From our current Summer Reading issue, “Body Electric” by Malerie Willens.
This person’s got a name, but let’s call her “you.” You pop into Butterwell Bakeshop after work, to huff the vapors of a thousand mille-feuilles. You eat a complimentary stub of zucchini bread from the basket on the counter while pretending to survey the case, despite the fact that you know its contents by heart and could probably evoke them in the middle of the night, a memory exercise to help you sleep. From left to right: chocolate chip pretzels, organic Irish soda bread, hot-crossed prosciutto buns, blue velvet cupcakes, and on and on. You’ve considered the sensual possibilities of lying naked, lengthwise, along that case, the literal “feeling” of cookies and rolls and brain-sized scones adding a tactile, calorie-free fillip to an already tumultuously hot lust.
You wrap up your charade as a moderate, everyday customer who just casually happened in, and you leave Butterwell with two big bags. The greasy, dense weight of the pastries begins immediately weeping through the wax paper.
You walk up Ninth Avenue, past the pastiche of prix fixe enthusiasts and Hell’s Kitchen derelicts—the ones that still bray and howl and forget to wear pants despite the fact that their neighborhood’s now got more brunching ad execs on Vespas than urine-soaked klepto-crackheads. You start fingering your stash of starch but you do not remove anything because you must never, ever unearth the food in public. Walk instead with hand in bag, pinching off pieces of object. Doesn’t matter if object is wet, viscous, cheesy, sloppy, or frosting-covered. This bag, this object cover-upper, must never be peeled back to reveal contents to you or to passersby.
Collapsibility is key when walking with vessels of objects. Consolidate everything into one bag quickly. You want mobility: no balls, no chains. You will eat the cake once you’re on the subway. You’ll be sitting and you can keep the cake in the bag and dip into it with the fork. That way, train companions might assume you’re eating dinner—some salad or hummus or other acceptable takeout—not the second massive slice of lemon mousseline cake you’ve consumed in ten minutes.
You have perfected the public eat-weave, the sidewalk sojourn with objects in tow. Pinch/eat/pinch/eat. If you walk fast enough, no oncoming walkers will catch more than one cycle of pinch/eat. Your sequence is a matter of personal preference, and depends upon that session’s objects. Not crazy about the tomato-feta brioche? Just eat it. Pumpkin strudel’s drier than you’d hoped? No matter! Down the hatch! This is about consumption—not discernment, not discrimination. You made the decision a half an hour before you left work and now there’s no turning back.
You decided as the workday ended. It had been this kind of Tuesday: You walked to your morning train and already your outfit was twisting and pulling, unflattering, too tight in the armpits. By the time you got to work, you were sweating between your breasts and at the small of your back. At work you were bound to your seat. You drank too little water, peed only once, ate a lunch that was unhealthy, unsatisfying, and left a greasy patina of onion on your fingertips, despite washing them repeatedly. You sat there, hunched and tense, writing things that made bad people sound good, made stale ideas seem pioneering, while your coworkers left midday for sample sales and returned in a jasmine-scented mist of giggles and shopping bags. You knew they knew you hadn’t left your desk all day. You knew they knew you sat there squinting, shifting, furrowing your brow, which, unlike theirs, was not slathered with an age-defying cream mined recently from the Andes. And when you finally finished writing your paean to something that will only make the world worse, your boss had already left for a meeting at Cipriani that wasn’t really a meeting at all but was in fact a lovely little prosecco and smoked fish tête-à-tête with a man who found her attractive, despite her resemblance to a bosomy Peter Lorre.
Imagine the sensation of having just eaten a mountainous Thanksgiving dinner, except for the fact that you’re not surrounded by similarly engorged family members who love you. There is no Ultrasuede® sectional into which you can sink, no televised sporting event or dog show to watch, no The Twilight Zone marathon, no kitty to stroke, and no assurance that this is a nationally sanctioned once-a-year occurrence, and one of the few moments you feel American. No. Instead you are underneath Port Authority, waiting for your train while a wild-eyed Korean man plays hymns on what appears to be, but isn’t, a flute. His open-closed eyes have settled at half-mast, as eyes tend to for the rapturous and exhausted. Your coworkers—the girls—take cabs to and from work, but none of them live deep in the outer boroughs. You lean against a dirty pillar and scan the tracks for rats, the bulging Butterwell bag in hand. Express train approaches, doors open. You’re seated, moving, grateful to be at the mercy of a machine, to cuddle up between the cogs and just let things happen.
