By S. Qiouyi Lu
All her life Sylvia has made sure to never let anyone see the centipedes that emerge from her body. It’s gross and impolite. Until finally she reaches her breaking point. This is a speculative exploration of rape culture and hiding pain in favor of others’ pleasure.
Content warning for fictional depictions of sexual assault.
My first memory of my centipedes emerging: I’m four years old and my neighbor Jonathan is chasing after me in the park. Wildflowers scent the air rushing past my face. I’m laughing, thinking this is just another game of tag.
Then he tackles me to the grass and plants a kiss right on my lips. It’s like having fat caterpillars sucking at me. I wince and squirm, trying to get away from him, but he only kisses me harder.
Something starts wriggling inside me. Startled, I let go.
A centipede bursts forth from my lips to latch on to Jonathan’s face.
Our mothers rush over, their skirts fluttering in the breeze. Jonathan’s mother fusses over him, checks to see if my centipede has bitten him; my mother tugs me up to my feet and takes me to the side to scold me in Mandarin.
“That’s very rude of you. You’re not to throw your—” Her voice lowers to a hush. “—your things like that.”
“You have to learn how to control yourself. Girls and ladies have to be discreet about our reactions: you have to hide that a disgusting creature even came out of you. Do you understand?”
“Now be a good girl and say sorry to Jonathan.”
“Sorry,” I say, my dress grass-stained, my hair rumpled. Jonathan sniffles, face red with fear.
From then on, I learn from my mother by watching how she controls her own outbursts: whenever my father kisses her on the cheek, a moth emerges from her sleeve and she catches it and crushes it before my father can even open his eyes. By the time he pulls away, the moth has vanished, and my mother is all smiles: the picture of a doting wife.
The next time a boy teases me, pretending his fingers on my thigh are a spider, I try to hide my centipedes. The wriggling starts, signaling that one’s about to appear. It’s like something’s crawling through my intestines, burrowing under my skin, making every hair on my body stand straight like a wick about to be set alight. I gag with the intensity of the feeling, but I focus, pinpointing the epicenter of the sensation so I can redirect it. The centipede comes out from the crook of my elbow instead of the spot on my thigh where he’s touching me. It doesn’t latch on to him, only circles around my arm, its legs long and languid.
I’m not fast enough to make it disappear. The boy sees it and laughs.
For the first time, I feel ashamed.
Everyone has a different creature inside of them that appears at an uncomfortable or unwelcome touch. The creatures are only ever insects, arachnids, or—I looked this word up myself when I was eight—myriapods: centipedes and millipedes.
Despite the fact that we all have them, no one really talks about them or the way they emerge. It’d be awkward to, like talking about going to the bathroom. So, in polite company, we pretend that they don’t exist. I can maintain the illusion with clever misdirection, just like I learned from my mother.
When I’m in private, though, the illusion dissolves. I’m fourteen when I discover adult websites for the first time. Sex in those videos is flawless and creatureless, just bodies moving together, slick and rhythmic. But when I run my hands over my own body to explore the myriad sensations, some pleasurable, some not, I learn soon enough that real life isn’t like that. When I’m squirming with discomfort, my fingers a too-harsh ache inside me, or when a sensation is just gross, my own touch can cause my centipedes to pour out.
Yet I still feel like I should be creatureless, especially during sex. That it’d be embarrassing if a centipede—or more than one!—pops out during my first time with someone. So instead of letting my centipedes emerge discreetly, then hiding them and thereby risking discovery, I teach myself how to swallow my centipedes so that they vanish before they can even be seen.
I’m eighteen when I first have sex. He’s gorgeous, lanky but toned. We’re both virgins, and we’re not entirely sure what we’re doing. We try one position. An ache knifes through me, and then a squirming sensation fills me, but I’m quicker with how I control my emergences now. I move that squirming feeling into my mouth, onto my tongue, swallow the centipede that appears. Its legs scratch their way down my throat, leave me raw and tasting iron, but soon it’s writhing in the pit of my stomach instead of on the surface of my skin.
“How does it feel?” he asks, oblivious to what I’ve just done.
“Good,” I say, and after a while, it almost does feel good. I trail my hands over him as we rock together, leaving traces of heat on his skin. I cling to him, rest myself against him, and for a moment I think I might even be feeling pleasure. My hands clutch his back a little too hard. A wasp buzzes, its legs brushing my fingertips as it emerges past me.
“Sorry,” he murmurs, an embarrassed flush rising to his cheeks, but I smile.
“It’s my fault,” I say.
