This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Drug use
- Self-harming behaviors
It was one of the purple-eyed ones we were told you could breed but never did for ourselves. Only reds and whites. Surrounding this puppy-sized fly in a bell jar was us, the bio students, or the idiots who needed a lab credit and couldn’t get into astronomy. Everything was white, like the 1960s idea of the future, like how tech companies try to make the present. Bio, bio, this was life in all its twitchy, hand-wringy glory.
It was a boy fly, I knew, because of the bristles, the sex combs, on its front legs. They were much easier to see this way. The blaring sun in the windows made it very easy. Why was even the lab bench white? Wouldn’t everything look as unsanitary as it actually is? What would fly poop look like at that size? Drosophila melanogaster has one of the largest sperm to body length ratios in the animal kingdom. And you can do crazy things to them legally, no IACUC required. They can be eyeless, bar-eyed, curly-winged, dichaete-winged, can have all the body colors of the rainbow, and you can look on a big database and figure out exactly how to customize your fly if you make them fuck right.
Somebody asked what we do with the flies when we’re done.
“Oh, we just euthanize them,” the professor said.
“So you just—” Another student slapped the table, which got a laugh from everyone.
“Does anyone want to?” the professor said, gesturing with his pencil at the contents of the bell jar.
“No!” I said, my voice cracking a little. When everyone looked at me, I added, “It’ll be such a huge mess.”
Everyone looked back to the table and the fly, all of them clearly as squeamish as I was. I ended up walking home with a bell jar on top of my books and a giant fly climbing the walls, humming inquisitively at everything in front of it. It tried beating its wings, but they just thup-thupped against the glass with no success. A crush in my next class laughed when she saw the thing trying so hard.
The purple hexagons in its eyes were visible at this size, and I leaned in a little closer. Those bristles are used to latch onto the female during sex. They do look like combs, I know flies comb themselves pretty regularly. The one time I ever hooked up with someone I vomited right after they left. Not because I hated it, or they did something wrong, or made me uncomfortable, but like—
The fly whined like a puppy in a harness, and so I bought one while I was out doing errands and resolved to at least give the thing some breathing room. My roommate never actually showed up this semester, something about stomach problems, so I tied it to her bedpost and left it a bowl of water, which I pushed across the linoleum using my foot. The thing puttered up to it, head twitching and wings muttering. It landed in the bowl to taste it, then sponged up the liquid in short bursts. That word, sponge, was even in the name of their mouthparts, piercing-sponging.
I tried to give it a balanced diet. D. melanogaster are fruit flies, so I bought some pre-chopped cantaloupe and honeydew and plopped that into the bowl as well. With time the melon grew soft, and the water grew sticky, and my room smelled like the perfume that my date of two months used to wear, before I said that it gave me a headache.
I imagined what it would be like to lap at fruit like an animal. To feed on something that was much bigger than yourself, hands and feet sinking into the soft rind of rotting fruit. I thought that was somehow worse than tearing into flesh like the beasts of the field, and I didn’t want to interact with the insect any more than was strictly necessary.
I remembered the time I got deer flies stuck in my greasy hair, how even after they had had their fill of my blood they’d fizzed in there like a smidge of cola, and I picked up the habit of brushing one hundred strokes with a hog-bristle brush just to get them all out. I brushed my hair now, scraping the back of my neck until it went raw. I scraped my back and my arms for good measure, while the fly watched me and made its little courting gestures to show it was interested.
I did figure it needed a little exercise. And I’d already bought it a leash, so there really was no excuse. I’d sneak it out the door in the early morning and walk a few blocks with it buzzing around my head, the leash wrapping up my arms and neck like the spirals on a half-eaten candy cane. After a few awkward tries, we set a pace that kept me on time for classes while letting it get enough exercise.
