The forks and knives in the restaurant clatter like the beats of my shrinking, metallic heart. Across the table from me, Eric smiles. The familiar crinkle of his eyes: hateful.

I feel an answering smile curving over my face, plumping my cheeks, showing my teeth that are slowly turning the color of rocks, chipped marble. They’re just as brittle, like thin bones waiting to crack.

“I would like to hang myself from the chandelier,” I tell him softly.

“Sorry, you’ll have to speak up, Lena. I can’t quite hear you.”

“I said, I’m so happy you brought me here. It’s really nice. I love the atmosphere.”

“Yes, except they could do with turning the music down, couldn’t they? This isn’t a nightclub.” He sweeps his boyish brush of hair out of his eyes; I know he keeps it that way because girls love it. Jessica definitely did.

“Yeah, well. Every place has to be a party nowadays.”

We’ve ordered a few plates of food to share, and I pretended to be interested in the menu, but I don’t really care what I eat as long as I eat. Eric doesn’t understand this. Pure, naive Eric, never noticing that whenever I come back from the bathroom after dinner my breath is muddy and my eyes glittering, my throat scraped raw. This is like a darker version of cheating. A better version.

“Do you ever think about life on other planets?” I ask him. I’m itching to have a conversation with someone about something other than TV or movies or the appearance of this or that girl; even with Eric it might be possible. “What it might be like?”

“Of course. I think about it every day.”

No he doesn’t.

“And I think about our universe, too. Whether we really see what’s out there. Maybe we don’t. Maybe alien life exists on a plane we can’t see.”

“Maybe,” I say, “our entire universe is just a speck under someone’s thumb.”

“Yes,” Eric says, his golden-brown eyes lighting up. “It makes me think, actually. I read once that if you look at the micro, it looks a lot like the macro. The appearance of an atom is so similar to that of a solar system: there’s a nucleus in the center, or a sun, but most of it is really empty space. Just like our universe: ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent empty space. Almost one hundred percent nothingness. And atoms are the same—they’ve got the same percentage of nothing.”

Almost one hundred percent nothingness.

“So if we’re made up of atoms,” I say, “doesn’t that mean we’re mostly nothingness?”

“Well, yes.” He looks surprised at this suggestion. As though it’s not completely obvious. “I guess that would follow.”

“Doesn’t that disturb you?”

“Not really. It’s the non-nothingness that counts.”

“Oh,” I say. My heart flutters. The spaces inside me gape, full of a black absence.

The food arrives: scallops and mushrooms crusted with herbs, pasta ripe with garlic and steaming with melted butter, fresh-baked bread with ricotta cheese.

“Look,” Eric points out. “This crust of bread looks just like a piece of tree bark.”

I eat and eat and eat. I bite and chew and swallow and take sip after sip of water, until the sips turn to gulps. I can feel the layer of water in my stomach, resting gently on top of the food. I rub my stomach, waiting for its contents to mix.

“If you look at the earth from space,” he continues, “you’ll see rivers just like the lines in this bay leaf. It’s patterns,” he says. “The universe is all patterns. All the way down.”

I scrape a scallop off my fork with my teeth. The dragging of my teeth against the metal sends chills down my back. The iron tang reminds me of how Jessica tasted. I swallow: a lump.

“Excuse me,” I say, and my chair clatters behind me as I stand and weave my way to the restroom. It’s beautiful inside, all gleaming gold faucets and sleek porcelain. I pull my hair up into a messy bun and look at myself in the mirror. Bloated cheeks, puffy bags beneath my eyes, skin the color of rock salt.

It takes a couple of gags before my stomach loosens its clenched grip, but when it does, it is glorious: a torrential outpouring of bread and pasta lumps and soft ghostly things that must be scallops. I heave and vomit again, quietly. In order to dredge up the last remnants, I focus my eyes on the filthy, crusted insides of the toilet bowl. My stomach is a spasming fist.

I think I’m done, but then, with the last bits of watery bile, something else oozes up my throat. It feels like a glob of mucus, and I have to hock it up. It slides out in a dark pink lump, turned pale in places from my stomach acid. It tastes metallic, like coins. I have a moment of panic—did I just puke up a chunk of my insides?—but I feel fine. There’s no blood, and it doesn’t look like coffee grounds, so I know it’s not the internal bleeding that the girls online are always warning each other about.

