I licked buttercream frosting off my fingers and didn’t have a panic attack. My taut heart raged and threatened to turn my body to froth, but I quickly melted the icing with my tongue against the roof of my mouth and swallowed.
I’d been cutting up a tall donated cake in a soup kitchen and laying slices of it in little cardboard trays to hand out at lunch to the bundles of people bobbing quietly about in the shade outside. It was carrot cake, too cosmetically imperfect for the display case, and mounded with cream. Miss Rosaline, the kitchen manager, swung her heavy way among the tables of food, one eye permanently swollen shut, the other reduced to a slit as she smiled at the piles of desserts, ribs, and my indulgence.
Good, huh? We get all sorts of food, all sorts. We eat good. We don’t just eat to live. We eat good.
Four and a half years ago, my mother, dad, and I loaded the oven with food, set a table, and invited a haphazard group of people over to celebrate Christmas. The rolls didn’t burn, the butter spread easily, and no one spoke about politics. We all sat at the table, content and bathed in a general kind of affection for each other. Christmas dinner ended. The dining room traded light for light, catching the glitter on the snowflake decorations above our meal and throwing afterglow on our faces. We’ll be eating prime rib for days my dad laughed, and then he collapsed an hour later in a little pool of blood, in which I searched for ripples of breath and I wondered how someone could look the same and yet completely different in a moment.
When the paramedics had cleared out and the protocol investigation began, I sat in the back of a police cruiser and watched the shell of our twinkling house wherein a small team of tired policemen worked. I wondered if they smelled the heavily creamed coffee, mellow butter, the marbled cut of meat from dinner as they worked and rubbed their eyes. I wanted to tell them about the Rockwellian evening we had. How the rolls were perfect and how everyone’s cheeks were shiny; how we pressed the overabundance of food we’d prepared on our guests and they’d politely refused at first and we’d insisted and they, with appropriately guilty smiles and delicate inclinations of their heads, had accepted the plates.
Camera flashes started to pulse against the window and made the strings of colored lights on the frame of our home look absurdly pale and bleached, made-up against the sick muted throb of the investigator’s examination. Cause of death: massive heart attack; we had prime rib to last us days, and I stopped eating.
Hunger is the brain’s way of telling us to keep living. After Christmas, I traded bright red hunger for an angry pacing animal in my stomach that inhaled whole whatever nourishment I was willing to toss in—to keep it just enough alive. It took hunks of me when I wouldn’t give it anything else: cheeks, thick pieces of my thighs, lips, a mound of my belly; it gnawed around my vertebrae. I tormented it back, held food in my mouth and spit it out, taught it tricks like feeling full by drinking too much water, dangled food in front of it, in my throat, and snatched it back to make it mad.
I helped at a wildlife sanctuary, slipping raw chicken legs into the mouths of wolves. During feeding days when the air smelled red and fat, they were all tooth and saliva. Their tongues unchecked, they ran into each other with snaps and quarrels, eyes hard and locked onto me as I made my way down the lines of enclosures and back to fill up steel buckets with more meat. When I tossed them the drumsticks, they swallowed the legs whole, with every breath contended growls mingled with choking noises.
Rosaline said We eat like royals here and I ran my tongue against the gritty sweetness on my teeth while I began to love the oily feeling of swallowing again.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/m01229