I have nightmares about bugs crawling all over me. In them, I’m afraid of the bugs, but they never hurt me. They brush their tickly legs over my feet, the soft underside of my arm.
In one dream, I was naked and they crawled inside my belly button. I felt them wiggling inside my stomach. When I woke up, the place between my legs was damp.
I have other dreams, too—dreams where I’m kidnapped by strangers, two big men who blindfold me and tie me to a billiards table like the ones in the pool hall down the street. I’ve only been there to fetch my older brother home for dinner, but my dream pool table has the same light fixture hanging above it as the ones in his hall. Made of too-thick stained glass in red and gold.
I dream that my kidnappers tie me up and put a bag over my head that I can still see the light through. They touch me where my mother said no one was allowed. But they never touch me with their bodies, even with their hands. They touch me with pool sticks, cold metal buckles, dynamite.
The dreams started when I was ten.
I was eleven when I started putting things down there. I’d been reading an installment of The Babysitter’s Club, and one of the girls was kissing a boy. I got a funny feeling in my belly that felt like bugs crawling inside me and I put the book down. I had a notebook and a pencil on my nightstand. I took the pencil and prodded at my underwear, pulled the cotton aside and touched myself with the eraser. I was surprised when I found an opening, curious. I rubbed the place between my legs with the metal bit that held the eraser to the wood.
I started keeping a shoebox under my bed of pencils, different widths. Every night before I went to sleep, I’d touch myself and daydream about a boy at school who played two-person cops and robbers with me on the playground. I was always the robber. He’d grab me by one wrist and wrestle both of my arms behind my back. He’d push me toward The Penitentiary, which was really just a corner of the jungle gym. He smelled like mashed potatoes and held me face-down in the wood chips. I liked him.
I liked when he picked the stuck-on chips off my sweater when the end-of-recess whistle blew.
I think I started touching myself before other kids my age. And I think I did it funny. I bet most girls touched themselves with their fingers, if they touched themselves at all. I only realized there might be something wrong with me when I decided to show the neighborhood girls that it felt nice to stand with one foot on each of two child-sized plastic chairs with my legs spread apart and a kiddy pool stick propped between them, unchalked, rubbing against the seam of my shorts.
“Sick,” the redheaded girl said. Her sister said nothing; she just stared with big squirrel eyes before rushing out the door.
I didn’t play with the pool stick after that. But I did walk around with an icy cue ball in my underwear when no one was looking. The cold felt nice on my skin.
Once, when I was little, maybe six or seven, I pulled my shirt up to my chin and laid my chest and belly on the cold surface of the coffee table. My mother came in and yelled at me. She said, “The devil is in you.”
I always caught her pressing her palm to her chest in uncomfortable moments. She wore acrylic rosaries under her wool sweaters. Sometimes when I hugged her I felt the uneven seams press against my forehead.
She told me to get off the table and put my shirt back on.
After that, I waited until my mother went upstairs to shower before I pressed my torso against the polished wood.
Sometimes, when I was tall enough to reach, I rubbed myself on the corner of the desk in our home office.
And then, when I was thirteen, a boy touched me through my jeans in a movie theater. He rubbed the wrong spot, like where the base of a boy part would be instead of where girl parts are. But it still felt good. It felt a lot better than number two pencils and pool balls.
We hid behind the stage between classes. A lot of the time we’d be all wrapped up in the curtains kissing. The boy would touch me through my jeans in that wrong spot, and I’d rub him where I liked to touch myself.
One day he took me behind the soccer field after school.
I had my shoes off because I liked the way the grass felt between my toes, and it was nice the way the field dipped into a ditch before it turned into a forest. Standing there, between grass and evergreen, it felt almost romantic—even though the ditch was a manmade runoff swamp that kept the athletic fields from flooding. The longer I stood there, the further the soles of my feet sank into the ground.
I giggled and he patted my shoulders. He pushed down, hard but not so hard that it hurt. He wanted me to kneel. I didn’t want to muck up my jeans, but I felt that bug feeling in my stomach and I wanted him to keep smiling.
He unbuttoned his pants and took his thing out. I pulled away from him when I saw it—I had never seen one before and I thought it was funny looking. Sort of like a lanky mushroom. It smelled sort of fungal, too, but more like swimming. “Come on,” he said. I wrapped my hand around it and squeezed like it would relieve the awkwardness of the situation. It didn’t. He told me that wasn’t what he meant. I remembered hearing about a girl at school who everyone called Stick Shift. I guessed she didn’t know what to do with it either.
“Lick it,” he said. I laughed. My knees were cold.
“That’s gross,” I said.
He told me I would like it if I tried it.
I noticed thick, springy hairs sticking out of the hole in his underwear. At first I thought underwear holes were smart. But then I thought of those curls itching my cheeks. The smell of him made me think of my brother peeing in the pool.
“I don’t think I want to.”
“Come on, you know you do.”
I didn’t. But he pushed it toward my mouth. I turned my face to the side and it jabbed into my cheek. I felt it stick just next to my lips and pull my skin back, almost like he was trying to make me pull a face—like the one where you stick a finger in each side of your mouth and stretch your cheeks until your lips feel like they might rip if you stretched farther.
