Tess doesn’t look up from her phone when you get home.
“Hey,” she says from her desk. She types something quickly. The conversation has lots of long messages. She used to write messages like that to you.
“Hey,” you say back and go into the kitchen.
You grip the stove and double over. You try to regulate your breath. Counting makes it feel more uneven. You hyperventilate for a second, stifling the shuddering sound as well as you can.
“I’m going out tonight,” comes her voice from the next room.
“Okay,” you wheeze out.
You push yourself back from the stove. You throw open the cabinet and find a glass. It stumbles into your hand, and you fill it with the tap. You down the water as you stand over the sink. You fill the glass again. Your toes tap the bottoms of your shoes.
As you sip the second glass, you hear the bathroom door open and her flick on the bathroom fan.
Your eyes cloud as you think of her in there. Slowly stripping off her sweatpants. Her pale legs throwing off a yellow sheen in the filthy bathroom light. The shower spins on. Her old ringer tee drops to the floor. The steam of the hot water touches every part of her you’re not allowed to anymore.
Stop it. Stop it. You take a sip of water. You hit your thigh with your fist. You aren’t allowed to think of her like that anymore. You aren’t allowed to think of her like that anymore.
The shower curtain slides noisily from behind the door and cuts the image short in your mind. The dread is dripping off of you and leaving mud puddles on the floor.
You go into the living room and sit down on the couch. You are still acutely aware of your breathing. You wonder if it’s getting worse. You wonder if she can tell you’re being weird as she stands under the shower head. You wonder if it’s creeping under the door and stinking up the bathroom.
You drop your eyes down to the boots still on your feet. Your hands go to the laces automatically and untie them. You kick them off. Then off comes the socks. You feel like a bit of a weight is relieved. You stretch out your toes.
You reach onto the coffee table and pluck up a remote. You turn on the TV. She has a movie on, paused. A period drama about a princess having an affair. You read the description over half a dozen times.
Would she think it was weird that you were reading this? Is it weird to be reading this? You close out of the movie and put on an episode of Seinfeld. Her humming in the shower cuts over the dialogue a few times.
Every time it cuts in, you feel your jaw set. Your molars grind. Just a few more days. Just a few more days.
Your relationship ended over a year ago. She ended things. You did not want things to end. You liked things. She did not like things. She moved out. She was gone for a full fourteen months. Things hadn’t gotten better yet, but they hadn’t gotten worse.
Then, bedbugs. She has nowhere to stay. She has to throw out everything she has bought to replace the life she built with you. She texts you while you’re at work. She’s apologetic. She’s never depended on you like this before. You invite her back. She agrees.
The first night she is there, she sleeps in your bed. You are vibrating on your side. You can feel her under your skin. You roll over. You tell her that you’re sure she’ll figure things out. She gives you a shaky smile. She agrees.
You reach your hand out and take her wrist. She lets you keep it. You pull a bit closer. She pulls back.
“No,” she says. And you feel it. It’s like she’s ending things all over again. And it’s even worse this time. She has even less reason to be kind to you. You want it so bad. Just one more time.
“Please,” you say, and instantly regret it. You can feel disgust wash over her. You can feel how little respect she has left for you.
“If I knew you were going to do this—“
She is so angry. She is so angry that you even still has those thoughts. You really are a worm. You’re repulsive. You’re lower than low. Why are you even still alive.
“You promised me—“
You’re a disgusting liar. She’ll never want you again. No one will want you. No one will want you, you freak. You aren’t right. You aren’t normal.
“I’m sorry,” you say, and she stops for a second. You try to fix it. “I’m so fucked up.”
“That’s not why I’m mad and you know it.”
“I’m so fucked up. I’m sorry. I just miss you so badly.”
“Fuck you,” she hisses. She gets up and sleeps on the couch that night. You do not sleep on the couch. You do not sleep. You stay up and think of every horrible thing you have done in your life. You think of every reason why you should not be here.
You begin to shake. You begin to shiver. It’s not in your control. You have to fix it.
You jump up. You make sure the bedroom door is closed. You go to the bottom drawer of the dresser, where you still have all of it. In the box are her things. She didn’t want them. It reminded her too much of you.
Some of your things are still there. Earlier things. Older things. A blue dildo that you know is yours but you can’t recall having used. A thin crust of lube is on it. You must have used it once. You push it out of the way.
There it is. A little clear plastic box. You stretch out your leg on the bed. You take a deep breath and open the box. You fish out the first pin.
It’s a simple little pin. They sell them to make dresses. You let it glimmer in the light. You pop it into your mouth, and pull it back, watching the saliva strands curl over the metal shaft. You hold it above the center of your outstretched calf. You pierce the skin, and it comes.
