It was the summer after I’d graduated from college, and Daniel—who I thought maybe I’d marry one day?—had just broken up with me because of the Bee Thing. My parents keep telling me it isn’t a big deal, but they’re my parents and they have to try and make me feel better because, you know, that’s what they signed up for when they decided to become parents. Daniel is the only person who ever could have loved me after the Bee Thing, and he couldn’t. So. There’s that.
My family owns a farmer’s market in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere USA. Because I couldn’t find a job in my field in a big city where actual people actually live, I’m back home working here again just like I did in middle school and high school. Everyone who works here gets to wear homemade shirts with vegetable puns on them, courtesy of my mom, who thinks phrases like “lettuce be friends” and “healthy from my head to-ma-toes” on employee shirts are 1) cute and 2) make us seem more community oriented.
Across the road, a cornfield stretches wider than you can measure with your eyes. The cornstalks are healthy, green—they grow right up to the sky with thick leaves and heavy tops. As the rusted pickup trucks zoom past the cornfield and our store on this little country backroad, I think this would be the perfect place to film a movie about a girl who lives in Bumfuck, Nowhere who wants to go somewhere else but she can’t find the way out, but that would be a movie about my life, so by default the movie would absolutely suck. Daniel was my movie partner, anyway, and now he’s gone to LA and I’m here, thinking about making movies while he actually goes and does it.
Whatever, I guess.
Like they say in The Apartment: That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.
At least I haven’t looked at his Facebook yet this afternoon. We aren’t friends on there anymore, but his security settings are lenient and whenever I have a spare moment I find myself refreshing his page because he’s still a part of my life even if he doesn’t want to be anymore. Even if I don’t want him to be.
Today Mrs. Farling asks me about the Bee Thing and whether it’s permanent. I say, I don’t know. Probably not. She says it’s just a shame, because I really had such a pretty face, and now I don’t. And I say, well, thanks. What I really want to say is go fuck yourself, but my mom would be pissed and might fire me and it would be embarrassing to be fired from the family business, so I don’t.
Mrs. Farling is an old lady but that doesn’t mean she’s helpless, or kind, or sweet. Mrs. Farling is the sort of person who would hand-knit her grandchildren wool sweaters, fully aware that they are allergic to wool, and then claim no one ever told her this even though she has been told several times, and she’d do this all because of some minor slight that happened years ago that everyone’s forgotten about but her. Or maybe she’d do it just because she likes to guilt trip people and make them feel bad. She does a good enough job at pretending she has good intentions and she manages to fool a lot of people, but I’ve always been able to see through her, and that’s why she hates me especially.
And then she has the nerve to ask me, Are you still dating that boy?
And I know she asks because she wants to know who would kiss me with the whole Bee Thing going on, who would dare to even touch me, and it makes me boil so I tell her I broke up with him instead of the other way around. I think she knows I’m lying. I make myself feel better by imagining myself cudgeling her with a certified-organic cucumber if she ever asks about Daniel again.
I can’t decide whether or not I blame him. Sometimes I think I get it. I could handle dating someone who was fine and then wasn’t fine—but with the Bee Thing, it goes beyond being more than not fine. It’s just plain weird. And creepy. So I get that he was uncomfortable and scared. But then other times I think he was a total coward for breaking up with me over this. He told me “it’s just hard” and I was understanding back when he said it, but now that I’ve had a couple months to simmer over it, I don’t have any sympathy for him. It’s harder for me. We talked about knowing each other when we were eighty years old. And then the Bee Thing happened and he isn’t in my life at all.
When my great-grandfather came back from World War I, his head had turned into a giant beehive. No face, no hair, just a beehive on his neck. His voice sounded the same, despite not having a mouth, and he could still see and hear despite not visibly having any eyes or ears. Back in those days, doctors saw plenty of men who came back with their heads transformed into things like rusted spoons, chipped porcelain dishes, or even eggs with spindly cracks in the shells. It hasn’t happened again in my family until me.
