At first, the spiders came slowly. I spotted a huge one crawling on the ceiling over the doorway, and I was too afraid to move underneath her. Instead I watched her—the size of my thumb—crawl onto a wall and behind a hanging frame. Inside the frame is a replica of Dali’s Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, the one where the woman and child appear first and they watch as the man struggles to emerge from a tiny egg-shaped earth.
I grabbed a can of hairspray and sprayed it at her in hopes that she would suffocate. She fell somewhere, possibly behind the TV or bookcase. I wasn’t sure if she died, but I left it at that.
It was the middle of the day. My wife was at work. I had quit my job recently, and so our lives became organized as such: I did domestic things, she worked. I felt guilty about the arrangement. I had worked since I was a teenager, all through my first marriage, until my late thirties. I was not used to relying on someone else.
Later in the day, I saw another spider. Or the same spider. It was hard to say which. My wife was home, sitting on the couch, enjoying a drink. This time, the spider was on the other side of the room, crawling behind a mirror. I yelled for my wife, because the hairspray didn’t work and I had nothing else to protect me. My wife took her time getting off the couch. I kept my eyes on the spider, and the mirror, the painting by Dali reflected in it—the tiny man being birthed from the earth egg, or being swallowed by it.
“Cup her and take her outside,” she said. Before she could even finish, I’d grabbed a shoe and smashed the thing against the wall. When I removed the shoe, it left behind a wet, oily mark and a single despondent leg. I didn’t look under the shoe.
I felt sort of bad, but pushed it out of my memory, thinking that now I could sleep at night without worrying about the spider.
The next day, my wife called me from work.
“Don’t forget to water the plants,” she said. I walked into the kitchen to fill the watering can. On the linoleum, a tiny spider, similar in shape and color to the one I’d killed, crawled to the middle of the floor. I stepped over her to grab the broom from the pantry. When I turned around, she was gone. I bent down on my hands and knees to look for the spider, but did not see her anywhere. When I got up from the floor, I’d already forgotten why I’d gone into the kitchen.
The bromeliad was dying. Our apartment doesn’t get much natural sun, and the tiny rosebushes I’d been gifted earlier in the year had died within two weeks. I put the bromeliad on a desk near an east-facing window. I poured water over the center cup of leaves, where the large, bright-pink stamen with its white and purple buds protruded about one foot up. Four thick layers of green, aloe-like leaves sprayed out from this stamen and formed the cup into which I poured water.
It had been close to a month since my wife had brought it home. The tag from the store was still on it, because I often forgot how to take care of things.
That evening, my wife and I were sitting on the couch watching some form of American TV, the kind where you pay for the luxury of avoiding commercials. A tiny shadow moved across the wall, and without thinking, I pointed at it, yelling. It reminded me of how I felt programmed to point and scream around my ex-husband, as if my cries were a warning system. Like the time we were barreling down Exeter Street at 45 miles per hour, and a car suddenly pulled in front of us to turn left. Had I not screamed and pointed, we would have collided. It was like some force inside of me took over, possessed my body, flew into my mouth, right through to the tips of my fingers and pointed, screaming to keep us alive.
“Will you get a cup?” I asked her. She was lying on me, so I figured she would be the first to get up.
“Yes,” she said. But she lay there, still watching the TV. Without commercial breaks, it was always demanding someone’s attention. The shadowy spot on the wall continued to move, bobbing along the uneven bumps of paint as if they were rolling foothills. In fear of losing this battle, I got up instead. My wife adjusted herself—upset, perhaps, that I’d disturbed her comfort. I grabbed a cup from the kitchen and a piece of junk mail from the dining room table. When I cupped the spider, the creature seemed to get upset as well, maybe for the same reasons as my wife. I slid the thin piece of mail between the cup and the wall, and tipped the cup right side up. Her legs were thin, twice as long as her body, and dotted white and brown. She was not very large, perhaps the size of my fingernail in length. Still, the odd shape of her body, and how disproportionate her legs were to my own body, spurred a deep restlessness in my chest that made me dislike her presence.
“What kind of spider do you think it is?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” my wife replied. “A brown recluse, maybe?”
I took pictures of the spider with my phone.
