All her life Sylvia has made sure to never let anyone see the centipedes that emerge from her body. It’s gross and impolite. Until finally she reaches her breaking point. This is a speculative exploration of rape culture and hiding pain in favor of others’ pleasure.
Content warning for fictional depictions of sexual assault.
My first memory of my centipedes emerging: I’m four years old and my neighbor Jonathan is chasing after me in the park. Wildflowers scent the air rushing past my face. I’m laughing, thinking this is just another game of tag.
Then he tackles me to the grass and plants a kiss right on my lips. It’s like having fat caterpillars sucking at me. I wince and squirm, trying to get away from him, but he only kisses me harder.
Something starts wriggling inside me. Startled, I let go.
A centipede bursts forth from my lips to latch on to Jonathan’s face.
Our mothers rush over, their skirts fluttering in the breeze. Jonathan’s mother fusses over him, checks to see if my centipede has bitten him; my mother tugs me up to my feet and takes me to the side to scold me in Mandarin.
“That’s very rude of you. You’re not to throw your—” Her voice lowers to a hush. “—your things like that.”
“You have to learn how to control yourself. Girls and ladies have to be discreet about our reactions: you have to hide that a disgusting creature even came out of you. Do you understand?”
“Now be a good girl and say sorry to Jonathan.”
“Sorry,” I say, my dress grass-stained, my hair rumpled. Jonathan sniffles, face red with fear.
From then on, I learn from my mother by watching how she controls her own outbursts: whenever my father kisses her on the cheek, a moth emerges from her sleeve and she catches it and crushes it before my father can even open his eyes. By the time he pulls away, the moth has vanished, and my mother is all smiles: the picture of a doting wife.
The next time a boy teases me, pretending his fingers on my thigh are a spider, I try to hide my centipedes. The wriggling starts, signaling that one’s about to appear. It’s like something’s crawling through my intestines, burrowing under my skin, making every hair on my body stand straight like a wick about to be set alight. I gag with the intensity of the feeling, but I focus, pinpointing the epicenter of the sensation so I can redirect it. The centipede comes out from the crook of my elbow instead of the spot on my thigh where he’s touching me. It doesn’t latch on to him, only circles around my arm, its legs long and languid.
I’m not fast enough to make it disappear. The boy sees it and laughs.
For the first time, I feel ashamed.
Everyone has a different creature inside of them that appears at an uncomfortable or unwelcome touch. The creatures are only ever insects, arachnids, or—I looked this word up myself when I was eight—myriapods: centipedes and millipedes.
Despite the fact that we all have them, no one really talks about them or the way they emerge. It’d be awkward to, like talking about going to the bathroom. So, in polite company, we pretend that they don’t exist. I can maintain the illusion with clever misdirection, just like I learned from my mother.
When I’m in private, though, the illusion dissolves. I’m fourteen when I discover adult websites for the first time. Sex in those videos is flawless and creatureless, just bodies moving together, slick and rhythmic. But when I run my hands over my own body to explore the myriad sensations, some pleasurable, some not, I learn soon enough that real life isn’t like that. When I’m squirming with discomfort, my fingers a too-harsh ache inside me, or when a sensation is just gross, my own touch can cause my centipedes to pour out.
Yet I still feel like I should be creatureless, especially during sex. That it’d be embarrassing if a centipede—or more than one!—pops out during my first time with someone. So instead of letting my centipedes emerge discreetly, then hiding them and thereby risking discovery, I teach myself how to swallow my centipedes so that they vanish before they can even be seen.
I’m eighteen when I first have sex. He’s gorgeous, lanky but toned. We’re both virgins, and we’re not entirely sure what we’re doing. We try one position. An ache knifes through me, and then a squirming sensation fills me, but I’m quicker with how I control my emergences now. I move that squirming feeling into my mouth, onto my tongue, swallow the centipede that appears. Its legs scratch their way down my throat, leave me raw and tasting iron, but soon it’s writhing in the pit of my stomach instead of on the surface of my skin.
