Honey, he says, Can you pass me another one, and this finally sends her over the edge, after a hard-ground hour here, sweating on a blanket itchy with fierce imagined ants, for there is only one sandwich left of the many she has so painstakingly made, a baguette brick of marbled prosciutto and triple-crème Brie, and for that endless hour of this magazine couplehood picnic she has bloated herself with seltzer and nibbled kale chips, origami’d her sunscreened legs into slimming designs, and watched him smack down those simple carbs, stuff himself on greasy flesh and dairy fats, while all she can taste are the words that have thickened her tongue for weeks, the sour flavor of words she still cannot get out of her mouth, the words You’re fucking Renee, aren’t you?
But Sure, sweetie, she says, swallowing, Glad you’re enjoying, although she cannot resist, final sandwich in hand to hand over to him, opening her own smiley mouth wide, she will take her own big bite of it, at least, she has been so good for so long, she has earned this, her mouth wetting now with the memory of salted ruby meat, she is dizzy with it, the very air is abruptly abuzz, and she bites down hard, and at the sudden crunch and searing attack she is confused before pained, the pain is disorienting before painful, and when the pain does fire it is so vast in flame it consumes her, burns her whole, swallows up her deep-throated screams.
A meat bee, the ER doctor tells her boyfriend. He grabs a slab of her bare thigh, slams a syringe of epinephrine in; the sting is too precious to even bother a flinch. You say she’s not allergic, but just in case. That swelling’s bad.
She shakes her head but cannot speak; the right side of her face is stuffed full of its hot self, her tongue and lips and cheek a throbbing balloon. She is drooling, nauseated.
She could just be hypersensitive, the doctor says.
A bee? her boyfriend asks. He is holding her hand, but his concerned, quizzical face is for the doctor. I didn’t see any bees. And we didn’t have any sweet stuff around—a glance at her—like, at all. She eats really healthy, he explains.
No, a meat bee. They don’t go for sugar, they go straight for meat. They get a whiff, it makes them crazy. I see this every summer. Picnickers not paying attention, they wind up with a mouthful of pissed-off bee. He pats her shoulder. You’re not unusual.
Fuck you, she thinks. Help me. She frantics her fingers at them both, to simulate the blinding pain waves of cartoons and aspirin commercials.
The doctor scribbles on a pad. They’re nasty, those things, he says. They get possessed. He hands her boyfriend a slip of paper. She can have one Vicodin every four hours, if she thinks she needs it. Get her some frozen peas and Benadryl. Watch out for hives. He smiles at her. And you, keep an eye on your baloney.
At home she looks in the mirror; the inside of her mouth has bladdered to a swell of veiny red tissue. She doesn’t understand how such delicate membranes have not burst, is mortified by her thickened face. Xtra xtra xtra Benadryl, she texts her boyfriend. Out sick for a few days, she emails her office.
He comes back from the store with three packages of Benadryl, a plastic prescription bottle of six Vicodin pills, icy bags of peas, and, proudly, two six-packs of Snack Pack Pudding: chocolate, vanilla, choco-nilla swirl.
She shows him WTF hands.
My mom got this stuff when I had my wisdom teeth out. Whoa, he says, studying her. You are not pretty. He pours, hands her a glass of water, three tiny capsules, and one pill. Here, he says. She toss-aims them toward the back of her throat, one by one; she tries to manage the lip of the glass but water dribbles down her chin, throat, onto her chest. She starts to choke, to cough. No, no, he says. Don’t do that. He rummages, finds a straw in a drawer of unused chopsticks and ketchup packets, helps it into her mouth, and she is able to close her lips around it, suck a bit, swallow down the water and meds. He offers her a chocolate Snack Pack Pudding; she takes the cup, squints at the list of ingredients: number one is high-fructose corn syrup, followed by a litany of unpronounceable chemicals. The tiny cup contains eighteen grams of sugar.
She fingertaps the label at him, rolls her eyes, sets the cup down.
It won’t kill you, he says. You should eat something. You’re already too skinny.
She shakes her head. She sips water, then digs out, and theatrically swallows, another capsule, another pill.
He sighs. Want me to stay, he asks. You’ve had a shock, I think I should stay with you, but she sees him check his phone and she suspects, as she has for weeks, despite his sweet hoverings and nuzzlings, his honeyed words, that he is really looking for an excuse to leave.
She thumbs-down him, but with a mournful, half-mouth smile she hopes expresses sincere appreciation. She waves bye, gingerly shapes a cold pea bag to her deformed face, and heads toward her bedroom.
