SARA HEISE GRAYBEAL
I first wrote this story as an essay for a creative nonfiction class; it failed because I was too loyal to the narrator, too invested in making her decipherable to the reader. By converting it to fiction, I could let her run wild, mess up, be exactly who she was and face the consequences for it. All that is to say, some of this happened, some of it didn’t, and all of it is true.
In the days leading up to my partner Stephen’s arms breaking out in itchy welts, two things happened: My ex Rudy came into town, the first time we’d seen each other since he was carted off in handcuffs twelve months prior. And, Stephen put his daughter to bed and ate an entire pizza by himself. He felt great at the time. When he woke up, he felt like death. He started itching shortly thereafter and didn’t stop for the next six weeks.
Stephen and I developed four theories about the welts:
This seemed likely. Before Rudy came, I explained to Stephen that when they arrested him a year ago, I was in the bathtub of the house he shared with his uncle and cousin in Toms River, New Jersey. The three of them had been coming at each other’s throats all day over some sneakers his uncle said one of them stole. Rudy didn’t even like sneakers, but the dispute got so bad the cops pulled up, and who knew Rudy had a warrant out for possession with intent to distribute?
“Jesus!” Stephen said.
“It gets worse,” I said.
Turned out Rudy knew about the warrant, and his uncle and cousin did too. I learned the news wrapped in a towel, dripping water on the porch while he hollered through his stringy blond hair, “I’ll explain everything, Brooke! I fucking love you!” Then the cop stuffed him in the car and pulled around the corner, and Rudy’s uncle went upstairs and started throwing our shit on the street. I mean tampons, cologne, laundry detergent, you name it. The sidewalk stained green, broken glass everywhere. A mile into town, at the library, I made a Facebook post looking for a ride south. I was out of there before nightfall.
“And your stuff?”
“I had to get everything new.”
“What about your friends? You just left?”
It wasn’t only Rudy and his uncle and cousin who knew about his warrant. It was everyone, everyone except me. How do you say hi to people at the gas station after that? How do you look anyone in the eye?
“I told you,” I said to Stephen. “I had to get everything new.”
Stephen had close-cropped brown hair and glasses. He leaned forward when I told him stories like this, elbows pressed against his knees. “Wow,” he said. “Just, wow.”
My ride dropped me in Richmond, Virginia, in front of a squat gray townhouse whose address matched the crumpled envelope in my palm. My mom had sent me a birthday card from that address last year, and I always figured if I ran out of other options, I’d come down and find her. Turned out I was too late; a For Rent sign stood crooked in the grass.
I used the last of my cash to pay for one week upfront at a motel down the street. The next day I got a job decorating cakes at Harris Teeter. I got a new phone and didn’t tell Rudy, so he wouldn’t start calling and asking for money. I got a beat-up apartment and a car that needed work, which led to meeting Stephen, a single dad who worked as a mechanic but was taking night classes to be a life coach. He seemed like exactly the kind of guy Rudy wasn’t, which was my only real criteria at the time.
Eight months in, I spent my weekends with him and his daughter, Zoe. I had every inch of the Richmond Zoo memorized, and my waistline was bulging from all the chicken nuggets and Yoo-hoos. I carried extra life jackets in my trunk. Stephen made me his emergency contact and a copy of his key; he encouraged me to nap in his bed when he was gone. He was always asking how I felt, and I was always trying to think up things to say. He didn’t lie to me.
When Rudy emailed to say he was a free man, it was like getting smoke signals from an island I thought had slid into the sea.
“He wants to visit,” I told Stephen.
“Why?” Stephen asked.
“Closure?” I said.
“And what do you want?” Stephen asked.
Since moving to Richmond, I’d started knowing what I wanted from time to time. Stephen would ask and my answers would spring up, eager and sure:
“I want to make Zoe mac and cheese.”
“I want to take a kickboxing class.”
“I want to sit on the porch till the moon comes up.”
But today, Rudy’s request sitting in my inbox, already there was smoke in my eyes.
“You’re not getting back together with him, are you?” Stephen asked.
