The artist living in Valerie's ribcage would like to know if she could please try to tone it down with the rough sex.
The thing is, Val tries to explain, Jace is the first boyfriend she's ever had with visible abs and well-manicured pubic hair and leg muscles whose striations she can see twitch when they move, so she feels like stifling their loose rollicking might be asking a bit much. He's also funny and smart and sensitive and after they make love, he holds her in his arms and she feels enveloped in clouds.
Sighing, the artist runs a hand through his hair, which is always shining and slick like he's just showered, though she's pretty sure he hasn't found a way to install a bathroom in there between her intercostal muscles, but everything in that region is numb now anyway, so who can say. It's like breathing while buried in snow.
"Okay," he says, nodding. "I get it. I like abs, too. Who doesn't?"
He wonders, though, if she could try to keep her window of vigorous love making a little more—what's the word?—consistent.
But that's the thing, she tells him. It's the spontaneity that really gets her going.
He says he knows. The way her heart starts thumping is like someone banging on a steel bass drum right next to his easel. It sounds, he says, like the world is coming to an end.
Val loves her job. She's the leasing office manager for a three-story mixed commercial/residential building across the street from an uppity liberal arts college that is all cherry trees and brick and white wainscoting. The first floor of the building contains a Turkish hookah bar; a bookstore that competes with the one on campus; a florist shop run by a tiny Italian man who smells like wet dog and greets her with sloppy kisses to each cheek when she visits; and, soon, a bakery/bar specializing in petit fours and margaritas, the lease just signed yesterday by a couple perhaps three, maybe four years older than Val. They held hands even as they scribbled their signatures on the thick pack of papers.
Val's main responsibility is filling the vacant units on the upper two floors, twenty-four in total, which is no trouble at all. The humanities kids across the street froth at the mouth for the loft spaces with their exposed duct work, fifteen-foot ceilings, chocolate-colored concrete flooring. It makes them feel bohemian, hip, and they string Christmas lights along the mother-of-pearl walls and line the tiny balconies with tomato plants. A stack of crinkled and coffee-stained rental applications teeters on her desk, unread. If a unit opens up, someone inevitably walks in the front door looking to fill it, and she takes the keys and shows off the apartment, lease signed that day.
Jace, who teaches economics at the college, appears in the office with a bouquet of roses bought from the Italian man next door. He is wearing tight jeans and a button-down shirt with nothing underneath, revealing a triangle of browned skin beneath his throat. Val sets the roses down and puts up a sign in the window saying she's showing a unit and will return shortly, then she locks the door and drags him to the back, tugging at Jace's belt buckle. He stumbles behind her, jeans falling to his ankles. He takes her from behind, and she willingly presses herself up against the wall. She pulls at his collar, bringing his chin over her shoulder, and she makes her voice raspy like a chain-smoking rock singer and calls him Dr. Aubuchon, saying it over and over as he thrusts, and as she whispers she can feel him tensing up inside her, his body stiffening, and he comes faster than usual, groaning, his breath milky and warm like the heat from an oven, and the flow of his air over her ear makes her tremble too, her legs squeezing together as she gasps.
On his way out, she knows she'll hear it from the artist, but she just shrugs and smells the roses, goes looking for something to put them in, front and center on her desk, so every stranger she sees will know she is loved.
The device is situated just below her left breast. When the artist first attached it, cheeks red and fingers wobbly as he tried to avoid copping a feel, it didn't so much hurt as pinch and expose, the little clamp digging into her skin like a cat kneading with its claws. The diameter of a silver dollar, the plastic caster looks like the end of a tube of toothpaste, circular with a half-inch nozzle poking out. A third nipple almost, Jace said the first time he saw it after peeling off her shirt. He caressed it, and she grabbed his hand and moved it around her body to her bra strap.
When Jace bounces out of bed in the morning to go for a three-mile jog before his macro class at ten, Val flicks the cap open and out comes the artist like a genie freed from its lamp. His gassy-liquid body makes a slurping noise like a kid eating spaghetti, and he materializes in a blur, gradually pixelating and becoming real. The artist is slouching and thin. She's sure he doesn't have abs. There's nowhere to do crunches or wind sprints in her ribcage in the first place.
