Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a chain of fish hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.
Hunger feels like pincers,
like the bite of crabs,
it burns, burns and has no fire.
— Pablo Neruda, “The Great Tablecloth”
During the first few months of our friendship, A brought gifts for me to our creative writing workshop: lunchbox apples and clementines, blueberry granola bars. If I had to pick one word to describe that year of my life, it would be hungry. Sometimes, I would lick the salt off my palm to trick my stomach into quieting. Dinners of canned spinach. Digging quarters out of the Surfin’ Steve fountain at night to get a dollar burger at McDonald’s.
When the three of us — A, L, and I — hung out together, L referred to us as sweet girls, sweet like the rum-soaked Bananas Foster she made for us one hot summer day when we were still friends.
At the time, I didn’t understand how to have friends when I had no living room or front porch or bedroom to invite them to, no money for coffee shops or bars. A said, “Come get lunch with us. We think you’re cool.” I ate fries and chicken strips that she paid for, reminding myself, as my mother still reminded me, to chew.
Months before, I had been sleeping in my car and selling plasma at DCI Biologicals to buy canned beans and miniature bottles of Old Crow. I smelled like a horse blanket. I had been peeing outside in a secluded area of the park, my urine nearly orange from dehydration. My hair was always wild and unbrushed, and I wore layers of clothes with stains and rips — clothes that didn’t even belong to me. No one, not even L, would have described me then as sweet.
But A may have fit that description. She loved ballet and poetry, art museums and floral skirts. She rarely drank, and when she did, it was only to be a little tipsy, to become pink-cheeked and laugh. Sometimes, I finished a bottle of Old Crow whiskey in a day. I threw up in the school parking garage once at 8 am, too drunk to ride an elevator.
I told A repeatedly how beautiful I thought she was, with her bird-bones and dark hair clustering like storm clouds. I knew I didn’t deserve a friend like A, a girl who liked making cupcakes and wearing short skirts and winged eyeliner. Only girls who had their shit together deserved such friends.
She told L and I about boys who had loved her. She made one orgasm by simply sitting on his lap. She had sex with another while driving, and of course they crashed the car. I wondered how she felt so bright and faultless in her sexuality while I shuddered and cracked, two tectonic plates within me grinding against one another.
I think I had a crush on L from the moment I saw her. Her boyfriend was flirting with me at the bar when she arrived, still wearing an apron from her shift. Small, tan, and wild-haired, she looked exhausted, like she could fall asleep right there with a beer in hand.
“Slower,” my mother would say. “Taste before you swallow.” Sometime after my parents went bankrupt, and after my father fell off a ladder and spent the next thirteen years collecting disability, we began replacing most of our meat with TVP — Textured Vegetable Protein — a bland and cardboard-like mockery of ground beef. In the mornings, my older sister would mix up a packet of dehydrated milk, which vaguely smelled of chemicals and full of powdery clumps, no matter how hard you whisked. Our dinner staples were spam and potatoes, spam and cabbage, any soup that could be stretched with water.
In the year before I met A, I had dropped out of college. I was going to a piano lesson on campus, out in the sunshine and surrounded by azaleas in bloom, and realized I wanted, very much, to stop existing.
My dad told me I wasn’t welcome home again after I tried to kill myself with a piece of glass. He grimaced at the blood on my arm. We argued earlier that day about something inconsequential, and it spiraled, as always, into my full-lunged self-loathing. I went to him with my bandages and streaked face and said, “I need help, psychiatric help. I’m going to kill myself.” It was the first time I’d been able to say it out loud. “You’re just trying to shame me,” he said to me, turning his back and I felt it was true. I was disappointing everyone around me.
I got in my car. I drove down remote country roads, looking for abandoned houses, the trailer parks that were plentiful in east Texas. I made a nest of blankets in the back seat. Every few days, I moved. Then, I wouldn’t look suspicious.
When I met A, I’d moved into my own studio apartment, strangely glad to deal with roaches and mold. Once, my front door just fell off the hinges. It was the middle of the night, and I had to nail a blanket over the entryway. My neighbors kept getting busted for illegal firearms. I struggled in every class. I still felt hungry, even after being fed, my pantry light with ramen, canned vegetables, and small bags of rice.