Well, okay, he says. I’ll go work, I guess. I have that project with Renee, so . . . She hears his footsteps walking away. Text if you need anything, okay?
She hears the door shut behind him. She curls up on her bed, closes her eyes. The pain waves smooth to ripples. The ripples gossamer dance around her room. The rippling dancer is Renee, pretty Renee is a swirling confection, Renee alights daintily upon her bed, a spun-sugar rose upon a cake, now Renee is kneeling beside her, Renee’s slender arms are braceleting her boyfriend’s hips, he is pumping Renee’s avid, elastic mouth, Good girl, he says, Renee’s tongue is nimble, Renee’s throat is welcoming and snug, Renee sucks and sucks like she’s sucking snake venom from an X, and when he comes he fountains Renee’s pretty face, it streams down her sculpted cheekbones, drizzles like icing from her candy-red lips. And when she opens her eyes it is dark and her sheets are damp, her pea bag is saggy and warm, and she cannot sort out if this was a dream or a vision, an out-of-body, higher-consciousness witnessing of an actual happening, of what has been happening, she suspects, knows, is happening now, at this exact moment, in some other darkened place.
She staggers her way to three more Benadryl and two more Vicodin, to sips of cool water, to a fresh bag of frozen-hard peas, to burrowing back into her sweat-sheeted bed.
So, they chew meat up into a paste and feed it to their larvae, her boyfriend tells her when he comes by the next day. She question-frowns at him. The meat bees, he says. They’re a real thing. I looked it up. They’re actually a kind of wasp.
She uh-huhs from the back of her throat. Her still-swollen lips and tongue cannot shape sounds into words, but it is a relief to just let him drone on.
He rests a plastic grocery bag on the kitchen counter, unpacks. In summer the worker bees scavenge on meat they find in dumpsters, he says.
Uh-huh, she sounds. Uh-huh.
It’s all for the queen. The bees feed the protein to the larvae, they secrete it back out as this sugary stuff to feed the new queen. She lives on it all winter, just holes up in her nest and gorges. He turns to her. Let me see you, he says. Whoa. Maybe you are allergic. I got more Benadryl.
She rattles the Vicodin bottle at him; there are only two pills left.
Already? he says. Okay, I’ll call for a refill. And here. I got you this. He shows her: Chobani Low-Fat Straw ’Nana drinkable yogurt.
Are you fucking kidding me, she eyebrows at him.
What, he says. You haven’t eaten in like thirty hours. You’re trembling. Look, it’s all natural. It’s healthy. It’s got real fruit.
He unscrews the bottle of yogurt, points it at her, and she gets a whiff of sweet banana, of sweet strawberry, the scent of fruity pulp, she can feel the molecules swarm her nose, and she backs up, hurries to straw-suck water, rinse the faintest taste of it away. Fruit sugar is still fructose, he should know that, it is still a sugar, like glucose and dextrose and lactose and sucrose, all the -oses, they are all evil crystalline sugar-sisters, sweet-faced but noxious, and fructose the most insidious tease of all, its simple deliciousness a clever disguise. Sugar is toxic. Sugar stickies the blood and nectars the urine, it dazzles the kidneys and escorts the brain toward dementia, the liver spins its dizzying cloy into fat, into obesity, into heart disease and diabetes and cancer, to ketoacidosis and hyperglycemic coma. Sugar will always turn on you. She has not eaten a piece of fruit in five years, she has been so virtuous, so good. Chicken breasts and salmon, leafy greens and fizzy water, all of that has been no sacrifice, a snap, easy as pie, but the danger is, has always been, the sweet, and it is everywhere, not just the candy the desserts the soda cans the cakes, it is lurking in every restaurant entrée, every loaf of whole-grain bread, every dollop of teriyaki or BBQ sauce, every packet of ketchup, none of it to be trusted, but she has resisted it all, the victory of five years has been no sugar, not a gram a teaspoon an ounce in her mouth, no HFCS, no cane sugars, brown sugars, no honeys, agaves, maple syrups, molasses, and no saccharines or aspartames, either, those false alluring angels sent to trigger and keep the hunger the yearning the craving alive, to siren-sing the fragile soul to its destruction, she has disciplined herself free of that weakness, that need, and if it enters her now, her liver, her kidneys, her brain, her heart is already beating so fast, so hard, her blood is already aflame, if one ambrosial, poisonous molecule of -ose invades her system; no, she will not allow him to do this to her, to use and betray her this way.
