The curtains in my room never keep anything out—not the sun’s audacity to be shining this bright this early, and not the sounds of the neighbors fighting—again. Solid screams that I could ball up in my fist if I tried.
Every day has been like this. I fall out of bed—unawake, with the warm fuzzy feeling of a dream still in my chest—and onto the single square of light on the floor. Today is a Thursday, and I have somewhere to be. I will always remember this; the first time I see the mites is on a Thursday, and I have somewhere to be. The room is stuffy and far too hot for February.
I run a toothbrush around my mouth. A cold splash of water on the face, a quick spritz of perfume on the neck, a slight dab of lipstick on my fish underbelly grey lips. A shirt with full sleeves. I stand in front of the mirror. My reflection stares at me with puffy under-eyes. Gently massage the under-eye area using a moisturizer to look more awake. My mother’s voice in my head. I look for a moisturizer.
It’s not until after I’ve squeezed some onto my palm that I notice movement on the bottle. Tiny specks running in circles and running for their lives. Almost translucent when the light falls on them, the delicate brown of the hair on your arms, the bronze of the hair on your head and in my hands. The white bottle cap is shiny, like a peppermint candy without the red, and the mites crawling on it make it look like a candy left in the dirt, spit out for not being sweet enough.
I put the bottle down. The last trace of the dream in my chest evaporates. The longer I stare at the things on my dresser, the more mites seem to materialize, taking over everything. It feels like they’re crawling all over my body and the abandoned candy is in my mouth. I would never have spit it out. I open my mouth and stick out my glistening gumdrop tongue for the mirror to see. Red and white, white and red, colors merging—pink, pink, pink. Pink on my tongue and cutting the roof of my mouth. I would never spit it out. You would never allow it.
It takes a while to clean everything that’s on the dresser. I stick damp cotton buds into the crevices of every bottle cap until I pull the last of the mites out, and then I wipe everything down with disinfectant. The mites cling to each other as they die, conglomerating into tiny, disgusting jelly beans. I wash my hands. The water carries a gray tinge from my skin to the sink. I drink some water to force down my morning pill. The mites were never here. I did a good job cleaning up. My mother taught me well.
I am late.
I dream often of the following: seeing you again, being alone with you again, and smashing your head into a wall. Breaking your skinny fingers one by one for the times they’ve pried into me and ripped me open. My fantasies aren’t complicated, I reach between my legs as I think of pressing a gun to your smooth forehead the way you used to press your lips to mine. I imagine breaking your hands for the marks they’ve left on me, but I think about your eyes the most. Those fucking eyes. I’d wear them around my neck.
They are circled by shadows now as you sit across from me. This café is too crowded, and I have no gun in my pocket. You look tired.
“You look tired,” you tell me.
Five years is a long time. “I am,” I say. The waitress asks if we want anything. I think of the mites and my gumdrop tongue. “Just coffee,” I say.
“You promised,” you say. I shrug. I hate you, I want to say, and I never want to smell of you again.
I reach across the table and take your hand in mine. Callused fingers, ugly hands. I trace my index finger over the wedding band on your third finger. You always had the ugliest hands.
The coffee is bitter and perfect.
I know the mites are back because my skin crawls the second I enter the house. I’m a candy in the dirt again. I run to my room. They seem to have multiplied. I think of a better ritual of cleaning them, similar to the ritual of cleaning myself after you. Two birds, one purging stone.
I need pesticide and razors. I leave again to gather supplies, lighting a cigarette and counting the change in my pocket.
I spray everything with pesticide. I save what I can, and throw out the rest. More mites dying as jelly beans, more mites crawling on me. Clammy like your hands under my skin. I’m tired of constantly being touched. My body was never mine—not when my mother was alive, and not while you’re alive. Antique furniture invites mites. I loved that dresser. It used to be hers and now it’s infested. I need to save that dresser.
The shower water is hot enough to melt my skin off. I shave my arms. I shave my legs. I scrub my body raw. I leave no place on my body for the mites to hide. I step out of the shower without a towel. Water drips onto the carpet. I wipe my brow with my arm. Saltwater skin. I still smell of you.
