John was pleased that the woman sat next to him on the commuter train, even though it was the only open seat. She could have stood in the vestibule, he thought. The next day there was a vacant seat. She wasn’t forced to sit next to him, but she did. John trembled, his pulse quickened, and he sat up straight. Nobody had ever made an obvious choice to sit next to him. He knew why.
He was ugly, a brutal combination of the worst features of his parents, large bulging eyes and a sloping chin that barely accommodated a mouth. His gangly legs and arms gave him a peculiar gait. Even as a kid, he sensed that people startled at his appearance. Besides, his mother told him as much.
“Your father was not a handsome man, but he made up for it with his smarts. You look like him. You walk like him. But you’re also smart like him. You’ll be fine. You know that men are the ones who choose; women are chosen. Your sister is the one who needs help.”
Over the years, any extra money was devoted to tinkering with his sister Gloria, a nose job, a chin implant for sure, and probably other adjustments done on the sly. John accepted his appearance and considered himself luckier than his classmate Lucy, who had a horrible stutter, or that kid a couple grades below with a withered arm. Besides, he always made the honor roll. His mother was right. He’d be fine, and he could see that Gloria, who was a such a poor student, needed some upgrades.
The next day on his way home from work, John waited on the platform as the commuters streamed onto the train. He saw the woman approach and also noticed others turning their heads to look at her. He supposed they were looking at her tall, thin figure, her glistening black hair, and long legs. The woman looked directly at him and motioned for John to follow and sit next to her.
John never expected that any woman would seek him out. The thought of dating and marriage held no interest for him. Every birthday, Gloria teased him by asking if he was a “leg man or a breast man.” He always said he was a breast man. In reality, he had no idea what she was talking about.
Her intense stare confused him. He was most accustomed to people quickly glancing and moving away. He reflexively touched his nose and chin to make sure he was the same person. He knew his mouth had a way of sagging down into a grimace, so he tightened up his cheeks.
“I can’t believe we keep bumping into each other,” she said. “We get off at the same station, don’t we?”
John sat dumbstruck, staring into his newspaper, unable to fill the uncomfortable silence. As the train shuddered forward, her shoulder briefly touched his, and one foot brushed his calf. John swallowed hard and stared out the window. The crossword puzzle lay untouched on his lap.
Over the next week, she sat next to him every day. John switched his seats around, sometimes in the back, sometimes in the front, and even in the upper tier, the last place anyone wanted to sit. She always found him, so he knew that she was seeking him out. She began to sit closer to him so that their thighs touched when the train lurched. Perhaps he felt a flicker of a spark.
He summoned the courage to say the first words.
“Hello, I’m John Dawes.” His voice rasped from disuse.
“I’m Cecilia. I’ve noticed that you like crossword puzzles. Shall we work on them together?”
They started to save the morning crossword to work on in the evening as the train inched into the suburbs. To impress Cecilia, he bought two copies of the paper so that he could practice during his lunch hour. It worked. She expressed amazement at his grasp of word play.
Cecilia’s interest remained mysterious, but now John thrilled to her touch. He didn’t question it. One night as they pulled into their destination, Cecilia asked if he wanted to grab a drink at the corner pub. John could only nod.
The dim lighting in the bar bolstered his confidence. They exchanged basic pleasantries. She was a biologist at the Natural History Museum; he worked in the IT department of a financial services company. Her apartment was a couple blocks away. When she asked where he lived, he stammered that he had a house twenty minutes away.
“Wow, you got your own home. Must be doing well. That’s a pricy area. I could barely afford to rent a one bedroom. Good for you.”
John changed the subject to the weather. He didn’t want to confess that he lived in his childhood home. He had no idea of what Cecilia thought of him, but at age 27, he did know that living with your mother and sister was not an asset. They settled into a comfortable routine, sitting next to each other on the train, then going to the bar for a beer.
John began to arrive home late for the dinner. His mother stood in the doorway, wearing her apron, hands on hips, flummoxed by his new schedule, disrupting her precise schedule of dinners.
“Call me when you work late. Your dinner’s cold.”
“Mom, I’m sorry. I’ve been meeting a friend on the train, and we go out for a drink.”
“A friend on the train? Why don’t you bring him home for dinner? I never meet your friends.”
“It’s a girl, I mean a woman, a female.”
“A girlfriend? It’s about time. Oh, thank God.” She clasped her hands in prayer across her ample breasts, leaned back and yelled for his sister. “Gloria, guess what, our Johnny finally has a girlfriend.”
The bathroom door burst open, and Gloria came bustling into the kitchen tying up her bathrobe, her hair flecked with suds from her interrupted shower. “Who is she, what does she look like, where does she work, has she been married before, does she have children, does she want children?”
