I know I say this a lot, but this time it's really, really true: The less said about Jess Zimmerman's macabre viral love story, the better. Except that it's the love story we all deserve right now. Enjoy. -The editor.
Daphne was typing an email to her lover when she noticed the bumps on the back of her hand. White-headed bumps, about the size of a rubbed-down pencil lead, like three big pimples in a row. They didn't hurt or itch, but they looked like they should.
From the next cubicle, Gwen saw her palpating them and shot her a panicked look. "Is there a mosquito in here?"
Daphne hated the open-plan office for many reasons, and Gwen was most of them. "No, they don't itch, it's just these three bumps. It's no big deal, they're weird hand pimples or something."
"Oh god," Gwen breathed, "three bumps together? Like in a cluster? Do you think you have…you know, monkeys?" Gwen was so phobic of bedbugs that she didn't even like to hear the word. When she was first hired, she had emailed around a list of code names for things she couldn't bear to hear spoken aloud.
"They're not in a cluster," said Daphne, trying with every muscle to be patient, "they're in a line, and it's not monkeys, and it's FINE," and then their boss strolled by and Gwen was mercifully unable to reply because she was busy hiding what Daphne assumed were ten thousand WebMD tabs.
Once he passed, Daphne opened the email again. She didn't like using the word "lover," for numerous reasons—it sounded like someone you picked up at a gay bathhouse in the 70s, for one thing, and for another, they still hadn't met in person and shouldn't a "lover" technically be someone with whom you'd actually physically made love? Which was another phrase Daphne didn't use, and which also sounded like a suspiciously '70s activity. And yet she kept thinking of what she was doing as "writing an email to my lover." There was something about Gregory that made her both hokey and retro.
"Daf, baby," said Erin in the bar of the Legal Seafood after work. "It's been too long." They usually met every other day, but Daphne had skipped Tuesday for a cake tasting. Erin was almost pathologically extroverted and didn't like to go more than 48 hours without checking in.
Daphne did not like being called "Daf," and had told Erin this when they met, in their first internship out of college. Erin had responded by saying "fine, I'll call you Knee," and Daphne had let it drop.
"How's Rob?" asked Erin, once they'd settled in.
"Rob's fine. Rob's how Rob always is."
"Is he helping with wedding planning at all?"
"Not even a little. He'll give me his opinion on stuff if I ask him directly, but more often than not the opinion is 'both of those are fine.' I mean, he's not being passive-aggressive, he really doesn't care! But it's still not much use."
"And how's Gregory," said Erin meaningfully. It didn't sound like a question, the way she said it.
"Gregory is… ugh, Erin, I don't know. It is completely insane to feel this strongly about someone I've never met. I still think about him all the time, I still sneak away from dinner to email him from the bathroom. I think about him during sex with Rob and I don't even know what he looks like."
Erin grimaced—though, Daphne thought, probably mostly at the phrase "sex with Rob." "Daf, you know what I'm going to say."
Daphne sighed and recited: "'This isn't about Gregory, Gregory is just a proxy, it's really about the problems in your relationship with Rob.' I know, and I understand that you never liked Rob, but you have to trust me. I have really strong feelings about this guy."
"First of all, I believe that you think you have strong feelings about him, but you don't even know him. I keep asking you about him and you don't know anything. Second of all, I don't dislike Rob, because that would be like disliking… a potato. Or a rock. What's the point? Yes, I think Rob is a nothing person who doesn't deserve you, but that's not what this is about. This is about whether you like him, or at least whether you like him enough to marry him, which you obviously don't if you're even considering jetting off to California to visit your… your imaginary friend."
"Costa Rica," said Daphne tiredly.
"What? I thought he lived in San Diego."
"He wants to meet in Costa Rica. He thinks it would be romantic." Daphne rubbed absent-mindedly at the back of her hand. "I said I should come to San Diego first, so we could find out whether we even wanted to take a vacation together, but he's really insisting on Costa Rica. Do you think he has a wife he doesn't want me to know about?"
Erin shrugged. "Either that or he wants to have a threesome with a sloth. I hope you're not seriously considering this, Daf. I do not trust that guy."
"I know," said Daphne. "I'm not sure I trust him either. But I can't help it. I guess I'm in love."
As usual, Rob started snoring within five minutes of turning out the light. Daphne lay with her back to him, staring at the blue-white void of her inbox. Gregory still hadn't written back—but then, it was three hours earlier there, not quite 8:00. Was he working late? Was he out for drinks? Did he have someone too, a female Rob, a sweet dumb burden?
