When I felt particularly bad about the night before, I chugged a glass of saltwater, to flush out the toxins. If I timed it right, I could dial in to our Monday call and say hello before situating myself over the toilet, my insides liquefying into painful sludge as my coworkers said their good mornings and asked about the weather in Seattle or Houston or Tampa or wherever it was they all lived. I’d push and heave while they set our agenda for the week, flush, then unmute myself in time to agree to my assigned action items before we said goodbye.
I worked as an innovation consultant. I was the only female on my team. This was, in many ways, good for me. The other analysts were content to discuss growth strategies and mission-critical priorities among themselves, assigning me the tasks they either didn’t want or thought would be a huge opportunity for a woman of color. “This report will be great for your professional development,” I’d been told more than once. “Doing this is a huge opportunity for you.”
Jim, our manager, lived upstate and came into the office only on special occasions. He had great cheekbones and a desktop background that cycled through photos of his baby in a pumpkin patch. I often fantasized about him. He had this one yellow sweater that made him look especially boyish, like a cartoon character I’d had a crush on as a child.
In my fantasy, I was Jim’s pregnant, stay-at-home wife, wearing silk pajamas and lounging on an expensive couch. I’d stretch myself out, belly-up like a cat, and complain about my pregnancy pain while he brought me ginger tea and plates of fruit, and every time I cried or called myself a cow, he’d be like, “No, babe, you’re beautiful just the way you are. In fact, I’d love it if you gained twenty pounds because there’d be twenty more pounds for me to love.” He’d never tire of reassuring me like that.
My parents were separated and I hadn’t spoken to my father in years, but I told my mother I worked in business and sent her $400 a month. She never asked for money, but it shamed me to know that, at 22, I had my own desk and made twice as much as she did after having spent a lifetime wiping down desks and dragging an industrial-sized vacuum between cubicles. I never tried to explain my job to her, even when she pressed for details. Instead, I bragged using the same terms I’d studied for my interviews. “The C-suite access is unparalleled!” I’d croon, spooning pink yogurt into my mouth. “Technology and innovation truly touch every facet of a company.”
“You work so hard,” she’d say. I always had to hang up right away.
Every few months, she sent me brown, beat-up boxes of bitter-smelling herbs. “Make sure to eat 紅棗 during the cycle,” she texted. “Good for menstrual cramp. No cold drinks or soup. Make you gain stomach fat.”
“OK, thank you,” I texted back, before tipping them straight into the garbage.
I could not look at that stuff. When I felt deserving, I cared for myself with lavender eye masks, pressed juices, vegan face cream that I bought downtown, mixed specifically for my skin.
I lived in Hell’s Kitchen, in a studio politely advertised as “garden-level” that was, in fact, a basement room with a mini fridge and a microwave. Yes, the bed spilled into the kitchen and the bathroom ceiling had begun to mold from lack of ventilation, but I figured that was just New York. There was a tiny window cut into the top right corner which, the super told me, made it technically legal. Rafael was always saying things like that — how, if he wanted to, he could cut new windows and double the rent. Above me lived a gay couple and their cat. (Supposedly, one of them was famous on Broadway.) I often heard him shouting at his students: Enunciate, Enunciate! Breathe, breathe, I want to see your stomach move! Sometimes I did the exercises too, singing loudly towards the open window, to see what I could get away with.
Across the street were three Thai restaurants named Yum Yum. There was Yum Yum and Yum Yum Too and Yum Yum Bangkok. On weekend nights on my way out, if I’d been good all day, I’d get myself a Thai iced tea to go. Half-sweet, please, I’d say, but usually they ignored me. I’d suck my full-sugar tea as I walked down 9th Avenue, past the gay underwear store and the fish market and the Greek bakery, before ducking into the Starbucks bathroom on 57th Street. It was nice doing it with just the tea in my stomach. Milky sweet. Easy and quick.
Technically, I was supposed to come into the office three times a week, but I rarely did. I didn’t mean to not show up. I began each day with the intention of becoming a good and productive woman. I just never got around to it. I developed a migraine or became unable to move my hands. My office clothes were all dirty. I picked at myself until I leaked pus. Suddenly it was 5 or 10 p.m. Suddenly it was the next day.
But I always showed up to team happy hours. Most times, I binged on appetizers, went to the bathroom, then got drunk enough to order one of every dessert on the menu. “For the table!” I’d scream, passing the plates around. And why not? It was on the company, and our manager said team outings were good for morale. I could get away with things because I was a girl. Whenever a situation got too serious — when the bill came or when someone asked about an overdue action item — I opened my eyes wide and feigned shock. I often practiced in my mirror at home, making faces of extreme surprise or deep sadness. What? This? Me? How?