You disappear half of a porous black currant scone before the first stop. It would’ve been easier and you would’ve eaten more if you had a little lube. Liquids are essential to the breakdown of objects. Gulping dry scones is no picnic, so you transition to a four-inch-high slice of creamy white birthday cake as the subway doors close after three tentative bounces, and you continue heading downtown. The cake goes south like butter; it’s practically doing the job of a beverage. You imagine it liquefying the crumbly contents that came before, and there is comfort in the thought, a soft sensation of inevitability. Then the train just stops. It is totally still, poised somewhere between Fourteenth and Canal Streets, due to a “police incident.”
There’s always a “police incident.” They generally freeze the train for about twenty seconds. A twenty-second incident is hardly an incident. Can legitimate upheaval resolve itself in twenty seconds? It’s doubtful, though it takes a firing squad less than half that time to dissolve a line of people . . . and twenty seconds is enough time to vomit up a Number Seven Value Meal. But as police incidents go, twenty seconds is unimpressive. You ride these trains daily and the continued announcements of police incidents that end up lasting twenty seconds have begun to reassure you; they disrupt you for long enough to feel that something has gone awry, then they wrap themselves up before your imagination kicks in. It’s like setting the alarm clock for 6:00 AM on a Saturday, just so you can fall back asleep with the sweet awareness that things could be worse.
But tonight, this night of mass consumption, this night of all nights when you’re on the clock, tonight your train stays put. The twenty-second mark passes. It’s been at least a minute, maybe two. The only remaining object in the Butterwell bag is a six-inch-by-six-inch square of artichoke-gruyère focaccia, which you’d planned to heat up at home.
If your binge/purge purgatory’s unexpectedly protracted, you scrape some serious mental resources from your barf bag of tricks. Whence comes the subversion? If person lives in New York, it’s likely the subway. First rule of thumb when averting this brand of blue balls: never consume thousands of calories before boarding the train. This strain of blue balls does ache, but not in the bollocks. The irrefutable truth of matter trapped tautly inside, whether cum or cream puffs, is a conundrum of physics, a problem of space, and another problem entirely. The physical discomfort is easier than the awareness of having a load to shoot when something prevents you from shooting it. Shooting, spewing, ejecting, squirting. Sentient beings are the only beings that get blue balls. Other beings just eat, mate, sleep, expel: whenever, however.
Small amounts of starch are digested by the amylase present in saliva, and the resulting bolus of food is swallowed into the esophagus and carried by peristalsis to the stomach. Food travels down the esophagus at a rate of approximately one to two inches per second.
The process is afoot. You are stranded, metaphorical balls growing bluer in increments. You are glad that tonight’s bolus is poorly lubed; it slows things down. Another factor that’s slowing down absorption is the high fat content of the objects. You are looking on the bright side. You remember that the alimentary canal is thirty feet long from end to end. Whether or not you should be encouraged by this is unclear. You decide to be encouraged, that thirty feet is terribly long and that there are proverbial miles to go before the bolus sleeps—whether in your bowel or the bowels of the New York septic system, should you make it in time.
They scoff, the ones who’ve not performed this fox-trot, doubters who think it bourgeois, imaginary, muliebral. What they don’t know is that the moment of commitment—the one at the office—is the same as a dope fiend’s, a drunk’s, and a gambler’s. The pin pricks the balloon and—pop!—it’s done. A switch is flicked and the machine spasms into motion. There is no decision but the one that gets made adrenally, nonverbally, and possibly in the womb.
Pleasure? There is little. You have a smallish appetite, so gorging gets uncomfortable fast. The first object or two, especially if you’re actually hungry, can allay the itch the way a good orgasm or a hot bath can. Like that first beer after a hard day. Why can’t you be satisfied by these acceptable means of winding down? Why eat ten cookies? Why not two? You’ve been told it’s a control thing and that it’s got little to do with food. You think perhaps it’s related to your love of rejecting and ejecting: the sliding away from boyfriends before you’re married and pregnant, the returning of more than half of the items you buy—often thrillingly on the final day covered by the return policy. This eleventh-hour declaration of freedom from constraint—caloric, emotional, financial—can be quite a rush. As with all the best rushes, fear supplies the horsepower.
The “police incident,” according to comically muffled loudspeaker Esperanto, is now the more graphic but equally vague “problem on the tracks,” and this muzzy doublespeak would be funny if you hadn’t just consumed five thousand low-quality calories of refined something or other—refinement in this case meaning coarse, crass, totally unlovely.
