December 22, 2021 by The Citron Review
by Jennifer Murvin
You wait until class is over and everyone else has asked their questions, left the plain classroom vacant but for you and me. I’m sorry, you begin. I’m sorry, you say, I know there aren’t bugs under my skin, but –
You look down at your arm, and I look, too, checking for bugs where there are no bugs, your arm so pale I see through it, glimpse blue maps there, or maybe the maze of an ant farm, your fingers running up and down to brush away the bugs.
How do you see them? Beetles? Spiders? Lice? Fleas? Or maybe some sort of unknown bug as yet to be discovered, unnamed, foreign and strange and menacing without its label, genus, species.
When I was little, our family went camping in Northern California, and one night we slept outside in our parents’ friends’ driveway, open under the summer stars. My mother had said yes to this – to our shock – and though I don’t remember much else from the trip I remember the cold concrete under my sleeping bag, the pump of my blood in the night air, my breath into the darkness, the vivid sensation of being wholly in that space, my body and mind spinning out into the night, so clear up there in Chico, far from lights of the valley I was used to, my sister’s breath beside me.
All this to say, two days later, at breakfast, my mother spotted lice crawling in my sister’s hair – “I can actually see them moving,” I remember her saying – and I remember the sight, how suddenly I too could spot them, bugs crawling in and out on my sister’s head, the slick of her thick hair pulled back into a ponytail, come spontaneously alive.
I walk with you to the counseling center. You are shaking and saying you’re sorry, I am saying I’m sorry, too. We are both sorry – you are sorry, you say, to inconvenience me, though I am not at all inconvenienced. I am sorry you are seeing bugs where there are no bugs, that you are young and sick, that you are alone with me, a stranger, your teacher, that I am seeing something I am probably not supposed to see. I am a mother, I tell you, hoping this will make you feel safe, but then I regret this, for it is a privileged and wild assumption when many of my students and friends and lovers were hurt by their mothers, were made not safe. So I change and say instead, I am safe, and hope it is true, though I believe it is, though I believe this also about my mothering and maybe those other mothers did too.
You are curled now like a roly-poly bug against the wall of the counseling center. A pill bug. And it all collides so perfectly, poetically even, you curling into yourself, into the wall, the pills you will no doubt take to make the bugs go away, all the bugs we stepped on to get here, the bugs we count on, the ones that horrify us, the ones we see, the ones we don’t, the ones we use to decorate ourselves, bugs made into pendant jewelry cast in jade or gold, bugs tattooed.
I leave you with the counselor, your bright backpack covered, I see now, in stars and constellations. And I am brought back to that night in Chico, the lice crawling into our sleeping bags as we slept, oblivious, our mouths and hearts open, our hair a welcoming nest. I wish for you a night unencumbered by roofs or lights, an open feeling, for you to be free and easy in your mind and body, at home in a world covered in friendly bugs, bugs with tap shoes on, bugs who protect us from other bugs, and I’m sorry to walk away from you, and I’m sorry I don’t know what will happen, and I’m sorry I do not also see the bugs you see, that I cannot sweep or pluck them away, that I cannot soothe your skin, take the pain, that I leave you with them, crawling, nameless, in incessant scuttle, your private infestation.
Jennifer Murvin is a writer, teacher, and indie bookstore owner. Her essays, stories, and graphic narrative have appeared in DIAGRAM, The Sun, Indiana Review, The Florida Review, American Short Fiction (2015 – Winner of the American Short(er) Fiction Contest, judged by Stuart Dybek), Phoebe, CutBank, Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, Cincinnati Review, Baltimore Review, River Styx, and other literary journals. Jen is an Assistant Professor at Missouri State University, holds an MFA in Nonfiction from Pacific University and is the owner of the independent bookstore Pagination Bookshop in Springfield, MO. Find more at https://www.jennifermurvin.com/.