BY JENNY XIE
First, they pop into the corner shop for pastries: four almond croissants, four donuts drizzled in chocolate and crushed walnuts, four maple twists, two bear claws, six donut holes. Then—paper bags sprouting translucent spots of grease—they cross the street for the Mexican joint. Meredith asks for carnitas, and Shana orders her usual pollo asado. Yes, they want an order of chips—one each. The burritos, warm and smooth in silver foil, weigh heavily at the bottom of plastic bags effusively printed Thank You Thank You Thank You. Before heading into their apartment, the girls visit the convenience store downstairs, grabbing Hot Cheetos and Sno Balls and a carton of skim milk, which they’re out of. Shana buys a pack of Camel blues and smokes one on the chipped red steps in front of their building, her pupils erased by light.
Inside, Meredith and Shana lay their harvest on the long table of unstained pine in the kitchen. The angled blinds allow white stripes of light to strike through the spread, to cross out their hands as they tear open bags and unsnap lids from cups of salsa.
“Bon appétit,” says Shana, sinking her teeth into a donut and tearing away its white flesh. A smear of chocolate adorns the corner of her lips. Her face has been chiseled down to the bone, all shocked eyes and a ridged nose. She wolfs down the rest of the donut and smirks. “What? Did you want me to say grace or something?”
“No, it’s not that.” Meredith takes a swig of water from her glass, sets it down. Takes another sip. Usually, this is when her body gives way to bliss and vibration, but today she feels out of sync with the whole procedure. She watches Shana graze the table in her resigned way, her lips smacking drily. Then, not to be outdone, Meredith pops a donut hole into her mouth and tongues the glazed surface, dissolving the sugar with a salivary grope. The back of her throat feels raw; she wonders if a sustained chemical drip can slough away the skin and expose the soft muscle there. Her eyes feel sour from her few hours of fitful sleep.
Last night, they were taken to a Michelin-starred dinner in the financial district by Eric George, a 45-year-old executive at Ernst & Young. Shana met Eric four months ago through a matchmaking site for sugar daddies; it’s the longest relationship she’s had since moving to San Francisco. Meredith had been resistant to meeting him, but Shana had reassured her, “Yeah, he’s going to, like, put his hand on your leg, but that’s as far as it goes. We can leave whenever you say. We’ll have a safe word. ‘Kombucha’ or something. And in return for your troubles you get a one-hundred-dollar Visa gift card. That’s kind of his first date standard.”
Having quit her job as a tutor and working on grad school applications, Meredith relies on errands she finds on TaskRabbit.com to pay the bills. When Shana brought up Eric’s interest in meeting her—“I talk about you a lot, is all”—she tried to think about it as another task. It would be listed under personal assistance: Endure a fancy dinner with a corporate skeeze; politely thwart his attempts to get you in bed with your best friend. Compared to her recent undertakings (buying and delivering tampons to a ghoulish woman at an art gallery; assembling Ikea furniture for a couple fighting in Portuguese), this carried an illicit sheen. At least it would be something to laugh about when it was all over. Meredith agreed. She always did, eventually, with Shana.
With pink-flecked cheeks and shaggy bangs, Meredith looks like an overgrown grade schooler, someone eager for leadership, endowment. She dresses as she did in third grade with cable-knit turtlenecks and straight-legged jeans that end right above the ankle, showing off socks with a candy corn pattern. The studs in her ears are pink. When Shana moved in last year, recommended by a friend of a friend, she methodically displaced the existing décor with what she called a “gypsy-chic” aesthetic, comprised of bleached coyote skulls and vintage lamps, and then she jiggled her hands into Meredith’s life as well. Whenever Meredith cancels her evening plans with a former coworker, she feels her roommate’s small, furry palm on her jawbone. She finds herself adopting Shana’s inexplicable prejudices against women who breastfeed in public, readers on public transit, dog walkers.
It was Shana who encouraged her to research programs in clinical psychology, to put in her two weeks’ notice. “Stay home,” said Shana, “and focus on what’s important.” Now Meredith’s days consist of running errands for strangers and doing sit-ups in the living room.
Eyes unfocused, Meredith feeds herself Cheetos with meditative calm, mincing each chip into a red pulp. These are all things Shana has taught her—to macerate your food; to drown it in water; to start with something colorful so that later, when it curdles in the toilet bowl, you’ll know that you are nearing empty. Shana is not a corruptive influence. Far from it—Shana is the longhaired wraith who reveals to Meredith the perfect bone that she must aspire to be.
As she bites into the radioactive pink of a Sno Ball, Meredith’s world mercifully shrinks. Sunless, skyless, outside weather evaporates. Birds enter drifts of fog and never reappear. Cities turn into flurries of black snow that bury people in sleep. All that exist now are her two pillaging hands and her insatiable mouth, and the dark pit of consciousness that has formed behind her eyes.
This food is an especial comfort after last night’s dinner. At first, Eric was as Shana described: shy, courteous, reluctant to talk about his life but eager to hear about hers. Thin and square-jawed, he clenched the muscles in his neck as he chewed, “hmm” and “ah”-ing as she narrated her life. Meredith told him about her upbringing on the family ranch in Wyoming, about the guesthouses plastered in dimming floral wallpaper and the shadow puppets she and her brothers cast against it as children. She named her favorite horses and the cows, recalled the bone meal that fertilized the fields. The pungent earth would sprout femurs, smiling ribs, cackles of bovine teeth.
Meredith wore one of Shana’s dresses. “He likes stuff with thin straps. Black. If you wear your hair up, he’ll buy you anything.” In accordance, her hair was in a bun with a slender braid framing her bangs. Shana had on a silk sheath that draped low on her back and revealed the many fins of her spine.
