The following is from Erin Slaughter’s A Manual for How to Love Us. Slaughter is the author of two poetry collections: The Sorrow Festival and I Will Tell This Story to the Sun Until You Remember That You Are the Sun. She is editor and co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook press The Hunger, and holds an MFA from Western Kentucky University. Originally from Texas, she lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where she is a PhD candidate at Florida State University.
It was the summer of ant suicide. That’s how I remember it. The ants showed up everywhere: in the shower drain, working their way into the cap of the shampoo bottle, running chaotic lines from the cracks in the floorboards to the kitchen trash can. Each day in my apartment became another battle against a tiny army that gained ground every time I looked away.
I accidentally left a marshmallow-scented bar of soap on the counter, and the ants ate through it, their motionless bodies dotting the sink’s ledge. They snuck through the vents of the oven and gorged on charred breadcrumbs and ash. I set out traps and they piled into those, too, climbing over their dead, swarming up from the floorboards, ravenous for a brief taste of what would soon cause them to limp away and die.
When I looked close, I noticed all the corpses were split down the belly, foam and shiny black guts spilling out their middles, sprawled as if comatose with pleasure.
I slept, and in the morning: the ants, the ants, the ants.
Once, I allowed myself to want in such a split-bellied way.
I’m not going to tell you his name, but let’s say it was a standard American name, like James. That I’d watched my mother burn through a series of gruff, one-syllable men, and told myself it wasn’t the same; that James wasn’t like those men because he was a PhD student at a university, his parents had been university professors, he drove a hybrid. James had a girlfriend, but we never talked about that. I didn’t know what she looked like and I didn’t want to, though she also worked for the university and I could’ve found her profile easily, had I dared to try. The previous fall, he’d wandered into the campus food pantry where I worked, and the corners of my vision softened, in awe of this long-limbed man carried there by a force I mistook for empathy.
James would only kiss me after at least three beers, and I’d only allow myself to hope he would after four vodka-Sprites, guzzling that moldy-tasting liquor until it crested my levees of restraint. If I saw him crossing campus, I never knew if he’d flash his dimples in a knowing smile that blossomed through me like morphine, or walk by like I was part of the monotonous Louisiana brush. The terms of our relationship made it easy for James to deny we’d had any interaction, which meant our connection survived mostly inside my head, metastasizing in the dark. I fantasized he’d wound me in some way that stayed: a visible bite mark or bruise on my skin, something to prove he had been there, that it had been real.
The summer of the ants was the summer I started working for the boys.
One night, when James wasn’t returning my texts, I drank red wine from the bottle and combed the shadier pages of Craigslist, hoping to come across something with an acceptable income-to-dignity ratio. Among offers to buy soiled yoga pants or pics of women’s pubic hair, one post stood out: Will pay you to watch us. Girls only, any shape fine, the ad read. No sorority, no theater majors.
The next morning, hungover and unshowered, the sun battered down on my scalp as I walked to the far side of campus, where the row of frat houses stood. I couldn’t tell you what the letters on the building meant, in terms of social standing or Greek translation, but it seemed to have been built in the 80s and left to its own devices since. I didn’t bother knocking.
Inside, dust motes settled on stained Oriental rugs, piles of clothing, and half-crushed Solo cups. A carpeted staircase swooped through the living room, the missing balusters leaving random gaps like punched-out teeth. The house wasn’t very nice, but it was very big, which is easy to mistake for nice. I remember thinking only kids who’d grown up rich could live in a place like that comfortably, without feeling like a runaway squatting in a hotel. The smell was of French fries and cigarettes and weed, and a cloyingly sweet scent that was unmistakably bodily.
The boys were expecting me. They paraded down the stairs, emerged from the kitchen, rose up from their slumbers on the floor. They rubbed crust from the corners of eyes and mouths and donned their most convincing smiles—the ones they used for class presentations, internships, interviews, and later, news pundit appearances and rally speeches when they ran for office. They did not look me up and down, the way boys do when deciding how to take what they want from a girl without her noticing. If they looked at me at all, it was in a non-looking way, and their excitement was in seeing themselves reflected on the still surface of my vacancy.
I watched them go about their day, a silent presence that required nothing, gave no feedback, only reassured them that the mundane moments of their lives were accompanied.
A blond one stepped forward. He had protruding gums and ice-blue eyes that bugged and squinted at the same time. He was not un-handsome.
He walked to the cluttered credenza at the entryway and pulled the head off a porcelain snowman so I could see the roll of twenty-dollar bills inside. This enough? He might have asked. They already knew it would be.
It was deeply intimate and unusually lucrative, but it wasn’t sex work, exactly. The boys didn’t want sex—not in the way that has to do with bodies touching. They wanted to be watched.
I was good at keeping silent as I ghosted from room to room, listening as the boys grumbled aloud to themselves, cooked and devoured a pile of eggs, did dishes, masturbated quickly beneath the stiff tent of an old quilt, likely gifted by a mother or aunt. I watched them plug cords into walls, pull their fists through tangles of wet laundry like kneading rings of bread, watched them lay and stare at screens, and watched them fall asleep. I watched them go about their day, a silent presence that required nothing, gave no feedback, only reassured them that the mundane moments of their lives were accompanied. That their efforts at existing were witnessed.
