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At five years old, she swallowed her teeth. She had watched her sister Jackie do it before: knees on the bathroom tile, mouth in the toilet. That, was how you emptied yourself.
She could turn her body inside out, breakfast first. She poured the milk over the cereal, thinking. It wasn’t difficult. She had practiced yesterday, each time sticking a different finger down her throat. Two worked best. She stuck her spoon into the bowl and rearranged the contents. The cereal swelled. She eased her tongue into the milk: syrup.
She was all gums and no teeth, her mother had said. All flesh and no bones. Maybe it had been the breast milk; something wrong in the formula. The food went straight to her body. The yams to her chin, potatoes to her thighs, pork chops to her arms. Each night she was bathed in shea butter and petroleum jelly. If they were lucky, auntie Nae had said while squeezing her arms over her head like the Thanksgiving bird, they could stop the stretch marks early.
She took a mouthful of cereal. Jackie had been in the shower for too long. And she’d get twenty-five dollars for “babysitting.” And it wasn’t fair. Jackie got everything. She took another mouthful. The running water drowned out the TV. And the image. And the sound. The screen became a color—slow-moving, exact.
Milk spilled from her lips, onto her arm. She raised it to her mouth and licked: cocoa. Not yams, or potatoes, or pork chops. Cocoa. Like her birthday cake from last year. And sometimes, like her eyes. And like her skin. She licked again, this time nearly biting; she was sweet.
The water stopped running. It was her insides that were spoiled, she thought. She had to get rid of her insides. The guts would be the first to go. Like hitting a piñata—two or three tries and she’d know her contents. Maybe she was made of sugar. Maybe candy.
The bowl was nearly empty; her stomach, only half-full. She waited for the music to play from Jackie’s iPod. Three songs and she’d be out of the bathroom. She put two fingers into her mouth, one on each side of her tongue, reaching as far back as she could.
Nothing. She remembered the image of Jackie, hunched over with her curls half-flushed down the toilet, and leaned forward. She stretched her fingers, reaching for her tonsils. Further. Her stomach curled inward as the milk rushed down her tongue. She looked into the bowl. There was no raw material, no rotten ingredients. Only liquid. She was relieved. She was milk chocolate.
She could have drowned in that living room. She had splashed her spoon in the cup of ramen until half of her lunch was displaced. The strings lay spread across the plastic bag—part-saliva, part-noodle. A waste of 15 cents. “Put those back. You don’t even like ‘em,” Jackie had said at the corner bodega. She handed the package to the cashier anyway. She was seven now. A big girl.
Jackie had gone to her room and slammed the door; Elijah had called her. They were done. For the third time. He hadn’t answered any of her texts all day. “The girl is supposed to end it first,” Jackie had said, rushing to their apartment.
She would have to play by herself. She sat down on the couch. The Styrofoam shrunk from the steam; the ship could collapse at any second. She whipped the remaining noodles into her mouth: these were the survivors. The salt water filled her tongue. She dipped the spoon into the cup and back up again, slurping the broth. Her cheeks inflated like buoys.
Her baby teeth couldn’t compensate. The loose pieces slipped through the gaps between her gums. The wet strings stuck to the root of her mouth. The chunks clumped together. As the half-chewed noodles collected in the back of her throat, she swallowed. Hard. She picked up the cup and sipped the remaining liquid.
Nothing moved. Their mother would be home any minute. One to two minutes was all it took for your lungs to fill up with water. She had learned it at the city pool that summer. Three to four for the oxygen to escape. She didn’t like in-betweens.
She counted. After one minute, she felt a sharpness in her chest. The broth bubbled at the corners of her lips. She wiped her eyes before the water could become tears. After two minutes, she could barely breathe. She might not make it to three, she thought.
And that wasn’t acceptable. That’s what her mother told Jackie when her float burst one day in that pool: You’ve got to do it yourself. Jackie cried the whole walk back to the apartment. It was the chlorine, Jackie had said. The chlorine. It had burned her nose.
Three minutes. She pressed down hard against her stomach, coughing the food onto her lap. She wiped her mouth; the cotton stuck to her lips. Their mother came walking through the apartment door. She couldn’t move. Look at you. Just look at you. Always playing pretend. Good Lord, and making a mess. And where’s Jackie? She sat there, still. Fixated. Hearing the water. And the color. And the sound. Tasting the salt. If Jackie could swim, she thought. If Jackie could swim
Did big girls fly? Nobody would tell her. She knew that she wouldn’t grow into her size like the department store lady had said. And she wasn’t big-boned like auntie Nae had called her either. She had stopped believing in those things. Where were those bones? Why didn’t she feel them when she pressed into her skin? She had searched for them in the bathroom stall, these bones. Searched around under her jumper, after Tyler called her fat. There was only flesh.
