SHAUNA FRIESEN

Bughouse

Memories from a tumultuous and disintegrating relationship. Sometimes it is difficult to recognize cracks until the bugs start to get in. Sometimes, when an infestation is caught too late, there is little left to salvage.

The ladybug comes first, red as a blister rubying the crown molding. My husband stretches a fingertip toward the ceiling and clicks it like an on-off button. The stink of its yellow blood is like something burnt.
        “Are you leaving the windows open again?” he asks me. “I told you not to leave the windows open.”

 

***

 

Ants march on us next, mapping highways and turnpikes across our laminate countertop. They are palm-heeled to a dark smudge, and my husband sprays aerosol pest-killer.

In the weeks that follow, I spot a spider ducking behind wainscoting seams.

A millipede squinches up our shower curtain and I shriek.

Vinegar flies dangle in the kitchen.

Boxelder graveyards crop up in windowsills.

“How are they all getting in?”

We scour the house late into the night. Every surface is scrubbed to shining until our elbows ache, but when we fall back victorious and kissing and undressing onto our mattress, the thump of a moth against a bulb at our bedside interrupts.

Back on our feet, my husband and I are snatching fistfuls of empty air until the thrash of wings is powder on the drywall.

The romance is spoiled, and I switch off the light and settle back exhausted.

“Love you,” my husband murmurs, and when I am nearly asleep he shifts beside me. “You’re not going to say it back?”

“I love you,” I say.

“Why are you saying it weird?”      

         “What do you mean? That’s how my voice sounds right now. It’s been a long day.”

“Did I do something wrong?” he asks.

“No.”

“I feel like I’m always doing something wrong.”

My eyes are wide open now, bolted to the dark ceiling. “Me, too.”

         My husband lets out a breath of frustration. “Why do you always do that? Make it about you when I’m upset.”

         “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I think you should apologize anyway.”

“For the way my voice sounds?”

Our back-and-forth takes us in a circle, and I finally concede.

“Okay. I’m sorry.”

“See? You’re saying it weird,” he says. “You never say it like you mean it.”

“I’m super tired. Can we talk about this in the morning?”

“You always want to talk later.”

“You’re always upset.”

My husband jerks up in bed. “Seriously?” He is talking through teeth now. “This didn’t have to be a big deal. If you just apologized like you actually meant it.”

I am quiet, wishing I could fold myself smaller, the same way a pill bug can coil into a ball, the way a grasshopper accordions its lace-wings tight against its flanks.

“You’re just going to go to sleep, then?”

“I’m sorry,” I whisper again.

“That’s the best you can do?”

We hear a clack of something dropping to the floor, and when I switch on the light a June bug is on its back on the hardwood, six legs flailing.

 

***

 

Our furniture is dragged back from the baseboards so we can dust and vacuum every crevice. Cobwebs are broomed and carpet beetles are halved and crane flies are clapped in preparation for the party. Guests arrive, and despite our best efforts I still spot cutworms beating themselves against lights, a mantis perching on the sofa arm, a lightning bug winking overhead like foil confetti. Our friends are swatting at gnats while they dig in ice for beer cans, crack glowsticks, bounce ping-pong balls, bob near the Bluetooth speaker.

“Where’s the birthday boy? We have to do candles!” someone shouts as midnight nears.

I find my husband alone in our bedroom. He looks like he’s been crying.

“It took you a whole hour to realize I was gone,” he tells me.

“Why are you in here? Are you okay?”

“It’s my birthday. And you didn’t even notice I was missing. No one did.”
        “Of course we did. Everyone’s asking about you. I think we should go—”

“You’re my wife. I thought you would have noticed, at least,” he says, breathing hard. “You know I hate my birthday. I’ve always hated my birthday. If you really knew me, you’d know I didn’t want a party.”

“I thought you said—”

“I make your life miserable. I know I do,” he panics. “Why are you even with me?”

I lock the bedroom door and hold his head in my lap while laughter and music seep in from outside. “Because before I met you, I didn’t think it was possible to love someone so much,” I tell him, my chest aching.

Some days being in love feels like being a longhorn ant, carrying something ten times my weight.

I am a dog tick, so swollen to bursting I can barely move, and love is something liquid red.

We sit together like this until our guests filter home, and I watch a widow gossamer her net between walls while I stroke the hair from my husband’s forehead, trace the lines of his beautiful face with my thumb.

 

***

 

We fill the seams of our doors and windows, caulking gun in my husband’s hands while I smooth the sticky seal with a putty knife behind him. When we don’t see a single insect all day, we pop champagne to celebrate, laughing as we lever the cork, collapsing on the kitchen floor and sipping straight from the green gooseneck of the bottle.

“Do you remember the day we met?”

“The way we used to talk?”

“Until the sun was rising.”

“At the top of that parking garage. Where you could see all the city lights.”

