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Under My Skin

By Janet Peach

A tick the size of a small island nation has been sucking on my left shoulder and I’m lying on the living-room sofa like the dying Camille, with a damp washcloth on my forehead, a bowl of malted-milk balls balanced on my sternum, and the soothing tones of George Winston’s “December” playing on the stereo. It’s been a long day. My miniature poodle and personal tick-farm, Jack, still faintly damp from a scrubbing designed to eliminate all insect life from his person, is whining piteously at my feet. I’d like to think he’s playing Armand to my Marguerite, but I know he’s eyeing the candy.

Also, being a dog, his canine sixth-sense is telling him he’s in trouble. That was no ordinary bath, with gentle assurances, lovely warm water and sweet-scented puppy shampoo, it was a drown-those-little-tick-fuckers full-scale attack. He licks my toes contritely and gives me his best sad-dog look. I have to close my eyes, lest I weaken. I have resolved to banish him from my bed, where the tick-attack took place.

There’s nothing I hate more than waking up and finding a bug with its proboscis buried in my skin. It took me 10 minutes to stop screaming and another 10 minutes to figure out there was no position into which I could contort that would allow me to remove the bug on my own. I lost all remaining self-control then and rubbed myself against the wall like a rabid Baloo bear before I thought better of it. I banished tick-bearing Jack to the back yard, dressed and drove myself to the doctor’s office.

The nurse had never seen an embedded tick before, “outdoor lifestyle” being a phrase which, in much of Northern California, applies to skiing once a year in Tahoe, watching tourists turn blue from swimming without a wetsuit, and snagging a curb-side table at Starbuck’s. “Ho-boy,” is what she said and before the doctor had a chance to see me two more nurses and the phlebotomist had dropped by for a gander.

The doctor studied my shoulder under a magnifying glass, making little “uh huh” noises, and poking me gently with a tool that looked remarkably like the tweezers my grandmother used to leave on a China plate next to the sink. He snapped off his gloves.

“It’s out?” I ventured.

“The body’s gone. Scraped off. The head’s still there,” he said, conjuring up a whole series of images I didn’t need.

“And you’re taking it out?” I said, watching him wash his hands with a sinking feeling.

“Nope. I’d have to anesthetize you, make an incision. It’s been in there a while anyway. It’ll be easier on your body if you just let it break down the organic material on its own.”

The organic material being the head, the actual face, of a disease-bearing insect.

“Cut me,” I said, but he only sighed.

“There hasn’t been a case of Lyme or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever this year. I’ll give you a titer. Call me if you get flu symptoms or a rash.” And he guided me to the door before I could point out that it’s only April.

As I lie here on the sofa I am making a mental list of things that would make me happy. At the top of the list is waking up and discovering that the entire day has been a dream. My body is unblemished, my shoulder tick-free. Number two is a plague of biblical proportions eradicating all ticks from the face of the planet, also mosquitoes and cockroaches which I’ve never liked. For number three I have: watching a version of “The African Queen” where my doctor switches places with Bogart for the leach scene and shrieks “get ‘em off me, get ‘em off me” to a supremely indifferent Katharine Hepburn.

As a cautious first-time dog-owner I was careful from the start to ensure that Jack knew his place in the household, that he couldn’t climb on the furniture or beg at the table, that he had to sleep in his own little bed. That lasted a week, until Jack had taught me that his place was wherever he wanted. At night, that’s curled up against my chest. If I’m feeling strict, I put him down by my feet, but most mornings I wake up and he’s lying next to me with his head on the pillow. I look at him and he looks at me and, more often than not, we both go back to sleep that way.

I am fortunate in that he doesn’t snore, only makes little whiffling breathy noises and sighs occasionally. It’s the sighs that get me; it’s like he’s in doggie heaven.

But I’ve Googled ticks and tick-born diseases, which have terrible names I can’t begin to spell, and must harden my heart. I will douse him with toxic tick-repelling chemicals and banish him to the living room and his $39.95-faux-sheepskin doggie bed. I’ll wear earplugs so I can’t hear him whine and relent. I’ll have a glass of Sherry before I go to sleep or maybe take a pill. I’ll pass out and hardly miss him at all.

It’s as if Jack knows his fate. He commando-crawls up my supine body. I swallow the final malted-milk ball and show him the empty inside of the bowl. He sniffs it hopefully then, to his credit, puts the loss behind him and continues to crawl forward. Snout to nose, I can feel his doggy breath on my face. It’s warm and wet and reminds me that I should be brushing his teeth with greater regularity. He woofs softly and licks my chin. It’s disgusting, really, but I admire the sentiment. I scratch him and pull on his ears and he flops over, rests his head on my shoulder, and sighs.

I am undone, I think. I am undone. And I close my eyes and fall asleep, tick-head dissolving silently in my shoulder and warm wooly dog in my arms.

Janet Peach lives with Jack in San Jose, CA. Her last work of nonfiction for VerbSap was Running With The Big Dogs.



Top photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
Bottom photo "Jake" courtesy of Leslie Collingridge.


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