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The first thing that people used to ask about were the bugs.
“I’m really sorry for that. I was born without a sense of smell.”
“Oh,” they always said, “but don’t you notice the bugs?”
The bugs. Everywhere. Of course I saw them, the way they followed me. Flies, mostly, but many others too.
It’s not that I didn’t want to shower. My mother made me shower every day, she just never explained why. Nobody told me why. They all assumed I knew and rather than tell me that I smelled bad and how to fix it, they concluded that I was handicapped and thus just stupid or dirty or crazy.
In twenty-two years nobody told me that. For twenty-two years everybody assumed I was scary and creepy and stayed away from me.
Shave, style the hair, make sure the face is spotless, work out every day before going to school and work, I tried everything. I tried so hard to be loved and normal and I never understood why they all turned away from me. I stared at my face and I cried and hit my fists against the mirror until it broke and took that creature with it; that creature so hideous that all of its kind kept their distance.
Twenty-two years. Why did no one ever bother to explain?
Please don’t blame my mother. She was the best mother in the world and if you say a bad word about her, you are wrong. As long as I can remember, she worked two jobs to pay for my school and the old ground floor flat with the big patch of grass behind the kitchen door. The big patch of grass where, after primary school, I imagined friends and made up games that we played together.
I didn’t know back then that she was sick and that we were in debt and that despite everything she came home after fifteen and a half hours of work and cooked for me and hugged me and listened to my fears and worries and told me that I was loved and would always be.
She too, must have thought that I knew. Maybe it was so obvious to her and that’s why she got so angry whenever she noticed that I hadn’t showered by the time she came home. I showered to do her a favor. I thought she only knew because my hair looked different.
I was eighteen and a week and she had just thrown out the last pieces of my birthday cake because it “smells bad.”
At night someone broke in our apartment, although the police never figured out how.
I found her in the morning, in a large red stain that imprinted the shape of her body on the white couch.
He choked her. He ripped pieces out of her stomach. Then he left her to die.
I’m not sure if she said goodnight to me. It’s so many years now but sometimes I still lie awake at night and wonder whether she said “Good night,” the way she did most nights, or whether her last words to me, right before I went to bed, were “smells bad.”
It was about a week after the funeral and I stayed the days at home rather than in school. I cried, mostly for her and sometimes because she was gone and there was nobody to replace her and her love.
I hated my father for sending money then, for sending it out of pity and for sending it out of guilt and for sending it at a point where it was meant to replace her and her care. Why didn’t he send it earlier, when we could have taken the money and she could have spent time with me instead of at work?
Food all tastes the same. I can feel the texture, like the slimy grease of a fast food burger, and I can taste that it tastes salty and sour and sweet at the same time. The combination of salty and sweet was why I never liked fast food. There’s not much of a difference between most foods. I ate beans, mostly, because I knew that they were healthy just like I knew that other people were bothered by farts, but there was not much of a reason to stop myself when I was alone in my apartment.
The flies, as said, came first, but they never followed me to the bars where I wasted my father’s guilt on drinks. Drinks for me and drinks for the ladies. Take the drink. Drink me beautiful. No matter how hideous my face might be, I read somewhere there is a point where you don’t care about my face anymore.
Twice it nearly worked and I brought them home. I got my first kiss, or at the other time the second, and when I opened the door they turned around and staggered off.
Some of the other critters did seem to follow me around, maybe on my clothes or maybe my face just looked like some flower or pile of excrement or whatever they might usually pay attention to. The normal flies were everywhere, but new ones each time. The bugs and these long, black flies were the same ones. I was sure of it.
Sometimes I killed them, the bugs and flies, but that didn’t help and it seemed cruel and so I stopped killing them.
It was my sleep that killed them. I never slept very calmly. It’s the same issue as with my sense of smell, there’s somewhere a wire loose in my brain; some part is not connected to the other. Vivid, very vivid dreams that made me sometimes talk and slap and sit in my sleep.
“Someday we might be able to fix these things,” that’s what the doctor said to my mother when I was sixteen and she had finally saved enough to pay for the brain scan out of pocket.
“But not with today’s technology.”
I’m on meds now. They are not cheap, but while I was locked up, they were for free and I don’t think I can live without them anymore. The dreams and slaps have gone and on most nights all I see is black and all I do is lie between the blankets.