I like being the center of his attention, watching as his eyes roam over me, as he appreciates the curves of my breasts, the dip of my waist. Something about the way he looks at me makes me feel more electric than anything he’s doing to my body. I draw that energy into me, relish in the way he grins when I let out a moan, delight in the way he gasps when I arch my back.
But it’s all a performance. The actual body-to-body contact feels gross, like he’s a dog humping a leg. I tell myself that all first times are awkward, and that pleasure doesn’t just have to be physical.
All throughout, my body is squirming, and my throat fills with centipedes.
I swallow them all down.
For all her propriety, when it’s just me and my mom, she’s frank about discussing sex. After I got my college acceptance letter—UCLA, my top choice—my mom started talking to me about my social life, about the people I’d meet in college.
“There are a couple types of girls,” she says to me, in English this time. “There are girls who decide to settle down with one person and explore with that one person, and then there are girls who sleep around to see what they like, and pick from there.”
After a pause, she adds, “I think you’re the second type.”
I don’t know what she means by that. She said it nonchalantly, but some sort of shame still unfurls in me, and I think, I suppose I am.
I share a dorm with my best friend from high school: Delilah Yang. We couldn’t be more opposite. Their black hair is in a pixie cut that perfectly frames their face; I wear my hair long, in styled, blonde waves that drape over my shoulders. Their personality is yielding; mine is more stubborn. They’re studying socio-something, something about people and their emergences, while I could spend the rest of my life not seeing another centipede emerge and be content. But maybe the differences between us are why we get along so well.
Delilah doesn’t really understand my fascination with sex, my need for it—they’re asexual, neutral about the act. But neither of us tries to convince the other about our opinions. I get that it’s just not something they’re into. They get that it’s something I need. We both agree that, whenever one of us needs the room to ourselves, we’ll stick a rainbow magnet on the whiteboard we hung up on the door to our room. It’s a little classier than a sock, or a tie, or whatever else other people use when they sexile their roommates. Well, I say “sexile,” but it doesn’t have to be sex: sometimes you just need some time to yourself.
Today, I’m out on a date with some guy I met online. He’s bland, that kind of amorphous and unrecognizable plainness, and his conversation doesn’t inspire much, either. But the way he looks at me, like he’s drinking in his good fortune, like he can’t believe he’s out with me in public—I smile. It’s nice to be appreciated.
“My dorm’s not too far from here,” I say. “We could watch a movie or something.”
“Sure,” he replies.
Watch a movie, or something: it usually goes the way of the latter. Get college kids together and the easiest way for us to fondle is in front of a screen. Part of me wonders if maybe we can actually watch something this time, if I didn’t have to go down that route, but another part of me is craving attention and worship.
Once we get back to my room and I’ve moved the magnet onto the door, I’m not shy about my intentions. A few minutes into the movie, we’re making out, touching, our bodies pressed against each other. He reeks of too much Axe body spray and his hands are clammy. I struggle to swallow down centipede after centipede and maintain my cool, collected image: the pinup girl, perfectly sexy. I try to focus on him instead, but nothing about him inspires arousal in me. Smoke lingers on his tongue from the cigarette he had earlier, filling my mouth with the taste of tar. I catch the thick tang of body odor and know it’s not mine. Still, I pretend to like him. I compliment him. His face lights up: amazing what kind of power I can have over another person.
He gets on top of me. Flesh sliding over flesh, the weight of him pressing down on me, and good thing he’s got his face buried in my neck, because then he can’t see the expressions I’m making. A centipede leg claws past my lips, then disappears as I suck the thing back into my mouth, back down into my stomach. God, sometimes I remember how gross sex is, how it’s all just meat and ooze slapping against one another, but the things he’s murmuring in my ear, the way he’s so excited about me—oh. That in itself is enough.
After he leaves, my stomach squirms. Bit by bit, the world settles back down around me, and the reality of what I’ve done hits me. It’s like I’ve come down from a high, and I’m crashing and seeing everything as it is: I’m recalling every hair on his body, every fumbling finger, every disgusting sound. I can still taste his sweat mixed with mine, the odor of him sticking to me. I retch. Clothed in just a shirt and panties, I run to the bathroom attached to our suite, crouch over the toilet, and the centipedes I thought I’d hidden so well come up, forcing their way out of my mouth. I’m heaving up a hundred thousand legs.
“Hey. Are you okay in there?”
Fuck. Delilah’s voice. Weakly, I say, “I’m fine.”
