There were a lot of insect repellents to choose from. They lined that shelf in the supermarkets and bodegas, neat rows of upright aluminum canisters and narrow plastic spray bottles. The containers came in bright colors that reminded us vaguely of the sun—some were like the white sun at two in the afternoon, hovering over the scorched pavement, some like the yellow hangover sun that blinded us over the top of morning traffic, and some orange like a muggy afternoon out on the porch, when the light glinted off the brown beer bottles that we bought because we’d read that brown bottles keep the beer from getting skunky.
There were a lot of insect repellent brands to choose from but everyone knew Rid! was the best. Our outdoorsy friends told us so. They had beards, some of them, and did things like wear their hiking shoes or bulky sandals on casual Fridays, a fashion point we found obnoxious. Regardless, they knew insect repellent. They spent their weekends hanging from cliffs and fucking in the woods after they’d eaten gorp and smoked joints. Only an idiot, they said, would be caught out in the wilderness without a can of Rid! The other stuff was just a waste of time, but Rid!, it worked. The owner appeared on the back of the can in a small photo. He wore a rugged blue shirt and held up an oar. Next to the box was small print that read, “Whether it’s summer in the city or a sub-Saharan safari, Rid! will get you through it.” He didn’t look like a businessman, which we liked. Some of us noticed that under the list of chemicals comprising Rid! was a line of fine print stating that the repellent was made in Secaucus, NJ. What we knew of New Jersey was not particularly reassuring, but it was probably cheaper to get chemicals there. We had no reason to think so, but it made sense to us.
Our outdoorsy friends would come back from the weekends with scratches on their burnt skin and we knew that we wanted no part of whatever it was they did out there. We liked going to the movies instead. And bars. And afternoon baseball games on our flat-screen TVs. And trashy novels that were about smart women making it in the city. We actually liked reading when we could fit it in. We stretched out on the couches in our climate-controlled living rooms and felt both guilty and rebellious when we turned the pages from the bottom, something we vaguely remembered our second-grade teachers chastising us about. When we did go away, we went to cities, sometimes abroad. The closest we got to nature were the resorts that feigned tropical escape, though as far as we knew there was no threat of being mauled by indigenous wildlife. When we ate out, we liked our food prepared by chefs who’d been to culinary institutes, not food that was in gel form or in high-density protein bars. Really, the only thing we cared about when it came to lifestyle suggestions from our granola friends was their choice in bug repellent. If it staved off tsetse flies and malaria, it could handle our local gnats and mosquitoes.
And so we bought lots of Rid! When we drank wine on our porches or threw barbecues or drove down to the beach. Did you get the Rid!? our spouses would ask. We wouldn’t answer. What a stupid question. We’d communicate our feelings about the question by reaching down for the can and holding it in the air while wiggling it in their faces.
Rid! cost eighty-nine cents more than the other leading brands, but what was a little extra money when compared to the dozens of bug bites we’d otherwise suffer? It wasn’t even a question.
No one liked smelling like a factory vat, so Rid! came in surprisingly pleasant smells like Spring Mist! and Autumn Dew! and Ozark Morning! and Nightingale Bliss! Some of us who were men had reservations about scents of any kind that weren’t deodorant or a tasteful cologne. The vague suggestion of perfume worried us, but this was dispelled when our wives or girlfriends would embrace us, bury their heads into our chests, and say Mmm, you smell nice. We liked this.
Life outdoors, even if was just our backyards or parks, was carefree with Rid! We didn’t even worry about West Nile anymore. Not even when we heard maimed birds cry from the sidewalks as flies swarmed around them.
We liked Rid! as a philosophical idea too. We didn’t actually want to kill the bugs. We didn’t like killing in general. We respected both insects’ right to live and their fundamental value as parts of a delicate ecosystem. We just didn’t want to deal with the bugs; we didn’t want to think about them. Rid! took care of this efficiently. We liked efficiency. Our bosses required it of us and we required it of our subordinates and so we respected products and companies that respected our need not to have our time and money wasted. Especially in this economy.
