I know from experience that there are beetles the size of my palm. The experience: a failed honeymoon in Brazil. Joe thought sweating on the Amazon for five days in a caravan of canoes would be romantic. It was also Joe’s idea to take the trip in February. We got married on February 14th, not because it was Valentine’s Day, but because it was Joe’s late father’s birthday. I never met Joe’s dad—he died when Joe was just a kid. The two of them were camping and climbing trees and his dad took a terrible fall. Such a tragic story can make you fall in love with a man. Such a tragic story can make you love a man so much that you will agree to take a canoe trip on the Amazon in the middle of February, which happens to be the wet season, which happens to be peak mosquito time.
I did use repellent, but sunscreen might have counteracted it, or maybe I sweat off the spray. What’s for certain is I got devoured by mosquitoes in the mornings. It was hard to slap them and paddle at the same time. Joe steered and I couldn’t see his face as he kept saying, Jesus, Jessica. Jesus. Every time he said it, I thought about the Christ the Redeemer statue, how in five days, I would be in Rio sipping cocktails and listening to jazz, wearing a light and airy sundress, my hair smelling like gardenias from a recent shampoo. I told myself that in five days those bites would be gone.
The mosquitoes hungered more on the second day. Meanwhile, Joe didn’t even get bitten once. Some guys have all the lucky blood. We fell way behind the caravan. Joe worried. But the others waited for us to catch up before the guides broke out the chicken wrapped in banana leaves or whatever it was they fed us for lunch. I don’t remember because Joe was so angry, so embarrassed that he wouldn’t even talk to me. He cozied up to some French tourists, two men, also honeymooning, and left me to pick at my food in the tropical shade while I scoured branches for sloths. I saw none, but I spotted a gigantic beetle the color of a rotting banana peel, its head black and pointy and fierce like a Viking’s helmet. I snapped a photo with one of those disposable, waterproof cameras that were so popular back then. When we developed the film, Joe asked how big it was. I told him it was huge and he said, You should have put your hand by it so we could see the scale.
As malaria generally goes, I didn’t feel any symptoms for seven more days, and by then we were in Rio. I woke up with chills. I vomited and Joe’s reaction was: Don’t tell me you’re pregnant already. He thought this was funny—it wasn’t like I got off the pill for this trip, but the only thing I could think about was how I hated him, which I hoped was just a side-effect from the sickness. I felt like hell but was determined to find joy on the honeymoon, determined to turn things around. I stumbled through museums with a splitting headache, chewed and swallowed fried plantains. It would have been easier if I could keep down food. The sicker I got, the more I frustrated Joe, and the more Joe frustrated me.
We stayed married two more years, but that sickness was the seed of our separation. It didn’t help that I left him in the middle of the night. I stood on the corner, shaking with chills as I flagged down a taxi to take me to the hospital. Joe had no idea where I was, we didn’t have phones there, and I was too angry at his lack of sympathy to wake him up and tell him where I was going. Afterwards, he referred to that seven hours when I was missing as the night he’d lost me.
He found me again back in the hotel after he had been searching the streets for half a day pointing to a Portuguese phrasebook. But the fact that he would see my disappearance like that filled me with incredible shame. I think of him, a seven year old stuck on that maple limb in northern Michigan, gazing down at his father in a heap of death. I think of how, despite tragedy, Joe turned into the kind of guy who challenged himself to things like Amazon excursions. I was so busy thinking about how much I wanted him to feel sorry for me that I forgot his sorrow.
But sorrow is no pathway to love. I’m not telling you this so that you will love me.