Other times, I ended up in the back of a cab, allowing a man to wetly kiss and grope me over my clothes.
I did not seek out these interactions, but felt so overwhelmed whenever anyone showed interest that I could not help but give in. Sex was terrifying, a constant arranging of myself. The only positions I could tolerate were missionary or doggy style, and even then, I made sure he saw only the perfect curve of my ass and back, one arm pinned to my belly pouch.
Of course I never came. But I loved watching men ejaculate. “Don’t be a slut like those girls on T.V.,” my father told me as a child. “Have some self-respect.” But I loved their cum on me, seeing their eyes widen as I rubbed it in and swallowed. Afterwards, I let them talk about their jobs, how lonely they were, as I dug out and stretched the goop through my fingers. Alone, I forced myself to go all day without washing, allowing it to drip out of me as I walked around naked, rubbing against towels, books, leaving a trail of gummy, white flecks, everywhere the proof of their desire.
The only part of my job I hated more than going into the office was client dinners. I spent hours agonizing over the right amount of eye makeup to apply and studying different table topics — the refugee crisis, the falling price of oil. We were supposed to “wine and dine” them, to steer the conversation to innovation. We were supposed to appear smart but also approachable. I researched different investment ideas in case they quizzed me about the stock market. “The future of I.T. will be dominated by best-of-breed products built by insanely focused companies,” I rehearsed. “Only through large-scale technological innovation will we confront climate change.” Instead, the clients got drunk and asked me about my personal life.
“I like your look,” one said to me last week. He was the regional CTO of a fast-food chain. “Where are you from?”
“Really?” He seemed disappointed. I clutched my wine glass. I didn’t drink at client events, but I had been instructed to at least pretend.
At that moment, a waiter rushed past, knocking over his glass. I caught it, a gut instinct I immediately regretted.
“Impressive,” he said, winking. “What else can you do?”
“Oh, me?” I said, smoothing my hair, nervous. “Not much…”
“You are funny,” he said. “I like that.”
“Funny. You’re funny.”
He frowned and walked away, leaving me holding his empty glass.
For days, I barely slept, wondering if I’d blown my chance. Was he the one?
There was this one dream I kept having — a sex dream, or maybe it was a stress dream. In the dream, I’m in the boardroom presenting to the senior executive team of a chemical company. Something about Q2 findings or strategic initiatives, et cetera, et cetera. Halfway through, Jim gets up and grabs me by the hips. “I couldn’t help myself,” he says, crouching to kiss me. I look down and I’m not wearing any pants, or even a shirt. Instead, I’m in this really sexy push-up bra and corset that costs like $1,200. “It’s so hot when you talk smart,” Jim whispers, rising and slipping my thong to the side. Then he’s fucking me from behind — you can see our shadows in profile against the PowerPoint and I look great bent over like that, my waist tiny and Jim’s dick veiny and huge. When I look away from the screen, I see the whole room’s masturbating to us, furiously pumping away.
Then it turns into this huge gangbang, everyone fighting to grip me, my body hard and vibrating with energy. The vibrating intensifies until my skin becomes hot and begins to rub off — gradually, then all at once, my body is coming apart, odd chunks streaked with fat and bone and hair and teeth clacking and scattering across the floor.
My lovers don’t realize this right away. One man grabs my face only to recoil in horror, coming away with an eyeball, a slice of cheek. Another man screams as, mid-thrust, my teeth and gums detach from my mouth, hanging around his cock like a bracelet. Three fingers slip off in the tangle of a woman’s hair. A guy slaps my ass and the skin peels away to reveal a red mound of meat. Everyone’s shrieking and crying, trying to put me back together. Even as they mourn, the men remain erect, still thinking of how I’d been, my perfect, fuckable form.
I always worried that my coworkers would be able to smell it on me. Could they see it in my eyes? Did my thighs swell from squeezing together, as my father had warned? When I could not stop shaking, I stayed home. “I am sick,” I would email someone, anyone. “I must be home,” I typed, over and over. “I am spitting blood.”
Occasionally I did show up to my job. I’d walk into the office and find Nick and Vlad and Chad in a row, typing seriously. “Email, email, email,” I said, walking past them. “Type, type, type.” They thought I was hilarious.
I sat down at my desk and began to type, too.