It was a funny thing, springier than normal body parts, like a full up sponge.
“What’s your problem,” he said.
“I just don’t want to,” I said.
Then the awful part happened. I heard the sound of cleats in the dirt. A lot of cleats. I had just enough time to stand up, and the boy I was with, he barely zipped his pants up in time.
As the soccer team ran by, they stared at the muddy splotches on my knees. They didn’t even look at him. Just me. One kid gave a thumbs-up. Another pointed and laughed. But I knew as soon as I heard the cleats that my brother would be there, too.
I didn’t look at his face, I just watched him tear up divots of earth with each stride. It made me think of the worms that seeped up through the topsoil when it rained, and I came up with a theory. The reason there are so many exposed worms is because the soccer team cuts them all in half with their cleats and makes them multiply.
He said nothing as he passed.
One of those bug dreams:
I’m lying under the pool deck, listening to grass blades grow. They sound like the hum of tiny UFOs shooting upward into space.
It’s dark and my glasses are somewhere else. It smells bad, like sweetwet rotting wood. I wonder if the deck is going to fall and crush me.
I count invisible earthworms, beetles, centipedes. Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen. There’s a creak the size of a twenty-foot pool and I feel the deck collapse around me, all splinters and chlorine and termites. The water spills out and I fill from the outside in with dirt and bugs and pool water. I’m a muddy balloon inflating. Mud cracks over my skin as it dries. I feel the sharp seams of pool floats inside my belly. I see pool cues and dynamite, poorly molded rosary beads. I see sunshine peeking through the wooden wreckage like I’m swimming upside down and peering up through water at the sky.
I hear new breathing. And then a monster comes up from the space between my legs, all fish skin and lidless eyes. He picks up a piece of jagged wood and chops off his fins, plucks away his scales, and is left with boyish chicken skin.
I went through my jewelry box, running cold pearl necklaces between my legs. I did it with the rosary my mother gave me. I moved to silver chains with birthstone pendants. Plastic best-friend bracelets made of pony beads.
“Your jewelry box smells,” my brother said one Sunday while we were getting ready for church. He hooked a lobster clasp while I held up my hair.
The way he looked at our mother when we walked in on her undressing, I wanted a boy to look at me like that. Behind his blushing cheeks, he looked in awe of her shape. I could never tell if she knew we were there, peeking through a sliver of light in the doorway. It always felt like something we weren’t supposed to see, but she never locked her door. She leaned against her bureau with one foot in the air like a flamingo, trying to get her underwear off her ankle. The space between her breasts was raw but her breasts were creamy white and smooth—twin beacons with plastic Jesus shining between them.
One time I spent study hall in the orchestra room with Billy Williams. Billy wanted to screw me against the acoustic wall-carpet, but I told him no. I didn’t want to see the curly fuzz in his boxer shorts. I didn’t want to see the stinky mushroom in his underwear.
I told him to do it with his cello bow.
He looked like a little boy with an invisible gift box in his arms.
He washed the rosin off the bow, and when he played it against me, his movements felt like music. I imagined an empty concert hall and myself, squatting center stage with my arms in fifth position, my body shaped like a cello. And Billy Williams, one hand on my naked waist, guided his bow between my legs. I was a fourteen-year-old symphony orchestra; he was my one-man band.
Until he got carried away and dug the bowstrings too hard into my skin.
“Want a date with my clarinet?” someone shouted after school.
“My trombone is bigger,” another boy said.
I stared into my locker, where papers crumpled under the weight of textbooks.
At home, I turned the shower on and left it running with the door shut.
My skin grew moist.
My bare toes stuck to the floor and pulled away like slugs.
I looked in the mirror, but all I could see was a cloud of steam.
I wiped the glass with my palm. My eyes were pink around the edges, puffed like a toad.
I heard the front door slam. Cleat footsteps on the stairs that sounded like drumming fingers.
“What’s wrong with you?”
My brother jiggled the bathroom doorknob and thumped his fist against the wood.
“Go away,” I said.
“You’re a freak,” he said. “You’re disgusting.”
I’m sure he was thinking of Billy’s cello bow when he said that. Of my jewelry box. My muddy knees in the soccer field. Of why the neighbor girls didn’t come over anymore. But did he think of our mother naked in her bedroom, too? And the raw, rubbed skin on her chest? Did he think of his boy part in the yellow light of a pool hall lamp? The chlorine smell of all the fungi that liked the darkness of mouths and spaces between legs?
“Billy Williams?” he said.
“It’s none of your business,” I replied.
I liked Billy. I thought he was different.
But he told everyone.
They’d have a name for me by morning. Like Stick Shift but with music.
In the dampness, my wool dress itched like caterpillars. I wanted to tug it up to my collarbones. Take off my belt and shove the buckle in my underwear. Collapse to the floor and press my whole body against the tile.
I wanted to let the cold sink in. The cold that was mine, that had nothing to do with the greedy skin of other bodies.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.