That tremble of the first touch of a lip against your nipple. That finger just in the right place on your spine. It’s better than that. It’s so much better than that.
The pin sinks deeper into your skin as your breathing seems to spill out around it. You are safe. You are here. You are here.
You fingers fumble around another pin. You insert it immediately to the left of the first dress pin. The yellow plastic head caresses the green head of the one already in your leg. Your breathing catches. You stifle a moan.
Another pin. Another pin. You shove them in. You make a line. It creeps up your calf, into your inner thigh. Up higher, higher. You can’t take it.
You’re horrible. You’re horrible. How could you? She’s already disgusted with you. With the crest of release comes the shame again. You’re ripping the pins out of your leg. You’re not even bothering to clean them this time. The bloodied steel clatters against the clean pins. You slam the box shut. You throw it back into the dresser.
You lie in bed. You lie in bed. You wonder how much she will hate you in the morning.
You hear her stirring a few hours later. You know she gets up early on Tuesdays. She has a shift at the coffee place.
You open the door. She hasn’t turned on the lights. She won’t see your leg. She won’t know.
“Tess,” you say, and you can feel her looking at you in the darkness. “I’m really sorry.”
She doesn’t say anything back.
“That wasn’t fair to you. I thought when you reached out to me, to me, after everything. I thought when you reached out to me it was because. Because.” You can’t form a complete thought. You’re too embarrassed.
“It was just because I have bedbugs, Leah.” You hear the annoyance in her voice, but you’re just happy to hear her voice at all.
“I know. Really, I know now. I was being stupid. I’m sorry.”
“I can sleep on the couch. You take the bed. I want to do right by you,” you try.
“No, I’ll sleep on the couch. I should have done that from the start.”
You feel something fall inside your chest.
“Look, I’ll find someone else to stay with next week. I think that probably makes more sense.”
“No,” you protest softly.
“Leah, you haven’t changed at all. Have you seen someone since me? Have you even tried to move on?”
You have done that. You went out with a little redhead named Josie. You tried to imagine asking her to do it to you. She was so pretty. She seemed so kind. You couldn’t do it. You couldn’t ask her to do that. You didn’t call her again.
“You know I’ve never told anyone else,” you say. You feel it come out as almost a whine. You wish you could just get down on your knees and beg. You would try that if you hadn’t already.
“I don’t get why! It’s not the weirdest thing ever. You’re making it weirder than it is.”
You feel something curl in your stomach as she says that. You realize you’re just wanting her again. You try to stuff it down. You try to pretend it isn’t there, scratching its way up the back of your throat.
“You’re the only one who could do it right,” you say.
“Don’t say that. Anyone could do it. I don’t want to do it anymore, anyway.”
“You don’t want to do it because it’s fucked up.”
“No, Leah,” Tess is standing up. She shuffles around, looking for clothes. You draw back to the bedroom door, hiding your bad leg within your room.
“It’s not fucked up,” Tess says as she looks for her clothing. “You’re not fucked up either. But I’ve said both of those things a million times before. I don’t want to keep saying them.”
She pauses. “I care about you, Leah, and it’s really upsetting me. It’s really upsetting me that you’re making me resent you.”
You don’t say anything. Every single nasty thought is screaming in your ears. You fuck up. You freak. You drove her away and she’ll never do it for you again. She’ll never want you again because of the way you are. You’ll never have someone do it for you again.
She clicks on a light on the side table of the couch. Her eyes are swollen from lack of sleep. She sighs again as she sees your agonized face.
“I can’t make you believe me. Believe whatever you want.”
“I believe you,” you lie.
She turns her back to you and gets ready for work.
This was Monday night into Tuesday. Wednesday was quieter, more cordial. This was because you skipped work that day, while she was out of the house. You made a longer line of pins. It became three pins wide, twenty long. The relief was immediate. It was almost as good when she did it. You could be more normal around her. You weren’t a freak.
Except she picked up on the fact that you hadn’t gone to work. She took one look at you still in your pajamas at three PM as she got back from her shift, and she knew you hadn’t left the house that day. Did she know what you had done? Maybe, maybe not. But she knew that you weren’t okay. She knew that you were still a freak. She still didn’t want you.
Thursday. And now, today, Friday. You went to work both days. You tried to focus. You kept seeing her in your bed. You dozed off at your desk between emails and dreamed of her, bent over your thigh. Her fingers dancing up and down the pin. You were waiting for it. It was almost there—almost there.
You woke yourself up moaning and looked around the office. Thankfully, everyone close enough to hear had their headphones in. But you couldn’t guarantee that they were all listening to music.