“I am typing,” I said. “I am an important typist!” Maybe I muttered it or maybe I shouted it.
On that particular day, the air clung hot and muggy as I zigzagged my way through Midtown towards the office. Inside, the A.C. was so strong my nipples froze instantly. I was getting myself settled at my desk, trying to look as if I had merely stepped out for lunch, when Jim approached.
“Listen, can we talk?” Jim asked. He was wearing the sweater. “Do you have any availability?”
“Sure. Let me check.” I opened my calendar. I had nothing scheduled. Its vast blankness embarrassed me. “I’m free at four o’clock. Does that work?”
“Let’s do sooner.”
“Library in five?”
“Sure.” My mouth felt fuzzy.
“Perella, hi,” Jim said when I walked into the conference room. He’d situated himself at the far end of the table, leaving me to decide between taking one of the chairs next to him, which seemed overly intimate, or sitting a few chairs away, which I worried would make me appear intimidated. I decided on the former, trying to roll the chair away a bit so that our knees didn’t touch under the table.
“I’ll get right to it,” he said. “I think we both know that things have been a little off, and people seem to think that you might be overwhelmed.” He did not look at me while he spoke, but instead looked above my head, as if he were talking not to me, but at some unknown point behind me.
“For example,” Jim continued, “we didn’t get the write-up we needed for the Monsanto meeting today, so Vlad ended up doing it himself late last night. And I know you had a health emergency recently, but to be frank, you’ve had several of these kinds of emergencies, and it’s beginning to take a toll on the team.”
My body was numb, my brain thick with mud. I willed myself to become small, as small as possible, and leaned back into the chair.
“And this is tough to say because everyone on the team thinks you’re a great person, but if things continue like this, we’ll have to part ways.”
“Does what I’m saying make sense?”
The week before, a director from another team had stood up during an all-company meeting, faced the room. “Data used strategically has the power to upend our world as we know it,” he shouted. “The fourth factor of production!” He had real tears in his eyes.
“Hello? Am I being clear?”
When Jim had called to say I’d gotten the job, I jumped up and down. On my first day, they took all the analysts out for drinks and Jim group-hugged us and said, Welcome to the family.
“Is there anything you want to say?” Jim asked.
I didn’t want it to be this way, I thought about telling him. I’ll be good from now on. In my mind, I took his penis into my mouth and a trap door opened, leading to another world. This world was just like our current one, except everything was pink and flowery. Jim’s pants were pink and flowery. His sweater was pink and flowery. His cock was made of beautiful, twisting vines. “You’re doing a great job,” he breathed. My body was white daffodils and the scooped-out insides of melon. When he ejaculated, his whole body spasmed. He apologized. “It’s okay,” I told him. “I liked it.”
My fingernails were gripping his thigh. Jim stood up, knocking his chair over. He was shaking his head. “Not okay,” he said. “Not. Okay.”
“I didn’t mean,”
He righted the chair, gripped the back of it. He stared, eyes wide. “Just get your work done.”
Back at my cubicle, my eye stung. There was a bug in it, or some chemical had gotten in. It leaked water down my cheek. I gathered my essentials — wallet, computer, Chapstick, office scarf — stuffed them into my backpack, and left.
Outside, the air pulsed with the sweet rot of halal meat and softening trash. My mouth watered. It must have been the lunch rush, because sidewalk men in suits hurried past me importantly, clutching plastic containers of salad. My phone buzzed, but I clicked the call notification off without looking, then stuffed it back into my pocket.
I began walking — north, south, west, I couldn’t tell which — and when I looked up, I was in front of the McDonald’s on 8th Avenue. It felt like a sign. I followed a family of British tourists inside. Along the back wall, menu panels glittered with brilliant, pulsing light. My teeth itched. At the counter, I ordered two twenty-piece chicken nuggets, a chicken sandwich and two burgers off the dollar menu, a large fries, and a large vanilla shake. I began drinking the shake on my way out.
On the street, I ate a fistful of fries, then a pack of nuggets. I ate as I walked, quickly, in strides, towards my street, alternating nuggets between french fries between sips of shake. My phone vibrated again, and again I silenced it, quickening my pace. I couldn’t wait to get myself alone.
When I arrived at my apartment, though, Rafael was standing on the front steps, peering down into my window.
“Hey,” he said. “I tried calling you.”
Instinctively, my hand reached for the phone in my pocket, clicking the Ring/Silent button on, then off, then on again. “What’s going on?” My belly bulged against my waistband.