The scents all puddle together, acid and bile and the nasty yeasty smell of half-digested bread. I flush the toilet with my foot and drag myself to the sink, where I turn the taps to full blast and scrub my hands, then coat my face with soap and water as well and rub around the sides of my mouth, my nose, anywhere vomit may have splashed. I rinse my mouth a few times, swishing the water around. Good thing Eric doesn’t need me to cake my face with makeup.

When I get back, Eric is on his phone. He says, “I might have found a girl for us.”

I take a long, deep sip of water. I can’t even be mad at him for moving onto this topic, as I wasn’t exactly helping him out with the last one. There didn’t seem to be a point, not when we’re always hovering over the real subject anyway, always coming back to it in the end.

“She lives in the city full-time, not just visiting it like Jessica was. I guess that’s one of the drawbacks of living in New York—so many people are only stopping by for a few days or weeks.”

“Ah,” I say flatly. I can’t believe he doesn’t notice that I’m less than enthused. But I suppose his own enthusiasm is all that he needs.

It’s not like I never told him that I didn’t want to do this. I did tell him. I told him over and over again, but eventually I stopped, because it didn’t seem to make a difference. Over and over again, he didn’t care. And the option to Just break up with him! was something I didn’t have the willpower for. Just like I don’t have the willpower to stop myself whenever I start to reach for the ice cream, or the pizza, or the grocery store sheet cakes that I can eat three at a time, the sugar sparkling through my veins like what I imagine cocaine must feel like. I love-hate-love food. I love it, and then I’m full and I hate it and can’t remember what it was like not to hate it, and then my stomach is empty and I love it again.

“She’s a little like you, actually. On the surface she’s extroverted, but she also seems very loyal, submissive, a good girl.” I wonder what would happen if the music cut off suddenly and his voice rang clear through the room. Would he be proud? Ashamed? Aroused?

“Where’d you find her?” I shovel some more pasta into my mouth.

“Starbucks. I was grabbing a coffee and she just came over to talk to me. She was very bold.”

“Ah,” I say again, imagining the attractive boldness of this woman.

“Here’s a photo. She actually showed me that she’s on dating sites and sent me a screenshot of her profile. It even says she’s looking for couples, right there in the description.” He shows me his phone, where a woman with big gray eyes—obviously edited, so huge that she looks almost deformed—is smiling at me. She’s got red hair and large, seashell-like ears with thin cusps and long earlobes, and there is a smattering of freckles across her nose; it looks kind of like the spray someone would leave behind if they sneezed on her.

I don’t stop eating as I study the picture. I want to associate the food with this woman, tie them inextricably together.

“What’s her name?” I ask. Even though it says right there on her profile, I know he wants to be the one to tell me.

“Meaghan,” he says proudly. He pronounces it Mee-ghan, because of course he does. I want to break it to him that it’s probably still pronounced Megan, but I don’t have the energy. The pasta is so rich and sleek. Too rich. I’m beginning to hate it, but I keep eating.

“See what it says here?” he continues. “Says here that she’s a dog person, not a cat person.” Eric hates cats, says they have no loyalty.

Something in my gut is swimming, churning and roiling. The food feels like it might be expanding in my stomach. All of a sudden I know that I can’t eat any more, and if I don’t make it to the restroom, I might sink to the floor and just be sick right here. I finally put my fork down and mumble “Excuse me,” pushing back my chair to get up.

“Again?” Eric asks.

As I dodge waiters, I notice them noticing me, how they must be wondering at my getting up to use the bathroom twice in the space of ten minutes. I reach for the gold handle on the door, but it doesn’t move. It’s locked. I hear someone inside saying, “Jee-sus, wait a minute, will ya?”

I lean against the wall, my lips pressed together wire-tight. The nausea is expanding down to my legs, spreading through my whole body.