The girls were ravenous, having limited themselves to four hundred calories a day in the week leading up to this dinner. Like figures emerging from stone, each day their bodies accrued new angles. The waiter, a black vector in the spare white room, arrived too often with the next course. Each plate was both exquisite and cruel: sprays of celery held peanut butter and crisped anchovies; braised beef sweated under shaved pear, endive, watercress. It might as well have been a salt lick, a hunk of blubber. How sick were they, that they wanted to be in hoodies and cotton shorts, watching TLC with their shared bowl of peeled grapefruit?
Before dessert the girls excused themselves and purged in the restroom, then snorted coke from the flat of their apartment key. The coke was from Eric, who abstained. “I like for others to have it,” he had said, sliding it into Meredith’s lap. “It makes me feel relaxed in comparison.” Two fingers had traced the crease of her crossed legs.
“You like him, right?” said Shana, dabbing at her nostrils.
“Yeah, he’s okay.”
“Trust me. He’s one of the good ones.”
“What does that mean?”
Shana licked the key and stabbed Meredith’s rib with it. “You know, like, an actual caring partner. Sometimes he reads me to sleep. Tuesdays with Morrie. That’s some funny shit. Hey,” she said, an appraising eye on Meredith’s collarbones, “you look really good.”
The button on Meredith’s jeans digs into her stomach. She stares at a cross-section of her burrito, at the gnawed hem of the tortilla and the glazed meat and the soft chunks of avocado, and she swallows with pleasure and pain. Her breaths are short. A light blinks on in her brain, telling her that she’s reaching the end. She gulps her water, feeling nauseous.
“I’m going to go first,” says Shana, crumpling up the foil wrapper and tossing it onto the table. Paper bags and scrunched napkins litter the surface. She adjusts the wool sweater that goes down to her knees; the way it hangs on her, she might have no body at all. At five foot seven, she weighs 106 pounds, which is a pound heavier than Meredith. She knows this because after they taxied home, they stumbled into the bathroom to take turns weighing themselves, and peeing, and weighing themselves. They were flush and suggestible with liquor, leaning together over the scale. Despite their conjoined disorders, this was something they had never let the other see—the number.
She thinks she detects something smug in Meredith’s silence. She pushes the chair back from the table but doesn’t rise, instead letting her self-loathing pool at her feet, anchoring her in place. If her anger grows shrill enough, it can pop each cell of fat in her body.
“Eric really likes you,” she says. It feels good to voice her jealousy, like rubbing a knuckle against a bruise. “He says he wants to see you again.”
This extinguishes Meredith’s already waning high. “I don’t know if I’d be down for it.”
“Why not? We had a good time.”
After dinner, the girls accompanied Eric to a nearby bar. In the subterranean dark, high-shelved bottles of whiskey gleamed like candles on an altar. They sat on leather stools around a table tucked in the corner; the mounted head of a bison loomed above their heads. When Shana got up to order a second round, Eric watched the draped fabric at the small of her back, and then turned to Meredith and smiled.
“You’re an admirable woman,” he said. In the insufficient glow of the tea light between them, his lips hardly seemed to move. He seemed expressionless, like a ventriloquist’s dummy. “I’m sure you’ll end up attending an excellent school and conducting brilliant research in child psychology. I just love being around talent in its youth.” Then he leaned over the tabletop and kissed her. It was gentle, then grew muscular. Meredith didn’t mind the kiss so much as the feeling that she would not have been able to stop him if she had.
Shana returned moments later with her hands wrapped around three glasses.
“You don’t think they serve kombucha at this bar, do you?” said Meredith, locking eyes with her roommate.
Now at the breakfast table, Meredith turns her empty glass in her hand. She continues, “And you just looked at me like I was a total weirdo.”
Shana throws her head back in exasperation. “Oh, my god. I was so lit. And we never actually agreed on a word. Anyway, we came home right after that.”
“‘Right after that’ being two hours later.”
“Alright, alright. I’m sorry.” Shana snorts. “Kombucha.”
“Take this seriously.”
“I am taking this seriously,” says Shana, hardening her voice. “Fact is, neither of us can afford to say no to this.”
“You only want me to go because you’re afraid he’s going to break things off otherwise,” says Meredith. She realizes this as she says it.
“How much does each application cost you again?”
Meredith leans over the table, every twinge from her stomach like something snapping inside her. She turns over an open palm. “This isn’t the only way.”
Shana shakes her head. “You don’t get it. This is it for me. I don’t get to call up my parents if it gets too hard, and I sure as hell don’t have a ranch to go home to!”
“So how long are you going to keep this up?” Already Meredith can taste the bile rising in her throat. “What are you trying to do, marry one of these guys?”
Frowning, Shana tears the corner off a napkin and rubs it into a tiny ball. She starts to say something, but the syllable catches in her throat. The old darkness creeps up on her, grazing her back with its long and crooked nails.
“I love you, but I can’t do this for you,” Meredith says softly.
“You’ve made that clear, thanks,” says Shana, standing up. But she’s gotten to her feet too quickly, and spots of light tessellate her vision. The room fades at the edges. She gropes the edge of the table.
“Shana,” says Meredith, reaching for the girl’s hand. The light cutting through the blinds striates Shana’s body. In a moment she’ll be okay, but for now Meredith threads their fingers together, gripping Shana on this side of consciousness, grim with the assurance that in a little while everything they’ve ingested will have to come roaring back up.
Jenny Xie is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Johns Hopkins University, where she now teaches creative writing. Her fiction has appeared in Front Porch Journal, Ninth Letter Online, PANK Online, and Phoebe, among others. She was an honorable mention in Glimmer Train's Very Short Fiction Contest, winner of the Driftless Prize from Devil's Lake, and winner of the 2015 Narrative Below 30 Contest.
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