Under the Knife

by H. R. Gibs

Content warning: mention of murder, gore, vomit

“You know better than to chop your body up into meat, but sometimes
you want to be eaten for fear the rot will set in”
– Vanessa Kinsuule

“She often lives her body as a burden, which must be dragged and prodded along,
and at the same time protected”
– Iris Marion Young

 

It is night-time when we drive to the beach. I try to act measured, with my hands loosely gripping the steering wheel. It is only the start of September but the last of the summer heat, which had lingered into the evening, has all but dissipated. I am chilly in my skirt and t-shirt. The cameraman is in the backseat, and I catch his eye when I look in the rear view mirror. It is so silent in the car; I keep forgetting he is there.

It had been so warm in Charlie’s living room. We were both lying down. I was deliberately arranged so my most beautiful angles were on view from the sofa, and he was on the floor. The cameraman sat recording from the armchair. Had it not been for my peripheral awareness of the lens pointedly observing the calmness, making it odd, the scene could have been mistaken for stillness.

It was already late when I arrived. All summer I’d been turning up to Charlie’s door after eleven, acting all innocent. Acting the fool. Sometimes he wanted me to be there and sometimes he was silent and cruel. He always let me in. Sometimes he kissed me and when he did, it was exciting, like dangling your legs off the edge of the Cliffs of Moher.

We had done that one wet Galway summer with Dad. We had edged ourselves little by little along the grassy verges, staining our jeans irredeemably green on the back pockets while the other tourists scowled at us and muttered something about attention-seeking behaviour.

Dad hadn’t noticed. He had been checking his phone for work emails. In the face of many things, my father would favour a phone screen – sea-facing cliffs, my full plate of food, talk of political consciousness, my mother’s face, and the similarity mine and my sister’s had to it – anything that could be classified under the subjective placard of discomfort. We seemed to be making him increasingly uncomfortable with every passing year.

When things with Charlie started, I knew they would finish at the end of the summer. Now that August had washed over into September it was time. We hadn’t talked about it more than once, but the plan was air-tight. My fragile little want had laid unresolved for months, building careful pressure.

Before we agreed to it, we were around each other all the time, being suffocated by all the things we weren’t saying. Everyone thought it was just because we fancied each other so much. A crowd is an easy place to mistake a secret for intimacy.

I didn’t love Charlie, but I did want him, and he needed me. I liked his warm hands and the smell of his skin. I liked to wake up beside him every morning and that he let me ignore him all through the day. I could not identify why I felt so hungry, but I felt the ache growing in me. My little want straining towards daylight.

There is a short story by Murakami where a man robs a bakery and is cursed to live with impossible hunger until he redeems himself. I was beginning to understand that I was going to have to take some action. I was getting pulled in, like water under the keel of a boat. At first, I had been resistant to the urge, confident in my ability to man the tide, then with ennui, I edged closer to the source. Finally, after months of restraint, with morbid curiosity, I forgot the swimming completely. The cameraman had captured it all.

Now, the beach is abandoned, blue and strange. Across the bay, the bloom of light pollution from another town creates a boundary in the sky; here, there, possibility beyond us. The litter in the sky blinks when I look up. I kill the engine.

“You okay?”

Charlie nods, “should we get out?”

I wish I had brought something warmer to wear.

The beach in the nightosphere is a lawless land. Charlie thanks me for driving and removes his socks and shoes. “I dare you to come in.” He is in good form, flirting and teasing, already stripped down to his underwear.

“I don’t have a towel,” I say but my protests are non-committal.

“It doesn’t matter. Come on,” he grabs my hand and starts running towards the lapping tide. I run with him and plunge into the water fully dressed. It is freezing and he yelps as the waves hit his bare chest. “I feel so alive.”

To dry off, we walk the length of the beach and light a small fire. He doesn’t say much and neither do I. I hope that my hair is drying in such a way that makes me look my most beautiful. The cameraman holds back and captures a new angle.

We sit opposite each other. The flickering shadows on Charlie’s face made him look iniquitous and his most handsome as he arranges kindling into a small tepee. I know better than to give instructions to the cameraman, but I wish he would record this view.

We had come here together once before. We had laid flat on our backs and looked directly into the eye of the dark above. Charlie knew more constellation names than I did. “It feels good to feel so small,” he had said. “Like being swallowed whole.”

Tonight, he is avoiding eye contact with the sky.

“What are you thinking about?” I ask.

