I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I once fell in love with a cannibal on the subway. I liked his scarf and I suppose he liked something about me. Perhaps my forwardness. Our eyes locked and I immediately told him of grandmother’s painkillers, which are first class and only given to elderly individuals who are also about to perish. “If you’re just old or just have a terminal illness you cannot get a prescription for these,” I explained to him. “Your problems must be compound and dire.” He removed his hand from the stationary pole and scratched his cheek. Something about me causes people to act itchy and uncomfortable in my presence. Perhaps my forwardness. “She never stops staring at the television. I steal them right in front of her. Maybe I should empty them into my purse in a separate room, out of respect, but I like the openness of lifting them while she’s sitting next to me. That way I can tell myself that she sees what’s going on and would say something if she wanted to.”
I’d hopped on the subway after a day at the children’s park. The park has become my favorite place to kill time because I have a lot of anxiety about dying; in fact, dying is all I think about. But when I’m around children it seems like I will someday be able to accept my own death. I observe their natural purity, the joy they derive from grass, trees, and human company, and I realize that these things would never make me joyful. So much so that I’m probably not even a real person. The only thing I ever want is for something to catch on fire, both literally and metaphorically, and in this respect my death will be the universe correcting an abnormality. I also like the park because kids are easy to watch: they’re fast and loud and they never stop moving. Watching kids play is like staring at an aquarium set to “boil.” Children are safe catastrophes; they strike a balance between uncontrolled and harmless in a way that automobile accidents, tornadoes, and cannibals do not. But after an hour of kids, I either get a headache or I get bored.
“You steal from your grandmother to get high,” the cannibal summarized, but he was nonjudgmental about it. His comment had the tone of an open-ended question; there was an almost therapeutic inflection in the way his pitch rose near the end of the sentence, a conversational passing of the baton.
“Pretty high.” By this point I was in the cottony stage of the pills. Everything seemed very insulated and cocoonlike, particularly my ears and head. Layers and layers of distance hugged my cheeks in a tactile and present manner. This made me quite conscious of being in the subway, in a tunnel, beneath the ground. I had an irrational fear that I was spilling stuffing everywhere, like a ripped pillow, and I kept reaching up toward my head to see if anything was actually coming out.
When the cannibal placed his hand against my hip, it felt like he was touching me through a sleeping bag. I drew in close to him. For a while we pressed against one another as though we were two halves of a mold.
“This is my stop,” the cannibal said, and although he did not ask me to follow him, I did. I played shadow and there was no speaking or eye contact. Even after we were in the building walking up to his apartment, he did not look back at me. He shut his door in my face but didn’t lock it. So I entered.
The smell inside his apartment depended on where I was standing, but I noticed that the best-smelling place was in front of a box containing several unopened bottles of Clorox. Right there it smelled like the average library, a packaged scent I associate with the act of collection and storage. The periphery of his living room was lined with a series of padlocked chest freezers, and the soothing way they all hummed together reminded me of a dial tone. Finally he came back into the living room and handed me a glass of water that contained nearly twenty very small ice cubes.
“I’m not used to company,” he said.
The pills were beginning to wane. My nerves wanted sunglasses. I felt cranky and exposed, like when the lights come on too soon after a movie. “You don’t have any furniture?” I asked. Finally I sat down on one of the freezers. It dwarfed me; my legs dangled down off the side like a child’s. He took a sip from his glass and began crunching one of the ice cubes. I noticed he had very large, strong teeth, broad and flat like white rocks. Had it not been for the humming sounds of the freezers, his chewing noises would’ve caused my headache to scream.
“No,” he replied, “I just have a bed.”
“How convenient.” I swallowed a mini ice cube whole, like it was a pill. I’ve found that eating food as though it is medication sometimes helps me feel better. I haven’t chewed up a grape in half a decade.
“It’s the truth,” he replied. I hopped off of the freezer and went on a self-guided tour of his apartment. It was true; it was the truth.
