My father liked to say that I’d always been impossible to find. During birth, he recalled, I couldn’t be extracted with forceps. No one could see me, so I made my own way out of my mother. The midwife only located me after following my cries and throwing a towel over the delivery table. Rubber gloves prodded me and a blanket swaddled me; naked hands passed through me.
Which is why, in my only memory of her, my mother failed to catch me in her bare arms and shouted my name as I fell and flattened against the kitchen linoleum. She kept calling for me while her Abyssinian cat skidded off. Moments later, it returned.
It wanted to verify my presence but couldn’t even graze my torso. I reached up from the floor to stroke its fur—fingers thrumming the buttons of the trumpet valves of the air—and missed, as I did so often in the early years. The cat proved as impalpable to me as the other mammals I encountered. Dogs never met my spectral grip, nor could I menace the occasional rat. Insects were the only form of life that I could touch. That ever found a way to touch me in return.
The earliest faces I can recall stared past me with expressions of panic. The provenance of my shrieks eluded them. All loomed hugely until only one face remained: Father’s face, as he dropped a blanket over the floor to reveal my shape.
“Now I’ll always be able to find you,” he said.
For sixteen years, I lived in an enclosure in his basement. As I continued to grow, he fitted me with a succession of muzzles and masks. They made my whereabouts obvious and my vulnerability reliable.
He wanted me to understand him, so he taught me how to read with old newspapers and secondhand textbooks. After a while, we switched to encyclopedia volumes. I remember being forced to learn the List of Physical Constants and feeling an apple peeler slice my arm whenever I made a mistake. Eventually, I could recite the sequence in a monotone.
One night, he drank too much and stumbled down the basement steps looking for amusement. He staggered over to the litter box, grabbed a handful of cat shit and flung it at me. “Better to see you with,” he slurred. He tried to jab me with a rake handle, steadying himself by holding onto the mesh at the top of my enclosure. After a few minutes of one-sided swordplay, he slid against the bars between us and passed out.
I took that opportunity to steal his keys and smash in his skull.
My escape was so easy that after I’d cleared the area, I doubled back to stand at the threshold of Father’s house. I crossed my arms in defiance: no one could have guessed what I did. Anyone who’d ever known about me or witnessed my gifts was gone.
Truthfully, I felt as naïve about them as they had to be about me. How they lived, how their cars worked—everything was new. I hung around for a week watching strangers ring the doorbell. After they went back in their houses, I taught myself to drive by wrecking their SUVs.
I decided to leave town after noticing all the bus stops. I couldn’t drive very well and mass transit was a blast. I stood in the aisles as if I owned them and the bus drivers were my chauffeurs. I set off alarms out of inexperience, then boredom, pushing through turnstiles and gates. I sauntered through train cars tearing trivial objects from desperate people’s hands.
I found I couldn’t sleep in public places. Trying to rest among adults was wrenching and children were terrifying. I never got used to the claw hands that boys made when they sensed I was there, fingers contracting and snatching at the source of their displeasure.
Unrented apartments were the only places where I could relax. During showings, I stole keys. Afterward, I stalked anyone who wanted the rooms I chose for myself.
The crowds in the cities made me realize how different I was physically. Having seen so many people’s bodies, I touched my own in the dark. For one thing, I had pen-stab perforations in place of nostrils. My profile was as flat as a mask’s. For another, I seemed to have three lips. Doctors might have described the middle one as a strip of epithelial tissue that connected only to the sides of my mouth. I had a habit of pressing my tongue against it until it bulged, and worried that it might come loose when I wasn’t trying to make that happen.
Worst of all, I had no discernible sexual traits—no beard or pubic hair—and my voice was helium-high. Sometimes I believed that Father wanted me to forgo puberty. That he’d surgically removed my parts, only to be murdered before he could return them. In other versions of that past, he never intended to give them back.
I felt less threatened living in larger cities because people were more tolerant. I explored condemned tenements until the possibility of dying in a collapsing building no longer appealed to me. Bored with moribund neighborhoods that were transforming like chrysalides into mechanized tourist hosts, I took a train to Chinatown and kept walking until the niceties of consumerism fell away.
