Gemma Bugs Out
By Victorya Chase
Illustration by Soare Marius
My mom never wanted a pretty girl of hair bows and dresses. I don’t remember many talks with her, but I remember wanting to learn about lipstick and nail polish like other girls and her saying she just never understood that part of life. I began reading glamour magazines in secret to see if I was a summer or autumn complexion and found neither applied. I liked sports and flowers equally and always had dirty fingernails from playing in the mud. I was snips and snails and sugar and spice and a few things outside the nursery rhymes — like avocado milkshakes and snowballs and the continued fight against my thick, black, natural hair. I never could braid it well myself, although I definitely tried. I just wasn’t meant to have those animal Goody barrettes dangling off my head clacking while I moved.
There was also the bug thing.
When I was twelve my mother died from a bee sting. I was with her the first time she was stung. I saw the bee pull away, tiny translucent entrails like streamers behind its body. I asked my mother if she was allergic and she said this was her first time, you had to be stung before you could get an allergy. She pinched the stinger out, put ointment on, and we continued our walk. Then a few weeks later we were gardening and she got stung again.
At the funeral, I didn’t want to understand. I played with a pill bug, watching it curl in my hand. It began to rain, just a mist at first. Everyone had their head down as they listened to the preacher, but I was watching the bug uncurl, a million tiny legs searching for purchase.
Then it bit me.
This wasn’t my first bite ever. I’d been bitten by things before, and stung. If it had mandibles, or a stinger, or fangs, it got me. I found the world fascinating but it just kept attacking me. I didn’t think pill bugs bit, but maybe just this once they did. It bit me, and my body, in reaction, turned into a pill bug.
I curled into a ball, protected from the rain, warm inside my shell. My father picked me up and placed me gingerly in the pocket of his shirt. I heard his heart beating. It was missing every other one. I realized those beats were my mother’s.
When we got home he didn’t change out of his shirt, just sat down and turned on the television. It was 2002. The Bachelor was premiering. My mother had wanted to watch the show, despite not being romantic. She just always loved roses.
I uncurled and crawled out of his shirt, rolled down his chest and lay on his knee. He put a hand up to his lap and I crawled onto it. I rolled around between his knuckles a bit, and then fell asleep in the palm of his hand, his fingers curled like giant pillars at the end of the world. I woke up with my head on his knee, metamorphosed as a girl without a mother.
Father has never stopped watching The Bachelor. For twelve years my background noise has involved dates and sobs and roses given out in awkward moments. Every day I wake up to a rose next to my pillow. My father has stopped speaking, but I think he’s trying to tell me he wants me to stay.
In the past twelve years many things have bitten me. I was a centipede for about a week. It was during finals, and stopped me from going to college right away because I needed to do a lot of make-up exams. While a centipede, my father let me curl around his arm while I thought centipede thoughts and he watched Chris Harrison explain over and over the rules of the show. It’s hard out there for a bug. I just wanted food and he kept me filled with mealworms and ants. My antennae probed his arm, and I think I picked at him with my pinchers because there were tiny red marks on him. Not that he told me they hurt, although he did scratch at them from time to time and I covered them with Neosporin.
“You know, in wasp hives, women are dominant,” I said. I had become interested in bugs since I started becoming them.
“Well, sort of women, the wasp equivalent. They’re sister wasps, doing it for themselves. It’s not like with bees, how there is one queen. There can be more than one.”
I was reading from a textbook, still caught in college trying to figure out what I wanted to become — entomologist, doctor, butterfly. If only they bit.
“Wasps are the honey badgers of the insect world,” I told my father during a commercial break. “They really just don’t give a fuck. Unless it’s their family. They protect family.”
He didn’t turn from the television, just reached out a hand and placed it on my knee. I recited more facts from the book, then gave up and made us lunch. He ate his sandwich slowly, staring blankly at the television.
Wasps differ greatly, just like people. There are social wasps, loner wasps, wasps of all colors. I can respect wasps, even though I see more grace in bees, not that I’m a girl of grace. Bees, however, have the decency to die after stinging someone. The bee that stung my mother flew a bit and then fell. My mother took a few steps and fell. It was all very graceful until the swelling started.
But wasps live. They survive. They aren’t the ones in the news dying. There’s something important there.
I get bit by black flies a lot. It’s only the females that bite. Same with mosquitoes. Man, I love being a mosquito. My whole body vibrates as I zoom around the house.
Today, after one bit me, I landed on my father and rooted behind his ear. He has come to know my buggy quirks and doesn’t swat at me, just lets me rest on the cartilage watching heat radiate off him, salivating and pondering the ethical dilemma of feeding on my father. His signature is loneliness and loss, or I’m projecting as a female mosquito without a male swarm to fly into for insemination. Urges get stronger the smaller you are.