“How does it feel?” he asks, oblivious to what I’ve just done.
“Good,” I say, and after a while, it almost does feel good. I trail my hands over him as we rock together, leaving traces of heat on his skin. I cling to him, rest myself against him, and for a moment I think I might even be feeling pleasure. My hands clutch his back a little too hard. A wasp buzzes, its legs brushing my fingertips as it emerges past me.
“Sorry,” he murmurs, an embarrassed flush rising to his cheeks, but I smile.
“It’s my fault,” I say.
I like being the center of his attention, watching as his eyes roam over me, as he appreciates the curves of my breasts, the dip of my waist. Something about the way he looks at me makes me feel more electric than anything he’s doing to my body. I draw that energy into me, relish in the way he grins when I let out a moan, delight in the way he gasps when I arch my back.
But it’s all a performance. The actual body-to-body contact feels gross, like he’s a dog humping a leg. I tell myself that all first times are awkward, and that pleasure doesn’t just have to be physical.
All throughout, my body is squirming, and my throat fills with centipedes.
I swallow them all down.
For all her propriety, when it’s just me and my mom, she’s frank about discussing sex. After I got my college acceptance letter—UCLA, my top choice—my mom started talking to me about my social life, about the people I’d meet in college.
“There are a couple types of girls,” she says to me, in English this time. “There are girls who decide to settle down with one person and explore with that one person, and then there are girls who sleep around to see what they like, and pick from there.”
After a pause, she adds, “I think you’re the second type.”
I don’t know what she means by that. She said it nonchalantly, but some sort of shame still unfurls in me, and I think, I suppose I am.
I share a dorm with my best friend from high school: Delilah Yang. We couldn’t be more opposite. Their black hair is in a pixie cut that perfectly frames their face; I wear my hair long, in styled, blonde waves that drape over my shoulders. Their personality is yielding; mine is more stubborn. They’re studying socio-something, something about people and their emergences, while I could spend the rest of my life not seeing another centipede emerge and be content. But maybe the differences between us are why we get along so well.
Delilah doesn’t really understand my fascination with sex, my need for it—they’re asexual, neutral about the act. But neither of us tries to convince the other about our opinions. I get that it’s just not something they’re into. They get that it’s something I need. We both agree that, whenever one of us needs the room to ourselves, we’ll stick a rainbow magnet on the whiteboard we hung up on the door to our room. It’s a little classier than a sock, or a tie, or whatever else other people use when they sexile their roommates. Well, I say “sexile,” but it doesn’t have to be sex: sometimes you just need some time to yourself.
Today, I’m out on a date with some guy I met online. He’s bland, that kind of amorphous and unrecognizable plainness, and his conversation doesn’t inspire much, either. But the way he looks at me, like he’s drinking in his good fortune, like he can’t believe he’s out with me in public—I smile. It’s nice to be appreciated.
“My dorm’s not too far from here,” I say. “We could watch a movie or something.”
“Sure,” he replies.
Watch a movie, or something: it usually goes the way of the latter. Get college kids together and the easiest way for us to fondle is in front of a screen. Part of me wonders if maybe we can actually watch something this time, if I didn’t have to go down that route, but another part of me is craving attention and worship.
Once we get back to my room and I’ve moved the magnet onto the door, I’m not shy about my intentions. A few minutes into the movie, we’re making out, touching, our bodies pressed against each other. He reeks of too much Axe body spray and his hands are clammy. I struggle to swallow down centipede after centipede and maintain my cool, collected image: the pinup girl, perfectly sexy. I try to focus on him instead, but nothing about him inspires arousal in me. Smoke lingers on his tongue from the cigarette he had earlier, filling my mouth with the taste of tar. I catch the thick tang of body odor and know it’s not mine. Still, I pretend to like him. I compliment him. His face lights up: amazing what kind of power I can have over another person.