So either the breakdown I had at the end of college was equal to my great-grandfather’s war trauma, or I’m a giant baby who can’t handle stress. Either way, I don’t like what that says about me. I asked about therapy but my mom says I just have to wait it out and my head will go back to normal once I start feeling better. She thinks it’s only a cosmetic problem. She doesn’t believe me when I say there are bees in my beehive head. I hear them all day long—a constant dull buzzing. They’ll take me seriously if one of these bees ever flies out and stings someone.
The good news is there’s a party next week. I just have to make it until then and I can take a two-hour train ride down to New York City and see some of my friends who I haven’t seen in months.
In the meantime I have to deal with Mr. Kessler, who asks every time he comes in if I make the honey personally. And every time I say haha, Mr. Kessler, maybe I do.
I do not make the honey personally.
That would be gross.
When I was very little, I liked to paint. My mom used to set me up at the kitchen table with a plastic placemat and plenty of paper towels and then she’d leave me to go take care of other things. The old refrigerator hummed constantly, and in the summer the humming grew louder and louder until it sometimes popped, too. I could never hear myself think. The whirring and popping went right into my ears and inside my head and I never actually painted anything other than fat shapes that resembled flowers if you squinted because I couldn’t concentrate.
That’s what it’s like every day now. I can’t hear myself think. The buzzing never stops. Worse than the buzzing is the moving—the little fuzzy legs, the weight of tiny fuzzy bodies crawling around in there, stumbling over each other. I think they’re making honey. My head feels clogged and viscous. Most of the time when I try to think, the thought drips so slowly down the inside of my brain that I fail to articulate what I want to say.
Yesterday my dad was halfway through explaining he needed help in the garden before I realized he was talking to me. I went out into the garden to weed with him and the whole time my head was full of cotton. I didn’t know where to start. I stared and stared at all the weeds and there were just so many. I’ve weeded this garden a hundred times before. I know the best way to get started with any task is to just dig in and make my way slowly through it, but suddenly the garden seemed to stretch across acres instead of just along the side of the house. My dad told me to go inside. He did it by himself.
I haven’t been able to read a book in two months. Every time I look at a page, the buzzing makes the words scramble together. I told myself that after graduation I’d write a script and shoot a movie all by myself but every time I look at my camera I feel tired. Every hour I’m not at work I spend scrolling across stupid websites, just looking at pretty pictures and watching thirty-second videos because I don’t have the attention span for anything longer. I don’t even read the captions.
The sunlight here is so piercing and bright that it’s gray. Even when it’s hot on my back, it’s a gray heat. Somehow the more intense it is, the more it diminishes itself. The grass isn’t as saturated as grass should be, I don’t think. I bet in LA the sun is a real sun, and the people there feel like they’re real people, and they have real thoughts and do real things. I bet a girl with a beehive for a head isn’t the weirdest thing in LA.
When I went to college, my one goal was to graduate with a 4.0 GPA.
Well, I succeeded.
Look what it got me.
One of the things I dreaded about coming home was that I’d bump into someone who knew me. I didn’t want the questions. How did school go? Where are you working? What are you doing next? What are your plans? If you majored in film, why aren’t you in LA or NYC? Are you working on a project right now? What are you doing to boost your résumé and get noticed? Why is your head a giant beehive?
For three weeks, I didn’t leave the house. I didn’t go to the post office or pick up milk or see a movie. I didn’t even get in the car to go for a drive. I stayed up late every night because I didn’t want to go to sleep, because if I went to sleep I’d have to wake up the next day and deal with another twenty-four hours of an absolutely-nothing life. I stayed in bed until the middle of the afternoon because no one could stop me, not even myself.
Finally my parents put me to work at the store, which is mindless enough. And most days I can handle seeing people I used to know, like Mrs. Farling and Mr. Kessler. Most days I can give vague enough answers to their questions that they just leave me alone. But most days Bob Kenny doesn’t walk in just before closing time, looking put together, wearing a tie, asking me if we have any apple pies in the back because there aren’t any in the display case.