He is quiet for a moment as he searches for the right words. They are the ones I have been waiting all summer for. “I wish you would get it over with and just kill me already.”

He didn’t need to ask me twice. I close my eyes and lean forward to take a bite. The cameraman zooms in. The want in my chest blooms and vanishes.

When it is finished, I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand. I stand up calmly and brush the debris off my legs. The cameraman is packing up his equipment. I leave him to it. It is beginning to get light. I go back to the car and don’t look back.

The sun is fully risen by the time I get home. The fresh light of the morning makes my skin look grey as I wash my face and brush my teeth. I need sleep. I take off my damp clothes which are now sticking to me uncomfortably and put them in the bin.

I climb into bed beside my flatmate. She pulls away from me, half-asleep.

“No, Caroline, you’re freezing.”

“Then stop being so selfish and give me some blanket,” I reply, pressing my cool body right up against her warm one. She smells like sweet milk.

“Why are you damp?” she mutters, and I do not remember if I answer as I slip into fitful sleep.

I wake up at noon with a stomach cramp and check my phone. Desi has already gone to work but she has sent me a string of texts.

Caz, you need to book a dentist appointment. There was blood in the sink this morning.  

Don’t worry I cleaned it up.

BTW are you out with Charlie tonight or would you like to go to the cinema?

Let me know, see ya later 🙂

I reply quickly. I will I promise. C and I broke up last night so please let’s hang out this evening

I riffle through Desi’s bedside table for Buscapan. She is very reliable. I find the tablets along with some gum, a packet of cigarettes, a penknife and £8 in coins. I get dressed and put them all in my pocket and go to Charlie’s house.

The lamps in the living room are still on. The cameraman is sitting in the armchair like he is waiting for me. I do not know how he got back from the beach last night. I silently offer him a cigarette from the packet I stole from Desi’s bedside drawer. He shakes his head.

Charlie had orchestrated the whole thing. I had simply obliged. Thyestean eroticism was his last big idea. He had suggested the cameraman for the purpose of observing his experiment. When he first asked me how far I was willing to go in an act of subversion, I did not understand what he meant.

“Only you can do it,” he had said. “Cannibalism is a feminine act.” It was to do with bodies within bodies. He made sure to prove the joke would not be on me. “It’s not a sex thing. Or rather, it’s not singularly a sex thing. I am giving you consent, not usurping control.”

I did not ask if it still counted as consent when I had not asked. Once I agreed to it, I stopped getting my period.

Now, in Charlie’s kitchen, I lean over the counter to take the last fig from the fruit bowl and cut it into tiny pieces with Desi’s penknife. As I am sinking my teeth into it, Marta walks into the kitchen. Marta is Charlie’s flatmate’s newest and best girlfriend.

“You look very Biblical standing there with fruit between your teeth.” She smiles. Marta finds everything Biblical. She is studying an MA in religious symbolism.

“I was going for more of a Bouguereau type thing,” I tell her and offer her a cigarette from the full packet.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” she accepts one keenly.

“I don’t. I stole this packet.”

She laughs, “well, you’ll have one with me at least.”

When she lights up for me, she says, “you look very elegant holding it.” I tell her I think it’s the fig that makes me look elegant. The taste of smoke is nauseating.

“Perhaps,” she says and lights her own. When she inhales, she leaves a little cherry blossom blot of lipstick on the filter paper. I do not mean to keep looking at her mouth.

We are both leaning out the window when she asks, “how is Charlie?”

I roll my eyes, “I am dumping him.”

She nods, “I thought that might be the case. I’ll miss seeing you about.”

“We can still see each other,” I say and then feel embarrassed because we both know that this is a lie. Marta is a person I will only ever see in my ex-boyfriend’s kitchen.

“Have you told him yet?”

Before I can stop myself, I tell her, “I killed him last night.”

“What happened?” she asks calmly.

I hesitate for a moment. “He asked me to.”

She doesn’t reply for a while and then says, “you’ll probably find that you are able to call Charlie your boyfriend in retrospect. You might find that empowering. Time is a useful tool for sculpting narrative. You are still very young.” She gets up to leave.

I reach out and kiss her on her cheek. The cameraman almost trips over himself trying to capture the footage from the next room. I forgot he was there. Instead of pulling away, Marta moves her face to kiss me on the mouth. I close my eyes.

“What was that for?” she asks after.

“You kissed me,” I say, and then, “I just wanted to know what it would feel like.”