Still, sometimes we got bug bites. We typically noticed after the fact. We’d be sitting, crosslegged, smoking a cigarette or drinking an import beer, and we’d feel that nuisance feeling. A slight itch. It wasn’t much. But there it’d be. And once you noticed it you couldn’t ignore it. Trying to ignore it required more focus on the itch itself, which only made the itch worse. And then we’d scratch. Casually at first. We’d drag our fingers lightly over the spot, as if it were nothing at all; we didn’t want to make a spectacle of it. The contact would sooth the itch for a few seconds, and then it’d be back, but worse this time, as if the itch itself knew it’d broken us. What resulted then was an alternation of resistance and scratching, which would continue until we’d scraped our skin bloody, until a red dot would appear at the head of the bite and we’d feel the blood trickle down our ankle. The blood felt cool on our skin for some reason. After stopping the blood, hoping no one was watching us, we’d wonder why the Rid! hadn’t prevented this. Wasn’t this why we’d spent the extra eighty-nine cents? So that we didn’t have to hold cheap napkins to our ankles while people stared at us? It was undignified. We’d gone to college and gotten our MBAs and JDs specifically so people didn’t look at us like we were schmucks. This is why we bought Rid! in cellophane packages of six at the BulkMart and made our husbands carry them in with the stacks of frozen turkey burgers, three-packs of organic ultra-homogenized milk, bags of field greens and assorted bell peppers, and gallon-sized jugs of Margarita City margarita mix.
We wouldn’t worry about the bite, we decided. It was probably an anomaly. Some freak mosquito immune to the stuff. Or maybe some insect junkie that even liked the repellent. Who knew? Wasn’t there mystery in the universe? Questions we couldn’t answer? Even miracles? Like insects who were immune to repellent? This thought both reaffirmed our faith in Rid! and our belief that there was something more to life than income and death, a spirituality we stored somewhere in the backs of our minds. In this sense, the single bug bite was a good thing. We ordered another beer at the bar down by the harbor or another cocktail at the patio lounge. We didn’t mind the bite anymore.
That is, until two in the morning, when we would wake up scratching our legs until they were deep red and hot and the dead skin and dried blood was caked under our fingernails, until the sheets were dotted red. Then we noticed we had dozens of bites. Shorts had been a poor choice. Dresses had been a poor choice. We tiptoed to our bathrooms and took antihistamines and rubbed cortisone cream into the affected skin and took swigs of cough syrup and went back to sleep.
Sometimes, not often, we did wonder if Rid! really worked, if our outdoorsy friends were as full of shit about this as they were about their community grown agriculture and apple wine vinegar and hot yoga classes. But consumer reports all confirmed Rid! was the best. Sometimes we knew we shouldn’t trust our friends, but a sensible company with no stake in the judgment? We could trust them. But then why did we have to run to the bathroom stall at three-thirty in the afternoon on a workday to scratch ourselves all over, making sounds of shameful joy? None of it added up.
Unless Rid! had done its job after all. It stood to reason that had we not purchased the Rid!, had we not sprayed it liberally to the parts of our arms and legs that extended beyond our rolled up sleeves and khaki shorts, had we not lit the accompanying oversized Rid! insect repellent candle in the rustic metal pail, had we not trusted our outdoorsy friends—because in the end, if you can’t trust your friends, who can you trust?—, had we not trusted the experts, the ones who knew what they were talking about, we would have been inflicted with even more bug bites. Our sheets wouldn’t be dotted with our blood; we would be swimming in pools of it, more than any dry cleaner could hope to deal with. We could picture them shaking their heads from behind the counter. We’ll try our best, they’d say, and they’d take our money, but when we went to pick up the laundry in four days, the sheets would be stained brown now. No. Rid! had spared us this.