He doesn’t even recognize me. Well, it’s not like I have a face these days. So I tell him to hang on just one minute and I’ll go check the back. I leave the counter and head around to the small refrigerated building where we put things at the end of the day, and flap my shirt to waft the cool air over my stomach. My underarms are sweating.
The last time I saw Bob Kenny was at our high school graduation and I hoped I’d never see him again. He didn’t do anything terrible to me. He just didn’t take me to prom. I spent my senior year of high school trying to make him fall in love with me and it didn’t work. I talked to him during study hall. We partnered up for lab. Occasionally we sent each other very bland text messages.
It was all very stupid. I only liked him because he was nice to me. I was the only senior girl who hadn’t been kissed and I wanted to be kissed before I went away to college. That plan failed. Now that I’m five years out of high school, I realize he wasn’t even that nice to me—only in comparison to other kids, who at best tolerated me and my overachieving and my showing off and compulsions and complexities. One time we had a school field trip and I was sitting on the bus by myself, waiting for him, because he said he would come, and he did come, but late—and he sat next to me and said he only got out of bed that morning because he knew I would spend all day alone if he didn’t. It took me two years to realize he wasn’t being nice to me when he said that.
I used to comfort myself with the reassurance I’d never have to see anyone I went to high school with ever again. I’d leave this town and all its people behind. I would never come back.
There’s one apple pie left. The refrigerator whirs dully. The buzzing in my head gets louder. The bees knock against each other inside me.
Bob Kenny does not deserve this apple pie.
I leave the little refrigerated side-building and go back to the register, where Bob Kenny is waiting. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t kiss me. It doesn’t matter that I went to college without ever having a high school sweetheart. I’ve been fucked, now. It wasn’t Bob Kenny, but someone marked me as desirable. It was post-acne and pre-beehive, so it was a short timeframe of desirability on my part, but it happened nonetheless.
“Sorry,” I say. “We don’t have any pies left at all. Can I get you anything else?”
“Wait a second,” he says. “Didn’t we go to high school together?”
It’s my voice he recognizes. Without even seeing my face. He recalls the time we stayed late after school to audition for the play our senior year and how we had to wait, and wait, and wait for it to be our turn to go into the auditorium. He asks how I’ve been. How long I’ve been back in town. He smiles like it’s the easiest thing in the world to smile at me. He smiles like I’m not pathetic, and for the forty-five seconds we talk, I really feel like maybe my existence has a little scrap of meaning. He writes his phone number on the back of one of the market’s business cards. He wants to catch up.
When he leaves, he says it was nice to see me. And then he calls me the wrong name. And I don’t correct him.
I take the apple pie home with me and eat three quarters of it for dinner while binging ‘90s sitcoms on my laptop. While Niles Crane swoons over Daphne Moon, I think about Bob Kenny. About how he picked me for a lab partner when no one else would. About how he walked around museums with me on those couple field trips in school, even though he could have walked around with anyone else. Back then I thought he liked me. And then, with a couple years of hindsight, I thought he pitied me. Now, with his phone number written down in front of me while Niles pines for a girl who doesn’t know he loves her, I can’t figure out what the fuck this schmuck wants.
This is what I want: I want someone to look at me the way Niles looks at Daphne for seven seasons. I want someone who could love me for seven years before I even realized he had feelings for me. I want someone that patient. Someone that unconcerned with whether I’d ever love them back.
Which I had. I had that for two years with Daniel. He looked at me like I was a shooting star. And then when the beehive happened, he looked at me like he learned shooting stars are just rocks on fire as they enter the atmosphere. The fire goes out and they’re burnt and hard and ugly and not the kind of thing you build wishes on.
It occurs to me that I could try to fuck Bob Kenny.
I toss the business card in the toilet and flush.
The toilet gets stopped up.
I plunge the fucker down.
