The Bee Sting
By Sarah Lynn Knowles
Six months in to my first real relationship and two months before its end, I watched my boyfriend Ben climb the rubber-covered steps onto a Greyhound bus while I stood behind him, waiting to follow. “Go left. Left,” I whispered under my breath, mouthing the word with focus.
Of course, boarding first, Ben would get dibs on a window seat. And my gut knew, despite my tiny chant, that he’d veer right from the aisle instead of left. When he did both, my face flushed warm, considering the fat pink bee sting on my cheek that’d now glow in his direction our entire ride from Philadelphia to D.C.
For Ben’s 24th birthday we were going to see the planes. I had booked a hotel room walking distance from the Smithsonian to visit the same air and space exhibits his grandfather had led him by the hand around when he was six. Ben’s memories of this were vague but vivid. One night he’d rambled wasted, on and on about how magical that day had been—so many adventures swirling around those rooms, all those heavy metal wings hovering overhead. The way Ben put it, it was like, if you knew if something so heavy and hard could fly—if those physics could exist—then maybe a lot of other crazy-seeming things in life could be possible, too.
Hungover the next morning in his bed before brunch, I heard myself suggest the trip. By nature, Ben was hard to read—was hard for me to even guess at—so when his eyes lit up in response, I felt proud of my ingenuity. Stumped and anxious after weeks of fruitless deliberation, I’d stumbled upon a meaningful birthday gift. I’ll arrange everything, I told him. We’ll head down Saturday morning, and stay that night someplace nice.
“It’ll be perfect,” Ben agreed, sliding towards me beneath blankets, his breath still smelling of whiskey and sleep.
* * * * *
But then the bee sting.
At his birthday barbecue the evening prior, under glowing lanterns strung across the yard, Ben stood surrounded by a tight circle of his oldest friends, grinning as he meandered through a too-long joke about a snail. Plot twists were punctuated with widening eyes and wild hand gestures, and at the end, everybody recited the punch line along with him, the gleeful unison inciting even louder laughter than the joke deserved. I chuckled along at the sidelines, a little in awe of the group’s easy dynamic. Ben and his friends had more than a decade of inside jokes and secret history built up since they first met in middle school, cementing them as close-knit for a lifetime. Personally, I hadn’t known this kind of evolution could even exist outside of young adult book series or television sitcoms.
My red plastic Solo cup was nearing empty. I gently shouldered my way behind Ben’s roommate in the direction of the keg, and it was in that moment I lost my balance. I didn’t actually fall, just sort of teetered, catching my weight against the fence. But somewhere in the process, my foot stomped a papery ball hidden in the dark corner where the fence met the ground. The strange mass crunched underneath my boot sole like a wad of crispy autumn leaves. The hive.
We heard the swarm before we saw it. Its ominous hum rose as the echo of laughter faded and then quickly turned to shrieks. Suddenly so many tiny bulb bodies flew upward, buzzing madly. Ben eyes widened as he leaned back away. “Bees!” he yelled, grabbing my forearm to pull me as the frantic humming rose.
I couldn’t yell. I didn’t think to. I might have forgotten how. Yards away, I still felt the phantom touch of their little bodies bumping.
“In your hair,” Ben shouted towards me. My shaking palm smacked again and again at the spiral curls I’d spent a full hour setting and spraying (then tousling and messing, so no one would suspect how much time I’d spent). I swatted and swatted until I felt my fingers make contact, finally knocking the insect away from my neck.
An eerie quiet came. Then, in slow motion under lamplight, I watched the buzzing dot circle away and back, looping a line determined towards my face.
* * * * *
I spent the rest of the night sprawled across Ben’s bed with a plastic bag of ice pressed to my cheek. Laughter wafted in through the window as I shuffled through the late-night talk shows. After a bit, Ben poked his head through the doorway. His friends had examined the hive and now suspected it actually belonged to hornets or wasps, he was excited to tell me.
My whole face felt fatter and burned with pain. “And no one else got stung? Just me?” I asked, my syllables skewed by the swelling.
“Just you, the mean ol’ giant who wrecked their home,” he smirked, leaning closer with drunk, glazed eyes to examine the damage.
