Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “Filth” by Christina McCausland. This essay was edited by Brooke Obie. Christina is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her work has been published by Hyperallergic, New York magazine, and The Columbia Journal. She was a finalist in the Sewanee Review's 2020 nonfiction contest. She recently completed an MFA in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University, where she also taught essay writing to undergraduates. You can follow her on Twitter at @yesiamchristina.
The bites, as we eventually recognized them to be, began to appear during the same summer I took to confessing to acquaintances — usually while drunk, and never to friends — that I was no longer in love with Jeff, and that, in fact, it was possible that despite the apparent devotion and relative ease of our long relationship, I never had been.
We’d met three years prior, in my last semester of college, which was also his last term of graduate study at the adjacent art school. That fall, I was enrolled in an ambitious philosophy seminar that met twice a week at 9 a.m. I didn’t do much of the assigned reading but I did go to every session because there was this man with a John Waters mustache and Coogi sweaters who stared at me from across the classroom unremittingly, even when I stared back. I could sense him trying to eavesdrop when I talked to my friends before class and feel his eyes on my body when I got up to leave the room. I liked this sensation: my body assembled under his gaze. Plus, in those months I was seeking distraction from the fact of my impending graduation and the impossibility of imagining what would come after that, especially since at the time I considered myself a writer but never actually wrote anything outside of my diary. What I wanted was for the details of my life — where I’d live, what’d I’d do, who I’d date — to be decided for me by some outside force.
Jeff’s sustained and open lust, the way I couldn’t categorize him or his behavior, was that force. Around midterm, I figured out his name from the class attendance sheet. I looked him up and watched his undergraduate performance art on YouTube. In one video, he stood behind a black sheet strung across a small stage. There were three rough holes cut into it in a triangle shape, pointing down, and through the two top holes he stuck his wagging fingers; through the third, his penis. This performance, that confidently wagging dick, repulsed me but drew me in, the same way the gross shamelessness of his staring turned me on.
After the last day of class that semester, he approached me and asked if I had the final-essay assignment sheet. When I sent it to him attached to a carefully composed two-sentence email, he replied to ask me out for a drink that night. Soon we were seeing each other every day, falling very quickly into the patterns of a relationship with absolutely no conversation about being in one. My roommates Alex and Erica, who were also my best friends, disliked him immediately because he smoked joints inside our house even though we had all asked him not to, and because he took long, hot showers in our only bathroom, sitting on the floor of our tub like it was a sauna. I liked the idea of myself as someone who dated artists and/or graduate students — this was an acceptable proximity to actually being one, since I was a writer who feared I had nothing to say. But I was fascinated by the work he made, by the sheer amount of beer he drank daily, by the bare twin mattress he slept on in a filthy room that was always far too warm and, mostly, by the sex we had.
At the time I thought I was experienced because, since high school, I’d been in the habit of sleeping with all of my friends. But Jeff once pulled a tampon out of me with his teeth and it was a thrilling revelation. Before then, I’d had no idea that sex could be so gross, and that, in fact, being disgusting was part of the fun. I don’t mean to imply that the filth was an exception, or a state we sought. What I felt more was that the filth had always been present and I’d just been denying it. Jeff showed me the way toward just letting things happen. Jeff didn’t care about my body hair, he loved the way I smelled, he preferred my body when I was unhappy about the few pounds that made my pants tight. When my mother met him, she took me aside to tell me he was “a loser.” Soon after, I moved in with him and we left the East Coast for California, following the promise of a marijuana-related part-time-but-lucrative gig for him. It didn’t work out. Then, in the absence of other ideas, we moved to New York, where most of my friends were, and where we began to be bitten.
At first I ignored the bites. Jeff was more sensitive to them than I was — they were red and angry on his legs. He adopted a sort of paranoid vigilance about them that I didn’t engage with because his more desperate moods, which came most often about things that I felt were out of my control — the bites, his drinking, his underemployment, our future — embarrassed me. I avoided conversations about all of these things in the same way I was carefully apathetic about the state of our apartment, which we’d been living in for two years by that point, averting my eyes from the growing pile of beer cans next to his desk, letting the ash trays overflow, eyeing roaches from the toilet but not bothering to kill them.
