I SUPPOSE THIS IS a love story, of sorts. One of those tales of lost loves and might-have-beens, only mine is more tragic than most, and it takes a much darker turn. Most people don’t realize that there are many types of love in the world, some that take a lot more than they give, but, despite how things turned out, I’m still glad that she came into my life, and sometimes knowing that a part of her lives on in me is the only thing that keeps me going.
I wish I could say that I fell in love in Julia the first time I set eyes on her, but that’s not the way things happen in the real world. We barely noticed each other at first – we both went to the same art college and saw each other around a lot, but we were each too wrapped up in our own lives to pay too much attention to the other.
Art college can be a crazy place. Most of the people there are straight out of school with very little life experience, yet they’re expected to produce meaningful works of art that say something deep and profound about the human condition. So a lot of the people you meet tend to over-compensate for this by exaggerating their personality, trying to become louder, more outrageous and eccentric to convince people that they are interesting and different enough in themselves to be worth paying attention to.
Sorry if I sound a little jaded here, but while it’s entertaining at first to meet all these supposedly larger-than-life characters, believe me, after a while it gets old pretty quick. You meet so many of these self-consciously “arty” types that you soon see everything they do as just a cry for attention – they’re all style and no substance, and for the most part they’re a lot less interesting than they think they are. There’s nothing beneath the surface.
Julia, on the other hand, was a different kettle of fish entirely. I think that’s why I never really noticed her at first: in a sea of students all trying to be as different as possible, her quietly calm and understated manner went entirely under my radar. But as time went on we began to run into each other more and more, and I slowly became to appreciate her for what she was: a genuine, bright, witty and caring person, with a profound sense that life was a mysterious and magical thing, and that art might be the best means to plumb those ineffable depths.
There was no whirlwind romance or dramatic confessions of love: we just seemed to drift together over the weeks, like planets trapped in each other’s orbits. We went from acquaintances to friends to best friends, and soon we were spending almost all our time together – I don’t even remember when we first became lovers, as it just seemed to happen so naturally without either of us having to consciously decide on it. It was as if we both shared the same skin.
For a time things were perfect. When we were together, things felt easy for the first time in my life – I didn’t care what other people thought of me, and I’m sure she felt the same. As long as we had each other, we didn’t need anybody or anything else.
Even as it was happening, I think a part of me knew that it couldn’t last forever. Perfection never does. Still, I could never have imagined the way in which it would all fall apart. All over such a small thing. Such a tiny thing.
I thought nothing of it at the time. We were lying in bed, basking in the shared warmth of an idle Sunday summer morning, when suddenly she jumped as if she’d received a mild electric shock. “What’s the matter?” I asked offhandedly.
“Nothing.” She rubbed a patch on her stomach. “I think something just bit me.”
“Let me see…”
There was nothing there. Just the usual warm, pink expanse of skin. I’ve been over this moment in my head countless times since then, but I’m positive there was nothing to see. Not so much as a pinprick.
As the day went on, however, she kept worrying at it, scratching at the same spot until the skin was red and raw-looking. “Itching will only make it worse,” I warned her, but she couldn’t leave it alone. She hardly slept a wink that night: I know because she kept me up too, twitching and fidgeting, raking at her belly with her long fingernails until the skin was red raw and bloody.
We tried every lotion and cream we could to stop the itching, but nothing seemed to work. In fact, over the next few days it got worse – she started developing angry-looking rashes all over her body, and she couldn’t get a moment’s peace from the incessant prickling discomfort she felt across her entire skin.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Not by a long shot.
She began to complain of a tickling sensation beneath her flesh. “It’s like hard little pebbles under my skin,” she explained, “I can feel them moving around. Squirming.” She took my hand and placed it on her belly. “Feel.”
The skin was red beneath my fingers and felt slightly hot, but I couldn’t feel anything apart from the steady rise and fall of her breathing. After a second or two she gave a little shudder and moved away. Her eyes looked intently into mine. “Did you feel it?” I had never seen her look so serious. “There’s something alive in there.”
The days after that were a blur: a mix of doctor’s waiting rooms, hospital visits and hour after hour of reading up on every type of worm and parasite I could find. Everything we tried drew a blank. The doctors could find nothing wrong with her, and her symptoms didn’t match any known cause: no fever, no sickness, just this continual sensation of crawling beneath the skin.
She described it to me once, one night when we were both awake long into the wee small hours again.
“It’s maddening. Like a series of tiny pinpricks just beneath the surface of my skin. I can feel them burrowing and squirming inside me, wheedling their way across my body in small clumps and clusters. They feel smooth, but hard, like tiny beetles burrowing under my skin. Every time they move my muscles tense up in disgust and revulsion, like an electric shock, or like I’m trying to unconsciously squeeze them out of me. It’s horrible. I can feel them scurrying through my flesh, pushing themselves through sinews and tendons… It’s worse at night, when there’s less to distract me. I can feel them crawling through my insides, hear them scraping against my bones…”
She burst into tears, and I held her vulnerable, besieged body as she rocked back and forth sobbing uncontrollably. I held her as tightly as I could, as if I could force the invisible insects out of her, half expecting to feel the tiny intruders she’d described swarming beneath her skin. But there was nothing to feel. Her skin was as soft and as smooth as ever as it pressed desperately against mine.