I turn, and then I realize that I hadn’t closed the stall door behind me. A centipede trails from my lips, then crawls up my cheek and into my hair. I’m still clutching the toilet seat. Whatever centipedes have managed to avoid the water are scuttling up the sides of the bowl, brushing over my hands in their haste to escape. Bile churns with venom and stains the air sour.
Delilah has a look of horror on their face, but still they take a step forward, and then another.
“Are you—are those your—”
“Yeah,” I say, blushing. “Sorry—sorry you had to see this.”
Delilah shakes their head. “No, you don’t need to apologize. I’m just worried.”
I wave them off. “I’m fine. Seriously.”
“I saw the magnet. Did he…did you want to…?”
I look up. It takes me a moment to realize what Delilah’s asking, and then I almost laugh in my shock.
“Oh no, it’s fine. I started it and all. He just wasn’t that attractive and it ended up being kind of awkward and gross.”
“You know you don’t have to do that, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t have to sleep with men you don’t like.”
This time, I do laugh.
“I know, Delilah.”
Delilah gives me a hard look, and I feel like I’m shrinking. I’m so aware of the brushing of the centipedes’ feet against the toilet bowl, the way the centipede that’s gotten into my hair is getting tangled in it. Anger flares in my chest, anger and another emotion: I know it’s shame, but I’m not going to admit it, least of all in front of Delilah.
“You just don’t understand,” I say. The words come out more venomous than I expected. Delilah raises their eyebrows, taken aback.
“Because I’m ace?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Okay,” Delilah says, tone flat. “Whatever. You should probably get cleaned up.”
Delilah turns and goes out of the bathroom. I feel like shit, but then I’m retching up centipedes again, and I can’t stop to think about why.
Things are tense between me and Delilah after that. They try to talk to me a couple times, but I end up brushing them off—I know I probably said something wrong, but, more than that, I’m angry at Delilah for challenging me. For suggesting that I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
We’d been talking about going somewhere for spring break, but those plans seem to be shot. Besides, I’ve met another guy: Connor. He’s older, charming, thoughtful, and great in bed. I swear the entire time I’m with him, not a single centipede emerges, and I love that he’s into exploring different things, that he tells me how great I am for wanting to explore things with him.
He invites me down to San Diego for spring break—he and his friends have a tradition where they party all week there. How could I say no to that? Hanging out with upperclassmen, going down to the beach…I can’t resist.
I pack my things. When Delilah comes in, they take in my suitcase, the pile of skimpy clothes I’m folding, and break the silence.
“You’re going somewhere? I thought we were going to hang out in Big Bear.”
I look up. “Oh. I didn’t realize you still wanted to do that.”
“I was just about to talk to you about it.”
I shrug. “Well, Connor invited me down to San Diego. So I guess I can’t go.”
“Stay safe,” they say, and the comment rankles me. Delilah keeps thinking like they know better than me, and it’s seriously getting on my nerves. I’ve just turned nineteen. I’m not some kind of child anymore. Who are they to nag at me like this?
“Thanks,” I say, the word bitter, and I catch a look on Delilah’s face that seems like pity. Something wrenches in my gut. Part of me tells me that Delilah’s just looking out for me, that, whenever we argue, they’re usually right—but then the rest of me is irritated that Delilah’s always right. Right about what this time, I don’t know. In my frustration over my jumbled feelings, I slam my suitcase shut, relishing how Delilah flinches.
I go outside. Connor’s already parked on the street waiting for me. I throw my suitcase into the trunk, then slide into the passenger seat.
“Hey,” I say, cupping his face and giving him a kiss. The subtle scent of his expensive cologne, the softness of his shirt against my bare collarbones…His stubble brushes against my cheek as I pull away, sending a shiver down my spine.
“Hey yourself,” Connor says, giving me that dazzling grin of his. I blush. I’m like a schoolgirl around him. He places a hand on my thigh, splaying his fingers out to claim the breadth of my flesh, and I swear to God I’m actually giggling. “You ready to get going?”
When we pull away, I glance back at my dorm. Delilah’s looking out the window, and for a second, I feel an odd pang of regret.
All I can think about during the ride down to San Diego is how stuffy the car is, how I’m weirdly nervous to be meeting a bunch of Connor’s friends who I don’t know. I try to reassure myself by holding Connor’s free hand, but my palms are sweating for some reason. When my moist skin touches the perfect dryness of his, a scorpion emerges and scuttles up his arm.
He makes a sound of disgust, and I take my hand away.
“Sorry,” I say. I clasp my hands together in my lap and look out the window.