The worse the mess got, the less inclined I was to address it, because the more work it would be. Which is to say, we had no mutual articulation of what we were doing, why we were doing it, or what we hoped would happen. Nor did I have a private articulation: Since the month I’d started seeing Jeff, I had stopped maintaining my diary. But that summer, bites sprouting up on my ankles, I began to write again, composing erotic stories disguised as letters to old crushes, which I did not send. They detailed excruciatingly unconsummated interactions that hinged on a look or a brief touch; in retrospect, I can see that I was teetering on the edge of acknowledging a desire.
Jeff decided that the bites were the work of mosquitos gaining entry through the windows we left open in the summer. I agreed that that seemed possible. We bought an air conditioner so that we could keep our windows closed and the mosquitos out for the rest of the summer weather. Jeff installed it in the living-room window as I watched nervously, not entirely trusting that he wouldn’t drop it. We continued to be bitten. One day that fall, a coworker at the consulting firm I’d begun unhappily working at described how she’d finally eradicated her bedbug infestation. I absentmindedly picked at a triangle of bites on my ankle as I listened, and only when she asked me if I was okay, eyeing the spots of blood I was opening up with a jagged fingernail, did the notion that we probably had bedbugs—that it was in fact possible that I’d picked them up from her or even been the source of her infestation in the first place—occur to me in so many words.
I mentally reviewed everything she’d just described to me, thinking about the months of work and cleaning that dealing with an infestation required. I told her I was fine. I couldn’t bring myself to mention my suspicion to Jeff, or anyone else. In my head, the possibility remained in the subjunctive, just an idea but not necessarily fact. If I articulated my worry aloud, I would be accountable to it, and then all of this action would be required. The little red bites seemed an acceptable exchange for remaining passive, for not having to do anything decisive. In those months, I usually went to bed before Jeff while he stayed up late making music on his computer. I would lie in the dark and download Tinder and OkCupid to my phone, sometimes talking to people for a little while before deleting the apps again. I was trying to remind myself of what potential felt like.
Once I decided that we might have bedbugs, I started a new secret routine: I would select a portion of the mattress to privately inspect every night. For weeks these searches, admittedly half-hearted, were fruitless. And then one night, by my iPhone’s flashlight, I spotted a roundish brown insect in the corner seam. I crushed it with my finger, examining for a moment the tiny spot of blood that formed beneath its miniscule body. And then I brushed the corpse onto the floor and replaced the fitted sheet before turning off the light and getting into the bed, falling asleep to thoughts of the many unacknowledged little lives happening around me.
That same month, through my nightly secret forays on OkCupid, I struck up a correspondence with a stand-up comedian. I couldn’t tell from his pictures, which were oddly cropped, if he was attractive and he wasn’t that funny, but he was unusually persistent, even after I told him that I was in a relationship and not actually dating. He took to calling me regularly to ask me if my relationship was over yet and my passivity extended to an inability to ignore him. Instead, I told him about the bedbug I’d found, thinking my shameful infestation would turn him off enough to leave me alone without me having to officially break off whatever was going on. He was undeterred.
After a couple weeks, I agreed to get a drink with him in a neighborhood near where I was taking an evening Spanish class. I told Jeff I was meeting up with a friend. The comedian was even less appealing in real life: He described in detail the Dos Torros burrito he’d eaten before meeting me and, after one drink, he collapsed all pretense by asking if my boyfriend knew where I was, if he would mind that I was on a date. I took the opportunity to confide in him, as I was in the habit of doing by then, explaining inarticulately that I’d begun to realize that I wanted to move on but that I didn’t know how to describe to Jeff what had changed for me, since I wasn’t sure anything really had. Plus, it seemed cruel to leave him to deal with bedbugs that were technically my responsibility too. The comedian’s response was to tell me his parents had bought him an apartment in the neighborhood. He asked if I wanted to come upstairs and play Bananagrams. I said goodnight and went home instead.