He gets on top of me. Flesh sliding over flesh, the weight of him pressing down on me, and good thing he’s got his face buried in my neck, because then he can’t see the expressions I’m making. A centipede leg claws past my lips, then disappears as I suck the thing back into my mouth, back down into my stomach. God, sometimes I remember how gross sex is, how it’s all just meat and ooze slapping against one another, but the things he’s murmuring in my ear, the way he’s so excited about me—oh. That in itself is enough.
After he leaves, my stomach squirms. Bit by bit, the world settles back down around me, and the reality of what I’ve done hits me. It’s like I’ve come down from a high, and I’m crashing and seeing everything as it is: I’m recalling every hair on his body, every fumbling finger, every disgusting sound. I can still taste his sweat mixed with mine, the odor of him sticking to me. I retch. Clothed in just a shirt and panties, I run to the bathroom attached to our suite, crouch over the toilet, and the centipedes I thought I’d hidden so well come up, forcing their way out of my mouth. I’m heaving up a hundred thousand legs.
“Hey. Are you okay in there?”
Fuck. Delilah’s voice. Weakly, I say, “I’m fine.”
I turn, and then I realize that I hadn’t closed the stall door behind me. A centipede trails from my lips, then crawls up my cheek and into my hair. I’m still clutching the toilet seat. Whatever centipedes have managed to avoid the water are scuttling up the sides of the bowl, brushing over my hands in their haste to escape. Bile churns with venom and stains the air sour.
Delilah has a look of horror on their face, but still they take a step forward, and then another.
“Are you—are those your—”
“Yeah,” I say, blushing. “Sorry—sorry you had to see this.”
Delilah shakes their head. “No, you don’t need to apologize. I’m just worried.”
I wave them off. “I’m fine. Seriously.”
“I saw the magnet. Did he…did you want to…?”
I look up. It takes me a moment to realize what Delilah’s asking, and then I almost laugh in my shock.
“Oh no, it’s fine. I started it and all. He just wasn’t that attractive and it ended up being kind of awkward and gross.”
“You know you don’t have to do that, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t have to sleep with men you don’t like.”
This time, I do laugh.
“I know, Delilah.”
Delilah gives me a hard look, and I feel like I’m shrinking. I’m so aware of the brushing of the centipedes’ feet against the toilet bowl, the way the centipede that’s gotten into my hair is getting tangled in it. Anger flares in my chest, anger and another emotion: I know it’s shame, but I’m not going to admit it, least of all in front of Delilah.
“You just don’t understand,” I say. The words come out more venomous than I expected. Delilah raises their eyebrows, taken aback.
“Because I’m ace?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Okay,” Delilah says, tone flat. “Whatever. You should probably get cleaned up.”
Delilah turns and goes out of the bathroom. I feel like shit, but then I’m retching up centipedes again, and I can’t stop to think about why.
Things are tense between me and Delilah after that. They try to talk to me a couple times, but I end up brushing them off—I know I probably said something wrong, but, more than that, I’m angry at Delilah for challenging me. For suggesting that I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
We’d been talking about going somewhere for spring break, but those plans seem to be shot. Besides, I’ve met another guy: Connor. He’s older, charming, thoughtful, and great in bed. I swear the entire time I’m with him, not a single centipede emerges, and I love that he’s into exploring different things, that he tells me how great I am for wanting to explore things with him.
He invites me down to San Diego for spring break—he and his friends have a tradition where they party all week there. How could I say no to that? Hanging out with upperclassmen, going down to the beach…I can’t resist.
I pack my things. When Delilah comes in, they take in my suitcase, the pile of skimpy clothes I’m folding, and break the silence.
“You’re going somewhere? I thought we were going to hang out in Big Bear.”
I look up. “Oh. I didn’t realize you still wanted to do that.”
“I was just about to talk to you about it.”
I shrug. “Well, Connor invited me down to San Diego. So I guess I can’t go.”