“There’s another restroom over here,” says a waitress, pointing towards the other end of the hall, and I walk over there so fast I’m almost running, haul open the heavy door and shut myself inside its quiet sarcophagal gleam. There’s a gagging feeling deep inside me, but I still need to put my hand down my throat and press on my stomach before anything comes out. A rush of pasta slides up, greasy, oozing tiny oceans of oil. And then, following it, are a few lumps of something pink, stringy, fleshy.

Again that metal taste. No blood, okay, but what the hell is that? A chunk of my stomach? It looks like a clump of raw meat. I put a hand to my gut, as though I can tell by touch whether anything is missing inside me.

But there’s no pain, and as always, I feel better now. I stand up and examine my profile in the mirror, and see that my stomach isn’t just flat; it’s nearly concave. There is truly nothing left inside me now, not even water. I suck in my stomach and watch as it nearly touches my spine.

I feel gleeful. I feel good. When I meet my own eyes in the mirror, they’re overly bright. They look like Eric’s eyes after we fucked Jessica.

When I get back to the table, he’s wincing and rubbing his back. “I think I might’ve pulled something in my lower back. It really hurts.”

“Just now? Where does it hurt?”

“On the left side.”

“How could you pull a muscle if you’re sitting down?”

“I don’t know. I must be getting older.” He sighs and returns to his food. “Meaghan says she’s a big fan of nice restaurants. We should take her to one sometime, no?”


“She says she’s going upstate tomorrow, but she’ll be back in the city next weekend. What do you think? Someplace near my apartment?” He smiles and squeezes my knee under the table.

A rictus grin etches itself into my face. It makes sense that she’s away; she’d probably be here right now if she weren’t upstate. There would be three of us at this table instead of two, and all the while Eric would be drawing strings between our figures with his eyes, pinning us together in an imagined web.

I take a drink of water and immediately regret it. Liquid rises in my guts, making my eyelids heavy, sending a throbbing across my skull.

“What if she can’t?” I ask. I don’t mean to. I don’t usually talk this way anymore.

“What do you mean?”

“Like, what if she cancels last minute or something? Will you just hang out with me?” I feel as though I’m suggesting something illicit.

He looks confused. “Lena. We hang out together all the time.” He laughs. “We’re hanging out together right now!”
Yeah, I think. But I have to throw up my food in the bathroom because all you fucking do is talk about what girls we can do threesomes with and fantasize about them in front of me and then sometimes you talk about how much you love me, but only conditionally because I’m nothing without them, I’m just a link, a hinge, a tangle of empty.

But the last time I told him anything like this—without mentioning the vomiting—his eyes grew as flat as frosted glass and he told me we could break up if I didn’t want to do this anymore. If I no longer wanted to make him happy.

“I know we’re hanging out,” I say.

“Okay, so isn’t that good? Aren’t you enjoying yourself?” He glances at my empty plate. “You certainly seemed to enjoy that pasta. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat anything that fast. But I like that you have an appetite, that you aren’t restricting yourself. Don’t you remember the first time we ever had a meal together? We were at that Spanish place down in the Village. You barely touched your food. You picked at it like a little bird. Or pecked at it. You were so cute, so shy, like you were scared to eat in front of me.” He smiles, his eyes crinkling again, and there it is, the flash of the Eric I used to love. To really love, rather than love-hate-love.

“It seems like so long ago,” I say. “But it was only a few months ago, right? July?” Yes, I remember it. The Spanish restaurant with its little outdoor tables, summer night like a veil on my skin. No mention of other girls. That came later.

“Do you think you’ve gotten more comfortable with me over time?”

“Yes, I think so.” The nausea builds as I speak.

“Good. I like that you can be yourself around me.” He looks like he really believes what he is saying. Does he? Has he deluded himself that much? Or does he guess at the words I bite back whenever he talks about other girls? I’m sick of wondering. I’m sick of this relationship, this trap that I’ve built around myself. I’m sick to my stomach. I’m sick, in general.

“I don’t feel so good,” I say. Fuck, I think. Fuck, I don’t want to be in pain anymore. I think: I’m ninety-nine percent emptiness.

“I’m…excuse me.” The legs of my chair scrape across the floor like teeth on metal, and I’m in the bathroom again. This time, not much of substance comes up: thin gush of water shot through with bile, taste of lemons left to rot in the sun—and then more splotchy mouthfuls of flesh. They’re the color of red clay, the color of the buttes in the Arizona desert.

