The Boiler

Monique McIntosh

BUG

It felt like nothing, Cooper says. A pinch. A scratch he pecked at idly.

He says he had asked Gillian, the fellow entomologist he used to fuck before me, to check his scalp.

While he talks, I imagine Gillian climbing up on the top bunk bed in the shack they shared, her brown legs tucked under her, her hands prying Cooper’s hair apart with a fine-toothed comb. She would be fresh from the shower, hair still dripping down her shoulders.

In my mind, she is always damp. Cooper says the showers in the rainforest research outpost opened up to the sky. Four panels of galvanized zinc and cool green air above, a constant static of insects with names Cooper tells me diligently, but I can never pronounce. Some without names at all.

Gillian did not need a comb. By then the worm had curdled into a pea-sized lump under his skin, pushing apart his hair follicles. A small air tube poked through, flopping around. A little tube nudging through the flesh lump so the botfly larva living under his scalp could breathe.

“Like the tiniest blue box macaroni you’d ever see,” he says.

I ask him what it was still doing inside him.

“For experiments,” he says. To gestate his own generation of Costa Rican botflies.

He takes off his baseball cap. He fingers find the lump and rub around the rim. He sits on the couch, but from across the room I see the fleshy bump rising through his black hair.

I’m standing by the glass doors, looking out at his unswept patio. Cooper has been gone for a year. His floor’s thick with termite bodies. A stray, lacquered palmetto bug lies bellied up.

Before I met Cooper I would kill them. Slide off my shoe and slap them into a pulpy smear. I would not nurse them into spare jam jars scattered around my apartment for such purposes. I would not rescue them, free them back into the yard. I would not stay crouched, watching their hard bodies furrow through the grass.

“Come here,” Cooper says. “I missed you.”

I do not want to but I come. I stand over him, his arms around my waist. He feels thinner. His old T-shirt drapes across his shoulder blades. He buries his new, hairy face in my belly. He feels strange, not the Cooper that promised to come back. That promised I would move in with him.

I want to peel him off me. I am sick of strange men.

The worm buried in his head stares back at me. Or his macaroni air tube does. Wiggles around. Breathes me in. Hello. Under the hair Cooper’s scalp is red and inflamed.

I ask Cooper how the worm can survive under there. Though I already know the answer, that this worm is eating bits of Cooper. Eating up the fleshly pulp outside his skull.

If the worm stays there long enough it will be more Cooper than anything else.

Removal Method 1:

Slap a slab of fresh red meat over the burrowed larva. Meat will suffocate protruding air hole. In desperation, the slug will crawl through the meat, towards where he thinks the surface waits for him. He will emerge, complete. Buried in the meat. Clean exit.

The other entomologists are coming over for a welcome back get-together. Just some beer, says Cooper. They’re bringing over turkey subs and guacamole and baked brie. My stuff is still in boxes, so we shove them in the spare bedroom already filled with Cooper’s things.

I only have a few boxes. We pile them in the center, far from the empty glass tanks, the battered, broken lab microscopes, the collection of bug bodies pinned to cardboards in frames on the wall. The room smells because he never throws away his things.

“Just take out what you need,” says Cooper. “I’ll help you unpack tomorrow.”

I nod. I had packed quickly, blindly. I have no idea what’s in them.

“Look at this one,” he says, pointing to a frame. A dried-out dragonfly with cracked honey wings. “This one’s my first one. See?” He taps the pencil scrawl below, the Latin name, the date. “My dad labeled it cause my handwriting was still shit.”

“Of course.” Cooper looks at the bug and his face grows broad and open I can see all his joy, and I look at him and wonder what it would be like to love something for so long.

We clean the apartment. I sweep and mop. I want to bleach everything, but Cooper doesn’t like the harsh smells. He wipes the bathroom down with his own mixture of vinegar and baking soda, and scrubs hard so his hands are raw from it. He smells like salt and vinegar chips. This has not changed.

Bathing, says Cooper, is still tricky. The worm does not like to be submerged. When the shower hits his scalp the worm thinks it is drowning and flails under his skin. Instead Cooper wipes a soap-logged rag around his head and dabs the suds away.

