“Don’t forget to water the plants,” she says, and Howard can see genuine concern behind the apparently innocuous admonition.
And why shouldn’t she be genuine? It is not like she has bigger issues to worry about; no paralyzing misgivings to tend to. Plants, baggage, leftovers gone bad. Just itches that have somehow become drivers. They worse is behind them.
He feels pity for her. She knows nothing.
“Twelve of them, I know,” he says. “The schefflera once a week.”
She softens, worries gone by way of assurance.
“I love you, Howard. I really wish you could come with me.”
He chuckles. “Your parents will do just fine if I don’t. Better, actually.”
“Give them time,” she counters. “You’ll win them over.”
“Are you referring to the kind of time they have a lot of?” He immediately regrets the flippancy. He wants to keep things cool between them.
“You’re still trying, after all these years,” she adds. “You can cast the first stone.”
“I’ll try harder,” he promises. The kiss he places on her lips is somewhat heartfelt; the words much less so. “Go now. Fly, you fool.”
She starts removing everything the TSA agents tell her to remove and places the items in a plastic bin. Lost weight, the fear of the metal detector beeping, gained weight. Only itches.
Howard chews over how he is about to scratch his.
It begins in the kitchen.
The garlic-chopping knife takes an extra iron tango step, dancing with his flesh. He runs to the bathroom, showering the wound with iodine from the first-aid kit and covering it with a thick gauze blanket that turns crimson in a second.
“Fuck,” he says, feeling just now the displeasing throb of blood pumping towards the injury with each heartbeat. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
He piles on another layer of gauze that seems to hold up better against the flow of blood, and ties it with white cloth adhesive tape. He thinks of apologizing to his wife. Hey, honey, I severed my thumb. Pizza tonight? But he feels the need to clean up first.
The cutting board could easily be mistaken for a Damien Hirst piece: a clump of garlic bits followed by a helpless fingertip, pink on one side and bright red on the other. A trail plus droplets of shiny life juice crown the composition.
The smell of garlic attacks his senses; it always does, for he loves the stuff. Par for the course. But that roseate blob of rent flesh has a new and unexpected effect on him. It lies there on a bed of bamboo, a small upended dome that looks fragile and demanding at the same time, calling him.
You cut me, mother fucker. I’m crying blood. You’d better make my suffering worthwhile.
He tries to put a name to the feeling. Attraction, lust, hunger. All of those. He ties it to what he used to experience as a teenager minutes before the impending administration of sex: a heavy sentiment of anticipation that has its birth in the eyes and makes them dart in all directions, then travels to the mouth, flooding it with thick and warm saliva, only to finally settle in the groin area. He recognizes it, this enriched load taking up residence inside him, awaiting release.
You cut me, mother fucker. You cut me. But I will forgive you if you eat me.
Luckily for Howard, and despite what his trade would lead anyone to believe, he is not a deep thinker. He is a gut man. If he feels it, he goes along with it, diligently and with commitment. That has been the trick to his success as a writer.
And so he pours some olive oil into a skillet and ignites the burner. Not all the garlic will go to waste, after all.
“They say it’s not a good sign, you having better things to do than being with your wife for New Year.” The telephone noise adds even more distance to their conversation, but it suits him. Less effort spent on trying to sound interested.
“It’s not a good sign, having all that money and still making their son-in-law work for a living,” he retorts. “I wouldn’t mind playing spouse to a trust-funder. Think of Monte Carlo.”
“Funny. How goes work?” she asks.
“You’d like the prologue. Has a nice edge to it.”
“Is it gory like the previous ones?” In the past, she has made him aware of her displeasure at his choice of topics and settings. But she knows how well they sell, so she keeps any sign of discontent at a token level.
“Torrentially so,” he quips.
“Integrity above all, honey. I admire that.”
The grinding sound of file on knife drowns the weak attempt at sarcasm.
“My number one fan. Gotta go now, honey,” Howards says, anxious to hop onto more important tasks. The itch. “Have plenty of virgins to carve up.”
“Happy writing,” she says dryly and hangs up.
And happy slicing.
He soon realizes that the exploration of this new hobby of his should be carried out at a controlled pace, with gusto and equanimity. Tastefully. Cutting off all of his fingertips hardly fits the criteria, so he quickly decides on a menu and a plan for external procurement.
Four courses over four years. From sashimi to braising. From ear to belly. The yearning should be sated.
Until, of course, it decides it is not.
“Are you sure, Howard?” Mrs. Leeds asks. “This is an awful lot of food.”
“Yeah. You’ve got people over. I’m by myself,” he assuages her. “Besides, one of your loaves is worth more than ten turkeys.”
She takes the offered dish full of shredded meat which was supposed to be his store of nourishment for as long as Jules was away visiting her parents. But Howard has other plans; the gray scraps elicit nothing from him.
“You flatter me. It’s just a matter of timing. And love, lots of love.” He knows about both. The hunger knows.
“How goes the writing?” she asks.
“Very well, thank you.” He had expected the tired question to come up, and Howard made it part of his escape plan. No time for mingling. “I actually need to get back to it. I’m on a roll.”
“Don’t let me stop you, then. On you go.” says the old lady. “I’ll bring your bread over on Sunday, just as you asked.”
Prayer hands and a bow are his way of saying thanks. He turns around and heads for his house across the street.
