Fiction, Vol. 4.2, June 2010
Age seven. In order to impress my rawhide and steak-bone grandpa, I ate a cigarette butt out of his coffee can ashtray. It tasted like charred plastic, soggy firewood and spit, but also like hairy chests and manhood. I skipped into the kitchen where grandpa was washing motor oil from his hands in the sink, tapped him on the shoulder and waited, feet spread, hands clasped behind my back. He switched the water off, turned around absently, like nobody had even touched him, and I stood there, proud as a motherfucker, and smiled wide. When he saw the dark brown juice squished on my tongue and the flakes of tobacco in my teeth, he narrowed his eyes, ducked in close to my mouth, then licked the gnarled silvery beard above his lip and said, “Jesus, you’re one stupid shithead, aren’t you?”
I never understood why, but my mom used to love this photograph of me from the sixth grade. As I recall, it was a picture of me standing by the dinner table in the dining room showing off a big white plate, waxed in spaghetti grease and breadcrumbs. I had it resting on my waist, tilted toward the camera with great delight, as if consuming a massive stack of pasta deserved a trophy. In middle school I was a solid forty pounds overweight – bloated cheeks, triple chin, man boobs, gassy gut – and this picture accentuated it all. It didn’t help that I had gooey orange sauce running down my shirt, plastering my fingers, caking my mouth. How come every time friends or relatives came over she had to pull out that photo, pass it around like it was some award winning moment, like it embodied everything good and right about who I was?
The night of the annual Christmas party, 1992, after everyone left and Mom fell asleep, I snuck out of bed, tiptoed into the family room, and pulled the photo album off the shelf. I flipped to the photo, ripped it out and tore it to pieces. Then, knowing my mom, I searched every drawer in the house until I found her box of photo negatives in the kitchen. I held them up to the ceiling light until I came across the one of me with my dumb, sloppy-ass plate. I folded it into my mouth and chewed. It felt like devouring a sound, like a record scratch or a crumpled chip bag. It was sharp and slippery, but I was glad when it disappeared.
Weeks later, mom asked if I knew where the photograph was. She was troubled and perplexed by the empty spot in the album. I denied everything. Then, shockingly, she cried. Startled, I asked what was wrong. She said, “Didn’t you see how much fun we were having in that picture? Didn’t you see our faces? Remember? There’s not a single other photo where we look that happy together.” I hadn’t even noticed she was in the photo, which made me realize she was speaking some kind of truth beyond truth.
Junior year of college, three days before she was scheduled to move into my apartment, I found out my girlfriend, Cindy, was having sex with someone else. When these things happen, one’s initial impulse is to run about looking for something to smash, some act to render the outside world as fractured and messy as your inside one, so you can at least see the damage.
Because Cindy was moving in soon, I had access to things she was storing around my apartment – clothing, books, CDs, glassware. Without thinking, I whipped open her jewelry box and took out a bracelet I had bought her for Valentine’s Day. It was a flimsy, skinny hoop with a fake pearl button, but I had put a lot of thought into it. I slid it into my mouth and crunched. It had no taste, save the acidy enzymes my own mouth produced. Halfway through I got mad. I was eating what I loved most about us, not what she loved most about herself, which made me think about what Mom said about the photograph. I was doing Cindy a favor. If we take everything we think we know about other people’s hearts and pile it together, it’s disappointing to realize that we’re looking at nothing but a horrible bout of indigestion.
And the worst thing? I swallowed the stupid bracelet anyway.
Today I read an article about a boy who eats his scabs. He picks at them until they pop off, then slips them onto his tongue and laps them down. It was a heartbreaking article. When the reporter asked how many he’d eaten—“ten, twelve, fifteen?”—the boy replied that there were many more than that. “It sounds like I’m bragging,” he said, “but I’m not proud.” He was only ten. I felt a deep kinship with him.
A doctor who was interviewed said the practice has something to do with iron deficiencies. He said, “ The body needs iron, which scabs are rich in, to transport oxygen from lungs to cells. If it is lacking, the body will procure it through alternative means.”
How bizarre. To imagine your subconscious mind instructing you to eat something so good for your body but so bad for your brain. Most interesting was the part about not being able to quit. What would it feel like to take something that was healing and rip it open anew, only to put it back inside yourself and start over? We are slaves to iron deficiencies, doc suggests.
There are so many uncontrollable things people do every day. Like breathing. I bring the newspaper to my face, dig it in close. I put my tongue out, press it against the warm, inky print. Then I blow my cheeks full of air and mash the paper harder against my nose, to see what it’s like, just to understand what it takes to stop.