Daniel has a new girlfriend and her name is Dawn. His Facebook is locked up tight, now, so I’ve moved on to his Instagram and there’s a picture of the two of them together. She has platinum blonde hair—of course she does, because she has to try to be the fucking sun—and she’s tall and skinny like a model and when she smiles she doesn’t show her teeth, which leads me to think she’s hiding something. Bad teeth, namely, although it could always be something more sinister. Her name makes me roll my eyes. Dawn. Like the dawn of a new chapter of Daniel’s life. Couldn’t his girlfriend after me have a boring name, like, I don’t know, Bernadette? Suzy? And did he have to make some sappy Instagram post?
Its been a rough yr for me..lots of changes in my life..I know all of it is for the best but its still hard..and through it all youve been there for me..your beautiful and you make me so happy..happy one month babe..Love you
There is so much wrong with this I don’t even know where to begin.
1. She’s been there through it all? Really?
2. Happy one month, love you? Happy one month, love you? We broke up three months ago. We dated for two years. He wanted to marry me. What, pray tell, the fuck?
3. I can’t believe I dated someone who doesn’t use apostrophes. Or know “your” from “you’re.” Normally I am not this petty but this morning I had leftover apple pie for breakfast and I’m really, really feeling the gap of how much smarter I am than him and I’m relishing it but also furious that he’s out there being dumb and successful and I’m here being smart and nothing.
On our last date, when things were difficult but not, in my opinion, breakup-worthy, Daniel took me to a restaurant in our college town and the staff and the other patrons stared at me the whole time. He kept trying to reassure me that they weren’t but I could feel their eyes on me and I could see Daniel was uncomfortable, too. He was using a knife to cut up his raviolis. I could feel the questions as people turned to steal glances at me and scolded their children not to do the same. What happened to her? Why does she have to bring herself in public? How does she eat? Who is that saintly, saintly boy who deigns to be seen with her?
I finished eating as quickly as I could and paid our bill. We left. We didn’t go to the ice cream shop next door to get dessert like we’d planned. It was early May, and we’d wanted to have one really good date before finals started and graduation and, eventually, what we thought would be a small patch of long-distance until we figured out a solution.
The trees were still blooming. The night was warm and when the wind came, pink and white petals went spiraling in the air. It was beautiful, but lonely—it didn’t feel lonely then, but it feels lonely looking back. We didn’t hold hands while we walked back to campus. Side by side but disconnected, we endured one of our silent arguments where we each felt the other had done something wrong but weren’t sure enough of ourselves or of the strength of the transgression to just come out and say it.
Later that night, in my dorm room, when a movie and cookies put distance between us and our bad dining experience, we had sex. Or tried to. The problem was he didn’t even want to look at me.
I curled up in a ball and started sobbing. He sat next to me for a long time like he didn’t know what happened or what to do. I couldn’t speak through the tears and the tears just filled up my head: I felt wet and soupy with tears and snot and honey and he just sat there. He didn’t touch me. He didn’t ask what was going on.
“You can’t even touch me,” I snapped. “You can’t even look at me.”
He didn’t say anything. He crawled up behind me and nested his chest against my back and draped his arm around my side and squeezed my hand and kissed the back of my giant beehive-head.
Three days later, he broke up with me. Right as finals were starting. The love of my life tried to kaboom my life, but I only knuckled down harder. 4.0, remember?
It wasn’t until after I came home and didn’t have him to talk to that I started feeling the loss.
The Instagram filter makes this photo look so pretty.
She’s really, really pretty.
And what a perk: she has a face.
Every photo she’s posted is beautiful.
Beautiful selfie, beautiful sunset shot, beautiful margarita, beautiful X, beautiful Y, beautiful Z.
I decide to send her a message.
Hey! Daniel doesn’t love you. He’ll break up with you the second you’re not fuckable anymore, just like he did to me! 🙂 xoxo
Before I get in the shower, I let the water run for a few minutes and stand in the bathroom. Once they hear the water, once they feel the change in the air, the bees settle down. A flick of a leg, a twitch of a wing, but no crawling around. No buzzing. My head isn’t silent, but it’s quiet, which is as close as I’ve ever gotten to silent.