Back at the table, Eric’s face is a grim mask. He’s pressing a hand to his chest, just below his pec muscles. Like he’s trying to fill in the hollow of his sternum. Like he’s trying to fill in all the empty spaces inside him.

“Lena.” His voice comes out muffled, and I notice that his jaw is clenched. He swallows. “I don’t feel good either. Do you think it’s something in the food? We were both fine before we came here. But this is a nice place. You wouldn’t think we’d get food poisoning here.”

I survey the table. There’s butter pooling in the bottom of the pasta dish, a few empty clippings of herbs, ghostly almond slivers, curling crust of bread. There’s no meat, no beets. No reddish anything. No flesh like what came out of me.

“I think the food is fine,” I say. I drink more water, but slowly this time, not wanting to re-awaken the nausea. I take one slow sip, then another, letting it pool inside my mouth before trickling down to my stomach. I try to feel sorry for him, but I can’t. I mostly just feel hungry.

A busboy comes along and clears our dishes, and then our waiter deposits two leather-bound dessert menus. Eric flips through his perfunctorily and puts it back on the table, leaning back and rubbing his upper stomach. His eyes are slitted gleams of gold.

“Don’t you want to talk about Meaghan?” I ask innocently. Although he doesn’t really look like he’s up for much talking.

When he un-slits his eyes and looks at me, I think I see disbelief. Just for a second—then it’s gone.

“You’re the eager beaver,” he says. A faint groan. “Do you think you might like her, then?”

“She’s pretty, I guess. Looks a lot like some girl I knew at summer camp one year.”

He brightens, still rubbing his stomach, but sitting up straighter now. “Did you like that girl?”

“She was okay. Had a bit of an annoying voice. I don’t actually remember her name. Actually, I think she may have stolen one of my band T-shirts. Come to think of it, she was kind of a jerk.”

“Meaghan has a nice voice. It’s kind of like yours, very soft.”

I look through my dessert menu. There’s something with hazelnuts, which I love, and a deconstructed key lime pie, and a raspberry mousse cake. “Do you want to order dessert?”

“I’ll pass. Maybe we should just get the check.”

“But I’m still hungry.” The hazelnut dessert looks good, but I think I’m going to go for the key lime pie. I like the idea of eating something that’s been already broken apart and then deconstructing it still further in my stomach. Or maybe my stomach is where it’ll put itself back together again. Digestion in reverse.

“Seriously? After all that pasta?” Eric looks at me in disbelief. “Wow. You’re amazing.”

I smile at him lazily. My mouth feels heavy, like an animal. “I am. I am capable of incredible feats. I think I’ll get the key lime pie.”

I thought we had exhausted the subject of Megan—I mean Meaghan—so I really am surprised when Eric says quietly, “Would you let me fuck her in front of you? With you not doing anything, just watching? Like an audience?”

Sweetly, gently, the sickness rises back up.

“Maybe it sounds strange, but it would make me feel like you’re so much closer to me. So much more mine.”

My mouth tastes tastes sharp, bitter, the salt-slick walls of my esophagus pulsing with my heartbeat. I press a hand to my lips.

“You okay?” Eric leans forward, but I ignore him and he sinks back in his seat. He’s wincing in pain again.

The people at the surrounding tables are definitely staring now, turning their faces to me like concerned, poisonous flowers. I get up, and with each movement I feel sicker. Nausea building in my stomach, dark sour water.

I make it to the restroom, open the door, lean over the toilet. It’s spotless and smells like cleaning products—someone must have come along and freshened it up after last time. Too soon, friends, I think. I’m not done yet.

I gag, and this time I don’t even need my hand, because it comes up all by itself in thick, dense clumps of flesh. Heavy like layers of muscles. There are a couple of little crushed tubes in there too, floppy and oozing yellow liquid. Veins breaking apart in the shallow water.

There’s a distant crash, as though someone in the dining room has just collapsed forward onto their table. Plates smash, silverware clatters to the floor: a few people shriek.

Unbelievably, the pieces are still beating. Twitching, flapping against the toilet bowl.

The universe is all patterns, I think. All the way down.