I didn’t want to get back together with him. I didn’t want to live on Rudy’s island. But we’d shared that room in Toms River for a long time; there had been love there, or something. He’d been sitting in a jail cell since I saw him last, and maybe I wanted to know if his island was still there—just that. And if he wanted closure, well, I could just give it to him.
Elbows on knees, blinking fast, Stephen agreed to the visit. And Rudy sped down on the first Megabus he could find, twelve-months celibate with his fingers in my hair before I could even turn the car on.
Hi, Stephen texted as I pulled away from the bus station. Would love a check-in, feeling a little anxious.
Rudy had gained weight in jail and had a beard starting. He sat in the passenger’s seat grinning at me. I could hear my phone pinging in my lap, but that seemed very far away. “Richmond, Virginia,” Rudy said. “I love it already!”
There wasn’t any smoke, just fire.
Later that night, Stephen texted again: Feeling less sure about this whole thing. Rudy and I had picked up shrimp lo mein and were just starting to dig in. “That dude won’t leave you alone,” he said, mouth full.
“He’s my boyfriend,” I said.
Rudy rolled his eyes.
I called him from the sidewalk outside my house, but I wasn’t sure what to say. “How are you?” Stephen kept asking.
“You don’t even sound like yourself.”
The next morning, I woke up to another text: I’m concerned Rudy is controlling your communication. Send me Zoe’s code word if you’re okay; otherwise, I’m going to swing by.
Stephen’s daughter’s therapist had her choose a code word after her mom left, to signal to Stephen when she was upset. Marshmallow was the word. Marshmallow! I texted, scrambling out of bed, but when I eased back the curtains, I saw Stephen’s car idling in front of my house.
“He came to check on me,” I said to Rudy.
Rudy sat up in the mess of blankets. “He thinks I can’t take care of you?”
“He thinks you’re controlling me.”
“Me? Who’s the one stalking you in his car at eight a.m.?”
I guess Stephen got my text then. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked at it. Then he tossed it on the passenger seat and drove away. I stood in the sunny window, looking until he was gone. How do you feel? he would have asked. I felt like I wished I was in his kitchen, making instant mashed potatoes; I wished Zoe was prancing around singing Moana and I was saying, “Here, try this, you think we should add more butter?”
But then Rudy said, “I’m in the mood for French toast,” and I was getting out the frying pan and making it. Stephen and I didn’t talk again that day. By the next morning—Rudy’s last morning in Richmond—Stephen’s texts had frayed into rapid-fire bullets:
I really need him to be gone now.
I don’t want to pressure you but I am not handling this well.
I feel we did not adequately prepare for this scenario.
Brooke? Can you answer me?
All of which is to say, Stephen has been stressed.
As I mentioned, Stephen’s a mechanic. Stephen is one of those good guys who made all the wrong choices: getting married too young, having kids too fast, taking the first job that came his way, and not putting his foot down when the marriage turned bad. His wife spent Zoe’s early years hosting Pampered Chef parties online, on which she exerted a lot of effort to make exactly zero dollars. When Zoe started kindergarten, she flew into a panic over her uselessness, which manifested in maxing out their only credit card to replace the furniture, backing their Jeep into the oak tree in their front yard, and then suffering a full-body meltdown for which Stephen checked her into a psychiatric hospital and, six months later, served her with divorce papers. Now she’s in sunny Florida remaking her life, and Stephen’s in Richmond scrubbing grease off his arms.
“I learned a lot from that relationship,” is how Stephen sums it up.
The benefit of dating someone who only divorced his wife when she went AWOL for six entire months is you can be pretty sure that, as long as you fuck up less than that, he’ll stick around.
Stephen handles the tough cases at Frankie’s Imports. That’s why they sent me his way eight months ago, when I stopped by with a Honda that kept blowing its tires and shaking at high speeds. It took him six days, but he fixed the car for under a thousand dollars. I was the one to ask him on a date.
All the guys with less experience spend their days changing oil and tires, taking smoke breaks, and making the same hourly rate as Stephen, who comes home with bruised shins and sliced-up arms. “Seems unfair,” I told him early on.