“It’s fine. I’m fine,” I assured him, emphasizing the sentiment with a cheerful, shooing hand gesture. “Go back to your friends. You and I have the whole weekend ahead of us.” By then it was past midnight, and I just wanted to ice the spot alone until the pain lessened enough to pass out. I would wake up refreshed and ready for the journey, I promised.
But the next day, before even blinking my eyes open, I immediately felt that pinch. It still throbbed warm and felt gigantic, like a sharp tooth twisting in the fleshy spot below my eye. As I sat next to Ben on the D.C.-bound bus and waited for my hefty ibuprofen dose to kick in, the bee sting started to feel like an unignorable beacon between us. The swollen hill of pink that faced him was all I could think about. For most of the three-hour ride, Ben and I barely spoke, and when we did I looked ahead instead of at him. I flipped through old Rolling Stone issues we’d grabbed off his coffee table and gawked at the small TV screens showing a decade-old basketball movie. In my peripheral, Ben watched the highway landscape whiz predictably by the window, slipping in and out of shallow sleep.
* * * * *
Four hours later, I found the Smithsonian exhibit to be how I had imagined. In the big, big rooms, airplanes hung stiff from the ceiling, sarcastically tilted to appear in flight. Some of them looked freshly waxed or painted—patriotic reds, blues and silvers standing out in a sea of charcoal grays. Other planes were duller and rusted in spots, with curled layers of peeling paint and lit-up pinholes that bullets once punched through. From wall to wall, the air felt thick with stories, stories. And all of us on the museum floor stood poised to accept them—our necks bent back and wide eyes glassy, our mouths absentmindedly gaping.
I coaxed myself to feel the way Ben did—inspired to achieve, to persevere, to win. Pilots had maneuvered these machines through far more anxiety-inducing scenarios than the silly cosmetic obstacle now distracting me from the romantic trip I’d planned. Of course I can handle this, I thought, my eyes focusing on a panel of dark grey metal dotted with thick industrial screws. It’s a bee sting, not a gaping wound. Be brave. Breathe. Once you’re in the air, you fly; there’s no turning around and slouching home. If you find yourself in the line of fire, shoot back.
I’d done a nice thing bringing Ben here, after all. Hadn’t I? And wasn’t the hard part over with already, all the planning and execution? The only thing left to do was enjoy myself. Suck it up. Forget the stupid sting. Calm down. Have fun.
After several dazed minutes craning to stare, I titled my head back to eye level and saw an empty space where Ben had been standing. A round old man with suspenders and a struggling comb-over now peered through the glass case I’d last seen my boyfriend squinting towards. I glanced around the room; Ben wasn’t in it. I wandered through a doorway to the next one.
I paused beside a floor-parked aircraft whose bright red wing was speckled with blue stars. A scowling woman dragged a small boy by the wrist across my path. “I told you not to touch the planes,” her voice boomed. “Do you want to go home right now?”
The boy’s tiny sandals slapped flat against the tile, and his floppy bowl cut swung as he hurried to keep up. Behind them, I took my steps slow and silent, glancing past propellers for Ben’s orange sweater or his concentrating face. But he was nowhere.
What a dumb idea, it dawned on me then, trying to replicate a day that wasn’t mine. For Ben, memories of a childhood afternoon with his grandfather roamed between these hangar walls, throughout this air in which I’d so far only fumbled dumb. Maybe I was a fool to bring him here, I thought. None of this belongs to me.
Quickly I surveyed the room, catching not a single glance from anyone. Then a second time I swept it with my eyes. When I felt convinced no one was watching, I reached high behind me towards the butt of the star-spangled plane. Under my sliding fingertips, the glossy paint felt perfectly slick, but the surface itself felt colder, harder, hollower than I expected. I pulled my hand away and stepped back stupidly. The plane felt surprisingly unalive.
* * * * *
Ben found me finally by the spaceship display, once our separate paths– past the Wright exhibit, the novelty stunt flyers, the Vietnam fighter jets, and everything else– converged. “There you are,” he said, squeezing my shoulders hard from behind. “I called you a couple of times.”
“Oh,” I said, startled. “I guess my phone’s on silent.”
“Did you see the ones with faces?”
“The planes with angry faces on the front. They were my favorite when I was little.”
“Oh. Yeah.” I feigned a quick scratch at my hairline to cover the sting as his question prompted me to picture last night’s scowling swarm. For a few minutes, absorbed in the exhibits, I had forgotten. Now I tilted my head away from Ben before letting my fingers fall.
