The infestation happens overnight. I must have noticed their nesting: the rhythmic thwack of cat paw against neck, thread turning over in a bobbin case. I must have done something wrong—left a door open too long, mopped up routine insecticide sprayed by handymen before it took hold. Two years ago, my mother sewed the persimmon edges of twin pillows for me to sleep on before I left my forever home of West Virginia for the first time to attend a PhD program in Oklahoma. This is how I find them: neck pressed against needle-punched fabric, skin pricked by searching mouths.
My once-beloved visits me by surprise while moving cross-country for work. He spent the better part of a year in New York while I chipped away at my doctorate in the southwest. Now, he was heading to the Golden State. You’re on my way, he tells me. Can I see you? We’d just started speaking to one another again; over a year had passed since we referred to each other as home. He had shown up one day about a month ago—a text out of the blue, a flea flitting onto my elbow. Yes, I tell him. I’d like that.
Before my once-beloved arrives, I go through hypothetical best- and worst-case scenarios of his visit while pacing the house of a friend. Our relationship was unhealthy, but my mouth still waters at the thought of him. Once, I’d considered him the love of my life. Now, I struggle to weigh my wariness against my curiosity. I could never quite place where his want lay. With him, my desire seemed to multiply and spread, skate across my skin with frenzied intent, biting ceaselessly.
I ask my friend for permission under the guise of advice. It’ll gnaw at you, he tells me, if you don’t see him. I scratch my arm, run a hand through my hair. If you need help, he says, just call. I wave good-bye with one hand on the door.
My once-beloved and I start slow—gin and tonics at a burger joint, Tecate at a dive. I bend across a pool table, take aim, and imagine his blood warm and churning behind his cheeks. He checks his phone. A hundred miles between us and his booked hotel. You could stay, I tell him, with me.
At mine, my once-beloved and I take turns at exposure. I queue a PUP track about unrequited love. He cups my calves, hoists them onto his lap. Christmas lights glow in the blue-dark. Candlewicks spit, dance. We bob our heads, shoulders twisting, spin across the wood floor of my apartment while Jay Kay croons over my speakers: Yeah, it's a wonder man can eat at all when things are big that should be small. I crack a beer and try to remember how the ridge of my once-beloved’s felt beneath my tongue.
Don’t torture me, I think of telling him. But I don’t want to lie.
He cups his hand around the soft of my chin and surprises me. He pulls me into his lap, and I snake against his hips, craving what I’d long abstained from. He carries me to my room, to the stained bed we’d spent so many nights on before. My heart expands when he collapses beside me, flushed, and pulls my sweat-slicked waist against his side. He strokes my hair. I curl into the humid pocket of his armpit.
I could live here, I think of telling him. But I don’t want to tell the truth.
I wonder if he can sense my itching when he tells me I am beloved. How he missed this, needed this, placing his want in my mouth and hearing it echo back. Naked, I will him to drink of me. I want to watch him fatten off my limbs. I want to eat him alive.
The fleas leave gifts for me to find. A trail of dirt along the spines of my cats, flecks of black that dot my couch like inverted stars. When brushing my pets, I dust these pieces of evidence into my bathroom sink and try not to think about how this dirt is actually shit, flea shit, proof they’ve satiated themselves to the point of passing. I catch their shiny bodies between the metal teeth of a comb, roll their bodies into excess fur like yeasted confectionaries. I arrange the tightly balled hair—fleas trapped inside—on the granite chin of the counter. I turn on the faucet, watch the water muddy and bloom chrysanthemum red. This procedure delights me; I glut myself on the ribbon of lost blood that laps lower and lower until all that’s left is a few stray hairs. I go outside in the sun, pull apart the fur balls like spun sugar, and watch families of Siphonaptera wriggle in panic, searching for warm skin. I don’t imagine them screaming when I grip their heads between my thumbnails. Instead, I picture them perturbed women in graduate school studying to be the best little suckers they can be, their safety net ripped out from underneath them. I imagine we have a lot in common, the flea and I. Our codependent nature, our one-track mindset. Our flightless, ambling bodies, never fully full.
