I roll over in my sleep. My body folds against his, vivid, and the sound I make is ravenous. I press my face into his neck, and then, opening my jaws as wide as they can go, I take a bite. He makes a sound; a whimper or a growl. Underneath the salt of his skin I can feel his sinews between my teeth.
I am hungry.
When I was a child, a skinny blonde bold thing, I lived split between two homes. My house was a dark house, the logs refusing to let in the light, and on most days I waited for someone else to come home.
Hypothesis: I always hated being alone.
Hypothesis: The waiting taught me to hate being alone.
I sought refuge across the street in Luisa’s warm home. I sat beneath huge windows overlooking the lake. The sunshine warmed my face as we lounged on the porch, gulping iced tea between languid canoe rides. I went looking for a family I guess, a small yearning for love my mother would never forgive me for.
Pam, my second mother, would cook meals that took all day; her way of wasting the restless summer hours. Then we sat at the kitchen island, perched on stools, with cloth napkins and antique silver cutlery. Luisa held her spoon daintily, but mine was a shovel in my hand. Her reasonable portions only served to highlight the gluttony of mine.
They would watch with awe as I ate enormous amounts. I couldn’t get enough of food. “That girl has a hollow leg” they said of me, because my ribs were visible under my skin and you could practically wrap a fist around each collarbone. Skinny, but voracious. I ate rice and beans and beef and collard greens. I ate meatballs and soups and paella. Salad and lasagna and Texas cake. I ate at Luisa’s house and then went home to eat dinner. Sometimes I ate six meals a day. They say you should eat until you feel full but if I ever did it was fleeting. I ate because of the sensation of eating. Of the beauty of flavors on my tongue. I knew that being hungry wasn’t the opposite of being full.
Hypothesis: I was born hungry. From the moment I breathed air; a squalling, still-wet, once-fetus-but-no-longer. Tiny mouth sucking down lung-fulls like a person drowning.
Hypothesis: I learned to be hungry. From empty houses and empty plates and that nagging, persistent hole my mother dug that I could never quite find the edge of.
She never meant for it to be that way. If she knew how I tell this story she would come to me with sad eyes. To be fair—which is what my mother would want—there was never a moment that she didn’t weigh the cost/benefit of being home. She was banking on the fact that we didn’t need her anymore. She was right about that. I didn’t need her. Not to feed me, or tell me to do my homework. But I was young, and I felt her absence in the walls of the house—an absence I still sometimes feel even now, when I am alone in my own house, miles from her.
And so excess became my pattern and my curse. When adolescence came my hunger didn’t wane, but shifted. School made my stomach growl, and I filled the void with books snuck in the corners of days. I was hungry for stories and worlds. I read books about dragons and elves and boys and love. I started reading harder books, thicker books. I wanted the books to last longer, to hit harder, to leave me feeling something, even if I could never feel full. I ached to fill, to be filled, and the stories between the pages gave some sort of temporary satisfaction, the way an apple can hold off a meal.
Curled, my knees to my nose, in the kitchen couch of my empty house, I read.
Hypothesis: I liked the empty house because it was a quiet place to read.
Hypothesis: I hated the house; the stories were just trying to fill the space.
I wanted to live within books, climb inside them, have them consume me. And as time went by that urge morphed and grew and bubbled until my hunger for stories became a desire to be a story.
I wanted to be the sort of person that a story was written about, I wanted to be the manic pixie dream girl, or the effortlessly graceful warrior, the fairy that flits up ahead, fascinating, unattainable, exotic. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the adventuring type.
I was the type of girl whose hands are always cold. The type of girl who can’t eat without making a mess, and is always too loud. I wasn’t going to find adoration in high school. I didn’t have the heroic tendencies that would fill my void with biographers and hangers-on. I looked to books thinking they would make me whole, and instead I found a whole new need. I found the yearning to be read, to be watched, to be loved.
That was when I learned that hunger goes two ways. To want and to be wanted. The hunger for desire the deepest and most rumbling.
Thus my introduction to romance began, with all the normal kinds of young love. Hungry for shared laughter, and midnight moments, faces inches apart. Hungry for breathy sighs and fingertips. Hungry for sleeping like puppies, each touching limb electric. Hungry for eye contact and secrets and whispered promises. The first couple boys were like that. All illusions and fast heartbeats. It was almost enough.
