BY RAYE HENDRIX
“I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself.”
–Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
Gregor knocks on my door and I say Go away, Gregor I don’t want to talk to you today, then I slide the bolt. It’s an emergency, he says, and I say, That’s what you said last time and everything was fine, and he knocks harder, says louder, But I swear this time it’s different! The door rattles in the frame until I’m afraid he’s going to break it. It’s an emergency! he says. An emergency! I brace my back against the door but it’s no good; the door frame buckles, the bolt comes loose, the hinges snap, the boards bend over my head until they break in two and the white paint splinters like out of season snow.
Gregor moves in with me. First he sleeps on the couch, keeps mostly to himself. He even helps me fix the door. Maybe you’re not so bad, I tell him one morning over coffee. He reaches out to check my pulse. He says, Did you take your medicine? He says, Did you take your vitamins? He says, I’m only here because I care about your health. // You’re not so bad, I say to Gregor. He says, I’m only here because I care.
How long do you think he’s going to stay? My lover asks me one night while we lie in bed. Gregor’s been here for a month. I don’t know, I say, but he’s only here because he cares. My lover asks me, Are you sure? // He means well, I answer. If you’re sure, my lover says, then leans to kiss me on the mouth, touch my hair. Gregor scurries from underneath the bed, throws his long shadow darker on the night-dark wall. I’m only here because I care about your health, he says against my neck, softly, so my lover doesn’t hear.
My lover and I are watching a movie and Gregor sits between us on the couch. He eats popcorn loudly. He eats even the popcorn kernels that didn’t pop, grinds them between his teeth, smacks salt from his lips. I ask him, Could you be a little softer? Gregor says, Could you just turn up the TV? // That’s not so bad, I say, but the volume shakes the windows, hurts my lover’s ears.
Gregor has been here for a year. Gregor is a terrible roommate and he doesn’t have a job. He eats popcorn loudly and leaves crumbs on the floor. When I go to work he follows me to work. When I go to the bathroom he follows me into the bathroom. At the grocery store he reads labels over my shoulder, tells me to Google ‘maltodextrin’ every time we find it on a list. I know what that one means, I say, I’ve known since I was five. // But what if you’re allergic? He asks me. But what if you forgot? I tell him, I outgrew that allergy. I say, I didn’t forget. // But what if you didn’t? He asks me. But what if you did?
Gregor is eating us out of house and home. Gregor gets hungrier every day. He eats everything loudly and leaves crumbs all over the floor. He eats everything, even the things we were saving for special occasions, even my lover’s birthday cake, even the rotten orange that rolled to the back of the fridge. When I vacuum Gregor follows me eating crackers, making a mess. There are always crumbs on the floor because of Gregor, even when I vacuum every day.
Soon he doesn’t stop at food. Gregor uses up all my expensive organic shampoo so I buy bulk bottles of cheaper, non-organic shampoo. I take a bath in the morning. My lover bathes at night. The next day, the shower is full of empty bottles. Gregor, I say, Why are you using so much shampoo? He tells me, I just wanted to be clean. // This isn’t eco-friendly, I tell him. He says, I just needed to be clean.
Gregor has been here for two years. Gregor wakes me up one night crawling into bed between me and my lover. What are you doing? I ask him. I heard a noise, he whispers, and I had to make sure you were safe. // I didn’t hear anything, I say. That’s why you need me, Gregor says. That’s not so bad, I say. I guess you can stay the night, but just this once. // Just this once, Gregor promises, and snuggles in to sleep. What’s he doing here? my lover asks me in the morning. He’s just here because he cares, I say. It’s just this once.
Gregor has been here for three years. He sleeps between me and my lover every night, wakes me up whenever something’s wrong, or when he thinks that something’s wrong. Go to sleep, Gregor, I tell him, nightly. Nothing’s wrong, Gregor, my lover tells him, nightly. I just have to make sure you’re okay, he tells me, ignoring my lover. He shoves his fingers into my mouth. What are you doing? I ask him. He says, I’m checking you for fever. He says, I have to make sure you’re okay.
Gregor is a terrible roommate. He leaves crumbs on the floor and keeps me awake all night, shoving his fingers into my mouth. He pulls one finger out then tries the next. You already did that, I tell him. He pulls that finger out then tries the next. That one might be wrong, he tells me. He pulls that finger out then tries the next. Why would it be wrong? I ask. He pulls that finger out then tries the next. I’m just trying to keep you safe, he says. He pulls that finger out then tries the next. This seems excessive, I tell him. He pulls that finger out then tries the next. I have to make sure you’re okay, he says. He pulls that finger out then tries the next. He pulls that finger out then tries the next. He pulls that finger out then tries the next.
My jawline aches from accommodating fingers. My mouth is sore from accommodating hands. Every night Gregor sleeps between me and my lover, or sits on my nightstand, or stands by the bed. Every morning I’m exhausted. I’m so tired, I tell my lover one day, who says, I think it’s time for Gregor to move out. Gregor overhears us from the other room and barges in. Gregor, we need to talk, I try to tell him, but I can’t, because he’s shoving fingers in my mouth. You don’t know what’s best for you, he whispers to me while I choke. I don’t think Gregor is the problem, I tell my lover when my mouth is free of hands.
Gregor has been here for five years. One day I’m eating lunch when Gregor comes and puts his hands around my throat so hard it hurts. What are you doing? I ask him. He says, I’m feeling for your pulse. // Don’t you think that’s a bit excessive? I ask him. He says, I have to make sure you’re okay.
My jawline aches from accommodating fingers. My neck is bruised from accommodating hands. Gregor follows me around while I’m cleaning making sure nothing is ever clean. One morning I slip outside unnoticed, leave Gregor behind, but he calls my phone all day. I’m trying to keep you safe, he says in every voicemail. I have to make sure you’re okay. When I get home my lover’s cooking dinner, but Gregor’s waiting for me at the door. He pins me to the wall and strips me naked. I ask, What are you doing? And he says Dirty, contaminated, unclean. I tell him, But you’re the one who’s always making messes and he says This is a different kind of mess. He puts his hands around my throat to feel my heartbeat. He puts his fingers in my mouth to check my heat. I ask him, Don’t you think this is all a bit excessive? He tells me, I have to make sure you get clean. Gregor drags me to the bathroom and starts the shower, turns up the water the hottest it can go. He waits until the room is thick with steam. Gregor locks the door and holds my head beneath the water. My skin burns and he ignores me while I scream. You don’t know what’s best for you, he whispers. I’m the one who makes sure you get clean.
Gregor has been here for so long that I’ve stopped counting. I stopped the tally when I found his suitcase in the garbage, his clothes folded neatly in the dresser next to mine. My teeth have moved from abiding Gregor’s constant fingers. My teeth are crooked from abiding Gregor’s hands. He follows me to work and to the bathroom. He holds my hand even when I’m not crossing a street. When I eat, he says, Are you sure it’s safe to eat that? When I go out he says, Are you sure it’s safe to leave?
Some days I still manage to give Gregor the slip. I wake before he does, drink coffee with just my lover, shower before Gregor uses my shampoo. I turn off my phone and go to work alone and happy. I go to the bar and drink from glasses Gregor hasn’t cleaned. Some days I live like Gregor never found me, like he never learned my name. Sometimes when I get home he ignores me, lets me sit on the couch in my contaminated clothes, but mostly those days are the worst. Mostly Gregor’s waiting for me at the door to strip me naked. Mostly Gregor holds my wrists beneath the hottest water til my skin is raw and red. Those days, my lover says, I really don’t like how he treats you. And I say, He’s not so bad. Gregor’s only trying to keep me safe.