She looks sadly at the cameraman. “As good a reason as any, I suppose.”

I do not know why I feel like I did something wrong. I check my reflection in the toaster for lipstick smeared around my mouth but there is no trace.

Everyone forgets about Charlie. That night at the cinema I tell Desi about kissing Marta and that becomes the new gossip. Desi knows better than to ask after boys I have ended things with. She is more interested in discussing her art house films. For this, I am grateful.

Everyone forgets about Charlie, except for Dad who keeps asking after him in his emails.

Hey kid,

How is studying? Are you in your second or third year now? How is that boy of yours? All good over here. Business is tough but worth it.

Hey,

I’m going to be over for a business meeting on the 4th if you’d like to get a quick coffee or lunch. My treat. Bring Charlie.

Hey kid –

Would appreciate a reply.

Dad liked Charlie. Not because he actually enjoyed his company, but because having a third person present at our awkward lunches meant he did not have to deal with me as much.

After the third email, I decide to bite the bullet and go to lunch to make him stop asking. Every time I read Charlie’s name written down, my stomach churns.

Dad selects a lunch location which feels more like a nightclub for businessmen than a bistro. I look out of place in my charity shop menswear coat. Dad makes a comment that I look like Tom Cruise in Risky Business. This doesn’t make sense and I reply that I was going more for Patrick Bateman.

We meet early so we can walk in together and keep up the charade that we actually know each other. When we are crossing the street, I stop in the middle of the road and look into the oncoming traffic. It is hypnotic to watch all those vehicles hurtling towards me. One car honks its horn angrily and I start walking again like nothing has happened.

Inside, the cameraman sits at the table next to us. I order a steak. Dad raises an eyebrow.

“I thought you were a vegetarian.”

I shrug. “The doctor told me I am anaemic.”

My body had been changing in small ways. I had not eaten properly since the night at the beach, but it wasn’t intentional anymore. I just could not find the right flavour. Gone were the days when I would skip meals like holding a breath. Now, I would lie in bed beside Desi and order the greasiest and spiciest food I could find on the delivery apps. Desi would pick around the edges of noodles and curries, unable to chew without burning her mouth, but I found that everything tasted bland.

Dad shows little concern. “I thought you looked different.”

The explicit vagueness of the statement is a little unnerving. In what exact ways do I look different? I rub my mouth self-consciously. It is difficult to know how the night at the beach had marked me when there was so little acknowledgment that it had actually happened. I suppose that is what the cameraman is for. He is a witness. I look across at him. I do not know when he will stop witnessing.

“I broke up with Charlie.” I say to Dad, squirting some ketchup on my fingertip and licking it off.

Dad doesn’t say anything except, “don’t do that.”

When our food comes, we are silent. The windowless restaurant makes it feel like it is the middle of the night. On a whim, I order wine. Dad frowns at me when I spill sauce on the tablecloth. I can feel the cameraman angling towards my mouth. I suddenly feel dizzy.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I say.

I find myself on my knees in front of the toilet bowl, heaving up large pink and red chunks. My mouth tastes like blood. I force my eyes open and watch it all come out.

I think I can hear the cameraman outside the cubicle door. I will not let him in.

“Go away, please. Not now. Not here.” It is the first time I have spoken to him directly.

There is a small knock. I feel my stomach lurch again. “Please leave me alone.”

“Are you okay sweetie?” It is a woman’s voice, so I get to my feet and flush the toilet.

When I emerge, the woman gives a little start. “Oh my! You scared me. You do not look very well.”

When I look past her into the mirror, she is right. My face is pale grey. My mouth is a black hole. My hair is lank and wet with sweat. In the reflection I can see red in the toilet bowl. I nod and apologise before she can say anything else. I fumble for my phone. Dad has texted. Had to head back to the office. Bill paid. See you soon. I do not reply.

I go back to the table to finish my meal alone. As I chew, I realise I feel hungry again. I look at the table next to me. The cameraman is not there anymore.

When Charlie first told me he wanted an account of his death I thought he meant he would write a suicide note. The cameraman was a clever appendage. He kept me in line as witness and executioner. Now I just feel a little cheated. No matter his intentions, Charlie’s last gift to me had been my own personal panopticon.

I keep eating until my plate is empty. I leave a tip under the knife for the wait staff.

On my phone. I close Dad’s message and text Desi instead. Do you want to go to the cinema tonight?

She responds immediately. More than anything.