She knocks the open yogurt from his hand into the kitchen sink, the pink and yellow-flecked creamy liquid trickling into the mouth of the drain. She blasts the faucet after it, runs the disposal, flushes it all away. Go, she thinks. Go feed your new sweetheart all your sweet nothings. She stamps her foot at him, glares.
Jesus, he says. I know you’re in pain, but could you please stop attacking me? I’m just trying to help.
She shoos him away. If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Fine. He looks at his phone. Me and Renee have that presentation anyway, so . . . He heads to the door.
There you go, she thinks. She is your candy girl, yes, and I’ve caught you wanting her.
At least drink more water, he calls over his shoulder. You’re getting dehydrated.
She hears the door slam. She crawls back into her bed, arranges pillow, sheet, blanket, burrows deep.
The next morning she studies her face; her right cheek remains chipmunked and hot, her tongue and lips engorged. It has been forty-six hours on Benadryl and Vicodin, on water sips and air gulps, on throb. When she gets up from her scrambled sweat-nest of a bed her legs wobble.
Hey, she hears her boyfriend call, the rattle of the front door opening, and she thinks maybe she should take her key back, it’s her place, she doesn’t need him just barging in this way whenever he likes. How you doing, honey, he asks, and she hears a sheen of practiced tenderness in his voice. Little prick. She doesn’t need his treacle care, his pretend tending to.
She walks carefully into the kitchen, trying to appear steadier than she is. She gives him a regal little shrug.
He peers. Better, he says. But man. It’s taking a long time. Hey, I’m really sorry, you know?
You should be, she thinks. You busy busy boy. She nods his way.
Listen, the doctor won’t refill the Vicodin, he says it’s too addictive, you should just do Advil if you’re still having pain. So I got you some. And okay, here. He holds up a blue plastic bottle, vaguely curved like an ancient clay relic of a worshiped goddess. He unscrews the top of the goddess. I want you to drink this.
She takes it in her hand. It is something called: Enlive. It is Dutch Chocolatey, it is naturally and artificially flavored. It is made of water, milk proteins, corn syrup, and sugar. It is made of short-chain fructooligosaccharides and cellulose gel. It is twenty grams of sugar per single goddess-shaped bottle. It is in her shaking hand and she feels tears dampening her dry eyes, brimming, blurring the label’s tiny, shaking print. She shakes her head, shakes and shakes. She has no words.
Trust me, he says. You need nourishment. He points at the label. See, this is advanced therapeutic nutrition. It’s all balanced. It has twenty grams of protein. It has twenty-six vitamins and minerals. It has prebiotic fiber. Your body needs this stuff. I looked it up. Doctors give this to, like, cancer kids who can’t eat. Old people who can’t chew. He sticks a straw in. I’m not leaving until you drink it. At least a few sips. Please. He pushes at her hand. Drink. I’m serious, I’ll pour it down your throat if I have to.
Her whole body is shaking now, with craving or weakness, what does it matter, it is the same thing, the need. Give it to me. She takes the straw between her lips, and sucks, and it is the sucked-in smell of a rubbery bottle nipple then the sweet bloom of babyhood sugar water filling her mouth. It is her mother’s exhausted face leaning over the crib, relieved the colicky screams have stopped at last, such a good girl, both of them happy now as she sucks her sugar water, swallows, sucks, gulps. It is her hopscotch-scraped knee with its grid of blood, her little girl tears, the kiss-it-better not working and so the butterscotch candies uncellophaned fast from grandma’s purse, it is the sticky butter-sweet glowing her blood, and all is fine now, all is good. It is the big girl finishing her glass of milk and so the reward of Whoppers Malted Milk Balls mumping her cheeks, smiles all around. It is look she’s finished her homework cleaned her room eaten her glazed carrots at dinner, and so now the nipple’d sweet of a Hershey’s Kiss poking out her cheek, the tiny crunch of M&M’s candy coatings, and how long can she hold the creamy brown melt in her mouth. It is the Halloween bounty, the season of candy corn and Tootsie Pops, the gritty sweet sand of Pixy Stix, the plastic orange pumpkin weighted with mini Mounds and Snickers and Milky Ways and Baby Ruths, all careful-parent examined for razor blades, for evil tamperings, then given back for sock-drawer hoarding that lasts only days, not the promised months. Fruits are the lab-made, ascorbic-acid flavors of Skittles and Starbursts and Jelly Bellies, raisins are Raisinets, almonds mean marzipan and Almond Joys, milk is a vehicle for Nesquik strawberry or chocolate syrups, sucked through red licorice Twizzler straws. It is