Just as I began to memorize your skin, to depend on its particular textures, the snakes came. They swamped the yard, you said. You couldn’t read under the black walnut tree. Your arms wore goosebumps all the time.
“They are everywhere. I hear them slithering all night.”
“Show me,” I asked over and over.
A few times, you clutched my hand and led me to the backyard. “Listen.”
“You’ll know when you hear them.”
I listened. I stripped my plants in search of them—or their abandoned skins. I hired pest control, left a message for a herpetologist.
You weren’t wrong: there are snakes everywhere. Every single snake is several snakes, for—once its skin no longer fits—a snake leaves its shape behind. Intact. We, who shed tens of thousands of cells every minute, retain only traces of our skin’s materiality. Maybe the inexorable loss of our protective layer is what compels touch, what requires the substance of somebody else’s skin. Maybe, without you, my own skin is unsafe.
You rested your head on my lap.
“They’re real for you, I know. But has anyone else seen them?” My fingertips wound themselves in your hair, brushed your face, back and forth, chin to temple. Your back softened. A little. “I think we need some help. Let me take you to a doctor.”
“A snake doctor?”
“Isn’t that what your grandma calls a dragonfly?”
“When I was a little girl, she told me dragonflies stitched up injured snakes. Dragonfly, snakes nearby.”
“See? We have no dragonflies, no snake’s skin to sew. Please, let’s just talk with a doctor.”
“I don’t need a doctor. Maybe we need a snake charmer. To get them out of here.”
You refused to meet with a doctor. I didn’t force you until you shivered so convulsively I thought you were having a seizure. After a few hours, the hospital discharged you.
The idea of snakes infested us.
One day, your voice clear and steady, you announced, “I can’t live here anymore.” “You’re going to leave me.”
“Couldn’t we move?”
I called a realtor the next morning. At every house she showed us, you found snakes.
Hundreds of them.
“If you leave, where can you go?”
“I Googled places that have no snakes. Ireland, New Zealand, Iceland, Alaska.”
“Consider Alaska? For us?”
“Alaska has too much opportunity for snakes to stow away: the ferry system, adventure tours and whale watching, plain-old everyday commerce.”
You chose Ireland because you knew, exactly, who had driven the snakes into the ocean. Not once did you ask me to come with you. You must have feared I’d tote the snakes along.
You lingered. You left your red sweater. Your comb. Your perfume. Your copy of Object Lessons.
After the sweater no longer smelled like you, after I’d broken the comb in my knotted hair and depleted the bottle of Daisy and read the book eight times and traced the lines and loops of your marginalia, I conjured your less weighty remnants. I snaked the drains to salvage your hair, gathered your cells in the dust under the bed, and prayed that pieces of you still clung to the blankets I packed away when the weather changed.
Long before I was ready, the house let you go.
You were gone over a year before I removed my ring. Before I stopped preparing meals from the cookbook we bought in Florence and gave away our charming Venetian wine glasses. Before I threw away museum handouts and ticket stubs and birthday cards and the dried rose from our first date. Before I regretted documenting our history and ripped up our pictures.
Yet, after it was all gone, after hundreds of showers and several pounds of shed epidermal cells, I could not slough you off, could never peel enough of myself to be rid of you.
I don’t know if you’re still living in Ireland, if you’ve hidden your immigration status for the last three years, or if you’ve moved on to Iceland. But, I thought of you when I read that Fáilte Ireland had discovered hundreds of snakeskins on the Cliffs of Moher.