Joyland

New York |

A Brief History of Appetites

by Hannah Kingsley-Ma

1st Runner-up, Open Border Fiction Prize 2018

There was one year — the year things started to slowly dip behind the horizon — where I lived with my little sister in an apartment near the park and ate jar after jar of jam. We slathered it on dusty crackers that sat on our cupboards at a slant.

Sometimes I would eat the jam in bed. Bedfood, my friend Ellis calls it. I understand why it needs a new name. Eating it in bed changes its chemistry. It makes it something entirely new. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to find ants trudging up the slope of my knuckles. They love the jam almost as much as I do. When it rained they came in droves. They climbed in to the mugs of water I kept on the floor next to my reading lamp. “They can swim,” my little sister told me, her legs sprawled over the edge of my comforter with her toes planted on the floor. “I bought poison, if you want some.”

I wasn’t in any hurry to change my ways. I ate orange after orange beneath my sheets and let the peels harden and dry until they became something unrecognizably festive.

Around this time, I started to write down everything that made me laugh. Just as a reminder, in case all of a sudden what I found funny changed. The time my friend brought her reusable bag to the grocery store and the cashier pulled out a pair of underwear she had accidentally left inside. The time I went to the Korean diner with Mara to have eggs scrambled with kimchi and her butt just shimmied backwards off of the tall stool. I dutifully recorded a story the man I am in love with told me about his high school years. His best friend was cast in a local theater troupe’s production of Macbeth so he went to cheer him on with a giant sign that read I KNOW FLEANCE! After Fleance exited the stage, he set the sign on fire.

When we are together the two of us laugh about the fact that we have matching haircuts and that people can’t tell us apart when one of us moves about the room like a blur. Sometimes he looks at me the same way he looks at four different types of hummus in the grocery store: like he can’t make up his mind. One time I wrote him an email that just said A GIRL IS NOT A TUB OF HUMMUS, ATTENTION ATTENTION MUST BE PAID! I thought it was funny but I never sent it because I wasn’t sure he would.

That year I started recording all the foods eaten in a day. A salted nub of something. A unripe persimmon that was poison. An oasis of a salad I didn’t order but was gifted by a smiling line cook. You remind me of somebody! He tells me. Your face.

“There is bedfood, and there is alonefood,” I explain to the man I am in love with. We are splitting a cigarette outside a bar. It’s lush and red inside, with no cellphone reception. By 11:30pm on a weeknight the whole place abruptly empties like the rapture. “They are very different.”

“How so?” He is humoring me. The bar induces flirting.

“Alonefood is the food you prepare for yourself when you can’t be bothered,” I tell him. “It’s when you want to make a dinner of just different handfuls of things. A tin of sardines and spoonfuls of plain yogurt and a chocolate bar. Something like that. Foods that are so random you would be ashamed to serve it to anybody else, but that you find personally gratifying.”

“I think I understand,” he says warily, and I pull the sleeve of his jacket to start the slow walk home.

Later that night when we are lying in bed and he’s just about to fall asleep I shake him violently. “We should prepare our alonefoods for each other,” I whisper directly into his eardrum. “That way there will be no secrets between us.”

“I am very tired,” he says, and there is genuine pleading in his voice. A couple of weeks later I am holding his phone and his ex-girlfriend texts him saying I just made a beautiful loaf of bread, and then I am back to feeling bad again.

Things that make me laugh: My little sister and her boyfriend playing marry fuck kill with pasta shapes. Everyone wants to marry a tortellini. My coworker trying to send me a video of a robotic garbage truck malfunctioning and throwing trash all over a suburban street, and instead sent it to her father, who is celebrating his 70th birthday.

My little sister and I realize our neighbor across the street is watching us. He stands directly in front of his window and looks into ours and drums the back of his sofa with a pair of drumsticks. We begin to call him Little Drummer Boy. When we’re feeling restless we dance around the apartment yowling “cooooome they told me, PAH RUM PUM PUM PUM PUM.” I see his shadow silhouetted when he’s watching television. We can’t tell if he’s a pervert or just enthusiastic. Sometimes he stands outside his apartment and plays an unidentified wind instrument that sounds like someone theatrically sighing.

Little Drummer Boy and I both keep weird hours. Our windows are two glowing orbs at four in the morning. SO WE BEAT ON, I mouth towards his window, high as a kite in a flannel nightgown moisturizing my legs. BOATS AGAINST THE CURRENT. If he is able to understand my joke he doesn’t think it’s funny.

One day I go to the grocery store and leave with olives, frozen blueberries, a can of vegetarian refried beans. On the bus ride home I sit across from a man I soon realize is Little Drummer Boy. We are both reading but as the bus lurches forward we’re forced to make eye contact.

“Do I know you?” he asks confused. “You look so so familiar. Are you one of my students?”

“No,” I say, shifting my grocery bag like it’s a baby at my hip. “We don’t know each other.”

I’ve decided that in my twenties I’ll just try and wrangle a bunch of boyfriends. They take up a lot of my energy but they give me a lot to think about. My friends are suspicious of my plan.

“It sounds like you’re just basking in his presence,” my friend Cora tells me over a shared bottle of something cheap.