They probably knew. They probably were messaging each other about what a nasty beast you were. They were probably calling you slurs. You wondered if HR’s filter would flag their messages. Maybe they would all be fired.
You took the train home from the office that day. In the ride back, you got stuck in a tunnel for fifteen minutes. You felt your palms start to sweat. You had no plans for the weekend. She would see you lying around waiting for her. She would think you are a loser. She would hate you more.
The fears settled in your stomach, kicking up a nausea like dirt. Three blocks down from your apartment, you threw up and swore it was mud and clay. You raced up the five flights of steps. You threw open the door. And she was sitting there on her phone, completely removed from it all.
She doesn’t care about you anymore. She doesn’t care about you anymore. It’s not that she hates you, it’s that she doesn’t see you as anything. You are a bug smeared on the bottom of her shoe. That’s worse than hate. That’s doubly, triply worse.
You hit your fist against your thigh again. You find the wounds you have made.
She’s going out tonight. You’ll have to do it by yourself again. You’ll have to do it by yourself forever.
You find yourself crying as the shower sputters off. You bring your fist to your lips. You try to breathe. You try to focus on not crying. The bass riff of Seinfeld mocks you.
She walks out of the bathroom and finds you in the living room.
“Oh,” she says. “Can I get dressed in your room?”
“Yes,” you manage to say, hoping it sounds even. Stupid. Stupid.
As she passes in front of you, you see her wrapped up in a towel. Every part of you wants to unwrap her. Maybe if you hadn’t done that in your bed the first night. Maybe she would have let you do it now.
She doesn’t seem to pick up on your staring at her. She doesn’t seem to pick up on you at all.
Your bedroom door slams shut.
“Where are you going tonight?” You call out to her after a moment.
“Um,” comes her response. “Jackie and I are getting dinner.”
Jackie. You know they dated for a while after she left you. She’s going to leave you again. She’s going to leave you and get back with her.
“I didn’t know you were still talking,” you say.
There is no response from the bedroom. You hear the vague suggestion of clothing being tossed over her body. Her tote bags of clothing and cosmetics thump onto the floor.
She comes out a moment later in that teal skater dress. You’ve seen it before. It’s too cute for a dinner with a friend. God. She really is going back to her. You’ve really pushed her to this.
“I told her about the bedbugs,” Tess says. “She wanted to catch up.”
“Oh,” you say. You want to scream. You want to cry as hard as your body can sob. You want her not to want this.
“I think I’m going to ask if it would be okay to stay with her next week.”
Breathe. Please, breathe. Please, just hold on. Don’t break. Don’t break.
Tess isn’t looking directly at you. She’s looking at the top of your head. She doesn’t want to see your reaction to this.
“I think it will be good for all of this,” she concludes.
How magnanimous. How giving. She can see that you are suffering, and she still says it like that. She hates you. She hates you so much.
“I see,” you murmur back.
She turns around and goes back into your room to start putting on her makeup. As she walks away, you can hear the water fall off her short hair with a plink. Plink. Plink.
She’s in the bedroom for a while. You feel restless. You need her to leave. You need to do it for yourself. If she won’t, you have to.
You stick your thumbnail in your mouth. You let your teeth press down and release. You think of the pin pressing down and you releasing.
She comes back out.
“Hey,” she says.
You look up. She’s looking at you.
“There’s blood on the sheets.”
You feel your breath leaving you. You fucking freak. You fucking freak. You’ve fucking ruined it all.
“Did you…” She trails off. She looks back to the bedroom and then to you again.
“Did you have someone over?”
No! No! You would only ever do it for her. You would only ever do it with her. That’s why. That’s why you have to do it yourself.
“I,” you hiss out, finally feeling air enter your lungs. Your vision is spotty. “I’m doing it to myself.”
She shifts uncomfortably.
“So long as you’re being safe, you know. Don’t push yourself too hard.”
Freak freak freak freak. Every syllable is “freak.” Every syllable is that final vision of her walking out the door and not coming back.
She walks over to the couch and picks up her bag.
“I’m going to get a head start getting over there. See you later, Leah.”
“Bye,” you say, tears and black spots framing her back as she walks away once again.
She closes the door behind her gently. You jump up. You hit the deadbolt. You tear back to the bedroom, and slam the door as hard as you can behind you.
Your hands find the button on your black work pants. You rip them down your legs. Your fingers pump, pulling open each button on your blouse. You feel starved. You feel like a caged animal, about to rampage. You must feel the sting of the whip to be stopped.