No all-night delis or drug stores, no wine bars, no gastropubs. The only identifiable features were streets so bone-forlorn they seemed hypogeal. Storefronts that closed after lunchtime. Processions of darkened edifices. A mile or so later, huge dumpsters replaced trashcans.
I waited to see what would happen. Nothing did, so I fell asleep on some concrete steps.
After sunrise, the sidewalks became arteries clotted with bodies. A tourist holding a map called that area the financial district, though it was clear that people with money lived elsewhere. The transactions I witnessed involved cappuccino and muffins.
Then I saw a realtor’s sign advertising a room in a residential building. The room didn’t feel like a residence. Open house, read the sign on the door to the cellar apartment. I scoped the place out and moved in.
The first things I noticed about the interior were the little windows near the ceiling. They lined the living room wall that stood on the left as I entered through the hallway. Open curtains flowed from them all the way to the floor as if they did, too, and weren’t as rectangular and narrow as granny glasses. Even though I rarely needed to hide, their position helped me to feel safe.
For decades, I lived in the place I found that day.
Sometimes I got sick of being alone and just started walking—usually toward the postmodern hotels that rose like hornet hives from the ribs of Chinatown. Between my place and that place, I lingered in shrinking slums.
The vagrants never lifted their heads when I walked past their slime temples at 20th and Pershing, asses braced against milk crates in candlelit teepees of dark green tarp. They rocked cross-legged in oil-flattened beards and bloodstained T-shirts with slogans like Gone Crazy—Back in 5 Minutes.
They wore expressions of indifference but managed to glance at everyone who passed except me. I reached down to try to misalign the elbow of a man whose lack of awareness seemed especially offensive, but his arm slipped through his sleeve and his flesh turned into vapor.
No bowtie’d maître d’ from a failing hotel tried to solicit my business as his tuxedo-gloved fingers crawled along my arm. Every pedestrian stared ahead at some expected obstacle or down at some small mirrored rectangle.
An obese woman with wadded hair, and a cough that belied months of sleeping in the park, pressed her shoulder against the window of Peck and Quill, the only bookstore café in the city. She ignored me as I stood outside and pointed at her pile of damaged paperbacks. I thought she hadn’t sensed my stare until I twisted toward the next intersection and felt her gaze shift slightly.
A crow croaked I am in the wine-hoarse voice of an infant Dionysus. I could hear its declaration of identity. Why couldn’t it see mine?
The Labrador on the other side of the street should have yawped in canine Morse code as I approached. He didn’t sound that alarm. Instead, he chewed at his fur, his stare pivoting between his own ass and the swing doors of the supermarket behind him. He looked unconcerned by my proximity—which he must have known by smell—as if I’d been leashed to the parking meter and he was free. I decided to pour ipecac syrup on his paw. The queasy candy taste would turn into something else, reminding him who wore the collar.
Passing the storefront gate of a closed-down thrift boutique, I peered in and focused on this: A tiny spider millimetering its way along a crosshatched window screen until it saw me and stopped. It changed direction and began crawling toward me: an eye that was all black pupil using its lashes to travel.
Gnats and mosquitoes landed periodically as I stood in front of the gate. I shivered them off and continued through post-Chinatown. The penumbras of monoliths changed with my approach, sprouting flourishes and pink and green awnings. They glittered for me like fancy dinosaurs.
If I could visit a hospital and be seen by a bubble boy taped to his breathing machine, he might gasp this sentence to me through zippered cellophane:
Some people . . . would pay for . . . your kind of . . . anonymity.
This would be my counter:
That’s what they think they want.
People who are jaded enough to pay to be faceless must have enjoyed physical contact with other humans once. They retain memories of intimacy that allow them to be wistful about isolation, whereas I could never imagine anything else. I can’t reject what I’ve never been given any more than I can stop wanting what no one has offered.
No one except the scuttling blister beetles.
