by Grace Carpenter
He sits in front of her like some kind of Buddha, legs folded on the carpet, slightly protruding belly just visible through the folds of his loose shirt. She’s fond of that belly, the way it jiggles happily when he laughs and bounces around when he runs shirtless, jumping off cliffs or chasing her with a feather duster. His belly is playful and free. She needs that.
She doesn’t have a belly. She hasn’t had a belly in eighteen months. Her organs are stitched to her skin, sucking her gut in along her spine, drawing themselves up along her rib cage bones. Her stomach glides back into her body, lovingly, cradling her liver and kidneys and stinking masses of intestines. She loves the feel of her hollowness, the way her flesh clings to her bones.
He’s sitting across from her, belly flopping gloriously in the lamplight, unshaven and messy-haired. He’s so not her type. She’s holding a sketchbook and the pencil in her hand is curiously broken. He hasn’t noticed.
He asks her a question that she doesn’t hear. His voice gurgles in her ears, bubbling away in her mashed-up mind. She narrows her eyes, tries to focus. The candle burning to his left is lunging out from the shadows, sparking furiously, thrusting itself into her vision-
She coughs. She has to focus.
Her eyes slide to his feet and she gapes at those awful toenails. He has such hairy feet. Black curly growths sprout from his toes-she’s always hated ugly toes. It was a deal-breaker before, just like yellow teeth or a poor credit score. Everyone else has been smooth, sleek, gleaming in the moonlight. Men like jungle cats-strong, rippingly muscular, with half-arched smiles and fat wallets. The men who drive cars that ooze sex and drip chrome into the asphalt. The men who sneak so quietly, they leave no footprints.
Shit. He’s asking her a question. She blinks and coughs again. What the fuck is he saying?
His voice balloons around her head, billowing out somewhere over her left shoulder. It’d be a nice voice if she could hear it through the screams in her mind.
She heaves a breath. Her fingertips scratch along her forearm, raking ragged fingernails deep into the flesh. The fish-belly white of that creamy skin, that strip of superfluous person, the only place she can’t get rid of it. The only place that won’t respond. The only place she can’t control.
He’s drumming his fingers against his knee, rubbing his delightful little tufts of chin scruff with his palm. Those moist, sticky palms. He’d held her hand once at an amusement park and bought her cotton candy that she’d tasted to be nice and thrown behind a bench when he wasn’t looking. It had started a trend. He’d look at her jutting hips and her spidery limbs, and ask her where she’d put all that food. She almost laughed out loud. “Not where you think,” she longed to say. “The trash, mostly. Sometimes behind bushes. Under tables. Old ladies’ purses. Wherever it’ll fit.”
She did that once-slipped a little piece of sandwich into a handbag on the subway. It was an angry bag-a lurking, vengeful, impenetrable blue, swirling with the dust of sailors’ broken bones and the forgotten sails of capsized ships, and drowning in rhinestones and glittering spikes. She hated it. It was angry, snarling at her haughtily as she reapplied her lipstick for the third time.
Well, he’d bought her a sandwich and she’d had to get creative. So she did it. She sidled up to it, ignoring the seventeen-year-old amateur model chattering incessantly on a disco ball iPhone and gulping a Starbucks cup like she was feasting on the blood of New York itself (which she arguably was). Her fingers were trembling from the heat, the way it juiced her muscles, leaving her cracked and dry and raw. She was lifeless, dangling from the subway car, that pastrami sandwich pulling her into the ground. She stumbled and trembled, and she glanced around, her limp curls sticking to the back of her neck, feeling heat deep in her belly beginning to thud throughout her body. She felt sick. She was going to be sick. She stepped forward-snuck, slinking around like a hungry raccoon, eyes bloodshot in the humid crowded car, and stumbled forward, slipping the sandwich into the bag as she passed-
And it was gone. She could breathe again. Her limbs were suddenly weightless, her veins clear. She was free.
Besides, a little bit of spicy New York pastrami sandwich did that handbag good. It looked much less snooty after that.
She blinks and sees a raw crimson river rippling along, from her elbow to her clawed-up wrist, following the path of that hysterical blue vein she’d been able to see since she was fifteen. It had pounced at her one day, ambushed her with furious shrieks of blue blue blue!, and for three days all she could see was deoxygenated blue and fishbelly white streaking the colors of her world.
Fuck. He’s asking the same goddamn question.
She slaps her leg and ignored the hand print that flowers across her thigh. Fucking focus.
A cough. A very deliberate swallowing of air. Deliberately forcing down the heaving, harrowing shrieks that surge when she’s not looking.
He’s speaking again. He’s still here?
He’s asking something. His voice is closer this time.
There is an aloneness, a way she can’t trust her own emotions anymore. An instability to it-feeling like she’s standing on two shifting tectonic plates as they slide away from one another, rocking around in the open air. Feeling stuck on a telephone wire, a million feet just above the ground, nowhere to turn, with no choice but to just inch forward with her fingertips white and trembling in the cackling wind. Tears freezing on her cheeks, chest collapsing in the rich scarlet gush of terror and sorrow, black shadows hissing in her bloodstream, mind reeling out along the razor’s edge as the hot sticky drenching world explodes inside her. She must stay steady, strong. The world around her is silence, bleeding into the howling wind, and she’s alone. She’s so alone. He sits before her, asking her a question. She yanks back all the panic in her mind to make room-just one little space-for his voice to curl up and rest inside her head.
She looks up at him and finally hears his question.
“Did you want to order takeout?”