I put on the ugliest clothes I own. Loose trousers the color of wet concrete, and a shirt that has a hole over the armpit. I don’t dry my hair. It curls at the nape of my neck, and water drips in unsteady lines onto the old shirt. My left eye feels like an eyelash is stuck inside it. I usually fish those out with a cotton bud. I look for the cup that holds them. It’s on the floor, where I left it after making mite jelly beans the second time today. There’s only one left. I hold my eyelid back in front of the mirror and try not to stab my eyeball with the bud. My eye stings as soon as the cotton tip touches it. Strange, but I ignore this.
The hard lump under my eyelid doesn’t feel the way rogue eyelashes do, it feels too…round. I blink. Twice. Three times. I feel it still. I look at the cotton bud in my hand. There’s something at the now tear-damp tip, but it isn’t an eyelash.
It’s a dead mite.
The lump seems to be moving. I gasp and lean closer to the mirror, close enough to be able to see the tiny veins on my eyeball. One of them is darker and protrudes more than the rest.
My pupil dilates. The bastard vein pulls itself free from my eyeball and hovers in the air like a tentacle, one end still attached to my eye. I would never scream. You’ve taught me well. The vein-tentacle grows. I step away from the mirror. It looks more like an insect leg now. Sharp joints, covered in fine hair, curling as it grows as long as my arm. I stand with my back against the wall across the mirror and watch, frozen, as my eye socket is reduced to an abyss, home only to the insect-tentacle-leg. Spidery black veins spread from the pit that used to be my eye and onto the skin surrounding it. The tentacle is long enough to touch the mirror now; it reaches out and, oh-so-gently taps the mirror. I close my eyes.
I scream louder than I’ve ever screamed in my life. I scream for my mother. I scream for you. I scream for myself. I scream for all the times I couldn’t scream. I don’t open my eyes until my throat feels raw. How long did I scream? An hour? A few hours? A few minutes?
I see no insect-tentacle in the mirror when I open my eyes and feel no lump under my eyelid. My left eye looks normal. My skin looks normal. I blink. Twice. Three times. I lean closer to the mirror once again, but this time I’m looking for other bastard veins. I find none in either eye. I take a deep breath. My left eye begins to twitch, a little at first, and then uncontrollably.
I rub my eye. I decide to take a nap. When I wake up, my eye does not twitch. But my throat still hurts.
One day my mother told me she saw a white horse outside our house. Unsaddled, naked, and definitely not a unicorn, she said. “Just a horse.” I walk these streets every day and I have never seen that horse. Or any horse. A couple of cows, yes, escaped from the village not far off, and the occasional stray dog or kitten—but no horses.
The grave that the neighbors had been digging outside their house is complete. I used to watch from my balcony and wonder who it was for. They’ve planted flowers on it. I never leave flowers on my mother’s grave. Flowers on graves always feel out of place to me—too colorful against the dead earth. Too cheery. Sickening and fake. Fake flowers, fake graves.
I think of the day we met here. You were lost, you said, and your car was parked just down the street. You were beautiful, I thought. You were magnificent. But I never said so. I never needed to. You knew exactly what you were doing.
Five years is a long time, and sometimes a white horse is just a white horse. I’ve been looking for that horse for five years. Today is the day I decide to stop looking for things that aren’t there. My phone rings. I answer.
“What do you want?”
No. The word never leaves my mouth. I hang up. You call again. I sigh. Maybe five years isn’t long enough.
I wipe down the closet door. It took weeks, but I got rid of the mites. All that’s left of their memory is the faint smell of the pesticide I used. A single mite crawls up the closet wall, over our initials carved into the wood and covered with a bad paint job. The white paint makes it look like they’re written in snow. I let the mite be. It’s the last of its kind.
I walk outside, cigarette limp at my lips, fumbling for a lighter in my pocket. The moonless night is illuminated by a lone flickering streetlight, casting shadows over the skeletal remains of my dresser lying on the ground without its drawers and after having been taken apart piece by piece. I’d thought leaving it in the sunlight would help get rid of the mites. It did. Maybe the sun isn’t so bad after all.
I lean against it and light my cigarette. The streetlight flickers. I put on music. Somehow I always end up here. Smoking in the almost dark and listening to The Cure at 3 a.m. And somehow you always end up here too. The car parked at the end of the street never fails to show up. A different car every time. Rentals. Temporary.
I look away. I light another cigarette. My left eye twitches. The car starts up and drives away. The streetlight flickers a last time and goes out.
© A.H. Fatima
[This piece was selected by Heather Cripps. Read A. H.’s interview]