Between Four and Six
Every afternoon between 4 and 6, I get so hungry I cannot sit still. Nothing I eat satisfies me, not toast or cheese or peanut butter or fruit or an entire bag of microwaved popcorn.
My boyfriend asked me to stop buying chips and crackers at Trader Joe’s. We don’t live together, but he visits a lot. He told me snacks always disappeared before he had a chance to try them, so I ought to stop wasting money on them.
“I just get so hungry,” I told him.
“Can’t you do something else?” he asked. “Distract yourself?”
“I can try,” I said.
The next day, at 3:45, I opened a book, a Georgette Heyer novel. She always absorbed me, her plots as fluffy as meringue, a confection to dive into tongue-first.
I noticed the hunger at 4:19. I looked at the clock, and back at the page. My stomach settled its claws into my cerebellum.
Heyer described high tea at a country house: scones with cream and jam, cucumber sandwiches, cubes of white sugar melting in hot dark tea. I salivated. The characters nattered about love and intrigue. Get back to the scones, I urged them.
In turning a page, I tore a corner of it off. Unthinking fingers brought the paper to my mouth. The creature inside me leaped at the scrap.
I stared down at the page, and then deliberately tore a long strip down the center. Fed it between my lips like spaghetti. It nourished. Tore the rest of the page off and slurped it down. My stomach curled up on itself and dozed until suppertime.
The next day, I didn’t wait. As soon as 4:00 came, I ripped another page of Heyer’s prose away from its spine, tore it into bite-sized pieces, and fed myself. The creature was hungrier that day, so I ate nearly ten pages before I’d satisfied her.
My boyfriend’s daughter (he’s separated, not yet divorced) came for dinner that night. He brings her over often, so she can get used to me before we move in together. Feeding a toddler occupied so much of my attention that I hardly touched my own food, but that was all right. I felt full and yet light, as if I could live on air.
For days I ate my Heyer novel, and when it was gone, I started another one. My appetite kept increasing: thirty pages a day, fifty. I gobbled them fearlessly. She wrote dozens of novels; I was not consuming the irreplaceable.
“You seem different,” my boyfriend said. “Have you lost weight?”
“Yes,” I said. I had. But I also felt different: cooler, more relaxed. And I kept saying odd things. Or saying normal things oddly. “Do keep playing, dearest.”
He lifted the saxophone again. “Whatever you say, Duchess.” A string of resonant notes plumped out of the bell, so juicy I wanted to snatch them out of the air and swallow them whole. Why not? I could eat anything.
The next book was Wise Blood, which took me only a week to consume. At a party that weekend, I said clever, violent things and listened at the edges of people’s words, where their desires lay. My hostess raised her eyebrows at me and sipped her wine. “Have a heart,” my boyfriend whispered under the music. I thought of God, and death, and laughed.
The following week I ate Orlando. I chopped my hair off and stopped shaving my legs. My boyfriend’s daughter cried when she saw me, but so light and fresh was I that only a kiss on her chubby cheek set her giggling. My hunger ripened, and I ate Maus, growing morose and thoughtful, heavy with dye and history. I twitched invisible whiskers at noises.
I went faster, swallowed more and more: short books like appetizers, long books like casseroles. Try me, shelves whispered. I’m nutritious and lean. Try me, I’m full of meat and sex. Try me, I’m the answer to your hunger. Serve me with a cream sauce and gnaw on my heart. Bookstores made me lightheaded; the scent of all that food, crisp and dusted, tempted me beyond lust.
My own stores dwindled. A book a day went into my throat, and no private collection could keep pace with such hunger. Still, I saved money on groceries, as mealtimes came and went without arousing my appetite at all. I was only hungry at teatime.
“Something’s going on,” said my boyfriend. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Books,” I said.
“You’ve always been a reader,” he said. “That’s not what I mean. Your personality changes every day, it seems like. Are you on some meds I don’t know about? Or off them?”
“No,” I said. His daughter banged on the table with a spoon and I held her little fist in mine. She shoved her other hand in her mouth and chewed. I fully understood. “It’s my new diet, I guess. It’s changing things up.”
“Look,” he said, “you’re freaking me out. Will you do me a favor?”
“If I can.”
“Will you lay off the diet for a week? Just to see if you feel any better?”
“I feel terrific,” I said. “Yeees, peaaaars, mmmmm.”
“Do it for me,” he said. “As an experiment. Just one week.”
On Monday I was all right, except that I was hungry for dinner for the first time in months. I ate a cheeseburger and felt better, but not satisfied.
On Tuesday I couldn’t stop looking at the remaining books on my shelves (browned paperbacks with C-shaped spines, picked up for fifty cents apiece at the library: dried beans, in another woman’s pantry), so I went for a walk. The uncovered windows of houses sometimes revealed books inside, left on end tables, or sleeping upright with their sisters. I stared at them, let my mouth fall ajar. Then I shook myself and walked on.
On Wednesday I prowled, desperate. I drank hot tea. I ate salami straight out of its vacuum pouch. I chewed ice. My stomach roared and plunged.
On Thursday I tore a page from the sheet music my boyfriend had left on a stand in my living room. I chewed it into a sticky wad and swallowed it. It wasn’t the same, but my head cleared. Soon, Bach replaced the song of craving that pounded through my skull. But it didn’t last.
On Friday night, my boyfriend came for the weekend with his daughter. I stalked out of the bedroom when I heard him come in. He dropped his overnight bag with a thump. “My God,” he said.
I looked at the child in his arms. So clean, so plump. She wasn’t quite what I wanted, but she might do. My appetite granted me a single moment of disbelief, and then I pounced.
Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, Queen Mob's Teahouse, LARB, the Establishment, and elsewhere. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.