After he’d gone, she tried very hard to keep up appearances, rising and sleeping at normal hours and eating three meals a day, but she found she had little stomach for it, for the ritual, for the routine, when there was no one to bump up against about it, when there was no one who knew. Mostly, she missed the heady warmth of his body when he came into the room. A tall, thin man with the bulk of a bamboo tree, she liked to sway against him, pushing her pelvis toward his upper thighs in a show of openness or offering, or suggestion that she thought a man might hope for in a woman. “Here, come take me, I’m all yours, baby.” Of course, she never said this out loud, she simply enjoyed the sensation of his male bulge against the pit of her abdomen and the thought that they could drop to the floor and copulate against the gleaming wood of the entryway if they wanted to.
Maybe that was selfish. Maybe what she thought was for him really was all for her. Maybe he’d have preferred a more demure greeting every day, a light kiss, a glass of his favorite beer chilled and proffered like a welcome home gift. Maybe he wasn’t ready for all her physicality, living like he did in the dark confines of music studios for so many hours a day.
Maybe, but he never said so, he’d kiss her gently, wrap an arm tight around her body as he shrugged out of his coat, meet her pelvis thrust with a wide-legged rigidity. Sometimes he’d say “you’re too much”, but she thought it was an endearment, loving admiration for her brazen aliveness. Never once did they fall to the floor and consummate their lust as she had imagined they might. Maybe he never wanted to. Maybe he really did think her too much. Maybe. If that was it, she’d just be less when finally he did return.
Her birthday came and went with no word from him, no text, no email, no old-fashioned letter of heartbreak and dismissal, just nothing. Her mother called.
“Ted’s in Germany on business this week,” Chloe reported.
“Well, that’s a shame, isn’t it, your birthday and all.” Mother sighed. “You should have come home, darlin’.”
“It’s okay. This is good for his career,” she said, not really knowing one way or the other.
“Don’t let’s worry too much about any of that,” Mother said. “Your sister is coming for Thanksgiving, bringing Paul. You might think about it. Show your Ted off.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She wandered the apartment while she talked, catching sight of herself in the full-length mirror. Mother would love how thin she’d become. But there’d be no explaining away a missing man, no explaining it at all. She hurried off the phone with an excuse about dinner plans.
Chloe texted Ted the next day. He replied, “hey” and nothing more. She thought about calling him, about raging and sobbing over international minutes at the man she had once thought she’d marry. “Why did you leave me?” she wanted to demand. “What am I supposed to do now?” she wanted to weep. But to what end? He had taken himself away and who was she to ask for anything more? Instead, that same day, she emptied the refrigerator of all evidence of him. The vanilla cokes half drunk and fizz-less, the shrunken clementines still wrapped in the net bag with the smiling cartoon, the plastic square of miso and seven green beans in the bottom of the vegetable drawer. Leftover dinners gone moldy and foul, freezer-burned ice cream they’d shared after a night out. She threw it all away.
“No one to eat this now,” she said out loud, scooping a teaspoon of chocolate ganache into her mouth, squirting a fluffy glob of whipped cream on top of it and letting the concoction coalesce over her tongue and drip like syrupy shame down her throat. The ganache thickened in her throat like a gooey trap, she gagged then spit it into the sink with a hateful shudder. She cleaned the fridge with a lemon water solution and tucked a persimmon-colored box of baking soda in the back corner.
“There. Empty.” She slammed the door like dropping the lid on a tomb of self-indulgence.
It was that next morning when the fridge was still as barren as she had left it, that she brushed her hair back from the crown of her forehead and went to the deli. With a contemplative rage at the need for food at all, she slipped her fingers between the plastic curtain strips over the refrigerated case and seized a single carton of plain Greek yogurt. Sharp-edged and cool in her hand, she pressed its foil lid to her cheek and felt a rush of relief. Food did not have to be delicious or indulgent or even good.
She wandered around the cement-floored store seeking a complement for her tart goo. Her eyes lit on a navy and white box of saltines. That will suit me just fine, she thought, but hesitated when she felt the bulk of the box in her fingers. Too much. She was not interested in filling her empty spaces all over again. She pushed the box back up onto the shelf and continued her wander. Next to the steaming table of hot lunch entrees, she spotted a small woven basket of saltines wrapped in cellophane, two to a package. She plucked three off the top and made her way to the register, a certain ease falling over her shoulders.
The deli lady stood behind the worn white Formica counter, a trim, average height Asian woman sporting a choppy short hairdo and the stiff smile of the resolute. Chloe placed her yogurt and three saltine packets on the counter.
“No soup?” the deli lady asked in a thick accent.
The deli lady nodded once firmly, lips straight and tight and tallied Chloe’s purchases.
“Four fifty-nine.” The deli lady reached for a plastic bag.
“No bag.” Chloe produced a single ten-dollar bill adorned with the disinterested bust of Alexander Hamilton. The deli lady returned five dollars and forty-one cents in change. Chloe slipped out the wobbly wooden door.