“Did you want to see anything else?” he asked.
“I think I’m done. I mean, if you are.”
“Yeah, I’m all set.”
“Okay,” I said, my voice quaking slightly. “The hotel, then? And dinner?”
“Alright,” Ben said, peering down at me funny, all narrowed eyes and furrowed brows. “Hey,” he added. “Are you OK?”
“I’m good,” I answered. “Maybe tired.”
“Well, I could nap,” he smiled. Then he hooked his arm through mine and led us out the way we’d come, a second time past the planes.
* * * * *
Outside, with my good cheek facing him, I loosened up for the ten-block sidewalk journey. Ben concocted a goofy lounge singer voice to accompany my kicking legs, for a cinematic dance number that finished big with a twirling dip. When a dollar bill I spotted by a sewer grate turned out to be a leaf, Ben imitated my “Oh!” at the sight of it several times in a high-pitched drawl. A few blocks later, my camera snapped his spot-on model walk in rapid-fire succession. When a homeless man asked if we were famous, Ben slipped him a five-dollar bill.
“It’s not a leaf, I swear,” he winked.
Back at our hotel room, the lights were dim and the TV low. Ben collapsed disheveled across the bed while I stood alongside it, fiddling with coins he’d left on the nightstand. As one TV commercial flipped into the next, I felt a hand snake its way into my jeans’ back pocket.
“Babe,” he said. “Come on. Come here.”
I stepped closer to the mattress, so my thighs pressed up against it. Through the cracked drapes I could see the sun was setting. Its fluorescent mess of pinks and golds shot a pastel beam towards the bed, over Ben’s face and onto the empty pillow beside it.
My insides stiffened. The sting, under a spotlight. “I can’t,” I said. The wartime pilot in my head saw an enemy approaching and nosed her plane back towards the tarmac instead of into battle. “I want to shower before dinner and change into something nice,” I explained.
“Later,” Ben whined. “I’m gonna change, too.”
“Yeah, but you’ll take five minutes, and I’ll take an hour. And we have a reservation.”
“But it’s my birthday.”
“I know. Don’t worry,” I said, trying hard to sound alluring instead of distressed.
And then I turned away.
* * * * *
In the bathroom after showering, I spent time staring into a small square I’d smeared clean on the fogged-up mirror. I leaned in close to examine, poke, and pinch the bee sting, desperate to reduce it to less than three dimensions. With pointed fingertips, I circled it, pressing. My thumbnails gently stabbed along its side. But the sting only got pinker, more irritated and inflamed. When I stepped back from the sink, my mistake was obvious. “Stupid,” I said to my own reflection. “Idiot. Stupid. Why.”
I managed with make-up to cover the spot so it wasn’t much worse than it had been pre-shower. But that area of my cheek hurt, felt a little raw, and clouded my thoughts more persistently than ever. Now it was for my own benefit that I hoped our restaurant would be the candlelit kind.
I’d chosen an upscale spot a few blocks down where I’d read the pasta was handmade and bottles of wine were inexpensive. When we arrived, I felt grateful that the restaurant was relatively dim and the waiter sat us at an angle instead of straight across from each other. Ben ordered the lobster ravioli, and I the eggplant parmesan. As a team, we devoured both, and when the last drops were poured from our bottle of Malbec, we each opted to order another glass of the same. Though I’d called ahead and told the host it was his birthday, I whispered a reminder to the waiter when Ben got up to use the bathroom. When he returned to the table, a single white candle came stuck in a slice of tiramisu. Above the flame’s glow, four bow-tied waiters crooned a polite, Italian-accented version of “Happy Birthday.”
Afterwards, on our sidewalk zig-zag back to the hotel, we laughed at how our teeth and lips and tongue were stained so purple. It took at least four tries to figure out the room key. Once inside, Ben flipped on ESPN, said just one second while he checked the scores, and I slid giggling into bed, wearing nothing.
* * * * *
Hours later, my eyes flicked open. The bed sheet felt stiff around me and reeked of bleach. This isn’t home, I thought. Where is this? I raised a fist to my eyes and rubbed them.
I turned my head, and before my sight adjusted, I felt Ben’s slow breaths drift warm and rhythmic past my neck. Behind him, the bedside clock’s harsh red digits glowed 3:47. The hotel, I realized. Oh no, oh no. I fell asleep. And so did he. And now I’ve ruined everything.
