His body was strung upside down so that his head was five feet from the floor. The harness distributed his weight but gave the illusion that he was bound at the ankles. A vat above him dripped the caramel made from his own surgically removed fat down the nylon suspension and over his body. Below him was a wide, shallow tray collecting his caramel drip drip drip. You could pay to buy a bright green apple and turn it yourself in his flesh-turned-food shining below him.
When art installations started going up in the most highbrow grocery stores in Seattle, I thought it was a good thing. Art should be seen, not locked away in a white room in the far corner of a museum. Though I hadn’t shown since college, I sent in a few proposals on a whim, but each one was rejected within hours. So I started checking them out to see my competition. First there was the one with the bananas. Then the one between the meat fridge and the cleaning aisle. After that I stopped submitting proposals. But I kept going to see the—what would you call them? exhibits or works or phenomenons? My old classmates were nearly all represented after a while. It was Jeremy’s piece I gagged at now. I hadn’t seen him in a while, a friend had said vaguely that he was reinventing himself. Jeremy used to make art like me, stuff that was too pretty and commercial for the professors or other students to take seriously. I painted extinct or nearly extinct animals. In one of my proposals I had sketched cut marks over their bodies to show were the best meats could be found. Jeremy used to make perfect sculptures of food. He’d make full fast food meals, candy bars, all larger than life. He was always big and he wrote about it in his artists statements. I loved him. Loved his size. It matched my own but after he realized that I wanted more than friendship he wouldn’t come near me. One night I pleaded with him on Facebook messenger until he told me that he refused to be part of a fat couple.
He sat up from time to time, restless as always, reaching to the gooey nylon tied around his ankles and holding on, giving himself a break from being upside down. The vat above him was halfway empty; he’d already been hanging for hours. The caramel flowed slowly down along the cord and over his ankles, along his calves, his thighs, the tight garment hiding his genitals, his scarred belly, his neck, his chin and mouth and he wiped his face and sputtered as it ran into his nose. I wondered if he was starting to freak out. I would. Strung up like meat. I wondered how long ago he’d had the surgery. How much fat they’d removed. It must have been a while ago because he was healed enough to hang upside down for hours. I wanted to eat the caramel and have him inside me. I could eat it all. Lick it off of him as the vegans and health freaks shopped around me.
I have something in my mouth nearly all the time. I want to sink my fingers into food, wipe sugary frosting across my lower lip, pulling it down with sweet the way a lover would. At night I wear plastic in my mouth because I chew in my sleep. I gnaw at myself. The dentist told me I was loosening my teeth in their sockets from my nighttime clenching and grinding, as he called it. I knew it wasn’t really clenching or grinding, but small bites, little nibbles, chewing. It’s comforting. No matter how hard I try, with the night guard in, I can’t get my teeth to touch. My jaw is no longer sore. It still pops, but I don’t wake up with a throbbing pain at the crux of my jaw and skull. I used to massage the knot of muscle below my ear because it was always sore, especially when I was stressed or not sleeping. The last months of college were like that. We were all pulling all nighters most nights in order to get ready for our show.
I didn’t have a night guard then. I wore out my gums and one of my molars has a crack along the side. I can’t feel it but my dentist showed it to me in the mirror. My studio-mate took Adderall and ate nothing all those nights, making thousands and thousands of tiny balls of resin with beautiful explosions of paint inside. While she buzzed, empty and full of energy, I ate. I ate gummy bears and Chex mix, drank diet soda. I just work better with something in my mouth. Sometimes, I chew gum or suck on hard candy. If I forget and work without little objects or sips to place on my tongue, I chew on the ends of paintbrushes, I accidentally sip turpentine, I place frothy green paint inside my lips. Jeremy suggested dip and I laughed at him but I did try it. The tobacco coated the inside of my mouth and made me high. Once I started, I couldn’t stop, and after hours I threw up. Everything for two days tasted of tobacco—earthy, stained, burnt sienna.
At first the shoppers didn’t look, too overwhelmed by Jeremy’s unrelenting bodiliness. They heard the sexual plop of caramel, the light creak of the cord holding him, his uncomfortable breaths. Between the few times I’d seen him since college, he’d been continuously living, consuming and defecating, creating and sweating, growing grey hairs and aging into his face. Somehow, too, he was exactly the same. His near nudity was jarring in the upscale food coop, where his arms began to look like tubes of polenta, his feet like salmon fillets, his hair stringy like soba noodles. A reporter was accosting shoppers and making them look, recording their reactions on a handheld mike (his photographer crouching, then standing, trying to get the best angle with good composition and the right expressions on the passersby). Even the sweet, salty smell was unsettling.
As he relaxed resignedly, he spun slowly and saw me. His face lifted with recognition, but he kept spinning, the air of the grocery store unpredictable and gusty from the automatic doors opening and closing, the cold air outside and the tepid air inside creating a miniature weather system. My guts heaved. I wished I could throw up onto his caramel and ruin his piece, though I knew that he would probably love that. As he spun back to face me, he said something. I rocked my head to my shoulder, like what?
“Get in,” he said, louder. “Get in, I want to talk to you.”
I stared at him. I took my shoes off, and my socks. I liked my feet—my delicate pearl toes. I walked barefoot to the closest produce stand full of in-season apples. Organic, local. I took two plastic bags off of the coiled roll, slipped my feet into them. As Jeremy struggled in the binds of his own invention, trying to keep me in his sights, I walked into the sea of caramel. It was soft and warm. The whole store watched me. Pointing, staring, commenting, an employee hurrying towards me with panic on his face. I reached Jeremy. His head was at the same height as mine. Upside-down, he looked at me and said nothing. I put my hands on his cheeks.
“This is hard,” he said. “How much longer?” I asked.
“Until they close,” he said.
It had been years since we’d spoken. A gallery opening for a mutual friend, up-and-coming Jeremy still big but with a tiny and polished woman on his arm. They both seemed like they were on some kind of drug as they never stopped moving, rolling their bodies like ocean swells and giggling at nothing and when I tried to talk to them they dropped from topic to topic until Jeremy looked at the cup in his hand like he’d never seen it before and announced that he needed another drink. Now he was turned upside down half his body gone a carcass and a spectacle and we were both covered in extra flesh mixed with sugar and I could taste it on my lips and he looked at me with such longing or was it desperation or was it disgust and I pressed my lips to his and the photo taken at that moment propelled him into the true beginning of his career. You’ve seen it in art textbooks: I am wearing royal blue like the Virgin Mary and I am round and he is thin and we are kissing and scholars will make much of the fact that we never spoke again.
Katie Kalahan lives and works in Seattle. She holds a BFA in Printmaking/Drawing and English Literature from Washington University in Saint Louis and is pursing an MFA in Creative Writing from the University in Washington. She reads and writes to satisfy her endless curiosity.