“Remember our first kiss? We were so—”

“And that waterfall we went skinny dipping in?”

“Why do you always do that?” my husband mutters.

“What?”

“Interrupt me.”

“Oh. I didn’t realize.”

“You do it all the time. You’re not a very good listener.”

“I didn’t mean to. What were you going to say?”

“I’m not saying it now.” He passes the bottle, and a pair of katydids start a chorus in a high cabinet.

 

***

 

The bugs are pouring in ten times more than before, so many that high corners are velveted black. The frosted bowls of the overhead lights fill with a trail-mix of exoskeletons. My husband and I keep our shoes on to stomp for roaches while we walk. We are shaking silverfish and moth larvae out of our clothes when we dress, washing palmettos down the shower drain before we step into the tub. Black flies float in our cereal milk and strawberry-root weevils wriggle in our rice. We are scratching mosquito bites until they bleed, tweezering hornet stingers from one another’s knuckles. A fleecy egg sac bursts and spiderlings unspool from it by the thousands, so we are sucking them up in lines with the vacuum tube.

We spend a whole weekend hanging blackout curtains. We run our hands along every wall, every baseboard, every windowpane searching for cracks, spackling the smallest suggestion of one.

“It was your idea.” I spit in frustration, fingernailing something bitter and winged from between my teeth. “To live in this house. To move out of the city.”

“Oh, so this is all my fault?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Don’t I always let you have your way? About every other thing? I’m always doing what you want.” He is raising his voice. It climbs a rung with each word. “And you. Do you ever do a single thing for me? You treat me like a chore!”

“That’s not true,” I murmur.

“You don’t get to decide how I feel.”

I go silent enough for us to hear the tick of chitin against glass, the drone of house flies in the next room.

“You’re always doing this. You say something you know will upset me, and then get all deer-in-headlights when it works. You’re such a bitch sometimes.”

I am still silent.

“Say something! Apologize! Anything!”

“I’m sorry,” I whisper.

“That’s it?”

I am quiet.

“You’re seriously bad at making me feel better!”

“I don’t like when you yell at me.”
        “You think this is yelling? This is what yelling sounds like to you?” he is shouting now. “You’ve had it so easy, haven’t you? You have no idea what yelling is!”

My voice shakes. “Maybe we should wait until you’ve calmed down to talk about this.”

“I wouldn’t get so upset if you knew how to apologize the right way. It’s only you that gets me worked up like this. No one else ever does.” He is roaring now. “Just you!”      

 I am shrinking back from him, even though I know he hates when I do.

 “I’ve told you not to do that. You make me feel like a monster. You make me feel like the worst person on earth.”

I lock myself in the bathroom for hours, pressing darklings into porcelain one by one as they come up from the drain.

 

***

 

My husband knows I don’t like flowers, and after work, when I’ve slashed my way through fresh spiderwebs to get to the kitchen, I find bunches of mint and rosemary and eucalyptus in a vase. Caterpillars are already eating holes through the leaves.

“I’m so sorry,” my husband says. “I don’t mean to get so angry. It’s how everyone treated me when I was young. I hate that I get like that. I’m an idiot. A horrible person. You’re so much better than I am.” He goes on and on, kissing my cheeks and my eyelids and my fingers between words.

Water is set to boil, but for every copper-winged Indianmeal my husband picks from the penne, the next duplicates tenfold. We order takeout instead, eating on the driveway under a salting of stars, laughing at the constellations we draw.

“See?” he says, bringing a blanket when I start to shiver. “This is how you apologize the right way.”

 

***

 

Later that night, I slide a hand down my husband’s shorts while we watch television, but he shirks away.

“No. Not with all these bugs everywhere. We need to get them out first.”

 

***

 

The next week my husband fogs the living room, and the floor is littered with legs and wings.

“I have to go,” I say when I am passed a broom and dustpan. “Meeting friends for lunch. Remember?”

“You’re just going to leave me? To clean this up on my own?”

“You should come with me. We could both use some time out of the house. We can do this together later.”

“I want to do it now.”

“I’m not canceling.”

He frowns. “I feel like you’re always trying to get away from me.”

“I want you to come along.”

“You don’t mean that. You act like you hate being around me when we’re with other people. And your friends are assholes to me.”

I sigh. “I’m late. I can’t deal with this right now.”

“Me? You can’t deal with me?” My husband is taken aback. “I do so much for you. Everything I do is for you. And you can’t do this for me?”

“I’ve had these plans for weeks.”
        His eyes narrow. When he wheels back his open hand, it is to slap the wallpaper near my head. He shows me the smashed centipede on his palm after.

“Go. Have fun,” he says. “But if it was you asking me to stay, you know I would.”

