A Triptych Tale …

The Luxury of Starvation

A Triptych Tale

 

I did not recognize Addison Monroe when she first approached me, her face mostly concealed and voice muffled by the cashmere scarf that encircled her. Only when she unwrapped the wool from around her mouth, exposing her shriveled lips to the fall chill was I able to identify the voice calling my name as hers.

“My darling, how are you! It has simply been ages!” It had, in fact, been only two months but that short time had been sufficient for her to have undergone a complete transformation. Her slender face had withered so she resembled one of those shrunken heads sold in novelty shops. She was a composition of sharp angles: cheekbones and jawline like razors threatening to slice through the skin. Her brown eyes had sunk into her skull like marbles rolling around the sockets. With a loss of twenty pounds or so she had gone from thin to skeletal, so I could not tell whether it was her teeth chattering with cold or her bones rattling in the wind making the clattering noise that provided the percussion accompaniment to our conversation.

“Yes, Addison, it’s been far too long. And you look …”

“Marvelous, I know! Howard is doing quite well at Kelly, Parker and Associates. Of course, he has to be for me to look like this!”

It was a blatant lie, not even thinly veiled but fully exposed for all to see its falsity. Howard was a junior associate with no hope of ever making partner. It was also common knowledge that he had been demoted three months ago for an affair with Mr. Kelly’s personal assistant who was also Mr. Kelly’s mistress. This dalliance had cost him his career, which everyone except Addison seemed to know. She instead cultivated a delusion that Howard’s decline was really a meteoric rise through the corporate ranks, which she reinforced by living according to the fictional station she had achieved.

Her slender face had withered so she resembled one of those shrunken heads sold in novelty shops.

“Now, my darling, you simply must tell me when your next dinner party will be. Howard and I had a marvelous time at the last one. Simply marvelous!”

I hesitated. It was at my last dinner party that Addison’s delusion crossed the boundaries of good taste. My planning had been meticulous. I had scoured each guest’s most recent financial statements, made adjustments for the more intangible markers of wealth such as county club membership, and even calculated the value of investment portfolios up to the hour before the event. Meal portions, based of course on these careful computations, were precise and flawlessly accurate.

When I served Mrs. Hastings a single pitted olive, I could tell she was gratified at how skillful I had been in evaluating her family’s illustrious social standing and I, in turn, was honored by her nod of approval.

Perhaps it had been a mistake to invite Howard and Addison at all. Among the small plates of such distinguished company, it was plainly apparent how the Monroes’ fortunes had turned with five leaves of romaine lettuce, three carrot sticks, and five grapes. It had not been my intent to humiliate them. When the invitation was issued, I had planned to serve them four grapes each. But after the scandal, I had no choice but to alter accordingly.

Howard hung his head in shame, clearly abashed, but Addison seemed not to notice. I was impressed with her grace until she ate half a grape and announced herself stuffed. The entire table was horrified. That she should assign herself a portion smaller than our most distinguished guest, Mrs. Hastings, was unthinkable. The rest of the evening was marred by halting, awkward conversation, Addison’s far-too-loud boasts of imaginary accolades, her husband’s failed attempts to restrain her, and the other guests’ mumbled remarks as they trained their eyes on Mrs. Hastings for guidance. I was mortified.

Fortunately, Mrs. Hastings declared my dinner one of the finest of the season, that had been utterly destroyed by “that Monroe woman.” My reputation was saved, even elevated, as Addison had sunk even lower than before.

Howard hung his head in shame, clearly abashed, but Addison seemed not to notice.

Now, as she tactlessly sought an invitation, I hesitated. Part of me felt an indignant rage that she should continue the delusion and even dare to seek my indulgence — no, my assistance — in sustaining it. But my ire was tempered by my pity.

“I’m sorry, Addison, I haven’t had the time for another party lately. But I’ll let you know as soon as I do.”

“Marvelous, Joyce! Please let me know!” And with a wave over her shoulder, she clattered down the boulevard.

Addison was not the first to attempt to rise through the social circles by artificial starvation. It was not uncommon but never tolerated. Class dictated caloric intake. The poor consumed the most, a necessity for the hard labor that dominated their lives. The middle class maintained a steady diet, mostly meat and potatoes so it was easy to identify a middle manager by the paunch hanging over his belt.

