“The Bug in My Shoe” by Zachary Hourihane

Fish & Boat, M.C. Escher


“Please don’t cum on my duvet cover, it’s the only one I have.” My big toe is halfway up his nose as he makes the request. I scan the room—it is immaculate but devoid of the personal touches that conspire to create a home. He has one pillow for a queen bed. On the wall there is a painting of a ship battling swelling crests of indigo.


We were in a coffee shop on Astor Place and we were laughing and I was looking at him and seeing the whole thing. (Wouldn’t it be delicious to date a professor?) Coffee splotches on pages of borrowed books, an arm draped around my waist in the middle of November, tangled limbs on a velvet couch with the radiator blasting.

When I walked down first avenue to meet him for the first time late on an October’s morning, I took a chill from the biting air that was unusual in early autumn, then checked my phone three times to make sure I was going in the right direction. I caught a glimpse of myself in a frosted storefront window and saw a young thing: brilliant with ruffled curls and a sulky pout, smooth hands unmarked by protruding veins, a forehead without lines, a smile without wrinkles. Pedestrians marched by and carcasses of foliage whipped my ankles. I was sucker punched by the temporality of it all. In conversation with my wilting form in the frosted window before the first date, I wondered: Is it possible to live a whole life in one day?


Back to the painting—I am looking at it and trying to cum so that I can leave. There are no shipmen depicted here, but I imagine they are buried in the hull of the boat, scooping water with buckets and throwing it out of portholes maniacally. He is not keeping me. I am not under duress. He says that I am young and gorgeous and full of life and unlike any man he has met before so I am obliged to stay. The compliments are generous and sincere, I tuck them behind my ears like stray hairs to keep them safe.


“Can we go to your place?” I asked at the coffee shop after he said that Blue Nights was Didion’s magnum opus. I argued in favor of Magical Thinking but he said the most feverish hallucinations of grief shone through her later work, delivering a raw portrait of the divinity in loss. What he said reminded me of a passage that is stuck in my brain like toffee in my teeth—

I know what it is I am now experiencing.

I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.

The fear is not for what is lost.

What is lost is already in the wall.

What is lost is already behind locked doors.

The fear is for what is still to be lost. 

He had a crooked mouth. Not so lopsided that it was off-putting, but it tilted up like a drawbridge when he spoke. It made everything sound like a question. His teeth were long and one front tooth was bucked. As we meandered to his place, on Tenth Street and Second Avenue, I stepped in a glob of congealed chewing gum. He took a knee and scraped it off the sole of my shoe with his fingernails. In the twilight, a breeze nipped the nape of my neck. The sun had slunk but not gone—it lingered in pockets of amber on the limestone. Larger than me by half a foot and twenty-ish pounds, he stared up from below my kneecap, curious and compact.

Desperate for the bathroom, he left me on his stoop to smoke and ponder at the delivery men riding bicycles carrying backpacks stuffed with hot food. Steam curled from a drain in the sidewalk, wafting softly in no hurry. I blew smoke toward it, wondering if he’d ever come back. “Ready for you!” he shouted after some time from a window on the fifth floor.

I trudged up the stairs with one sticky sole squelching on the tile. He opened the door but didn’t offer me a drink. We sat on opposite ends of the couch, which was beige and small––not plush as I had imagined. I draped myself on his lap. He stroked me gingerly on the thigh and told me I had great legs. He loved the white jeans. He said most people couldn’t pull them off. “But you can. You can do anything.” He whispered.

The stench of that, the reek of permission and control and agency sent blood careening through my skull. My ears throbbed and my palms pulsed––raring to clutch his neck and control his breath to make him say it again, to convince me that it was true.


The waves in the painting dip and soar, with froth bubbling and breaking. There is a seagull bobbing between troughs. Real or not real? I wonder.I’m too far away, I can’t tell. In spurts and stutters I finish, narrowly missing the prized duvet cover. From the bottom of the bed, he finishes too, the remnants are soggy on my ankle. I ask him not to get it on my jeans.

“They’re white, so what?” He shrugs.

I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.