“It could be a wolf spider,” she said. “Recluses are the ones that stay hidden. Wolf spiders like to hunt, so likely they’re the ones crawling everywhere.”
I took the cup out to the patio, removed the junk-mail lid, and flung the cup so that she went flying, far away from the apartment. Again, I pushed the incident out of my memory, so I could sleep at night.
The bromeliad continued to die, no matter how much sun it received or how much water I gave it. The entire bottom layer of once-thick leaves shriveled into black, rotten ones that splayed out from the plant like discarded banana skins. It was not a good look. I thought back to the almost-accident with my ex-husband. We had been discussing his drinking and our money situation. The air outside had been cold, and in the warmth of the car I could smell his unbrushed teeth. His mouth had the distinct smell of old, sweet corn. Money was tight, but I had been pushing him to save for a house. I had been wanting something bigger—to have my own space, farther away from the noise that seemed inseparable from his presence. Most of our extra money—several hundred dollars per month—was going to alcohol. The near-death from our almost-collision halted the conversation, and I was only reminded of it when he was drunk and we were lying in bed together. He would be asleep, lulled by the booze, and I would be awake, thinking of his habit and how I could not control it.
One night, the dog whined at our door, scratching to be let out. It was loud enough that my ex-husband woke up.
“Did you feed the dog?” he asked. His food bowl had been empty since the night prior, and so had his bowl of water.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “I always forget.”
He had come back from the bathroom and squatted near the bed to plug in his phone. He was nude. I could see a droplet of piss glistening on the tip of his penis, and wondered how often and how much of his body fluids were left on the sheets. His body, when he was drunk, was always slightly damp from sweat, and the smell of it was of old skin, dirty from working. The stale residue of cigarette smoke was on his breath, beads of cold fluid in his hair.
“What do you think would have happened if I hadn’t screamed?” I asked.
“Probably nothing,” he said. “I saw the car turning. I would have stopped.” I wanted to think that I had changed the course of our lives somehow, and was indignant when he would not acknowledge this.
“You don’t think your reaction time would have been different?” I asked.
“No. I don’t believe that I have any say in when I die or don’t die.”
“Don’t you feel like everyone else thinks that, and that’s why they are scared of death?”
“There are no choices I can make that guarantee I won’t die tomorrow,” he said.
He got back into bed. During the first part of our marriage, I enjoyed the ways our skin met when he moved his body against mine between the sheets. Eventually his body spilled too far into my space. If his face was turned toward me and he was snoring slightly or breathing too heavily, I found myself annoyed at his presence and the sound. A glistening drop of water looked delicious and pure on a glass of whiskey, but less appealing on his skin. It was the context surrounding the water that determined its purity, its desirability.
The dog ate quietly in the kitchen.
“You have to get better at feeding the dog,” he added. “And ask yourself why you don’t make it a priority. Ignoring the problem is immoral.”
My body began to itch, as if the unease I felt about the wolf spider was somehow moving from the inside of my body to the outside. I dismissed it as my being too sensitive, given that I was now seeing a spider at least once a day. The morning after I threw the tiny one out, I went for a walk and picked flowers for my hair. I thought of the times I would walk the dog when I was still with my ex-husband, who had taken custody of him in our divorce. I left the flowers in a cup on the dining room table and went to make myself a lunch. I sat down at the table to eat. Another little shadow, similar to the one I saw on the wall, moved toward me, away from the cup, which was the only place I could picture it having come from.
“Uhh,” I said.
“Uhh,” was a sound of indecisiveness. It was as though my brain had short-circuited. A memory of the dog blipped in my mind. I remembered how I had been the one to push my ex-husband to get him, and had told him I’d be the one responsible for him. But when we did get him, I would beg my ex-husband to walk him when the dog woke up before sunrise, scratching to go out. I got up and grabbed another cup and another piece of junk mail. When I cupped the spider, I worried that I’d killed her, because as soon as I slipped the mail underneath the cup, she stopped moving. I flipped the cup over, and the spider crawled up the edges, trying to escape, so I knew then at least she was not dead.
I removed the spider from the house, but the itchiness continued. A few hairs on my head would move, as though something was crawling on me. I sat with my feet underneath the desk, and the itchy feeling was on my toes, or in places I could not see. Sometimes it would be in my ears, or on the back of my neck. The next day, I was moving the scale, which was set up against the bathroom wall, so I could weigh myself. On the other side was another spider. I dropped the scale and she scurried underneath the bathroom counter. This time, I did not go looking for a cup, or for her.
