By Alicia Catt
When I was 23, I took a few months off from life to hitchhike around the country and sleep in questionable abandoned buildings. I did a lot of stupid things in those months. I ate psilocybin mushrooms and explored a (thankfully) empty bear cave. I got giardia from drinking river water and pooped forty times in four days. I half-climbed, half-jumped off a roof to evade the cops and ended up with a staph-infected gash in my knee that left me barely able to walk. I took up playing the djembe.
None of these things are as stupid as the story I am about to tell you.
After being homeless had begun to lose its appeal, I moved back to Minneapolis and immediately shacked up with Robert—a tall, gentle alcoholic who didn’t mind my aggressive body odor or my neglected rat’s nest of dreadlocks. Robert worked at a bar, and I—because I was too flighty to keep a job—stayed at home, biting my nails and smoking cigarettes, and waited for him to come home at night. He was usually drunk. WHY DO YOU DRINK SO MUCH, I’d whine, as I emptied bottles of schnapps into my mouth. WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME MORE, I’d scream, locking myself in the bathroom and kicking holes in the walls. I’M GOING TO LEAVE YOU, I’d sob, PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME. And later, without fail, we’d have incredible drunken make-up sex.
It was, all things considered, one of my most stable relationships.
Now, you should know: Robert’s family did not like me. It wasn’t their fault. I was insufferable. Robert was close to his relatives in a way I didn’t understand, in a way I hated. His domineering older sister and her husband lived a block away from us. When they invited us over—that is to say, invited Robert over and grudgingly accepted that his crazy girlfriend would come too—I would sit on their couch, eyes stuck in an overdramatic roll, miserable. YOUR SISTER IS A BITCH, I’d hiss at Robert when she was barely out of earshot. He would just shrug. I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to see their family as often as he saw his, especially when most of that time was spent watching his sister’s favorite show, Grey’s Anatomy. She only allowed us to talk during commercial breaks.
A winter passed like this, and spring came, then summer. I missed travelling and wrote melodramatic poetry about mistaking car alarms for bird songs. Robert’s sister had begun explicitly asking him not to bring me over. I felt him slipping away from me, and so I did what any reasonable girl would do in order to re-wrangle her man: I gave him an ultimatum. Either we get rid of the apartment, leave Minneapolis, and head out on the road together, or we were so over.
Guess which option he picked?
Soon, I was packing our knapsacks for the journey and teasing Robert’s long, thinning hair into dreadlocks. I told him they looked sexy. They looked terrible, like some winged creature had had the runs on his head and decorated the mess with gaudy plastic beads. Our plan was to hitchhike to Duluth first, Robert’s hometown, so that he could say goodbye to his parents. I conceded to this on the condition that we head to California straightaway afterwards and not look back for at least a year. A year, I figured, would be enough time to make him see the truth: that I was the only woman he needed in his life. No sister. No mother. Just me—All Ali, All The Time.
The two-and-a-half hour trip to Duluth took us a full eight hours by hitch. We stood on on-ramps in the soggy June heat, thumbs outstretched.
Our backpack straps cut into our shoulders. I’M TOO HOT, I screeched, my bare calves brushing against the scratchy, unmowed roadside grass. Robert reminded me calmly that this was my idea, and so I proceeded to ignore him for the next two hours, sniffing back tears and scuffing my boots sullenly in the dirt.
Twenty miles outside of Duluth, in tiny Carlton, MN, there’s a casino with a shuttle bus that runs hourly to downtown Duluth and back. One of our rides was headed to the casino, and we figured we’d stop there, use the restrooms, and hop the bus into Duluth like the lawless rockstars we thought we were.
But it did not happen exactly like that.
In the casino bathroom, I pulled down my shorts. There, clinging to the inside of my upper right thigh like a mountain climber to a cliff, was a tick—tiny, brown, unassuming, calmly sucking my crotch blood. And there, on my upper left thigh, was another one.
At this point, there are two things you should know about me.
One: in all of my time hitchhiking and sleeping under bridges and in the woods, I had never once found a tick on my person.
Two: I have lived my entire life with an irrational fear of insects—the kind of fear that prompts hyperventilation and ridiculous panic attacks. Because, if you haven’t figured it out yet, 23-year-old me could be considered something of a lunatic.
I pulled up my shorts and rushed out of the bathroom, moaning quietly to myself in order not to alert casino security. I met Robert outside the main entrance, where he was doing what he did best: smoking a cigarette with a dead-fish look in his eyes. Just as I was semi-calmly alerting him to my predicament, I felt something scuttling up the small of my back. And that’s when I completely lost my shit.
AUUUUUUGH, I screamed, hopping around and swatting uselessly at my body with my hands. GET THEM OFF GET THEM OFF, I blubbered, sprinting back and forth in front of the casino as if the ticks were a swarm of bees that I could somehow outrun. (This was my mistake.)
Robert grabbed my arm to hold me still, then motioned for me to turn around. He lifted the back of my shirt and saw the tick had already sunk itself into my skin. So my valiant and disgustingly dreadlocked white knight flicked open his pocketknife, used it to pry the insect off me, flicked the knife closed, and slipped it back into his pocket. (This was his mistake.)
We waited for the shuttle bus for what seemed like hours as I became more and more agitated, feeling dozens of real or imaginary ticks crawling on my body. I writhed. I moaned. I got in Robert’s face and called him an idiot for making us come to Duluth in the first place. He just silently stared at me—then, past me, out into the casino parking lot.
Ali, he said.
SHUT UP, I yelled.
Ali, he said, his voice cracking. What’s happening?
I followed his gaze and saw that a squadron of police cars, and at least ten uniformed officers, had quietly surrounded us. And every single one was pointing a gun at our heads.
SIR, STEP AWAY FROM HER, one cop shouted.
GET ON THE GROUND, shouted another.
DO IT NOW, shouted another.
My heart dripped into my shoes. We lay face-down on the hot pavement while a drug dog sniffed through our backpacks. Still, I couldn’t stop squirming—I could feel ticks feasting on my armpits.
The police handcuffed us and led us to separate areas of the casino parking lot for questioning. Apparently, one cop told me, a casino visitor had seen Robert pull out his pocketknife and thought that he was assaulting me with it.
NO NO NO, I bawled, horrified at the misunderstanding. I shook my leg and tried to explain that there was a tick crawling up my leg as I spoke. LOOK FOR YOURSELF, I said. He didn’t look.
Robert and I were stuffed into separate squad cars to wait while the cops ran our ID checks. Finally, one cop pulled me out and uncuffed me, and told me I was free to go. My boyfriend, however, was not. It turned out that, although the cops were willing to forgive the mix-up, they were not willing to forgive an old bench warrant that Robert had for unpaid parking tickets. They were taking him to the county jail. I was welcome to bail him out, of course—if I had $800. (I had $100 to my name.)
It all worked out in the end, sort of. I called Robert’s sister, who screamed at me. I called his mother, who screamed at me in a slightly nicer voice, then came to bail Robert out of jail. Robert spent the rest of the night pulling a dozen engorged ticks off naked, hysterical me. We broke up after his family staged an intervention for him and convinced him I was a bad influence. I’m not sure they ever found out that he went to jail for his parking tickets, and not actually because of me at all, but I have a feeling they wouldn’t have been too interested in technicalities.
The morals of the story, of course, are as follows: Never brandish a knife at a casino. Never trust a woman with dreadlocks, or a woman who wants to give you dreadlocks. And always use a good DEET-based insect repellent.
Alicia Catt is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pinch, 1966, Pithead Chapel, The Citron Review, and elsewhere.