When I got back to our place, a little drunk but full of determined clarity after how easy it had felt to announce my lack of interest to the comedian, I went straight to the bedroom, bypassing Jeff, who often got upset if I didn’t kiss him hello. He stood in the doorway and watched me silently for minutes as I searched the mattress seams with my iPhone light until I found another little brown bug and caught it in a small empty weed jar. With dread we compared the captive bug to photographs of bedbugs on Google.
When the exterminator arrived a few days later, he flipped our box spring to show us the large cluster of black spots that indicated the bugs’ nest and chastised us for not noticing them sooner. The building frequently had infestations, he said. Then he sprayed the box spring with a treatment and sold us two $25 encasements to put over it and the mattress. After that, we spent days methodically going over every object we owned that might appeal to these bugs as homes. We flipped through hundreds of books looking for bugs in the binding. We took several guilty trips to the laundromat, where we dried giant loads of our clothes, sheets, and towels at the highest temperature possible because I had read online that dryer-level heat killed the bugs. Once an item had been deemed safe or disinfected, we stored it in a large air-tight zip-lock bag, and then put those in turn into plastic storage containers, to avoid recontamination.
Every day for two months, upon entering the apartment we would immediately change into our designated infected house clothes — sweatpants and T-shirts that we could throw out —and put our outside clothes safely back into their plastic bags. During these two months, I thought about the bugs constantly. I was itchy all the time and had recurring nightmares about finding bugs inside myself. The process and all the tiny vigilances it required — the constant changing of clothing, debating if our shower curtain was contaminated, researching the possibility of investing in a PackTite, breaking out in rashes from the stress — hung over me like a film of shame and filth everywhere I went. Every night Jeff sprayed our mattress with alcohol before I got into bed — it drew out the bugs and killed them — and then he would turn out the lights for me and I would get into a bed full of bug carcasses like seeds and message boys on OkCupid.
By January, we’d stopped finding bugs or being bitten. I began to feel normal again, in that I could wear the same clothes outside and inside, and I let go of the worry about transmitting bugs any time I saw a friend or sat on a chair. The end of the bugs, though, meant I no longer had an excuse or a neat metaphor for avoiding my knowledge that the relationship was not working.
That month, Alex, one of my college roommates, invited me to go with her to Palm Springs, where she was working on a story. We spent a lot of time by the hotel pool, drinking date shakes and people-watching. I flirted aimlessly with bartenders. From this vantage, far away from my shakily bug-free apartment, the elaborate theater I’d been upholding in my regular life began to seem clearly ridiculous. On our last day in town, Alex and I went on a hike above the Coachella Valley. As we wound through the steep path and the view opened up, I told her everything: my realization that I didn’t know why I was in my relationship or why I ever had been, the secret dates, the feeling that I was trapped until the bedbug problem was solved, the constant deferrals, the fact that even once the bedbugs were gone I still felt unable to be honest with Jeff. She told me about some of her worst breakups, and suddenly I recognized the banality of my situation: I needed to break up with my boyfriend, for whom I no longer had feelings. It wasn’t any more complicated than that, but no one would force me to do it; I had to take responsibility for myself.
The breakup itself was much less dramatic than I’d imagined it would be in those months of avoidance. I flew home from Palm Springs on a red-eye; told Jeff I needed to talk to him; sat with him on the couch; explained that I didn’t love him anymore and intended to move out. We both cried. I left a few hours later and moved into an empty room at a friend’s place, from which, over the next few months, I began to research writing programs.
After that day, we met up once or twice more, on painfully long walks made up of stop-start talk that I jokingly referred to as breakup meetings, not realizing or refusing to accept that of course the dissolution of a relationship requires some discussion, that after a few years two people reasonably owe each other some explanation. What I recall most strongly from these meetings, the things that come back to me when I’m lying in bed unable to sleep, were two pronouncements Jeff made that I sensed he’d been keeping to himself for months: the first was, “I knew you weren’t happy, but I was scared to bring it up”; and the second, “You need to figure out how to keep your white shoes clean; they’re filthy.”