“I’m just grateful for the job,” he said.
“If you threatened to quit, they’d probably give you more,” I said.
He looked at me strangely, like he’d seen something behind my eyes that he hadn’t known was there. “I wouldn’t use a strategy like that,” he said. But then he reached over and took my hand. “It means a lot to me that you care.”
The red welts that Stephen developed the day Rudy left Richmond matched the waterline of his hand-washing routine at Frankie’s Imports. And as it turned out, a couple days before that, Frankie had put a different kind of soap in the dispenser. So, the culprit seemed potentially clear, until Stephen started bringing his own soap to work and the itching still didn’t go away.
- Gluten, in the form of the pizza Stephen stuffed down his throat the night before the welts began.
It was the last night of Rudy’s visit. Stephen had sent me that litany of desperate messages, and I hadn’t figured out how to respond. Rudy and I were eating our second round of shrimp lo mein, the sun going down while he caught me up about his uncle, who’d gotten arrested, and his cousin, who got some chick pregnant and followed her to Ohio. The house that had been in his family for the last sixty years was now empty except for Rudy. I felt nothing for his uncle or cousin, but I did feel a pang for that house—how we strung Christmas lights around his twin bed and kept an air freshener plugged in and watched the fireworks from his window on the Fourth of July. My apartment in Richmond was bare, spilling over temporarily when Stephen brought Zoe by and winnowing to a depressing drizzle in her absence. Until Rudy came and stayed put for seventy-two hours, his presence like a soft seal over a leak I didn’t even know was there.
We didn’t sleep together the first night. You can believe me or not. Stephen didn’t.
But that second night, a white-green glow coming through the window, lighting up the stubble on Rudy’s chin, his eyes latched onto mine and wouldn’t let go.
“Rudy,” I said, “let’s—”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but you can’t expect me to be with you and not—”
“No, but we shouldn’t. Because it really fucked me up when you left,” I said.
“It really fucked me up when you left,” he said.
It felt like exactly the closure we needed, until he moved toward me on the sofa and put his palm on the back of my neck.
- An infestation of bedbugs, scabies, or some other psychosis-inducing pest, that not only turned Stephen’s arms into bloody wormholes but split his trust into a thousand bloody threads we’d never put back together.
After putting Rudy on the bus, I drove home and sat in my empty living room, filling my T-shirt up with tears that poured snottily down my face. It wasn’t that I wanted to be with Rudy, but it hurt to watch him leave. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to be with Stephen, but I kept thinking that the first thing Rudy did after getting out of jail was violate his probation to come see me, and the first thing Stephen would do after getting out of jail was drive straight home and sit on his couch saying, “Wow. Just, wow.” And maybe there was something to holding out hope for a person forever. Maybe Stephen’s divorcing his wife was more of a weakness than a strength, because even though Rudy lied and never really wanted closure, it felt good, didn’t it, to be fought for?
I mean, but Stephen would never go to jail.
The air was hot and hazy. I had to clock in at Harris Teeter. There’s nothing worse than drawing balloons on cakes when your heart is tearing open, but I couldn’t call out because I’d just taken two days off. Stephen would expect me to come over later and hash out every last thing I’d felt while Rudy was here, and already I could feel my brain dissolving into shadows. I stood up and looked out the window and thought, All right, folks, let’s see how Brooke fucks this one up!
But then his Toyota Corolla pulled up. Again. He rolled down the window and called, “Mind if I drive you to work?”
On the one hand, there was what Rudy had said: Who’s the one stalking you in his car?
On the other hand, although I wasn’t sure what I wanted, it was nice to know Stephen wanted me. That, and I was in no condition to drive.
On the way there, he held my hand across the seat. “I missed you,” he said.
“I missed you, too.”
“This week was pretty rough for me.”
“Would you say you’re—resolved?”
“You got closure?”
Rudy had texted me twice since getting on the Megabus. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an undulating strand of his blond hair on my jeans. “Yeah,” I said, “I pretty much got closure.”
