I took a seat at the table. I yawned. Yawned again. I balled up my hand, and rubbed my eyes.
I yawned again.
“I should not have to ask you to help,” I heard my mom say, the clattering of plates and utensils following right after. “You’re old enough, already.”
“Blegh,” I sounded. Not a word, just a sound. I was too tired to produce a word. With just a sound, I tried to portray my exhaustion to my mother.
All I heard in return was a harsh whisper, unintelligible Japanese, but my mom continued to set the table, regardless.
I felt bad about it, but what was I to say? She’d hardly accept whatever excuse I had to offer, however menial.
And the truth would be much harder to swallow.
A few thumps hit the table, and I knew that was the food. I stopped rubbing my eyes, blinking fast to bring back my vision.
The smell came before my sight did. Terrible. Like rotten fish guts, set out in the sun for over a day. I instantly wanted to bowl over and retch and gag. Anywhere else would be better than in front of this. I’d rather be out, dealing with bad guys, than eating this.
But, I fought the urge run to away. Had to.
I had to blink again before I could see what was producing that stench. Rice and tonkatsu.
A strong sense of nostalgia almost overwhelmed me, if I wasn’t currently focused on staying composed. I loved tonkatsu when I was younger, especially my mom’s. It was up there with her fried chicken and miso soup. Just looking at the light brown, crispy breaded skin, the soft wisps of steam that floated from the meat, made me lament a taste that I would never experience again. I could feel my eyes get a little hot, a little wet.
No, I reminded myself, Not now, and not in front of Mom.
“Looks great,” I said, staring at the food, not daring to show Mom my face. I meant it, but I said it mostly just to say it. To give her some recognition for the work she had to put into this dish.
Because my taste buds were certainly incapable of appreciating it.
“Hmm,” my mom hummed. She pulled out her chair, and sat across from me. She clasped her hands together. I followed her.
Silently, we prayed. Though, I wasn’t thinking much of anything in that time.
Mom finished soon after, as did I. She got started on getting her food.
“Feels like forever since we’ve done that,” I commented, as my mom set rice on her plate.
“Feels like forever since you had dinner here.”
Without missing a beat.
She hit me right in the core of my very being.
“Had a lot of homework,” I said, defeated. It was all I had for explanation. True for sure, but partial.
“Okay,” was all she said. What she did, however, was start putting rice and meat on my plate. More than I would ever need. Or ever want.
“Ma, Mom!” I exclaimed, pulling the plate away before she could add another portion of rice. “That’s way too much!”
“You need to eat, and grow.” I heard a hint of irritation, there. “You got too thin, and in so short time. I hardly seen you eat since you left the hospital. For your height and age, you shouldn’t look like that.”
I reclined in my chair, putting my plate back on the table. Was I thinner? I hadn’t checked my weight in some time, was it obvious? But what could I do about it? The only thing that could sustain me now was a certain liquid.
My mom sat back down, and went to cutting into her first slice of meat. “There’s still leftover barbeque, so you eat that, too.”
“How much did Mrs. Phan let you take?” I asked.
Was that an answer, or was that her way of telling me to shut up and eat? Either way, I said no more.
I faced my food. This was an opponent I couldn’t best.
I can still smell it.
But, even though I hated it, even though I legitimately wanted to run away, I knew that this was a long time coming. I had avoided coming to dinner for too long, ever since I got out of the hospital a little over a month ago. Ever since these powers were forced upon me at the cost of my sense of taste and appetite. My mom let me off the hook, cut me some slack, but I knew it would be temporary. Only a matter of time before her kindness would spoil and turn into suspicion. I had to make an appearance at the dinner table eventually, and that time was now.
Especially with the fallout from Jillian, I had to give her a reason I was okay. A reason not to worry about me.
I gazed at my food, and it seemed to gaze back.
I tried to think strategically, how could I appear to eat food without having to actually eat? I poked the meat with my fork, and scooped up a bit of rice with my spoon. Took a sip of water from my glass, went back to poking the meat.
This is taking forever.
What else could I do? I looked back to my mom, who was halfway through a bite of food. No expression on her face, I couldn’t tell if she enjoyed her own food or not.
I had to find a way to stall, to waste time. To prep myself, mentally.
“How was the barbeque, anyways?” I asked. “You never really told me how it went.”
“Eat,” she said, stern.
