If the books in Maggie’s bedroom could speak of their greatest fears, they’d scream of being thrown violently at the floor, walls and ceiling at strange hours of the night. Maggie is about five feet and four inches tall, and she doesn’t own a fly swatter. So to kill the endless squadrons of mosquitoes that infiltrate her ground-floor apartment in Brooklyn, she hurls the heavier books like bombs. Many of the books once were mine, but that was a few years and two apartments ago, before a string of book-nappings perpetrated by Maggie. And despite being weaponized, the books would probably say they are happier with her than they ever were with me.
"This is all your fault," Maggie says, turning on the light at 4:13 in the morning. "I heard one of those little fuckers buzz past my ear."
"Maggie, are you sure?"
"What? You think this is in my head?" She motions to a small bloodstain on the wall near her desk. The stain is in the shape of the palm of my hand. I killed a mosquito there a few nights ago.
"Okay, okay." I get out of bed and pull on my boxer shorts. Maggie herself becomes an American-Apparel-boy-short-clad, but otherwise naked, commando. She extends the fingers on both of her hands all the way out, but with no spaces between them. She then rotates her hands around each other, like she is getting ready to karate-chop something. She frightens me; she’s a crazed ninja out to reclaim her own blood. I can’t remember if she was always this way. I can’t remember if I always was up for domestic bug-killing duties in what is otherwise a non-traditional, very un-domestic relationship.
"I’m so sick of this. I can’t believe this always happens," she says.
"I don’t understand why you think this is my fault. This really doesn’t happen when you’re alone?"
"No, Ryan!" Maggie says, with her short blonde curls bouncing off her cheeks like her hair is mad at me too. If Maggie’s theory is to be believed, these buzzing bastards are the only flying cockblockers in the world. "The mosquitoes only attack me after we have sex," she continues. "It’s the pheromones and sweat and come and everything! It’s like honey to them or something, and I’m the honey pot! The honey pot of blood!"
So in her mind, the mosquitoes are like the psychopathic killers in bad horror movies. The unsuspecting couple starts making out in the cab of a pick-up truck, and once things get hot and heavy, the axe murderer, chainsaw guy, or whoever comes out from the bushes and offs them both. In our case, the killer would apparently come dressed as a giant mosquito.
"But what about in the morning?" I say. "We have sex in the morning, and the mosquitoes don’t get you then."
"That’s because in the morning I take a shower and go to work. They don’t have time to get me. But I bet if I laid around in bed all day, like you, they would start biting me."
The strange thing is the mosquitoes don’t seem to like me at all. They really do only bite her, lending credence to her theory. And as much as I fear this is some excuse she’s concocted to stop sleeping with me, the bloody carnage on the walls and red welts on her naked body prove otherwise.
Maggie and I have been sleeping together on and off for about two years. Whether we dated briefly when we first met depends on whom you ask. But one thing is certain: If we find ourselves in the same bed together, we end up having sex. I like this arrangement because there’s not much not to like about Maggie. She knows me really well, we like the same kinds of books and she’s Goldilocks with regard to my penis.
I pretty much wish she were my girlfriend, but I’ve given up asking. To the men in her life, Maggie is one giant mammal, with all of us suitors sucking up what little of her blood we can. The last who bit Maggie was some guy living in Germany. She shooed him away after about eight months. I prefer not to think about him.
Maggie sits down on her bed, temporarily defeated, and reaches for answers from her milk-crate bookshelf. Some people seek oracles, some people pray. Maggie asks questions of the books in her room, turning to a random page, placing her finger on a line, reading it and then interpreting it as an answer to her question. She doesn’t make all of her decisions in this manner, but with matters of the heart, or libido, it’s her version of a Magic 8-Ball. She grabs a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, her favorite. "Is Ryan the Pied Piper of mosquitoes?" she asks as she flips it open. She then reads the line beneath her finger: "Perhaps some people are born unhappy. I surely hope not."
Maggie pauses for a moment and considers this. Despite evading a legitimate relationship with me, she sometimes softens when viewing our situation through certain lenses. She either stole this copy of Slapstick from me or stole it back. Our books were shuffled around at one time, like children from a divorced family being ferried between Mom’s house and Dad’s house. "I guess maybe this isn’t your fault, and maybe I’m just looking for a reason to stop fucking around."
I like her, so I endorse this insanity a bit by giving her another way to back out. "Well, if you want to stop having sex and go back to being friends just tell me."
"Maybe," she says, "But not right now." We climb back into bed, leaving the light on. I pull off her shorts and throw her on top of me. We rarely do it this way. Usually it’s just missionary, like we’re getting down to business. We know that way works. But having her on top right now is nice. Maybe if we switch it up the mosquitoes will leave her alone.