 

***

 

Cocoons drip from the underside of everything like woolly stalactites, half-marinated darts and loopers and carrot seeds and wood nymphs ornamenting all the rooms of the house. There is a wasp nest chandeliering our table. Dragonfly eggs kernel our sink basins. Each step my husband and I take makes a cuticle-molting crunch, and we keep our lips pressed in tight lines as we tiptoe through the house to keep from inhaling midges and fleas.

At night, clover-mites tickle footpaths over our skin and orb weavers feel their eight-legged way down the tunnels of our throats so we are rasping and choking awake.

“I can’t stand this anymore,” I admit. Even at work I feel sowbugs crawling under the fabric of my uniform.

My husband frowns. “You want to leave me.”

“No. I want to leave this house. Together.”

“I’m not leaving. I’m not moving. I’m not giving up on this. If you want to leave, you’ll have to go without me.”

I try to imagine leaving him, and I cry under a heavy quilt until I can’t breathe.

It would be like cleaving an earthworm down its center, and I’m sure he is the half with our shared heart.

 

***

 

The house smells of cedar and sawdust and the rotting coriander of smashed stink bugs when I enter. My husband has a mouthful of penny nails, and he hammers cuts of plywood over our windows with an enormous mallet.

“Do you have to cover them all?” I ask when he starts in the bedroom. “How will the light get in?”

“We don’t have a choice,” my husband says. “This is going to help.”

We switch our bulbs to infrared, stick the walls with a checkerboard of baits, hang strips of flypaper like party crepe. Whole colonies gather to drink from the dish of poison we set out, their humming bodies squirming in unison like they are a single creature, a greasy, ash-colored companion come to stay with us, one we never invited inside.

“I don’t think this is working. Nothing is working.”

 

***

 

I go running in a lightning storm.

I take a trip to the grocery store and don’t buy anything.

 I pack a bag to stay overnight at a friend’s.

Anything to breathe air that isn’t bloated with insecticide, textured with drain flies.

“You don’t love me anymore,” my husband says while I empty my suitcase. “I don’t think you ever did.”

“I love you so much that sometimes I feel like you and I invented love,” I tell him.

“Then why do I feel this way?”

“What way?”

“Like I have to beg you for it. Like I have to pull your teeth out to get it from you.”

 

***

 

My husband brings home steel plates to weld over the vents, insulation stripping to stuff under the doorframes, tubes of Gorilla glue to seal the entrances. “We can keep them out of the bedroom, at least,” he says, duct taping us in and plugging the keyhole with putty.

“Won’t we be trapped?” I ask while I help him paint weather-proofing pitch.

“Do you have any better ideas?”

I don’t have to answer.

“Of course you don’t. I’m the only one making an effort,” he says. “This has to work.”

There is nothing else left to try, and we drag furniture to barricade the door when the bumping and clicking and buzzing outside swells to a brontide. Termites take bites of the house to get to us, and we are coating our four walls in layer after layer of sealant to cork their shafts and tunnels, lathering it so thick we lose whole inches of the room.

When they finally make their entrance, it is teeth-first, pale bodies plunking one after another onto the floor like drips from a faucet.

After this, my husband and I have no choice but to work in rotating shifts, holding books and saucepans and soles of shoes and our gritty palms over fresh chinks while the Poly-fil and paste dry.

With a blood-colored bulb as our only sun and moon, I am not sure if days or weeks pass this way.

I start to ache like a clenched fist, a body-shaped bruise.

Sleep can only be caught in snatches.

My parents call.

Friends text.

Work emails.

“We’d love to hear from you.”

“Where have you been?”

“Can you please submit your sick day requests in the online portal?”

I don’t answer, melded to a single joint gone Sisyphus-stiff from pressing, steeling, holding on.

 

***

 

“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” I say, when I am sure my arms won’t stay above my head for another minute.

“Are you even trying?” my husband demands. “I’m never going to stop trying. If you want it to end, you’re the one who has to give up on this. You have to say the words.”

I don’t have any words at all left to say, so I drop to my knees to find the mallet in my husband’s toolchest. I am crying while I weigh it in my fist, while I rise to swing at the wall, while it erupts in paint chips and wood splinters and plaster dust.

My husband watches in silence.

When I have made a gape large enough to fit through, I look back at him one last time.

He nods once.

We both try to smile.

Then I am hoisting and scraping my body between studs and joists.

The walls in the rest of the house are sheets of writhing insects. Maggots squirm. Earwigs and cicadas clamber sticky from their molts. Ants have gathered to dine on the carcasses of yellowjackets. Cocoons have been peeled back like hangnails, and moths pound like a hundred hearts around me as I stumble for the front door.

Outside, a torrent of hot white sunlight scorches me.

When I lift my hand to shade my eyes, a newborn cecropia is opening and closing its silken wings in my palm.

Shauna Friesen (she/her) is a mountain climber, rock collector, and author living in Los Angeles, CA. Her words have been featured in Pithead Chapel, Foglifter Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, Fictive Dream, and Bruiser Magazine, among others.

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