Friday nights used to be Steak Nights. Exactly ten ounces of prime rib for me, eight for Wendy, six for our daughter Alice. Other nights we had fish and green vegetables, tofu and brown rice; but Friday was about flesh and blood.
Then a Friday came and there was only one steak at the table, set at Alice’s place. I drank my milk, stared at my empty plate. It was Alice’s twelfth birthday. After that Alice ate meat every day, and Wendy never served me meat again.
We didn’t say that Alice was getting fat. She was. She was getting very fat. She grew hips, a double chin, several extra stomachs. Alice’s teachers sent home notes and made phone calls, but Wendy handled those. She used the word thyroid a lot. Wendy prepared all the meals. I wasn’t allowed to give Alice snacks or treats of any kind. I did the shopping at the natural foods market; I bought the steaks in bulk from the butcher. He thought we were giving them to our dogs. We didn’t have dogs. Just a daughter.
Wendy panfried the steaks until they were barely warm. No matter how much deodorizer she sprayed, the house always smelled like blood. We weren’t allowed to help in the kitchen; we weren’t allowed to open the refrigerator. The only exception was when I did the grocery shopping and put away the food. There were slots for everything: Greek yogurt, vegetables, milk. Nothing touched anything else. The meat was triple-wrapped. Poor meat. I poked a hole in the cellophane and the meat dripped on the glass shelf. Are you sad? I asked it. It dripped some more. I gave the steak a kiss and it was a lot like other kisses I’d had: cold, smooth, dead. And yet this meat would feed a living person, the person I loved most, it would help make so much more of her. I kissed it again, out of gratitude, and the kiss sank into the meat, becoming a vitamin, a protein, fuel, ready to hit the pan screaming.
I hadn’t worked since Alice was born. I washed the dishes, did the cleaning, completed the list of chores Wendy left for me each morning. On my lunch breaks I drove to Alice’s school and sat in my car, eating Wendy’s tiny sushi rolls and miso soups and drinking cold green tea. I didn’t taste any of it. It was like eating air. From the street I could see right through the window of Alice’s English class. Her head was like a ball balanced perfectly atop a larger ball, so elegant, so very beautiful that I could never believe, from a distance, that she was mine, something from my own body. Her dark hair always clean, gleaming. She had a pencil box I had given her many years before, yellow with blue and red dots, which she held in her lap; I think Wendy put strips of beef jerky in it. When the bell rang and Alice went off to History I rolled up my lunch bag and put my seat back and fell asleep.
One afternoon I found a ten-dollar bill wadded up in the gutter skirting our front lawn. I hadn’t seen unbudgeted money in years. I drove to a fast-food restaurant and ordered three hamburgers and ate them all during Alice’s class, sucking the grease from my fingers for a long time. The taste of fat, that’s what grease is. We all love to put it inside ourselves, even Wendy, Wendy loves it and that’s why she won’t eat it. Wendy has a hard time with love.
I put the bag under the seat, thinking I would throw it away in the neighbor’s trash when I got home, but I forgot. Wendy found it.
This, she said, shoving the bag in my face. This is disgusting.
It was after dinner. Alice was in bed. I was scrubbing the sink with a toothbrush. I took a deep breath.
Wendy, you give Alice meat every—
I give her steak, not garbage, Wendy hissed. Alice is growing. Alice has a condition.
I blinked. What condition?
Don’t be ignorant. I could smell this from the driveway. You bring this poison into our house?
I didn’t bring it inside.
It’s inside your body, which is inside our house, she said, throwing the bag out onto the back porch. I followed it. She tossed a box of laxatives at my feet. How her nostrils flared when she was angry, a vein pulsing beneath the skin. She was probably pretty, most likely very pretty, but it had been a long time since I’d seen her prettiness. I imagined kissing her, or grabbing her by the hair. I didn’t want to do either. I smiled. After a moment she slammed the door.
I stayed in the guesthouse for two days, taking the laxatives. Nobody had ever stayed in the guesthouse except me and it was, like the main house, pristine. I plumped the decorative pillows on the bed and kept my shoes off the comforter when I watched TV. Alice brought me water and green tea and fruit, lingering on the doorstep while I ate an apple.
Did you really have three hamburgers? she asked, glancing at me.
Wendy told you? She’s still really mad.
I know. I shouldn’t have done it.
Alice pushed her thumb against the doorjamb, rubbing the smooth white paint. Do you miss it? she asked, tipping her head to the side, her neck folding in smooth rolls over the collar of her dress.
No, I answered. Not anymore. I’ve had plenty in my life, I said. It’s for you, now.
Alice smiled. How’s the apple?
Good. I chewed, swallowed. Crisp, I added. Isn’t there anything you miss?
I thought. Maybe ice cream.
Alice’s eyes widened. You used to eat ice cream?
I think so, I said. It was a long time ago. Before you were born.
She touched my stomach then, very lightly, looking at me to see if it was okay. I still had some muscle there. Wendy liked to say that what we ate made us what we were; Wendy wanted to be something like a rock garden, pure, hard, blameless. What did she want our daughter to be? Giving her all that gristle, all that fat. But fat is pure, too. So white and solid. Wendy wouldn’t have thought of that.