“Stay safe,” they say, and the comment rankles me. Delilah keeps thinking like they know better than me, and it’s seriously getting on my nerves. I’ve just turned nineteen. I’m not some kind of child anymore. Who are they to nag at me like this?
“Thanks,” I say, the word bitter, and I catch a look on Delilah’s face that seems like pity. Something wrenches in my gut. Part of me tells me that Delilah’s just looking out for me, that, whenever we argue, they’re usually right—but then the rest of me is irritated that Delilah’s always right. Right about what this time, I don’t know. In my frustration over my jumbled feelings, I slam my suitcase shut, relishing how Delilah flinches.
I go outside. Connor’s already parked on the street waiting for me. I throw my suitcase into the trunk, then slide into the passenger seat.
“Hey,” I say, cupping his face and giving him a kiss. The subtle scent of his expensive cologne, the softness of his shirt against my bare collarbones…His stubble brushes against my cheek as I pull away, sending a shiver down my spine.
“Hey yourself,” Connor says, giving me that dazzling grin of his. I blush. I’m like a schoolgirl around him. He places a hand on my thigh, splaying his fingers out to claim the breadth of my flesh, and I swear to God I’m actually giggling. “You ready to get going?”
When we pull away, I glance back at my dorm. Delilah’s looking out the window, and for a second, I feel an odd pang of regret.
All I can think about during the ride down to San Diego is how stuffy the car is, how I’m weirdly nervous to be meeting a bunch of Connor’s friends who I don’t know. I try to reassure myself by holding Connor’s free hand, but my palms are sweating for some reason. When my moist skin touches the perfect dryness of his, a scorpion emerges and scuttles up his arm.
He makes a sound of disgust, and I take my hand away.
“Sorry,” I say. I clasp my hands together in my lap and look out the window.
At least the drive to San Diego is relatively short, just a couple hours. It’s a beautiful city, brighter and airier than Los Angeles, a different kind of Southern California. Away from anyone who knows me, who could judge me, I feel freer—open to try anything.
Connor introduces me to his friends: Matthew. Andy. Joe. Quickly, I realize I’m the odd one out. They’re all twenty-one-year-old white guys who know each other well, but I’m the only girl, the only Asian, and I only know Connor.
Connor’s friends aren’t exactly rude, but they’re not welcoming, either. I guess that’s what happens when a newcomer intrudes on an established tradition. Except, as it turns out, “partying” isn’t so much going out clubbing at night, which I do enjoy—especially when I’m out with Delilah—but getting drunk. All the time.
I remind myself that this is also what college is about: experimenting, whether that’s with sex and relationships, or with alcohol. We’re on the rooftop of the beachside hotel tonight, the sound of the waves audible even from here, a few stars twinkling through the clouds and the city glow. Romantic. I’m sitting beside Connor, my bare legs crossed, my shorts hitching up my thighs. Matthew and Andy are eyeing me. I grin, shift my position so that my clothes reveal just a bit more, and revel in the heat that unfurls in me as I see a bulge, a blush.
“Shots?” Connor says, raising a fifth like he’s toasting. Joe whoops, and I cheer along with the others.
It’s cheap vodka, and the shots go down like gasoline. I’m flushing, but I don’t want to be left out. I take shot after shot with the others, and I can’t help but feel giddy as Connor’s friends now welcome me in, how they’re friendlier to me. Delilah and I have had our fair share of dorm parties, much to our RA’s chagrin, but this is the drunkest I’ve ever been in my life. I’m flopping like a ragdoll, and soon I can’t tell whose hands are on me anymore, whether they’re Connor’s or one of his friends’.
“Hey,” someone—Joe, maybe?—says, “let’s go back inside. It’s getting chilly.”
It feels fine to me. I’m warm, sweating even, but I get up and take swaying steps with the others, take the stairs down to the suite that all of us are piled into. Soon it’s me and Connor and Andy on the bed, the two of them touching me, Connor guiding Andy’s hands: “No, not like that. She likes it like this.”