Then with age came the inevitable progression. The inches between our faces slowly shrunk. And with the very first kiss (on a frigid park bench in January, the boy’s lips cold and slippery, like sushi) I came to know a new hunger. So I found myself, head in the boy’s lap, learning how to keep my teeth out of the way as the boy tried to drive but mostly swerved. There is a small, breathy, involuntary groan that even the most stoic boy can’t help but make, when you get it just right. I was hungry for that sound.
Hungry; and that means consuming every moment; a wanting so strong that even the atomic spaces between our touching bodies feel too large.
Now I wake up and I am hungry for him, I go to sleep and I am hungry for him. The feeling of needing him is somewhere between sex and sustenance. And my hands remember every curve of the muscles in his back, the dip between his shoulder blades, the sharp edges of his tattoo, the crease in the back of his neck. My tongue remembers the contours of his ear, the crook of his hip. Some days I don’t eat breakfast and instead I feast on thoughts of him. Memories of the motion of his hands and the roundness of his shoulders and my fingers in the tufts of his hair.
To his face, of course, to everyone’s face, I play content. I smile like a milk-fat puppy, full to the brim. I have the kind of round cheeks that suggest I might be well- fed. I let him believe that I am satisfied.
I let him believe that I don’t mind the lonely nights when he isn’t there. I don’t wake up in the dark feeling around my empty bed, looking for his body. Late on these nights, when I am supposed to be sleeping alone, and instead aching, I confuse myself.
Hypothesis: I am lying to him. I act satiated, a device to keep him from being scared off. We are all a little afraid of raw need. Hunger: it’s a lot to put on a person.
Hypothesis: I am lying to myself. I don’t need him. I have never been full, never whole. If I did have him, if his time was endlessly mine to gorge upon, why would he be any different than double meals or thousand page books? Why should he be the thing that would finally satisfy?
Hunger is like that sometimes. It fools you into thinking that the next thing you see is the thing you need most. You’re shopping on an empty stomach. You see some pink-packaged, powdered atrocity and your stomach growls. You think, “This is it. This is what I was craving” even though it wasn’t. And then you find yourself in the car, hunched over a sticky box of powdered donuts, shoving them into your mouth so fast that by the time you catch yourself in the rearview your face is plastered white. And afterward the growl of your stomach isn’t as loud, but you know it wasn’t the right thing. You always knew that.
He isn’t the right thing. But he smells like summer days and his mouth is soft and giving like a ripe peach.
The truth is I knew this. I have known it the whole time. It is the fallacy of hunger, of need, of desire. Even the smallest feeling of lack far outweighs the greatest contentment. We are programmed that way. It is how we keep moving forward, keep looking ahead. Hunger propels us, and sometimes that propulsion feels good. Hunger itself, a feeling to be relished.
Hunger is the constant state. The norm rather than the exception. And yet we rarely feel what it is like to truly let the tank go all the way to empty. To let the engine run until all that’s left is fumes. We forget sometimes. We let hunger be the tiny margin between full and not full. We are at the pump, shaking the handle to see if we can squeeze out just one more drop of gas. We forget that there is a depth to hunger, a deep flowing aching rarely tapped.
Sometimes, just to dive into those depths, I don’t eat. I fast all day, feeling the growling of my stomach get louder, then subside. I feel the shakiness that starts to creep into hands, and as I climb a hill I have to take deep breaths. I relish the urgency of it, as my body reaches its limits. And on those days I think that maybe hunger isn’t a thing I need to eradicate. Maybe all this wanting is what makes me keep looking for the next best thing, and then the better one after that.
So I eat mountains of food, and I read until my eyes can’t hold the weight of their lids, and I press my face into him, holding him close in the dark. Late at night I lie awake, listening. I listen to cars going by outside, to the loud ticks of my watch on the stack of books beside my bed, to the soft sound of his breathing. And if I listen hard I can hear the deep rumble of hunger within me. I think about all the time I have spent looking for something to appease that hunger. I wonder what it is that I am looking for, but as I drift towards sleep I am filled with the sudden certainty that I will never find it.
Molly Byrne lives in Boston with her dog Milo, where she works as a dog scientist. She has been writing ever since she can remember but still doesn’t feel like a writer. Most of all she wishes she could write the sort of stories that she would want to read. Her first short story, How to Be Loved, will be available through Running Wild Press in 2019.