I catch Cooper examining himself in the mirror, head tilted to see as much of the thing he is carrying around. His fingers prod softly around the lump.

“How does it look?” He smiles at me through the mirror.

I shake my head. I stay in the doorway and watch him.

“Come on,” he says. “It won’t bite.”

I leave him and Cooper chases me, head first, air tube wiggling. I think I should squeal, that it would be good, so I do. Across the living room. He catches me in the patio, drags me in. We collapse on the freshly made bed. I think I should laugh so I do. I let him crawl over me. Pull apart my cleaning house clothes, the bleach splattered shirt and stretched-out sweats.

I always loved Cooper for his hands. Bug-finding hands. Bony, thickly jointed at the knuckles. Neat, efficient. Like tweezers picking something out of formaldehyde. So I stay still, shut my eyes so he’s nothing but his knobby hands down my belly through my cunt.

I do not look at him when he kisses me. He doesn’t ask me to look at him. Maybe his eyes are shut too. Maybe we both cannot look at each other. Not because if I had my Cooper back, I would have pulled my fingers across his head but can’t because his scalp is ocupado, so my hands just lie there at my sides, not sure what to do. But because I do not want to see him take off my clothes. I do not want to see on his face how much he does not know me.

He feels sticky from spit. I hear him licking, trying again, slipping between me. Spare thumb wish-wash across my nipple. I will not be able to go through with this.

The fan creaks over us, swooshes of air.

I imagine Cooper is not back home. He is back in Costa Rica, in a rain-soaked place I can’t remember the name of. I imagine we are in that bunk bed, in that hut. Roughhewed, brightly embroidered blanket under us. Hiking gear scattered on the floor. Spare collecting jars around. The fan creaking is some insect buzzing above us.

And here in this place my body is brown and tight like Gillian and wet under him. My body is no longer mine. I imagine my feet, sore from the hiking boots. My worm picking hands grabbing him.

I do not think about all the others I fucked when Cooper was gone.

Here in this place my Cooper can be the one fucking someone else. He deserves as much. We can be somewhere else. I can manage this way. I can come.

Shit, he says. He rolls off and I look at him. His faced scrunches into itself and he’s clenching his head. Cooper laughs.

“I think the worm liked that too much,” he says. He smiles. He rubs his head, and I see the pale little air tube wiggle, curling around Cooper’s fingers.

Removal Method 2:

For the indigenous remedy, apply a pomade of tree sap from the matatorsalo, native to Costa Rica. The tar will poison the worm. The worm will die safely. He will stay safely dead and buried under the skin.

Cooper sits cross-legged in the middle of the floor as the entomologists surround him. The lump is growing, already the size of a fat olive. The macaroni tube wags harder, like it’s heard its name. A few jump back. Shit. Bloody Marys spilling on the floor. I do not clean up. I stand by the doorway to the kitchen, near the drinks, watching them.

Both Sajjad and Schwarz stand around Cooper too, peering down at the worm’s tube. They are two of the men I slept with in the Natural Sciences Department.

I had recognized them both from their files when they came to me for some paperwork. I already knew their middle names, their social security numbers, their student loan debt before I fucked them. Still now, sometimes at work I go through the database I’m not suppose to know the password for, and I click through them, the faces I’ve fucked. Hoping someone will catch me.

I am surprised Sajjad has come. He is quiet in the huddle, sipping his drink, not looking at anyone. He is the kind of person who would come because not coming would mean something. Schwarz is laughing the loudest, pulling at Cooper’s hair.

“Have you named it?” Gillian asks. She comes from behind and stops beside me, offering me a spare Bloody Mary glass. I take it.

“No. We’re waiting for it to come. See what the little fella is like.”

“Of course.”

I tell her Cooper promised once that he’d name something after me.

Gillian watches the crowd around Cooper. She is still warmly brown, petite. Tightly wound under her t-shirt. Small head coated with slick black hair. The trip has not changed her.

“I would hold out for something better,” Gillian says. “Florescent.”

“Sure.”

Gillian smiles. She is always smiling with her crooked incisors. She leaves me, joins the knot around Cooper, who’s grinning, hot-faced drunk and jolly.

I imagine the worm eating up all that giddiness, that adoration. Flopping around even harder.