It feels odd, me lying on my back in a haze, Andy’s hands on me. His touch is different from Connor’s: rougher, like he’s handling machinery. Closing my eyes and trying to conjure pleasure, I feel like a mannequin being experimented with. That thought sparks a familiar squirming inside me. I can still suppress it though. A hundred legs tickle my throat. My esophagus constricts. My mouth fills with the aftertaste of vodka and something briny, raw. I smile encouragingly at Andy, delight in the relief on his face, the way he seems so grateful to even be touching a woman like this.
I fake an orgasm for him, just to see him instantly get hard. Connor’s smirking like he owns me, like he’s proud of Andy, and now it’s Connor’s lips on mine, his kiss making me ecstatic.
He pulls me into the tiny bedroom attached to the suite, closes the door so it’s just us. I’m grinning up at him, but for a half-second my grin fades: Andy’s fingers leave the ghost of a touch that my body now registers as violating, as something I wouldn’t have accepted before. I almost start choking on the centipedes that clog my throat, but I take a breath through my nose and use my tongue to shove them all down. I pretend it’s a half-retch from the alcohol, but even so, Connor doesn’t notice a thing.
He tugs the last of my clothes off, leaves my top and lacy bra in a heap on the floor, undresses himself. I flop onto the bed—a different kind of nausea rises in me now, and I realize that I’m sobering up a tiny bit. But Connor’s brought a fifth in with him. He takes a glance at me, then pours two more sparkling shots.
“To us,” he says. I take the libation, swallow back the alcohol, wait for my body to relax again—but it doesn’t seem to, not in the same way.
Hesitation steals over me. But Connor’s already getting into position on top of me, already slicking his touch and stroking me, tugging moans from me. Mixed in with that gorgeous tingling is a squirming that doesn’t stop, a writhing that cuts under the pleasure. I’m not sure if I’m okay with this, but my vodka-hazed mind thinks sure, why not? and even the parts that aren’t vodka-hazed are longing for the way he looks at me, longing for his praises and his kisses.
He works himself into me. It doesn’t go as easily as usual, maybe because of the alcohol, and it hurts. I wince, but Connor only smiles.
“I’ll go slow,” he says, and I nod. It’s less like the comfortable fullness I love and more like he’s pulling me taut, my whole body vibrating with the tenseness of it. It hurts, it hurts, and I gasp as tears prick at the corners of my eyes.
“Slower, then,” he says. He plants a kiss behind my ear, and I take in another sharp breath, this time with pleasure—pleasure mixed in with pain, pleasure that confuses me. “Good girl. Take me all in.”
But where his words would normally comfort me, this time, there’s something vile about them. My world goes in and out of focus, the pain sharpening and dulling my senses, and then I can’t take it and I say,
“Shh,” he says, stroking my cheek. “You’ll be okay.”
“But it hurts.”
“I know,” he says. Shock rifles through my body. “Take all of me.”
My whole body is squirming, shuddering, writhing with the stabbing-dragging-hurt of it all, and suddenly I can’t hide them anymore. I can’t swallow the centipedes down. They erupt from me, from every pore on my skin, and I’m crying and the tears wash away some of the centipedes, but more of them erupt in their wake. I’m whimpering that it hurts, and only then does he stop and jump away from me. There are centipedes crawling all over my face, dipping into my navel, onto my limbs. I’m sobbing, I’m sobbing and I can’t stop, my whole body on fire with the pain and the centipedes’ venom as they bite me over and over again.
“Hey,” he says, “hey, it’s all right.”
But there’s revulsion on his face. The realization that my whole body has erupted—that I’m naked and open, that he’s seeing this—sends me down a spiral of shame. My face flushes. Every part of me flushes. Centipedes bite me and sting me, leaving welts in their wake. Connor’s talking to me from across the room, telling me about how he’s my friend, how he’d never hurt me, and all the while I feel centipedes on my tongue, centipedes inside me, centipedes everywhere he’s been.
