The girl bit into her hamburger, then licked a blob of mayonnaise and mustard from the back of her forearm where the bloody juice of the meat had drained. From across the room, a man stared at her. He seemed disgusted. He probably was. It was her fourth burger, and still she was hungry. Her eyes met his and locked before she turned away. She put the sandwich back down on her plate and, bypassing her large tumbler of vanilla milkshake, picked up the glass of water instead. On the table there was a mound of now-cold half-eaten french fries on a huge platter. Eyes downcast, she was aware of the man’s disapproval that he wore like a jacket. She set down the water and put her hands in her lap.
A half hour before her lunchtime she’d pretended to be sick, and her supervisor at the building society where she worked downtown had given her permission to go to the doctor’s office up the road on Duke Street. She was not sick, just hungry. Even though she’d been snacking on M&Ms and Raisinets and Nibbles and Chippie’s banana chips all morning.
Of course, she hadn’t gone to the doctor. Instead, she’d hurried to Moby Dick and ordered a huge lunch. The hunger was all-consuming; she could not think about anything else, it seemed. The desire for food—the unhealthier, the better—was relentless and growing the more so every day. She’d been recently diagnosed with diabetes, and her doctor had put her on a strict regime of vegetables and low-protein foods, along with exercise.
At first she did not believe it. Diabetes? With all the advancements in medicine, did people in the 1990s still get diabetes? And besides, wasn’t that an old people’s sickness? Sugar. What her grandfather had that had cost him a few toes. Wasn’t there some injection she could get to make it disappear? Pills? No, there was no injection to dismiss it, the doctor had patiently told her, before standing and gathering pamphlets for her so she could read up on the subject matter. And he did not believe in medication; he thought it was a crutch.
But she could not help herself. Somewhere inside her, there was a void that demanded to be filled. She wished she could explain it to somebody. She wasn’t greedy; she was just overwhelmed with a hunger that could not be satisfied. It seemed this had always been so, but that wasn’t true. She remembered being slim—well, she hadn’t really been very slim, not since she was around ten, eleven, and then she’d started gaining weight, becoming, at first, solid, then stocky, then, well, “big-boned”—and having boyfriends she liked, who liked her, who didn’t always fixate on her weight.
“A mind tell me this is where me’d find you,” the boyfriend said now. He was seated in front of her, his expression pained. “When I called, they said you was at the doctor, so I went there and you wasn’t there. I was worried.”
She hadn’t thought he would find her at Moby Dick. But he had. And when she had seen the expression on his face as he strode through the door, she knew she was in trouble. The girl examined her hands in her lap. She felt deep shame that once again she’d let food lead her and, worse, subjected herself to this judgement from a mechanic who could not grasp something as simple as subject-verb agreement. She hated feeling this petty, but she didn’t think he was in a position to judge her. Which he did.
“You cyaan keep this up,” he said, his voice softening. “You realize this, right?”
She was lucky, she supposed. He loved her despite her size. How many other women in her condition could find a man this kind?
She looked at him, shyly. He reached across the table for her hands, which she placed between his. And she smiled, glad that he was there.
In bed that night, she closed her eyes and listened to the rain fall softly against the roof, pattering like pebbles. She thought of the first boy she’d had a crush on. She did not know why she’d thought of him now. Truthfully, he’d begun to cross her mind lately with some amount of consistency, around the time when her appetite, which had already started to blossom, seemed to really run away. She hadn’t seen him in a long time because, last she’d heard, he’d been locked up in a prison in upstate New York after a drug deal he’d been involved in one night ended in a murder.
He was her mother’s youngest brother. He was almost sixteen when he had come to live with her and her mother while he went to the technical high school he’d transferred to, which was in walking distance of their house.
He was extremely handsome—cool dark brown skin, square jaw, thin nose. Even at that age you could tell he would be a heartbreaker. He walked with the air of confidence bow-legs gave boys. He was technically her uncle, and she was only twelve, going on thirteen, mind you, but she wanted him for herself. So did all the schoolgirls who lived in the lane, in the ghetto where they lived. And apparently not just schoolgirls.
