You know that feeling you get when you eat too much? That uncomfortable pressure that just makes your throat feel like a pipe ready to burst? I wish I could feel that. Stuffed, full. I’ve never said the words, “I can’t eat another bite.” I always could. Bite after bite after bite. Twelve plates of pasta and sausage at one Italian place, open and close a buffet on my days off, and still wrap up the night with three full ice cream cakes. It didn’t matter how much I ate. I’d stuff my face until my stomach ached but still it wanted more.
Now I know what you’re thinking: How do I even fit in the car? Hell, how do I even type with hams for hands? I’m skinny as a rail, a sickly-looking 120. A stiff breeze would kill me, snap me like a reed. It’s as if my belly was a furnace that burned everything up before it could be of any use.
When I was younger and on my parents’ insurance, I got tested for everything you could imagine. Three different types of tapeworms, parasites with names you can’t pronounce. Clean as a whistle. They checked me into a dozen, a baker’s dozen, health clinics, each one with an eating disorder specialist that was sure they knew the cause. None did and, in the end, my mom and dad gave up. Made me get a part-time job as soon as could though, to help with the grocery budget.
That part-time job became a full-time job that stretched twenty years. I work at a plant that produces those takeout containers for restaurants. You know the ones. Generic white Styrofoam or plastic with the cheap lids. I know it sounds weird, but sometimes while I was pressing them down through the shaper, I felt like them. Those empty bowls waiting to be filled, only to be empty again. I identify with those containers even more when I come home after work. There are so many that wait for me.
Empty of the Chinese takeout, of the pizza, drained of the fries and burgers, they stack up from floor to ceiling. Spill out from the table and pile in heaps on the floor. I’ve got to wade through a sea of wrappers just to make it to the couch. I ended up in a dump with them. Tossed away. My parents haven’t spoken to me in years. I can’t even tell you why, honestly.
My morning routine never changes. Get up and fry a dozen eggs in my fire hazard of a kitchen, stop at a biscuit place and pick up my usual order. I’ve got them thinking the six combo meals are for me and my coworkers. They don’t even make to the parking lot. Lunch, I wolf down two subs. Lunch is the worst, not long enough to go get something and come back. Though sometimes I deal with the bullshit from the floor manager and take my time. Then head home for a dinner that takes all night to finish. Sometimes I start at six and don’t stop until midnight. Most of my paycheck goes to my stomach.
That was my every day up until I met Audry.
She was the new office girl in charge of order fulfillment. Blond with reddish highlights. A dye job but a good one. In her forties it would turn out but a forties that would make most women jealous. She always smelled like strawberry hand sanitizer.
We just clicked. She’d only been there two days before we were texting after work. Jokes and cat memes at first but soon we took lunch together, then a few dinners. I always left those smiling and starving. Tears in my eyes from the pangs of hunger twisting up my guts.
Audry was like a ray of sunshine. I never smiled more than when she’d call me out of the blue to chat about her day. We didn’t have days off together very often so she’d check in on her breaks. I would sit there and listen as she vented about the ordering department screwing up yet another file. Munching on the odd roach that would scurry by. It was on one of our rare days off together that she called in sobbing.
She told me her mother had had a stroke and she had to leave right away. It was a six hour drive. I told her I would be right there, pick her up in my car. She grew silent. You ever watch recordings of bombs going off, like the nuclear test site footage? Remember how quiet it gets right before the bomb explodes? That’s what her silence was like. I waited, she took a breath, then the boom. She needed me to watch her baby.
I was stunned. We’d been dating, official, over three weeks now and this was the first she’d ever mentioned having a kid. She apologized and rambled. It had been a bad split from her ex. She wanted to tell me but couldn’t find the right time. I asked her how she’d managed to go on our dates. Sometimes they were spur of the moment runs to the pizza shop she liked. Turns out her babysitter lived in the apartment next door but she was gone on some school trip this week. Why not take the baby with her? Her parents didn’t know. They hadn’t wanted her to get married in the first place. I got the feeling there was a lot more there but I couldn’t stand to hear the pain in her voice anymore.
