I was writing my thesis on trauma, and the cycle of abuse, in the works of certain realist writers. I kept writing that: "trauma, and the cycle of abuse," because I hadn't figured out where one ended and the other began. Months in, I was still stuck on the third page. I liked to think of trauma while watching violent television shows and waiting to see if they would move or perturb me. Mostly, the blue light of the television just made me nauseous, but I couldn't turn it off. I couldn't get up from the couch. In lieu of meals, I rubbed sweet or salty snacks on my tongue and deposited the spit-softened foods into a mixing bowl.
I'd sucked the pink from an entire tin of kettle corn. When Allison got home, she gave me the sweetest look. It was the kind of look reserved for puppies who'd eaten their own poop. The fact that Allison found my depression endearing was one of its only upsides. I milked it, letting my whole face sink into the couch cushions, making sure she had a good view of how fluffy my butt looked in sweats.
"You're home!" I said into the couch. "Will you carry me to the bed?"
"Why don't I make us dinner first?" she said, clearing the mushy popcorn bowl, glass of warm milk, gum wrappers. I flipped my pancake body so I could see her stunning, beautiful face.
"I don't deserve you," I called after her as she walked into the kitchen. "I'm a crumb on the couch of life, and you're the light that shines down upon me. You're . . . the television!"
I heard water hit the bottom of a pot. Making a blanket cape, I shuffled into our yellowy kitchen. I leaned my chin on Allison's shoulder and watched her seed a pepper. Her hands were perfect, like marzipan reproductions of hands.
"You can mince three cloves," she said, handing me a head of garlic.
I sat at the counter and watched Allison's eyebrows try to meet each other in the middle. I could practically see the to-do list scrolling across eyes.
"I missed you when you were at work," I said. "You always work."
"I have an ad out for a platonic sugar daddy," she said, slicking pepper seeds off the blade of a knife. "Any day now."
"You mock my pain," I pouted. "You don't care if I suffer."
"Come here," she said, taking my face into her hands and kissing my pout. "I'm sorry I've been working a lot. Let's have a date night this week."
"A date sounds nice," I sighed, hoping that she'd keep offering things.
"Want to go skating?"
"Skating, how romantic," I said. "You know what else is romantic? Watching a movie."
"Myriam, you're not going to get less depressed by staying inside and watching serial killer documentaries," Allison said. She grabbed the half-peeled cloves from in front of me and started to mince them. "You need to get out of the—ow!"
Allison winced. She'd sliced her thumb, and now its tip was sitting on a bed of minced garlic. It wasn't a very large piece, just the calluses with a hint of pink.
"Sweetie," I said, taking her thumb in my hands. Blood was starting to pearl through the pores. "Put it in milk, I heard it stops the bleeding."
Allison stuck her thumb under the tap.
"Could you get me a band-aid or something?" she asked.
"Absolutely," I said, heaving my blanketed body off the kitchen stool. "On it."
I picked up the slice of thumb, thinking we might save it for some medical reason, but once I was in the bathroom I realized it was far too small to be stitched back on, and Allison's thumb tip would probably grow back by itself. I looked at the thumb tip under the vanity light: red, microscopic prints like looped licorice, unique in all the world to Allison. I popped it into my mouth. It had a delicate flavor, a firmness that gave me pleasure to chew on, and after I swallowed it I felt giddy and light, like I'd been pumped full of helium.
"Are you okay?" Allison asked when I came back from the bathroom. "You look a little out of it."
I lifted her thumb and blew on it. I applied a band-aid to the wound, watched the little web of cotton absorb blood, and kissed the band-aid.
"Let's go skating," I said. "I just remembered I love skating. The triple axels, the sexy leotards!"
I ran my tongue around the rim of Allison's ears and she laughed.
"When you go really fast and your butt muscles burn," I went on, putting Allison's hand on my butt. "Fuck, it's like my favorite thing, how could I forget!"
"Tell me more," Allison said, pushing me against the kitchen counter.
Three orgasms later, I ate an entire bowl of penne primavera.
When Allison came home from work the next evening, we put on layers and scarves and hats and we set out for the rink, ice skates slung around our shoulders. I felt like I'd been skinned, raw and cold into my organs, but I didn't tell Allison. She was looking at me with soft, romantic eyes.
We put our skates on inside a little changing cabin in the city park, surrounded by soggy-smelling, shouting children.
"Parents always look like they've been riding a roller coaster for like ten years," I said to Allison as she was tying my laces. "Ow, wait, too tight."
She loosened the laces a little.
"Can you imagine monitoring someone else's emotions and bodily functions on top of your own?" I went on.
"Doesn't sound so bad," Allison shrugged, her mouth going slack with disappointment. She always got sensitive about kid talk.
"You'd be great at it, of course," I said, running my fingers through her hair. "And I'd help out. Walk them three times a day and all that."
"I thought you didn't want kids," Allison said, trying to make her voice neutral and objective. She made a double knot so my laces wouldn't come undone.
"It'd be kind of nice to have little yous to keep me company when you're at work," I said. "Besides, I like cute things."
I could see the corners of Allison's mouth struggle against a smile.
"I like cute things too," she said, helping me up and kissing my nose. My insides warmed like a log fire.
On the rink, skaters' breaths rose in clouds. Couples skated around trees, kids played hockey, parents held their toddlers' hands. Allison and I held hands and tried to spiral around together. Then she wanted to show me a trick she'd learned when she was a kid, a figure skating spin-jump that she was sure she could still do. I stood back and watched her skate fast and low, gain speed, lurch up. As she lifted off, her blade tip caught on the ice and she fell down onto her hip. Her face scrunched with pain.
"Oh no, poor honey!" I shouted, skating toward her to go help her up.
I noticed a kid skating pretty fast toward Allison, headed dangerously close to her exposed, bare hand. I thought it best to give the kid a quick shove, to divert her trajectory and ensure my sweetie's safety. I hip-checked the kid, only I surprised myself by doing it in the opposite direction I'd intended to, and she stumbled choppily around until her blade landed directly on Allison's right index finger, severing it and sending it spinning across the ice.
"Oh shit, honey, oh shit!" I said, skating up to Allison. Blood was spouting out of the space where her index finger used to be. There was so much of it it looked like the props guy had accidentally stepped on the red corn syrup pump. I noticed Allison was holding her middle finger, which looked like it had been half-lopped off and was barely hanging on. "I'm calling an ambulance, just hold your wrist above your head or something."
The kid was standing on the red ice, screaming steady as a siren. Her parents came to sweep her off and watched on the sidelines as paramedics flocked to Allison, whose face was flushed the color of bile.
"Has anybody seen the finger?" one paramedic shouted. "Quick, look for the finger!"
All the adults on the ice started a search party for the missing finger while I crouched next to Allison, whose face was frozen into an expression of grave contemplation or worry, like a Greek statue. I whispered into her ear that I was right here, everything was going to be okay.
Nobody found the finger.
At the hospital, doctors had to graft some skin from Allison's butt onto the knuckle of the index finger, so the knuckle could grow over smoothly.
"It's a shame we couldn't find the index," our vastly freckled doctor said. "Good news is, there's a good chance that middle finger will reattach completely. Just remove the finger cast every week to wash, and if it starts to blacken, come in to see us right away."
For two nights, I slept in a little cot by Allison's hospital bed, stroking her forehead when she moaned fitfully in her sleep. I hated to see my sweetie in pain, and was perturbed at the thought that I might have had something to do with the incident. I'd had to make a split-second decision, I reminded myself, and had done what seemed to be in her best interest at the time. Besides, the doctors had assured us this was not a big deal. They'd had to amputate a person's two legs in the room over. Allison had all those other fingers left. She'd adjust in no time.
"So," I said, jumping onto our bed, where Allison was still asleep at two in the afternoon. "We have popsicles and those milk candies you like. I was thinking we could take some of your oxy and watch Alien."
Allison was looking at me, our room, her wad of a hand, like she didn't recognize any of it. She'd been pretty high on pain medication when we'd gotten back from the hospital the night before.
"I need to call work," Allison said. "Myriam, can you bring me my phone? And can you check if we have any food? I'm starved."
"Sure," I said, abandoning my carefully selected stack of DVDs on the bedside table.
From the kitchen, I could hear Allison talk in what I'd dubbed her parent-teacher-meeting voice. When she talked like that I was reminded that she was a few years older than me, and it made me want to have sex with her.
"We could make ketchup soup!" I shouted, my head inside the refrigerator.
"Would you mind running to Norman's to pick up a few breakfast things, and maybe some fish for dinner?" Allison asked when I was back in the room.
"What about our movie?" I said. "I thought we could snuggle."
"We'll watch the movie while we eat," she said. "I'll give you half an oxy."
"Fish," I sighed. "What aisle is that in?"
I was on my way to the grocery store, doing a favor for my sweetie, when I stuck my hand in my parka and felt something fleshy wedged underneath my wallet. Allison's finger slipped into my palm the way it had countless times before, when it had been attached to her. Needless to say, I was horrified to find it there, and even more horrified that I'd already devised a plan to eat it in the alley behind our apartment, in a blind spot where no one would see. Rotten fumes rose out of the dumpster, but I didn't have trouble working up an appetite.
The flesh was so soft I couldn't tell if my teeth were going through it until I hit the bone and my mouth filled with a tangy umami flavor. I had to cover my mouth with a cupped hand to muffle the frenzied moans rising out of me like love songs. When I was finished, too soon, I dropped the bone in the bin and started to walk toward the grocery store.
It felt like emerging from some sort of primordial glue. I could smell the flowers under the snow, waiting to be born. An elderly woman smiled and I could see behind her teeth, into her throat, down her esophagus, right inside the pouch of her stomach, where love was brewing like a dark green potion. Love was everywhere. Rows of shops sprung out of the sidewalk like pages from a pop-up book, bricks so bright with their own light I could hardly look.
There was no fish aisle, Allison had said. In Norman's, the fish counter was in the back. Framed in glass vitrines, pale oily flesh shimmered rainbow. Flat black and yellow eyes were as deep as the oceans they had seen. Life itself was stripped and laid bare before my eyes.
Then the smell hit me: putrid death. The overhead lights were too bright, they seeped in through my eyeholes and decayed my brain. The warmth in my belly turned to burning. I burped with my mouth closed and the tang of finger filled my sinuses.
Outside Norman's, I puked on the sidewalk, the meat pushed out of my throat and nose in chunks. It tasted like dumpster, and it occurred to me that the fumes hadn't been rising from the garbage, but from the finger itself. It also occurred to me that I'd probably known this all along, and eaten the finger anyway, like that time I'd slept with the athletic Julien Martone, even though his penis was covered in suspicious welts. Weeks later, I'd feigned shock—audibly gasping and cursing—when pustules had appeared on my labia, even though I'd been alone in the bathroom and had had no one to convince of my innocence.
Now, like then, I was severely disappointed in myself. I dragged myself home fishless, filled with regret and love gone sour, eager to get home to my honey and repent. I crawled into bed with Allison and snuggled onto her chest, careful not to touch her injured hand.
"You're burning up," Allison said, stroking my clammy cheeks. "What happened?"
"I may have caught a virus at the hospital," I whimpered.
Allison hoisted herself up on her elbows and hobbled out of bed. She drew me a bath and swirled in baking soda. Making her good hand into a loose spider shape, she rubbed my scalp while I writhed, clutching my stomach, sticking my head out of the tub every few minutes to vomit into the barf bowl she had propped up on her knees.
Over the next few days, Allison took care of me and of herself, starting to get comfortable making miso soup and slicing up ginger with a single hand. In the afternoons, she let me put on movies and attach myself to her like I was the blister, she was the foot. She let me keep my mouth over her mouth for long stretches at a time even though I was a little barfy. I was suffering greatly for my actions, both physically and vicariously, seeing Allison struggle to perform necessary daily actions due to her newfound disability. Nevertheless, I felt that our bond was strengthened by hardship. I was reminded of what I loved so much about Allison, which was not primarily her taste, but how reliable and caring she was. She was my rock, and from now on, I'd try to be her rock too.
Within a week I was all better, and I resolved to take the best care of my sweetie, leaving behind unorthodox lusts and selfish hungers. Though my depression had settled back in, I did Allison's banking, wrote her emails, clipped her nails and styled her hair so that her self-confidence wouldn't be affected by the injury. Every week, I removed her cast and, though I did, once or twice, put my tongue to a particularly bloody bandage and splay on the bathroom floor, reeling with ecstasy, my priority was being the best girlfriend that I could be.
One night before bed, as I disinfected Allison's middle finger, I noticed a gentle layer of flesh had grown over the chasm left by the blade, like tiny flowers over a charred forest floor. Healing fresh blood filled the finger and throbbed. Underneath the new skin, however, I felt how half-heartedly the finger was holding on to the knuckle, as if it barely wanted to be attached at all. I felt how easily, in a single dry jerk, the finger could be removed, and I imagined how fresh it would be, how alive.
Then I imagined Allison's face as I hurt her. Her love for me draining from her face all at once. I imagined our closet without her clothes in it. So, instead of pulling on the finger, I took a deep breath and said: "Let's have a baby."
"Myriam?" Allison shouted from the living room. "Can you come help me with the little diaper clasp? Those things are not made for people with only one index finger."
"Sure thing," I said without opening my eyes, and immediately felt myself slip back into an oily half-sleep.
The previous night, Allison's coos had kept melding into my dreams. You smell like pumpkin flowers, my thesis advisor told me, right before informing me that I'd been banned from the university for laziness and generally making other students uneasy. Later in the night, I'd woken up to Allison screaming. This happened when Jonah rolled away from her in the bed and she couldn't feel him anymore. I'd once made the mistake of suggesting a crib, thinking it would be easier to keep track of him if he was in a little cage. After a painfully lonesome three-night exile to the couch, I never again dared to question the science of co-sleeping.
"I have to leave for work," Allison said, sticking her head into the room.
"Yup," I said. "I'm up."
In the living room, Allison was fiddling over the lounging table. She looked like a cadaver in her charcoal suit. She was clammy and her hands were shaking, probably from lack of sleep and because it was the first time since Jonah was born that she was going to be more than a leg's length away from him. After I clasped the diaper, Allison placed Jonah in his crib and bent over him, putting his fists into her mouth, making squeaky kisses in his neck, whispering things to him. The two of them had all of these secrets.
"Sweetie," I said. "Me and the little gargoyle are gonna have a blast. Don't worry."
I pushed Allison's pale, trembling body out of the apartment. I listened as she paced away from the door and back again. Eventually, I heard the ping of the elevator, its doors slowly closing. Then I went into the refrigerator and warmed a bottle of Allison's breastmilk in the microwave. I poured it into a round, wide-brimmed mug and took a soothing sip. It tasted like waking up from the best nap ever. I drew the blinds open, put on some Tame Impala, and settled in at the coffee table, in front of my thesis.
Certain realists, I argued, avoided flagrant, near-tacky symbolism when writing about trauma, and the cycle of abuse. There was danger in making things surreal that were already so hard to grasp. In real life, trauma, and the cycle of abuse, so often appeared as a mystical cloud of wrongness that followed certain people around, making them act out in incomprehensible, often depraved ways. For certain realists, even sentence-level metaphor offered too much opportunity for dissociation, for misunderstanding. Rather, they chased trauma, and the cycle of abuse, around the circuit of the body, trying to pin it down in the creaking heart of the temporomandibular joint, the folds of a dry knuckle, an inflamed stretch of gut tissue. If trauma, and the cycle of abuse, could be isolated—a fleshy bead bobbing in one of the chambers of the heart—then it could be extracted, and purposely detonated under controlled circumstances. Nobody had to get hurt.
When the milk wore off, too soon, my thesis blurred in front of me, my fists dropped to my sides like small bowling balls. I'd barely been getting by since Jonah's birth. Placenta pills had been great, but I'd swallowed the last handful all at once one afternoon while Allison and Jonah were at the library for reading hour. One of the best afternoons of my life—I'd gone for a nature walk, feeling sunshine penetrate my skin like a serum—but the following weeks had been unbearable. Then, Allison had started to practice pumping her milk, so Jonah would be used to the bottle by the time she returned to work. I'd sneak a squirt here or there, fill the milk back up with water and powdered formula. But Allison's milk was a mild potion compared to her placenta, which had been like eating a tricolored sunset. The milk made the world clear, my body became light and utilitarian, my brain felt like a new laptop on which you could keep up to thirty tabs open at a time. But, a couple of hours later, I was back to my regular slug of a self, the worse for knowing what I was missing out on.
Allison called mid-morning, her voice croaking with emotion. She asked that I place the phone in Jonah's crib. She talked to him in her soft metronome voice, and it made my heart ache that she hadn't called to talk to me but to a baby who probably didn't even understand language. Resentfully, I hung up on Allison mid-coo, and when Jonah started crying, I curled up on the couch and put on True Blood. No matter how loud I turned up the volume, Jonah matched it. His little red screams filled the apartment like a lethal sonar.
"Please stop crying," I tried to reason with him. "Seriously, guy, we get it, you're sad."
I considered picking him up, but I didn't know how. His limbs were flailing so aggressively I thought they might chop me like the dull blades of a fan. I sat on the couch and watched him for a long time, worried that he'd rupture one of the important arteries in his head and have a stroke on my watch. Allison would never forgive me. I had a horrible headache.
When Jonah was born, Allison had put me to work doing menial and often disgusting tasks, like washing the reusable diapers she insisted on. But, until now, Jonah had been a sort of fatty, wriggling external organ hanging off of Allison in one of those baby slings. When I held him for more than ten seconds, he usually cried and I'd hand him back to Allison. It seemed perverse, and potentially illegal, that she'd left me with him when I'd proven to be incompetent at everything I'd undertaken in adulthood.
I angled Jonah's crib toward the television and flipped through the channels, hoping something would get his attention. What did it was a show where they tried to pull semi-trailers out of ditches on the side of the highway—I'd been sedated by it myself on many late mornings. Watching men in neon snowsuits point knowledgeably at a giant, upside down bucket truck, Jonah turned from purple to a healthier red, like he'd just gone for a run. He curled like a pig's tail in his hooded cotton pajamas.
Emboldened, I put my hand around his tiny ribcage and tried to pick him up. His head bent back like deadweight, so I cupped it and lifted him by his padded butt. I sat on the couch and held him against me like a hot loaf.
"That's called power buckling," I said to him while we watched the neon men hook steel cables under the truck's engine. Jonah's eyes lit up with the sound of my voice, like he understood. He was probably going to be very smart.
I ignored Allison's phone calls, but around noon she texted me to remind me to feed Jonah, so I mixed up the formula and gave it to him. After that he fell asleep on me for many hours, which gave me a good excuse to be completely immobile the entire afternoon. It turned out babies and depressed people had pretty compatible lifestyles.
Later, when Jonah was awake, I practiced balancing mini pretzels on his head and eating them making womp sounds. It made him laugh, so I pretended to eat his cheeks, his nose, his doughy little belly.
"Womp," I said. "Womp, womp."
As I pretended to chew on Jonah's feet, it occurred to me that these feet, these warm and cottony mini-muffins between my teeth, had actually been my idea. I'd never before been in a relationship where the other person only existed because I'd wanted them to. It felt like too much responsibility, but at the same time, it made me want to grab Jonah under his armpits and present him to a dense mass of people, like a little Simba. I decided to remove the socks, just to see them closer, those feet I'd thought up from nothing.
The left one didn't look right, sort of alien and frog-like. Three plump toes wiggled at the end of it, and there was a scar where the smallest toe should have been. The other gap still had a burgundy-stained Nemo band-aid over it. I was about to lift the band-aid when I heard a key turn in the lock. The blood drained out of Allison's face when she saw me looking at the foot. She stood in the doorway, silent.
"How could you?" I said, feeling strangely hurt. "You're supposed to be the grown up."
"Myriam," Allison said, approaching cautiously. "I am."
"You're supposed to do the right thing!" My voice rose in panic.
"Children that age don't feel pain in the same way," she pleaded, coming closer. "He won't even remember it."
"How will I know what the right thing is?" I said.
"I don't know," she said, coming even closer so that I saw her face was striped with tears. "I'm sorry."
It was horrible to see Allison cry, to see her not know. It made everything come unglued: the wooden slats of the floor, the particles of my body. I wanted to scream. I'd never needed her so much. I grabbed her hot face and licked the tears from her chin, her cheeks, her eyelashes. I opened her mouth and swallowed her sad, fluid saliva. I bit her tongue; blood mixed in and rushed to my head. Allison let out a cry, but she didn't stop me. She pushed her mouth against my teeth until I tore at her lips, too. Then she pulled me into our bedroom and arranged herself onto our bed, drizzled in her own blood. I picked up a pair of mini scissors from the dresser. If I couldn't know what was right, I vowed, I'd at least figure out what was sustainable.
Even after giving birth, Allison had still worked part-time from home. She never put Jonah down and still managed to cook every meal and to put away all of my clothes, which I'd leave on the ground, still in the shape of my body, anywhere I took them off. Every night she massaged my depression-heavy calves, then kissed the crooks of my limbs until I fell asleep. She kept Jonah at her breast for hours, even after he'd stopped drinking, figuring that if he did get hungry, her nipple would be right there in his mouth. She took him to baby gymnastics, the aquarium, the pool, and infant music lessons. She even took him to a speech-language pathologist, to strengthen his throat and tongue muscles so that, by the time his brain developed the ability to speak, he'd be a verbal athlete. On days when I was nothing but a smear on our couch, her energy seemed to triple. I'd never really understood why Allison was in love with me, but I saw it so clearly, now: she needed leeches like I needed blood.
"Jonah can almost walk now," she told me after we'd had sex, and I'd consumed her strategically and in moderation. Her bloodied lip quivered. "Soon he won't need me anymore."
"It is kind of weird," I agreed. "It's like buying a really expensive car that, if you take good enough care of it, just drives off on its own when it turns eighteen."
"I don't know what to do," Allison said. "Every day that he gets older, I get a little emptier. It hurts so much."
"You like babies," I said, processing many thoughts in the time of an exhale. "We'll give you babies."
"Not too fast, Kale!" I shouted, briefly looking up from my phone.
Kale was running after some sort of ball, his nylon sports shirt rippling over his pig-soft belly. I was lying on a patch of grass at the park by our house, scrolling through Instagram so fast my brain probably only registered the images on a subconscious level. It was a boring activity, but it helped dull the realness of the world, which would cut into me every so often, usually when I was with the kids.
"You're the baby and I'm the daddy and I'm also a pizza maker and this is my restaurant and this is where I slice the cheese," Kiki would say, usually sticking some plastic bauble into my hand. His little rosey face would come into focus, assaulting me with its high definition eyelashes and wide wobbly cheeks. My thoughts would go inky and slack. Then I'd need to reach into my Allison rations in order to keep going with the day.
While Allison was at work, I made sure the kids ate the green smoothies and paleo muffins and organic brown rice macaroni she had prepared for them. I folded laundry in front of the television, and every afternoon I took the kids to the park. It was important to us that they be healthy and lean, though we avoided more strenuous exercise like team sports, which might toughen the flesh. After school, I hovered over their shoulders and tried to remember basic math principles, but I'd forgotten everything. Having so many children was exhausting, but it also gave me the sense of purpose I'd been lacking. Overall, I was actually pretty happy.
It helped that, in exchange for all my hard mothering, Allison kept my supply steady. After each pregnancy, she'd pump and freeze her milk in cubes to help me ration the doses until the next pregnancy. There were always the placenta pills and, since all the kids had outgrown co-sleeping, we had more frequent opportunities to explore our atypical bedroom practices. There was a whole subculture about these things online. You could learn so much, like how to avoid main arteries, and how to sterilize your tools in the dishwasher.
We sampled the children, of course, to make sure we weren't nurturing any rotten apples.
"Stay still, Framboise, it'll hurt more if you wiggle around," I'd say, holding Framboise's knee in a tight grasp as Allison skimmed her upper thigh with a blade, removing a carpaccio-thin slice of veal. We'd disinfect, put on a band-aid, and send her off to play with her siblings. We'd store the flesh in a petri dish and have ourselves a dégustation later, when the kids were all asleep. It was potent stuff. A few scrapings of a knee and we'd rise astral through the ceiling, make love all night among the constellations.
"Do you know how hard Mommy Allison works to feed all your hungry mouths?" I'd say to the children if they ever protested, or tried to make us feel guilty. "I could have had a master's degree."
Allison's response was to look deeply hurt. The silent pain in her eyes was always what broke them.
"We appreciate everything you do for us, Mommy Allison," Tanya might end up saying, and the whole family would huddle around into a group hug.
Tanya, who was two years Jonah's junior, was always drawing in her sketchbooks. She liked to draw women wearing strange, futuristic outfits. Framboise was our computer wiz—she'd started doing upgrades on the family computer when she was just six years old. All that time in front of the computer made her soft as a flan, but we weren't against it. Kale was good at math and liked experimenting with different dessert recipes in the kitchen. Kiki was the baby, and his talent was being cute as a button. His cheeks were like large, molten marshmallows.
Jonah was an amazing big brother. He oversaw the other kids and made sure everyone brushed their teeth and were in their respective bunks by eight o'clock. He babysat when Allison and I went to visit our families, whom we'd opted not to tell about our apartment full of children. If Jonah caught any of his siblings drinking brown soda or eating other forbidden foods, he'd slap their palms with a ruler. He ran a tight ship, Jonah, and because he took on a more administrative role in the family, we often let him stay up later to watch television with us in our room. I knew it made Allison happy.
Those nights, Jonah talked to us about his feelings, his uncertainties. How did you get girls to notice you? And why was it that, even if you did everything you were told, people still didn't like you? Did we think Jonah would be better suited to being a journalist, an English teacher, or an aircraft mechanic? Did we have any money set aside for him for college? He just wanted to know, in case he needed to start applying for scholarships right away. Did we want to see the crossword puzzle he'd made in Ms. Ruby's class?
In high school, Jonah sprouted overnight. He was two heads taller than us, nothing but skin and bones. And he was always tripping, falling. Trying to keep his body upright was like trying to balance a pencil on its tip. Despite his newfound length and his pebbly voice, he still curled up at the foot of our bed when his siblings were asleep.
"Moms," he said one night, toward the end of grade eleven. "In bio yesterday, Matt Sandini wrote on the board that I was a fag. Then he waited for me after school and pushed me against a wall. I thought he was going to hit me, but instead . . . he kissed me."
"That Sandini kid sounds like a bully," Allison said. "Should we talk to the principal?"
"Did you like the kiss?" I asked.
"I think so," Jonah said. "Yeah, I did."
"You tell that Matt Sandini that if he wants another kiss, he'll have to take you on a proper date," Allison said.
"Okay," Jonah said. "Thanks, moms."
He coiled under a blanket and watched CSI: Las Vegas with us while Allison stroked his floppy hair. In a short while he was snoring and we turned off the light, resorting to sleeping in odd shapes around him. He was too heavy to carry to his bed anymore.
"He's too young to date," Allison whispered to me across Jonah's long slab of a body, her eyes wet with tears. "He's still my baby. I'm not ready to lose him."
"Don't worry about that right now," I said sleepily.
Allison put her nose to Jonah's stringy hair and inhaled deeply.
In just over a year, Jonah would turn eighteen. His adolescent body would be filled to bursting with new muscle and curdling innocence. Children, like avocados, could turn from ripe to rotten overnight. We'd need to be swift.
"Moms," Jonah said, his eyes vacant and leaking. "I'm so sorry."
We'd come home to see the kids sitting around the table, quietly doing their homework. But Jonah hadn't been with them.
"Jonah went into your bedroom with a boy," Framboise had said in her tattle-tale voice.
We'd opened the door to our bedroom to find Jonah hunched over the Sandini boy, or at least what was left of him.
"I don't know what happened," Jonah had said, choking on a sob, fists still full of his young lover's entrails. "We were having a nice time."
"Oh, my angel," Allison had said. "Come here, it's gonna be okay."
Jonah flattened his bloody cheek against Allison's lapels while she stroked his hair. She sent Jonah to wash up while we contemplated the body. The boy's insides were like pomegranate. Jonah had really hollowed him out. I got a shiver like the first time I found out chicken was chicken. Not unsettling enough to stop eating it, but enough to make you pause, to make you feel.
"This kid's parents are going to be beyond pissed," I said. I lifted a piece of skin from the chewed up thigh and gave it a little lick. "Gross," I said. "Tastes like locker room."
When Jonah came back from the bathroom, we'd already started breaking the bones with a heavy hammer, sawing through muscle and cartilage. We saved a few choice cuts from the thigh and shoulder, and asked Jonah to wrap them up in Saran wrap and put them in the freezer. These would be for him, of course; his lover's flesh wouldn't do anything for us. Jonah carried the meat away, face shiny with tears, lips quaking with residual hunger. While Allison tucked the kids into bed, I ran out to the store to buy an industrial-strength blender. Allison and I spent all night in the kitchen, grinding bones into a paste, mixing the stuff with water and pouring it down the sink.
"Mommies," Kale said, poking his head into the kitchen in his Minion pajamas. "What are you doing? It's too loud, we can't sleep."
"Go back to your bunk, Kale," Allison said. "Don't let me see you up again. Any of you."
By morning we'd disposed of everything, bleached every square inch of the kitchen and bedroom. With circles under our eyes, we dressed the kids for school, gave them lunch money, kissed their foreheads as they filed out to catch the school bus.
"Remember," I told Jonah. "You haven't seen Matt Sandini since math class yesterday. You came straight home to do homework."
Jonah nodded and walked out the door, hunched and broken.
He was like this for days. Looking off blankly, hardly eating anything, sobbing audibly in the shower. He refused the Sandini kid's meat, out of respect, he said, though a few times I caught him fondling the frozen packets, bringing them close to his mouth, then shoving them back in the freezer with trembling, desirous hands. I could see it hurt Allison to see him like this. She kept trying to take him into her arms, but he'd pull back and go curl up in his bunk with earphones on. I didn't like seeing him in pain either, but he had to learn that his actions had consequences. You can't have your lover and eat them too.
The following week, while I was watching tv next to a pile of unfolded clothes, I got a phone call.
"Mommy," Jonah said. "I'm at the police station. I need a lawyer. Mommy, what do I do?"
"Shit," I said. "Hang in there, little gargoyle. I'm calling Mommy Allison."
Some of the students had seen Matt and Jonah leave school together the day of Matt's disappearance. Apparently, many of the kids had already suspected they were lovers. The police had gotten a warrant, searched the apartment, and found the Sandini kid's shank and brisket in the freezer, covered in Jonah's fingerprints. I blamed myself, of course; I never thought they'd analyze the meat.
At seventeen, Jonah was tried as an adult and got a life sentence in jail. Our poor baby.
"Those homophobic pricks," Allison said, sobbing outside the courthouse. "Do you think he'd have gotten this much time if it had been a hetero crime of passion? We won't let them get away with this."
She said that, but in reality, we both knew there was nothing we could do. They brought our Jonah to the maximum security prison. By the time he turned eighteen, he'd already smoked so many cigarettes and done so many chin-ups that, even if he ever did get out, his meat would be inedible.
Tanya was next to turn eighteen. She'd planned on moving out at the end of the summer, and had already bought her McGill hoodie and her first set of cutlery. When we'd lost Jonah, Allison had dropped two pant sizes. Now, with Tanya constantly talking about the university classes she was going to take and her great future in politics, Allison looked so scooped out that I couldn't bear to so much as lick her sweat. With Allison out of order, I was rendered useless too, a bloated adult donut on the floor that the children had to step over.
When September came, we drove Tanya to Montreal to set her up in the dorm we hadn't paid for. After dropping our things at the hotel, we took Tanya out to a nice dinner, during which she mooned over an angular, dress-shirted bartender, and acted embarrassed whenever we addressed her, even just to ask what she wanted to order. I could see Allison start to cave inward, like her heart was a giant funnel that was swallowing her up. Later, in the hotel room, I fed her Tanya in small, manageable cubes, relieved to see the glow come back into my sweetie's cheek.
When we got home, fatter and cheerier than we'd left, Framboise started to ask questions.
"Tanya hasn't been on WhatsApp since Sunday. Why isn't she answering her texts?"
We ended up telling her that Tanya had met a French Canadian man who'd swept her away on a bohemian adventure, somewhere in Northern Quebec, out of cell phone range. But Framboise didn't give up.
"Well, can we at least go visit her? What if something bad happened?"
We could see she was getting to the others with all her speculating. Our once-happy home was turning into a place of distrust and paranoia. Framboise was only sixteen, but she was already fairly plump, and we couldn't afford to have her turn Kale and Kiki against us, so we told her we'd take her to Northern Quebec to visit her sister. Then we told Kale and Kiki that Tanya's French Canadian man had a younger brother for whom Framboise had fallen head over heels. The four of them had chipped in on a love nest near Chicoutimi.
They seemed to buy it, nodding and barely looking up from their homework, but Allison and I woke up in the night to find Kale stuffing his and Kiki's clothes and toys into one of my old suitcases. We were still full from our two large feasts—we'd reach for cups or doorknobs and miss, so dizzied were we by the world's myriad, loving dimensions—and we knew Kiki and Kale would yield twice as much meat if we waited a few more years, but we had to be adaptable. We froze the tender filets, saved the bone marrow by dehydrating it and putting it into capsules. We cured the young ham, pickled the tongues. Then we packed up everything we owned, rented a U-Haul, and set out for the country.
We bought a sheep farm, and we set it up nicely. An old wooden house on a very large and flat property, quiet bleats dotting the air. People were always saying how hard farmers had it, but we found it way easier than working day jobs and raising a family. Sheep didn't have homework to do; they didn't wake you up in the night after they'd had nightmares. You could make sweaters out of their hair. We had a knack for the trade and quickly gained a reputation for having the most flavorful mutton chops in the region. The business turned out to be pretty lucrative—it helped that we didn't particularly care for sheep meat ourselves. Besides, our appetites just weren't what they'd used to be. We'd had a full life, enough love for a lifetime or two.
Weekends, we'd visit Jonah in jail. Our baby, our heart. He made us laugh. He was always reading books, and every week he'd have new, interesting facts to tell us.
"You know, Freud?" he said to us one visit. "He believed that trauma is restaged repeatedly through bodily performances until it has been turned into a complete, coherent narrative.  Through, like, therapy."
Under the table, I rubbed the smooth part of Allison's thumb, where the prints had gone missing.
"What are you saying, little gargoyle?"