Once, there was a day when A and another classmate skipped class to sit with me while I lie on my apartment floor, blood clotting on my arm again. I felt incapable of the simplest tasks: drinking water, showering. I kept trying to communicate something, some guilt that came from simply being alive. Something strange happened. A said she also felt suicidal. The classmate and I began to comfort her instead, both of us suddenly absorbed in her tears, her heaves. My sadness turned off the lights and went deeper. We sat on either side of A, holding her hands.
When L and I first kissed, I wrapped my arms around myself because I was afraid of what her touch would do to me. We’d been drinking absinthe, us three girls alone while the boys and boyfriends were outside. The conversation coagulated around my sexuality and A began laughing. Then there was L, crouched on the floor beside me. She said nothing, pressed her lips to mine, and put her hand to my face. We kept kissing: fingers, palms, collarbones, shoulders, breasts, ears, jawlines. She unbuttoned her shirt. We sat cross-legged on the floor, but at the end, we were falling over, two tongue-soft mouths trembling.
Hunger does a body wild.
When I didn’t have food, I would sometimes gnaw the inside of my cheek until it bled, a habit I can’t seem to shake to this day. Or I would guzzle glass after glass of water until my body threw it up. Or I would stare at menus for hours, trying to fill my empty mouth with language. I didn’t want to steal, but sometimes I did — granola bars from Kroger, a sly apple, a dollar bill from a friend’s wallet.
I tried to warn A and L at the beginning, tried to tell them I didn’t know how to be a friend. Something about being homeschooled, missing socialization, the hours upon hours spent staring at a wall to talk to pretend friends. I lacked the necessary skills.
My dad accused me of being a lesbian twice: once when he caught me sleeping curled around my best friend, and once when he caught me looking at porn. He made my mother go in my room, take down my magazine clippings of Evangeline Lilly from Lost (in her cargos, in her bikini, in her dirty green t-shirt) and sat me down to say, “You’re trying to shame me.” After that, there were no sleepovers, no late-night phone calls, no pool parties, no movie nights with other girls. I forgot how to talk to peers. I starved.
Once, A brought me a plastic bag full of her old clothes. I sifted through them while she stood smiling. She was an extra-small, the size of a tiny mannequin. My hips were too wide for my frame. I felt heavy as a gravestone.
“Model them for me,” she said.
“I’d rather not—”
“You must, she said.”
It didn’t feel as intimate as I thought it would. Not sisterly, not sweet. I sucked in my stomach, took shallow breaths. She laughed at how my big feet spilled over the edge of her shoes. I wanted to be something more delicate and graceful, a cocktail of a woman, an appetizer.
Around the time I met A and L, I began using a label: bi. It was strange at first, like an unearned honorific. Saying bi was a way of reshaping the shame of being alive, of needing bodies and food and indulgences, of trying to mold these into something I could swallow.
L had returned from a trip home and thought she might break up with her boyfriend, who’d been pressuring her to open their relationship to others. We met each other on a picnic table in the park, moths fluttering at our faces. I had on a hoodie with a zipper that didn’t work anymore. L was near tears. I rested my hand on her back while she put her face in her hands, saying she didn’t know what to do. What I told her: “Please just take care of yourself.” What I wanted to tell her: “Anything that you want, I’ll give you. My skin, it’s yours. My middle-of-the-nights, yours.” I kept quiet and rubbed her shoulders and let her lean against me while she cried.
I never saw L and A spend time without me, though they must have. They were similarly soft-spoken, bookish, thrilled with flowers and fruits and fairy tales. I know A hung out with L’s douchebag boyfriend, that they formed a burgeoning series of private, dirty jokes that none of us quite understood, not until years later. But L told me she felt that A didn’t actually like her, felt threatened by her instead.
I joked about my attraction to L constantly, to everyone. It became background noise.
Finally, I grew another crush. When I sat next to him, I felt myself pulled into his shoulder, against my will, to meet his eyes. We began texting — he would remind me to go outside and inhale the upside-down ocean of brightness and cornflower and parakeets. My heart was a rush every time.
One day, when it was almost summer and A was driving me home, I told her, “Keep driving. I need to talk.” I told her, “I like him and want it to work out this time.” I thought I trusted her. She had the most delicate hands, and I imagined she could reach out and grab a bubble without popping it. She called me sweet girl and told me to act if I felt it was real. It was wildgrowth and frightening and yes. Unlike L, he had room for me. Those first months, we would spend all day in bed, my underwear all over the floor of the bedroom, breaks only for napping and glasses of water. He said, leaning against my car one night, “Will you be my girlfriend?”