What did you have for breakfast? I asked.
Bacon, Alice said. And a Polish sausage.
A ham sandwich.
Good, I said. Good girl.
I gave her the core of the apple and she closed her hand around it like it was something precious. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d had fruit.
What’s your mother doing now?
Do you want to come in?
Alice nodded. I sat on the couch.
Come here, I said, patting my knee. I was not invited to Alice’s doctor’s visits. I didn’t know what she weighed. The last time I knew her numbers she was a month old and weighed less than a week’s worth of prime rib.
Oof, I said when she sat down. Her flesh hung down all around my thighs, bumped my stomach, filled my arms. I hugged her waist. My legs went numb almost instantly.
Am I big? she asked, looking down at me. You are very big.
Am I pretty?
You are very pretty.
She blushed. We sat like that for a moment, in silence. Part of me wanted to eat what she ate, to share in her plea- sure at the table, to join her wherever she was going; but I knew that part of raising a child is to set them on a path that isn’t yours. I was turning into air; that was natural. But she, she would have what she deserved. Nothing could dislodge her from the earth; she would stick to it and everything would stick to her: experiences, life, joy. Her body was making room for it all, each cell exceeding its limits. She was growing up.
Good? I said after a moment. She smiled.
I came back to the main house. Fish was now off the menu; yogurt, cheese, and milk followed suit. The refrigerator was nearly free of food, filled instead with a cool violet light. The butcher was ordering meat from a small organic farm outside our suburb; it came in a crate and cost a fortune.
Alice grew and grew. Her skin was very clear and her teeth were perfect. She smelled wonderful. We were careful not to let Wendy see us when Alice sat on my lap. Wendy didn’t know what was pure and what wasn’t; we went along with her way of doing things, but for our own reasons. Wendy appeared on a workout video for vegans and when I saw my wife’s sweatless face looking into the camera with such rigid determination I laughed. At dinner I ate my spoonful of rice and when I caught Alice’s eye she smiled, her cheeks full of meat.
I spent more and more time parked outside the school. I didn’t bother with Wendy’s lunches; I put them straight in the trash. Those burgers had cured me. I was never hungry anymore. I slipped in and out of sleep while I waited for Alice. Summer was coming. Such blue skies. And Alice through the window, pulling something from her pencil box. Something raw. Liver? Chicken? She chewed and wrote in her notebook, swallowed and raised her hand to answer a question. I put my cheek on the passenger seat and fell asleep again.
That evening, while Wendy did the dishes, I took Alice on my lap and felt how much heavier she had become since the day before. I was speechless. How did she do it? My knee trembled. She giggled.
I don’t know what’s wrong with her, Wendy said that night, looking at herself in the bathroom mirror. There’s no fat gene in my family.
Hm, I said.
You don’t seem concerned. I think she’s fine, I said.
You always think that, she said darkly, snapping a piece of floss from its box. I shrugged and stood on the scale. Double digits. I smiled.
What? she said. I blocked the number with my foot. Nothing, I said.
I dreamt about living on pills, a glass of protein powder. I woke up choking, spitting blood on the pillow, the blood making the shapes of everything I’d ever craved: french fries, apple pies, barbecue. I beheld them with delight, no trace of hunger, my stomach a vat of calm, happy acid. Wendy’s gold head right next to mine, still asleep. I took the pillow, held it above her face, but didn’t press down.
I drove to Alice’s school that afternoon, even though it was a Saturday. Wendy was with Alice at the doctor’s office, testing her blood for the third time that month. I closed my mouth around the stale air of the car; what would be floating there? Pieces of skin, particles of plastic, flakes of leather from the tan seats, all the dust of this particular moment. I closed my eyes and semen pumped effortlessly from my penis; the last of that liquid. I opened my eyes; there in the dark window of the classroom I saw Alice, standing with her pencil box in one hand, waving with the other. I waved back.
At dinner I pushed my food away, silverware untouched, the minute scoop of rice and kale pristine on the plate. Wendy shook with rage. How dare I eat less than her, she was thinking. How dare it be so easy for me to refuse what she still needed. She told me I was ill, that Alice was ill, that she, Wendy, was trying her best to keep the family healthy but we never helped her. She stood at the head of the table, pointing her fork at my face. I could see a lot of veins beneath the skin of her arms, pulsing a livid blue. Hate, I knew, was keeping her alive. Her hate was in the food and that’s why I didn’t need it. But I’d kissed the meat that morning; I kissed it every morning. I turned Wendy’s hate into love.
You’re a sick bastard, Wendy said.
I turned my face toward the smell of cooling beef. Alice was sitting very still, her knife frozen above her plate, watching us. There just wasn’t enough for everyone. I don’t know why.
I took my daughter’s hand. Honey, I said, finish your food.
Excerpted from Rag: Stories by Maryse Meijer. Published by FSG Originals, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 12th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Maryse Meijer. All rights reserved.