“She’s not a girlfriend. She’s a girl who is just a friend. We sit around and talk.”
“A friend who’s a girl? What the hell is that?” asked his mother.
“Mom, it means Johnny’s not having sex or anything. Right Johnny?”
He nodded, and wondered, not for the first time, why sex had to be so important. He only wanted companionship from Cecilia, but the last time on the train, she put her head on his shoulder. Her other touches could be construed as the result of random lurches in the train. When they worked together on the crossword, their thighs were plastered together along their entire length, but you couldn’t share the crossword without sitting close together, could you? But Cecilia’s head on his shoulder was so deliberate that John was sure she wanted more.
“Well at least it’s a start, ’bout time.” Gloria turned and tromped back to the bathroom.
The next day at the bar, Cecilia said, “Hey why don’t we order dinner. Let’s split a burger.”
His mother was pacing in the kitchen when he got home. “What’s going on? I cook for you and now it goes untouched. Bring your friend here for dinner.”
At the bar, he’d noticed other diners looking at him, probably wondering, just like him, how such an ugly man could attract such a woman. He reveled in those moments. He imagined people were thinking, “he must be a really interesting guy, there’s no other reason she’d be sitting with him.” Even so, he kept putting his mother off. He couldn’t bear the thought of her peppering Cecilia with questions about marriage and children.
“A friend who is a girl,” she sputtered, “never heard of such a thing. It’s time you thought about starting a family. You’re smart. You’ve got a good job. What more could a girl want? That was enough for me.”
Over the next week, John and Cecilia worked their way through the bar menu, often sharing an appetizer and an entrée. They talked of their ambitions. She wanted to go back to school and get a PhD in biology; he wanted to start his own IT consulting business but didn’t know how.
“Oh, I can help you with that,” she said. “We’d make a good team.”
This must be another sign of a relationship, thought John, indisputably confirmed when she squeezed his thigh.
“Let’s go back to my place, finish the evening with some wine? Okay with you?”
He flushed as Cecilia cradled her hand in his. She moved in closer, her lips brushing his cheek. “What the hell,” he thought. “I might as well give it a try.” He had no idea what might come next, but he was willing to be surprised.
“Hear that sound?” she asked as they walked along. “That’s Brood XIII of the 17-year cicadas. Have you ever lived through a cicada summer?”
He shook his head and let her keep talking. “The nymphs emerge from the ground after a 17-year hibernation. They quickly molt into adults that crawl up the trees and mate. Nobody knows why the cycle is 17 years exactly and how they keep track of time, but you’ll see, in a couple of weeks, there’ll be millions coating the trees. After they mate, they die and fall to the ground. They crunch when you step on them. Here’s my apartment. Come on up.”
She led him through the small kitchen and living room and out onto her balcony. “This is my second cicada summer here. I was about 12 years old for the first one, so I couldn’t take full advantage. Now, I figure I’ve got three or four Brood XIII’s left in my lifetime, got to make each one count. This is a biologist’s dream. Do you hear that thrumming noise? It’s just starting. That’s the sound of pure sexual energy. It will last a month a more. This will be an exciting month.”
As he strained to hear the noise, she stroked his arm, clasped her leg around his, unbuttoned his shirt and pulled his head down for a probing kiss. She led him into the bedroom, ripped off his clothes, climbed on top and took over. He was pleased his anatomy functioned, but beyond that, he was unimpressed, confused as to why people made such a fuss about sex. Cecilia climbed back on top. By the third time that night, his once-flickering flame had erupted into a blazing torch. He joyously succumbed to the ancient forces of lust and blind passion.
The two became inseparable. Cecilia constantly called him at work, and sometimes showed up unannounced. Once she insisted that they take a long walk in the woods where they joined the cicadas in their sexual orgy. When he returned to work several hours later, he basked in the knowing looks from his colleagues. One leaned over his cubicle to pluck crushed leaves from his sweater. And then his hair.
He abandoned his usual summer wardrobe of short sleeved shirts. Long sleeves were required to hide the bitemarks on his arms. His work colleagues commented on his odd choice of turtlenecks in the middle of summer, but he needed something to cover his vivid array of ripening bruises. The bathroom became the venue for their most acrobatic performances. Some were frightening. Cecilia liked John to struggle and thrash his way out of her tenacious embrace. One time he staggered backward and smacked his head on the sink. The tender knot lasted for more than a week. He didn’t care. Fear transformed his pleasure to rapture.
One evening, they went to an outdoor symphony concert. The lawn was deserted; nobody wanted to sit among the cicadas. Their thrumming drowned out the music. Cecilia was delighted by the sparse crowd, and she spread her blanket beneath the coated branches of a maple tree.