Big Batty Barbara was a mother of five, a known political activist since before the 1980 election. It was rumored she hid guns for the area badmen. Barbara had hated the girl and her mother, had thought that they considered themselves better than the ghetto because the girl’s mother was always actively working to get them out. The girl distinctly remembered a run-in she and her mother had had with Barbara one morning as they walked down the lane, dressed in their Sunday-morning finery and on their way to the Anglican church they attended on East Street, if her mother wasn’t working. They might not have had a lot, living like they did in the ghetto, but her mother had always made sure that when they stepped out, they were immaculately put together.
Barbara had been sitting outside her gate, cane-rowing her youngest daughter’s hair. As the girl and her mother approached, Barbara, whose own hair was unkempt, with an Afro pick sticking out, had sneered, “Coo all the one dutty Marlene a try pull airs, though, een, Puppa Jesus! A walk in her lean-heel boot like she holy. She and her bad-shape daughter weh t’ink she special sake a di fool-fool Common Entrance weh mek she a go grammar school.”
The girl’s mother had tossed the long silky strands of her auburn wig and shouted from across the street, “Fool-fool Common Entrance nuh! But none of yuh board-head dunce pickney ever pass it, though!”
“If yuh so good, why unno still a live round ’ere?” Barbara had shouted back. “Everybody know seh yuh sell yuh body over a di Greenlight Hotel! Mek one of the man-dem yuh a tek a night-time find place uptown put yuh!”
“An’ you fi stop grind young boy! You a big woman. You t’ink mi don’t know seh you a fuck mi likkle bredda! Lef mi likkle brother alone!”
During the exchange, people had begun to poke their heads out from behind window curtains or over corrugated-zinc fences spray-painted with political slogans. The girl had been mortified. The skettel behavior was one thing—she had just begun attending St. Hugh’s and lived in fear that her very stoosh uptown classmates would discover where she came from and shun her. But she could overlook that. It was what her mother had said about Barbara and her uncle that had made her feel sick to her stomach.
The following morning the girl showered, then sat, with a towel wrapped around her, on the edge of the bed, listening to the boyfriend shower and watching the TV with the volume down. She sniffed the smell of the Zest as it mingled with the water and washed down the drain, and, again, she was glad that he was there.
At work, her supervisor called her into her office and complained that she hadn’t been sufficiently attentive to a foreign client, the one who was a good friend of the branch manager’s and who had called long distance the day before with instructions on an account. Didn’t she know the importance of doing well, the supervisor reprimanded severely.
The girl hung her head contritely and apologized.
“The customer specifically asked that the co-signer not get access to her funds,” the supervisor raged, in no mood to be placated. “Did she not indicate she was flying from New York on the first plane out?”
“But he was a signatory on the account,” the girl said meekly. “I couldn’t stop him from withdrawing the amount he wanted.” In the silence that followed, her stomach growled.
“You could have alerted me,” the supervisor cried, exasperated. “I could have alerted the tellers to not give him any money. They could have told him the system was down. Told him to come back today. As it stands, he came and completely wiped her out! She’d put that deadbeat on the account only to have another name with hers. He never put a dime in it. Now she’s lost all her money!”
The girl returned to her desk and kept watching the clock. In the top drawer of her desk she found a half-eaten giant Cadbury chocolate bar she’d bought after lunch the day before. As the morning ticked by, she kept breaking off pieces, which she stuffed into her mouth. The oatmeal porridge and the single hard-boiled egg she’d had that morning for the benefit of the boyfriend had already evaporated, and she was running on fumes. Her hunger was a raw ache.
At exactly midday she took off her sweater, draped it on the back of her chair, and picked up her handbag. Then she rode the elevator down to the banking hall and lobby. At the front door, she paused, eyeing the rain that was coming down in sheets. Her umbrella would be flimsy against the wind, and she was now having second thoughts about having left her sweater upstairs. But just then, her stomach growled morosely in complaint.
