“Oh my God,” I gasp. “I look like a dinosaur.” In the photos you took of me trying on the pine green Vickie Secret teddy I bought for the sex party Upstate, elastic lace clinging to my speed-bump ass and linguine straps cutting into my carved-out chicken wings. My arms are wrapped around your waist from behind, chin nestled in the dish of your scapula. “Only in this one,” you say meaning to console. Your thumb smears back a few frames, across the splintered screen of the iPhone you insist upon rawdogging, your fingers too stubby to span a case. Sometimes it can be hard to see yourself, other than in someone else’s reflection: my vertebrate are protruding as if a stack of staples raring to perforate a parchment paper epidermis. Gee, thanks a bunch, I want to say but don’t. From one angle only I’m a pile of prehistoric, a would-be fossil.
At 38 years of age in the Holocene Epoch, I consult google dot com to brush up on my ancestral line. Relearn a stegosaurus is the one with a mohawk of leaves cascading from the nape of its neck to tip of its tail. The irony of the upkeep of a preening punk: nothing says fuck the system like fixing one’s feathers in a row. The paint jars of Punky Colours teenage me gooped into my bleach-bristled hair. The Reynolds Wrap sectioning it into antennae crinkling for a station. The Vaseline I’d traced around my safety-pinned ears. The tie dyed bathtub and my mom’s hysterics.
Who could’ve predicted a real-life fossil of a 1988 Wendy’s Kid’s Meal toy? Off my dresser, my deft kitten batted each collectible Playskool figurine; only, a stubborn dinosaur with a steam iron head persisted, the parasaurolophus. A film of gummy sap had leached through its pores, a puddle of plastic pollution gluing down its feet. The deformity of materials over time. I think of A Land Before Time. Dino Flintstone of vitamin fame. And the most famous dino of them all: Cheesasaurus Rex of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. His chocolate powder counterpart: the Nestle Quik Bunny, before that brand and product name were spliced into a snappy portmanteau, heralding the era of Facebook dropping the The.
“My grandma drinks that,” the kid ahead of me at Duane Reade snarks at my six-pack of Ensure bottles. The beverage force-fed to conniving anorexics in Lifetime movies, the ultimate threat. Tired of choking down liquid chalk to pack on the pounds, like an impotent Popeye mainlining spinach, I realize if I’m going to down sugar slurries, I might as well regress to the powder I poured into milk—spoon pinging my glass, like a triangle in music class, as the flavor pockets detonated. I wonder whatever happened to the Bunny Money and box tops I’d saved in sandwich bags, along with my mom’s coupon clippings. The mugs, keychains, t-shirts, stuffed animals: was I holding off for something bigger?
On Ebay, I cash in on a Cheesasaurus Rex Super Sleuth 110 film camera. Maybe that’s cheating but I feel I’ve earned it by now. In college, my stoner roommate and I used to make each other Easy Mac, the Ramen Noodles of trash Americana, winking like sleazy swingers who’d caught the reefer madness, “Would you like me to cheese you some easy?”
Twelve to fourteen is what they’ll charge to project each image onto paper manually at the fancy schmancy photo lab you send me to. They redirect me to California where there’s automated equipment to suck up strips of 110 negatives and spit out prints. First, I’ll have to hold each frame up to my bedside lamp to determine what’s worth shipping. Didn’t mean to be this kind of hipster, film too obscure to process, I shake my head. Only meant to chill with my childhood idol the Big Cheese. The roadblock turns out to be fortuitous.
The roll is half sunny day shots of us in the Water Works gazebo, on the banks of the Schuylkill, where wedding ceremonies are held. And half predatory ones of you showing off the purple lacy panties I make you wear for humiliation: your tiny balls pressed between your legs; your swollen dick, practically a clit, not even approaching the waistband. American Beauty is the style name, evoking the plastic bag dancing with the leaves “like a little kid begging me to play with it,” the poster of Mena Suvari bathed in red rose petals, innocence unpeeled.
I text you about the special handling required. Then get down on all fours in front of my full-length mirror to admire my hindquarters, heavy and flushed and garish like a baboon’s. I imagine my puffy pussy lips morphing into your balls. That time I made you bend me over my bed, looked back up and said, “I have more between my legs than you do.” Our bodies clapping against each other more and more vehemently. Your face contorting, pained and gritty, as you struggle to hold off. Your helpless whimpers, “Katie, I can’t, I can’t.” My reprimand, "You’re so fucking useless; you can’t even control yourself.” And fuck, now I’m struggling to hold off. That’s the irony of humiliation: only one of us has plausible deniability, and it’s not the one just taking orders. My machinations, your alibi.
“Are you gonna send the ones of me where I look most pathetic?” you ask, full of desperate hope. I leave you on read.
You say we look like a ‘70s couple, in the floral satin robes I mail ordered from Macy’s for make believe modesty during mocktail hour. What you mean is: fondue pots with shared spoons, persimmon conversation pits dug into feng shui rooms. Now, orgies are: whippet canisters, cuddle puddles in inflatable pools of pillows, organic bug spray and tick checks. Knifing through an Amazon envelope, a cloud of Nesquik powder erupts. I cough like some sorry ass motherfucker snuffling a platter of cocaine; today, it would be research chemicals, an alphabet soup of exploration.
I recall the goth poetry from the Yom Kippur service tucked into the pew in front of me like an airplane’s emergency landing manual: Man’s origin is dust, and dust is his end. Each of us is a shattered urn… a shadow moving on. We go to the sex party and forget to fuck anyone else.
Streamers of Fat
My parents glare at each other across the table, like when I’d play them for permission: a No way José from my mom leading me behind her back, or back to her when she was asleep. But dad told me I could! didn’t drudge up sympathy, exactly. Indignance would do, for being cast as bad cop, yet again. Sometimes she’d take it as a neg, the implication of austerity in how she metered out privileges, be challenged to prove herself not a naysayer.
It must be my brother’s birthday, or mine. Maybe we’re celebrating the end of grad school. One in a sea of Grimaces, no Hamburglar in tow, I’d bopped around Yankee Stadium in purple, puffy-sleeved regalia. “A distinguished and refined look,” said the retailer of pleated armpits in their pictorial brochure on how to dress oneself after mastering the laundry lessons of Freshman dorm—the buttons, bobby pins, cords, tassels. 7th Avenue is where I’d transferred to the D to meet my family in the Bronx. Like the splintered stream of an old man, my dad’s driving has become start-stop, stomachs lurching at every stoplight and slowdown, overcompensating for shot reflexes. I know it’s some special occasion, because we’re out eating steaks, a Chef Boyardee kind of family.
If you’ve taken me to dinner, and I’ve no thanksed steak in favor of salmon, perhaps you thought I was being precious about the most expensive menu item. The truth is, mannerisms are endemic, like vocal fry, Valley Girl lift—the idioms of acculturation. Sure, you can take a girl out of an eating disorder: the deprivation, effacement, and negative self-talk are ancient history. And yet, and yet… I cut into the infinitesimal, arrange and rearrange on my plate, a ceremonial woosh of water clearing my palate between bites, tongue rolling over the grimy residue like Lady Macbeth rubbing her murder hands raw. Somewhere out there, someone is fidgeting, furtive eyes or glazed over in dissociation. Once embedded in your architecture, rituals become hypnotic, so long as you can forget about the being watched.
Think M&Ms: the milk chocolate that melts in your mouth. Now think steak. I order the bloody tender rare, swallow only the silk that slips down my throat, chew the cobwebs of fascia and streamers of fat that rubberband between my molars, and chew, and chew, until the color and flavor have drained, like a spent stick of Juicy Fruit, the taste, the taste, the taste. My napkin is where I conceal the collection of squashed cerebral cortices outpouching my cheek like a mental patient’s tongued pills. As I pretend to blot my face, catch a cough—perform the politesse of not brimming over bounds. I envision a lady tidying up in the restroom, pressing her freshly painted lips around a folded tissue to spare her teeth. Chaste kiss tossed out on the door’s outswing.
Mom looks at dad looks at mom looks at me with the emphatic swivelneck of teaching a kid to look both ways. First right. Then left. An adult a shield between them and the oncoming. I’ve told them I’m pivoting careers from psychology to medicine. Saved the announcement for out in public. Like that age-old tactic of trapping kids in the backseat for an uncomfortable issue, monitoring their expressions in the rearview. Pivot is resume speak for indecision, a flailing infused with purpose. Persuasion is what I’d learned as a psychology grad student. I never had a career, in the first place, only a classroom to conduct with stubs of shared chalk.
Did you tell her to do this? one parent says, as if accusing the other of abetting a crime. The actual crime: a Jewish family devoid of doctors.
Why are you looking at me? the other deflects. This is the first time I’m hearing of it.
Well, I certainly had nothing to do with it, the first agrees. No one tells me anything.
Alternate takes: overbearing or uninvolved.
I let them play off each other a bit, until I tire of the back-and-forth. The unsolved mystery of how a 26-year-old could have concocted a plan without their sage input. Job stability. Health insurance. Among other reasons to be self-supporting.
It was grandma! I interrupt. And three heads swivel toward me.
Grandma told me to apply to med school…before she died…
My dad and brother shift to my mom because it’s my mother’s mother. His dead since the 1950s. Down a flight of stairs.
Our dinner pivots to a commentary on being left out.
By the time four dessert menus are fanned out in front of us, I’ve already given a rundown of postbac premed programs. My dad listing everyone he’s ever known who’s gone to med school since the 1950s—the internist my nursery school classmate’s father had recommended, the youngest survivor to testify at the Nuremberg trials. Our plates swept away in crooks of elbows, silverware and napkins piled atop the spoils, I picture the busser tossing our crumpled rags into the linen hamper for a bleach bath, ten to twenty mini brains unfurled. Cobwebs of fascia and streamers of fat preserved as if ratty cadavers dunked in formaldehyde. This is no sixty seconds to fresh breath.