You think you might actually feel the process. Your body, outwardly, is still. The stiller you sit, the more internal motion you detect. It’s a terrible tug-of-war, to have to sit, literally sit, with the knowledge that you’ve just bombarded yourself with filth, and too much of it. On a normal night, you’d be in that delirious transit between consumption and expulsion, not forced to sit still while the gastric show begins. This is a vile punishment, this moment of reckoning with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. You wonder whether you look as distraught as you feel. You are fidgety, jerky, shifting—but so are your fellow travelers. Have all the passengers just visited Butterwell Bakeshop? Have they all just slithered naked in the pastries, waiting now to vanquish their bad day? The peristalsis of fifty-some humans, the buzz of their rotors, loud against the subway’s dumb inertia. You all want to go home and expunge your bad day.
There is nobody attractive on this train. And no obvious crazies. You want chocolate chips straight from the bag. Or mixed into gelato. Pad Thai first, then the gelato. You make a mental note to incorporate these objects into some other night’s binge. If the train moves within ten minutes and gets you home without additional stalls, you should be fine. This is unscientific, of course. You set the cell phone alarm for ten minutes from now. More than fifty people on the train if you include babies. Approximate number of calories consumed? More than a few Big Macs. Maybe the equivalent of a large pizza with three different meats. Fine for a wrestler, bad for a five-foot-eight-inch woman who didn’t exercise this morning, whose metabolism is probably slowing prematurely from real and imagined stress and strain.
A family of four is directly across from you. Caucasian, almost certainly tourists. Mom and Dad are fortyish, five-year-old son on Mom’s lap, already-pretty twelve-year-old daughter sits between parents. They’re on their way to dinner, as evidenced by talk of a certain steakhouse.
“What kind of steak do I like again?” the daughter asks, sibilant with braces.
“I think you like a rib eye,” says mom.
“I thought I liked filet mignon. What’s filet mignon again?”
Dad explains that “filet mignon is really tender. But there’s very little flavor.”
“What steak do you like, Mom?”
“New York. Dad likes porterhouse.”
“What’s the difference?”
“New York steak is a strip steak. It’s very flavorful. Porterhouse is big. I think it’s a New York steak plus the filet.”
“Two steaks? Gross. Would I like New York steak?”
“You might,” says Mom. “You can try mine.”
“What do I like?” asks the little boy.
“You like lamb chops,” says Mom.
“No! I like steak! Mommy! I like steak!”
You think you’ve had this exact conversation. The cuts of the cow always eluded you, but you took comfort in the fact that your mom had hers and your dad had his. You tarted around a bit, never really committing because you never really loved steak. You were slightly repulsed by your parents’ insistence on marbling and rareness, but the rules of this particular meal—the ritual—intrigued you. You felt taken care of when the white-jacketed old codger appeared with the special knives, the gravy boat of some sherry-laced reduction. The disciplined crispness, heavy bleached napkins, the solemnity and grainy wood. And then the eating, when Mom and Dad got exactly what they expected. What looked to you like offal was manna to Mom and Dad. There was nothing so adult, when you were twelve, as adults and their steak. The solemn theater of it made you want to learn the rules, acutely aware of your own spectatorial lack of engagement. Like so much else, it was something you assumed would make sense when you grew up.
You’ve got some minutes before your cell phone alarm sounds, after which time you may not be able to access the objects, though there’s always a margin of error with these things. Because as much as the body operates like clockwork, in many ways it doesn’t. Chaos and order in vying measures. This is why we will never master our bodies. If we live to be a hundred, we will never know why.
You hear someone wail. A childlike wail on the motionless train. A splash. Somebody has vomited. Somebody has vomited and it’s not you. He’s crying now. It’s a Puerto Rican boy, a second or third grader, skinny, big ears, nervous, crying into his mother’s puffy lap. Mother’s young and flustered, crispy ringlets shellacked, and she’s trying to clean up the mess on the floor with the receiving blanket that belongs to her other kid, an infant in a stroller, and she’s balancing all of this while the passengers avert their eyes from the dogfoodish barf. You breathe as little as possible in an effort to avoid the smell; your generally tolerant stance on vomit does not extend to other people’s. The other family, the steak family, they’re sitting next to her and they look spooked. But then the steak-mom offers to take the stroller to free up the barf-mom so that the barf-mom can finish cleaning up the vomit and console her embarrassed son. The steak-dad gives the barf-mom a handkerchief from his pants pocket so that she can wipe up the last bits, and everyone looks to be completely unwound. Your cell phone says five minutes left. The twelve-year-old steak-girl’s face betrays what could be empathy. Or maybe she just thinks it’s gross.
And then, as if the thin Puerto Rican boy, whose name must be Alejandro—It’s okay, Ale. Don’t worry baby—as if his puke has greased the skids and set the train in motion, you lurch back into play, southbound toward your stop. There is still a chance, barring another “police incident” or “problem on the tracks,” to neutralize the acids of the evening.