The next morning I woke up later than intended—the cannibal keeps his apartment very cold. Our sex had been truly nonverbal, and I think he expected me to leave without making future plans. “Can you get dinner Thursday, maybe?” I asked. After a few minutes he came out from the kitchen with another glass of small ice cubes. His crunches seemed like a substitution for language. “It will be fun,” I insisted; “I want to see you again.” Finally, through a series of subtle nods, he agreed to meet me at a steakhouse. This was a concession on my part; I’m vegetarian. But I figured he would like it—there was a real steakiness about him. His skin was nearly the color of raw meat and his teeth were so wide. Much of his life seemed to revolve around those teeth. For example, he was crazy about oral hygiene. His bathroom countertop held a rainbow of different mouthwashes and the waste in his kitchen trash can consisted of gum and mint wrappers padded by yards of spent floss.
As I walked into work I waved at my one direct colleague and apologized for being late. She’s a dresser, meaning she selects outfits to place on the mannequins I assemble. Her nose crimpled and then her face went sour. “What’s with you?” I asked. Mornings when I first come in there are strewn boxes everywhere labeled by body part: boxes of left arms, boxes of long, thin, gray right legs. I have to assemble around seven fake people by lunchtime.
“You smell like old mushrooms,” she said.
I shrugged; all I could taste were the mints I’d stolen from the cannibal’s house. They were the red and white kind that remind me of Christmas year-round. I began building a woman from the legs up and halfway through my coworker stood next to me and sighed. “Are these even skinnier than usual?” she asked. “Soon they will be two-dimensional.” It was true; I held out my arm and noticed the mannequin’s thigh was the same size.
“I’m jealous of them,” I said.
“They have no room for organs,” she countered, but it was their lives I was jealous of—living inside a window where all day long people admired them through glass. In my quest to accept that I will, at some point, die, I’ve noticed that a lot of people use admiration to cope with mortality. Their thought process is that if they work hard and become good at something, or famous, or even if they just live a respectable life, then they’ll receive admiration from others and this will soften the ultimate blow. No one has ever admired me. Though if I spent all day being complimented within a window, maybe I wouldn’t feel so nervous or so sad. Perhaps I wouldn’t steal as many pills from my terminally ill grandmother.
Our dinner was awkward. I ordered only sides and the cannibal ordered nothing at all except more water and more ice cubes. Finally the waiter began to mumble something about a minimum so I added a bottle of red wine as our main course. “I hope you’re thirsty,” noted the cannibal. Turns out he doesn’t drink.
Halfway through my meal, I began to badger him. Why wasn’t he hungry? Why didn’t he suggest another place if he didn’t like steak?
He asked why I didn’t suggest another place if I was vegetarian. “I thought you would like it,” I told him. “You seem like a carnivore.” Without meaning to I began drinking from the wine bottle. He wiped my mouth with a cloth napkin.
“Why are you a vegetarian?”
Normally, I avoid bringing up colon cancer on dinner dates. But he asked. “My grandmother is about to die. She may have actually died this very second. She should be at a hospice, but she refuses to go.”
His face twitched a little. It was only for a second, but I caught it. His face is normally a smooth, smooth song whose lyrics do not change, so when the record skips it is very obvious. Something had transformed within his features; the shadows cast by his nose and eyelashes now fell in different places. “I can never eat in front of you,” he told me. “I don’t eat regular things.”
I guess I laughed. I reached into my purse and dropped another pill.
“How many of those things do you take each day?”
“None of your business. What do you eat?”
“None of your business.” He took in an ice cube and said, “People.”
I can’t say exactly how, but I knew that he was not joking. Working with mannequins, I see caricatures of expressions all day. It makes me sensitive to the movements of real people’s faces. After a few weeks on the job I was able to look into a crowd and notice the ground zero for the Model #2342B’s smirk, or the pensive mien that inspired the vacancy behind Model #2172-00’s eyes. And at that moment I saw that he was doing an exaggerated impression of a regular man having dinner in a restaurant. I laughed my best wine laugh and tried to pretend that I was amused, but it didn’t work. There was a shift in earnestness and then I could not lose his eyes; he stared at me until I looked at him straight on with an admission that I’d understood.
Instead of feeling afraid I felt excited, like we were spies. He had just confessed a beastly secret inside a packed restaurant, and no one watching us had any idea.
