Listen to a reading of “Caterpillars” by Jane Flett.
“We’re seeing other people,” he says. “We just don’t talk about it much.”
I’m lying in the crook of his arm, dismantling and rebuilding the events of the afternoon. I say nothing. There’s a sharpness to his smell that reminds me of either tomato plants or fly spray, I can’t decide.
“It works out better this way,” he says. “I mean, it’s the details, right? Would you want to hear the details of what goes on?”
Maybe. I know that if this man started to tell me about his wife fucking another man, I would listen. I would ask all the right questions, like: did she enjoy it? Did she put her underwear on again afterwards? When she poured the dregs of the champagne into the toothbrush mug, could she taste the minty shadow of everyone who’d been through the hotel before? Or was it just bubbles? Did she smile?
I pull the duvet between my legs and straddle it. “No,” I say. “I wouldn’t want to hear a thing.”
I don’t know why I always feel the need to explain. I wouldn’t have come home with this man, but it was so easy it almost seemed like a trick. I mean, there are rules. You don’t touch strangers. You don’t show strangers the skin beneath your clothes. You don’t do … other stuff. Except he stood before me and said, “I’d like to take you out for a drink when your shift’s over. We should get to know each other. You’ve got something.” I looked at his earnest irises and almost laughed—something—of course I have something, I have so many things, it’s called being human. But I didn’t laugh, I said “Me?”
Last week, I noticed the caterpillars for the first time. Or rather, I noticed the webs in the trees. I didn’t know they were caterpillars; I thought the trees were dying. That’s how it looked: like the trees were dying, like they were turning into ghosts. The branches were covered in pale grey shadows that made me think of a haunted house in a travelling funfair in a small town at the end of summer.
It was only when I got closer that I realised.
I thought, for a moment, it must be giant spiders. It was a stupid thought that leapt into my brain with all the immediacy of a car crash and lodged behind my eyes. I stood still and the sunlight prickling on my arms turned to pale, cold needles. What would we do if the park was taken over by giant spiders? I’d seen enough B-movies to know—my kind would be the first to die.
But of course, it wasn’t spiders. They weren’t even webs.
When he stands up, the skin on the back of his legs is loose. Earlier, when we were fucking, I ran my hands up the backs of those legs. I arched my back and pulled him deeper inside of me. When my fingers reached the small of his back, I brushed against a lump—a loose tag of skin—and revulsion speared through my body. I wanted to freeze. If you keep very still, the bears won’t get you; if you hold your breath at just the right frequency, you can stop time. But I couldn’t stop moving and I couldn’t stop moaning. He came inside me, and I bit my cheek so hard it drew blood.
“She thinks she’s really on it. That’s how she talks: ‘on it’. And then she’ll tell you that the reason she will never have children is because the average women takes seven months to learn to orgasm again after childbirth.”
I push myself up on my elbows and look at him. “Really?”
“No. God, no! That’s just her thing—‘I’m exaggerating so you can get to know me faster’.” His voice is a thin, reedy mimic. If I tossed it from hand to hand, I’m convinced it would snap. “She doesn’t even get how ridiculous she sounds. It’s embarrassing, really. She has no idea.”
I want a drink from the mini-bar. I want to be lying here with a man who doesn’t care that the drinks from the mini-bar are ridiculously expensive—embarrassing, even—a man who would take a piccolo bottle of champagne and crack it just to pour it over my thighs, because there is a young woman lying in the bed next to him with her thighs.
“That sounds difficult,” I say to the backs of his legs, while he bends over the desk, rummaging through the contents of a plastic bag. He emerges with two cans of lager and hands me one. I lie back on the bed with my knees bent, as if I’m about to go into labour, crack the can, and tip the foam into my mouth.
“Careful,” he says. “The sheets.”
Here is one true fact about me: it took me until I was 27 years old—last summer—to learn to tread water. I could swim fine, I could float on my back, but I’d never worked out how to stay upright.
Grey taught me. He said we had to learn on land first, because if we did it in water, we might attract sharks. He said if I moved my legs too quickly, it’d start a vortex that would suck us both down. Too slowly, and we might forget what we were doing.
Grey had me lie on my back with my legs in the air. He held my hands against the floor over my head. “To simulate the water,” he said. “And so that you don’t cheat.”
“Now pedal,” he said. “You’re on an upside down bike—pedal! Faster… not so fast… okay, you’re getting it.” At this, he took both my wrists in one hand and leaned down over me. “You’re doing great, we’re going to take off the stabilisers now.”
And for a brief and glorious moment, I could do anything.
“I’m hungry,” I say to the man in the hotel room. Here is another true fact: I’m not actually hungry at all. But I’m trying to get in the habit of asking for small things, so when the big ones come, I’ll be better prepared.
He rests the can on his stomach. “Yeah? I’ll nip out and get us something.” He takes another swig. “In a sec.”
I’m also trying to get into the habit of ending moments. I’m trying to work out the best way—any way—to leave.
“I want a falafel,” I say. “With peanut sauce. And those little Lebanese pickles. And some halloumi—can I have both?”
It’s shame, because now that I’ve said this, I really do want all those things.
“You can have whatever your heart desires,” he says.
But it’s not all bad. There’s a place on the walk home that does the best peanut sauce ever.
It’s ironic, right? That Grey would be the one to teach me to tread water. Because, as far as I can see, that’s all I’ve done since the accident. I’m still waiting for him to come back and teach me how to get to the next place.
If I just pump my legs, for a little while.
If I just lie on my back.
And what do you think it means that when I saw the cocoons I thought of ghosts?
I’m trying to tell you only true things so you can see the kind of person I am. So you can decide. If you were in charge of writing the movie, how would my character fare?
I’m running on the spot in front of a bluescreen. In post-production, we’ll fill in all the things that are terrorising me. In the meantime, I press a hand against my mouth. I open my eyes wide.
About the author:
Jane Flett is a philosopher, cellist, and seamstress of most fetching stories. Her poetry features in Salt’s Best British Poetry 2012 and her fiction has been commissioned for BBC Radio, awarded the SBT New Writer Award, and performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. These days, she calls Berlin home.