After that, things went downhill rapidly. She was hardly sleeping, and now she rarely left the house. We seemed to have ruled out all the physical causes of her situation, but any attempts I made to get her to see a psychiatrist were met with outright hostility. If I even brought the subject up she’d turn on me with fury in her eyes, accusing me of not believing in her, of calling her a liar, even of calling her crazy.
Tempers wore thin. I felt like I was forever walking on eggshells around her, and I think I began to resent that. She sensed that in me, and our relationship deteriorated.
Things came to a head one night after I’d been out with a few friends. Of course, she hadn’t wanted to come, and to be honest it had been a relief to get away for a few hours. But when I returned I came back down to earth with a sickening crash.
I found her in the bathroom, naked, lying in the bath. She had a small pair of nail scissors in her hand, and was covered in bloody scratches all over her body. She had been trying to dig out the insects she believed were burrowing beneath her skin.
She was very drunk and barely coherent. The cuts weren’t deep, but they crisscrossed almost every inch of her, including across her face and hands. A mess of blood and tears, she kept mumbling apologies to me as I tried to clean her up as best I could.
That did it for me. I finished with her the very next day. Looking back, I have no idea how I could have been so heartless, so cowardly, but I thought I had to leave for the sake of my own sanity. I still loved her, but I just couldn’t handle the situation.
For the next few months we avoided each other. With the college campus being so small, it was no easy job. I heard from mutual friends that my leaving seemed to have made her less of a recluse – apparently, now she was going out almost every night, and she had thrown herself into her work to get over the breakup.
I was relieved to find that she seemed to be getting on with her life. To lessen my guilt, I told myself that perhaps the breakup had been the best thing for her, that it had shaken her out of her neurosis and maybe even banished the imaginary insects from her body forever.
Weeks later I received an invitation to an exhibition. Julia had managed to secure herself a showing in a local art gallery – at the bottom of the invitation she’d simply written, “I’m sorry for everything. Please come.”
Perhaps foolishly, I saw this as a sign she was getting better. After all, she had to be functioning pretty much normally again if she’d managed to pull of a show. I was excited by the prospect of seeing her again, and maybe even of the two of us getting back together, and of things being like they’d once been.
I went on my own, the day after it opened. I didn’t want there to be too many other people around to get in our way if we bumped into each other.
As it turned out, there was no danger of that. The gallery was virtually empty when I arrived, and I soon found her exhibition tucked away in a side room. Not without some trepidation I opened the door and walked into the room.
The entire room had been painted a deep, foreboding red, streaked with splashes of purple, crimson and putrid yellows. Heavy drapes in similar colours were hung from the walls, giving the room an oppressive, claustrophobic feel. On one side of the room a pile of old CRT television sets were stacked up on top of each other, their screens a flurry of hectic, non-stop motion.
But it was the sound that really hit me at first. There was a dull, constant crackle looped in the background, punctuated by sharp, screeching noises that cut through my nerves like nails on a blackboard. Loud scratching sounds came in brief, staccato bursts, each one hitting me like a blow to the stomach.
I took a closer look at the bank of TV screens. Each one was showing different footage, but in each one the camera was travelling down some kind of pipe or tunnel: in one it seemed to be a sewer system, in another an underground cave system, and in a third what looked like a mining tunnel. In each case the colours had been altered – the footage looked overexposed and washed out, bleached a sickly red. The films had been sped up so that the viewer appeared to be rushing down an enclosed space at a dizzyingly breakneck, jerky speed.
The overall effect was horribly jarring and disconcerting – it was a real assault on the senses, all the more so because I knew this was Julia’s best attempt to convey what she had been feeling for so long now. Standing there, in that womblike room, surrounded by a cacophony of grating noise and a blizzard of unsettling images, I got my first real taste of what how life had been for her day in day out for months now. I finally felt like I understood.
I turned to leave, and there she was, standing in the doorway. She looked pale and drawn, a shadow of her former self, and her skin was red and blotchy. This was what she’d been reduced to, this frail, skeletal shape that had had all the life sucked out of it.
I took her in my arms for the first time in weeks, and it felt like that was where she had always belonged. We kissed, and in that moment I suddenly knew what I had to do. To free her from her pain and torment.
I slipped my hands around her neck, which was as thin and fragile as a bird’s. She didn’t struggle as I tightened my grip, and after a short time her body went limp, and I laid her carefully on the floor. She finally looked at peace: as if she was in a deep and dreamless sleep. I flicked a switch on the wall and the room went silent and dark. For her, it was all over.
But something passed between us in that kiss. As the life went out of her, I felt on her lips a peculiar tingle, like a brief electric shock, or perhaps the bite of a tiny, burrowing insect.