Wings and Fleas: When It's Too Expensive to Escape Abuse by Quinisha Jackson-Wright

Essays for a Guaranteed Income

This week, I am publishing a series of essays on Guaranteed Income and the ways it would change five people’s lives. First up, an essay from Quinisha Jackson-Wright. This essay was edited Brooke Obie.

Quinisha Jackson-Wright is a U.S. Navy veteran, freelance journalist (with bylines in The New York Times, Wired, and ZORA by Medium), and author of Working Twice as Hard, a nonfiction book on entrepreneurship for Black women. To see more of her work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.

It’s a hot evening in July and I’m lying in bed when my right ankle starts to itch uncontrollably. Within minutes, I realize it’s not a normal itch — it’s an insect bite. I’m confused, as one of the perks of living in Southern California for the past three years is that the mild weather and general lack of rain offers protection from blood-sucking pests. This perk is a welcome relief from my childhood in St. Louis, when mosquitoes regularly feasted on me during humid summer months.

I wake up early the next morning to find another bite, this one on my left foot. Then two more bites the following day. Something’s not right. I quickly turn to Google and discover the likely culprit(s): fleas. It’s an unusual problem to have, as I don’t own any pets. Yet the description of flea bites is what I’m experiencing: small, randomly patterned red marks on my legs and ankles that appear in the evening hours. Later that night, I sit in bed anxiously, hoping to catch the fleas in the act. My suspicions prove to be correct when I shine my cell phone’s flashlight in the dark and get a quick glimpse of the tiny insect as it hops onto my bare skin.

From that day forward, I launch into deep cleaning mode and vacuum every corner of the house and wipe down every surface. I put the washing machine on the hottest setting possible and dump in copious amounts of laundry detergent to clean my bedding. But my efforts are useless against the fleas.

I’d moved into this apartment a few years prior with my now ex-husband. We split in 2019, just a few months after I quit my full-time job to work for myself. With all the major life changes, I stayed in the apartment and made it my own, as it was my only safe place in the midst of the chaos. This sudden flea attack now disrupts that safety.

I’m hesitant to contact my landlord. I’ve reached out to him in the past about problems, including a broken refrigerator and a downstairs neighbor who slams his sliding door throughout the day. My landlord’s responses are dismissive, and make me question whether I actually know what’s happening in my own home. “Are you sure you have the refrigerator on the correct setting?” “I’m not sure how a sliding door can be noisy.” However, after several days and multiple bites, I finally email him about the infestation. He responds that this is the first time he’s ever had a flea issue in the unit, then gives me the contact information for a pest control service.

I call immediately, only to be informed by the rep that my landlord has to schedule an appointment. I email him again to relay the message. He refuses, insisting I have to be the one to set a time for when I’m at home. I call again and speak to a different rep, hoping not to get pushback. This one is more lenient, and moves forward with setting an appointment...but informs me that the earliest they can come out for treatment is nearly a month later.

There’s no way I can deal with this for another month, but I confirm the appointment anyway. I briefly wonder if staying at a hotel for a short period might be an option. That idea goes out the window when I discover prices in my area start at $150 per night. A year and a half into the pandemic and my income remains unstable. Freelance clients that I worked with prior to the pandemic, still don’t have room in their budgets for ongoing projects, and the process to find new clients is slow. I’m strapped for cash and even a few nights at a hotel would deplete my unemployment funds, which I applied for in July. I held out from collecting unemployment for over a year, hoping my income would pick back up, then finally accepted the reality that everything is different now. Feeling desperate, itchy, defeated and alone, I make the phone call I’ve been dreading.

“Hello?” My dad picks up on the other end.

“Hey. I was it okay if I visit for the weekend?” I ask hesitantly.

He cheerfully replies, “Of course sweetie! Would love to have you.”

I relax a little. Maybe this time will be different.

After the call, I take a quick shower and pack some clothes. I email my landlord again with an update about the pest control appointment. I tell him a month is much too long of a wait, considering the amount of rent I pay and the fact that I don’t have pets. I ask if he can contact another pest control service. In addition to his nonchalance about my concerns with the apartment, he’s also usually slow to respond. I figure the weekend is enough time to hear back, and hopefully get some relief from the bites. Then I get on the road. LA traffic is heavy as usual, which adds an extra 30 minutes to the two-hour drive. Still, I’ll take traffic over fleas any day.

I arrive at my dad’s house in the early evening and he wraps his arms around me sweetly but briefly, like an old acquaintance. He asks how the drive was. I tell him it was fine. Then he says, “I’m making tacos tonight if that’s okay.” This is the same meal he makes every time I visit. Either that or burgers and Italian sausage on the grill. I’m actually in the mood for some good chicken wings. But he’s being nice, so I smile politely and say, “Yeah, that’s fine.”

The first night, we watch episodes of his favorite reality TV shows, 90 Day Fiance and Love After Lockup, and he pokes fun at the foolish cast members and their respective shenanigans. I laugh, but my mind is consumed with thoughts of my flea-ridden apartment. I’d mentioned it briefly to my dad a few days ago. He said he hoped everything would work out, and hasn’t asked about it since.