I can’t form words. I can’t even parse my thoughts. I want to throw centipedes at Connor, call him a liar, but my whole body is still burning with shame, my breaths too quick to speak, my flesh so buried in centipedes that I can’t do anything but sit on the bed and cry.
Connor bolts, slamming the door shut behind him, leaving me to deal with my centipedes alone.
The rest of the vacation passes by in a blur. I only remember bits and pieces: Connor and his friends being obnoxious at a high-end restaurant while I feel so embarrassed to even be seen with them. Joe and Matthew drunk in public, littering the streets as brown paper bags with beer bottles in them drop from their hands, cascading broken glass onto the concrete. Children run past and I think, This is a family vacation spot. Why can’t I just enjoy myself and be happy? Vodka, everyone’s breath stinking with it, our hotel suite dense with body odor and five kinds of cologne overlapping with lingering centipede venom.
But most of all, what I remember is shame. Shame at breaking down, shame at revealing myself in such an awful way. I’m four years old again, struggling to remember how to redirect my centipedes, struggling to reclaim that effortless way I’d swallowed them before, but now, if Connor so much as bumps me, a centipede emerges—even in public.
We leave three days later.
I spend the ride home in silence.
Delilah’s not there when I return to the dorm.
They left a note on my desk, though, and I find tears unexpectedly blurring my vision as I take in their familiar round handwriting, the smiley faces that have peppered their notes ever since we started exchanging them in ninth grade:
Ended up going to Big Bear with a couple of socio folks. Hope you had a good time in San Diego! :) I should be home Sunday evening. Let’s grab dinner together and catch up, yeah? :)
I hug the note to my chest as I sink into my bed. It’s only Saturday afternoon. I don’t know what I’m going to do until Delilah gets back. A wall of loneliness overwhelms me—I don’t have many friends here other than them. I sure as hell can’t call any of the men I’ve dated friends. I need someone to talk to, yet I’m scared that beneath Delilah’s smiley faces is an undercurrent of anger—what if Delilah’s mad at me? I was a dick to them, after all.
But there’s no one else for me to turn to, no one else I might feel safe with. I take out my phone and scroll to Delilah’s number, hover over it for a moment, then press call. It goes straight to voicemail. Only then do I remember that the signal in the mountains must be terrible.
I spend the rest of the weekend huddled in my room, my mind flashing back to every moment in San Diego. I hug my knees, but even contact with my own body reminds me so vividly of how Connor touched me. Centipedes emerge one after another. Alone in my room, wrapped up in blankets and tasting nothing but hunger in my mouth, I let the centipedes swarm me, let myself drown in my own memories.
Before I realize, it’s Sunday evening, and someone’s unlocking our door. I don’t have a chance to get cleaned up. I squash as many centipedes as I can, try to hide them from view, but when the door opens and Delilah walks in, there are still dozens crawling on my sheets.
“Sylvia,” Delilah says, letting their duffel bag fall with a thump, shocked. “Sylvia, what’s wrong?”
I shake my head. Delilah closes the door behind them and sits down on the papasan we bought together, pats the space beside them, inviting me in.
I can’t take it anymore. I’m crying again, my shame mixing with my guilt over how self-centered I was, how I got angry at Delilah when really they just had my best interests at heart. And now Delilah’s acting like I never acted like an asshole. They’re being too kind to me.
I don’t want to get up, but my centipedes are disgusting me, and the papasan is clean, at least. I sink in beside Delilah, and they rub my back.
“It’s okay,” they say.
The touch is familiar, but then I’m remembering Andy’s hands, Connor’s hands. Centipedes emerge all over again from where Delilah’s patting me. I’m frustrated at myself, and I feel another pang of shame when Delilah draws back. But they stay on the papasan instead of running away like Connor. Delilah remains near me while giving me space, all the while not chastising me for my indiscretion. They only ever smile, the curve of it so gentle on their face.