You yank the dresser drawer open. You fold your hands over the box and bring it to your heart. You sit down on the edge of the bed, panting. You feel the cold steel of the pin pushing back against the plastic box. You both long to push your bodies against each other.
You open the box and feel the steam of your breath trace over your naked skin. It gleams under the constant stream of car headlights passing by your window. You lift a pin out and hold it into the passing light.
It does not glimmer. The steel seems dull, seems to suck out the light of the room around it. It exerts its force over anything that tries to touch it. Your face flushes.
Sucking in a breath, you draw the pin to your thigh and press. The wounded skin accepts it. The scab crunches a bit as you twist the pin back and forth, and a tingling sensation warms the bottoms of your feet.
You exhale and the hot breath traces around the pin.
Your hand scrambles back into the box and palms a dozen pins. The other pinches a pin, and brings it to your thigh. Repeat. Again. More.
The pricks have begun to leak a stream of blood that traces over your thigh like a soft hand.
Back into the box. Your hands are growing numb from clutching the pins so hard. It’s like they’re no longer your hands at all. They come out of your wrists but belong to another.
You close your eyes. You focus. You try to make them into Tess’ hands, stooped over your thigh, hard eyes looking up into your face as you winced from the pain and trembled beneath her fingers.
With your eyes closed you place a pin, and then another, and then it is not you placing the pins at all. It is Tess. It is wholly Tess.
Tess’ hands trace over your body and find every ugly spot. Her hands put a pin in each mole, each scab, each sagging piece of skin. The parts you hate are pushed down under the pin, brought closer to your soul. You are trapped within this body, you are imprisoned in it, and your shame is marked out like a map.
Tess’ fingers flick the pins and you shudder. You can’t speak. She pushes them down further in your skin, down into the deep parts of your body. She takes her fist and begins driving them like nails into your thigh, your forearms, your belly.
You are in an ecstasy. Behind your eyelids, the world turns white. You know that you aren’t alone in the bedroom. Guilt and shame sit like twin gargoyles at the foot of the bed, waiting for you to hesitate, for your eyes to twitch open, and to drag you back down into hell.
Tess’ hands are slamming the pins with more fury. The pain is quickly becoming something new. The heat in your belly is burning, and it feels like it is burning out your insides.
You think about stopping it all. But you can’t bear the thought of losing her hands again. The pain is better than the nothing, nothing, nothing, between you and her for months. Please, please hit this worm again.
You can smell the blood coating your legs, dribbling down your belly. When Tess’ hands retract to hit you again, you hear a wet squelch against your skin.
The white behind your eyes is turning violet. It is as if you are drifting off from midday into the dusk. Tess’ hands are drawing out more pins from the box, which seem to jingle in the evening breeze.
These pins go into your nipples. Your lips. They are driven in without love. They are hateful. The metal pulls away pieces of you rather than holding them closer. Tess’ hands are tearing out the bad. They are tearing away what made you a worm to begin with. What is left, maybe that will be something she can love.
Pins are ripped from your skin and reinserted. You can feel the scab tissue curling over the shafts of the pins and climbing down deeper into your body. Your outsides are replacing your insides. Your insides are on the sheets of the bed.
You feel yourself come as one of the pins is brought to your eyelid. When you moan, you can no longer tell who or what it is for. A bigger feeling is curling up inside you as Tess’ hands hammer the pin through your eyelid, closer and closer to the violet night.
Your eyes tear open and you vomit, spewing over your belly and your torn up breasts. You see nothing beyond the blood crusting over your cornea. Your hands fly to your chest and ball into fists as you vomit again, and they are now your hands, not Tess’ hands, your scummy, stained hands. They pump together with each retch, and then scramble to find the pins, to hold them into place.
You search for the pins in the dark of the room, through the blood, but your fingers cannot find what they did not put there. The pins are embedded deep in the skin, and suck out any light in the room around them.
You find yourself beginning to cry, and your body aches in a way it has never aches before, and your insides heave up and down as you cry. And then it becomes something that is not a cry at all, it is just a sound, the sound of the worm magnified ten million times in the mouth of a human.
You realize you are laughing. You realize that there is nothing left to do but laugh, and you laugh as your sheets soak more and more with blood, as the car headlights glide over the bedroom and try to caress your shredded skin.
You laugh because you are a worm. You laugh because you really are a freak. You laugh because you know no one will ever do it again like her, and you laugh because she will never do it again.
The door to the apartment whines. You hear Tess plod in. She pauses. She must hear your laughter. She tosses off her shoes with a double-thump. She walks to the bedroom door and knocks.
“I’m back,” she says, quietly.
“No, you’re not,” you laugh. “No, you’re not.”
The bedroom door knob twists. The door never opens.