Itching, by Christina Murphy

I’m wearing a Nike cap pulled down low, trying to hide the rash on my face. Something happened—an allergy or something I touched—and now red, scaly welts are covering my nose and cheeks. My hands are broken out, too, and everything itches.

The grocery store is crowded, and every now and then, someone catches sight of me and stares. I have new sympathy for people who are disfigured by scars, discolored skin, missing pieces of their faces or bodies. The staring is awful, followed by the looks of pity or discomfort.

I spot Nick, try to turn away, pull the cap down tighter.

“Derek?” he says. “That you?”

I nod.

“What happened to your face? Sunburn?”

“Something like that.”

“Hey, I heard you and Eva split up.”

“Back together.”

“Oh, good. I wondered about that.”

“Excuse me, will you? I’ve got to go.”

“Well, I wanted to ask you . . .”

But I don’t hear him. I’m headed out of the store, having bought nothing. I drive to the mini-grocery on the corner, get the butter and the milk Eva wanted so she could make something special tonight. Those are always the tricky nights, when she is in the mood to do something special just for me.

“Did you get everything?” she asks when I come in.

“There wasn’t that much to get.”

“I know. I just like to be sure.”

The apartment smells good. She is making spaghetti sauce, which she does when she is nervous or upset. She is flittering about now, unable to time things the way she wants. The sauce is boiling too fast, and she shrieks when globs of sauce explode from the pan and land on the stove, leaving red puddles and streaks on the white stove.

“Oh my God, oh my God!” she’s screaming.

“Turn the heat down.”

“Oh, yes—you’re right,” she says, still not moving.

“I’ve got it,” say. I turn the burner off and move the pan, feeling the heat in the plastic handles coming through like a warning.

She stares into the pan. “It’s ruined.”

“No, it’s not.”

“It is. Don’t lie to me!”

“Jesus. It’s fine.”

“You eat it then. I’m not going to.”

“Fine. I don’t care. You didn’t make any pasta anyway, so what were we supposed to eat?”

“I was getting to it.”

“How? You don’t even have a pot out. And where’s the pasta?”

She looks down. “We don’t have any. I forgot to ask you to get some.”

“I had my cell. You could have called.”

“I forgot!”

“Okay, okay. Let’s heat up some French bread and dip it in this. It shouldn’t go to waste.”

“It’s ruined, contaminated. Don’t touch it.”

“What do you want to do with it then? Throw it out?”

“Yes.”

“Put it down the garbage disposal then.”

“I can’t. I’m afraid.”

“Of what?”

“The garbage disposal. When I hear it run, I look in there, and I know it wants to hurt me.”

“Only if you put your hand in there.”

“Yes. I know.”

“For God’s sake.”

“You’re angry now.”

I don’t say anything—just take the pan and empty the sauce into the disposal. I run the water, turn it on, and see Eva crying.

“What?”

“It will hurt me!”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Just please be quiet,” I say. I turn the disposal off. I can feel the rash on my face begin to itch. My hands feel like I have a thousand nettles stuck in my skin. I scratch fiercely and draw blood in the cracks on my fingers. I turn on the cold water and let it run over my hands. It helps a little, but I still feel like I’m on fire.

I get an ice pack from the refrigerator and sit at the kitchen table.

“We have to eat,” I say. “I’ll go out and bring something back.”

“Would you?”

“Of course.”

She’s crying again.

“What?”

“I’ve failed you.”

“It’s spaghetti sauce, for God’s sake. It’s not the end of the world.”

“See,” she says, pointing her finger at me, “you hate me.”

“What kind of food do you want?”

“Why do you hate me so much?”

I put my cap on again and pull it down tight. “I’ll be back,” I tell her.

I’m driving around trying to think of what kind of food I can get. I pass a Chinese restaurant she doesn’t like, a couple of fast food places, and the Mexican market. That appeals to me because she is always happier when she tries to cook something.

It’s pleasant inside the market, colorful and active with lots of shoppers and music playing. I walk through the aisles, looking for things to make tacos with. I make my way to the back of the store to get a six-pack of Cokes, and I see something bright and attractive on a shelf nearby. A piñata. I pick it up and shake it. Lots of candy inside. It’s shaped like a donkey with red, blue, and yellow streamers attached to its sides. A small wooden bat is taped to its feet for breaking open the piñata. I look at it for a long time, trying to decide. Finally, I figure she’ll like it, so I put it in the cart.

When I get home, the place still smells of spaghetti sauce. Eva is sitting at the table. She looks up when I come in and asks me what I bought.

“Here, I’ll show you,” I say, and begin putting the items out one by one. I save the piñata for last.

“I have something special for you,” I say. I can see she is curious and happy, expecting to be surprised.

I put the piñata on the table. “What do you think?” I say.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” she says. She picks it up and holds it against her chest.

“Shake it,” I say.

She does and is delighted. “Oh,” she says, “candy?”

“Yes, lots of it.”

“Can I open it?”

“Of course. Use the bat that came with it.”

She takes the plastic off, removes the bat, and begins to pounds on the piñata until it breaks in half and candies wrapped in colorful papers spill out of its belly.

“They are so beautiful!” she says. “What lovely colors.”

She brings a fistful of candies over to me. “See?” she says. “Such bright colors. The red ones especially.”

She gathers up another fistful of candies and begins to move in a slow dance around the table.

“We must eat some,” she says, offering me a piece wrapped in shiny green paper.

“You eat one, too,” I say.

“I can’t,” she says. “My hands are full. I will dance instead.”

And she does, holding the candies tightly in her fists, swaying to her own trance-like rhythm. She moves past the table and to the kitchen counter, where she spreads out all the candies. Slowly, meticulously, she drops three of the candies into the sink. She turns on the garbage disposal, then the water. I know what will happen next.

CHRISTINA MURPHY lives and writes in a 100 year-old Arts and Crafts style house along the Ohio River. She continues to be amazed at how the Arts and Crafts movement–like the artist Piet Mondrian–found such artistic integrity (and solace) in straight lines and simple (yet complex) forms. Her writing appears in a number of journals including, most recently, A cappella Zoo, ABJECTIVE, PANK, Fiction Collective, and LITnIMAGE . Her work has received two Editor’s Choice Awards and Special Mention for a Pushcart Prize.

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