“What you gonna do when it comes?” Gillian asks Cooper.

“Oh, we’re ready,” he says. He points to the jar of sanitized sand on the end table. There is one in every room and one in his knapsack at all times. When the worm comes we will plop it in the warm, aeriated sand, where Cooper says he’ll have the best chance of survival, though it makes no sense to me. A worm who spent his days buried, furrowing again into dirt.

Cooper tells everyone that his doctors were salivating over his bug. The main doc had called the whole clinic staff into the tiny exam room, and they had crowded over him, taking pictures, pulling hairs from his head with tweezers to get a better look. Some nurse stayed by the computer googling extraction methods and hollering out each step while the rest debated with each other about the best way to get the worm out intact, not listening to Cooper, who just wanted some ointment to make the worm happy.

The other entomologists laugh. They crowd over him, those that went into the rainforest too. Those that bathed in the open air, got bit in unspeakable places. They have all gone. Some one month, others a whole year like Cooper. Even now, so far away from that place, they hum and buzz around each other, each one with that same look Cooper gets when he rescues a palmetto bug, holding it in his hands, toppling it into a jar.

Schwarz looks up from the huddle at me. His glass is empty. He nods at me, lifting the clear glass bottom, mouthing any more left? I nod. I leave them, walk back into the kitchen and open the freezer, knocking loose more ice cubes. I know that tonight or some other night when I can I will take Schwarz back into the second bedroom with my boxes. I’ll let Schwarz touch Cooper’s things, let him tell me the names of each insect in each frame. I will not let him put his dick in. I can at least do that.

And I think about when Cooper first spoke to me. When he found me standing over a butterfly dead in the middle of the Ecology parking lot. Wings still attached, but the pale yellow at the corners smudged away like chalk dust. I had stopped there, staring at it. Administration files slipping through my arms.

Cooper had come up beside me. Stood there awhile. Without a word he had squatted down and pinched its middle. Asked me for a spare sheet. Slipped the body into paper folds.

He had said if I wanted, he could pin her down in a shadow box. And I had wanted nothing more. To spread her apart. Needles through the chalk dust wings. Yellow smeared on my fingers if I was not careful.

Removal Method 3:

Paste a piece of adhesive tape over the breathing hole. Worm may inch his way outwards, tentative, suspicious. Grab his tail out with a pair of tweezers. Do not tear the body in two. What is left of the body will stay there. Fester. Toxic shock in the host may occur.

We can’t really fuck anymore. Cooper says the larva hurts too much when we get going. When he is in me the worm thrashes. He can feel the worm throbbing all the way down the nape of his neck.

We try. I climb on top, Cooper on his back, propped up on pillows. We try as long as he can, until I see Cooper’s face crumble into himself. Even when I know he’s had enough, I work at it a moment more. Close my eyes. Imagine someone else is under me. It doesn’t matter who. Cooper doesn’t stop me, and I don’t stop until I can see the macaroni air tube flicking at me from the worm’s lime-sized crown. I roll off him then and we lie there, Cooper’s eyes shut, rubbing the lump. I can hear him humming a soft, gauzy song to the worm.

He looks at me. “Don’t tell anyone,” he says.

I lean over. Kiss him. I hum along too, until Cooper’s jaws unclench. Until the air tube collapses on its sides.

I stay out of the house as often as I can. I do not bring anyone over. Instead, when Cooper works late I sneak into the café on campus. Drink black coffee until it’s time for Cooper to come home. I lay out paperwork around me, but I don’t work. Instead I watch drinkers come and go. I watch them sip the cream and foam, streaks of residue left around their mouths.

Cooper says botfly larva taste like milk. Creamy, slippery. In hard winters the Inuit ate them when they found a line of maggots buried in the furry seam of a deer.

This is what I’m thinking about when I’m sipping my coffee. When Gillian see me, a fresh cup in her hands.

She sits down at my table.

“Hi, am I bothering you?” She asks.

“No, not at all.” I clear my files to the side to make space for her. She pries off the lid and the milky foam of her coffee leaks. She wipes it away.

“How’s the bug?”

“Fine,” I tell her. “How’s Cooper. Still in the lab?”

“Yes,” she says. “I just saw him. He’s stuck there for a while.”