Still, we developed infections. In the morning, the sheets were stuck to our left ankles and we gingerly pulled the sheets from our skin, leaving the affected areas raw and painful to the touch. More pus started to collect around the pores. We showered and rubbed the areas down with antibacterial moisturizing soap. Afterwards we dried the skin with clean towels and applied hydrogen peroxide. The peroxide turned white and frothy on contact. We wiped it away with cottonballs and repeated. Once we were satisfied that we’d cleaned our wounds thoroughly, we smeared liberal amounts of antibacterial ointment on them. We tried covering these messes with band-aids, but the ointment prevented the adhesives from sticking properly when we rotated our ankles to test for durability. This was a problem. We searched though the backs of out bathroom cupboards, under the sinks and behind the mirrors, where we kept things we hadn’t used in years: camphor, iodine, rubbing alcohol, petroleum jelly, aspirin, black shoe polish, Ben Gay, stolen hotel lotions, Epsom salt, rusty nailclippers in grooming kits we got for free with our perfume and cologne purchases. Eventually we found sterile gauze and surgical-strength medical tape. We cut long lengths of gauze and folded them into thick squares with which we covered the wounds. We then covered the squares in strips of tape. This would hold. We dressed for work, but then discovered our left shoes were a tight fit, tighter than could be accounted for by the gauze. If we’d put on socks, we pulled them off. We compared ankles. The left ankles were markedly swollen. We could barely make out the ankle bones. We cursed aloud then composed ourselves. We’d taken the proper steps and the body would heal itself. This thought reassured us.
Walking to the car or to the subway or to the bus, we noticed our ankles tighten up; we could feel the skin straining against the buildup of fluid. It felt like a mild sprain or at least a twist. We limped. We wished we worked at cooler companies, like tech startups or trendy NPOs where the dress codes would allow jeans and sneakers. We thought about the jobs we did have, how we’d wound up at them. We’d gone to college, good ones according to the rankings. We were marketable and had career skills, but nothing particularly distinguishable from anyone else, just like everyone else. We thought of traveling after graduation or giving our band a real try, but we had student loans and overbearing parents and significant others who were itching to settle down in a few years, so we broke up our bands, put our travel dreams on hold until we had some disposable income, and took jobs in the cities or suburban office parks. Our salaries were good and we slowly paid down our loans, but our credit card balances crept toward their limits and we had car payments and eventually we were pressured into other things like marriage and mortgage and parenthood. But who needed to find themselves abroad or follow risky career ambitions when you could end up with bug bites and infections right here in your own well-maintained, grassy backyard or pool area designed like a Japanese rock garden? Everywhere had its own adventures. One place was as good as another.
At work we tried not to favor our injured ankles, but walking normally made the strides more awkward. We winced. People who could only see our faces over the tops of the cubicles thought we were hungover or constipated. When we were younger we didn’t know anyone who was constipated. It was a myth, something that happened for comic effect on TV. Our bowel movements had been regular, normal, even inconveniently normal. We held in farts when we stayed over our girlfriends’ or boyfriends’ apartments. We excused ourselves, flushed with embarrassment, in the middle of dinners to run to the bathroom. Now, though, some of us knew that constipation was all too real. We knew the drugs that could cause it as a side effect and when our doctors prescribed them we learned to deal. We learned to eat whole grains. We stood blocking the flow of shopping carts at the supermarket while we checked the nutritional information on our snack bars and breakfast cereals.
We weren’t sure if this infection was better or worse than mild constipation.
We took three ibuprofens in our offices with our morning coffee. Our outdoorsy friends asked, Didn’t you use Rid! like I told you? Yes, asshole, we said. We used Rid! Well, they said, you can’t expect it to take care of every bite. Sometimes you just get bit. You shouldn’t’ve scratched it though. Everyone knows that. It’s all about willpower, like that time I was lost on the Appalachian Trail and was being hunted by a whole family of brown bears. Did I ever tell you about that?