In fourth grade, she was taught that saviors come in all forms. It was Saint Mary’s: the little Catholic school at the bottom of the hill. They got the leftovers. The old books. A broken crucifix. And even then, the Jesus that they prayed to was still Jesus. So, she prayed long and thoughtfully that her mother had checked apple juice and butter cookies on the snack form and that she had paid the $1.50 for that day.
She got half of what she had prayed for. Mrs. Rodriquez walked up to her desk, wheeling the metal cart of goods. She reached into the pile and handed her a low-fat wafer and a bottle of water. A mistake, she had thought, until Mrs. Rodriguez double-checked and then triple-checked the list. She picked up the rectangular-shaped package and peeled open the wrapper slowly, slipping the wafer into her mouth. She crunched, letting the dry crumbs disintegrate.
She remembered the candy in her backpack from her walk home yesterday. A bag of peach rings from the bodega. Ninety-nine cents. She had been saving them for the appropriate time, perhaps after school on Friday, but she decided that now would do. She reached into her canvas backpack, peeling open the red and yellow plastic. One. She smiled as the sugar filled her mouth. Three. She wanted to see how many rings she could fit around her tongue. Five. The answer was five. And she could sneak two more before Mrs. Rodriguez announced recess.
The other children pushed out their chairs, leaving markers and colored pencils sprawled across the floor. She jumped up from her seat, nearly knocking her desk over, running into the courtyard. Her eyes were on the Superman game. The game in which the boys put on “capes” and saved the girl at the other end of the world (or the monkey bars). She ran over with her brown loafers shuffling through the leaves.
The boys looked up when, while wrapping her sweater around her shoulders, she proclaimed that she was next. As she climbed on top of the ladder, they all stared. She was on the wrong side. She looked at the other end. There was no one there. Who was she saving? With her eyes closed and her arms up, she jumped in the air.
Her teeth hit the gravel. She opened her mouth, checking for blood. There was only the peach ring aftertaste. She moved to see if her body was still intact. If she had broken any bones, she prayed, please let it be the big ones.
You can turn water into wine. She had made it. From their little apartment to the cute girl’s Manhattan neighborhood. She had memorized the directions: two trains, one express, no transfers. Unless she wanted to get there five minutes sooner; she didn’t. All the mapping out had scared her.
The girl’s name was Marisol; but she could call her Candi, like Sweet Tarts and peppermints. They were going to see the matinee. Together. Like a date. She wasn’t sure if she had understood that correctly. She only knew movies in the form of bootlegs from Pop or out of the trunks of cars. She only knew Candi from the mouths of boys and the lips of girls.
They had decided on the Film Forum. She didn’t know much about that place but Candi made it sound cool. And besides, they had indie films, Candi had said. The four dollars and twenty-five cents jingled in her pocket: three bills, the rest quarters. She handed the cashier the money in exchange for her ticket. If they asked for an ID, she would buy a ticket for another film and sneak in, Jackie had explained nonchalantly. It was simple. She looked at the ticket for Alice in Wonderland and smiled nervously at the cashier.
The place was small. It would be easy to slip into the film. DEATH and SEX in Munich? Or SEX and DEATH in Munich? She had forgotten the ridiculous name but remembered how much Candi loved Germany. She stood in the hallway until she got the text saying, “Running late. Wait 4 me in the theatre!”
The walls were covered with vintage movie posters in large transparent cases. Black and red bulbs lit two pathways to the screen. The reflecting lights made stained glass out of the ceiling. She sat down in the middle of the second to the last row; the room was nearly empty. She pulled out her dollar candy. A bag of popcorn. A handful of Now & Laters, Peanut Chews, and bubble gum flavored cigarettes. Two bottles of grape punch. She counted the people. Before she got to ten, the doors opened.
Candi walked down the aisle in a band tee and combat boots. A boy walked in behind her, holding onto just her fingers. She called out to Candi, who glanced at her before continuing down the aisle.
The lights went down. Candi kneeled between the boy’s knees. The girls had told her about her and she hadn’t believed it. The title came up on the screen. DEAD SEX in Munich. How fucking stupid. She had never cursed before.
She reached for her bag. She opened the wrappers and stuffed her mouth. The popcorn kernels filled the back of her throat. The butter stung her lips. The chocolate got stuck between her teeth. She put the grape drink to her lips. The bottle slipped, drink falling to the floor. And the light to the ceiling. And the sound to her body. And suddenly, the water. She kneeled, still sipping the liquid. Taking it all in like communion.
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