Rafael frowned, looking back at the window, then at me. “Fire inspection,” he said. “I sent a notice last week.”
I shifted the McDonald’s bag in front of my stomach.
“Does it have to be now?”
“It’ll take two minutes.”
“I have a meeting,” I said, but still I found myself gripping the key, raising it, approaching the door. “Let me just move something,” I muttered, ducking in before him. I headed straight to the bathroom, where I tore some toilet paper and scrubbed residue from the toilet bowl and sink. I shoved a blooming brown tampon deeper into the trash. The bathmat was stained with dribbles of yellow and red; I stuffed it under the cabinet.
To my relief, Rafael headed straight to the kitchen, where he pressed the test button on the smoke detector a few times, then began replacing the battery.
I stood awkwardly to the side, in front of the closet, which I’d draped with dirty towels. I was still sweaty and holding the McDonald’s bag, wishing violently to be alone.
“I am relieved to know I will not die of carbon monoxide poisoning,” I joked. “Ha ha.”
Rafael didn’t laugh. “Something is wrong,” he said. He looked around, surveying the room. The kitchen light filtered out unevenly, hitting on different objects — food wrappers, dirty clothes, crusted-over boxes of takeout — casting the space in an eerie, dismal glow. In one corner, I noticed underwear stained with clotted blood. “Do you take the trash out?”
“The trash? Yes, every day,” I said, moving quickly to block the underwear from his view.
“What about that?”
I glanced up, as Rafael bent to inspect the closet door.
“Don’t — ”
He had already opened it. Inside were the bags from last week, stacked in a horrible pile, now deflated and festering. Through the milky plastic, I could vaguely make out the shape of a tendril of kale, floating chunks of roast beef — or had it been pork? One of the bags fell with a meaty smack and began leaking yellow, oily fluid.
“Oh shit,” he gasped, stepping back.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I was still holding the McDonald’s bag. His eyes landed on it, then shifted to me.
“Are you joking me?” he asked, his voice a harsh whisper.
“I’m really sorry,” I said again. “I haven’t been home, and I forgot about the trash, but I’ll take it out right now.” I bent down to pick up the fallen bag and a tiny cockroach skittered out across the tile, disappearing under my bed.
“Jesus Christ,” Rafael cursed, jumping back. He turned to me, almost lunged, but then seemed to think better of it and began backing away. “No. No way. You cannot stay here, not like this.” He continued stepping backwards towards the front door, jerking his head from side to side.
“I’ll take care of it right now, I swear,” I offered, my voice quavering.
“I could lose my job,” Rafael said. “An infestation could ruin the whole building.”
“I really will — ”
“This shit? Not okay.” His head shaking had slowed, become almost morose. “You’ll be hearing from management,” was the last thing I heard as Rafael hurried out.
I stared at the front door, half expecting him to return with a team of men to throw me out right then and there, but after several minutes passed — no violent rattle of the doorknob, no sudden banging on the glass — I rose, double-locked the door, then wedged a chair under the knob, just in case.
There was nothing else to do. I sat on the bed and began arranging the rest of the McDonald’s food next to me, lining up the remaining chicken nuggets, the chicken sandwich, the burgers, the fries, even the remnants of the shake, of which only the whipped topping was left. My mouth filled with wet anticipation. I wanted so badly to get it all inside of me. Suddenly, though, it didn’t feel like enough.
I would go to the grocery store. I loved the grocery store! It felt like the kind of place where I could finally become the woman I was meant to be. There were so many possibilities there. You could buy a gallon of queso or a stick of celery. You could buy an ice cream cake or a tub of salt.
I felt the food from earlier in my stomach, but I could hold it at bay for a little while. I needed to have all my food here, to do it all at once.
Inside the store, I took the biggest-size cart. It felt good to push it along, to press against something bigger than me. My phone vibrated — a call from a number with a Chicago area code — and I sent it to voicemail. The grocery store aisles moved, the brightly colored food packages swarming and blurring together in my vision like glittering, wrestling fish. Whoever had called had left a voicemail. “Hi, Perella, please call me back as soon as possible to discus— ” the transcription began, but I swiped the notification away before I could read any further.
Into my cart I threw brownie mix, cornbread. I threw in tortilla chips and three microwaveable jars of queso. I got two loaves of white bread, each just $0.89, then tossed in two more. I picked up frozen sausages and frozen chicken nuggets and frozen veggie patties. I added a block of Velveeta. “Velveeta is the food of the gods,” I remembered my eighth-grade science teacher saying. She’d had a face like a toad, had often excused herself to go into the hallway to apply anti-static spray to her pants. As an afterthought, I selected a two-liter bottle of Diet Coke. Next to the Coke was a tower of sugar-free ice cream cones and a freezer filled with gallon buckets of vanilla ice cream. I threw in one of each.