After work, after we arrived home and collapsed onto our couches and turned on the TV. There, watching the latest Amazon Challenge, we changed the dressings on our ankles. The old bandages were wet and stained a pale yellow on the underside. The skin glistened. We rested our feet on the coffee tables and let them air out. We’d heard this was good for wounds; the air was necessary for scabs to form. A good scab meant you were healing. We went to bed on top of the comforters. We didn’t want to ruin the sheets any more than we already had.
In the morning there was still no scab, but there was crystallized pus stuck to our skin in jagged little pebbles. These we picked at, clearing them away like rubble from a blast site. Pus was good, though. It meant the white blood cells were attacking potential pathogens. There were bound to be casualties in any battle, and the dead soldiers were unceremoniously expelled in sticky fluid from our ankles.
It was the weekend and it was hot and we wore shorts. When people saw the fresh gauze and medical tape on our ankles, they shook their heads in sympathy while we all chatted at barbecues and lunches and tennis outings. Though we were vague about what was going on with our health, our friends secretly suspected it was poison ivy and so kept their distances with uneasy civility. We still sprayed ourselves down with Rid! Everyone smelled like it. It was in the air, as common a scent in the summer as flowers, grilled meat, and sangria.
Days went by, sometimes weeks. The bites would scab over and parts of the scabs would flake off. Sometimes we’d pick at the parts that didn’t flake off and reopen the wounds. And sometimes there were new bites and we scratched them in our sleep. Sometimes we weren’t so good about taking care of the infections. The bite areas would start to turn deep red and purple and the skin swelled and our feet smelled like aged Dutch cheese. We didn’t mind the smell ourselves, which is a funny thing about one’s own body. But our husbands and wives and girlfriends and boyfriends and children noticed. Their faces would contort in disgust. Even our dogs noticed. They would lift their heads from the carpet, get up, and walk over. They would sniff the area with mild curiosity. Their eyes said to us, Hey, this is something new. They would lick at our wounds. We knew dog saliva was cleaner than human saliva so we let them lick. They licked the area dry and we thought this helped. Eventually we would shoo them away and go back to watching TV. We kept our cats away. Cats were filthy. They would only give us some infection with a long, unpronounceable name. Cats carried sporotrichosis. Everyone knew this. We worried what would happen if the infection never healed. We looked up “amputation” on the internet.
Eventually Rid! season would pass and eventually the wounds would heal. We didn’t know anyone who’d lost a foot to a bug bite. We were sure it happened, but it happened in places like rural Georgia or New Mexico, places people weren’t meant to live. By late October we stopped scratching ourselves and it happened without event; we didn’t even notice; we couldn’t pinpoint the moment of change. It was like falling asleep that way. One day it just stopped, and maybe we’d be out looking for Halloween costumes for the kids or maybe even it would be later in the season and we’d be out Christmas shopping at dawn the morning after Thanksgiving. We’d see a pair of pants we wanted for ourselves. We’d go and try them on, remembering at first that Christmas was about giving and not receiving until we realized we’d sacrificed enough to get up at four in the morning and we deserved some goddamn pants on sale if we wanted them. We’d change in the dressing room and notice an ankle free of red marks and scabs. There might be a scar, but nothing you’d notice if you weren’t looking for it.
The Rid! sat in bathroom cabinets or in hallway closets, the bottles nestled in wicker baskets with the beach towels and sunscreen and cocoa oil our dermatologists told us not to use. It sat there, the last bottle, half empty. It’d be the first thing we’d grab in a panic on the first unseasonably warm day of early spring, when we were itching to be outdoors, when we didn’t have the strength or patience to run to the store before we fled work and home for the sunlight. There it sat, hibernating, ready to remind us what we might otherwise forget. That Rid! is the best. That Rid! is the very best money can buy.
Dane A. Wisher lives in Doha, where he teaches writing at the Community College of Qatar. He received his MFA from the University of Houston and his BA from the University of Virginia. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Word Riot, and ACREAGE. He is currently completing a novel, Minor Poets in America. You can follow him on Twitter.