The first time I felt the itch I was staring at a blank canvas: it was accusing me of things I didn’t do, going to places I hadn’t been, and dancing at parties I’d refused to attend. It was making fun of me with its solid white face. It was suggestive at first, starting at a crease in my left armpit. Had I forgotten to put on deodorant, or had I worn too much? I couldn’t remember.
The canvas refused to speak. I’d been sitting for over an hour so maybe standing would allow my blood to flow. Nothing. I was afraid if I touched the white in the wrong spot, the canvas might lunge at me like a feral cat. Maybe some fresh air will help.
My apartment overlooks a narrow side road that if followed, will land you right in the heart of the city. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, dark, shoddy men rummage in the complex’s dirt, looking for cardboard and milk cartons for recycling. They toss what they find into large polyester pockets. Sometimes, their bags get so full that they are impossible to carry—much larger than the men themselves—and have to be hauled onto little black trolleys and pushed through traffic. But, before this scouring, packing and pushing, very early in the morning, you can hear them on their little trollies racing one another down the narrow street. They sit with their knees to their chest, and I imagine them enjoying the crisp morning air rush to meet their crusty faces.
The men aren’t here now—it’s midday, so they’re probably at the recycling depot—but when I have my morning coffee, I usually watch them through a slit in the curtain. The fresh air isn’t helping this itch much. In fact, it’s worsened it. I scratch a bit harder, starting from the front of my armpit to the back. Ah, there we go: soothed for the time being.
In front of the canvas again. Perhaps blue over here, just a spot or a dribble,or––I need a proper concept god damn it. What do I want to say? I think.
“Hey, Jess. Jess, are you there? Can you hear me?” I’m screaming into the phone.
“Eric? Hi, yes. I’m here. What’s the matter?”
“I’m struggling. Marilyn wants a painting by the end of the week, just something to show that I’ve started. But for the love of God, nothing feels right.”
“Why don’t you try doing something else? Take your dog for a walk or something.”
I look over to Chardonnay, my terrier. She looks up at me as if she understands Marilyn’s suggestion.
“No, I usually take Chardonnay in the afternoon.”
“Well, maybe you need a change of routine?”
“Don’t you wanna come over? I’ve got this awful itch in my armpit that won’t go away. You mind taking a look at it?”
“Eric, I’m at work. You do remember other people work for a living don’t you.”
“I work for a living too Jess!” She knows saying things like that get to me. I hang up. The itch is getting worse: like mites burrowing into the wrinkles of my armpit. I go to the bathroom to take a hot shower, scrubbing hard and fast with soap under my arms. Maybe it’s bedbugs, I think, stepping out of the shower. I pat myself dry and change the bedsheets to the coffee-creamer coloured ones I like.
Once the bed is made, I turn to find the canvas—still there, empty. “You motherfucker!” Dad’s antique clock chimes one o’clock and I remember I’m meeting Joe in Melville. As I pick my car keys from the bowl by the door and pad my pockets for my wallet and cellphone, the itch returns, more furious than ever. I tug at my skin, twisting my neck to see if there’s a rash developing in the pit of my arm. But, there’s just some redness.
“I just don’t understand it, Joe. My last exhibition was stellar; everyone argued over what it meant. I have never been more appreciated, more ready to take on bolder ideas. Yet staring at the canvas now: I have nothing. I’m spent.”
“Stop being a drama queen. You just need some time, switch things up.” Joe always chisels down my mountains into molehills.
“Anyway, what’s going on with you?” I ask.
“Well, we start shooting tomorrow. It’s gonna be a tough schedule so you probably won’t see very much of me for a few weeks.” I like his honesty. Other guys will just ghost you and expect you to wait for their late-night text. “It’s a pretty cool film” he goes on, “I think you’ll like it. Very social commentary. Modern. Like it speaks to our generation, you know?”
I take another sip of my mojito. What does he mean by our generation?
“We need more authentic social commentary,” he says before convincing me to down my drink because he hasn’t got all day. An hour later: Joe’s in my bed stroking tension out my body. When we’re done, I raise my hand.
“See anything?” I ask, not shy to stick my armpit in his face. He’s done a lot worse to me––the memory of a fart being released, at point-blank range, and hitting me straight between my eyes is unforgettable.
“Nothing. It’s just a little red. You say it’s been itching all day?”
“Uncontrollably. The more I scratch, the itchier it gets.”
“Well, stop scratching.”
“Easy for you to say. Scratching is the only thing that makes it feel better for a little while then it’s back to itching. Fuck!” I begin, caught in the rapturous state of clawing at my left armpit. I try pulling at the roots of my armpit hair.
“Don’t do that! You’re gonna make it worse. Why don’t you ask Jess to have a look? She’s a dermatologist, isn’t she?”
“I tried this morning, but she has that job she is so keen to remind everyone about. I seem to recall a worried, unemployed graduate who was afraid she’d have to live with me for the rest of her life.”
“Don’t be mean. She’s getting her life together. Remember when you were a struggling painter?”
“I’m still a struggling painter, have you not been listening to anything I’ve been saying?” I say.