“I’m sorry,” I say, the words bursting from me. “I’m sorry I canceled on you. I…I never should have gone with Connor.”
Delilah looks at me, alarmed.
“You don’t need to apologize,” they say. Their voice isn’t stern, only patient.
“But I was a jerk—and I canceled on you—and then—” I take a deep, shuddering breath. “I’m sorry.”
“I never wanted anything bad to happen to you,” Delilah murmurs. “I was never even mad at you. I just wished you’d talked to me.”
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper, half for Delilah, half for myself. Why couldn’t I have just spent time with them instead of going out with Connor? Why couldn’t I have just stayed in LA instead of going to a city I’d never been to, a city hundreds of miles from anywhere I could call home, with no way to get back to somewhere I could consider safe?
“You don’t need to apologize,” Delilah says again. They look like they’re about to say more, but they leave it at that.
A moment passes between us as I sit with the intensity of my emotions, my head resting on Delilah’s shoulder, their hand rubbing soothing circles on my back, their gaze directed at the same point a thousand miles away on the opposite wall. My crying quiets down. I realize that a centipede I’d let out earlier is still crawling on my chest. I pick it off of me with a sound of disgust and toss it to the ground.
“Sorry,” I say again, “that you’ve had to see my centipedes twice now.”
“Hey,” Delilah says, “that’s totally fine. I know people say we have to hide them, but around me, you don’t have to. Hell, around your lovers, around anyone, you shouldn’t have to, you know? Men can let theirs show whenever. Why can’t we?”
That’s the first time I’ve realized that—that I’ve always comforted my lovers when I’ve accidentally caused their creature to emerge, but that none of them have ever comforted me. I think about how Connor had jumped away, how he’d talked to me from across the room like I was some kind of diseased animal, making me feel like something less than human. Anger twists away inside of me, anger and a dozen other emotions. I can’t breathe.
“It hurts,” I whisper, the words bringing me back to what I said in San Diego. I can’t stop crying. “It hurts.”
“I know,” Delilah says. “I know.”
I start sobbing again, the sound of it pathetic to my ears, but Delilah doesn’t say a thing. Instead, they take my centipedes into their hands, toy with them, start petting them and treating them with the same kind of tenderness they’d treated me with.
“You’re so weird for wanting to become a socio—socio—whatever you do,” I say finally through choked breaths. But watching Delilah calm my centipedes has calmed me down, too.
“Whatever. Like polisci is any better.”
They reach a hand toward me. One of my centipedes is curled up around their delicate fingers, relaxed, almost like it’s sleeping. I reach out a trembling hand and take the centipede back, let it scurry up my arm to perch on my shoulder.
“You’re not alone,” Delilah says. They close their eyes, and a grimace flits across their face. They pinch themself, and a long, black millipede appears. They hold the millipede out to me. I take the centipede back down from my shoulder, my breaths still halting, but my heart calmer as I hold it up to Delilah’s millipede. The two creatures interact, touching each other in a familiar way.
“You’re never alone,” Delilah says. It’s only then that I notice the tears brimming their eyes, the way the smile on their face trembles. My throat tightens and my stomach turns. I try to smile too, but only sobs emerge when I realize what they’re telling me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. The phrase becomes a compulsion, a prayer, a warding talisman. I repeat it over and over, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. I apologize for the shame we’ve been forced to bear, the shame of other people’s cruelty. Our creatures curl up together as my heart gets heavier and heavier.
My voice descends to a whisper.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Then, when nothing else can get past my lips but my shaking breaths, all we have left is silence.
For resources on coping with sexual violence and information on how to support survivors, visit End Rape On Campus (EROC).
“Anything Resembling Love” copyright © 2020 by S. Qiouyi Lu
Art copyright © 2020 by Reiko Murakami