Published July 20, 2021

This fucking spider was going to be the end of him.

When Ben was a kid, his mother used to tell him stories about his ancestors: towering figures, craggy and stippled as the mountains on which they settled. Men of broad palms and measured silence; men with purpose. Men so unlike Ben that he might as well have been a different phylum, much less family.

The sort of men who would never’ve been found alone in a motel room at three-fifteen in the morning, with a ratty pair of tighty-whities covering birdlike legs, scared shitless by an insect the size of a thumbnail.

Not an insect, Ben thought — an arachnid. Not that insects weren’t littered with innumerable faults of their own — but at least they didn’t undulate in the lowest reaches of Ben’s subconscious like imprisoned nightmares struggling to break free. And at least they didn’t have a bullshit number of legs.

The killing of spiders was generally more Anna’s contribution to proceedings, but Ben didn’t want to think about her right now, or their place together back in Los Angeles, where she was (undoubtedly) pacing around with the TV blaring and already upset that she’d agreed to let him go alone.

The beginning was amazing.

Everyone says that, everyone experiences big first crushes of love, sharp waves pushing you under and flooding all the senses with a new, more fluid reality. But Ben knew what that was like: the rushing blood in the scalp, the desire — and this, this thing with Anna — had been different. It had been all of the usual emotional conflagration but times a million. It had been warm and inviting, exciting and comforting at the same time. It had been like coming home.

When Ben was a kid, he’d been fascinated by grocery store lobster tanks, assuming they were the equivalent of a fire-station Dalmatian. When he’d found out their true intended purpose he was horrified. The lady behind the meat counter had attempted to soothe by explaining that lobsters lacked pain receptors and didn’t even notice being boiled alive.

Ben thought about that a lot these days. At the time, he hadn’t really bought into the idea that a living creature wouldn’t object to being murdered by degrees, transformed into raw sustenance meant to satiate the needs of another.

Now though, he understood it was just the way of things.

When he was being truly, rawly honest with himself he knew that the worst part was how much he liked it. The drama, the constant push and pull. How much he craved it. And how much — when it was good — it felt like truly living, and how much nothing else really did.

When things were Good, they were amazing. Days on end of soul-affirming conversations followed by cannaboid nights marked by tender lips and a smile at once both mysterious beyond measure and familiar to its core. When things were good, Ben felt like God in a kingdom of unity.

But when things got Bad — and they tended to these days, more often than not — Anna could be hard to live with. The minor disagreements (where the plants should live; whose turn it was to do the dishes; how much space Ben’s desk was taking up in the living room) never stayed minor for long, and although Ben never set out to be an asshole, it was hard to accept that a reasonable answer in a less-than-chipper tone deserved the weeks of inquisition that inevitably followed.

So Ben became accustomed to taking small breaks, as many as possible, the better to reduce the potential exposure (and therefore, fallout). Signing up for every possible tech conference helped, along with familial obligations real and invented.

His Mom (up in Montana, where he was now headed) was another one of Ben’s easy outs. Ever since Ben’s dad finally passed on, he’d made hay out of her near-total inability to function alone. Kelsey — his sister — lived in Jackson Hole, but with three kids of her own and a husband continually deployed overseas, she had enough on her plate without adding their mother’s learned helplessness into the mix.

The shitty hotel couldn’t be helped — Ben and Anna’s finances weren’t great (not to mention joint, and therefore impossible to concealable) laying out for a recognizable chain seemed unwise. Even getting a room at all was an anomaly; Ben usually drove straight through. He had a system — leave in the early evening, just after rush hour, and he would arrive by dinner time the next day. Gas prices being what they were, he could’ve probably saved money by flying. But the eighteen hour drive was the longest stretch of peace on offer in his current stage of existence, and Ben often found himself thinking wistfully of the thrumming road for weeks after coming home.

Ben knew he stayed with Anna out of a sense of duty as much the product of a steady diet of hero-worshipping media as it was genealogical. He’d said as much to an Uber driver once. The Uber driver — dressed in low-key drag and ripe with the embittered self-certainty unique to the small-town-marginalized — had been blasting a extensive Britney Spears playlist and Toxic sent Ben spiraling back to Anna’s townhouse (it was still Anna’s, even after three and half years of living together temporarily” while they looked for a real” place together).

It was the song played on repeat in the background of their latest fight mere hours ago, a self-identified attempt by Anna to hype herself up to go out with a group of Ben’s friends (or, perhaps, a subtle dig — one could never be quite sure with Anna). But then Ben mentioned the time, and Anna’s eyes caught fire and before he knew it it was almost morning and he had to get ready for work.

At noon he went to lunch and by the second bite of his sandwich he knew he had to leave her. Which wasn’t exactly revelatory. But the cold, steely shaft of resolve shooting down his spine — that was new. Unexpected.

Ben had no illusions about the probable lifespan of this newfound tenacity, so he hadn’t gone home. He even left work an hour early, so by the time rush hour brought the city to a standstill he was already free of its bounds, screaming up the highway as the sun faded over the horizon.

Speeding northbound on the road at night as the sole sedan in a sinuously motorized sea was the only place Ben could remember feeling truly happy. He felt like maybe he was a different person entirely. A stronger person, exalted and free.

Examining his shadowed face in the rearview mirror, he could almost believe that this time, things would be different. That this time, things would truly change.

But when Ben was wiping the sticky corpse off the cardboard-bound Bible with a tissue a second spider crawled out from behind a pillow and disappeared behind the nightstand, and that was when Ben knew for certain that he would not sleep that night.

Fiction + Film

Last modified October 3, 2023  #fiction   #creative 

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