“Don’t move,” she said. “I can feel them coming up underneath us.” She was right, the blanket burbled and quivered as the seething mass of nymphs emerged.
She peeled back the corner of the blanket to look for the exit holes as they struggled to the surface. “Look at this one, it’s halfway through its molt.” She used her long fingernail to peel the covering off the emerging adult. Once the cicada spread its wings, she tenderly carried it over to the tree trunk and reached up as high as she could.
“John, can you help me give this cicada a boost? Help him get started farther up. He needs to get moving if he wants to mate. He’s only got a couple of weeks left.” John held the cicada gingerly between his thumb and index finger as he looked into their bulging red eyes. He struggled to appreciate the creepy and prehistoric beauty that so inspired Cecilia.
Cecilia’s interest in cicadas intensified as the thrumming reached its peak. She started every day by playing a recording of the landscape service mowing the parkway. The cicadas mistook this sound as a mating call and were attracted to Cecilia’s outstretched arms. Dozens landed on her arms as she played the recording in a continuous loop.
John didn’t share her enthusiasm for cicadas, but he feigned interest to make her happy. It wasn’t hard. All he had to do was smile and nod when she talked about cicadas. Moments later they would be breathlessly pawing each other. She didn’t talk about anything else, and she talked constantly.
John told his family he’d found his own apartment, though he suspected his mother knew he was living with Cecilia. She began to call him every day, insisting that she be introduced to his new friend. He knew a meeting was inevitable, but Cecilia kept putting him off. “You’re all I want. I’m not ready to share you.”
Finally, he got her to agree to a luncheon. Cecilia insisted on a restaurant that had a large patio beneath overarching elms.
“Do you really want to sit outside under the trees? The cicadas are so deafening my mother won’t be able to hear.”
“But they’re beautiful, and we won’t have another chance for 17 years,” she said.
His mother’s and sister’s eyes widened when he introduced her. He wasn’t surprised. He had come to appreciate Cecilia’s cropped shirts and taut skirts. John just wished she hadn’t kept stroking his leg while she prattled on about cicadas, the significance that the 17-year cycle was a prime number, the total weight of dead cicadas accumulating around them, and the sounds they made.
“It’s hard to notice but they make two different sounds,” said Cecilia. “The male makes that obvious droning noise with special vibrating organs called tymbals. With a magnifying glass, I can sometimes see them underneath their wings. The females are harder to hear. They don’t have tymbals, they snap their wings back and forth. If you listen closely, you can hear this.” Cecilia made a clicking noise with her tongue. “The wing clicks signal that the female is receptive. She’s pumped and prime, ready to mate.”
John didn’t like the direction of this conversation. Cecilia was poised to give a first-hand account of the pulsating sexual energy the two of them shared with cicadas. He was relieved when a cicada dropped into her mother’s soup, distracting Cecilia. Its delicate legs dimpled the surface of the bisque. Cecilia extracted it, the golden liquid coating the wings. A pendulous drop hung briefly from one of the cicada’s wings. It stretched and then fell, splotching her silk shirt. She didn’t notice.
“Isn’t this lovely? Have you ever seen anything like it?” Cecilia asked, thrusting the cicada towards John’s horrified mother. “Did John tell you? I’m collecting cicadas. They’re a terrific source of protein that shouldn’t be wasted. I put them into my bird feeder.” She pulled a Tupperware container from her purse and popped the soggy cicada in.
Another cicada landed next to Gloria, who shuddered and pushed her chair back. Cecilia picked up the cicada and balanced it on her arm. “Cicadas don’t bite, they just suck juice from tree sap. They like to lick the salt off my arm. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Their little feet tickle. Give it a try, you’ll like it.”
John was used to this behavior, but it had always been just the two of them. Now he realized it could be off-putting to the less motivated, but he also knew that when Cecilia launched into cicada stories, he couldn’t stop her, nor did he want to. He couldn’t wait to get back to their apartment.
Cecilia tried to place the cicada on Gloria’s arm, but she’d had enough. She pushed her chair back, “I’m sorry. I’ve gotta leave. Now. It was lovely to meet you. C’mon Mom, let’s go home.” Cecilia had taken her magnifying glass from her purse and was staring at the cicada on her arm. She didn’t notice them leave.
John tried to talk with her that night. “Cecilia, I’d really I’d like you to get to know my family, it’s important to me, but it’s hard when you’re so obsessed with these bugs.”
“They’re not bugs, they’re cicadas. They’re marvelous creatures. Here help me sort them.”
John took the magnifying glass and examined their genitalia the way she’d taught him. The males with the dome shaped abdomens went into one bin, the females with the pointed abdomens in the other. “Why do you want to sort them anyway?”
“It’s an experiment. I want to see if there is an exact 50:50 ratio of males to females.”
“Why wouldn’t there be?”