And then — SMACK. Maggie’s hand is extended on the wall behind her bed, and not to support herself. She just killed another one, and killed the mood in the process. "Let’s try to go to sleep now," she says.
In the morning, we don’t have sex. She goes to work and I go home. I’m living in a railroad apartment, a place Maggie refuses to sleep. The flying fiends piss her off, but a roommate randomly walking in on us might cause her to start chucking books at humans instead of insects. During those nights away from her, I dream of showing up at her place with a backpack full of rolled-up magazines, an arsenal of doom ready to obliterate my hated enemies. In another dream, the Beatles have reformed under the name "The Mosquitoes" and are singing a high-pitched version of "You’re Gonna Lose That Girl."
The idea of a mosquito net was broached a few times, almost always by me. But this would mean a joint purchase and a collaborative, very couple-like effort. And joint purchases outside meals or movies are totally off-limits, as they imply a level of domesticity that Maggie simply will not tolerate. "If you start installing things in my apartment, it’s one step closer to you living here!" she says. I’d hoped the number of attacks would decrease when the weather started to cool off. But colder temperatures tend to create more late-night sex, and the assailants must have miniature parkas.
One afternoon in early fall Maggie calls me from Bedford Avenue; she’s browsing the secondhand clothing tables. "There’s a coat here about your size!"
"How can you be sure?"
"Well, it’s on a coat hanger, and I figure that’s a good stand-in for your body!" I can hear her smile through the phone. Moments like this make me feel like Maggie and I are more than just sex buddies/amateur exterminators.
But two weeks later I’m rubbing aloe on Maggie’s back, trying to undo the damage of another massacre. We’ve talked again about limiting our sex to just the morning, but we tend to get horny in the middle of the night. Both of us are trying to make the bug-hunting ritual into some kind of cute secret to the success of our unorthodox relationship. But really, it’s starting to feel like we’re paying a penance for the sin of not really being able to commit. With her body glistening from the cream, she rolls over to her books again, looking for answers.
This time she grabs a Hemingway. Apparently Papa is going to solve this once and for all. It’s a hardcover lacking its dusk jacket. She bought it from one of those tables of books people sell on the street, near the clothing racks containing those hangers that remind her of me. Not one of his novels, the book is rather a kind of Hemingway digest, with a bunch of his journalism and quotations. I’m hoping it has some of his hunting tips, too.
She doesn’t even ask the book the question this time. We both know the question.
"I love sleep," Hemingway says. "My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake." She sighs and closes the book, blinking at the ceiling, her eyes searching for invisible creatures.
"He’s right, Ryan. Ernest is right. I’m not getting enough sleep." On nights like this, neither of us does.
But like the dying man on Kilimanjaro, I don’t want to give up so easily. "I don’t think that’s exactly what he meant."
"Doesn’t matter. I’m not getting enough sleep. I’m cranky and tired at work after every night you come over. And I’m sick of being so itchy all the time." I start desperately searching my brain for solutions, but covering myself with bug spray is decidedly un-sexy. I suggest maybe getting her apartment fumigated, but she’s not having any of that.
Our sex is to fall casualty to a plague deadlier than any locust. And if I’m honest, a real romance would probably not be so easily toppled by lesser life forms. If chemicals and odd sleeping patterns are the only way to hold on to Maggie’s touch, it probably isn’t good for me.
Finally, either she wins, the mosquitoes win, or I give up. Late in the fall, Maggie becomes an exclusively clothed person. From time to time, when we share a platonic dinner, I think about suggesting we go back to her place, for some good, old-fashioned post-coital book throwing. But I fear finding mosquito bites on her arms or legs or back. Would this mean she had a new lover? Would I be able to be happy for her, imagining another man’s hands and books killing those creatures?
When we talk on the phone, I listen hard for the buzz of a mosquito, hoping that if those buggers are back in her room then maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t all my fault. And at night, I hear the ghosts of the mosquitoes we killed together, quietly threatening to bite her even when she is curled up in a ball, dreaming and totally alone. If they’re still after her even now that I’m gone, then maybe, eventually, I can get some sleep. n°
©2009 Ryan Britt and Nerve.com
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Ryan Britt’s stories have appeared on Nerve, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and Really Small Talk. On stage, he appears regularly with The Moth, The Liar Show, SpeakEasy, Stripped Stories and others. Every day, he writes a short piece of flash fiction and posts it to his website "Side Affects". His plays have enjoyed full productions from The Longest Lunch Theatre Company and several staged readings at The Tank. He lives in New York.|