By four o’ clock, the walkways darkened and no one chose to loiter. Windowgates lowered. I switched on my penlight and tilted my head, imagining how my misshapen reflection might stretch across the glass. I turned to watch the others leave, which felt better than walking beside them until they recoiled without realizing why.
I wanted to trace the contours of their suits with my fingertips. I wanted to lick their lapels. Their abandonment of the vicinity and, by extension, of me allayed my craving so that I could focus on the pothole next to the crosswalk where I stood.
Nearly everyone who worked in the area lived somewhere else after four. The office complexes and specialty shops that surrounded them closed promptly before sundown, as if people were embarrassed to be seen working late. No subordinate wanted to be caught strolling past a storefront or boom gate after the stockbrokers had deserted it. Not even tailors or waitrons were humble enough to stay.
It was nine o’ clock by the time I made myself walk home. Even then, I didn’t rush, since my surroundings now existed only for me. The spreading dusk painted Hambleton shadowcrowds everywhere. No fluorescent lamps exsanguinated the intersections with their bloodless pallor; the path stayed richly black. Alleys and side streets relied on the moon for illumination. Where copses of skyscrapers conspired to occlude lunar transients, I switched on my flashlight reluctantly. So that, after ten, when the highest windows of Le Corbusier clones were the last source of lambency, my separation from the world felt chthonic. Somewhere in the charcoal dark, a man lay on the street smoking a cigarette and gesticulating, his zigzags in glowing ash like a child’s with an orange sparkler. He didn’t see me, either—not even when I held my flashlight like a club and raised it over his head.
The first time a moth kissed me, I stood at the end of a pier promenade overlooking a river crowded with ghost ships. The creature air-swam into view and bussed my neck. Being kissed by it meant that suddenly I could be seen by them: Two middle-aged men who stared at me absently whenever I looked up. It was my first time being visible and I hated it. I didn’t want to watch myself be watched. I could feel my dead mother’s heart fist at the sense of it—the antennae exploring me through my windbreaker—but then the heavens rent. Sensing my thrill of discomfort, other moths fluttered around us until, shielded, we rose: Lifted by breath and burr as the promenade shrank below us.
Now I turned the last corner and, past the silhouette of the groundskeeper, made out light behind the glass doors of the façade. My building was an anachronism with nothing welcoming about it. The owner called it the Luxuman. That name, set in an Old English font and cast in aluminum, appeared just below its maroon-painted awning. It established a tone of ostentatious quaintness that was intended to attract a doddering class of tenants.
Once in, I took the elevator even though I lived on the basement floor. I wanted to feel catered to by someone and my someones were mostly machines.
The only voices in my apartment were the radiator’s gurgle and the whirring of the fridge. I sat down and stayed there, drinking the windowdark.
Long gossamer drapes imitated the sounds of the crawlers who watched me. Fan-blown veils of flayed ether scraped against the edges of an old cardboard box. Whenever I stopped paying attention, the scrape became an arrhythmic chitter. It alarmed me only because I couldn’t predict the timing. Silhouettes of molting pincers snipped the air. I sat motionless until the squeaking floor made me twitch; abruptly, mandibles clicked like camera shutters. I’d awakened the blindsighted things that creaked all around me.
A few times a week, I heard sounds from another kind of tenant: Stabbing laughter through plaster, one-sided conversations, thumping EDM. All of it emphasized the suffocating compass of my space, just as the bluish edges of silhouetted folding chairs underscored the lack of company.
This time, I could hear my nearest neighbor whooping through emerald-speckled darkness, then the three syllables he repeated while attempting to interrupt someone on his headset: If you knew . . . if you knew . . . if you knew. . . . Then a slap against the wall and the word fuck!
Fasteners snapped open, followed by the scrape of a pick slide and a wooden knock that meant he was doing the thing I dreaded. He hesitated and overtones of silence droned I was safe until he strummed his hollow-body electric and whined the one song he knew, his stumbling thrum of bar chords muffled and amplified simultaneously by the wall between us. He wouldn’t stop pressing the headstock of his plaything against the jar in which I lived.