By now, the bromeliad was completely dead despite the watering. The leaves were a mix of pale sulfur-yellow and black, and the stamen was desiccated to the touch. Although it looked dead, it was still somehow beautiful, so I did not throw it out. I knew my wife would be upset that I’d killed the plant, so I hid it in the pantry, a place she would not look often.
In the kitchen, I saw another spider crawl toward the fridge. I remembered what my wife said about them, how they hunt. I wasn’t sure what spiders ate, but I opened the fridge and placed a morsel of something meaty on the floor. She seemed suspicious at first, but then crawled onto it. I turned around to fill up the watering can for the bromeliad, and when I looked back, both the morsel and the spider were gone.
The next day, there were two spiders in the kitchen, waiting by the fridge. I pulled more pieces of meat out to feed them. They again seemed unsure of my offering. But I walked away, and when I’d return, both the food and the spiders were gone. I began to respect the relationship we were building, in the hopes that they would leave me alone. But at the same time, the unusual shapes of their bodies left me in unease. With all of the spiders I was seeing, I was unable to sleep at night. I was having visions of my ex-husband and car accidents, of times I’d disappointed him with my minuscule failings; of disembodied insect legs, their wet amputated ends, crawling all over my skin and in my hair. After any sleep I did get, I would wake up, still feeling itchy all over. I began to shower every morning, to shave my legs and my arms, but the itchy feeling kept coming back. It was as though the hairs growing out of me were the same disembodied legs, crawling all over my skin. I shaved my eyebrows, and then my face, and eventually my whole body, including my head. I repeated this ritual every morning, to the dismay of my wife. Afterward, I stepped out of the shower to stare at myself in the mirror. There was something slightly unsettling about my hairless appearance, which I liked. I stared at my body from different angles, admiring how round and unusually new my head looked, and how simple my face appeared without eyebrows. I ran my hands down the length of my arms, removing droplets of water, approving of how easily my fingers slipped across the smooth surface of my skin with no hair to catch on. Perhaps I was seeing myself more objectively than I ever had before. I would be free of the itchy feeling for a few hours, but then the itchiness would return, from the top of my head all the way down to my toes.
Over the next few days, three and then four spiders would show up. They grew from the size of my fingernail to the size of my thumb. They came in larger and larger groups, and what was once novelty turned into duty. When I looked at them, I waited for some desire to be born in me, but nothing came. By this point, I was also no longer able to sleep. Along with the car accidents, I dreamt of dozens of spiders among the sheets, waiting and wanting for food. I stayed awake, obsessing over my morning shower, over each stroke of the razor across my skin to get the itching to stop. When I finally fell into a deep sleep, I dreamt about dragging the razor across my skull, about how satisfying it felt removing one long strip of hair and the top layer of skin with it. I continued to drag the razor along the same strip, over and over again, until a hole was formed. The contents of my skull spilled out of it like a wet egg, and from the contents emerged a homunculus of my ex-husband. I woke up that morning and decided to cook a feast, hoping that it would be the end of the spiders’ begging.
I prepared a large meal of roasted pork, which I had rubbed and marinated. I cut large pieces of zucchini in half and placed them in a pan to grill. I had my wife bring home a loaf of French bread on her way home from work, as this would be a special occasion. She obliged me, something my ex would not have done. It was late in the afternoon, and the itchiness had already returned to my body, which felt heavy with exhaustion. I was scratching my arms, my legs and the top of my head as I cooked the meal. I felt pleased with my ability to multitask, addressing the itchy feeling while preparing food for everyone. I set the table, and placed the dead bromeliad in the center. My wife seemed distrustful, and surprised at the return of the dead plant that had, in her mind, been gone for months. I sat at the head of the table, freshly razored, and our delicious feast sat in the middle. My wife bent her head, as if ready to say some sort of grace. We had never said grace before, but the same sense of guttural force, of the almost-accident, overtook me in the moment—as if somehow, saying some kind of grace, any grace, was needed. I looked over to the extra plate I’d set, just one, for the many spiders we would feed.