“I have to tell you something,” he said with solemn eyes as I unbuttoned his flannel. Please don’t be a virgin. “I had gonorrhea two months ago.” I laughed because it was funny—he kept surprising me. He described the symptoms frenetically: pus-riddled discharge, swelling in the testicles, excessive urinating. He recounted the contraction—certain the perpetrator was an adulterous straight man sourced on Grindr in a drunken haze. I put my index finger between his teeth to shut him up. The gonorrhea did not trouble me. “It’s not sexy when you talk about sleeping with someone else,” I said.


Post defiling my ankle, he rests a cheek between my ribs. His appendages splay between my legs like a mangled marionette. The questions stopped a few hours ago—the compliments went with them too. His ex-husband left him for a younger man. I learned this between groping and dry humping.

“I turned on the Apple TV and my ex-husband was logged onto our account. He changed his picture to a selfie with his boyfriend. It wrecked me.”

He’s facing the window—staring mournfully at a puce brick wall. He stammers about isolation and betrayal as I fade into the painting of a boat on troubled waters. You are not needed but you are still here, I tell myself. The waves are bigger from inside the frame, I am submerged in ultramarine and cobalt. Then I am sinking lazily, letting the water line my lungs, trailing my fingers along the undergrowth in the seabed.

I come back to the bed, in an apartment in the East Village, with the college professor on my chest, and there is another wet feeling. Real or not real? I wonder again. He is quiet now, the blathering has stopped. His frame rises slow and labored, my thumb traces the stripe of hair between his shoulder blades.

My nipple is wet.


He is crying.

The fear is not for what is lost.


At the coffee shop, we volleyed unpopular opinions. “I think Taylor Swift is a respectable artist.” I offered this as a litmus test. I’m not a religious man, but I worship Taylor Swift. It’s a character flaw and it’s nonnegotiable. I had located his Twitter profile before our date and found a string of tweets berating her.

“She has made some great music.” I knew he was lying. I was flattered.

He took a sip of coffee and studied my face. “My unpopular opinion is that feet are sexy.” He threw his hands wide and broke out in nervous laughter. It took over him like a long held belch.

“That’s cool.” I meant it.

There is always a nonnegotiable, I know that.


I thought he had fallen asleep after the tears. But he’s awake. And talking.

“All I do is watch porn. Or I write books on queer cinema and plan my lectures. That’s it.”

The college professor divulged the dissolution of his twelve-year relationship. I was jealous for his opportunities to live so many lives. He grew up in Maine. His sister was a heroin addict. He spent a year studying film in Nigeria. He got a PhD at NYU. The variables, the nonnegotiables, the sorry reality that things break and are left in smithereens sidelined him. This man with a perfect apartment, two published books, a gig as a full-time professor

“I wanted to connect with my husband. I tried to initiate sex, but he wouldn’t budge. He sat on his phone, texting like I didn’t exist. So, I knelt at the foot of the bed and worshipped his feet. They were glorious, you know? Perfect arches and stumpy toes. I would jerk off vigorously, harder and harder. Even when I came, his eyes stayed fixed on his screen. Being ignored started to turn me on. It was like that for a long time.”

Our future—strolls through Union Square Park on a Sunday, the comfort of two arms holding me in an embrace when the leaves would die and my brain would glitch—drifts further off into the charcoal sky of the painting.

Isn’t it ludicrous that I expected anything at all?

It’s futile to plan a future with variables.

Isn’t there always a nonnegotiable that unearths a stalemate?

You aren’t willing to fix him.

If I listen, if I stay, if I tell him that he can do anything, could it be?

It doesn’t matter that it’s you who is here.

What is lost is already in the wall.


Before it got distorted, when it was good and we had our clothes on and I was using his shoulder as a pillow, he asked what I liked about him. His eyebrows were soft and fuzzy, I brushed them back and forth with my index finger.

“I like your arms.”

I did like his arms. They were burly and sturdy like the handlebars of a dirt bike.

He chuckled with a low husk.

“Is that all you like?”

I paused and stared at him wordlessly, he held my gaze and waited for something meatier.

