My Face-Eating Octopus
I peel off my T-shirt to find hives speckling my torso like tiny, scattered stepping stones that will eventually sink back into my skin, the way the stepping stones to my childhood home sunk into mud. In the blinking light of my apartment bathroom, I can’t see them all. Only the ones on the upper portion of my torso reflect back to me in the mirror. It’s their second arrival this week, and I think I’ve figured out the cause: the octopus (aka mask required for pandemic teaching) eating my face during my first in-person classes in over a year and a half. In this August heat wave, my octopus has tightened her grip, increased the pull of her suction cups—threatened to swallow my face.
Some people get hives from eating octopus. This isn’t so different, I tell myself. I’ll take a hug almost any day, but my face recoils at touch. And I’ve always been incredibly specific about how clothes fit. I can’t remember what, but an outfit in my past produced similar hives. Maybe my dance leotard? Marching band uniform? The strap of the strange, feathered hat we had to wear? The memory’s lost, though I still remember the awe of seeing the hives, of wanting to scream to a world that was always telling me how quiet I was that my body could be so fucking loud when it wanted to, though not many people listened anyway, which made the point of talking what?
Under the influence of Zyrtec, I google hives, then, a few clicks later, end up at beehives because the pictures are more welcoming and the facts more interesting. I generally find it easier to slip into the world of other animals (humans: the most confusing animal). I learn that if honeybees visit one of my favorite flowers, the rhododendron, they may create poisonous honey.
The next time I get hives, I poke at them. You’re some rhododendron shenanigans, I think. I laugh and then cry. My octopus glares at me from across the room, reminding me she’s a solitary creature. On her meanest days, she says, I’m going to fuck up tenure for you. It’s not a funny joke in the year I’m going up for tenure, so she usually relents and reminds me her strength is a good thing; she’s protecting me from viruses.
Googling beehives doesn’t solve my problems. Nor does googling octopuses. So, I consult other sources. Over Zoom, my therapist screenshares masks her colleagues have recommended for neurodivergent folx sensitive to touch. One of them is called a “happy mask.”
What makes it happy? I ask.
Neither of us is sure.
The masks glare on the screen: more octopuses primed to eat my face.
My therapist says having a cooling rock in my pocket can help with the heat.
I don’t say: Octopuses build dens from rocks.
My therapist and I pick up the rocks on our desks and hold them out to one another. I show her the aquamarine polished rock I’ve had for years, has traveled with me from state to state. It sits in my hand, cool and solid, its pizazz of color not quite transferring over Zoom.
She nods, then says, you need a bigger rock.
One that will fill my palm.
I wonder how large the rocks are that octopuses build their dens from. How long it takes to move the rocks into place.
I end up with a green aventurine stone—a healing stone, supposedly—from Etsy. It arrives from North Carolina, land of Atlantic octopuses and childhood vacations. I bravely dashed into the waves there, not worried about rip currents or sunburns or sharp shells. The waves hugged me better than any clothing. I could endure almost any swimsuit once wet and inside the waves.
A month into the semester, my colleagues have remarkably trained their octopuses, seemingly without any rocks at all. Some forgo bringing thermoses of coffee or bottles of water to class, never removing their octopuses, while I forever strategize my next sip of tea—the parting of face and octopus, a chance for both of us to breathe. It’s a dance that feels different every day, depends on numerous variables: room temp, the noises around us, how much I have to talk.
The stone rides to class in my pocket, emerging so I can speak through my octopus to my sea of students wearing their octopuses. While I teach, my hand warms up the stone. I leave it on the desk to cool, then pick it up again. My octopus says that’s not a great way to build a den—all this back and forth. But we agree the dance is necessary. Sometimes when my students and I are writing and there’s a lawnmower outside or a creaky cart down the hall, I try to blend all the noises into ocean sounds. I imagine we’re all underwater, our octopuses breathing for us, keeping us afloat.
Eventually, autumn surfaces, bringing cooler temps to the classrooms. My octopus claims the stone as part of her tenuous home. October brings a new test in bonding: an awards ceremony requiring dress clothes and extended sitting. Neither me nor my octopus wants to go. We agree to show up late. I follow my rule about the bottom layer being comfortable: T-shirt under my blazer and soft socks and blue sneakers almost the color of my blazer. Still, my face burns. I squirm like an octopus in my seat. The stone dances in my hand.
My octopus shouts, you need a bigger rock!
I resist the urge to tug at her. Until she spreads her tentacles and yanks at my ears. My name’s called for a teaching award I’ve known about since April, back when we were teaching online, back when we thought we might be octopus-free come fall.
Afterward, I join colleagues at a picnic table, our octopuses finally shed, mine stuffed into my pocket, where she softly squelches. Sun hits our faces. My cheeks stretch and breathe. We talk in a way we haven’t for months, opening plastic dishes filled with fancy snacks: various cheeses, salami, fresh honeycomb. I pause, wondering if rhododendrons were involved, if there are hives underneath my T-shirt I can’t feel yet.
Our table fills with the smells of sweet honey and salami, but I can’t eat much now. I’m just getting my face back. And bees have found us. They buzz around the table. One of my colleagues offers up their honeycomb as a distraction that only partially works. We lean back and forward as the bees fly. We’re all near the hive now, I think. We’re all hearing the same buzz. Maybe we’re all only one sting or octopus or rhododendron petal away from hives.
I cover my food with the plastic lid and stay in the moment a beat longer, bees buzzing and colleagues chatting. Then I look up like I tend to when I get overwhelmed—up into the trees or clouds or mountains, where there’s less motion. Off to my left, green trees, and behind that: West Rock. One of the two rocks New Haven sits between. I can’t see it from here, but I know in this light the rock face is orangey red. Somewhere up in the trees, peregrine falcons perch.
A bigger rock! my octopus announces from my pocket. I feel her relax, spilling smooth against my hip.
I slip my hand into my opposite pocket. Around my stone. West Rock breathes cool and clear on my face. In the distance, I feel East Rock, too.
Rachel Furey is a neurodivergent writer and Associate Professor at Southern Connecticut State University, where she teaches creative writing, including writing the environment and writing the body courses. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in journals such as Sou’wester, Nimrod International Journal, and Baltimore Review. She’s a winner of The Briar Cliff Review’s Creative Nonfiction contest, Hunger Mountain’s Katherine Paterson Prize, Sycamore Review’s Wabash Prize, and Stone Canoe’s Robert Colley Prize for Fiction.