I lay down on my floor mattress oily with pore-wept fluids that cloyed like the leavings of my visitors. Every spore and organism in the building willed him to stop until he did and I grabbed the bat I stole for this one purpose: To test the wall and awaken the things behind it.
I tamped down the filth in the holes in the plaster, brandishing the bat shakily and clutching at violet scotomata until a few glistening inhabitants emerged. I couldn’t see their eyes, compound or simple, or discern the color of their exoskeletons. I could only smell the sweetblood of their stimulation.
Imagine hearing the rustling and flakefall as they moved behind the plaster. Imagine following their shapes, first as bulging reliefs that formed huge radials across the walls and then as severed talons once they emerged: darkening and darting, prolegs skittering with each tap of the bat. Stucco reliefs and barbed inkspills like shrines to Earth’s first inhabitants.
The kinetic Rorschach dripped toward me, stippling and spraying the walls around me: silverfish and leaproaches, termites and bone-house wasps.
The red worms that appeared last made me suspect that an upstairs neighbor had left behind a carcass that offered a complete food for the hackled mesh weavers that I’d somehow brought from Father’s basement. I felt slightly jealous thinking about that: Another man.
First their chitter and slither, then the tickle of their extremities on my arms and ankles. The burn of their bite patterns descending my arms as the ankle stings traveled higher. The flutter of burrowers. Feather-exquisite feelers tracing sites to be revisited by acid-wet mouthparts.
Swarms of devotees caressed my skin until, like the plaster around me, it rose in patterned welts.
“Close your eyes and let it happen. Relax and close your eyes.”
I am preceded and succeeded by darkness because I am a disturbance within the darkness. Strangers feel the breath of my company when the afternoon ends and the glare of the sunlight is gone.
I’m never inside you until you sleep, but I’ll always be waiting nearby.
The same is true of leaproaches. When the light returns, they spring away, only to slide into crevices in the floorboards and sheetrock around you, leaving your skin slick with their visits, your nerve ends tickled by feelers that are no longer there.
The insects never had trouble finding me in the dark. No gaslights conducted them through my hallways, no north star pulsed through the gloaming to guide them. Only the dimmest glow in the toxin-occluded sky suggested I existed at all. But within that site of my shunning—the murk that precedes and succeeds me—they sensed that I lay awake; that my nerves broadcast my receptiveness to contact. My scarred arms were their touch-map, their cartography of sites of reproduction.
I recognized their vicinity by a faculty that is often miscast as intuition. No doubt you’re familiar with the smell of garbage cans in the stairwell of a tenement. But if you had no sense of smell, you would come to recognize the proximity of garbage.
Everyone knows how it feels to wear a T-shirt that hasn’t been washed in weeks. At first, you feel the cloying of the oil-infused cloth. If you keep wearing it, the shirt chafes the skin until, at last, bumps rise to describe the travel of the fabric.
When you’re unable to smell it, trash makes the surrounding air feel like rancid sugar. The insects’ proximity could feel that way as well.
They buzzed when they flew but also when they landed. The whirr of their wings, their dive-bombing shrieks, described the contours of my face.
It became a habit to try to decode the patterns of hurt on my skin. Did they mirror the shapes of oak branches in the coppice by the window or were they an expression of something less mimetic? For ages, I couldn’t decipher their meaning though I knew their complexity was compulsive. Fixations hid in those rigidly busy designs.
Rows of welts described my body like trellises of purple vines maintained by an obsessive gardener. They limned it as distinctly as hatching lines in an etching. Second veins, I called them, veins painted over the veins beneath. Squid tentacles with the flesh stripped away so that their convolutions trailed like trickles. Hokusai studies of knotted waterfalls.
One Saturday night, I tried walking to the bathroom but found I could only stumble. I barely made it back to my mattress before exhaustion flattened me and I angled into my spot under the tangles of blankets. I couldn’t get warm enough. I turned and so did the room and when the cycle finally stopped, I lay nauseous and furled in a newspaper cocoon. Multiple images of the blue-black hallway wheeled in the dark like salvia petals, slowing until they merged.