I buzzed away from my father and outside. The door was open and the new mailwoman coming up the street. Her heat signature was stronger than my father’s. Intoxicating. I stabbed her with my proboscis and became human.
I’d never bitten anyone before.
She rubbed the side of her neck and then looked over to me standing by her.
“I’m 1210,” I said by way of introduction.
It’s easy to not realize how alone you are until someone comes along and your soul begins to ache.
I offered her coffee, tea, water, and stopped talking when I reached the door — the house always smelled of roses, and she didn’t need to see my father comatose in front of The Bachelor.
She grinned, handed me the mail.
“Maybe next time,” she said.
She scratched her neck. There was nowhere I could crawl away to.
“Hey, do you have something to stop the itching?” she said, “I think a mosquito got me.”
I ran inside for the Neosporin. My dad was asleep. He had a rose in his hand and a vase of them to his side. Each week the roses were taken and hung up to dry. Our home was a hoarders’ delight of dried roses, hanging from the walls and ceiling and piled in corners. I threw them out every once in a while, but they bloomed exponentially on the furniture.
I thought about grabbing a rose as I came out, God help me I did.
“Here you go,” I said, handing her the tube of ointment, “I’m Gemma.”
“Jack,” she said, reaching out her hand.
After dabbing at her bite she handed me the tube. I told her to keep it. She smiled and continued her route, pushing the mail cart down the street. I went inside and breathed in roses.
Some wasps keep pets. I always thought that was cool. I always wanted a pet. A cat or something to curl up with me at night. Dogs seemed too unwieldy; there were pack thoughts to figure out. But a cat — they evolved to live with us so you don’t have much to do but let them be and they let you be and sometimes they’re a pain in the ass and sometimes they’re warm lumps on your lap.
Jack was a cat person. A single person. A single cat person who made my house last on her route so we could sit outside on the porch and drink cans of soda sweating in the “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”
The obvious questions to ask her were as follows:
1. How long have you lived here.
2. Why did you want to become a mailperson?
Basically, all those things you say on dating sites or chat roulette or in chat rooms with teenagers.
“Do you like bugs?” was my question. Something more suited to a nine-year-old. It’s hard to talk with a tied tongue when facing a dream.
I tried to backtrack immediately, and did so by saying, “My mother died,” which didn’t help much. I started to speak again but she put her hand on mine.
“Why don’t you breathe,” she said.
I hadn’t noticed I wasn’t until I took in a deep breath. I was sweating, the salt was on my lips when I took another sip of soda and it mingled with the sweetness. I wondered if I smelled.
“Was your mother kind?” she asked.
It took me a moment to think about it.
“She was human, I guess,” I said, which was fair. “No, maybe she was more than that. My father, she was his only love. He knew her so much longer than I did. They were married twenty years before I was born. He had known her since he was five, as the story goes, when she stole his crayons in kindergarten. It was very much a love story.”
“Did you feel left out?” she asked.
I knew I was left out of his grief. He had only known me for twelve years when she was gone. They had waited so long before having children because their love was already complete. I was an afterthought.
“She tried,” I said. “She taught me to paint and the like.”
I started to become uncomfortable with remembering. I never got to talk about my mother with anyone.
“Yours?” I asked.
“Oh, she’d make a sailor blush with her language and Satan takes notes with her cruelty,” she said, putting her drink down on the steps. It was my turn to reach a hand out to her.
“And I’m torn on bugs,” she said, entwining her fingers with mine. “I mean, some do good things for the environment, but I have such a strong reaction to their bites. Like that mosquito bite from the other day.”
She turned her head, pulling back her hair and showing me the blister where I had punctured her.
I had no response.
“Did you ever love me?” I asked my dad. He was sitting on his spot in the couch, now sunken in completely beneath him. If he didn’t get up every so often to go to the bathroom or mop the floors I’d roll him for bedsores. But he kept to the routine he always had with my mother — a daily sweep of the house, a weekly mop of the bathroom and kitchen. He was the one who kept the place tidy. My mom was the one who would start putting on her sneakers, and after one was on decide to make pancakes and then leave the burner on with an empty pan after making three and realizing we needed orange juice. My father followed her around the house cleaning up after her, and loving her with such quiet ferocity, even as a kid I understood.
“Trista and Ryan,” he said.
Those were the first words he’d said in a long time. His voice sounded damp and old, like moths would come flying out.
“Jason and Molly,” he said, scrunching his brow in confusion.
