Hunger

By Rebecca Cross

 

 

There it was again—that curious sound. “Do you hear that?” he asked his girlfriend, who was sleeping soundly beside him.

 

“There’s nothing,” she answered.

 

He closed his eyes for a minute and hovered between wakefulness and sleep. Maybe he had dreamed it. The full moon shone into their room, illuminating everything, even his dreams, with a wan glow. It battered his eyeballs through the lids, making him exhausted but unable to sleep. Suddenly, there it was again—that curious sound. “Don’t you hear that?” he asked. “There’s something going on out there.”

 

“Don’t say that,” his girlfriend said. Her eyes were round and seemed to swallow all the light coming in through their window.

 

He got out of bed and went downstairs in search of the sound. He heard snuffles and grunts coming from the kitchen, and there was a faint glow and the rattling of glass bottles. He grabbed a vase from the living room and turned on the kitchen light.

 

What had he expected? A raccoon? A neighborhood dog? Whatever else, he had not considered this. Crouching on the floor in front of the refrigerator, was Abby, the woman he had loved before. “What are you doing here?” he asked and immediately regretted it, for he could see by the food and containers strewn across the floor and the mess on her face and shirt that she was eating his food.

 

She seemed not to notice his stupid question, nor even his presence. At least, she didn’t acknowledge him. But that was nothing new. Instead, she put her hand into a platter of cold ham, lifted a fistful of it to her mouth, and began pushing it inside with two fingers, leaving some of it on her cheeks and chin. God, she was still as beautiful as ever. “Why are you here?” he asked, something quivering inside him, much like the Jell-o mold she now had her fingers in. “How did you get in?” But he knew the answer to that question, for every night, after his girlfriend went around making sure all the doors and windows were locked and they were shut safe inside, he would go to the back door and unlock it, just in case Abby ever decided to come to him.

 

She scooped some sour cream into her already full mouth and ignored him. Nothing was more irresistible. He crouched down beside her and dug a hand into the cake his girlfriend had made for dinner with her parents the following night. He lifted the handful of moist, spongy cake to Abby’s grease-smeared lips. She hesitated for a moment, then grabbed him by the wrist as she took all the proffered cake into her mouth, her warm, wet lips closing over his fingers, her tongue playing across his palm as she licked up every last bit of frosting.

 

Out of many girls, there will always be one. One that makes all other girls like putrefying donkeys. One that becomes the material out of which every thought is formed. She is the one you touch in your mind when you are touching someone else. She is the reason for the words, I love you, the thing that makes it possible for you to say those words to anyone. And she is the fear that keeps you sharing a bed with one of those rotting asses just because being alone is so much worse. She is the one you know you would give up everything for if only she wanted you, for this one girl will always, always be the one that rejected you.

 

For him, this girl was Abby. “I love you,” he said. She didn’t respond. She didn’t offer any sort of consolation, any sort of explanation or apology for the way she had treated him before. She only continued the long silence she began all those years ago, just after he told her how he felt about her, a silence that said she would rather chew up her tongue, swallow her words, than give them to him. But she didn’t swallow her words, she only took the words meant for him and gave them to everyone else. So many words spilling out of her mouth, kind words, intimate words, all said within earshot of him, but not directed towards him, a verbal/metaphorical/existential slap in the face. Her eyes never looked directly at him, but they saw out of their corners that he was miserable, and this made her happy. How gratifying for her to know that she was capable of inspiring such misery in a person, that she inhabits his thoughts still, even eight years later (even though he has found someone who loves and admires him and says every word for him), so much that he does not throw her out of their house, or say, “You don’t belong here,” or call the police because she is, in fact, an intruder and a thief, but instead stoops down and begins feeding her. The girl asleep upstairs will never have that kind of hold over him because love is not as attractive to a man as contempt.

 

But she was here now, after so many years, and even if she didn’t speak to him, didn’t look at him, that was his palm her lips brushed, his knuckles her teeth grazed, his fingers her tongue ran up and down. His, not somebody else’s. His.