So I told her the truth. It was alright. I didn’t care if she had a kid. I’d be over at her place as soon as I could. She told me she loved me. At that moment I wouldn’t have cared if she had a dozen kids. Her place was small and on the top floor of a brownstone walkup. I was a little out of breath by the time I made it inside and my stomach did a little spasm. Audry was a whirlwind of emotion and frantic action.
“I’ll be back as soon as I know she’s okay.” She showed me the living room and pointed out her bedroom. “He’s in there taking a nap. He is a doll, really.” I asked her how old he was. “He’ll be a year old next month.” She looked into my eyes, “You okay? I’m sorry I didn’t tell you but…” She let it hang in the air between us.
“It’s okay. I love you. Go see your mom, I’ll watch little…what’s his name?” I realized I never asked.
“Tommy. He’ll wake up in an hour or two, just went down. Bottles are in the fridge.” She gave me a hug and a rushed kiss as she made her way out the door. “I forgot to go shopping but help yourself to whatever you want.” She locked the door behind her. As soon as the lock clicked I started tearing through the cabinets. That quiver in my stomach had grown to a full quake. Gurgles of stomach acid started to creep up my throat. I opened a box of elbow noodles and swallowed mouthfuls whole.
There wasn’t much at all. She had a few things of ramen and a bottle of pasta sauce besides the box of noodles. I rummaged through the fridge and found a stick of butter, three old looking micro carrots next to some questionable spring mix. That was it other than the six bottles of milk on the top shelf. It was going to be a long six hours.
I want to say that I held out for a while before drinking the sauce cold to chase down the slimy vegetables. It had only been an hour. I boiled the noodles into a soup with the butter and ate them by hour two. That was when Tommy woke up.
He was a cute little guy. Had his mother’s blue eyes. He was probably pretty confused to see me when I scooped him up out of his crib. We had something in common though, he was hungry too. I cooed and danced him up and down a bit while I got a bottle ready. He went to town on that thing. Drained half in record time. I figured I’d put on something bright and colorful for him while he ate. Ended up on some cartoon. Tommy seemed to like it, he wasn’t crying his head off like other babies. He was a doll, just like Audry said. We sat there, him next to me on a little pillow I found. He smiled when I tickled his feet. This wasn’t so bad. Before long I tuned out the mindless cartoon and ended up falling asleep.
I woke up to two things: Tommy crying his head off and my whole body aching. The fire in my stomach had spread through my whole body. My teeth ached and I felt thinner. I mean thinner. My hands were skeletal and I knew if I pulled up my shirt I could count my ribs. The apartment was full of shadows due to the setting sun. I’d been out for hours. I tried to pick the little guy up, to calm him down, but I felt a wave of dizziness like I’d been on a Tilt-A-Whirl.
I fumbled out my phone. Audry had texted me that she’d arrived and her mom was in the ICU. I sent her love and an update that me and Tommy were fine. My fingers trembled as I pressed against the screen.
I forced myself off the sofa. I opened the fridge and drained one of the bottles. Then another and another. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even close. I felt my organs shift and a sharp stab shot through my chest. Stars exploded behind my eyes and one thought filled my mind. This was it, I was dying. I was actually starving to death. I don’t know where the energy came from but I went back through the kitchen until I came across the tin of formula.
I tore off the lid and buried my face in the cloud of powdered milk. I choked and sputtered, coughed out as much as I managed to get down my throat. Tommy kept crying. I crawled my way back to the couch and tried to calm him down, but he wasn’t having it. The closer I got the better he smelled though. Sweet, milk-fed, pink skin so soft. I could feel great gobs of saliva run down my lips, felt them mix with the powder into a sticky paste. I wrapped my boney hands around his tiny body. To pick him up. To calm him down, just…just to calm him down a little.
Audry came home around noon the next day. She looked haggard but opened the door with a smile on her face and a box of pizza in her hand. I met her in the entryway. Her mother had made it through the worst of it. They’d even managed to have a chat before she left. She asked how Tommy was and why there was white stuff all over my shirt. I laughed and explained that the kid could eat, had to make him some new formula. He’d gone down right after lunch.
“Speaking of lunch…” She held up the pizza and opened it up. Supreme, my favorite. “Hungry?” I felt my lips pull back in a smile.
“No,” I told her. “I’m finally full.”
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