I feel a short burst of delight when he walks past me and exclaims, “Hey beautiful!” Seconds later, I realize he’s speaking to one of his three Shih Tzus. I silently scold myself. How do you still fall for that every time? For years I’ve noticed how my dad shows his pets the love and affection I’ve craved from him since I was a little girl. He grooms them, faithfully gives them medication when they have health complications, cuddles with them on the sofa, and spoils them with treats throughout the day. He knows all their quirks, like how jumpy the oldest Shih Tzu gets at the sound of a plastic water bottle being opened. In a small gesture of contempt, I repeatedly crinkle my plastic bottle to agitate the dog whenever my dad leaves the room.

The next afternoon, my dad says he’s going to grill some burgers and sausage. I’m still craving chicken wings but I smile again and say, “Okay.” I sit outside while he keeps his back to me and tends to the grill. I want to tell him what’s going on with me, and how frustrated and lost I feel. How my credit cards are maxed out and I don’t know how I’m going to pay rent anymore. How isolated I feel since my divorce (from a man just like him) and this ongoing pandemic. How not long ago, I took a handful of pills and hoped I wouldn’t wake up. How this flea infestation is slowly pushing me over the edge and I don’t know how much longer I can go on. Tears fill my eyes. He doesn’t notice and asks if I want a popsicle. I swallow my tears and say, “Sure.”

But I still crave connection. I know he’s not interested in giving it to me, but maybe, I think, he can fill another void I’ve been aching for my whole life: my family history.  I brace myself and ask my dad about his father, my biological grandfather whom I’ve never met and whom he never talks about. He says he doesn’t know much about him since my grandfather passed away when he was a young child. He mentions that my grandfather might possibly have children with another woman, which segues into his favorite topic of “how people do things in the South” and why he’s glad to live on the West Coast. This conversation lasts for all of five minutes, then he goes back to grilling.

By this time, my landlord has informed me of another pest control service that can treat my apartment about two weeks from now. Still not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. I call them to make an appointment and try to relax for the remainder of the weekend.

The following day, my dad sits on the sofa scrolling through his phone. He mentions making tacos again for dinner, and I finally say, “Actually, I have a taste for wings.” He looks up nearby restaurants, asking if I have a preference for Buffalo Wild Wings or Wingstop. I say Wingstop. When he asks what flavor I want, I choose Cajun. Then he makes a face to signal his displeasure for spicy food, so I quickly backtrack and decide on lemon pepper wings instead. I stay at the house while he goes out to pick up the order. When he returns, I feel it instantly. “It” is the cold shoulder. The silent treatment that I’ve grown accustomed to since childhood. I’ve been walking on eggshells all weekend to avoid this and here it is anyway.

Suddenly, I’m a child again, mentally recapping everything over the past few days that I might have done to upset my father. Was there a lot of traffic on the way to get the wings? Were the employees at Wingstop rude, or too slow? Did I offend him by asking about my grandpa? Is he annoyed because I wanted takeout instead of tacos? But I know better than to ask if something’s wrong. I’ve tried that before, only for him to say he’s “fine” and continue with the silent treatment.

I spend a final awkward day at the house while my dad barely speaks to me, then prepare to head back home. We say our goodbyes and the hug he gives me — quick, cold pats on the back — lets me know I’ve been demoted from acquaintance to annoyance he can’t wait to rid himself of. I shed a few tears as I drive away. I’ve been in this position too many times to count, and I realize I never want to see him again.

When I walk into my apartment, I get six more flea bites within minutes. Angry and exhausted, I write another email to my landlord, this time to let him know I’m moving out at the end of the month. I request a credit for rent due to the ongoing pest issues, and he tells me it’s “not fair” to ask for free rent. The words echo in my mind over and over again. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair! Before I know it, I’m at my laptop firing up a strongly worded message about exactly what’s “not fair” for me in this situation. Like deep cleaning the apartment daily, paying out of pocket for anti-itch ointments, and literally losing sleep over the past several weeks. He doesn’t respond.

I don’t have anywhere to go once I move out of my apartment. Unemployment is my only income, and it’s hardly enough to cover the upfront costs of a deposit and first month’s rent at a new place. Yet I prefer this option over enduring the selfishness of a careless landlord or an emotionally distant father.

Leaving is expensive for people like me and can be just as dangerous as staying in abusive relationships, especially when you don’t have access to resources and safe shelter. On top of that, we spend years undoing damage from the abuse. The physical and emotional labor it takes to undo that damage is even more of a challenge when you add financial stress to the mix.

While money doesn’t fix all of the problems that come with this toxicity, it can make the difference between suffering through the abuse and walking away safely. A guaranteed income would give me and others like me the chance to live the lives we deserve. It would give us the space to heal from the emotional and financial wounds inflicted by abusers. It would give us the freedom to be rid of those goddamned fleas — humans and insects alike.