I can’t remember the last time I showered. Last week some time? I’ve been surviving the stench of summer by caking on deodorant and wearing fresh clothes.
With my back to the spray of water, I stare at the white tile and roll the bar of soap over and over in my palm until my hand is swimming in suds. The exfoliating grains get stuck in the braided lines of my palm. I drag the soap and its milky bubbles down my arms. This act reminds me what arms are, reminds me that I have arms, and that the arms I am washing are my arms. Then I scrub my belly—remind myself what a belly is, that I have one, that the one I am scrubbing is mine. I go through this routine with every part of my body, feet and thighs and back, but I wish I could wash my body all at once instead of in parts. By the time I rinse off my shoulders, the small of my back aches, and the ache doesn’t even feel like it’s mine. The body the water is hitting doesn’t feel like it’s my body.
Not having a face has made it difficult to conceive of having any kind of body at all. And yet I am so acutely aware of my body: my stomach plunging outward because it is filled with an entire pie, the hair corkscrewing out of my underarms, the pimples of irritation where my underwear rubs against the juncture of my thigh. I can’t go in public without everyone staring at me. I can’t go in the shower without staring at myself.
I know my body is wrong. Somehow I’m both disgusted and apathetic.
Just for the hell of it, I decide to shave. Armpits and shins. The razor blade gets stopped up with so much hair I have to pull it out carefully with my fingers. The inside of the shower is littered with globs of hairy soap. When I get out, I rinse down the walls and make sure everything is clean.
I thought I’d feel refreshed. Soft. Smooth. I thought if I shaved it would be symbolic or something, but it was just a pain in the ass. And I missed a patch on both my ankles, so now I’m a Clydesdale.
Instead of reaching for the razor, I towel off and go back into my room to get dressed. Now that the water is off, the bees will come back to life. I have to decide what I’m wearing—what looks good on my pie-body, what I can squeeze into—before their droning on makes it impossible to reach a decision.
The melancholy always sets in.
No matter what pretty dress I wear. No matter how I style my hair. No matter how I fix my makeup. No matter how many of my friends greet me smiling, no matter how they laugh at my jokes, the melancholy always drapes over me like a gray blanket and I take a seat in a corner of the room, sipping water, watching everyone else dance and drink and play games.
I took a train two hours south to New York City so I could be here. I packed an overnight bag so I could soak up this time with people who, supposedly, still love me. I thought I might return home tomorrow changed, somehow. I thought this first post-grad reunion might soothe the part of me that was aching. I thought having something to do, having somewhere I needed to be, having people around me who wanted me—
I thought this time it would be different because I needed so badly for it to be different.
It’s always fun at first. The laughing. The telling of stories. The shit-talking. But then, struck with the sinking awareness that every single person in this room has a consciousness and a point of view and a lived experience, I ascend out of my body—or maybe I descend deeper into myself, into a shadowy crag in the pit of me—and simply observe everyone else in the midst of their living. They make it look so easy. They do it without thinking. They wave an arm, point across a room, cross one leg over the other, stand up and walk, cackle, whisper, speak—and they do all of it seamlessly, unrehearsed, every single action and every single word spontaneous and natural and alive.
How? How do they do it?
Before the Bee Thing, Daniel and I got up early one Saturday and went to the zoo. In the reptile house, most of the snakes—behind glass windows—sat in the back corners, or under mossy logs, coiled up and watching with slit pupils as we humans milled about on the other side. And now, sitting down a little beyond the group, I feel like those snakes: coiled around myself, trapped behind a wall I am not built to break, patient to the point of madness, hearing everyone at a low din.
The bees are so loud tonight.
I didn’t plan on getting drunk, but then getting drunk feels necessary to my survival, so I do.
I’m drunk when Daniel calls me. He leaves two voicemails and sends me one long, angry text message before I even notice I have notifications. When I see his name pop up—no, I haven’t deleted his number—my heart jolts. Distantly, through the muck of booze-brain, I remember what I did hours earlier. I feel hot behind my ears and behind my eyes.