In the checkout line, a man behind me nodded. “Looks like someone is having a party.”
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m having a party.”
When he smiled, I had to look away.
“So what’s the party about?” He stepped closer. “Looks like a fun time.”
It was impossible not to make eye contact. He was so close. He was my age, maybe a little older. Or he was much older. He was in his fifties. He was wearing sweatpants, like me. No, it was a suit. He had on soft leather shoes and a gold watch. An earring. I looked at the watch, then the earring, then his mouth, then down again. His face was still close to mine, openly questioning. How was it that men’s faces could appear so unflinching, so brazen in their outright search?
As I left, he called after me, “Have a nice time!” My ass jiggled as I walked away.
On my way home, my phone vibrated again. I flinched, expecting it to be the same caller from before, but instead it was my mother. I sent it to voicemail, even though she didn’t call often.
When she did call, she typically did so late at night, afraid to bother me during work hours. I was usually still awake, but a few times she’d woken me — I’d hold the phone to my face in the dark, listening to her talk. She sounded different then, her voice softer and more uncertain, more like a girl.
“寶貝,” she said once, her voice small. “I had a dream I slipped into a frozen river and drowned, and snakes ate my fingers and breasts. At my funeral, my mother cut off her own fingers and nipples and put them on my body so that I could move on to the next world.”
Another time: “寶貝, I dreamed I won the jackpot Mega Millions lottery and I was so happy I was going to buy us a house but when I went to collect the money a man tried to steal my ticket so I swallowed it whole and now I have horrible diarrhea.”
Now, my phone vibrated again and, wondering what might have prompted her to call twice, I answered.
“Hello?” I said, shifting the grocery bags to maneuver the phone towards my ear.
“Oh,” my mother said. “You picked up.”
She’d obviously been crying, although she pretended she hadn’t. “I think I just have a cold,” she said. “I don’t know why I feel so tired. My feet are swollen.”
I let her catalog her ailments as I walked the six blocks back to my apartment, the phone pinched awkwardly between my ear and shoulder. The grocery bags hung heavy, digging angry red grooves into my fingers.
“寶貝,”my mother said. “Is your job good?”
I quickly let myself into my apartment, glancing up to make sure Rafael wasn’t watching. On the phone, I heard her breathing heavily, the crinkling of a bag.
“I know it’s, well, I know what they’re like,” she said. “Businessmen.”
“It’s not that bad,” I said, releasing the bags to the kitchen floor. “They respect me. I’m having a real impact.”
I rubbed redness from my hands and thought about my mother in her offices, dark after the normal workday had ended, bending to empty other people’s trash cans. I heard her chewing something soft and crunchy and I imagined us each on other ends of the country, each holding a phone to our face, spinning a fine, golden thread.
“寶貝,” she said suddenly. “Will you make sure my body is complete before I’m buried?”
“If I had something missing, if something was cut off, in a surgery or something, you have to make sure they keep the part. You have to bury it with me, so I can move on.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. I knelt and began arranging the food behind the McDonald’s food, in order of craving: cornbread, a jar of queso, white bread, tortilla chips, the ice cream.
She began to urinate, the sound of it surprisingly strong. I imagined her sitting on the toilet naked, her fleshy stomach with its stretch marks and eczema scabs, which, she always said, almost proudly, had developed while carrying me.
“Are you drinking the herbs?”
“Do you have everything you need?”
I sucked my stomach in, grabbed my gut, thought I could feel it all inside of me, a collection of smooth, shifting stones.
I could be a rich man’s wife, a lonely movie star, a CrossFit athlete, my body whittled down to its hardest, most efficient self. I could be a business executive or a good daughter, bearing all my mother’s unborn children and their children and their children after that — in fact, all the children of the world would be born to me, my vagina neat and elastic; they slipped easily from me one after the other, slick and hard, covered in my rich, milky blood.
“寶貝? Are you there?”
I trembled. Inside me were billions of toenails and vertebrae and eyelashes and tongues and scales and chemical pollutants from the skin of fruit and tampons and rubies and oily sheaths of white fat. If you’d cut me open, they would have spilled from me like roe.
Vivian Hu is a writer and cellist from Texas. She lives in New York.