Earlier that spring, before I made money watching boys do things, I watched college freshmen assembling shredded cheese on tortilla chips, walking a Pomeranian through a paved neighborhood, buying hair dye at Walmart. James had given his Intro Anthropology students an assignment to film short videos; something about the archival process extending to our own lives. He suggested I take over his grading for the semester, reasoning that it would be good practice for when I applied to grad school someday.
No one in my family had finished college, and grad school was beyond what I’d been able to imagine for myself. From my federally-subsidized housing at the edge of campus, I marveled at the grad students, these young, worldly hybrids. I watched them chatting with white-haired professors on their walks through the parking lot, watched them driving to class while swarms of lowly undergrads sweated beneath their backpacks. At the campus food pantry where I worked, they’d stop in with their cohorts, giggling loudly as they took a bag of rice and cans of expired martini olives off the shelves, as if hunger were inconsequential, nothing to be ashamed of, a chore.
James told me during childhood he’d thought all adults were called “doctor,” because every adult he knew was one. The first night we had sex, we drank Chardonnay from glasses with the Stanford insignia, his alma mater, and he told me a story about ejaculating on the president’s lawn. He wore steel-toe boots under his slacks because James, like many white men in academia at the time, worried that in order to keep getting the jobs they already had, they had to heighten the appearance that their families had worked, and therefore, their lives had been hard too. Of course, James’s parents were both literature professors at a small liberal arts school in a large midwestern city, but his home state shared a border with Appalachia and he could seamlessly affect the round speech of mountain dwellers.
James was a man not unlike my father or yours, or anyone’s that gets memorialized as a footnote rather than spouted as a reason: not a bad man, or a guilty man, or a man so ectopic with grief it was pressed like coal and spilled over as embers of violence. Just a man: regular, frightened, and inheriting the world.
I watched boys fail to do homework, marking up books with angry black spirals and stick figures on fire. I watched them take bong hits, eyes red and wondrous, laughing like doughy-faced babies at jokes only shared with themselves. It was delicious to disappear, to be devoured in the swarm of boys. The house itself was an all-consuming extension of them: swirling with eyelashes and stubble, trapping in amber their last meals or movements through it.
Sometimes, though, a boy would get rough with a girl in bed, and I knew their anger was directed at me.
Occasionally, I’d catch a shift in one of the boys; following close behind on the basement stairs, when he’d reach to switch on the light, our bodies so close a single breath would force our skin to brush, and he’d look not quite through me. When one rolled over in the dark, burritoed in puffy blankets, and slanted his eyes at my spot on the wall while he sleepily touched himself. Something, every once in a while, like noticing. Like teasing. Like gratitude.
In time, I understood how their lives hinged on my daily offering of dutiful absence. Without me, their minutes were purposeless, futile pawings at the foot of the grand human story. My nonexistence allowed them to exist so much more.
Sometimes they brought girls home, or threw parties to draw girls to the house. The girls left things behind, too: flecks of mascara and smears of foundation on pillows, long dark hairs curling mosaic-like on shower walls. Sometimes, when a boy brought a girl over for sex, I’d notice him touch her more carefully in my presence, be more patient in his fumbling attempts to earn her orgasm. And there was a pleasurable pain in never participating, longing to be inside the bodies of both people and watching them long only for each other. When the boys pulled out with a wasted grunt, my own body grasped at the hollowness.
Sometimes, though, a boy would get rough with a girl in bed, and I knew their anger was directed at me. At whatever I represented to them, not dissimilar to what the girl naked in his clutches represented.
One night I was in the kitchen, watching one with hairy arms scrape a burnt pizza pan. As he walked away, a single ant crawled up the side of the sink.
When I’d last returned to my apartment a month ago, ants ran the length of the arch between the kitchen and living room; in my absence, I imagined every surface black and pulsing. The ants could take the whole house if they wanted. That life had nothing to do with me anymore.
I watched boys pile sugar into coffee, watched it dissolve like a swimmer beneath the surface of a lake. From a grime-streaked second-story window, I saw a blue chair on the side of the road, and saw a boy take it like he’d taken things his entire life: because it was there. I watched them not check the back seats of their cars before driving off, not look over their shoulders when someone cried out, not inhale sharply as they passed an open garage door in the cover of night. They were lonely, some of them, truly, poignantly lonely. But they were not afraid that they deserved to be.
In the frat house, the lone ant pranced across the counter, wiggling its feelers. I stamped it out with a finger. Upstairs, the boys burst out laughing at something I’d never learn—even if I did, it wouldn’t have made sense.
Excerpted from the short story “Watching Boys Do Things” from A Manual for How to Love Us by Erin Slaughter. Used with permission of the publisher, Harper Perennial. Copyright © 2023 by Erin Slaughter.