Shoot, I thought.
I leered at my food. Leered at it. My mom could have served me literal trash, and it would have amounted to the same thing.
Small bites, take it a bite at a time.
I lifted up my spoon. A small piece of meat, some rice. Even with super strength, the spoon felt like a thousand pounds.
I could feel my eye twitch.
Just one plate, just one. All I had to do was finish one plate, and I could excuse myself and leave. Lock my doors, and I could throw it up in peace. I had looked up how to do it online, and while it wasn’t the prettiest solution, or even the safest, I was betting on my healing to pitch in, there.
A long road traveled started with one step. A plate of food eaten started with one bite.
I just had to start.
I brought the spoon closer, I opened my mouth. My stomach growled, as if it was already rejecting the food.
I planned the steps in my head. Hold my breath, put it right in my mouth, swallow without chewing. Slide it right in there. Dammit.
Closer, the spoon went. I had to start eating now, otherwise my mom would start asking questions.
Now or never. No delays.
But this spoon is so heavy.
The door knocked.
“I’ll get it!” I said, hurriedly, my utensil practically slamming back onto the plate. I got up from my chair, and headed to the front door.
I ended up running away again. I rationalized it as taking a small break, it wasn’t like I was done at the table.
For now, I opened the door.
“Katy,” I said, when I saw her. “Maria,” I said, when I saw her, too.
“Surprise!” Katy said, both as a greeting and an answer.
“Hey Alexis, nice place,” Maria said from where she was. She was standing behind Katy, at an angle.
“Hey, but, what’s up?” I asked, actually surprised at them being here. Saved me in the nick of time, I thought.
“Can we come in?” Katy asked instead, ignoring me.
“I, um.” I stepped to the side of the doorframe, putting my friends into view. My mom could see them from the table.
“We’re eating,” my mom said, in a way that certainly wasn’t an invitation.
“We won’t be long,” Katy said in return. “We come bearing gifts.”
“Gifts?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Maria huffed, stepping forward. I saw that she was carrying a white cardboard box. “Can we please come inside? This is surprisingly heavy, and I’m starved.”
“But we ate on the way here,” Katy pointed out, “How is a double cheeseburger and extra large fries not enough for you?”
“Don’t forget the large shake, too,” Maria mentioned. “But sorry, don’t know what else to tell yah. Anyways, Mrs. Barnett, may we intrude on your night?”
Judging from my mom’s face, I was almost about to close the door for her.
“Come in,” she said instead.
“Thanks, Shiori-san.” Katy exaggerated the honorific, pronouncing it like ‘sand,’ without the ‘D.’ Katy knew better, and she did it anyway.
Way to poke the lion in her cage.
Katy and Maria entered, and I had to advise them to take their shoes off and leave them by the door. We moved back to the dinner table, and Maria set the box on the only available space. A corner of the box hung off the edge of the table.
“Hi, I’m Maria González,” Maria said, after wiping her hands on her pants. She extended a hand to my mom. She took it.
“Wow, you’re prettier than I expected,” Maria said plainly, with no filter. It came out of nowhere.
My mom humbly returned her compliment with small bow, and returned to her food.
“What did you expect?” Katy asked, moving into the kitchen. She opened up a cabinet above the stove, where we kept more plates.
“I don’t know, but all I’m saying is, why didn’t Alexis get any of it?”
“Savage,” I said, holding back the actual curse words I wanted to spit at Maria. “I appreciate you.”
“You got it!”
The three of us laughed. Katy had come back with some smaller plates and forks. And a large plastic knife.
“Really though, what are you guys doing here?” I asked, trying to pry the truth out of them.
“This is a long time coming, to be honest,” Katy said, “We should have gotten to this sooner.”
She set the plates down in a stack, with the forks and knife on top. She opened the box.
It was a cake.
“A cake?” I questioned. “You came all the way here just to deliver a cake?”
“Not just any cake,” Katy pointed out, “It’s an ice cream cake.”
“Vanilla, chocolate, honey, with a cherry on top.” Maria pointed to the different layers of the cake, and the sweet drizzle and fruit that topped it off. “It’s a real crowd pleaser.”
Fantastic, I thought.
“Third time’s a charm,” Katy said. She handed me a plate and fork. “It was Maria’s idea.”
“Happy belated birthday, bit-” she looked to my mom, and refrained from completing that last word.
“Don’t you think the window of time has long passed us by this point?” I asked, somewhat nervous. They wouldn’t have brought a cake here if they weren’t going to make me eat it. I had a hard enough time trying to eat in front of my mom, and now my friends were here, too?
This is actually a problem.
I tried to come up with a reason to refuse. “Like my mom said before, we’re still eating dinner. We can’t just stop to eat cake.”
“There’s no universal law that prevents us from doing so,” Katy said, “Besides, we’ll be in and out. Just blow a candle and take a small bite, then we’re gone.”
“That’s right.” Maria came in between me and Katy, and set a few candles on top of the cake, circling around the cherry. They were the thin stick kind.
“You didn’t even bring sixteen of them?” I questioned. “Or even just a ‘one’ and a ‘six’ at least?”
“Shut up,” Maria snapped, “This was all I could fit into my pocket in such short notice.”
“What? I can’t even-”
Katy stopped me. “You can’t even, and you don’t have to. We won’t take long, promise.”
“I, but,” I wanted to know what my mom had to say, but she just kept to herself, eating her food. Was she mad? This was one of those time when I couldn’t tell. She had a way of keeping things to herself.
But, she didn’t object. In fact, she was the one who let them in. On some level, she had to be fine with this.
I’m really going to have this cake and eat it too, aren’t I?
“Here, I’ll do it for you, sheesh,” Maria said. She took the plate from me and grabbed the knife from the table. She proceeded to cut me a piece of cake.
Too bad eating it was anything but.
Maria thrust her hand back into her pocket and pulled out a lighter. She lit the one candle that sat atop my slice of cake. The subtle smell of burning wax masked the cake’s rotten odor. She gave it back to me.
I don’t want to eat this.
“Well, whatchu waiting for?” Katy asked, “Make a wish.”
“And make it a good one, too.” Maria added.
I don’t want to eat this, I don’t want to eat this.
I stared at the cake, trying not to tremble. I remembered when I tried eating normal food, how off it tasted. How it got worse the more I kept trying. Repulsing, vile. Dirt, trash.
I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this I don’t want to eat this-
“Lexi, are you okay?”
Katy asked me.
“You look whiter than I do, you good?”
I absolutely am not.
I lifted up my head, facing Katy and Maria. I faced them, but I tried to control my emotions, trying not to show.
No running away now. Piece of cake.
“No, yeah, um, I’ll take a bite.”
I picked up the fork, cutting out a smaller piece.
“Blow out the candle first,” Maria said, amazed that I’d forget such an obvious step one.
I laughed to myself, feeling tears threatening to flow if I didn’t hurry. “Duh, of course.”
I made a wish.
I wish I never became whatever I am.
In one fast breath, I blew out the candle.
Next, I opened my mouth, repeating the steps I had in my head earlier. Hold my breath, put it right in my mouth, swallow without chewing. Slide it right in there.
I held my breath.
I put it right into the back of my mouth.
I swallowed without chewing.
Slid it right in there.
Immediately, my body wanted to eject the food out. A violent chemical reaction, thrashing the inside of my stomach. Rioting to remove the foreign object.
I scrunched my eyes and face, failing to maintain any composure. Had to fight through this, my mom and my two closest friends were watching me. Couldn’t let everything go to waste now. Not like this.
Not over a piece of cake.
I reached for my glass of water, reaching past Katy and Maria and swigged the whole thing as fast as I could. I sighed when I finished.
“That’s good,” I lied. My voice sounded like I chain-smoked for a year straight.
“Is it?” Katy questioned me. “I’m not sure what to call, whatever it was you did, right there.”
I cleared my throat. “No, it’s good,” I said. It came out a little better that time.
I promptly went back to my chair, falling into it rather than taking a seat. “I can eat the rest later, though.”
Katy and Maria exchanged a look.
“Actually, I know we said we wouldn’t be long, but we were kind of hoping to stick around, chat and eat some cake, but I see you two are still busy so,” Katy stopped there.
“We can head out now,” Maria said. “Happy birthday, Alexis, belated as it may be.”
“Thanks,” I said, honestly. “Want me to get the door?”
“We can see ourselves out,” Katy said. “Thanks again for letting us come in, Shiori. It was good to see you.”
