Catrina Prager is a 22-year-old writer and content creator from Romania. She enjoys writing stories and is at present working on her first full-length novel. When she’s not writing (which is rare, but still), she loves traveling and exploring all the different nooks and crannies of this ever-wondrous world of ours.
by Catrina Prager
It started out as a tick on the inside of my thigh. I used to let my nails grow long, so I could better scratch myself. The kind of nails that tear the skin, and make you bleed. My thigh was always bleeding, but I made sure that nobody would see. I wore long skirts and baggy jeans. I stayed away from skinnies because the fabric would rub against my thigh, and I stayed away from short skirts to not gross people out on the subway. Still, I felt everyone could see me. I could feel their eyes burrowing through my clothes to the bleeding, itchy patch on my left thigh, and I would cross my legs tightly together. Avoid the stares and get off at the next stop. I could walk the rest of the way, and the air would do me good. When I got home, I’d yank off my pants and scratch some more. Sometimes, I would look at my thigh and think how nicely it was healing, and realize I hadn’t touched it in a couple of days. And just as I was peering at it, I would get this tingling sensation under my skin. And in my nails would go. Afterward, I would lather myself with ointments, which would never stay on because as soon as I’d applied them, I would scratch some more. And since the ointments never stayed on, my thigh was always itchy.
It’s itchy now, as I write this, and as soon as I finish, I will claw at my skin some more. And maybe this time, I’ll get rid of the itch forever. But right now, I’m crossing my legs so that you can’t see. I’m embarrassed now, just like I was embarrassed when Brian noticed it.
The tick on my thigh began precisely at noon on a Monday, one week after Brian had gone, and another before he came back. He was always going back and forth to New York because of his job, and though I normally hated it, now I was glad. Because I could scratch in peace and watch the skin crack and bleed and struggle to rebuild itself. And right at the moment when new patches were beginning to form, in my nails would go again. Tear down all progress, forcing my skin to begin anew.
When Brian arrived the following week at my apartment, which had slowly become our apartment in the past three months, I had my legs covered and my heart a-thudding in my breast. All through the week, I’d told myself to stop scratching, because then, Brian would see and be disgusted with me. Each day, I would think, if you stop now and treat it, you’ll be alright by the time he gets here. And each day I would nod and let my hand slither down my thigh once more.
On our first night together, I told him it was a rash, and that it would go away. And he wasn’t grossed out, and I thought then that I might tell him a little more, tell him how the tick had started. But then I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I thought such a pretty, clean girl. The thing about pretty, clean girls, you see, is they don’t have dirty stories to tell. It wasn’t what Brian expected of me, and I could choose, either tell my story and lose my station in his eyes, or keep quiet. Stay pretty and clean forever. I thought, I don’t need to be disgusting. I can just keep being me. So that was that about the tick, and that night, I kissed Brian goodnight with my saintly, pristine mouth, and I listened to him sleep. I had trouble sleeping, see, because of the permanent itch, but I dreaded touching it because Brian would wake each time I did and pull my hand away.
“It’ll never get fixed if you don’t stop scratching,” he’d mumble, and go back to sleep, hand clutched around mine. Doing a good deed. So I waited patiently for him to be out of the house. I would lock myself in the bathroom, and I would pull away each time he touched my legs. Secretly, I would let rip until my movements became unhinged, and my thigh looked like it had that night. Right before the tick. By the time the week had ended, and Brian had gone back to New York, I was relieved. Two whole weeks, I could gash and gouge which way I pleased.
The weeks passed. The bloody sheets were cleaned. But the tick on my thigh only grew, the poison encroaching over my healthy skin inch by inch. It would take me hours to scratch, and the plane ride to New York was agony. When Brian saw, he trimmed my nails himself. Lovingly, he took each finger into his own hands. Sever and file. All to make me pretty again.
It was then I first realized that my efforts were in vain. That already, I wasn’t pretty in Brian’s eyes anymore. I was foul and dirty. Disgusting and unclean. And here was his attempt to fix me, yet I knew it wouldn’t work, and that I would only end up scratching again.
The night he cut my nails, Brian took me out to a party. For work. With nice people, who were all dying to meet me. All curious to catch a glimpse of the nice girl from Nashville, who’d caught Brian. Like a fish. Slippery and easy to lose in the morning mist.
And all the while I talked to them, I had only one thought on my mind. I thought how my dress was rubbing against my leg, and how funny I must’ve looked, standing all bow-legged, trying to get free. About halfway through the evening, I realized what it was about it. The dress was rubbing against my thigh, just like the denim had that night, before the tick. Each labored movement grazing against the inside of my thigh, and me, with no hands to stop it. No voice to tell him it was bothering me.
