by R.A. Roth
I could say, “Nothing personal,” but that would be a lie, not for your benefit but for my own. What is happening between us is personal. Deeply so. Whether you were aware of it or not, our lives intersected two decades ago when I, a sprightly but foolish lad, ate Angora goat droppings on a dare and contracted a rare incurable strain of parasitic dysentery traceable to a stagnant pond in Borneo. The New England Journal of Medicine published a series of articles on the “Strange Case of Albert Biers.” Not my real name, of course, but a pseudonym to protect my identity. I can only imagine the tortures inflicted on my person if the school bullies had known I was the kid who ate goat droppings.
As it was, I paid dearly. After a painful 10-month trial and error period, I discovered the only staples I could digest without appreciable agony were burnt toast and strawberry jam. For eight stifling years, I subsisted on a daily regimen of burnt toast smothered in strawberry jam. The house reeked of scorched bread and the sickly odor of processed strawberries. My teeth ached from the sugar. Dirty black crumbs migrated everywhere, even the inner recesses of my belly button. Despite a ravenous appetite, I dwindled to nothing. The diagnosis was obvious: I was starving to death. If I didn’t expand my diet I would die. During a period of rapid withering, a girl named Rebecca Ernst fell in love not with me but the exactions of my condition. Rebecca, I soon learned, was obsessed with World War II concentration camp footage, in particular the advanced emaciation of both the departed and those who endured.
“Can I touch it?” she asked me as a shadowy bulldozer shoveled rubbery corpses into a gray pit, and I acquiesced to her request, mindful she was disinterested in sex, knowing that I was for all practical purposes an extension of the wartime savagery she coveted. In silence, I stripped. Rebecca strummed her fingers along the washboard of my ribs, to my concave pelvic girdle, finishing with a delicate appraisal of my shriveled genitals, which lolled in the palm of her hand like a baby bird with its neck snapped. Rebecca disrobed to reveal a body as spindly and deathlike as my own. Her breasts were gaunt and sunken, the nipples lifeless, drawn inward on themselves like the legs of a dead fly. Her cold chapped lips landed softly, almost weightless, on mine. We embraced, a loveless coupling of objects, broken toys grinding on each other in a musty attic amid the disarray of faceless dressing dummies and the faces of dead relatives. Nothing came of it—it was a dry enterprise. “I wonder if this is how they felt as they were pushed into the earth,” Rebecca said and rolled over me, our bones clattering in asexual congress. Intertwined, like translucent grandmother hands locked in prayer, we lay there waiting for the gulf of ambivalence between us to shrink, but our atrophied urges failed to respond. We repeated this ritual some 50 times, to no avail. We were so much closer to death than life that even the chemical sparks of youth were incapable of inducing arousal.
“I am going to die soon if I don’t eat,” Rebecca said, and I called her a selfish cunt. “I can’t help it,” she said. “The thought of something dying so I can live makes me ill.” Rebecca succumbed a week later to Starvation. Gaunt, hooded and reflexively repulsive, It stalked me from the shadows, a glint of sleek whittled bone stabbing the corner of my eye, a death omen winking at me, bloody and emboldened, from the whorls of strawberry jam saturating the burnt, barren landscape of my toast, each bite a bittersweet toothache rotten with the passive acceptance of my own savory decay. Tired of the chase, I confronted Starvation, head-on. Its purple swollen eyes, drawn to pinpoints of shrieking terror, regarded me with the brutal amusement of a lion tamer beating a proud and majestic beast into defecating submission. Killing me, I reminded It, was the hollow victory of a conqueror maggot feasting on the sour meat of faded king, a worm reveling in glory unearned, undeserved, and Starvation insinuated itself closer to my sunken bosom, bone clattering bone, stirring memories of Rebecca to stillborn life, and It whispered through the grey tatters of Its shroud that I was onto something, that I could repel Its gaze if I were willing to entertain a most unsavory and taboo option.
“You haven’t tried everything,” It said through the lush decrepitude of Its mahogany fangs. Those beastly words still resonate, like church bells struck by fiendish clappers, in the chambers of my heart, if you can believe a person of such ill repute has one, which I do, albeit a close examination will reveal not muscle but a withered bag of instrumentality, cogs, wheels and whirligigs, dryly banging out a garish, tuneless dirge from inside the cold confines of chattering friendless solitude—for if there’s a cardinal rule applicable to all extant life it’s that one doesn’t commiserate with the food. Laughable, of course, as I am breaking that very rule by speaking to you. But when the guilt bubbles to the surface, I monologize the venom from my system, as if murder can be neutralized or mollified by the practiced rationalizations of the murderer. I have spoken these same words to countless others, hoping to find an inkling of pity or understanding for my plight before slipping the knife in. I cannot promise it won’t hurt. It will, greatly so. Let me demonstrate.
See, I told you it would. Even as the world winks to darkness, I ask you to believe it is not ending. Only changing. Merging. Our two worlds becoming one. Goodnight, sweet prince. You have been, and will be, most enjoyed.