You won’t find the Parasite’s mark anywhere on me. It’s been holed up deep beneath my skin for as long as I can remember. It’s nothing anyone can cure. There’s no purgative I can ingest, no treatment I can undergo that will kill it. It’s as much a part of me as any other organ. It’s my capillaries, the cartilage between my vertebrae. It’s every neuron in my brain translating stimuli into one serrated thought after another. I can only stave off its effect through constant intellectual activity. I have to keep my mind racing on its wheel.
My alarm wakes me in the morning, and I only allow myself the time it takes to wipe the sleep from my eyes to indulge in kneejerk self-pity. Once I slap the alarm silent, I only leave room in my head for the task at hand. I focus on the minutiae of routine like it’s a mantra. I dress myself to a strict cadence, never wavering in rhythm, never donning an article out of turn. As the coffee brews, I use a spoon to fold my granola into my yogurt. The coffee is ready by the time I’ve finished eating. I fix a quick travel-mug and head out the door.
I used to have my morning coffee at home. I woke up early enough to sit for fifteen minutes in a comfortable chair and enjoy the roast. But the Parasite always turned my head to the kitchen table. Just large enough for two, it was nestled in the breakfast nook where the morning sun streamed through the window, carrying into my apartment visions of two lovers and the thousands of words left unspoken by shared looks that said them all. The sunlight would catch the steam from two companion cups. A duet of bathrobes and slippers would echo over the sun reflected off the tabletop. The woman’s fingertips would massage the coffee cup in her hand. She would lean across the table to kiss me, and I would lean forward and meet her halfway. It gave me headaches.
My eyes are flitting in and around the car as I drive to work. Hands at ten and two. Blinker on. Ease off the gas. Keep the distance from the car in front of you. That jogger doesn’t see me. That asshole on the tandem bike thinks he owns the road. If I turn down Church, I’ll hit that construction gridlock. I’ll take Old Cuthbert; I’ll have to contend with school buses, but I’ll keep moving. Keep the Parasite quiet.
I used to save a thousand dollars a year taking the train into work, avoiding the expense of gas, tolls, and the parking garage. I would wait at my station and not speak to my fellow commuters. I would board the train, take a seat alone, and use a book or device to help me ignore the ranks of chattering banality. I was always the first one out of my seat, lined up at the door, as the train pulled into my stop, except one morning, for no discernible reason and unbidden by any logic, I stayed seated until the train stopped.
I had never seen her before, didn’t know whether she’d boarded before or after I had. She stood right next to me on legs that could never have been forged by miles run or hours logged in the gym, but only by the elitist grace of a jackbooted deity. Her hair, long and smoothed free of renegade strands, cascaded past her shoulders. A luminous auburn, it shimmered with the threat of scorching anyone who tried to approach. She stood with arms crossed and shoulders hunched against an impending assault. Her clothes fit her like molded bronze armor, impenetrable, proud, patronized by divine favor. Her patrician nose stood at the center of a face of thorned impatience and imperturbable confidence. The next day I drove to work.
Once I’m in the office, I’m safe. I take my time, exacting and thorough, with every duty, regardless of its importance. I script out every phone call in my head before I’ve touched the receiver. I stack my paperwork and cut my way through it with Asbergian exactitude. I take my seat at the conference table and fill the pages of my notepad with runic scribbles that only I can understand. But they contain every speck of information uttered in that meeting. Not just what the contract will entail for each department and its head, as well as me, but what each team member is thinking. The twitch at the vice-president’s mouth when he informs us of our timetable conveys his lack of confidence, and I write it down. I note our director of operations’ expected impatience by her clipped, brusque tone.
I work through my lunch break and finish my day. Back at my apartment I make my dinner. Always from scratch. The culinary arts require time, patience, and full attention. The serenity of activity continues for an hour or more. As I eat I scour the internet for more recipes, new and different challenging distractions. Inspired or not, I plan what my dinner will be the following night. I finish eating and wash the dishes by hand. I can’t remember the last time I used the dishwasher. I go to the supermarket. Large brick-and-mortar stores with heavy traffic are good for me. As I wind my way up and down the aisles, I navigate the choppy sea of thoughtless shoppers. I use their ignorance to my advantage and gauge each one as an obstacle to be methodically overcome. Once I’m back home and have put away the groceries, I take out Rickenbacker and my amp. Playing is my favorite part of the day. I’m completely absorbed. Nothing exists but the instrument and my hands. I start off with my simple warm-ups: running scales, fingering exercises, striking the current note with my right index finger as I conjure an image of my left middle finger coming down on the next note’s string just above the fret. I run through some songs: “Kulu/Speak Like a Child” by Jaco, “Sound Chaser” by Yes, whatever I’m in the mood to play provided it’s long and complex. Then I continue teaching myself whatever outsized ambition I’m chipping away at. The current compulsion is Bach’s “Air on G String.” But the day always comes to an end.
I’ve tried everything: sleeping pills—over-the-counter and prescription—booze, weed, Benadryl. I’ve tried going to sleep with music playing, with the TV on, with looped white noise and the harmonies of ecosystems. But I’ve yet to find anything that will just knock me out. I always have to contend with the chasm that spans the dousing of the lights and the arrival of slumber. I have to lie there with nothing but my mind and the Parasite.
It’s the Parasite that drives my idle thoughts like undead dogs in a zombie Iditarod. I know it’s coming before I hear it, and I have to lie there like a scared child hiding in vain from a monster that he knows will find him. First, there’s only the vague ambience amidst the dark. Then I hear it. The bright chitter of steel pincers tearing into flesh. Saliva roiling like a witch’s cauldron. A rapacious tongue sliming over mandibles. As the sound draws near, the Parasite gives flute to apocalyptic promises, not of fire and destruction and blood and ash, but of a soft, feminine hand pressed against mine. Of laughter tickled free by mutual attraction. Of eyes with a gravity that pulls me in and carries me beyond the boundaries of reason. The Parasite’s voice, so familiar and comforting, fills my surrounding darkness with impossible visions. Of a city without squalor, umbrellaed by night’s sky throbbing with stars, a full moon its beating heart, a cobblestone street hosting a man and woman, their fingers intertwined without a care save one another. Of endless fields drunk on the thick green of their tall, silken grasses, man and woman embracing each other in a perfumed rainbow of surrounding hyacinth. Of a home ensconced in an untouchable pocket universe, insulated in mahogany and teak, warmed by a fire. A home for two people as they become one. As my eyes start to fill, the Parasite invokes a name, one of many I’ve known. I shut my eyes. Cold fluid streams down my face, onto the pillow. Beneath my eyelids the name assumes the form. It straddles me, runs its hands through the hair on my chest. I feel its lips, soft and moist, brush my cheek as they approach my ear. The form whispers to me, tells me everything I need to hear, everything the Parasite knows I want. The form ululates to its phantom sentiments. The Parasite tells me to move my hand. I do, and my focus is fully on the most welcome of lies. It clings to me, loves me, and I allow myself to indulge the lie. I indulge through the grief, through the pain beneath the linen. The Parasite finishes feeding and leaves. And I lay in the darkness and cry until sleep takes me.