“I think that you are a safe person.”

I hadn’t meant to reveal so much. It leapt out of my mouth as I melted into his chest, I thought that I could stay there for a while.

“What does that mean—what’s a safe person?”

A safe person does not lock you in his car and drive to the middle of nowhere and keep you there until he is finished and your eyes sting and your uvula hurts.

My mouth opens and shuts.

A safe person does not gamble that you won’t tell because you are a teenager shackled by visceral and ugly truth.

“I don’t think you’re going to hurt me. That’s what I like about you.”


I am getting bored of the painting. It’s clear that the artist did not craft with care. The brush strokes are lackadaisical and the gradients between the blue sea and black sky are choppy. I wonder where it was purchased from, how much attention it commanded, why it was chosen to punctuate the monotony of this bare home.

“I’m sorry. I’ve messed this up,” he mutters with a resigned exhale. I say nothing—I won’t pretend, but I don’t want to stretch the wound with barbed fingers either.

“I am worthless. Completely undeserving of life. I want to become a bug and live in your shoe. I need to get stomped on and obliterated as you walk around the city.”

I try to do the macarena with my big toes. He doesn’t notice.


The college professor was smelling my feet. I was spent, but it required minimal effort to indulge him. We hadn’t spoken in a while, he was busy worshipping my toes. I warned him that they smelled bad—I hadn’t washed my socks in weeks.

“What should I do with them?”

He paused the studious whiffing and looked up.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“With my feet. How do I make them sexy?”

I have never minded being a vessel. This was different. I wasn’t sure how to feel. I am partial to a foot massage but this was perplexing.

“Your arches are stunning. I could stay here all day.”

My presence was a footnote.

He said that it would hurt his feelings when sexual partners judged his niche interest. I picked up my phone to check my texts and he moaned in ecstasy, took to his knees. My indifference toward him, this particular activity, the way he was behaving—spurred him on. I was reading an interview with Sally Rooney when he cleared his throat and stood up.

“I’m sorry to interrupt you, sir, but would you please step on me?”

What is lost is already behind the locked doors.


Outside it is turning to a blue night—the dawdling pause between dusk and dark that Didion described as the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning. The divinity in loss peeks through the half closed blinds in the form of a streetlamp switching on. I understand that what never started has stopped.

“Who painted that?” I ask, interrupting the college professor’s spiel about becoming a grain of sand under my foot on a beach.

“I don’t know. The last person who lived here left it behind.”

Something is gone. A whole life in one day.

“It’s getting late. I should go.”

I button my shirt and pull up my jeans. His face falls, he’s still on his knees, stark naked.

His eye bags are pronounced and sagging, his hair is unkempt, his stubble is overgrown down his neck. I hadn’t noticed this unsightliness at the coffee shop—swallowed whole by the blueprint I sketched, willingly ignorant of the raw materials. Now I am looking at a foggy mirror with a reflection in the near future: my late thirties—heartbroken, disenfranchised, trapped by nonnegotiables, fucked for pretending there were no variables, over before I have begun.

“Could I ask you a favor before you go?”

I say that he can.

“Your socks—can I keep them?”

I say that he can’t.

“Could I text you?”

“You could,” I tell him. “But you shouldn’t.”

The fear is for what is still to be lost.

Pounding the pavement on the way home, I imagine him taking up residence in one of my sneakers—tiny and forlorn, crying out with pleasure as I round a corner and bounce off the curb. A streetlamp beside the subway station flickers, casting haphazard shadows on the tarmac. Waiting on the tracks, I watch my frame slide in and out of focus in the reflection of the subway cars as they clatter by. Distorting my body, the glass catches the sterile glare of the hospital-like overhead lighting, illuminating every pore, line, and roll. My lips are sallow and drained of blood, I feel the chapped skin tearing apart and breaking.

I am emptier, drained of something I am relieved to have given away.  


Zachary Hourihane is a writer from Dublin and Singapore and an MFA student in nonfiction at The New School. He pens a weekly column of memoir called SALVE. His work can be found in The Sarah Lawrence ReviewBarren Magazine, and All The Sins