“How’s work for you?” She glimpses over at the files in my hands. “Do you keep dirt on us there? Who gets the grant? Who’s fucking around with undergrads?”

“No. The real dirt’s all digital now.”

“Of course,” she says. She stares at me then. Unflinching. I realize now that Gillian never really looks me straight in the eye when we are together with the others. But a pre-class rush has come in, a line of knapsacks and skin crushed against us. We are crowded in. No one watches us. She leans in, brown sinewy arm reaching across the table.

“I wonder what’s your dirt?” She says. Someone brushes by. I look up, but he’s someone I don’t know.

“Well, I’m not fucking the students.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” she says. “You’d never.”

A girl behind Gillian comes in, catches my eye. Waves tentatively. Mouths hello. I remember her face is a passport picture on a file. I nod.

“I have to head out now, Gillian. See you later?”

“We didn’t fuck, you know. When we were over there. You can’t use that as an excuse.”

Gillian watches me. She shuffles the files near her, adds them to the pile in my hands. I know she is waiting for me so say something. To explain.

I am not sure what I do next. I know I leave Gillian there at the table sticky with her foam, the line of drinkers closing around her. Files slipping from my arms.

Removal Method 4:

Let him stay. He will crawl out on his own, fully fed. And following the laws of evolution, the emersion will be painless, so the host will not claw at the wound and rip the worm apart. The host will not even feel when the worms slips out. The host will live.

When Cooper comes he is hungry. He cannot wait. He rustles through the pantry, digs out the blue box macaroni. Want some, he asks? Sure. I watch him stir, sprinkling in the yellow powder into the pot.

Over the stove, his soft round belly rises slightly through his T-shirt. He has gained back some of the weight. There is the same old hairy belly he clenches tight when I poke at it. But the beard has stayed, thicken. Around his head is a halo of thick hair, a throbbing lump of flesh plopped on top.

There is no hiding the worm. Its fleshy sack bulges out of his crown, poking through all the baseball caps Cooper uses to conceal him.

It has been stressful for him, coming back here. He has not said so, in so many words.

He pours the yellow muck in bowls, spare cheese dust scattering on the stove top. He hands me a bowl, hardly looking at what he’s doing. I stop him, take away the bowls.

“Eat later,” I tell him. “I need you for something.”

“The worm,” he says. “The worm hurts like fuck today.”

“I’ll be quick.”

I lie him down, prop the pillows behind his head, enough so the worm has air. The milky air tube flops over his sack. Slack, content. I want to blow on it. See if it will move. I blow across the lump. The worm stays still.

I will never fucking eat macaroni again.

“That’s nice,” Cooper says. “Do that again.” His eyes are closed. I peel back his work shirt. Press my face in his soft, hairy belly. Tongue in his belly button. He smells of vinegar and the chemical trace of something else. Something you keep dead things floating in.

Here now, with my face in the metallic tang of him, I will not pretend. I will not close my eyes. I will not fuck someone else. I will not be someone else. I look up for air. Cooper’s chin pokes out, slack, restless. Eyes still shut.

“Cooper. I should tell you something.”

“No,” he says. His Adam’s apple bobs up down his throat. “You don’t.”

“I think I do.” I watch him. His face crumbles into himself, eyelids crinkled tight, mouth pinched, pained. He rubs his hands across his face. I sit up, hover over him.

“You really fucking don’t,” he says through his hands. “You really fucking don’t.”

“Ok,” I say. “I won’t.”

And I watch his hands fall back, his face soften. Under the beard somewhere is my Cooper. Under his skin, his skull, his play dough folds. I run my finger down his nose and somehow I want to keep going. I want to slip my finger under his eyelids, through his eye socket. Go down as far as I can go until I understand. Until I know exactly how he can love me.

I call his name. I want him to say my name out loud. Say it.

But Cooper is so still. Mouth open, waiting. The lump is swelling. The air hole plops out. Ridges of pulpy white. Black hairs along its shaft. A fine, milky finger is coming.

_____________________________

Monique McIntosh is an MFA student at Florida Atlantic University, where she holds a Lawrence Saunders fellowship for fiction. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Small Axe Salon, Kweli Journal and Moko Magazine.