She scrolled back through old emails, which she kept in a folder called "Taxes 2011" in case Rob ever decided to snoop. Erin was right that she and Gregory barely knew each other; she didn't know where he was from, what he did for a living, whether he had siblings, pets, a wife. All they talked about was how dizzyingly, disarmingly, expansively passionate they felt about each other. But it was all she thought about. What else was there to say?
It wasn't a surprise that Erin didn't understand. How could she? Daphne didn't understand it herself, how someone could be just a name on the internet one day and then suddenly take up residence inside you, take control of you, rewrite the very language of your body. Her love for Gregory felt like a major organ.
She'd never felt this way about Rob, even when they first met, when they were nigh-imperceptibly younger and thinner and more optimistic. They were stoked about each other then—that's how Rob would have put it—but it was never this bottomless, almost nauseatingly intense craving. They were getting married because they were compatible, and she had mistaken compatibility for love. Before she met Gregory, it was easy to make that mistake; she had nothing to compare it to, no sense of how love actually felt in the body or the mind. She wouldn't have known love if it bit her. She knew it now.
When Daphne got in the next morning Gwen was glaring at her, a histrionic overcommitted glare that was clearly intended to invite comment. Daphne quickly averted her gaze, but it was too late. "You," said Gwen, "have given me. Some kind. Of monkeys."
"I literally do not know what you're talking about."
"Look at this!" Gwen waved her pale, almost purple hand in front of Daphne's face. On the back was a scatter of tiny, nearly invisible white bumps.
Daphne absolutely did not feel like dealing with Gwen right now. Overnight she'd picked up one of those runny colds that doesn't make you sick enough to stay home, but just makes your brain send you constant alarm signals: we're gonna sneeze we're gonna sneeze oh god. It was giving her a strange buzz at the base of her skull, a false sense of looming emergency. She glanced around the cubicle for anything else to talk about—a change of subject, or ideally an excuse to leave—and noticed something mildly surprising: Gwen wasn't working on a spreadsheet, and she wasn't on WebMD. She was trolling Kayak for plane tickets. To Costa Rica.
"Are you going to Costa Rica?" Daphne blurted. It probably wasn't politic to admit she'd noticed Gwen was goofing off, but it was too weird not to remark on. "Gwen, you know it's a jungle, right? They've got a million diseases there. They've got monkeys. Actual monkeys," she added after a second.
Gwen's eyes were white-hot. "If you must know," she sniffed haughtily, "I have a lover."
Daphne could not restrain her incredulity. "You? Also, 'lover'?"
"Me," Gwen snapped, "and he wants to meet for the first time, and he wants to do it in Costa Rica. I know about the monkeys," she said witheringly, "but I would do anything for him, and that's all I'm going to say about that, except that if he catches this thing you've given me there will be hell to pay when I get back."
"God," moaned Daphne, "I hope we're not at the same hotel." The Legal Seafood bar was a joyless, anodyne place, but she and Erin met there at least twice a week because it was downstairs from work and nobody bothered them. "Can you imagine? Can you imagine if we were at the same hotel? When I'm with Gregory and she's with… god, who knows, some kind of four-foot-eleven Dungeon Master with a patchy beard?" As always, when she mentioned Gregory's name Daphne felt a surge of something that wasn't quite love, or joy; a sort of thrumming urgency, a pull to move. She sneezed.
"Don't tell me you're actually going to Costa Rica. After what's been happening?"
"What? Yes, I'm—why, what's happening?"
"DAF! Jesus Christ. You need to read the news." Erin relished knowing something you didn't; she liked to do a little TED talk about your shameful ignorance before just filling you in. "They're saying it's some kind of mass hysteria event."
Daphne frowned. "Like the Salem witch trials?"
"More like Jonestown."
"I don't think that was…"
"Well you don't know, you weren't there. Anyway, people are just walking out into the ocean. Tourists, mostly. By the dozens. And then they disappear."
"Did I say they drowned? I said they disappear. They started patrolling with camera drones once tourists started going missing, and it looks like people walk out in twos and threes, and just slip under quietly, and never come back up. I mean they don't come back alive and also nobody can find their bodies."
Daphne was wracking her brains to figure out how the currents worked around Costa Rica. "Ugh," said Erin, "I can tell you're trying to remember how the currents work around Costa Rica. Like a) why did you even ever know that in the first place and b) do you think they didn't think of it? They've looked where the bodies should be, Daf, and a few places they shouldn't, and they're gone. There's nothing. They're gone."
As it turned out, Daphne found when she Googled the story, that wasn't quite right. The bodies were gone, but there wasn't nothing.