The cafeteria was on the top floor of a dingy fabric store she’d discovered a few weeks ago. It wasn’t much to look at, and it was in fact a long walk from her office, but the food was tasty. She climbed the steps heavily and sat in the furthest corner of the tiny room where she had an unobstructed view of Kingston Harbor. Out on the deluged street below, cars churned through sludgy water, leaving frothy ripples in their wakes.
She looked around her. At one table sat a couple, dressed in office wear. The man wore shirtsleeves and a tie, which he had flipped over his shoulder to prevent gravy being splashed on it. The woman removed the meat from her fork carefully, so as not to smudge her lipstick. She laughed suddenly, a raucous sound that exposed most of her teeth, and the man joined in. The woman was wearing a wedding ring, somehow the girl did not think they were married to each other. She watched them covertly, momentarily forgetting her own gnawing hunger. After a while she watched them openly; they were too engrossed in each other to notice her. At another table sat a single woman, with braids tied high up on her head in a bun; she was eating while reading a hardcover she had propped up on the ketchup bottle and salt and pepper shakers.
The girl shivered with pleasure when her food arrived, carried out by three servers. She’d ordered a whole platter of jerk chicken wings and coconut-oil-soaked rice and peas smothered with tangy peppered sauce, along with warm dinner rolls that came with little butter sachets on the side; everything she could stand. She was salivating, she realized, and had to smack her lips together to prevent spit from dribbling onto her chin.
Overhead a fan clicked, making her damp clothes and shoes cold. She hardly noticed, however. The boyfriend would not be surprising her at lunch this time because he had to go to Clarendon to return a car he’d been working on. She moaned as she filled her mouth with the dessert that she’d instructed them to bring as soon as she’d taken her last bite of the mains—a double slice of chocolate fudge cake topped with whipped cream and sprinkles that she paid extra for. She felt warm and safe and happy. The goodness of the food and the soothing rhythm of the rain on the roof made her tingly all over. She had never had an orgasm, but she was sure that this feeling was comparable.
When she returned to her desk at work, her skirt felt too tight at the waist, and she could hardly keep her eyes open. She told herself that she was always sleepy because of all the food, but she secretly suspected she had gotten diabetes. She was afraid to get herself checked, though. She contemplated walking into town and perhaps doing a bit of shopping in the hip clothing stores that had popped up on congested Orange Street and its environs, with its orgy of cart men and hustlers, pickpockets, and pedestrians, but she was too sleepy and too stuffed to trundle along the soggy miserable downtown streets. Besides, the salesclerks in the stores were bitches and might snicker among themselves when they saw her come through the doors. Just as well, she reckoned; her taste in clothes was not exactly sophisticated. It seemed to her that at one time she’d been able to buy entire outfits for herself, knew what looked good when worn together. Now she didn’t know what worked. Or maybe she didn’t care.
She looked at the clock on the wall and saw in alarm that it was almost time to go home. The boyfriend would be there soon. On the way home he would drop her off at the gym, and she felt a horrible feeling, a sick, hollow tightness in the pit of her stomach. She got up from her desk and went to the bathroom; in an empty stall, she knelt down and, leaning forward, stuck a finger down her throat.
Over the city, a band of fog hovered. It had been raining steadily for the past two weeks and showed no signs of letting up. It was not yet even the rainy season, either. At first, everybody was excited, staying home from work and school to snuggle in bed and listen to raindrops on the roofs and inhale the smell of rain-dampened earth.
But the rains prevailed. Soon there was a smell of mold in the air, and the damp had seeped into everything. And now it was obvious that the rain was a prolonged temporary state and a nuisance that everyone longed to be over and done with.
The girl peered doubtfully out the rain-spattered windshield at the deluged landscape. “It’s really coming down,” she said tentatively to the boyfriend.
