Julio and Amelia have done everything they can to ignore the ladybug infestation. As dozens multiply into hundreds, it becomes increasingly difficult. Amelia presses the knife against the cutting board, brings it through the soft white skin of the banana. For each swift cut she makes, she imagines there are 1,000 new ladybugs in the apartment. They live in the ceilings and walls. Some nights as she lies awake, she thinks she can hear them in the vent above their bed, clicking and crawling over each other. If she listens close enough, she can almost count them.
Julio enters the kitchen, sets a clenched fist on the dining room table behind her. Their shared sleeplessness has etched soft pits under his eyes. A white tank top hugs his chest and stomach, falls away at the right spots to reveal chest and armpit hair, and in this stubbly morning moment Julio seems too male and it’s difficult to imagine him in lacy camisoles and shabby rayon dresses that try to be silk. He pulls up behind her and buries his jaw in her hair, mumbles “morning” into the back of her skull and then sits down at the table.
He is the one who first discovered the ladybugs, crawling out of a large purse he’d found in a Dumpster and then hidden behind a pile of jackets underneath a chair in their bedroom. He doesn’t know why he took the purse because he doesn’t even like it. It is large and unlike him, a big leather contraption with buckles and fringe that reminds him of a truck stop waitress. Julio likes little clutches and strand bracelets and small pendants with understated silver clasps, things that are small and delicate and pretty without trying. It’s why he loves Amelia.
He observes her tension as she prepares her cereal with the chopped up banana, the way she does every morning. The tightness in her shoulders and how she reaches up to push her hair behind her ear, every three beats like a system. Amelia regiments herself effortlessly, does everything in graceful intervals, bum-bum-bum, or at least she used to. Now she sleeps fitfully, out of sync, rotates counter-clockwise and drags the sheets off her side of the bed. Julio confronts her about it in the mornings but every time she says “it’s those ladybugs” and he has learned to drop it.
Amelia sweeps the sliced fruit into her palm and drops it into her bowl of corn flakes. This is how her mother taught her breakfast should be. Julio hates corn flakes because they are too bland and he can’t force them down, watches them congeal into glue and then latch onto the bottom of his bowl, scrapes them out over the Safeway bag they use as trash under the sink. He likes sugary cereals instead, with marshmallows that are shaped like things you might find doodled on a nursery wall. Amelia tells herself over and over that this is proof that she and Julio will endure this, because they have always been different.
Amelia has only seen Julio in women’s clothing once. It was nothing fancy, an eggplant-coloured blouse and blue jeans with shoes that didn’t go. Amelia recognised the blouse as one she’d bought for herself and then meant to take back to the store, folded it and put it on the side of the bed only for it to disappear. He stood there, 6’2”, taller with the heels, shaking under the fluorescent lighting of their bedroom, so she placed her hand against his chest and pushed him down against their bed. She climbed on top of him, and the mattress groaned with their weight. She nibbled on his ear and sucked at the coarse hairs on his neck and it was good enough to forget until her cheek brushed against the blouse and she felt the soft material against her skin, scented in her own perfume. Then she dismounted and walked to the bathroom, closed the door behind her and locked it and sat on the lid of the toilet. She sat there for an hour, staring at the tile floor, ladybugs clicking a grim soundtrack in the vents until she emerged to Julio, who had fallen asleep, languid and naked in the bed, her clothes in a loose pile at his feet. She untangled the comforter and pressed her body into his.
Since this incident, Julio has withdrawn the subject from discussion, a decision Amelia seems to endorse with her supportive silence. Julio tells himself that he likes the silence, the way the pair of them drift and dance around each other in their small apartment because anything that needs to be said, they already know. It has always been like this, he thinks, smirks and raised brows and stories told through their eyes. Any story Amelia tries to tell now is obliterated by dark bags and crow’s feet and red veins which creep dendritic from the corners of her eyes and cup her irises like parenthesis.
Amelia watches Julio as he opens the box of cereal, breaks the cardboard flap so it can’t be resealed properly. It is a bright red box with a cartoon leprechaun. She feels embarrassed. More than once she has thought of leaving him. She finds herself watching the men around her. The garbage man, the bus driver. Grubby men with calloused hands. She promises herself she will never act upon these impulses but every day they multiply in her mind. She has considered confiding the least hurtful of these thoughts to Julio as they lie side-by-side in the dark. Instead, she stares at nothing specific and counts silently to herself until this urge goes away.
Julio looks back at Amelia, poking expressionless at her frosted flakes with a soup spoon, and imagines the rest of their lives together. They will call an exterminator to deal with the insect problem. He will buy his clothes at stores instead of finding them wadded in the trash outside neighbouring apartment complexes. They will marry and there will be children. They will have modest vacations, a single weekend in Hawaii. These are not things that Julio wants, particularly, just things that he has seen other people find happiness in: his parents, his siblings, co-workers. It is time for him to have more sensible expectations of how his life might look.
Because of the colourful marshmallow bits, Julio doesn’t notice what is happening as he pours the cereal out into the bowl. He even reaches for the milk before Amelia’s shriek stops him. He is puzzled as she recoils and clutches the plaid dishtowel to her chest like armour. She points and he follows the end of her stubby nail to the table, where the cereal is rustling, undulating like a beating heart. One by one they emerge, crimson and shiny, crawling out of the bowl and over the spoon, onto the bare countertop. Julio pushes his chair back, all reflex, and the box tips over. More bugs emerge like scattered jewels, a broken necklace dethreaded over the kitchen table. There must have been just as many bugs in the box as marshmallows, maybe more.
They stand there frozen before Amelia emits a soft whimper, hurls the cloth she is holding to the floor and leaves the room. Julio hears a slam that he recognises as the front door. He collects himself and then picks up the cloth, uses it to sweep the ladybugs back into the cereal box. He pours the bowl back in, too, with some effort. He will take it out to the street and empty it later, over the sewer. As he cleans the kitchen, ladybugs cling to him, dot his thick eyebrows, nose and beard. When he sees them, he brushes them away. They fall to the ground and disappear in the cracks between the floor and the walls.