Joe glances around the apartment and smirks.“You could be doing worse. I see you started on a new piece. It’s very…minimalist.” He gets up and heads to the canvas in the corner of the room.
“That is not funny. This itch is really getting out of control, hey. I won’t be able to get any work done.”
“So you’re blaming the itch?”
“It’s excruciating! Do you have to be so fucken condescending?” I go to the bathroom to apply cortisone cream to my armpit. It’s back. I grab a dry towel and rub it hysterically against the raised patch of skin.
“Eric? Open up the door. I was just playing. Why do you gotta take things so seriously?”
“I’m trying to tell you about my problems, but you don’t give a fuck.”
“Get real with yourself for a moment, please. Your problems aren’t as bad as the majority of people in this city.”
“Oh, and a ‘social commentary film’ is going to change all that?”
Joe doesn’t reply. Kneeling below the door handle, I can still see his shadow underneath the door. Before I convince myself to apologise, the itch rears its ugly head, and I’m back to scratching and investigating my armpit with the intensity of an astronaut on an alien planet. When I look under the door, Joe’s shadow isn’t there anymore. Moments later, the door slams and I know I’ve fucked up good this time.
It’s been a week since I’ve spoken to Joe. The canvas is still blank—except for a few drops of paint—and the itch is still here. I haven’t been able to sleep for a week—sometimes I’m able to get about thirty minutes in at a time before it returns. It’s not that bad anyway, just a little raised and red. Nothing too serious. Jess is coming over later to check it out.
When she arrives, I peel my shirt off carefully and lift my arm. The movement aggravates my armpit, I hunch over like a priest before his altar.
“Oh my God. Why didn’t you go to the doctor?”
“Is it that bad?”
“Eric, you’re bleeding.”
“That’s just from the scratching though. Other than that it’s been healing.”
She looks from me to the canvas, that’s now on the floor just below the windowsill.
“I left my window open to see what natural elements might land on it. Insects, rain, dust, sunlight…”
“…and blood apparently.” She says, noticing the spots of red against the white. “Jay, I think you need to see someone. But first, we should get that armpit looked at.”
“It’s fine man. If anything, it’s keeping me productive. I haven’t slept. I have so much more time to conceptualise my next exhibition.”
Jess braces me with both her hands, keeping me still. “Listen to me. I can’t go with you today, but tomorrow we’re going to the hospital. What you have in your armpit…I’ve never seen anything like it. It might be flesh-eating.”
“Why are you such a Debbie Downer? Always imagining the worst possible outcome.”
“I really have to finish this work for Marilyn. She wants it by the end of the week.”
“I thought she wanted it by last week.”
“Oh, now you work for Marilyn too? Just leave. I have a lot of ‘work’ to do.” I head towards the canvas—scratching at my armpit—and try to figure out what I can do to it next. When I hear the door slam relief washes over me.
It’s 5am. The garbage pickers are racing down the road on their trollies. The grinding of their plastic wheels against the tar is oddly soothing. When I look outside my window, I see a couple of them rifling through the building’s bins. One man is going through my bin. He goes about chucking the used canvas paper out: all my failures lie half-baked on the pavement.
Before long, another man notices the canvases on the pavement. He picks one up, ironing its creases with his hands. I wonder if he feels my frustration, straining to capture wonder without being sentimental. But then, as if he remembers something more important, he crumples it up and throws it back in the trash.
The itch demands attention. I get a stiff brown brush from my dressing table and rub my armpit until it burns. All I can think of is the fucken itch.
I resort to lying on the canvas, on the floor, at the foot of my bed. A little blood drips from my left armpit onto it––from above, it must look like one large cell taking me beyond its borders, dissolving me. Phagocytosis.
The itch won’t leave, although the blood drowns out my need to scratch. I try to lift myself off the canvas but just end up spilling a bottle of black paint—it splatters in long, haphazard strokes across us.
“That doesn’t look too bad,” I say, getting up to look at what gravity and clumsiness has created. I kneel and play in the little maroon puddles, eventually clawing my fingers against the paper—it sounds like the black trollies racing through the street. When I stand up and look at the work, I realize I haven’t itched in over fifteen minutes. I run to the bathroom mirror and lift my left arm up only to find a gaping hole where the rest of my armpit should be.
It’s mincemeat, all of it.
“Hi…Joe…Joe can you hear me? Yes, it’s Jay. Listen I’m sorry I haven’t called in a while, but I really need you…now. No, no it’s not that. I need someone to take me to the emergency room.”
I hang up, lie against my bed with the mottled canvas beside me, waiting for Joe to arrive.
Jarred Thompson is a South African queer writer who publishes poetry, fiction and non-fiction. He is the 2020 winner of the Afritondo Short Story Prize and his work has also been shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award and Anthology. You can find his other publications at the Johannesburg Review of Books, Odd Magazine and Agbowó Magazine among others.
Cover Image: Itch, 2020: © Inger Junge.
Inger Ama Junge is a Berlin-based Namibian illustrator who studied visual art in both Germany and Malaysia. They draw comics and illustrations which explore identity and self-expression.