They were in a slow-moving line of traffic. A group of children, still dressed in their navy pinafore school uniforms, knapsacks bouncing around on their backs, were shrieking and splashing about in shin-high water on the side of the road. They were, maybe, eight- and nine-year-olds, and rainwater cascaded down their shining faces. They grinned and waved as the car sloshed by, churning up foamy water, making them jump up onto the sidewalk. The girl waved timidly and thought fleetingly about her own childhood, how she too must have waded in water on rainy days like this, although she cannot quite remember. She can’t remember anything before she was twelve years old.
Her gym class that evening had been canceled. She’d breathed a sigh of relief, and when she reached home had done some half-hearted walking on her treadmill. But this had only opened up her appetite more, even with the boyfriend puffing beside her on his own treadmill, chanting, “No guts, no glory!”
That evening, they sat down to a quiet candlelight supper of bland vegetarian red-pea soup and a Caesar salad, listening to the muffled sounds of the city and the rain on the bougainvillea bushes just outside the window.
The girl again thought of her uncle. Though even now she still did not think of him that way: her uncle. It had been long after that she’d realized there was a name for what she’d fantasized about them doing in the single bed in the little room she shared with her mother when he’d moved in with them and slept in the front room. She’d gotten her period when she was ten, first had sex with a boy in her class at primary school when she was eleven. At twelve she was long time a woman. She had loved him. And he had always been affectionate toward her. How could it be wrong? They were friends; she’d always called him by his first name. After all, he wasn’t that much older than her, more like an older cousin, if anything. And cousins could get married, couldn’t they? Society had such stupid rules. They would just have to keep it a secret. Just as no one spoke about what it was her mother did when she left at night and came back home just before dawn, the stink of the men still on her as she climbed under the sheets beside the girl.
Outside, the wind howled and the rain swirled against the bougainvillea bushes.
In bed, in the dark, the girl lay quite still beneath the boyfriend while he took her from behind. That was the only way she allowed him to have sex with her. She was still wearing her nightie; she never allowed him to see her fully unclothed when they had sex. She looked up at the alarm clock on the nightstand, waiting. “You come?” he asked her, after he’d stopped shuddering, then collapsed beside her, a leg thrown partly across her back, even as he had already begun drifting off to Dreamland.
“It’s OK, though,” she whispered. “It was very enjoyable.”
She didn’t know why she didn’t just pretend, like other women. She regretted admitting to him, the very first time they’d been together, that she had never had an orgasm, ever. Now every time they made love he asked her if she’d come. It was as if he was making her sexual fulfilment his own personal project. How could she tell him that somewhere deep inside she was broken and that no one could fix it.
She listened to him snoring lightly behind her. His weight pressed against her, and she wanted desperately to fart; she squeezed it out in increments. She could not get used to living with a man. Her bodily functions, which she’d been used to doing in private, were now so exposed, so in the public gaze. Her habits, too, came under the spotlight. Living with a man made her have to curtail how she ate. But she was always hungry. So hungry. Her stomach let out a growl, as if in confirmation.
Still, she was glad to be there in this apartment with him. He was not a handsome man. And he was just a mechanic, although the business was his. A businessman was how she referred to him on the few occasions she’d spoken about him. Still, he was caring and affectionate, and so she forgave him every time he said something like, “You have such a pretty face. If you lose some weight everybody will see what I see in you.”
He told her that he loved her. She thought he was just trying to fix her. As if she was a project, an experiment. Was this love? She wasn’t sure what love was, but she had an idea this wasn’t it. But something deep inside her was broken, so she let him try.
He never spoke to her about marriage. She didn’t know if they were working toward that. He’d been married already. Twice. The first time had ended when his wife died of cancer. The second ended in divorce, of course. Or separation. She wasn’t sure. She suspected he still occasionally slept with his wife, who was a handsome woman with a grey streak at the front of her hair and who seemed to be great friends with him. She was young-looking, in good physical shape, with a body that appeared to suggest she did physical exercise, like yoga. In a jealous fit the girl had once accused him of being with the wife the night before, when he hadn’t come home.