I still tied it to the bedpost every night, and whenever we weren’t out. Sometimes I cringed when it flew to the end of its tether and got jerked back, worried the delicate wings would crumple like the curly mutants we kept in the genetics lab. My latest brood included many of these, a few normal ones, and a few dead from possessing two copies of the gene that makes wings curly. My numbers would be weird compared to my classmates, since I decided to pick that gene to play with, so while everyone else would be measuring in fourths (one-fourth of their flies would be totally normal, two-fourths would be normal but carry their mutant gene, and one-fourth would be mutants), I’d be measuring in thirds because we don’t count the dead ones, and one-fourth of mine were dead.
I sat across from my little fly as I did my homework. I couldn’t bear to look at it, but I also couldn’t bear not knowing what it was doing in my room at any given hour. When I was out I obsessed over it, and I thought it would be less awkward to have a dead body in the bedroom when bringing someone home. Even though everybody knew about it, they all had questions, and the people with the nerve to ask them never really had anything to say after that. There was no winning.
I thought about setting it free, figuring it’d probably like that. But how would it get fruit without being batted away? It flew very well, all Dipterans do, but wouldn’t it be much easier to swat? And everyone knew I’d taken the fly home, so wouldn’t they all go, Oh wow, such-and-so abandoned her fly, what a cunt, I mean she knew what she was taking on by keeping vermin like that? How irresponsible or vulgar or something. I did not trust it to just disappear.
And (not to be like Frankenstein, because I didn’t make this thing) what if it bred? How, I had no idea, but I hated thinking about what I would do if the new strain of puppy-flies could be traced back to me, the attention from the press and my peers, the curiosity being discussed in every genetics class, the ethics of the situation debated like an athlete’s endocrines, the undergrads pooh-poohing the whole concept for the next decade in shitty lab reports. So, I resolved to get it fixed.
I went into the vet’s office with my purple pet carrier for my purple-eyed furbaby, which is a word I haven’t been able to stop saying because the receptionist asked me the name of my furbaby when I said I had an appointment, and now it’s ingrained into my vocabulary because of how much I ruminated on the awkwardness of that word, furbaby.
“He has hair, not fur,” I said, like the proud owner of a pure breed. I mean, I suppose in a way it was.
I’d told the vet what was coming when I was on the phone, but he still did not exactly believe me when I said I wanted to neuter a pet fly, and that it was the size of a small dog.
“Miss, I don’t even know where to begin,” he’d said.
“Oh I brought diagrams. It’s really not too intensive,” I told him as I handed him the crumpled pages I’d printed out at the library like some sort of invert.
“You told me it’s the only one of its kind. Is there anything it can even physically ... mate with?”
“I know,” I told him, “But it worries me.”
“I’m not really authorized to do this,” said the vet. “I’m sure you don’t have pet insurance?”
I pulled an envelope of cash from my big purse and presented it to him. Even after taking a look inside he raised his eyebrows at me.
“No!” he said, as if I’d scandalized him.
I’m sure this was a story he told his children at dinner, ranting over his glass of wine while they all stared at the table. Except the morbid one, who would ask all the right questions in all the right places, like how big my poor fly was, and how big its area of interest was, and if I was a pretty lady who was too full of herself and too demanding, or an ugly one who ought to know better. I asked the vet if there was anything he could do, and he tried to tell me that there really was no need for me to worry.
I left his office, which was nestled inside a giant PetSmart, and I bought a bright red ball on my way out, like the one on the logo and on every commercial I had ever seen of people playing with their dogs, even though I couldn’t cite a single catchphrase or product jingle. Back at home, I called the fly by the name I had used for my furbaby when I first made the appointment.
“Beaumont!” I shouted.
The fly did not look up at me, because it was a fly. I threw the ball, cried for it to fetch, and hucked it right into the creature’s eye. Sticky, wet hemolymph burst out, and the thing writhed around, scraping its combs over its face to try and dislodge the ball. Its legs were thrashing wildly, and I waited for death throes, but they didn’t come. I closed my eyes but still heard its whining and ran to the bathroom for my hog-bristle brush. I stayed with a friend who was kind enough to get me drunk, and I’ll be here the whole weekend, provided I don’t wonder too hard about what it’s doing in my room. I hope it dies soon, but even then I doubt I’ll be brave enough to fondle its corpse. I don’t think my pity or my hygiene are sensible enough for that.