And so the days build on one another, tart, sour and mostly empty but for her visits to the deli. The deli lady still does not smile, but has added a small shake of her head as she rings up the yogurt and saltines. Chloe offers a feeble smile, pockets her change and pushes her whole body against the door to get out. At home, she sits in front of the mirror. She considers what is left of herself, the thinning, dry hair, the deep gray circles below her eyes, the stringy length of her arms and legs, bone and wasting muscle. Sinewy is the word she thinks of, there is toughness in that word. Her new regimen has given her that, a gritty sense of control, a secret mastery of herself, her body, her life.
When her mother calls, the power fades and she drifts, dreamy, in and out of the conversation. Mother asks if she is okay. “You sound tired.” Chloe denies any problem and learns, in time, that as long as she populates her end with enough “I knows” and “um hums” and “yes, you’re rights” Mother clicks off satisfied and Chloe can sleep right there on the floor where Mother left her.
The autumn leaves fly and she stops counting the days he’s been gone, stops marking her small pocket calendar with sad gray numbers in the lower left corner. Too many. It is winter now and she has grown so thin her pelvic thrust might slice Ted in two if he walked through the door. Not that he will. He might come back to New York, he might be back already, but he hasn’t sought her out. And, if he does, well, she’ll be gone, of this she is making certain.
One morning, on her trip to the deli, she stumbles, catching herself on the grimy edge of a trash basket. Her vision closes in, like black curtains marking the slow end of the proceedings. She grips the cold metal of the trashcan, sharp against her palm, until her sight returns. No one seems to notice. She wonders if perhaps she is, indeed, becoming invisible. She finds comfort in thoughts of an endgame.
Drifting up to the deli counter, she places her white yogurt container and her three squares of crackers next to the register and rests her hand on the smooth Formica. The deli lady eyes her, then punches the register keys with typical efficient ferocity. Chloe, fingers trembling, passes the woman a five dollar bill. The deli lady places Chloe’s change in her outstretched palm and over it lays a banana. Chloe’s hand drops at the unexpected weight of the yellow fruit. She looks up at the woman.
“Eat,” the deli lady says. “You must eat.”
Chloe wraps her fingers around the rubbery dense outside of the banana and feels a certain nostalgia for it. The friendly banana, she thinks, yellow, cheery, too much. She sets it on the counter, and shakes her head no.
The deli lady frowns. She grabs the banana, pulls the stem back and down, revealing the pale beige pulp.
“Eat,” she says again and thrusts the banana toward Chloe’s mouth. Chloe recoils, thinks of Ted (who wouldn’t) and stumbles backward. The deli lady is stricken, horrified, by either her stumble or her stark refusal, Chloe isn’t sure and then the world goes black.
She wakes to find herself prone on a small cot in the back room of the deli. Her head rests against a flattened pillow, a dense mover’s blanket pins her body flat, its fabric blue and rough against her arms. The space smells of onions and old food. Chloe rolls her head sideways. The deli lady sits in a chair next to the cot. Chloe blinks, the deli lady nods and whispers. Leaning forward, she lays her fingers, cool and thin, against Chloe’s forehead. She nods again.
“You must eat,” she says. She holds up a soup container like an offering. She dips a plastic spoon inside, pulls out a thin broth and steers it toward Chloe’s mouth. Dazed and uncertain, still supine, Chloe opens her lips, allowing the deli lady to drip the warm liquid into her mouth like a mother bird feeding its new hatchling. The soup splashes, savory and warm, against her tongue. Chloe’s mouth releases a flood of saliva, hungry for the comfort of real food. Her body shudders and she feels an almost instant revival.
The deli lady smiles full and real, gentle and kind, the loving mother of a lost child. “Yes, eat,” she says.
Without thinking, without concern for her protracted self-denial, like an animal almost, Chloe props herself up on her elbow. Her lips welcome the woman’s offering. Thin noodles caress her tongue, she gums them flat, they slip down her throat like rain-soaked worms, bits of chicken, tiny and moist, force her jaw to work in ways it has nearly forgotten. Chloe eats, surprising herself with her hunger. The deli lady sighs, a slim smile on her lips. Chloe pushes herself to sitting. She shivers. The deli lady rises and lays another blanket across Chloe’s back. The fog of Chloe’s starvation thins to a dull ache. The deli lady lifts the soup container as if Chloe might feed herself. Chloe opens her mouth. The deli lady nods, dips the spoon back into the cardboard container. Chloe watches her sure movements, her swiping of the bottom of the spoon against the edge of the cup, the slow journey of the spoon to her lips. There is a sensuality to it, a pleasure, a carnality. She accepts the laden spoon with an embarrassed sort of appreciation. The full, rich, yellow broth splashes like a shower of plenty over her tongue, saliva spurts from the deep recesses of her mouth. She wraps her lips around the rough edges of the curved plastic spoon and lets it rip a little at the corner of her mouth. The deli lady dips the spoon back into the soup, whispering sweet murmurs of Chinese caress. She fills it, lifts it and aims again and again toward Chloe’s mouth. Chloe eats and eats and eats relishing the briny soup, welcoming it like a last meal. It is a pleasure to eat this from the hands of another, a pleasure she may never allow herself again after today. And, if she doesn’t, this gentle courtesy will be enough.