“She has her man,” he’d said breezily, like that meant anything. Like the girl didn’t know that life was so much more complicated than that.
The week the girl had found out about her uncle and Barbara, she tried to get him to kiss her. One afternoon she watched him bathing at the standpipe in the yard. He soaped up vigorously, rubbing the bar directly against his skin without a washrag. When he reached his pubic hairs, she’d turned away, but not before she saw his thing. Back in the house, she had waited until he was dressed, then came up behind him, planting a kiss on the side of his neck, the way they did it in the romance stories she read.
But he had recoiled in horror when he whirled around to face her. “What you doin’, man?” he said, and walked out the front door and into the pale late-evening light, smelling of the carbolic soap. Later, overcome by a rage-fueled suspicion that he was with Big Batty Barbara, she had told her mother that he’d tried to force himself on her.
Her mother had kicked him out of the house. “Yuh lucky mi nah call police pon yuh, dutty bwoy! Yuh dutty nassiness yuh!” she’d shrieked, following him around the room and poking her index finger into the side of his head as he’d hurriedly grabbed his few possessions and stuffed them into black scandal bags. Meanwhile, the girl had stood in a corner, crying, a knot in her stomach. At the door he’d paused to look at her, a hard look in his eyes, and then he was gone without a word.
Not having anywhere to go, he had dropped out of school, they’d heard, and fallen in with a bad crowd. The girl had never seen him again, and she’d never confessed that she had lied. Now he was locked up in a federal prison, and she’d put him there. What horrors had he experienced inside? What had his life become now that he was a hardened criminal? Who was there for her to tell about her role in all of it, at this stage?
The girl squeezed her eyes shut now. As if this could shut out the memories. As if this could undo all the damage she’d caused. What kind of person was she? What would the boyfriend do if he knew the monster she was?
In the wee hours, when the boyfriend finally rolled off her, he got up with a grunt. She was still awake. She rolled over onto her back and listened to him staggering to the bathroom to roll off the condom. She waited to hear his piss hit the enamel before scrambling out of the bed. Kneeling, she reached beneath it, feeling around for the oversized bag of Lay’s potato chips she stashed away there. She pushed a handful into her mouth. Then she quickly put the bag away and brushed the crumbs off her mouth and, climbing back into the bed, arranged the sheet around her. As his footfalls approached, she closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep.
Outside, rain was still pouring down. She lay there trying to imagine happy things, a happy life that could be hers sometime, not now, not with him, and then she thought of all the food she would sneak at lunch the next day. She thought tenderly of all the food she would order. When the boyfriend began to snore lightly, she introduced a finger into her vagina and summoned the images: fried chicken, rice and peas, cream potatoes drenched in tartar, fried plantains, ice cream and cake. Oh, the thrill! The pleasure! The pleasure she felt now, rippling up from her toes, up, up, up, and she murmured, “Oh!”
Afterward, she lay there, her breath ragged as she listened to him snoring peacefully beside her. And, for the first time, she didn’t even care that he was there.
Sharon Leach is a Jamaican writer, columnist, and editor for the Jamaica Observer’s weekly literary arts magazine Bookends. Her short fiction has appeared in the Jamaica Journal, Caribbean Writing Today, Calabash, and, most recently, AfroBeat, as well as in the collections Iron Balloons: Hit Fiction from Jamaica’s Calabash Writer’s Workshop (Akashic Books, 2006) and Stories from Blue Latitudes: An Anthology of Caribbean Women Fiction Writers (Seal, 2006). Her essays have appeared in Air Jamaica’s in-flight magazine Skywritings and the newspaper Caribbean Voice. A Jamaican Musgrave medalist for excellence in literature, she has published two short-story collections, What You Can’t Tell Him (Star Apple, 2006) and Love It When You Come, Hate It When You Go (Peepal Tree, 2014). In 2016, she completed a screen adaptation of her short story “Sugar.”