I clawed and I pulled, but the dress just wouldn’t let loose. And I’d lost Brian in the crowd, and I was making myself a fool. Aware of the people looking over at me with expressions on their faces, varying from horrified to bemused. What’s Brian’s strange friend doing there? Is that some sort of dance? Looks to me like she’s got something between her legs. A snicker, though never an outright laugh. It’s not polite to laugh at people. Always much better to giggle behind their back, because people don’t have ears round the back.
I moved away from Brian’s snickering friends, and hurried along the wall to where I thought the bathroom might be, but when I turned a corner and pushed through the doorway, I found myself in the lobby once more. Here, a mishmash of drunken couples in darkened corners, and caterers hurriedly pushing them aside. I looked around, mortified, at the faces, to realize that not a one had stopped to look at me. I realized then that nobody cared enough to see me, and so I turned around and went back to the party. Looking for the bathroom still. As I slid across the room, I did multiplications in my head, to keep my mind off the itching. In vain, I looked for Brian across the room, but he seemed to have disappeared. Or maybe he was in a corner with his friends, laughing about my strange little dance from earlier.
I pushed myself through another door, and let out a sigh of relief when I saw the glimmering row of sinks. Close the stall door behind me. Lift off my dress, and I began to scream. There was blood pooling around my thighs, and a million little bright red ants crawling up my legs. And they were all laughing at me. Because they all knew what had happened. They all knew about the itch.
When I went back to the party, I found nobody had heard my screaming. Or perhaps they were all pretending. When I found Brian in the crowd, I promised myself I would tell him tonight. As soon as we got home from the loud party, and the laughing and the heat. I would tell him what happened, and all would be as it should be. Brian would forgive me, and he wouldn’t think I was gross at all. Hold me in his arms and kiss me, and with him there to hold me, I’d forget to scratch, and in the morning my thigh would be all better. In no time at all, I’d be back to my old self. Ha ha.
“I-I…” I was struggling to bring up the words, and I easily grow embarrassed. That’s how I am. I don’t like people thinking I can’t, and I knew I was a step away from bursting into tears, and that, nobody wants to see.
But Brian didn’t seem to have heard me, because he took my hand, and began to speak. “I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he turned and flashed me that brilliant, innocent smile that I’d never been able to resist. “I love you, and now you’ve met my friends, and you know, didn’t run out screaming. So that’s good. You make me the happiest I’ve ever been. And I wanted to know if you’d consider moving in with me.”
Taken aback. I hesitated. Struggled in the darkness for my words, which lay scattered all about me. “To New York?”
Nod and a smile, making the words drown inside my throat even more. Like bile. “I’m not an easy man to love, Car. I know that, and yet you’ve made me feel different. There’s no one like you, C. No one.”
“That’s not true,” I whispered.
“It is. You’re special, you’re… you’re something I never thought would happen to me. Do you understand?”
I shook my head because I didn’t know the words just then to tell him that I was common as dirt. Damaged. Used. A whore who would break his heart, in the end. But he must’ve thought I was being coy because he kept on smiling.
“So? Would you? Come to New York?”
I said I would because I didn’t know what else I might say. Telling him about the tick and the scratching, the denim and the shoving, the man and the alley, like I’d meant to, like I should have, was no longer an option. Just for one night, I let him make me feel wanted again. Selfishly, I listened to the compliments he poured on me, and which I could no longer deserve. That night, I told him I’d move to New York and make him happy, but when I landed back in Nashville, the sorrow swallowed my heart, and I could tell something inside me had fractured irreparably.
“Help,” I whispered, but nobody in the airport came to my aid, so I forced myself out. And even now, I force my feet to keep walking along the rust, and the litter. Condoms and discarded wrappers. A beanie matted with dirt, and I wonder where they are now, the people who dropped them, and if they’ll soon join me. I wonder if they might not be down there, already. Waiting for me, in my shame, to join them.
Just a few more steps, because cool water’s bound to soothe the itch. As I walk, I try not to think too much about Brian and about New York. I can’t tell him, because then he, too, will feel soiled. For touching me. He’ll know I’ve lied to him, allowed him to hold me close when I alone knew the filth I was in. Push me away, and then I’d be up here again. Staring down at the Cumberland. Shuffling my feet. At least this way, he doesn’t have to know. About the itch and the screaming that nobody heard. About the blood that just wouldn’t stop, and about the nights the room gets really hot, and I suffocate.
It’s best this way, I think, as I take a careful step up the railing. For once, looking up at the sky, rather than down at my legs. And the tick doesn’t hurt now, but vaguely, I can feel it kicking up again Not long now. Gaze dropping from the serene above, into the murky depth of the water below, I let go.