We’d been dating for about five months when I had a little Christmas party. A didn’t come. She’d been showing up less frequently to our coffee or movie dates. But L and her boyfriend were there. L’s boyfriend kept winking at me and I kept looking at L, her short skirt and black tights, the way the light hit her hair. We played a version of truth or dare, and at some point she gave me a lap dance. She always had this look of seriousness, this pinched concentration, even while grinding on me. She was a woman who worked her way through college, who mopped up a restaurant and then studied into the small hours. And something about the way she sat on my lap, I wanted to reach around her, pull her to me. I wanted it to be us.
There’s a joke about bisexuals: that we’re greedy, gluttonous. We want it all.
The next morning, my boyfriend and I fought. Not about L, but about her boyfriend. This was bizarre, that he would notice something was amiss but fixate on the person I felt nothing towards. We decided to take some time apart. “Maybe you should decide who you really want to be with,” he said.
During our time apart, I researched juice fasting.
My hunger had come with me into better days, days of a steady job and good tips. I ate full bowls of pasta, fries with ketchup, fried tofu in a sweet garlic sauce, cinnamon toast, bacon-wrapped asparagus, oatmeal cake, three turkey sandwiches stacked atop one another. I put on ten pounds in less than two months. My boyfriend said, “You’re like a starving beast.” And he was also done up in food, salted or sweetened or spiced. I cooked for him every night, thrilled that I had a stovetop, an oven, a hand-me-down tea kettle from A.
In contrast, A snacked on little jars of baby food. She had a shoe rack over her door filled with multivitamins. The day after my boyfriend and I agreed we should take time apart, she came over with a BBQ plate with yellow potato salad and rolls. I ate. She watched. I kept asking her if she wanted to eat with me but she said no, she didn’t need that many carbs. I told her, “I love him. I want everything to work out.” I cried onto the BBQ brisket and ham.
Once, when I was sleeping in my car, an old acquaintance ordered me a pizza so I would have something to eat that day. I ate the entire thing within fifteen minutes and immediately threw it all up. It hurt worse than being hungry. How could I have wasted such a kindness?
Years later, this is what I know: A and my boyfriend were sleeping together, after we’d decided to date again. In his bed, with my underwear scattered around, my water bottle in the windowsill, they indulged in one another. Years later, when I asked A why, she said it was jealousy, neediness. But I wondered if she knew what it was to need.
What I needed was to find a way to forgive A, who had planned to share a house with me before she began drifting out of my life, who had daydreamed with me that we would be close friends into our old age, that we’d still be trading stories and poems back and forth, that we’d be eccentric women with a menagerie of pets and artwork and always something good in the kitchen. It was A who I called crying, confessing that I felt something for L, that I knew it would be selfish to ask her to reciprocate. “I cut her out of my life,” I said. “I told her not to contact me again.” Tears burned hot on my cheeks and A said, “You did the right thing. You did the right thing.” But it felt like wrong, like throwing up: the gut, the turmoil and ache, the dry-heaving, the acid-throat.
I only have one photograph of the three of us together, before our unraveling: at a Renaissance Faire, L in a Robin Hood costume, A as a mermaid with shells on her bare breasts, me as a fortune teller, my white belly showing. It still makes me smile. L and I got hopelessly lost while driving home. It was nearing midnight, and we had to stop at a gas station to buy a phone charger, which was hidden amongst an entire wall of beef jerky. We were both in our costumes, both exhausted. Neither of us owned a smartphone, and I kept trying to pull up a map I’d saved as a photo on my little LG flip to navigate us. L was driving and it was getting later and later, and then we passed a sign that said we were close to Houston. We were in some little ghost town, all the windows boarded up, lone cars in church parking lots, a bar sign hung over a travel trailer. L sighed loud, then broke into laughter. She said, “How did we end up here?” But I was laughing so hard I couldn’t reply, just content to be with someone who cared about me, at such a strange hour and in such a strange place.
I’m out of control, I told myself. I eat so much. I need to only eat green juice for a week, take cold showers, meditate about nothing.
Joy Clark is an MFA candidate studying fiction at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where she serves as Fiction Editor for The Arkansas International. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in places such as Juked and Bayou Magazine.