 

He laughed. This was what he would think about from now on, not how he first met his girlfriend, not what their first kiss was like, how she had kissed him like she had loved him all her life and how she had looked him in the face afterwards. Nor would he think of how she had first told him she loved him, or any of the other times she had told him since. What did any of that mean if it wasn’t Abby? No, what he will think about when he and his girlfriend are old and have grandchildren and their bones are starting to disintegrate is the night that he found Abby in his kitchen, eating his food, and how he had stooped beside her, cupping a handful of cake, how he held it to her mouth, and how she put her mouth around his fingers and took the cake from his hand. He would think of this because she had come back. And even though she may not have said one word to him, even though she may never have looked him in the face or acknowledged him in any way other than to take the food he offered her, and even if he never saw her again, she had come back that one time, she had accepted his offering, and that meant everything.

 

Day would be coming soon, but he didn’t want to leave her. He would feed her all night, if he could. He fed her everything from the fridge; then he dug into the pantry, praying with every can he opened that his girlfriend wouldn’t hear and come downstairs and interrupt them. When the pantry was empty, he brought out the chocolates he had gotten his girlfriend for her birthday and fed Abby those, one by one, wanting, with every bite, to kiss her.

 

Coming out of his reverie, he saw that she was holding her mouth open, waiting for him to fill it, and suddenly he realized that he was out of food. She won’t let you touch her if there’s no food. So he grabbed his coat and got in the car and drove to the supermarket. He loaded up the cart and emptied his wallet and returned home with bags upon bags of food for her. Now he didn’t even care that his girlfriend would be waking up soon and would see him feeding Abby. He laughed a little on the drive home, thinking about it. The laughter was mirth and fear and regret all at once and he choked a little doing it.

 

When he got home, though, Abby was gone. All that was left of her were empty cartons and bags and the crumbs and dollops of food that had missed her mouth. His joy suddenly fled. He searched the whole house for her, including all the closets and crawlspaces. She was gone.

 

And if his girlfriend, when she got up, finding him sitting on the kitchen floor, surrounded by groceries and a mess, crying, asked him what was going on, he didn’t notice. And if she questioned him, as the weeks went by, and he slowly maxed out each of his credit cards, buying food he thought Abby would like and mailing it off to her as a present, always with a note saying, “With all my love,” he didn’t hear. And if she wondered where all their food had gone, where it continued to go, he didn’t care. It was for Abby. It was all for Abby. And if he never heard from her again, well … it would always be for her. It would always be her.

 

And now in the night, he would often hear a curious sound. A humming, chewing sound. It always seemed to occur just as he was on the edge of sleep so that he was torn away from the lightness of slumber and thrust back into the heaviness of his own body, and always it stopped once he was fully awake. He couldn’t place where it was coming from.… Sometimes it felt like it was inside his own head.

 

Now he could hear another sound: his girlfriend moaning in her sleep. He nudged her, “Hey, stop it,” he said.

 

She groaned awake. “Do you love me?” she asked.

 

“Of course I love you,” he said. “Go to sleep.”

 

“Do you love me more than anything?”

 

“Yes,” he said, and to prove it, he kissed her. “Now go to sleep.”

 

She put her arm over his chest and nuzzled her head into his neck. God, why did she have to be so clingy? “I love you so, so much,” she said. He grunted, suddenly drowsy. There was such a curious taste on his mouth.

 

When he woke up the next morning, the sound still seemed to be with him. Unshakable now. He got up and went to the bathroom to splash some cold water on his face. There was some red on his lips. Dried blood. Had he bitten himself? He came back to the bedroom and saw his girlfriend lying on her side, with her face away from him, weeping.

 

“Hey, what’s wrong?” he said. He pulled back the covers to get back into bed with her and saw the outline of her ribs sticking out through her t-shirt and the jut of her pelvis poking out above the waistline of her panties. He saw the vertebrae straining against the taut skin and noticed for the first time the narrowness of her limbs and the sunkenness of her cheek.

 

“Hey,” he said, turning her over to face him. Now he saw that her lips were tinged red from blood, and even as her body was shaken with sobs and the tears streamed down her temples, her jaws were moving, up and down, up and down, and he could see that she had been chewing on her tongue. She looked up at him with cavernous eyes.

 

“I’m so hungry,” she said.

 

 

Rebecca Cross lives in New England, where she teaches to pay the bills while she writes strange and unmarketable things. Her work has appeared in elimae.

 

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Published on September 29, 2008 at 10:03 am  Leave a Comment  

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