Centipede Centipede Centipede
In the dark, a cell phone is a foreboding creature. Its formally pleasant ring tone becomes a cacophony, and the light from the screen is bright enough to blind. And so, Nikki can't help grumbling a bit when her phone goes off at 7 AM while she's still sleeping. It isn't spite, but she pretends it is when she doesn't answer for the next few rings, spends time instead cleaning her fingernails. Before the last ring, Nikki picks up the phone.
"Hello?" she murmurs. "Who is this? It's so early…"
"Grandma," says the static. "Grandma Marisol. I know it's early, sorry about that. Timezones, you know. Anyway, I was wondering, would you like to come to Provence with me next time I go?"
Nikki can't remember where Provence is right now, a lack of sleep as sucked her poor brain dry. But all the same she says she'll go, because she never turns down a trip with Grandma.
Early morning again. Nikki is sitting on her suitcase, checking for the fortieth time for her passport. The forty-first time she does it's because her grandmother reminds her. She bristles at this, she's been checking. She checks again ten seconds later, but that isn't the point. The point is…well, the point is that they've got go through check-in, now.
Nikki stands up, places her grandfather's hand on her arm. "Give me your passport," Marisol says, holding out her hand. The last word she says gets stuck in her husband's mouth.
"Passport," he says, tone flat and eyes glazed over. "Passport, passport, passport, passport…" As he says this, his arm shakes, forcing Nikki to tighten her grip. The broken-record repetition doesn't end until they check their bags, and people are staring. Their eyes are like beams from a hostile moon, and their gravity forces Nikki's own eyes to the ground. She cannot look at her tottering grandfather, cannot listen to him say 'passport' for the seventeenth time.
Nikki already knows about Provence. She has grown up hearing all about the flaky almond pastries that are best after a desperately long bike ride, about the topless-but-kid-friendly beach in Moimoiron, and how good pamplemousse soda tastes in an airport. How everything green is darker, and how if you look like Nikki does and you don't open your mouth, they'll think you're French. She has dreamed about this place a million times over. It doesn't feel like anything new, now that she's here.
They are sitting in a café now, Nikki's grandmother proving her origin in halting French. Nikki orders chocolat, her grandparents, café noisette and café crème. Not that her grandfather can say what he wants anymore--they are relying solely on Marisol's memory. They talk about what they are going to do while in Provence, about all the places that Nikki has to see. "Avignon," her grandmother says, "Avignon is fabulous. There's a film festival going on, we won't see any movies when we go, but the atmosphere, the culture, that's enough. I want to go biking, too, but we can't because…" She purses her lips, covers the earthquake of her husband's right hand with her own.
Their drinks arrive. Watching her grandfather's drink slosh around in his cup as Marisol guides it to his lips makes Nikki not thirsty, anymore.
Morning is spent slogging through a clay-red town, looking at souvenirs. They are dehydrated, fanning themselves with their own hair, and Nikki has had enough for the day. New York City is an ice cube down the spine compared to this, and New York City is not cold. Her tank top sticks uncomfortably to her stomach, highlighting the piercing that she intends to keep secret.
"We should stop and use the bathroom," Marisol says, eyeing her husband. His adult diaper pokes out from the back of his pants, and he stinks in the heat. Nikki tries to suppress the nausea boiling in the pit of her stomach.
They search the town, finding a single pay toilet with minimal room. Nikki goes first at her grandmother's urging. The door doesn't open when Nikki tries to leave, and the cubicle begins to flood. Her ribcage becomes her heart's xylophone as she pounds on the door, yelling, "Somebody help me!" in English, because she can't remember it in French.
Marisol sets her free. "What happened?" she asks, a smile inexplicably plastered to her face. "Why did you set it to cleaning mode? There are instructions, in English. You didn't see?"
"No, I didn't!" gasps Nikki, hands on her knees and brown sweaty hair flung over her forehead. "I thought I was going to die…it isn't funny!" But her grandmother is laughing all the same.
Nikki's grandfather repeats the word centipede forty-three times as she helps him eat his breakfast. This is not because they saw a centipede. This is because Nikki was telling her grandmother about her phobia. It's the legs that scare her, the thousands upon thousands of hideous legs, all propelling the same awful creature. "Centipede," he says. "Centipede." It's enough to drive her mad. She is this close to walking out, fleeing to Mazan's café with one of her various books from the New York City library. But the fear of leaving the house alone, and the look on Marisol's face stop her cold. They keep eating, taking turns cleaning the crumbs off the shaking man's lap.
By the time he stops, Nikki is seeing centipedes everywhere. She will not feel safe in this stone house for some time. But Roger Tannen does stop. And he says, "I want to go to Avignon today."
For a moment, Nikki is afraid her grandmother will cry. But Marisol knows that there will be more centipedes, and so all she says is, "Okay. We can go there today if you want to."
Tell us about you! I am a literature student from New York City who used to spend hours writing in a notebook on top of a bookshelf, and who now uses the more conventional method of writing on the computer.
Motivation: Though I do not often choose to mine my family for subject matter, in this case I found it necessary. Nikki, the protagonist, is based loosely on myself, and her grandparents are based on my grandparents. Watching my grandfather decay and then finally die from a combination of Parkinson's disease and dementia was a harrowing experience. I wanted to write about humanity breaking through the cage of disease, in a subtle way. I wrote Centipede Centipede Centipede for that purpose.