In between flea-treating my house, I read up on my new roommates. The earliest flea performances, I discover, were ushered in by watchmakers attempting to flex their metalworking skills. Mark Scaliot is the first attributed with doing so when he built a minute lock and chain and attached them to a flea in 1578. From this, flea circuses grew. New Scientist editor Graham Lawton wrote about the premiere circus exhibitions in the early 1820s, when an “Italian impresario” named Louis Bertolotto advertised his “extraordinary exhibition of the educated fleas” in London.
Fleas were, one article says, easy to find, catch, and “train.” Flea wranglers would place their recruits in a shallow glass and let them starve, watch them agitatedly bump into one another until they became docile enough to be roped. Just before the fleas would die, the ringmasters would administer a drop of blood to revitalize the troops. This was what they had to live for.
At my university, our yearly stipend amounts to less than $17,000. Rent, on a low-average, is $500 a month. Utilities, on a low-average, are around $150 a month. The only internet service provider costs seventy-five dollars a month. Each semester, despite our tuition reimbursement, we are required to pay around $1,000 for university fees. I cannot begin to account for groceries, for healthcare visits or accidents. Submission fees for journals and contests—if done right—rack up at a minimum of one hundred dollars every six months. I cannot begin to account for comfort, stability, joy. We work twenty hours a week on top of taking courses. We are encouraged to involve ourselves in the community: to give presentations, to host readings, to navigate the tricky terrain of preference in academic circles. We are told to publish, publish, publish. We say thoughtless things to and about one another in the classroom, on the patios of cheap bars. Departmental budgets are cut by faceless provosts. We are told to take our time. We are told to stay ahead. But mostly, we are left to our own devices.
A starved flea can’t copulate. They require a blood meal—to be nourished from a host—before they can lay viable eggs, reproduce, create new life. Virgin fleas are classified as female fleas who’ve never been fed, fleas who lay empty eggs that will never hatch. A writer without guidance and encouragement—without financial stability—cannot produce their best work, if they can produce at all. It breaks my heart to think that some will never find a host body—a mentor; a well-funded program; a community of empathetic, inquisitive individuals—to grow from. I know in my heart of hearts that I am lucky. I know in my heart of hearts that I’ve been trained to be grateful for what I can get. I know I want more.
But I’m tired. My stomach has shrunk. My appetite for knowledge diminished. There’s no room for discovery or art—I can barely keep up with the responsibilities I signed up for. I tell myself this is normal, temporary. Burn out. Depression. Cultural and political trauma. Homesickness. I wish for a how-to manual that teaches me how to cultivate assurance as easily as I do uncertainty. I pray for a map that navigates my flea-ness without leading me away from myself. I toss squirming Siphonaptera into my yard from a plastic bowl of water. I nod in respect.
My beloved demonstrates his care through damage control. It’s over one hundred degrees in Oklahoma when I whimper into the phone, confessing my unhappiness with this city, my program, myself. This place, I tell him, is killing me. He asks for details. You have a community, he assures me, of people who love you. I’m coming to see you in a few weeks. I feel, he says, so helpless. Sweat pools beneath my pant seat. Parked bikes glisten in the sun while indie rock blares beyond the garage doors of the brewery where I work. I think of my friends, the kind, brilliant humans I get to listen to. The slapped games of spoons, the late-night dance parties held behind closed curtains, the observations we screech in front of a movie screen. But I’m in a state, and the ledge my once-beloved tries to coax me down from is a high one. The memory of mountains, of tall oaks and lightning bugs and blue misty mornings, of late-night porch swung laughter haunts me. I look down the road and all I see is sidewalk and dust—wet heat and dead grass and boarded-up buildings. I imagine myself a flea, arms raised on a diving board. I extend my long legs and bow before doing what I do best: jump.
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TO READ MORE FROM THIS ESSAY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 56 No. 2
AMANDA GAINES is an Appalachian writer and PhD student in creative nonfiction at Oklahoma State University's creative writing program. Her poetry and nonfiction are published or awaiting publication in Barrelhouse, Witness, Willow Springs, Yemassee, Redivider, New Orleans Review, Southeast Review, The Southern Review, Juked, Rattle, Pleiades, SmokeLong Quarterly, Ninth Letter, and Superstition Review.