Just above my bed: a window too icy to close, the blind lowered and flapping against exhalations like negatives freckled with snow.
I tried not to shiver and lay still, welcoming the fever. Only the twitch of its ministrations revived me occasionally: The tightening of the triple-cruciform embrace of its six jointed legs.
In a few days, I was able to hold a book, but even reading depleted me. I couldn’t follow the logic of an essay after focusing on it for more a few moments. I tried propping a tablet between my hand and elbow to watch a movie but kept dropping it on myself, awakening with the impact each time until I slid it next to my pillow.
Soon I was dreaming about hornets made of shreds of 16mm color film. They flew at me and attached themselves to my face, where they wheeled transparent stingers on thorax discs over my eyes. We projected the frames of hornet shorts against cloudbanks by means of my incandescent retinas. My white pupils served as strobes with focusing lenses.
Weeks later, I awoke staring at a blur that sharpened into a flatbug on the windowsill. The tiny thing resembled a larger species that had ridden me for years. It lay dead on its back, legs folded, as if waiting to be placed in a hibernation locket, its body the color of rusted brass. The edges were ridged so that, when I flipped it on its legs, it looked like one of the centuries-old arrowheads that Father said he found just beyond our backyard. Its eyes still reflected the presence of the one who had stopped them.
I couldn’t remember standing upright even once in the previous weeks, let alone having the strength to move things around. But somehow, the window was closed and the room felt warmer; the rug, dry beneath my feet.
I edged the bug into a ziploc bag for research. Before sealing it in, I stopped to look again: pummeled metal affixed with the mask of a sun god’s face.
The sight of it reminded me of my afternoon with a hive of cuckoo wasps and I got excited thinking about the luster of their iridescent-blue bodies. Normally, I could have pictured them in eidetic detail. This time, it felt as though my brain had been replaced with dense gas. The images glazed over like frost on a windshield, like misted cracks in place of clearer forms.
I tried to see them until I couldn’t stand up any more. I had to drop onto the mattress on my stomach before the windup key in my back stopped completely. I landed in a graceless position with one elbow digging into my calf. I tried to spread my arms but soon realized I couldn’t move.
I could feel my limbs softening and stretching until the skin began to tear. I tried to touch my elbow with my other hand but felt metal bristles there instead of fingers. My ribs were as brittle as shells and the shells were cracking.
As my body changed, so the onset of their company became subtler. I couldn’t take my bat to the walls anymore, but they didn’t need to feel it. They arrived when the shadows on stucco flowed into the hallway’s hollow, obliterating the outlines of furniture in the Prussian-blue gloom. Perhaps I only dreamed that I could see them. Differences between walls and space dissolved like musculature made of licked rice paper.
I knew they were next to me by the sounds they made when they changed. If I turned on the nightlight too quickly after it was over, the sight made me gasp before they fled, the image of their bloodied exoskeletons imprinted in my memory.
My gore was their rotogravure.
One evening, I switched on the light and they didn’t flee, so I forced myself to look closer.
Hornets wore gelatinous masks that resembled faces from famous paintings—the eye and mouth-holes stretching and distorting as their fistheads pivoted—with black antennae for ears and white mandibles for teeth. Each had its own expression and rubbed its walking legs characteristically.
Feeding on my anomalous body for generations had caused them to mutate. I expected they might be larger than before, but not as large as gharials.
They inspected me hesitantly, as if stymied by the lack of design in my self-injuries. Even though I was still young, they made me feel like an old boardroom gentleman. Feelers grazed my shoulders as they spat cobalt powder on my chest, then skittered away. I stared at the ceiling and expected to study it for hours.
Something in the kitchen broke a dish and hit the floor with a clatter. Three sets of legs clicked against the tiles; a hexapod wearing taps. I lifted my head and saw what looked like a gargantuan bone-wasp in the hallway. It didn’t care about being seen in the light. I recognized the face of Goya’s Saturn on the taper of its long horizontal skull, and a place for an offering at the top of its head, which was flat like the seat of a bicycle. Like my other visitors, it held me in a swallowing stare. The aureole of its wings trembled as it swiveled its neck to challenge my squint. I could just make out the U-shaped pattern of spines on the back of its thorax, the sucking hairs on its walking legs and the deflated poison sac dragging behind it. Past visits taught me that an insect’s stinger looks even more obscene when emptied. Although I’d been visited by its species hundreds of times before, I had to look away when the Saturn Bone-Wasp changed. What I’d mistaken for its face was a pattern of camouflage.