But the movement is temporary. Sham progress. It’s enough to get you to an actual station, albeit not yours. The doors open at Canal Street and an announcement is made in the MTA’s new abbreviated style, which edits out words like “the” and “is” in order to minimize what’s known as “dwell time,” the few seconds it takes for the train to disgorge passengers while new ones board. This announcement cites a switch problem over the Manhattan Bridge. Your home is over that bridge. Everyone must leave the train.
Above ground, the fishy-fungal bedlam of Chinatown is a comfort. Rows of durian, long bean, jackfruit, and dried shrimp vibrate, their careful arrangement imparting structure to so much gnarled irregularity. You beeline, bobbing and weaving like a boxer, while tourists buy underripe coconuts and drink the bitter juice through straws, trusting that this is how it’s supposed to taste.
It’s Chinatown. No public bathrooms and no place to hide, so you’ll have to patronize a business with a bathroom. You enter 888 Bun, one of so many modest dim sum joints. There’s a restroom sign in the rear of the narrow restaurant. You order one steamedcha siu bao, that pillowy round of dough filled with barbecued pork that’s red as garnets. You sit and eat half of it, watching twilight deepen out the window, and when you’re done, you approach the bathroom of 888 Bun and hope that the proprietor, who is old and hopefully going deaf, can’t hear you.
“No, no! Not working!” He sees you jangling the doorknob.
“Bathroom broken! Sorry about that!”
You’re now half a cha siu bao older than you were five minutes ago.
You walk west toward the dying sun. You wonder whether it’s possible to feel stoned from overconsumption, not in the way of the tryptophan daze or the terribly named food coma, but more energized, less leaden, a state more akin to an MDMA high minus the benevolence. Each block you walk is identical; you don’t notice, process, see. You say to yourself, “I’m going to think about every person in the world right now.” You try this and of course you fail, but the trying hints at connection, a connectedness, although it’s not clear to what.
You’ve arrived at an intersection near enough to the Hudson River to discern its radiance through the buildings. The light is now the light reflected by water. It’s a big intersection, this one. You’re stopped while left turns are made, or not, and drivers judge each other’s judgment calls about these made and unmade left turns in a cacophony of horns. You imagine yourself as a jogger at the corner, jogging in place so as not to disrupt your momentum for as long as the light is red. But one can only begin jogging in place if one has already been jogging. You can’t suddenly start to jog in place from a state of stillness, especially if you’re not in workout gear and are in fact wearing suede gladiator sandals with a three-inch platform heel. And so you wait and then walk.
Next corner is more desolate. There’s a blue USPS mailbox, a green relay mailbox, and some free phony newspapers on metal racks chained to a streetlamp. You think in a vague way about all of the important mail you’ve sent and received, half a life’s worth of mail, and it occurs to you that none of it was really so important. Not even the actual letters. There is always another mode of communication, a different way to pay a bill. You pull down the small door of the blue mailbox with your left hand while your subway-dirty right hand jerks into position and you begin to deep-throat yourself. Your index and middle fingers affect staccato gullet-plunges and within seconds there is the cha siu baoand some starchy stuff from earlier in larger than normal chunks because there was no beverage and you chewed too fast. You’re no Nancy Reagan, you think to yourself. Nancy chewed each grape thirty times. Nancy, sylphlike and lollipop-headed in size zero Adolfo suits, whose disciplined chewing made international headlines in the 1980s. A child of the ’80s, you’re still irked by your inability to chew a single grape thirty times.
The first wave of relief is palpable but the angle’s awkward, your neck necessarily crooked to ensure precision of aim, and the doughy, creamy contents begin to land on those suede gladiators and your bare toes. Why should you care? Your hands are filthy from the subway, from money exchange, from vomit. Do your feet deserve better?
Because you sense the arrival of people, and the angle is proving impossible, you stop before the bile comes. Bile is what you want. Bile is the goal, the proper terminus, but it’s not to be. You shake yourself off like a dog. Either nobody sees or if they see they don’t watch. You remove your soiled right shoe and then the left, and you deposit them together into the mailbox, which takes a bit of doing, produces an audible thud. You walk gingerly in bare feet toward that final sweep of watery western light, feeling like a defaced but terrifically serene lady-Jesus. Your bare arms and legs are visited by one of those elusive July breezes that feel like a gift. Your steps reset the night, put the needle at zero. You’re as fresh and lucid as you are when you wake up with humors aligned, and as sanguine about the future as you sometimes are when you raise your glass in a toast, and as awed as you were as a child, when you first understood that you’d never see the inside of your own body.
Malerie Willens’s stories have appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, AGNI, Electric Literature, Open City, and Canteen. She live sin New York City.