Only the highest class, the wealthiest and most revered citizens, could indulge in the luxury of starvation. Their sallow cheeks and delicate wrists were a tribute to their idleness, to how little was needed to sustain them as they were already so spectacularly situated. I had heard Mrs. Hastings once consumed only flat water with a sliver of lime for several days, stopping only when she said she felt she was flaunting her good fortune.

I could not verify the anecdote, having only recently entered the upper echelons of society by virtue of my husband Andrew’s success on the trading floor. We were young and of modest means, the sort who aspired to a small bowl of mixed greens or maybe just a pear. But his incredible skill and luck as a trader had quickly propelled us to the single broccoli floret and melon ball I had never before dreamed possible.

But with such good fortune came obligations and a strict set of social mores to be observed. Tonight I am performing my responsibility as a guest. We are dining at Ashes, a new restaurant that has recently gained popularity for a three-course meal consisting only of flavored smoke. We are attending at the gracious invitation of Dr. Spalding and his wife. Dr. Spalding was one of Anthony’s first clients, having made his fortune in patenting a plastic alloy that has been widely used in the latest generation of airplanes. Fortunately, it is not necessary for me to know how he obtained his wealth, only how much of it he has and how to behave accordingly.

A slender man opens the door for us and bows ever so slightly at the waist as we enter. The fine-dining restaurants pay handsomely to employ thin servers and hosts, to ensure no guest is forced to look upon the abject misery of a full stomach. It is a courtesy that extends to an industry of high-class servants: butlers, maids, and even dog walkers, paid to ensure that they are entitled to the benefits of a lean lifestyle, for those masters too sensitive to be subjected to the corpulence of the lower classes.

We were young and of modest means, the sort who aspired to a small bowl of mixed greens or maybe just a pear.

The slender man gestures for us to follow him into the dining room. As we move through the wood-paneled foyer, the clack of my heels on the polished floor reverberates under the high ceilings. I am cautious, not wanting to appear too eager or too aloof, since I do not know the Spaldings and want to make a good impression. I lean on Anthony and allow him to guide me. His sinewy arm is strong and reassuring; I feel the tight muscles through his suit jacket and breathe a little easier. He has carried me to this high place and he will still carry me through it.

Dining in a restaurant is a terrifying and stressful undertaking. At dinner parties, there is control over the portions. I or another hostess has already taken the precaution of ensuring that serving sizes are appropriate and there is no need for second-guessing. But at a restaurant, I must make the instantaneous decision of what I am entitled to, in proportion to the entitlements of the guests, and further take into account the other diners. If Mrs. Hastings has ordered herself a single baby carrot then no one else in the room can do the same without suggesting themselves her equal. And I am painfully aware of the consequences of such a misstep, remembering the mocked emaciation of Addison Monroe.

The dining room is lit dimly by tapered candles on the tables and a fireplace in the center of the room. I can smell the heat of melted wax and charred cedar warming me from the inside. We follow the slender man to a table near the fire, where I see the Spaldings are already seated. I squeeze Anthony’s arm nervously, but he strokes my cold hand with his warm, gentle palm and whispers, “They always arrive early. Don’t worry, we’re on time.”

“Tony!” Dr. Spalding rises from the table and extends his hand.

“Dr. Spalding, it’s a pleasure to see you again.” He is surprisingly tall, standing over a foot above me and several inches over Anthony; he has to bend to speak to us. But his wonderful smile, beaming down on us like the benevolent rays of a springtime sun, makes him seem a friendly giant so I am not intimidated. He is late into middle age but with the youthful exuberance and clear blue eyes of a much younger man. Only the grey around his temples and the fine lines around his mouth betray him.

“Now what have I told you about calling me Dr. Spalding? Dr. Spalding was my father. Or he would have been if he’d bothered to get the degree. No, no, no. When a man makes me as much money as you have, he gets to call me George. And this must be your lovely wife.”

“Yes, George. This is Emily.”

“It is wonderful to meet you. Now I see where Tony gets his ambition. With a woman as lovely as you, how could a man aspire to anything less than greatness?” The generosity of his compliment flusters me, so I can only blush. Anthony accepts the praise for me, pulling me a little closer to him and patting my hand that still clings anxiously to his arm.

“With a woman as lovely as you, how could a man aspire to anything less than greatness?”

“And now I’d like to introduce you to my inspiration.” He gestures grandly to the blond woman seated at the table. “This is Virginia, my third wife.” I am a little shocked by the numerical disclaimer, but Virginia gives a little high-pitched squeal of delight.

“Oh, Georgy Porgy!” she squeaks. “You’re so bad!” She looks indecently young, as though she should be wearing a school skirt instead of a black cocktail dress with a questionable hemline. As she squirms in her seat with a fit of giggles, the ruched fabric inches even higher up her thigh. I look away and am relieved to see my husband straining to focus his attention elsewhere as well. George pulls out my chair while Anthony pretends to be distracted by some shadows on the ceiling until Virginia, finally noticing her exposure, readjusts her dress.

“I certainly am,” says George taking his seat beside her. “But thanks to Tony I can afford to be!”

“Always happy to be of service, George.” Anthony takes his seat beside me and picks up a menu but our host takes it away.

“No need to worry, I’ve already taken care of that. I’ve ordered us their specialty, three flavors of smoke to start, then a couple stalks of grilled asparagus for you and your lovely wife. Virginia and I will split a fire-roasted tomato. If that’s all right with you?”

“It sounds wonderful,” I say. And it does. Having dispensed with the prerequisite niceties of the evening, Anthony and George begin to discuss a new investment opportunity while Virginia is checking her teeth for lipstick in a handheld compact. I am taking a moment to breathe, feeling at ease for the first time in the evening.

I glance around the restaurant to observe the other diners. Most are people I know, either from dinner parties or the social pages. There is the occasional upstart, hoping that by being seen eating the right things at the right place his ambition will be mistaken for achievement. There is a corner bar where a couple of socialites are sipping small glasses of gin with lime and complimenting each others’ clothing, while their gentlemen-escorts’ gestures suggest they are discussing a recent boxing match.

But then I smell something that is not the crackling fire or the candle wax. It smells like … bread.

The absurdity of the thought almost makes me laugh, until I realize that it is exactly what I smell. I glance around until I see her. She is astoundingly large, certainly the largest woman I have ever seen in my life. A veritable feast is laid out across her table: poached salmon with a rich golden sauce and a medley of roasted vegetables; a mound of mashed potatoes and tureens of both brown and white gravies; a bowl of noodles simmering in bright red marinara. And at the center of the table is a basket of dinner rolls. She tears one open with her thick hands, releasing a burst of steam that carries the scent of dough to our table. Setting aside the roll on a small side plate, she tucks a napkin into her collar and begins to slice into the fish.

But then I smell something that is not the crackling fire or the candle wax.

Beads of sweat are forming on her brow and along her upper lip as she chews voraciously. As she eats, the loose flesh of her arms ripples and the many chins that conceal her neck wag. All her body is moving, swaying, undulating with her consumption. My eyes focus on the pink flesh of the salmon on her fork. She is taking her time, swirling the bite of fish in the silver tin of rich, yellow sauce. From my seat, I imagine can smell butter and egg yolks and cream.

Virginia sees me watching her and whispers into my ear, leaning so close I can feel the brush of her lips against my hair. The intimate sensation, as I watch the obscene decadence, sends a shiver down my spine.

“That is Ms. Ida Fisher. She’s one of the wealthiest women in the country, probably the world, if you can believe it.”

“Then why is she …” my hushed voice trails off. I have no idea how to describe what I am seeing.

“Stuffing her face like a dirty day-laborer?” I nod silently as I observe a single yellow droplet of sauce drip from the corner of her mouth and hang just below her lip, irresistible as a golden apple at the feet of Atalanta begging to be retrieved. I know I should stop watching, that I am also making a spectacle of myself by my open observance of this obscenity. But it was like Addison Monroe eating half a grape. Horrible and immoral, but I could not look away then. I cannot look away now.

“George told me all about her. Apparently she made trillions buying and selling commercial properties. I mean trillions, with a capital T. She’s responsible for most of the development in the City Center. Like that ugly high-rise on the corner of Main and King, she did that.” I try to imagine that obese body squeezing into a business suit, her stomach bulging against the thick wool so the strain of the fibers can be heard as she moves around the conference table speaking in dollar signs and landmarks. But I am too distracted, as she has taken a third bread roll from the basket and is slathering it with several yellow tabs of butter.