On the walk home the wine began to slosh around behind my eyes like a red ocean. “I might be sick,” I mentioned. We stopped in an alley and I waited for an overweight raccoon to begrudgingly saunter away before I retched.
“That creature. He seems used to avoiding the vomit of the intoxicated.” In the cannibal’s deep voice, this observation sounded profound.
When we returned to our regular cadence, I apologized. “I didn’t mean to be disenchanting. Or do things like that not bother you?” I asked. “Are cannibals immune to gross?”
“Not immune at all,” he said. He sounded disappointed. The rest of the walk was quiet.
Because I was unwell, he put me to bed in my apartment and then announced he was leaving. I grabbed his wrist and noticed how white his teeth flashed in the dark. When he opened his mouth it was like someone had turned on a small lamp. “Should I be scared? Of you?” I didn’t mean to be rude; this slipped out on the tail end of a hiccup.
His hand found my own and unclasped my fingers from his wrist like they were a watch. “Are you afraid of dying?” He asked this as he started toward the door—it was a question he meant to leave with me. This reminded me of high school and the way my English teacher would always ask something very thematic and complicated just as the bell rang so that the question hung in the air like a fog. I rolled over onto my pillow before sitting back up and shouting after him.
“Isn’t everyone afraid?”
And this was the first and only time I ever heard him laugh. It was not an amused laugh but a knowing one, a shadowy cloud of experience whose shape could be mistaken as resembling humor. “No,” he said. “There are many, many people who are not afraid at all.”
We started having about two dates a week. I would have liked to see him more frequently, but this was all I got. He wasn’t very forthright about the details of schedule. Occasionally I’d ask what his plans were for one of our nights apart, and he would look at me and raise an eyebrow.
Then one Wednesday he surprised me at work. Wednesday is the day I go to visit Grandma. “You’ll have to come along,” I apologized. “Just stay near the door. She won’t even notice you. She probably won’t even notice me.”
It was the usual—I brought up her mail, entered, gave her a big kiss hello, went through her bills, wrote checks for them and stamped their envelopes. I opened the refrigerator and made sure she had enough pudding to get her through the week. Then I found my favorite bottle of her pills and put 14 of them into my purse.
Before leaving I always grab her hand and try to direct my words past her face and skin, directly through her skull to her brain. “Goodbye, Grandma.” Her glassy eyes twittered a bit, trying to determine whether my voice was coming from the television or from some other source whose reality she no longer cared about. I hugged her and walked quickly back to the cannibal at the doorway. “Let’s roll,” I said.
“Are you going to introduce me?” he asked. I shook my head.
“There’s no point.”
The moment we hit the stairs I reached into my purse, grabbed two pills, and swallowed them: immediately, before they even had the chance to start working, I felt giddy. He was walking in front of me, taking each stair with a mathematical evenness, and the opportunity to throw him off-kilter was tempting. I jumped onto his back and wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed his hair, which was short but also seemed like it had never been cut; it is naturally jagged and always looks tussled. He reached up to his shoulders and placed his arms on mine and we went down the stairs like that. I held his strong neck and he carried me all the way to the subway, where I sat on his lap. By then the pill was working and I relaxed into his body. At our stop I made him pick me up like we’d just been married, which he did not like. But he let me hold his hand as we walked up the stairs of the subway, and then of the apartment building. I’d become used to the smell of his apartment, to the way even his water had that taste about it, a primitive flavor. It was like drinking the cleanest dirt on the planet.
That night I woke up and couldn’t sleep. I used the bathroom but still felt restless. The hum of the freezers seemed like an invitation. I walked out into the living room and stared at them, still and giant, white sleeping animals lying silent against the walls. The one in the back left caught my eye; a part of my mind realized something and sent me over to explore. Standing in front of it, I saw what one half of my brain wanted to show the other: the padlock was missing.
I placed my fingertips below the seal of the freezer’s lip and tried to quietly lift its lid. It was more difficult than I thought—the seal seemed to clench itself shut, like a weary child at the dentist. I reasoned with it, lied; “It’s okay,” I whispered. “I’m not the one who normally opens you, but I have his permission.”