It hovered over my body, then dropped toward the edge of the room where I stood watching, which was when I realized that my shell lay elsewhere. I’d left my husk on the mattress and it still saw me standing.
I reached down to touch my arm with my fingers but could find neither fingers nor arm.
Saturn explored the fumes that had been my flesh and drove its stinger through my floating nervure. It clung to my wisps, released its venom and I shrieked gas. I was mist that could be molested. Its stings continued to penetrate me even though I flowed differently each time, a river that can’t be fouled the same way twice.
I’m changing color, I thought. My blood turned to shreds of cloud.
Its walking legs vomited etheric sacs that glittered and rippled as they drifted in my scarlet fog. I sparkled in time as they moved through me, a misted glimmer.
As the rest of Saturn grew, its stinger shrank. It scuttled through me toward the hallway, where it paused to sneer again. Then it clattered off to its nest and left me to complete my transformation. I was pain that floated, cicatrices that opened to nowhere.
I never thought that my orgiasts would desert me until they did. What I presumed to be our relationship was only a site of sustenance meant to provoke a series of molts.
Certain insects can react symbiotically to changes in their host. In my case, they modified the function of my camouflage, effecting my phylogenetic transformation. They triggered my morphology, releasing the energy of the unformed part of me, only to retreat after completing the cycle. I stayed oblivious to that process because I chose to believe something else: That they were lonely and wanted to enjoy my body.
That would have been impossible for them. I see that now.
The decades inflict a tyranny of repetition. Eventually, actions become habits, which are then enshrined as rituals, which impose a reflexive and formulaic itinerary on everyday thoughts. So that removing one’s glasses before bed feels the same as slipping off rubber gloves after an autopsy of the same cadaver, year after week, tenure after shift.
Strange, that there should be music to routine; a lilt to the refrain of the mechanics of despair. I can hear it whenever an elderly person strokes the face in a framed photograph, or a widower lays out his suit on his bed before work, or a soldier places the barrel in her mouth or presses the sword to her sternum.
I seemed consigned to such a suicide until my rooms became entirely aphotic, releasing me from internal lights and allowing me to thrive in dying.
I wouldn’t have dreamed the insects would return to me after I passed. I assumed that death would seal me off with an inviolable signet. But the things that mystics claim to know are untrue. Emerson asserted that no one ages; that our energy survives without changing. If only. No matter. Experience proves otherwise. The ghost-parasites I’ve met were either dying or already dead. The manifestations of age are different for a disembodied being than a physical one, but they’re equally apparent to insects. No one told me that my etheric form could be shredded and recast by ectoparasites as thoroughly as my former brain and skin.
This lesioned wisp of a vessel resembles the rooms it occupies: a space that is destined to be rented someday by someone else. I’ll haunt it out of habit or diminish to nothing’s dust.
Vagrant cinders of sunlight thin through the window; through an organdy curtain that must have been hung by someone else. It swishes and hisses like the train of an agitated bride. At 7:48 p.m., only the faintest periwinkle tinge remains visible behind the silhouettes of buildings. Lights flicker on in the upper windows of the complex, which loom brighter now than the sky my sentience has replaced. The room fluxes and refluxes, the ebb and flood of shadows around me synchronized to the breath of my beloved. I look down at my vanishing suckers and hooks, quivering like a spermatozoon because someone has rented the apartment and that someone is a gorgeous specimen of flesh.
For fun, I decide to perfect my mental map of my new host. I can’t have all of him yet, but I feel like enjoying a snack. I won’t be voracious until later, but exploring is foreplay. And nibbling, after all, is something to do.
–Robert C. Hardin
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