept wrapping itself more tightly around a bush with branches forked like lightning that the puppet might well be worried they were about to strike him.
Yet even were the wind cooler, he couldn’t blink and restore his vision. His eyelids were carved three-quarter open, well on their way to full recession. He had no choice except to watch women for whom he once had lusted become men before him. With no possibility of real sleep ahead, he had to keep flying a kite being torn by brush, pretending the kite was flying while seeing it disintegrate into paper streams.
Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in literary magazines including DIAGRAM, Atlas and Alice, PANK, Superstition Review, The James Franco Review, Prick of the Spindle, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Drunken Boat, Poydras Review, Gravel, Pinball, East Bay Review, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Souvenir Lit Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit.