Written by Kathleen J. Woods
Art by Banafsheh Erfanian
I am blowing glass in my chest. It bubbles in my sternum, hot as it settles around the lumps and veins of my heart.
I have a cousin who blows glass. She makes icicle ornaments and tiny colored jars with cork tops. One Christmas, she gave me a jar with perfect smooth sides, at once sturdy and delicate, protective and impermanent. I aim for similar quality. It is my heart, after all.
The diner is cramped and reeks of frying oil and onions. We stand by the door, and I am painfully aware of my body’s jutting clumsiness in the waiting crowd. Nick stands too close. I survey the tables beyond his shoulder rather than the zoomed-in version of his face. His hand presses on the small of my back, pushing me clear of an angry busboy and his crate of white dishes. My spine gasps. This is our first date.
My grandmother would celebrate my posture. She would praise my date’s clear, tan skin and broad, handsome features. “He’s a real fox,” she would say with a wink.
I lean back into his hand, and his palm inflames my flesh through my shirt. I inch away but turn to him and smile.
“Popular place, huh?”
“I guess so.”
He smiles down at me. I am conscious of a blackhead in the curve of my nostril.
“I’m glad that you picked it. It must be good.” I am gesturing too much. I try to look at his eyes, panic, and settle on the bridge of his nose.
“Yeah.” He grins down at me.
James used to tease me for the way I hold my arms. They hover like a broken shield over my torso, and my palms curl above my collarbone. He’d taken my wrists and guided my arms to my sides, leaving a bracelet of his fingers that lingered for hours, a precious souvenir of his touch. Now I catch my hands hovering again, cupped and confused.
“Nick, party of two!”
A man with a paisley tie and sweat stains leads us to a booth by a window. A real gerber daisy sits orange and open in the vase on the table, framed by a spray of plastic baby’s breath. The man places a laminated menu into my hands, and I see him see us, Nick and me, a boy and a girl, a pair, a party of two, before he walks away.
The familiar calculations begin as I open my menu. “Gloria’s Cheddar Skillet” = fried potatoes + cheese + ham + vegetables + scrambled eggs + toast = 950. “Belgian Bliss” = waffle + butter + whipped cream + strawberries = 1000. Horrifying.
I like to wake up sore from the pressure of my mattress against my bones. I like to survey the concave swoop beneath my ribcage. I like to watch my hipbones press against my skin as I stretch.
My mother makes me weigh myself. Whenever I am home, she’ll stand there and read the digital red number herself. Her lips purse, but I know I am safe, and she can’t say anything. When she hugs me, she rubs her hand along my back, testing for spine and fat. “Don’t get too thin, honey. Please.”
Nick’s foot touches mine beneath the table.
“Oh, sorry,” I say, and draw back. I’m sweating. I think of the host and his stained armpits. I hook my ankles together and swing them beneath my chair. Our waiter approaches the table. I order coffee and egg whites and fruit. Nick orders chocolate chip pancakes and a side of bacon. I sip my water, which is icy and heavy against the lining of my stomach. We are eating two hours after my normal breakfast time, and my head swells in a familiar rebellion against gravity.
James had excelled at conversation. I think back to that restaurant and that tiny table and the candle we played with – dripping wax over our fingers, over our palms – and his questions, which had so startled and discomforted and pleased me. He never pretended to be polite.
“So what is your family like?” I say.
“Oh, they’re great,” Nick says. “I’m the youngest.”
“By a lot?”
“Ten years. Guess I was a surprise, huh?” He chuckles.
He has wonderful skin and ridiculous hair and a strange pause in his speech. Sometimes he grins between clauses, and I search for a response, but the moment I grasp it he is speaking again. Our words collide a lot. I draw in the condensation on my water glass.
“Gosh, you’re a cutie,” he says.
Our waiter confuses our orders. We laugh as we exchange plates. Nick jokes about the tip, and I fidget under the reminder of the bill and our “date.” He pours syrup in a thick amber stream over and around his pancakes. 700 + 300 = 1000. I coat my eggs in pepper.
“So what do you do in your spare time?” He asks me.
“I love to read.”
“What kind of books?”
“All kinds, basically. I’m reading Faulkner right now.”
I laugh. “No, no – Faulk-ner. William Faulkner.”
“That dude’s got a funny name,” he says, shaking his head and curling bacon into his mouth. 1050. “What’s your favorite book?”
“Impossible question,” James had said. We were traipsing through a library, high on coffee and November air and our impromptu hike through the city. We had taken turns reading dramatically from Danielle Steele, each trying to out-flourish the other. We wandered through fiction, handing each other past loves until we sank down against the shelves. We read for hours. As the hardcover pile between us diminished, our shoulders crept closer. I picked at the carpet. I imagined his fingers through my fingers. I imagined his arm around my waist. I imagined his lips over my mouth. Our shoulders touched. A startling pull gathered below my abdomen. I wanted to scoot closer, to cup my hand over his knee, to nestle my head under his chin. Tufts of carpet gathered in a pile by my hip.
“I love John Irving, too,” I say.
“Nope, never heard of him,” Nick says.
My eggs nauseate me. I nibble at a melon and abandon the rest. Scrambled egg white = 30 + fruit bowl – banana = 130. I wonder how much butter the chefs use. I am annoyed that no one has refilled my water. My coffee tastes like a rancid orange.
I like Nick’s jaw. “What do you like to do to have fun?”
“Video games, and I work out all the time. I’m a health nut.”
I look at his plate, but he doesn’t notice. “I’m not a big fan of the gym.”
“Oh yeah? Well, you’ve got a beautiful body.”
I blush and smile. I kick him under the table. He grins. He’s a fox. I run my toes over his shin. My head throbs. I excuse myself to the bathroom.
It’s a single-person room with blue tiles and dim overhead light. I stand in front of the long mirror and lift my shirt to my bra. I examine my body in the flattering shadows. I knead my fingers into my half-empty stomach.
I walk to the toilet. I unbuckle my belt and my jeans slide to my thighs. I sit and lean over my knees, clutching my arms to choke my trembling. I slam my spine against the toilet seat. I rake my fingers over my thighs and seize my hipbones and breathe as my skin writhes and my feet curl and my body shrieks. I lean forward and press my forefinger against my thin cotton underwear and rub into the queasy seething warmth with a slow even stroke that deepens with two fingers until I stop to reach beneath the cloth. The fingers move in the rhythmic tandem and the pulsing feeds the soft hollow itching in my abdomen and, eyes closed, I stroke into the wet fleshy canals, but the aching unbalanced confusion only rises as the foggy ecstasy turns bright and clear in my skull. I force panties and zippers up and shove my hands under the water faucet and scrub. I look at my hands quivering beneath the foam. I hate them.
I leave the bathroom. A line of women glares as I walk by. Everything stinks of grease and people. The smell and heat stew in my pores.
Nick sits at our table without moving. He is staring at the sugar packets. I flail into my chair. Our waiter hasn’t cleared our table, and Nick has stirred the soggy remains of his pancakes into a pool of syrup and drying scabs of chocolate. His face is blank and beautiful.
He smirks and takes my hand over the table, massaging my palm.
“So what should we do now, gorgeous?” He says.
“We should stay friends,” James said, eyes even on my face. “I’m so sorry. I never meant to toy with you.”
“No, that’s okay. I understand. It’s okay. I’m fine.”
He left me with my cowardice and my wanting and my memories of hope. My mother had hugged me and rubbed my back. I taught myself to blow glass.
I need water. “Has the bill come?”
“Yup. We’re all set, babe.”
I run my hand under his forearm and slide my fingertips back down to his wrist. His eyes widen and his smirk spreads.
“I think we should go then, don’t you?” I marvel at the steady depth of my voice.
Nick wraps his arm around my waist as we weave through the restaurant. I slip my hand into his back pocket. My underwear is wet and uncomfortable and my eyes are sinking into my skull, and each step is an effort of steadiness.
Kathleen J. Woods received a B.F.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College and is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she also teaches. Her work has appeared in Cavalcade Literary Magazine and Art Faccia.
(Updated April 2014)
Banafsheh is a Toronto based painter and illustrator. She was born in Tehran, Iran. She graduated from Tehran University of Art with a bachelor in Graphic Design and a master’s in Illustration. Banafsheh has illustrated more than 20 books and magazines and written more than 25 articles in art reviews. She has also exhibited her works of art in Iran, Italy, US, Canada, Moscow, Japan, and Belgrade. She has won international and national prizes including the 1st prize of The Second Festival of Text Books Illustration, Iran, and The Encouragement Prize of the 15th Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustration, Japan. She has been teaching painting and illustration in Iran and Canada since 2006.
(Updated April 2014)