With nineteen, I took up running and the weights soon after. An hour of either one in the morning, right between bed and breakfast.
I have always killed bugs and flies in my sleep. They were just there and I rolled over them and every few days I found their squeezed bodies on my sheets or pillow.
When I turned twenty-two, after a week of emptying glasses, that’s when I noticed that the dead chitin bodies were there every morning.
One day there were two, both green ones with reflective bodies. They were both on my pillow, as if I had crushed them with my face while tossing my head from left to right.
There were more then, from night to night. Two at least, sometimes three, then four, then five.
I had trouble falling asleep. I heard them and felt them coming. Insect sprays helped and switching to the sofa did too, but the sprays made me gag and the sofa made me sleep even worse. Better something crawling on your leg than back pain all day.
The other thing, and I had trouble acknowledging that to myself, was that I woke up with a bad taste in my mouth. A taste slightly sweet and somewhat bitter; not unlike fastfood but not as bad. The taste was there, every day, and it got worse every day.
Some mornings I found small pieces of black stuff between my teeth.
I brushed my teeth more.
There were more pieces and more bugs.
I started wearing a facial mask, but every morning the mask was pulled off my face.
There was a day when I woke up with an itch in my lips and my tongue pushed on something smooth and bitter.
There was a bug, about the size of a fingertip, dead, squeezed between my lips and my teeth.
A day or two later the vomiting started. Red and brown, mixed with large lumps of bitter black stuff.
I knew I should have seen a doctor. Should have said something to somebody, but there was not much money and the only person that I thought I could ask never picked up and never called me back, no matter how often I said I missed him and thanked him for the three hundred he was sending every month.
She knocked on my door on a Saturday morning.
I opened and she pressed a hand against her mouth.
“My god,” she said. “Now I understand why the other tenants keep complaining about you.”
She took a step back.
“Are you insane? Don’t you smell yourself?”
“No,” I said. “I was born without…”
“Are those bugs on you? Are those bugs?”
I flicked something off my shoulder.
“Oh,” I said. “Maybe.”
“My god, you’re nasty,” she said. “For all that is holy, let some air in here and get rid of those things and take a goddamn shower!”
“What is wrong with you? Are you insane? Are you allergic to water? Can’t you smell yourself?”
“No, I was born…”
With one hand pressed to her face she took another step back. The other hand was waving from side to side.
“I want you out of here.”
“But, please, I was…”
“No! I want you out of here. You have a month. And I’ll charge you for every one of those bugs I find.”
I wrote her an email to explain myself.
“I’m sorry for the bugs. I was born without a sense of smell.”
Then I emptied the shower and, for the first time in months, felt the warm water run down my back and over my arms and neck and hair and face.
That night my skin felt softer than before. I slept with the window open.
I woke up with a bitter and sweet taste on my tongue and black pieces in my cough.
There were at least eight dead bugs on my bed. And there was no email response, neither that day nor the next.
On the third day there was a letter instead, an eviction notice.
Every night, with the window open, there were more bugs. The black pieces stayed, and so did the vomiting, nearly every day.
I couldn’t find a new flat, not one that I could afford. Not even when I showered.
I left most of the furniture. Two suitcases filled with clothes, that’s all that I took. The landlady was already waiting. She took my keys and handed them to two cleaners. They wore masks over their faces.
I walked down the street, straight, mostly, sometimes I turned right. I had a rough idea where the river with its bridges was.
In the evening, hungry and tired and lost, I passed a police car. I wanted to ask them for the way, but before I could, they left the car and approached me. They screamed something and a moment later I was on the floor and my hands were cuffed.
That night, on a thin mattress with a metal bed-frame, it was hard to sleep. I must have fallen asleep at some point though. I remember waking up.
The screams; the club in my knees and then into my ribs; the blood on my hands.
They say I attacked him while he was asleep. I strangled him until he was unconscious; luckily not dead. Still, they say I ripped a piece of flesh from his wound.
They pumped my stomach right away.
That’s when they found the black pieces too.
The cleaners were the ones that had found the two bodies. Right under my bed.
One not much more than skin and bones. The other rotting still, with white and yellow larvae wriggling through the flesh.
Larvae. Those of flies and bugs.