He pulled up to the Harris Teeter and looked at me. Poor Stephen, I thought. Good Stephen.
“We’ll talk about it more tonight,” Stephen said.
I squeezed the shit out of the icing, getting ready for that talk. But by the time I got off my shift, he’d texted: I’m experiencing some painful itching. Are you comfortable being in close proximity to me?
To be honest, Stephen’s welts seemed like a blessing in disguise. A trade-off: I accepted some mild level of risk, and he forgave me for letting Rudy visit. His itching somehow leveled the scales. That night, before he could launch into a Big Talk, I suggested a movie. In the morning, I braided Zoe’s hair and cooked scrambled eggs, and pretty soon we were back to our zoo and Yoo-hoo routine.
The next week he made an appointment. Bedbugs or scabies, he told me when he got out.
“I feel awful. Another of your partners bringing stuff home.”
He was referring to Rudy. Years ago, just after meeting Rudy, I started itching like crazy. He swore he cleaned his house too often to have bedbugs, but my arms and legs got torn up whenever I stayed with him, and then, after he slept over, I found one in my bed. I couldn’t afford the three-thousand-dollar treatment so we pulled an all-nighter spraying my room down with alcohol, wiping picture frames and scrubbing book spines and cleaning every card in my wallet. It kind of worked for a few months, like we’d at least disarmed them in battle, but then I started itching again. At which point Rudy said I might as well just move in with him if I was going to be itchy either way. I agreed, the way I always did when it came to Rudy, saying to hell with everything—the same logic it turned out he was following himself, until the cops showed up at our door.
By the time I got to Stephen’s house to talk about the doctor’s diagnosis, his remorseful tone had vanished. “I’ve been doing some research,” he said, sitting down with me after putting Zoe to bed.
“Let’s hear it,” I said.
It was the last functional moment we’d ever have.
“They came from Rudy.”
I took a sip of wine to stall. “What?”
“Bedbugs, scabies, they thrive in institutional settings. Rudy was in an institutional setting. You can get them from skin-to-skin contact or sex, and I haven’t had skin-to-skin contact with anyone but you and Z.”
My cheeks burned at skin-to-skin, but I barreled past it. “I think the turn-around is too fast. And Rudy didn’t have symptoms, and neither do I.”
“I’m not saying it sounds probable,” Stephen said. He was talking quickly, like this was a speech he’d mapped out in his head while turning a wrench at the shop. “I’m saying there are no other probable options.” He spread his fingers wide on his knees. “The doctor says you can see the burrows if you look closely.”
“Yeah, if the scabies got inside me.”
I tried to look, but his shoulder was in the way.
“Well, Stephen,” I said, “we talked about Rudy’s visit. You agreed to it. Just because you regret it later—”
“Did I agree to everything that happened on Rudy’s visit? Everything?”
He looked at me like he knew, like he could see past my eyes. But he couldn’t, he fucking couldn’t. Nobody could do that besides Rudy.
“Stephen,” I said, “you can’t ask me to eliminate everyone from my life except for you and your kid.”
Stephen stared. “I’m not asking—”
“I mean, I have my own life to live.”
Stephen dug his elbows into his knees. “Are you saying,” he said slowly, “there’s a chance Rudy might come back? To Richmond?”
“He just wants to clear up a couple misunderstandings about the past,” I said. That was what Rudy had said on the phone: I just want to clear up a couple misunderstandings about the past. I’ll sleep on the sofa. I’ll be in and out. Look up Frontier flights for me.
Stephen’s eyebrows furrowed so hard they formed a straight line. “Brooke, there is something you’re not seeing.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like you’re sleepwalking. It’s common sense you can’t bring your ex around without messing up the relationship you’re in.”
I thought of his wife in a psych ward for a full five months and twenty-nine days before he divorced her. He must be the one who wasn’t seeing things clearly.
The clock ticked. Stephen spread his hands out again. He took his glasses off and put them back on.