What they were finding, instead, were these oblong lumps of strange fungus, five or six feet long, pointed spurs sticking up from them at all angles like the spines of a lionfish. There were thousands of them. Because of the shape, the investigators originally thought it might be growing on corpses, but there were no corpses inside. It wasn't related, the news was saying; the mystery suicides just led investigators to the lumps, which otherwise might have stayed hidden at sea. They could have been there for who knows how long. But the overlapping mysteries felt portentous in a way that prickled Daphne's skin.
"They walked out there like things possessed," said one eyewitness. "Estaban cubiertos de espinas," said another, in a local paper. Google Translate rendered it as "they were covered in thorns." Daphne didn't even know where to start figuring that idiom out.
Well, at least she didn't have to worry about being in the same hotel as Gwen and the dungeon master. It seemed unlikely that Gwen would brave a foreign country during a rash of mystery suicides, and when the place was crawling with alien fungus? Forget about it. Daphne shook the word "alien" out of her head; she'd picked it up from one of the comment threads on the news articles, some bozo theorizing that the spiny lumps came from space when they clearly just came from the ocean. It was exciting, really—a new species, perhaps. An important time for science. But it was unnerving, too. What if you struck up a conversation with someone in a bar, and then had to watch him walk implacably into the ocean? What if… Daphne wasn't even sure what she was worried about. What if the fungus lumps started coming ashore?
She started an email, typed in Gregory's address. Her hands hovered over the keyboard, stubbornly refusing to write "maybe I shouldn't come." The bumps were bigger now, white and pointy, nearly as long as her pinky nail. They actually seemed to be coming out through her skin. Allergies?
"Baby," she typed, "I wish I could see you, but…" She backspaced the whole thing. "In light of the recent incidents in…" Backspace. "I don't know how to tell you this, but …" Backspace. "Hi, lover!" Backspace.
Fuck it. Love like this might happen once in a lifetime. If it happens in the middle of wedding planning, that's bad luck. In the middle of a weird drowning epidemic, worse. But you can't turn your back. You can't reject it. You have to let it consume you.
She opened a new tab, found the cheapest Costa Rica tickets, and hit "purchase."
The mood in the hotel lobby was subdued, but quietly thrumming, like someone had dosed it with itching powder in church. The mirrored walls turned a few fidgety bellhops into an uncomfortable army. Near the elevators, a tourist dad was trying to mount a lawyerly argument against a silently sobbing 8-year-old who wanted to go see sloths. A woman with a glossy bowl of ash-blonde hair was hissing something at the clerk, who was studiously pretending not to speak English. He looked relieved to see Daphne, and hustled over to hand her a room key while the woman kept talking to him through clenched teeth, tears threatening to dash themselves on her bladed cheekbones. "He said he was meeting a lover," Daphne heard her say. "Where is he?"
Daphne looked pointedly at one of the bellhops, but he just kept chewing on his mustache and made no move to help her with her bags, so she lugged them towards the art-deco elevators herself. Her cold seemed like it might be turning into a fever; she felt overclocked, like something inside her had spun so fast it had come loose and was caroming off the walls. Probably just love.
Her room was antiseptically spare, but it didn't matter. Once Gregory arrived, she would only have eyes for him. And at least she could see the ocean, a graceful sweep of deep teal-blue. It looked pleasant, but also like a toilet full of Ty-D-Bol. Gwen would like that, at least, wherever she was.
The minibar offerings, like the room, were uninviting—but even though she hadn't eaten since her pretzels on the plane, Daphne didn't feel all that hungry anyway. She had a crawling sensation in her stomach, not quite nausea, not quite hiccups. Too much caffeine, too much travel, too much pre-assignation nerves. She drank a glass of water, fixed her eye makeup, uselessly dabbed a little concealer on the elongated bumps on the back of her hand.
Daphne rummaged in the bag for her good lingerie, but she found that she couldn't stop looking at the ocean. It was so unearthly blue—luminous, not really like Ty-D-Bol at all. Gregory wasn't due for an hour; there was time for a swim. As she changed into her bikini, she noticed a dusting of gooseflesh on her hip, and another on her arm. Little bumps, the same rash as on her hand, but spreading. Would Gregory find that repulsive? Was it contagious? Maybe seawater would help.
Once Daphne had made up her mind to swim, the elevator ride down to the lobby suddenly seemed like an intolerable delay; the soft shoulder of sand between the hotel's back door and the beach looked miles wide. The rash prickled on her flesh and she needed to be in the water now—needed it the way she needed to shed her old life, needed it the way she needed Gregory. The thing inside her was spinning like a fan, her skin blazing as the bumps reached through, the way Gregory's hands would reach for her when she found him. It was love that kept driving her onwards, love that would put her where it needed her to be, love, love, love.