Once it came free it was like I had uncovered a secret universe. Blue light flooded out into the room and the cold mist inside the freezer greeted me as a mysterious form of smoke. The lid instantly seemed to want to close; I felt a downward pressure that I fought against. My panic grew as I found I could not fight it back; I wasn’t strong enough. It took me a moment to realize that this was due to the cannibal. He was standing right next to me, pushing down upon the lid.
“We need to talk,” he said.
In my surprise I backed away from the freezer. The lid snapped shut and he immediately closed it with a padlock. I felt a vague anger swell in my chest, upset that he had denied me. “Why can’t I see?” I asked. “If it would frighten me away, do you think I’d even be here?”
His pajamas were completely white. In the dark, it seemed like he was simply a body with floating teeth.
“Let’s go back to bed.”
“No. Let’s not.” I felt my chest thumping and my head whining. “I’m here and I’m sleeping with you. I might love you,” I said. “It isn’t fair for you to have so many secrets.”
“This is different.” I didn’t like how stern his voice had gotten. “Seeing what is in that freezer is very different from thinking about seeing it.”
“Well the only way it will ever become not different is if you let me look.”
At this point he switched on the light, but a shadow remained over his face.
“And then what? You look and see and then what?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“I’ve been letting us pretend that I am something else.”
“So we stop pretending,” I said.
He shut the lamp back off and walked back to the bedroom, and I followed.
Following him wherever he went, I reminded myself, got me into this mess, but I lay down and our bodies found each other and in the morning when I woke up he was already awake and staring at me.
The next night, he did not call. When I finally broke down two days later and phoned him, his number had been disconnected. I went to his apartment and banged and banged and waited, but there was no answer.
At work, the mannequin limbs suddenly seemed unfairly heavy. I kept thinking of him off somewhere in the city, handling real body parts. My assemblage time dropped and I got behind on my quota. My coworker kept running in yelling, “I needed a body for this outfit five minutes ago!”
“I’ll wear the outfit,” I pleaded. “Let me pose and stand in the window.” She laughed and came over and began struggling to push the left arm into the left arm socket. Working together we managed to finish; I promised her I’d be better tomorrow.
That Wednesday I stopped by the supermarket and got more pudding, then went to the pharmacy to pick up Grandma’s refills. I would need extra help, I knew, to get me through the week, possibly even through the month and the year.
Maybe I would sit with her and eat some pudding and take more pills and not call or show up at work tomorrow. If I got fired I could just begin sitting with Grandma all day and night. Maybe, I reasoned, the two of us had enough grief in common to live side by side.
When I first opened the door, I stepped back and looked at the apartment number to make sure the key had unlocked the right place. The lights were off and so was the television. Flipping on the light switch, I walked into an empty living room. She was not in her chair. On the seat there was a bottle of pills and a note written in sprawling cannibal handwriting: PLEASE POUR THESE DOWN THE SINK AND LEAVE IMMEDIATELY. GO BEGIN LIVING YOUR LIFE.
The chair still had the strange odor of her sick body, and the onrushing guilt of leading him to her grew as a sticky heat in the back of my throat. My first instinct was to take something from him in return—to break into his apartment, if he even still lived there, unplug all his freezers and let their contents spoil. I took several of her pills, turned on the television, and sat. I waited for tears but felt only tranquil fatigue, a fuzziness that was massaged by the bright images of a popular cartoon.
It was only hours later, when the night grew dim, that I noticed his face entering the periphery of my vision, his teeth aglow in the dark with a similar electricity as the television screen. With the TV at my feet and his vibrant teeth at my head, I found myself bookended by light. And what an insufferable anguish, to be surrounded by brightness but radiate nothing at all.
Alissa Nutting is a Schaeffer Fellow in fiction at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is completing her PhD. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Fence, Mid-American Review, and other journals. Literary author Ben Marcus chose her short-story manuscript, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, for publication through Starcherone Books’ Prize for Innovative Fiction (forthcoming in fall 2010).
This issue of First Proof is funded in part by the Bertha and Isaac Lieberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.
Additional funding is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York State Council on the Arts, and readers like you.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee