Scratching the Itch
by Mike Berlin
"Don't scratch the itch," Momma would tell me.
It didn't matter what caused the itch, her advice was always the same: "Don't scratch!" And truth be told, it was pretty good advice. You scratch the scab on your knee – it starts bleeding again. You scratch the poison ivy splotch – it spreads like wildfire.
The problem was, it's so damn hard not to, you know what I mean? Like when I broke my leg when I was ten and had that cast over the summer. Man did that itch! It drove me crazy. So I twisted open a metal coat-hanger and stuffed it in there. Huh-boy did that feel great… I didn't stop until the blood trickled out the bottom of the cast and stained my toes. Momma caught me at it and slapped the back of my head.
"Don't scratch the itch!" She shouted and added ominously in a quieter voice, "Or you'll pay the price."
Being only ten and not too smart, I had no idea what she meant. When at last the cast came off and I stared in fascination at my yellowish atrophied leg, I saw the scabbing welts caused by my scratching. The bone healed nicely, the muscles toned-up and my leg eventually regained its healthy, natural color. But faint scars from my scratching remain even now, after all theses years.
When I was twelve, Danny Guagliardo stole a baseball from Mr. Rivers' store. He got caught. As punishment he had to work for Mr. Rivers all summer, and he wasn't allowed to play baseball. When Momma got wind of it she sat me down and looked straight into my eyes. For the longest time she just sat there, staring at me as if she could see right into my brain.
"Tell me the truth Joey, do you steal?"
"No Momma, never, I promise!"
She sat quietly for a few seconds before she warned me. "If you ever get that itch, don't scratch it."
Boom. The light-bulb flashed on and I got it. Like I said, I wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but this time I understood. I couldn't put it into words - I knew nothing of idioms or metaphors, but comprehension dawned even through my thick morning haze.
As we grew into adolescents, budding breasts and promising smiles combined with our hormones to create a new urge, a yearning, burning desire.
This time though, there were plenty of adults other than Momma preaching on the bandwagon: At school Mr. Miller taught us about syphilis and gonorrhea, unwanted pregnancies and the dangers of scratching that particular itch. In church and in Sunday school we learned about righteousness and sin, good and evil, being embraced by our Lord or burning in everlasting hell. Let me tell you, they scared the shit outta me. Oh Father, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Amen.
Back then I was sure Momma could read my mind. I realize now she just read the lust on my face. I'd be looking at some pretty thing bending over, hoping to glimpse the swell of a breast… Whack! I'd feel the familiar stinging at the back of my head and hear Momma's stern voice: "Don't even think about scratching that one!"
As an adult, I tried not to scratch and for the most part succeeded. That's not to say I never partook of forbidden fruits, but I was careful to do so in moderation and even more careful not to get caught. As an adult, of course, you get to decide which itches are okay to scratch. You wanna smoke? No problem. Want a drink or a joint now and again? Sure, why not, as long as it is not to excess.
The dangerous itches you have to watch out for are the ones we learned about so long ago in church. The Ten Commandments stuff: "Thou shalt not kill." "Thou shalt not steal." Then there are those we didn't understand as kids, like "Thou shalt not bear false witness" or "Thou shalt not covet." And the most delightfully difficult one to resist: "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
Just the other day I was explaining to Jerry, a guy who works with me at the office, how fooling around just wasn't worth it. He was freaking out, worried his wife would find out about his fling with Betty from shipping.
"Jer," I explained, "Extramarital sex is fun, but you'll regret it later. What you're getting is short-term relief instead of long-term satisfaction." Since I was already fifteen years into my marriage and doing okay, I figured I had a duty to give the kid some good advice.
"You know Jer, my momma was a smart woman. She used to tell me 'don't scratch the itch' and that was pretty good advice. Besides," I added, "nowadays if you're not satisfied with what your wife is 'serving', you don't need to go to another 'restaurant'. With all the porn-sites on the internet, you can opt for 'self-service' – if you know what I mean!" I slapped him on the back, pleased as punch to play the older and wiser man.
Unfortunately, I wasn't smart enough to follow my own advice.
You see, it really wasn't my fault. Well, maybe it was, but only partially. I wasn't scratching my itch – I was scratching hers.
Let me explain. Rick and Angela Wilson live next-door, great people. We've been neighbors for nine, ten years. Our kids play together, we have barbecues, the wives schmooze over coffee. Get the picture?
So a couple of weeks ago I came home early after a dentist appointment. I walked over to the Wilson's to borrow a couple of aspirin. I rang the bell and when Angela opened the door, I could see she'd been crying.
"Hey, Angie, what's wrong?"
I put my hand on her shoulder to comfort her, and she stepped forward into my arms. What could I do, right? I held her and she sobbed for a while before sniffling out her story to me.
"Rick's seeing another woman… someone from work."
"No," I said, hoping to calm her. "Rick would never do that, he loves you."
Not the right thing to say. Angela burst into anguished sobs, clutching me even tighter, her tears and runny nose soaking through my shirt. I walked her over to the couch and sat with her, my arm around her shoulders. It was very embarrassing. I didn't know what to say or how to soothe her.
"It's that new French-Canadian girl, Madeleine. She's young and so pretty…"
"What are you talking about Angie? Rick doesn't need other women - you're gorgeous… sexy, too."
"You really think so?" Angela asked, her sad swollen eyes looking right into mine.
That's how it happened, how I ended up scratching her itch.
As we were doing it, I told myself it was okay. I was only trying to comfort and reassure her, right? Yeah, right. Who was I kidding? I'm sure it was comforting to her to know she was desirable, but did I need to comfort her so many times? No, truth be told, I was scratching my itch as well as hers.
The next few weeks I took a lot of long lunches, meeting secretly with Angie. I scratched her itch in hotels and motels all over town, in her house and even in my bedroom when Deborah was away. I had no shame, no morals. And like Momma always warned me, the more I scratched, the more it itched.
If I had taken Momma's words and advice to heart, I might have stopped scratching before it was too late. But the inevitable happened.
We were rutting like pigs, noisy and slick with sweat, when he stepped into their bedroom.
"What the hell!" He roared, scaring the bejeezus outta us. I pulled out of Angela and flopped over onto my back, trying to think of something to say. Rick's wrath painted his face a dark and threatening color.
"Oh shit Rick, I'm sorry…" I sputtered lamely.
"No, but you will be!" He stormed, yanking me out of bed with his right hand and smashing his left fist into my face.
I staggered back under the blow, tripped over the bedding and went down, naked, onto my butt. Quick as an asp striking its prey, Rick's foot kicked out, connecting with my nuts, causing indescribable pain. Through my tears and nausea I saw Angela trying to pull him away, screaming at him to stop.
If I wasn't in excruciating pain and expecting to receive even more punishment from Rick, it might have been funny, farcical. Me lying on the floor clutching my boys, the infuriated husband, red-faced and shouting threats and beautiful Angela, naked as the day she was born, dark-nipple breasts bouncing delightfully as she ineffectively tried to disarm the situation.
Angela latched onto his arm, trying to stop him and he slapped her away like an annoying fly. She slammed into the wall with a heavy thud and slid dazed to the floor. I got to my feet and charged Rick, hoping to help Angela. He sidestepped like a matador, grabbed my upper-arm and used my momentum to propel me face-first into the ornately framed floor-to-ceiling mirror.
Shards of glass were everywhere, many of them embedded in my flesh. Blood trickled down my body, making it impossible to distinguish individual cuts. I saw red, both literally and figuratively. All fear of the man before me vanished in an instant. Now I wanted him to suffer.
I took a bold step forward, and found myself back in the farce. I don't know if I slipped in my own blood or on the loose glass covering the hardwood parquet floor, but my legs flew out from under me, and I was once again flat on my back. I could feel the glass gouging my back and my buttocks as Rick closed in on me, a smile on his face.
He dropped down onto me, his knee plowing into my stomach. As the air whooshed out of me, my head and upper-body involuntarily raised up, only to be met by Rick's already bloodied fists.
He hit me repeatedly, pounding with both fists, my battered face snapping left then right, blurring my vision. At some point I saw my chance and took it. I grabbed a large mirror shard off the floor, and brought it up in a roundhouse swing directly towards Rick. Before it connected, something inside my head screamed "no!" or perhaps Angela had shouted. An instant later the glass gouged into his throat, tearing and ripping so deep it was pulled from my hand.
Rick tried to roar in pain and indignation, but only a raspy gurgle came out. He tore the glass from his neck and lunged from the room. But he didn't get far.
Rick fell down the stairs into their hallway and bled out.
Angela called 9-1-1 and slipped on some clothes. While we waited for the ambulance Angela cried and cursed, repeating her mantra of woe over and over again: "Why'd you have to kill him?" I said nothing. What could I say – that I did it for her, that I loved her? Bullshit! I scratched a fucking itch, that's all.
I was wheeled away by the paramedics after Rick was pronounced dead. After a night in the hospital, they brought me before a judge and I was remanded pending trial. His Honor set bail at half a million – a lot of money.
After finding out about my affair with Angela, my wife was disinclined to put up collateral for my bail. Deborah's actual words were, "Let the bastard rot in jail."
I was sent to the county jail and now I'm sharing a cell with 'Bubba'.
Okay, his real name is Tom, but everything here is so surrealistic, I can't stop imagining the worst. Me, in jail, accused of manslaughter? How the hell did this happen? I keep telling myself that it'll be alright, it was an accident. But I'm pretty freaked out. I call the guy Bubba because he's about six nine, two-hundred and eighty pounds of meanness and he looks at me like I used to look at Angela.
Worst of all, last night after lights out, I heard him humming and singing in his bunk below mine. I couldn't make out the all the words, but the refrain sounded frighteningly like:
"You gonna be my bitch, boy.
You gonna scratch my itch."