the quivering anticipation of birthday cakes with the biggest pinkest prettiest sugar rose for the birthday girl, the backyard piñata attacked and attacked and attacked with baseball bat frenzy until she is showered with manna. Easter is creamy Cadbury Eggs, Thanksgiving is candied yam casserole peaked with marshmallow crust, Christmas is the faux-minty red-and-white swirl of candy canes sucked into spears, the pot of melting caramel meant to golden the popcorn garlands and shellac the apples, instead mouth-spooned away at the stove. It is the zoo the circus the carnival, all ballet-pink gossamer puffs of cotton candy crunched to hard coral between her teeth. It is the bloodbeat rush, the delirium, sailing soar into bliss, and then the plummet and bitter crash, the jitters and shakes. It is acidic pantings and acrid sweatings and belly flesh bulging around the elastic of panties and training bras, it is claiming a stomachache to duck the bleachers-running or rope-climbing or naked locker room of gym, it is the yearly mouthful of Novocain needle and new silver-filling glints rewarded with a gleaming, jewel-colored lollipop. It is the terror of beach parties or swim parties and the mumbled, towel-mummied excuses of sunburning so easily. It is her teenage Saturday nights baking Betty Crocker brownies alchemized into bigger higher happiness soars with added bags of Reese’s Pieces and Nestlé chocolate chips. It is the sweet boy, the cute kind caring boy in English lit who smiles, compliments her understanding of Shakespearean metaphor, comes to her house after school for quiz study, sits on her bed and eats half a pan of her offered brownies while she chatters away, then sweet-mouth kisses her silent, once, the chocolate masking the breath going sour, then nudges her head to his lap, to his opening fly, to the hard sucking candy and sweat and come filling her mouth, her throat, her belly, even as she suspects, knows, this is all she will get, all she deserves, but let me have it now, this sweetness, more and more and more, give it to me, it is so good.
There you go, her boyfriend says, as she guzzles it down. Good girl.
I’m all better, sweetie, she texts the next morning. No need to bring me anything!
U sure? he responds. So worried about U.
All fine now, don’t worry.
Rest up, tho. Love u.
How did presentation go?
Great. Renee awesome. They want 2 send us 2 HQ 4 honcho meeting! OK gone a few days???
Of course, go! Just work here, all holed up, busybusy.
Dinner when back, with Renee and her GF? They want 2 meet U! xoxxox
Hey there, she hears, faintly, then the closing of a distant door, a soft How’s my sweet girl doing, and then footsteps, a slight crackle sound. She stirs, opens her eyes, hears a polite tap on her bedroom door, and the door is swung wide, bringing a bright burst of whatever day’s light it is and a blossomy scent, the shadowed shape of him in the doorway, of something in his arms, a bouquet, cellophane, the outline of roses, lilies, stalk. But the dainty flower breath in the room is brief, only sweeps back to her nose the sweeter fragrance of, what is that, chocolate, yes, luscious and rich, but a chocolate now gone stale, gone foul, or maybe that is vanilla, its golden cream now a moldering thing. She licks her cracking lips, inhales hungrily, is newly aware the air around her is syruped with strawberry, coated with banana, no matter they are fruits gone putrid, the chemical reek of synthetic, unnatural fruits, and there’s fetid coconut and festering caramel, rancid stale mint, all of it delicious, even the welling sugary scent of her own urine, vomit, sweat, and she feels her dry mouth watering, greedily breathes in every taste, every lingering note, the scent of things once sweet, of all sweetness turned to sweetish rot. And appearing before her in the lightening haze is the everywhere disarray and remnants of her treasure, a revel of torn shiny paper wrappers and ripped-apart cellophane bags, piles of empty plastic bottles and cans, strewn bits of aluminum foil and tiny waxen cups, unlidded boxes, and she feels through it for more, hands scrambling for anything left, she finds a morsel, a delicacy, a jewel to fill her hungry mouth, perfume her blood, and she smiles at her victory, closes her eyes again, for here she is curled up safe among it all, this is her cloister, her realm, and she hears his plaintive call to her, his Honey, honey, honey, his fading Please talk to me, please, but no matter, she will not answer, there has never been need of words, no need of him, of anybody, here in her sweet dark darkening nest.
Tara Ison is the author, most recently, of the story collection Ball and the essay collection Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, winner of the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Prize. “The Meat Bee”will be performed at Word Theatre in Los Angeles on May 6th. www.TaraIson.com