Sets of contestants that had married.
“You and mom, without me,” I said, anger building.
Why couldn’t he have been normal? Why couldn’t he have decided with mom gone I could be something he could love?
He shook his head.
“Chris Harrison got divorced,” he said, tears forming.
I couldn’t take it and stormed outside.
On my first official date with Jack I wore enough bug spray for her to be too kind to comment, but side-eye me a lot. I just didn’t want anything to happen.
On the second I sprayed on less, but was still worse then a teenage boy with Axe.
On the third she asked what it was all about, and I told her I just hated getting bit.
On the fourth I found out she had a slight spider problem. I was above her head when she woke to find me gone. I ended up building a nice web in the corner. She really didn’t sweep her walls down well. I realized making a web was half art, half instinct.
“I forgot about an early morning class,” I said by way of apology. By way of not saying, “So, this thing crawled on me while we were in bed and when bugs bite me I turn into them for a while.”
She said okay and walked to the next house, so I followed her.
“No, really,” I said.
“Whatever,” she replied.
“What do you want me to say?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, still walking. I wanted to knock over her cart but that was a federal offense.
“Why don’t you invite me inside,” she finally said, glaring at me.
“Shit,” was my reply. Not the right one.
“That’s what I thought,” she said.
“Not that. It’s just, my dad.”
“You haven’t told him about us?” she asked.
She wanted to soften, I could tell.
“My mom died,” I said.
She walked away and I didn’t follow.
Mom always told me dad knew she was the one, but she was never as sure about him. He followed her around laying coats over puddles and holding open doors and when that didn’t work writing her letters every day and sending flowers. Eventually she decided devotion had to count for something.
His side, of course, was simply, “I saw her and knew love,” and that was the most he had said.
How’s a girl supposed to understand relationships with that story and The Bachelor as her basis?
There was a vase of flowers by my bed when I awoke.
My dad was sitting on the edge of the bed, his presence the reason I woke up.
He was crying.
I was so confused. I sat up and hugged him. Then I ran to the bathroom, came back, and held his rocking body while he sobbed.
He pulled a photo of my mother out of his pocket, set it on my bed, then left.
I looked nothing like my mother. Not even close. She was a stocky farmer’s wife looking woman continuously tan with red undertones, her hair a rich chestnut she usually wore in a French braid that hung down her back, swaying while she walked. I was my father’s girl. Black skin, black eyes, hair deep black and best if left in its natural curl — although the curl wasn’t as severe as my father’s. My body was his beanpole scrawny with no coordination to speak of.
Looking at my mother made me wonder what Jack saw in me. Because Jack was beauty in a pale blue postal uniform. She was well read from the magazines she borrowed from people on her route, mainly Smithsonian (1650 had a subscription), and Nova (1290). She also liked Popular Mechanics (a house on Sutherland Street) and Readers Digest (a place on Phillips), but mainly for the jokes while she took a break in the car.
Maybe if I signed up for magazines, she’d forgive me.
Or maybe if I sat outside waiting for her, reading my textbook, and then told her that my dad hasn’t talked since my mom died except for recently, she’d talk to me. Maybe if I told her I was fucked up but really liked her, really liked our dates, and didn’t know how to explain how overwhelming this all was, she would look at me with pity that would soften into something else.
Or she’d say what she said, “Well, we’re all fucked up somehow. Promise you won’t do it again?” and I’d get sheepish in my excitement and agree.
“And let me see your house, it always smells so lovely,” she said.
“It’s because of my dad. He’s addicted to The Bachelor.”
“What?” was her reply. Then, “Follow me.”
So I did. So much my father’s daughter.
“I’m going to make you both dinner,” she said at the next house. I started to reply but she walked away again.
“In your house. If it needs to be cleaned, clean it. I’m going to meet your father,” she said, and then walked away.
“And we’re not going to play games,” she said at the next house, before turning from me.
“Because I can’t handle games and people leaving and bullshit. You’re either honest with me,” she said, walking to the next house.
“Or I’m gonna get mad.”
She was already mad. Or confused. And the more beautiful for it.
She made spaghetti, having me roll the meatballs and throw them in a pan to fry. My dad stayed at the kitchen table watching us.
Jack tried to engage him, but he just smiled.
“Does he ever talk?” she whispered to me.
“He’s been trying, lately,” I whispered back.
While Jack set the table, I told my father to go wash up and he shuffled away.
I hadn’t warned Jack about the roses. It’s a good thing she wasn’t allergic, because while I was able to throw out the ones lying on the chairs and couch, they were still hanging all over the walls and in vases on every side table.
“What’s with all of these?” she said while dad was still washing up.
