Vincent and the Centipede
Vincent told me a story that night, the night we stayed up until it got bright. He was biting the skin around his fingernails and looking up at the ceiling when he was talking, his eyes humid. Vincent told me a story about when he was in the mental hospital. It happened long ago, and there were parts of it I remembered, going to see him with his mother and watching him eat golden niblets of corn out of a Styrofoam take-out box. The way his face looked different after they cut off his hair, the way the pale green hospital pants pulled tight across his thighs as he sat on the edge of the bed. But he told me something new, a small thing, a pebble I’d never held. He told me about being in a common room in the hospital and looking down to see a centipede inching across the floor. How he didn’t know if the centipede was real or not, if anybody else could see it.
You pull things toward you, you push things out. Some things you pray for, and some things get lodged in your throat.
I wanted to tell Vincent then about this time I was camping in Kentucky. It was cold and damp, and I’d planted trees, Colorado blue spruces, at my favorite spot on earth. A place called Creation Falls, which is where I’d decided I wanted to be when the world ended, if for no other reason than its name. It was during the time when I wasn’t on any medication at all, during that time when everything was big in my hands, and that secret hatch at the base of my skull was always wide open, my molars jumping with electricity and my body dancing by itself for hours to the music the stars would make as they shook in their settings. And I woke up on the ground one night with a centipede crawling across my face. It was wriggling shiny black in the light of the headlamp, scurrying away under the sleeping bag. I tore through everything desperate to kill it, overturning all the gear. But it had disappeared.
When I listened to Vincent tell his story, I couldn’t help but think it was the same centipede. Displaced, diverging, jostled through spacetime. I couldn’t say it out loud. It was crazy. I was supposed to be done with crazy. Again. But maybe I should have said it, just to let him know that whether or not it was a fiction, somebody else did see it. I saw it, Vincent. Maybe that would have been enough.
Snakeboy and the Smell
In Florida, I was already all tender edges when the center started to blacken. I was scared of him as soon as I saw him. He lived directly below me, in the complex of one-room efficiencies that I thought of as the cellblock, two buildings facing each other across a courtyard of dead grass and ruptured lawn chairs, concrete steps and walkways with railings made of painted pipe. He was sharp angles, he was hard face and hiss. The first time he spoke to me he told me he liked to listen to me early in the morning, that my movement across the floor above him synched perfectly with Coltrane’s Blue Train.
I dreamed of him sending snakes up through the walls. Nightmares of scales and fangs, venom scalding.
I was scoring a dime-bag every day from the old black man on the first floor, the one the herpetologist next door had accused of eating his snapping turtle. I was sleeping little, listening to Dylan’s Desire on vinyl and filling spiral notebooks with scrawled text. I carried them by the boxful to the dumpster behind the building. I wrote once that I was hollowed by men who thought a date was drinking canned beers in my apartment then fucking. I wrote that I wanted to go to the symphony. The second time the snakeboy spoke to me, he asked me to the symphony.
I started ripping all my completed notebooks to shreds. I started barricading my door at night.
When the smell started, I thought I was hallucinating. It had happened before, after the murder, when I wasn’t well. Phantosmia. But it kept ripening. It was real. I couldn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to explain how I knew what a corpse smells like. Louis. The box in the closet. The missing boy folded inside like a limp-necked dove. The stain. Louis’s mother rasping prayers in Spanish, me against the wall. El Diablo. When I came home to the biohazard tape and white van, I wasn’t surprised. But I couldn’t stop shaking. There was a thrum in my veins, there were scrabbling shadows in my periphery. I kept telling myself it meant nothing. An old guy died, an old white guy who lived all alone. It happens.
Then it happened again. A week later. Another old white guy, another white van. More tape, more trembling. I shattered.
Beneath the earth, bedrock. On Seroquel, on Risperdal, I would wake with debris in my bed, the wreckage of subconscious hunger. Raisins like dark hail in the twisted sheets, a block of cheddar mauled. A serrated knife.
Subduction, selves shifting. All slur and stutter. A woman got paid to listen to me, so she did. She was not paid to touch, so I was pristine.
She told me I should learn anger.
I thought I have been fluent only in fear.
Anger was a new language.
I began to study that language, its many conjugations.
Stars Don’t Know What it Feels Like To Be Thirsty
The Mary Jane Bakery used to be right across the street from my elementary school, and the scent of burnt bread always hijacks me to standing at the top of the monkey bars, blue Velcro sneakers, blue zippered jacket, the weather just turning cold and the sky curdled with clouds.
Then I remember that the specificity of this memory is a scene from a dream. The dream I started having in the third grade. I’m supposed to give all the kids their Happy Pills but I mess up and give them Bad Pills. Children are collapsing all around me on the playground, the halls and classrooms inside choked with little bodies. I’m on top of the monkey bars trying to get closer to God’s ear, begging for escape. I dreamed it a lot, and when I woke, the images were gone but the audio kept playing in my head.
This was long before I’d taken any Happy Pills myself, long before I’d be prescribed the Bad Pills too.
I named my daughter Stella. Yes, after her great grandmother and yes, after Queen Esther because she was a Purim baby. But mostly, after myself. Stella was a pseudonym of mine, an alter ego when I was a teenager. Stella was me, but better. Me, but happy.
Stella is in the third grade now, and she’s started crying. She worries about toxicity. She asks a dozen times every day if something she has touched is poisonous. She comes to me sometimes flooded with tears over things that happened in the past. The chocolate coins she lifted from the grocery store last year, the time she bit her brother when he was just a baby. She asks me Does this make me a bad person?
We have the best talks in bed, we always have. We talk about dreams, about magic and imagination. She asks me all those hard questions that twist parents with dread, but that somehow always make me feel a vast calm. Finding the right words, finding different words than the ones I was given, feels oceanic.
Her long tangles of blond hair are splayed across her pillow.
Let’s say you were best friends with a star, and stars don’t know what it feels like to be thirsty, and this star wants to know what that feels like. How would you explain it?
I try my best. Thirsty might be like being constricted, being tight, shriveled. Drinking water might make you feel big, might make you feel abundant, full.
She nods and says okay. She dens down under the covers. Then I realize she is quietly crying.
What’s wrong, baby?
And she starts to sob. Sucking breaths, heaving chest, mouth open in torment.
She says it slowly.
Mama, I can’t remember what it feels like to be thirsty.
I grab her and hold her so tight I think I might crack her open. I love her. And I have never been more scared.
© Anna Lea Jancewicz