It was my grandma who found me on a Playskool riding horse after I ran away from home at the age of four. It was my grandma who baked me heaps of molasses cookies over the years and repeatedly let me smack golf balls into the creek behind her Florida house. She’s a fucking class A lady.
I never expected her, however, to help me treat a case of crabs.
One gloomy week when I was living in New York City, I decided to visit her and bleach away my city blues with some Gulf Coast sun. Florida is a magical land of pink flamingoes and giant stingrays, sunburns and sandcastle competitions. I had spent whole summers of my childhood there, fondling lizards and going sun-blind.
After I touched down at the Tampa International Airport, I learned that the discount airline had lost my luggage — but what did I care? I was in Florida, strolling around on the airport’s gorgeous wall-to-wall carpeting, which depicted pelican turf wars and dolphin sex. I found my dear Nan standing on a clam diorama nearby, waiting for me. We hadn’t seen each other in a decade.
When we hugged, I felt ageless.
I had her drop me off at a nearby pier so I could bait a few shrimp and try my luck with some rusty fishing tackle. After she left, night fell and a tropical rain hit. My line came alive with nibbles. Maybe it was bass looking for small prey the storm had shaken from clutches of kelp — or maybe Moby Dick? Anyway, I was soaked and dreaming of monsters.
Not long after, I felt an itchy patch on my chest and pawed at it. At first, I thought it was just a saltwater irritation from handling shrimp all night, but it gradually got worse, and by the time grandma came to pick me up at midnight, I was a scratching mess without a single fish to gut. I made a ghoulish discovery that night in the bathroom: I had become a swamp of creepy-crawlies—just like Florida!
The next morning, I broached the subject with grandma over oatmeal and the St Petersburg Times. Given our shared religious background, I had no idea what to expect.
“Grandma, I think I have crabs.”
There’s something you should know about Jehovah’s Witnesses: they can be a touchy bunch. When I was eighteen, I went bowling with congregation friends and made a flip comment about an adjacent male bowler being “a catch.” The next day I received a phone call from the congregation’s Presiding Elder, an authority figure who the organization granted a frightening amount of power.
“Do you have sex with men?”
Was that a come-on? I guess an informer had given him a call — and not to chat about my bowling score. According to the Witnesses, queerness is a biblical sin.
I confirmed his suspicions and told him that I had no intention of repenting. With reproof in his voice, he apprised me of two options: the congregation could “disfellowship” me, a disciplinary act of shunning, or I could write a letter of disassociation and renounce my faith. Either route would leave me dead to most of my friends and family.
He had a hook in my cheek.
I chose to own the experience and wrote the satanic epistle, trumpeting my cock-crazy ways and ending the majority of my relationships with mere strokes of a pen. It was probably the saddest — and the best — text I ever wrote, though I can’t remember a word of it.
So, yes, Grandma is a Jehovah’s Witness, but she paid these details no mind; she wasn’t about to let a few sticklers ruin our quality time together. I was her grandson, believer or not.
Back to my admission at the breakfast table:
“Grandma, I think I have crabs.”
“Let’s have a look-see.”
I showed her my furry chest and the little specks on it. We spotted a rather large one travelling across me in tiny jerks, and I plucked it off so we could examine it. It was my first dance with crab lice.
“Yep, those are crabs, but don’t worry,” she said, feeding me a molasses cookie so potently sweet it gave me a head rush. “Everyone gets them.”
Then she drove me to the drugstore and helped me pick out a bottle of Nix treatment shampoo. After I spent an hour combing crabs and their eggs off myself in the shower, we had the most amazing time pummelling rugs, vacuuming drapes, steam-cleaning pillows, and laundering every piece of fabric in the house to catch nits before they hatched — all to the strains of smooth jazz on WDUV, Home of Tampa Bay’s Easy Favourites. We talked up a hurricane and filled in ten years of silence. It was heavenly.
According to Jehovah’s Witness rules, she put her salvation on the line that afternoon, in the name of killing critters I had picked up ‘sinning’ in New York City.
“This will be our little secret,” she said.
Well, not anymore.
I hope she’s proud of the tenderness she showed me that day, because now the secret is out.