“He loved my mom,” I said, not sure what else to say. “A bee stung her.”
When my dad came back into the room awkwardness resumed. We began our meal in silence.
“The roses are very nice,” Jack said slowly, each word carefully pronounced as if he were a child and not in prolonged mourning.
“I hear you like The Bachelor,” she said, something I had warned her against.
He frowned and lowered his head.
“There needs to be a lesbian bachelor, that I’d watch,” she said, turning to me. “Could you imagine all these women in the house looking for other women? I’m sure halfway through the rest would be like, ‘fuck that one in particular,’ or something and really not care. It would be chill.”
I smiled and nodded, digging into a meatball.
“Maybe that’s why they don’t do it like that, you know? Then it’s more a dating show than a swarm going after a lone man or woman.”
At the mention of a swarm my dad became agitated. I placed my hand on his shoulder. He was pushing his spaghetti around.
The silence grew thick; the smell of roses mingling with spaghetti sauce filling the space with a nauseating mix of garlic and perfume. You could practically see the scents battling it out over the kitchen table.
“Help me out, please,” she whispered to me.
Truth be told, I was enjoying her floundering and faux pas. It proved my point about how difficult my life was.
“Do you like your meatballs, dad?” I asked.
He looked down at his plate. The spaghetti was there, but he had eaten the garlic bread and one of the meatballs. He always ate so slowly and so daintily, all that sauce and not a splash on him.
He got up, left the room, came back with a rose and handed it to me.
“Give it to her,” he whispered very loudly.
I did, despite all the roses in the room, hanging from the wall, the perfume so thick you could cut it into squares and serve it with milk. I handed her this specific rose.
“You’re doing fine,” I said. “We’re the awkward ones.”
My father nodded and started in on his spaghetti.
“Not all the bachelors get married,” he said between bites.
“The bachelorettes have better odds.”
“That was just beyond crazy,” she said the next time we were out. “I mean, he needs help.”
“Oh, we tried it,” I said. “Nurses, therapists. We all grieve in our own way.”
“I suppose,” she said. “I mean, it’s better than any family dinner at my place. But shit, man, it was still kinda freaky.”
Freak was not exactly a word I liked. It was one I heard a lot as a kid. It was one that meant maybe, if she knew more about me, she’d leave.
So of course I had to tell her I become a bug when bitten.
And she laughed.
“Why’d you think I put on so much bug spray when we go out?” I asked.
“Because your mom died from a bee sting,” she said. “So your reaction is to fear bugs.”
“I wish that were true,” I said.
“You really think you become a bug?” she asked.
Since it was humid and we were both sweating it was easy enough to prove to her. There were ants everywhere, including fire ants. All I had to do was take off my shoe and poke at a tiny anthill until I was bit.
As an ant I forgot about Jack. I helped the others take the sticky sweet entrails of a dead worm back into the colony underground and then went back for more. The trails were all laid out in pheromones. There really wasn’t much thought. I had things to do and knew how to do them and so did them. When I came to, I wondered why I hadn’t bothered becoming an ant before. It was a nice life. Purposeful. Easy.
Jack was sitting on the porch waiting for me when I got home.
“I didn’t know which one was you,” she said.
“Neither did I,” I replied, remembering the benefit of group identity. It was scary how much I liked it.
“That night you stayed over?” she asked.
“I made a web in your corner, over your dresser.”
“Nice work,” she said. “It was almost too pretty to take down.”
I couldn’t help but grin.
“Man, I always thought my family was weird,” she said.
“The one you don’t talk about?”
“Well, you saw the scars,” she replied.
I had, and was too scared to ask. Too happy to be seeing her body at all to even touch the rises across her hips, down her back. Because she flinched even when I breathed on them but still let me near her.
“This isn’t going to be easy, is it?” she asked.
“Probably not,” I said.
But I had an idea to help.
I pulled her inside the house. My dad was still watching his show. The Andrew Firestone season. I liked that one, if only for the vineyards.
I had her sit down next to my dad and opened a window and waited. It wasn’t long before a wasp came in, the roses a siren song. I swatted at it until it stung me and flew off.
Then I buzzed over and stung Jack. It was only the second time I had attacked someone while a bug, but you need a first for an allergy to kick in.
She became a wasp and we hung in the air looking at each other through wasp eyes. There were so many different facets to examine. A kaleidoscope view fractured, but somehow complete.
Together we flew to my dad’s shoulder. He was very warm. He put a finger near us and tapped in rhythm to a commercial. But what I heard was his heart, our tiny buzzing filling in his missing beats.
Together, we watched The Bachelor.