“Anyway, she got super rich and then decided she was done! Announced that she had enough money to last a lifetime and she didn’t want any more! Isn’t that right, Georgy Porgy?”

“Isn’t what right?”

“That horrible Ms. Fisher! That she made all that money and then just stopped.”

“Ah, yes, Ida Fisher. I haven’t thought about her in a while.”

“Well she’s right over there! I can’t believe you didn’t notice. She’s making a complete spectacle of herself!” Virginia is practically shrieking, so anyone in the restaurant who had managed to avoid seeing Ms. Fisher’s display cannot avoid it now. A roomful of eyes stares at the table covered in foodstuffs and there is a collective gasp. Then there are the hushed whispers of condemnation, the scrape of moving chairs, and the choking coughs of a few diners who swallowed their smoke wrong in the surprise. Silence is followed by quiet panic as everyone tries to decide the appropriate way to display their revulsion.

“All right, Virginia, all right. Don’t draw any more attention to her. That’s just the sort of thing she wants.”

“How could she want that,” I whisper. “I mean, how could anybody want to be seen like that?”

George answers: “It’s a political statement. She’s always been a little off. When she was in business, she never did any of the usual stuff that she was expected to do. Never joined any of the social organizations or country clubs, never joined any charity boards or business associations. Always amazed me that she was as successful as she was, the way she refused to play the game. But she had the land and the contracts, so I suppose she could dictate her own terms.”

“Tell them about how she quit, Georgy Porgy!” Virginia sounds like a child begging her father for a ghost story before bed, and again I am disturbed by her unrepentant immaturity.

“All right, Virginia, all right. I’m getting to it.

“Well, one day she calls an emergency board meeting. No warning, no explanation, just an announcement marked urgent. So of course everyone came, thinking that the business was in trouble, that her little quirks had finally done them all in. But then they get to the conference room and there on the middle of the the table —”

“Bagels!” Virginia squeals. “There were bagels! Can you imagine?”

Virginia is practically shrieking, so anyone in the restaurant who had managed to avoid seeing Ms. Fisher’s display cannot avoid it now.

“That’s right! And not just bagels, but cream cheese, lox, peanut butter, preserves — a whole spread fit for a bunch of construction workers. Well, the board of directors had no idea how to react. They couldn’t decide if they were being insulted or played for fools. Just as they’re discussing whether they should leave, Ida Fisher shows up. And what does she do?” Virginia is already tittering. “She announces, ‘I’m starving! Is anyone else starving?’ And right there, in front of the board of directors, she starts eating a bagel and announces she’s retiring!”

George leans back in his chair to laugh at the absurdity of it and Virginia is giggling so much she has given herself hiccups. Even Anthony is chuckling at the thought of so a wealthy woman eating starches in public. And in front of her colleagues, no less!

But I am struggling to maintain a smile. There is a pain in my stomach, an aching emptiness. I dig the nail of my forefinger into the cuticle of my thumb and press down hard, willing my mind to focus on this sharp and immediate suffering instead of the rumbling growing inside me.

The meal continues uneventfully. The men continue to talk business while Virginia is happy to chatter away at me about all the latest gossip. She does not expect me to respond; I suspect she might be disappointed if I interrupted to contribute to the conversation instead of remaining her captive audience. And so I listen, smiling and nodding, all the while digging my nail into my thumb and urging my body to be still. By the end of the night, I will have to hide my hand in my clutch as we leave so that no one will notice the blood.

Tonight I will lie in bed and think of her. I will think about the yellow sauce hanging from her bottom lip, the flakes of pink flesh she picked up with her little finger and deposited on her tongue, and the crust of bread she rubbed on the plate to sop up the last remnants of her meal. Anthony will lie beside me, curled away from me to face the wall. His soft breathing will tell me he is asleep and smiling with the contentment of an empty stomach. I will lie on my back, staring up at the ceiling and thinking I smell bread in the kitchen.

And for the first time, in a very long time, I will be hungry.

Tessa Bennett is the pseudonym of a short fiction writer in the rural Midwest. Her work has been published in The Fifth Dimension, The Colored Lens, and Ascent Aspirations. When not writing, she enjoys knitting and reading Kurt Vonnegut.