“And Howard,” she shouts when he has limped half the trajectory. “Keep taking care of that leg, son. You seem to be doing better every day.”
He raises his right hand and waves a polite dismissal, a cynical smile adorning his unobserved face. “I am, Mrs. Leeds. Better and caring.”
He had heard people say that having sex at least twice a week was a sign of a healthy relationship. He had that aspect more than covered; he knew how to take care of the little details and life took care of him in return. His relationship with the craving, however, was more complex. They owned each other, so they were intimate most of the time. He thought he knew it. He believed he was doing a good job of providing for it, of keeping it content. And he majestically underestimated its capacity for changing the game on him.
The fourth course.
He comes home twice-burdened. In one hand a grocery bag with clean, recently harvested intestines. In his own gut, the familiar thrill of expectation.
“Open the windows, honey,” he forewarns.
“I swear to God,” she says from upstairs. “If you were to do this more often you’d find yourself a happily unmarried man in no time.” She has said this before, and Howard knows that it will be said again. A woman of tokens.
“Freddy got me something special this time,” he says.
“More special than ears and tongue?” she says, leaning over the handrail. She is keeping track, the little woman.
At first he had thought she would find the whole affair irrelevant. Jules, I’m cooking some wacky shit once a year, so don’t bother me and shut up about it. He imagined she would concede without a hitch and go on about her life over at Rodeo Drive and Dan Tana’s. But she was proving to own a bit more bone in her back than he gave her credit for. By the time the sous-vide tacos de lengua were nicely prepped atop a gold and platinum Michael Wainwright plate, she had already decided that she would properly dine with him despite her revulsion.
“Let me break it to you,” she continued. “We’re not Mexican. Those monstrosities will always feel special to you. What is it now?”
“Guts! Two ways!” he announces.
He braises half of them and crisps the rest, just like Freddy told him, Freddy being an amateur celebrity chef with a shedload of hits on YouTube and someone Howard had never met or talked to. He serves the tubular bits with a dollop of infused crème fraiche on the side and sits next to the scrutinizing gaze of his Barbie wife.
He takes a bite and the ball at the pit of his stomach does not quiver with joy. The other variation offers no different outcome. In fact, the hunger seems to grow restless. Impatient.
She sees him faltering and Howard can detect a hint of smugness on her face as she keeps cracking her edamame pods open. “Did it get the best of you, Howie? Found a nugget of shit inside?”
He hates it when she calls him Howie.
He cleans his plate up, proclaiming the dish a total success. The hunger does not agree and reluctantly tells him, in terms he can understand, what to do next.
He crosses the double-door threshold and the longing is eager to communicate its agreement. Hanging down from the center of the temperature-controlled room lies the thick cocoon; an immaculate baby about to be born and become tribute to his ever-hungry guest. He strokes it with due reverence. He places his cheek to its clothed surface and revels in the pungent nitrous aroma born from months of curing and ageing.
Howard salivates. The hunger stirs.
Time has come.
He lies on the hospital bed and Howard cannot help but feeling proud of his dedication. The pain is a harmless ghost gone mostly dormant thanks to the painkillers provided by the IV drip.
Jules cries in a corner, looking out the window; she does not dare meet the vanishing limb. Not yet.
“Tell me again,” she demands. “How did it happen?”
Even if Howard knows that any story is story enough for her, the one he chooses is perfection.
“I already did, babe,” he says, groggily. “I was lifting weights when I lost my grip on the bar. I was able to twist and get half of my body off the bench before the damn thing fell on me.”
The gym he had installed in their basement only eight months ago had become a marvel of pretense, a monument to excuses. It had been needed, yes, but now it had transformed into a convenience as well.
“You’re lucky you didn’t smash your bowels in,” she says. “You wouldn’t have liked the taste of that.”
They both laugh. She finally turns and looks at him. She approaches the bed and strokes his remaining leg.
“Look at this. You could have given Mr. Ex-Governor a run for his money.”
He grins. It had not been his purpose, but all those months of hard work had improved her disposition in the bedroom. A small and pleasant byproduct of a more vital pursuit.
“I’ll tear it down. I hope you don’t care,” he says. “Set up my study there instead.” Which is one more in the chain of lies the gym helps stretch. Convenience.
She looks away, and he can relate. She will soon be married not only to a one-legged man, but to one that is going back to being skinny and frail.
“I’m here for you, baby,” she says, and she sounds true. Good. Amicability is easier when at least one of them is not just pretending to care.
A nurse comes in with a schedule in his hands.
“Mrs. Geller? Doctor Pérez will be right down to check on your husband. Could I please ask you to wait outside until he completes his examination?”
She nods and kisses her husband on the forehead.
The nurse waits until she is out of earshot.
“I’ll do it tonight,” he says.
Howard closes his eyes and nods. “You have the keys and the instructions. Once I get home and make sure you did everything by the book, I’ll wire the other half to your account.”
The nurse hesitates. “I know two million dollars are reason enough to keep me from asking.”
“Then don’t,” Howard says. “Now leave me, I want to sleep.”
“Fine,” the nurse says as he steps into the hallway. “But that sure looks like…” He closes the door.
The most expensive ham. Ever.
The hunger curls up in his midsection, sharing its host’s stupor and dreaming of a tasty half-moon of thumb with garlic. It will awaken soon to better treats.