“Ben?” I whispered. “Are you awake?”
With my fingertip, I brushed a wisp of hair away from his forehead. With every exhale, a faint whistle blew through his nose. “Ben? Hey,” I whispered again, but he didn’t speak or flinch or even breathe different.
By 3:49 on the hotel clock, my eyes adjusted to the dark. I thought about touching him. How he probably wouldn’t mind too much, getting woken up for that. Especially on his birthday. I thought about the morning, how the sun would leak through the drapes and shine bright onto us. And how I knew I couldn’t do it then. Not with this pink sting swelling, with him pretending not to stare.
“Ben, Ben, Ben,” I said again. And nothing.
I wanted to cry then. I can’t explain. All my awkward discomfort unspoken since Friday, building up and pressing against the backs of my eyes and skin. I craved the fat, embarrassing tears that only come in pitch-black midnight. The shaking, silent, desperate kind. When the whole world’s pressing heavy, when its weight is so much harder to avoid.
I laid there, my hands useless fists. My breaths kept accidentally matching Ben’s, so I held mine for as long as I could stand. With a clenched chest, my body begged for a waterfall to spill.
But it wouldn’t. I waited. My dry eyes on the ceiling, my dry eyes on the clock. My dry eyes following the lines of Ben’s face and shoulders and chest, thinking of touching him, of saying his name. I waited for my hands to move, to unclench and reach for his body. But nothing ever happened.
Just one pale creak of a floor board shifting high above our heads, the only sound. Perhaps imagined.
* * * * *
In the morning I woke to witness Ben placing belongings into our shared green duffel with a towel tucked around his waist. His hair was damp, and with the deep breath I took, I smelled deodorant and soap. “Hey,” he said, noticing me.
The day felt fresh and blank at first, until I remembered. “What time is it?” my voice croaked.
“Ten thirty,” Ben answered. “And we’ve gotta be out by eleven, I think?”
My skull felt pressed between two sides of a weighted clamp. I cleared my throat. “You’re not hung over?”
“The shower helped.”
“Oh,” I said.
After some yawns and stretching, I decided I was ready to stand. In the shower I swallowed mouthfuls of lukewarm water and slid soap haphazardly across my shoulders and chest. I closed my eyes and pictured my bed at home, and felt quite ready to be there.
Before we left the room, Ben crouched down to peer beneath beds and between furniture legs to check for forgotten belongings while I stuffed balled-up clothes into the duffel alongside his neatly-folded stacks. I answered, “Yes, I’m sure,” when he asked again if I had the room key. He propped open the door with his outstretched sneaker until I pulled the plastic card from my pocket to prove it.
After checking out at the front desk, we meandered outside to the sidewalk. Beside the hotel’s revolving doors, Ben and I squatted to sit on opposite ends of the duffel. My hair hung wet and limp like overcooked spaghetti.
I let my head drop to rest on his shoulder. “You feeling any better?” he said, breaking our hazy silence.
“What about the bee sting?” he asked, lightly lifting my face by the chin and squinting. It was the first time since Friday that he’d asked outright.
My eyes drifted down and then up again to meet his gaze. My wet hair had left a dark, damp smudge on his t-shirt sleeve. “It’s fine,” I decided. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”
And it didn’t, I realized. In my hungover stupor, I’d barely checked its size in the mirror that morning, hadn’t even thought to bother dabbing it with concealer. Even now I didn’t feel an urge to raise a fingertip, to get a better sense of it. My moment in the crossfire had passed, I thought. I had waved the white flag and given up the fight. From here on out I could relax, drift downwards with the breeze, and ease my aircraft into a quiet hangar, far from any outside threat.
A yellow cab slowed to a stop beside the curb. The door man with the brass-button coat waved for us to take it. Ben stood up and extended his hand out flat, to help me stand. “Let’s go,” he said, grabbing our bag from the ground and leading us away.
Sarah Lynn Knowles founded & edits Storychord.com, a collaborative multi-media journal showcasing underexposed fiction writers, visual artists, and bands. Her short fiction has been featured in Joyland Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Perigee, and Slice Magazine. For more, visit her online at Sarahspy.com or follow her on Twitter as @sarahspy.