The night that Rudy and I tried to get rid of the bedbugs, we ran out of rubbing alcohol at three a.m. and drove to CVS to get more. We’d already been there four hours earlier. Walking in, I caught a glimpse of us in the sliding glass doors, in wife beaters and basketball shorts, lips parched, hair askew. The cashier stared. I wondered what she thought we were doing with the alcohol. I wondered whether, if she knew the truth, it would make us more or less crazy in her eyes.
“Let’s put a pin in this,” Stephen said. “Okay? Let’s get lunch tomorrow and figure this out.”
But I kept hearing what he’d said before that: There’s something you’re not seeing.
I had thought, back when it was me and Rudy against the bedbugs, that he wanted to make something of himself. My mom said he seemed like a liar; “I know one when I see one,” she said. But my mom had cheated on my dad for eight years, so who was to say she wasn’t lying about Rudy, liar that she was? Or who was to say Rudy wouldn’t stop lying, eventually? Or how could my mom know what was right for me anyway, since she’d skipped town when I was a freshman in high school and only came back to celebrate her own birthday?
And Rudy—Rudy told me he was applying to pharmacy tech jobs and wanted to move out of his uncle’s house and get married. I didn’t know he was skimming percs off the top of every CVS shipment and passing them off to a dealer. I didn’t know that was where he got the money he used to treat me to Chili’s and Applebee’s. I didn’t know that was why we got those looks, walking into CVS—the cashier recognizing him and putting two and two together. But did that fact negate what he’d always said, which was that he planned to be more successful than either of us could possibly imagine and he hoped I’d stick around for the ride?
It was confusing.
The next day, Stephen canceled our lunch date. He said he felt itchy when he thought about it.
“Is Zoe itchy?” I asked.
“No, she’s not.”
“Brooke, I’m really pretty tired of talking about this.”
After we hung up, I tried to think about how I felt and what I wanted, but instead I typed into Google, can you carry scabies with no symptoms. After reading for a while, I typed, how fast can you transmit bedbugs. Finally, asymptomatic scabies or bedbug carrier.
If you can brainstorm something just long enough to google it, you’ll discover it already exists.
There were a lot of other things I should have googled then too, but I lost the energy for it. I wondered how much longer I had on the timeline before Stephen ended things. I wondered how to see things more clearly.
Maybe I did give you scabies, I texted Stephen, but he didn’t respond.
- The fifth theory isn’t a theory because it never occurred to either of us. It’s just the truth.
We weren’t on speaking terms by the time Stephen’s allergy test came back, but he texted me this: I know it’s been a while, but I just wanted you to know the problem wasn’t scabies. I’m allergic to five distinct types of metals, rarely encountered in daily life, but commonly used in car engines. Hope that brings you some peace of mind.
I responded: Wow! What kinds of metals?
But he didn’t write back. Over the next day I kept looking at my phone, thinking the conversation might have inexplicably unfurled to greater lengths when I wasn’t paying attention. Zoe had turned eight. How had her party gone? Had they taken that beach trip we’d been planning, and was she afraid of the waves? Did she still say marshmallow a lot, or did fewer things upset her now?
There was no way that was the final line of our relationship: Wow! What kind of metals? There had to be something else.
Finally, late that night, my phone buzzed and I grabbed it. But it was Rudy: You check those Frontier flights yet?
I looked at the bright screen. I looked at each tiny letter that formed each of Rudy’s words. I typed: N-O.
Four seconds later, my phone buzzed again. You don’t want me to come? Or you haven’t checked the flights?
I studied the black squares of sky outside my window, how perfect they were, how precise. Faint trails of smoke circled my head; I sensed the blurriness descending, but I fought to keep it at bay. I glanced at the webs between my fingers, where the burrows would have been if they had ever existed, if it were possible to pinpoint the reason precious things go out of our lives. I didn’t see anything. But I wasn’t in direct light.
Sara Heise Graybeal is a writer, teacher, connection coach, and host of the podcast Connect More. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart Magazine, Moon City Review, Beloit Fiction Review, and elsewhere. Sara holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She lives in Greensboro with her six-year-old son, and she is currently at work on a memoir.