“Yes, that’s exactly it,” I say cheerily.

When I feel ready I tell the boy I am in love with a coveted joke I’ve been holding onto for a long time. I stole it from my funniest friend. I’ve waited because I want it to hit at exactly the right moment and indeed it makes him laugh.

“That’s dumb and good,” he tells me.

“I’m dumb and good,” I chirp back.

“Ok,” he says, but we both know that I am very smart.

Come December, I see Little Drummer Boy wrestle with a Christmas tree, trying to prop it upright. In his stumbling effort he looks like he is dancing with it in a old-timey musical. He’s a holiday pervert, I text my little sister, though she’s only a couple of feet away from me. Get in the spirit!

My new favorite thing is to roughhouse. I come up with a game, which is trying to shove someone through a doorway. The man I love’s roommate and I play the first round and I scrabble against him with all my might. It ends when he picks me up and throws me through the awning, me breathless with laughter. It is the most fun I’ve had in months. I spend the next week admiring the blooming bruises on my knees from where I slammed into the ground. After that night, I like myself better.

When the man I’m in love with tells me he slept with his ex-girlfriend I am prepared. We are in a bar decorated with skeletons and a video game where you shoot deer with a bright plastic gun. “I’m a fucking idiot if I go home with you tonight,” I tell him. I ride the last BART train home alone which is an equally effective way of feeling like you have made a bad decision. The next night I go out and flirt viciously with a good-looking software engineer who tells me he listens to audiobooks at twice the speed to maximize the amount of information he can fit into his brain.

“He’s a genius,” my friend Lila assures me. “If he needed to, he could probably build an actual train.” When I get home I diligently write: My friend said a funny thing about intelligence that it means you understand how a train works. By this metric, neither one of us is smart.

I wait a week and then I am back at the man I love’s house, pushing burly men through doors.

And then it happens: The thing that I’ve been so worried about. The things I once found funny don’t make me laugh. I watch a video of a small dog lose its way in a laundry basket and nothing. I watch a helmeted 30-something-year-old man on an electric skateboard motorize himself into a hedge and nothing. My little sister chokes on a yogurt-covered pretzel she stole from the bulk bins at Whole Foods. I don’t laugh once and I wonder if I’m dead inside. It’s like losing your phone, keys, and wallet in one fell swoop. I try to find bodies of water and immerse myself in them. Swimming alters you instantly, like dreaming or sex. If I don’t make it to the pool I’ll run after the sun has gone down and you can see into people’s illuminated homes. Most people are sitting at the dinner table at this hour of the evening. I like watching them eat in the company of their families. Plus, you run faster at night, because of the fear.

One evening I am running around the track when I cross paths with Little Drummer Boy, who is jogging in the opposite direction. He waits half a beat then smiles. “Hey, neighbor,” he says and poof, he’s gone. My eyes narrow. The next week I buy thick shades. The room now is heavy with tinted light but at least I have my privacy. It’s a new life, the one you lead when you know you’re not being watched.

“I don’t think I’m funny anymore,” I tell my little sister when I’m spooning her in her bed. She twists around and looks at me with squinty eyes since she doesn’t have her glasses on.

“You were never funny,” she tells me, and promptly falls asleep.

The last dying days of the jammy year the boy I am in love with invites me to meet his family. I pack a suitcases full of clothes and a bathing suit just in case. We drive all night and stop at a 24-hour diner, car drunk and weary and searching for soup. The waiter mistakes me as his sister. No, girlfriend the boy says wincing, and somewhere the broken part of my brain pants progress. His family is impossibly handsome, full of ease, a joy. The mom places a wine glass in front of me and tells me it’s there in case I want to get funny. Twenty minutes later I’m racing through the hallway when I lose my footing and run into the edge of the wall. Now at my side a wincing pain when I breathe in sharply, a nervy, bouncy feeling somewhere in my bones. My party rib! I tell him. He touches it gingerly before he falls asleep and I lie awake most of the night, shifting my weight to avoid the radius of hurt.

When we leave we drive through a stretch of Southern California devastated by a recent wildfire. You can see where the fire crept right up towards the water’s edge, having lept over the highway. The landscape is all scorched palm trees, which look like the burnt edges of carrots left in the pan. I cry on the drive back because I’m feeling frustrated. It makes me mad to be needy, to need something so small when the world is dimming and full of a hot and windy anger.

“Did you know,” I tell him, wiping away my tears. “That you can’t go into a hot tub when you’re pregnant?”

“Don’t cook the baby!” he says back, and takes my hand in his. We can laugh about it because there is no baby.

My little sister picks me up from the airport the first day of the new year. “Did you want to come home?” she says.

“No,” I tell her. She frowns. On the car ride back we are both in a little brittle mood but it loosens once we’re in the apartment. I’M HUNGRY I yell through her door. I’M MAKING DINNER she shouts back. There are no men here, no men looking in. In the privacy of our own home we spit in the bathroom sink, yank our hair, gather our hunger. We lap at the edges of each other’s need like two animals grown accustomed to one another, the warmth and the salt of our respective growing bodies.