My mom nodded. “Good to see you too, Katy. Tell your parents I said ‘hi.’ And your dad, ‘good luck.’” She sounded genuine, legitimately happy to see Katy, despite her intrusion. It was good to confirm that she wasn’t mad about it.
Katy nodded back. “Will do.” She then put a hand on my shoulder, patting me. “Dewa mata, Alexis, we can talk later.”
They took their leave, heading out the door. Maria closed the door behind her, all the only proof of their being here was the cake they left behind.
And an upset stomach.
I had to refocus on not wanting to throw up.
It was another loss I had to take. Another crack in the facade I had of being human.
But I did it anyways.
“Mom, I know I barely ate anything besides the cake, but may I please excuse myself from the table? I had a big enough lunch at school, and I’m not hungry.”
I asked her.
She eyed me carefully. She took so much time that I wondered if she had forgotten what I initially asked.
Finally, without saying anything, she took my plate – my first plate with the rice and tonkatsu – and proceeded to clean the food off onto her own plate.
She put the plate back in front of me.
“You clean this off and put it away. I don’t want you doing anything else but homework. No playing around on your computer.”
I did just that, getting up from the table, taking my plate with me. I rinsed it in the sink, and put it in the dishwasher nearby. After I finished, I went straight to my room, locking the door behind me.
I took off right to my bathroom. Didn’t bother to turn on the light.
I didn’t even have to force it out. It was like taking a lid off of a shaken can of soda. It just exploded out.
I puked out the ice cream cake.
I leaned over the toilet, gripping the sides of the bowl. My lower back was already damp, sweat dripping down my neck and arms, my hand slipping away from me twice. I continued to heave.
I knew it. I can’t hold it down. I can’t even try. Fool.
My bathroom was far enough in the apartment that, even if I was loud, and with an echo, my mom wouldn’t be able to hear me. I was free to throw up, here, free to dispel food that was supposed to be tasty. It tasted like mud, a slimy texture that surged out of my gullet.
Why was this happening again?
I threw up until the liquid in the toilet was an inch away from overflowing. Putrid, the smell was. Swampy. But I was done. I lost strength in my arms, and I fainted, my cheek slamming against the edge of the bowl when I fell.
My stomach still convulsed, pumping like a broken engine. It hurt.
I was less ready than I thought I would be.
Time definitely passed while I was down. Weakly, I lifted my arm, pushing the lid down. It slammed closed. After I heard the sound, I felt around, searching for the handle to flush. I pressed it, and the toilet went to work.
On the bathroom floor, completely out of sorts, and my throat was in flames.
It had gotten worse, my aversion to normal foods. How was I supposed to blend in with others if I couldn’t hold down a single piece of cake? Just avoid any and all social events that involved eating out with others? Impossible, if I still wanted to be Alexis.
Did Katy and Maria take notice? Did Mom? I had no way of knowing, at the moment. Only time would tell, and I dreaded the wait.
My hate for myself, my situation, could not be overstated.
I took it in small steps. Slow. I flipped onto my stomach. I got on my knees. I put my arms on the toilet to help myself up. Even more slow. Everywhere, my body ached.
The sink was close. I went to wash my face. Gargle. It helped.
I decided to check my face in the mirror in front of me. My appearance really did change.
My cheekbones stood out, and they were never a prominent feature of mine. In exchange, my eyes looked more sunken in, like I hadn’t slept in years. My skin was whiter, too, like I hadn’t seen the sun in years.
However, my skin looked great.
It wasn’t exactly obvious, but my mom noticed. Others would, too. I wanted to do something about this, but what? As it was, there was nothing I could do, besides dwelling on it.
With my face still wet, I stalked over to the other side of my bathroom, grabbing my towel from the rack. Drying my face and my hair, I returned to my room.
I blinked, looking around. I hadn’t turned the light on in here, too. Which made seeing the blinking pager on my desk easier to find.
I went to check it. I fumbled with the buttons. Still not used to using such archaic technology.
Only one person would message me through this. Only one person could.
‘Urgent. Come by to factory when convenient. If not, come regardless.’
I was panting, from both exhaustion and how my night seemed to be going. I was already worn out, and now I was being asked to exert more effort. Rough, I massaged the back of my neck. I probably did need to go out, though. That cake took a lot out of me. Chances were I wouldn’t make it through tomorrow if I didn’t feed properly.
It was somewhat amusing, that I got this message now. The Thompsons really had a way of messing up my nights.