I sneak away from the party and into the bathroom. I lock the door. I turn on all the lights. I sit down on the edge of the shallow bathtub.
I steel myself.
I listen to the voicemails.
The words are tame but the tone is not: Hi, it’s Daniel. You need to call me back as soon as you get this.
The second one: Call me. Please.
And then the text message—long, too long to read, the pixels of the words blurring together and I can’t figure out what he wants. So I call him back.
“You’re a piece of work,” he says to me.
“Hi,” I say.
“What is wrong with you?” he asks.
There is a shocked silence. “But you don’t drink.”
“I’m just full of surprises.”
“Were you drunk this afternoon, too?”
It goes back and forth like this. I can’t hear what he’s saying. I know he’s speaking, I can hear his voice—even tight as a wire with barely restrained rage, his voice cuts through to the essential core of my heart and splits me open. His words don’t matter so much. He’s angry I messaged Dawn. Not just that I messaged her, but what I said. It was out of character. Spiteful. Jealous. Cruel. He doesn’t want to remember me that way. He doesn’t want me to interfere any more with his life.
“As if you don’t interfere with my life every fucking day,” I say.
“I’m hanging up now,” he says.
“You were cruel first,” I say.
And he hangs up. I don’t know if he heard me, so I call him back. It goes straight to voicemail, where I make sure to repeat myself: that he was cruel to me first, cruel to me first, cruel to me first—over and over agin until the phone cuts me off, saying there’s no space left. I drop my phone. It clatters on the tiled floor. Somewhere in the midst of my voicemail I started crying. My throat is raw. The sobbing comes up from so deep inside my belly I think I might throw up.
Instead of kneeling at the porcelain altar, I try my luck at the bathroom sink.
And see myself in the mirror.
My beehive head is a soft triangle: a rounded point for my chin, two more rounded points near the top where I ought to have connected to a tree. Like layers of thin, brown paper, the outside of the nest wraps around what would have been my entire face if I had a face at all. I lift my fingers to touch the uneven beige flaps which wind together across my face. I watch my reflection’s fingertips trace along the seams of the nest, while inside my head I feel the bees moving around, filling me up with wax.
I’ve had enough.
So I smack my head against the bathroom door.
It hurts. My own head makes a sound like a whacked piñata. I feel the combs crumple. I feel the bees collide. They begin to buzz louder. I smack my head against the door again. And again. And again. Until they’re so loud, so angry, that I start laughing. Someone is on the other side of the door, alternating between asking if I’m okay and demanding I give other people a chance to whizz. I whack my head one last time before the door thrusts open.
The hive is beaten. Broken in. Not fully collapsed, but there is a hole where my cheekbone should have been, and the thin brown wrappings stick up haphazardly like reused tissue paper. And from that hole crawls a bee—then a second, and a third, until the entire colony cracks the hole open wide and swarms around the remnants of its nest, while I slide down to the bathroom floor, laughing and crying and trying to hold the split pieces together. Someone starts smacking the bees with a broom, then starts smacking my head with a broom, and somewhere else in the apartment is the sound of people shouting and pouring out the door, and above it all is a doomed buzzing that floods the hallway and not my throbbing head.
My head is silent. For the first time in my life, my head is silent.
That December, my mom finds a box in the attic filled with photo albums we’d forgotten about. One night after dinner, we look through them as a family, flipping laminated sheets and protective plastic coverings as we adventure back through childhoods and weddings and newspaper clippings. Toward the bottom of the box, in a milky-beige album, we discover a photo of my great-grandfather, in uniform, during the war.
And after, with his head a beehive, and my great-grandmother wearing a white dress and a veil with her arm linked through his at the elbow.
Those are the only two photos of him we have.
I am here because they, presumably, fell in love, but I can’t ask them if it ever got better. If it ever went away. My head has healed up, by which I mean that I don’t have a gaping hole in the hive anymore, rather than “my human head has returned at last.” The buzzing is quieter.