Cecilia didn’t answer.
“Never mind, but I do need your attention. Please, can I have just a moment of your time?” She still hadn’t looked up. He pressed ahead. “How about another luncheon with my family in the fall? It would probably be more relaxing when all this racket dies down.”
“It’s not a racket, it’s mating. They live underground for 17 years and only see the light of day for about a month and then they die. Don’t you think they deserve their moment in the sun?”
Cecilia grabbed a handful of cicadas with one hand, with the other she stroked John’s abdomen and clicked with her tongue. John knew what this meant, but he was ready to take a break. An afternoon of uninterrupted sex had left him raw and bruised. He broke away from Cecilia’s ministrations and headed to his mother’s house. He needed to explain Cecilia’s fascination and that the fall would be a better time to get to know the real Cecilia.
His mother brushed her behavior aside.
“It’s you I’m worried about. It’s not the cicada thing, like you say, it’s only every 17 years. I’ll be dead the next time they come back, so it’s not my issue, is it? All I want is to see you happily married. I want you to give me some grandchildren. But is she right girl for you? It’s that she’s so pretty. Don’t you think you’d be better matched with someone, I don’t know, someone who…”
“Mom, what are you saying, that I should try to find someone who shares my same scale of physical beauty?”
“Yes, that’s it exactly.”
“I’ve heard what you’ve said about me, that my eyes stick out, that my scrawny legs make me walk funny. Your words exactly. But guess what, Cecilia likes the way I look. I can’t explain it, but why does it matter? Maybe it’s pheromones.”
“What are those?”
“I don’t know, it’s an odor that floats in the air or something. It causes an attraction that can’t be explained.”
“I don’t smell anything.”
“That’s just the point, there’s no explanation. Who cares anyway? You always tell me that men are the ones that choose. Yeah, so Cecilia chose me first, but I chose her right after. And here’s something else. We have sex, a lot of it.”
She flattened her hands over her ears. “John stop that talk. Right now. We don’t talk about sex in this house.”
“Guess what else, I’m really good at it. Maybe that’s what Cecilia finds attractive. You should be happy for me.”
“Stop, stop. I can’t be hearing this.” She flustered out of the room before John could tell her his other revelation, that the combination of sex and fear are exhilarating, propelling pedestrian pleasure to celestial rapture.
The thrumming subsided over the next week. So did Cecilia’s sexual appetite. Conversation dwindled. Cecilia had always done most of the talking, mostly about new positions and feats of sexual agility. John tried to engage her, but their exchanges consisted of perfunctory discussions of schedules and grocery lists. Cecilia began to sleep on the living room couch. Their libidinal torches subsided to a flame, then a flicker and then nothing. It was over.
She disappeared in the fall. Packed up all her clothes and took off without any goodbyes or even a note. Her cell phone was disconnected and when John went to find her at the Natural History Museum, they’d never heard of her. He stayed in her apartment in case she came back. When the lease was up at the end of the month, he renewed it.
John was not unhappy to return to his old life of work and a few close friends. He couldn’t fully account for why he didn’t miss Cecilia or the sex. He assumed that the pheromones had simply dried up and blown away. His friends encouraged him to use an online dating app, but he wasn’t interested. He didn’t care if people thought that, as a single man, he was probably gay. He assumed that he was asexual, or that it took a special woman to torch his libido. If it happened once, it could happen again. He could wait.
He told his family things hadn’t worked out. His mother patted his hand and said, “I’m so glad you’re happy on your own, I mean with your own apartment and all. You don’t need a looker. They’re more trouble than they’re worth. I’m glad you got out before it was too late. You need somebody steadier, someone you can have children with.”
For years he still found scattered cicadas in the apartment, one wedged deeply in the couch cushions, one behind the washing machine, another in the toaster tray. He kept one cicada on his bathroom counter as a memory of his cicada summer. Occasionally he’d get a postcard from Cecilia, always in the summer around their anniversary, always from a different place in the United States, always promising to see him again “sometime soon.” She never included a return address.
One day John noticed a cicada tapping against his bathroom window. His hand jerked and he cut himself shaving. Blood dripped down his neck. He picked up the cicada from the counter and held it up in front of the mirror next to his face. He shuddered at the similarities, his bulging eyes, red rimmed from spring allergies. The pattern of his trickling blood matched the veins in the cicada’s cellophane wings.
“Oh my God,” he said. “I look like a cicada. I’m a human cicada.”
The phone call finally came. “Hello John, it’s Cecilia. I’m back. Are you ready for me? It’s our summer again.” Her tongue clicked twice. “Where are you?” John shook off his long hibernation and reveled in the ancient pulse of the thrum.
Photo Credit: M. Neilsen (License info: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emerging_cicada.jpg)