She browns him toast and brews Darjeeling tea because she thinks that's the kind of thing an artist living in a ribcage would want, plus he never objects, sitting at her breakfast nook and slumping over the plate, crumbs dotting the white porcelain like scattering stars. She lets him use her bathroom when he's done, and she listens to the sound of his urine hitting the bowl. When he comes out, he wonders again about the love making, but with a wry smile, like he knows he needs to say something but that it will do no good. Then he nods, and Val unbuttons her shirt, flaring it open on either side so her belly is exposed, and she pops open the device and he is sucked back in, offering a little wave of his spindly artist hand before he evaporates into her chest.
Before the artist moved in, she was living in her parents' basement, sleeping on a daybed whose lumpy mattress felt like it had rat skulls sewn into it. Val had graduated from college with a degree in history, intending to become a high school teacher. She quit her internship after three days, the ammoniac smell of teenage boys making her ill, the dead-eyed glare of gussied-up girls turning her insides to ash. She finished her coursework to becalm her parents, but slunk back to them, jobless and alone, unpacking her bags in their basement that smelled like a fish tank. She shared their master en suite because the shower head in the guest bathroom was broken, sending sprays of water across the tile floor. When she brushed her teeth, she shared counter space with her mother's Aqua Net and her father's minoxidil foam. She accepted a job bagging groceries. Her uniform was canvas blue, like a painter's smock, two sizes too big.
One day, on her way out the door and smelling like stale donuts, she saw the sign posted on the cork board, among business cards for traffic attorneys and realtors and babysitters: an artist, seeking residence. The pay was staggering, written in sharp black lines. Valerie ripped the whole sign down so no one else could take the little pre-cut tabs bearing his phone number, not thinking about the fact that he'd probably posted flyers in every grocery store in town.
No matter: she called him that afternoon, and very suddenly was no longer alone.
She thinks: Well, it was bound to happen. Law of averages will catch up with you, of course. At first, as Valerie tried to angle the pregnancy test so she peed on it and not her hand, she'd been terrified by the prospect. Three weeks late, the notion of a child budding in her uterus: she'd trudged to the too-bright CVS, with its buzzing lights and piano music squeaking out the loudspeakers and periodic interruptions from the pharmacy calling some tech back from a smoke break, and stared at the wall of pregnancy tests, their rainbow of colorful boxes boasting faster, earlier, clearer results. Images of sticks with blue lines, baby faces, words printed in slanted, Victorian letters. She'd plucked off one from eye level, told the aging cashier she didn't need a bag. Paid by credit card.
And now here she is, the message clear as day: preggers, a little cluster of cells seething below her belly button. She and Jace don't use condoms because she doesn't like the feel of them, the barred, caging friction of interruption as they link themselves together. But Val has popped birth control pills like clockwork, a little chirping alarm on her phone reminding her at lunch every day to reach into her bag and extract the little pink button. Perhaps the blame belongs to the glass of red wine she and Jace drink each night? Could that get in the way? She should ask her OB/GYN, but first she'd have to find an OB/GYN. She doesn't know where to find one. Maybe the artist knows. He seems to know so much, even though he lives in such a small space.
She wonders how he'll feel about a roommate.
Jace proposes during a romantic dinner at an Italian restaurant, tea candles casting shadows along his sharp jaw that is dotted with a well-manicured, week-old beard. His Adam's apple is a delicate point of darkness. The linguini is thick and buoyant, and the smell of his steak makes her salivate and want to vomit at the same time. Six weeks of such splitting dualisms: she is horny and nauseous at once, suppressing the need to upchuck into the trashcan next to her bed while also seething with satisfied relief when Jace enters her and moves with slow care. He's afraid of hurting the baby, and she tells him, the first time, that it's a good thing he's an econ teacher because he'd be terrible at biology because there's nothing he could possibly do to their child.
He slips onto the scratchy carpeted floor after their waiter offers dessert, which Val waves off without a second's pause. The box is blue velvet like something plucked out of the Indian Ocean, the ring inside pearlescent and slim. It fits perfectly over her knuckles, nestling against the fatty rib of her hand like an anchor. At the table next to them, a white-haired couple watches the proceedings and offers a cozy round of applause when Jace stands and embraces Val. The couple tip their wine glasses toward Val and Jace, the woman's eyes crowding with tears. She reaches for her husband's hand and their droopy flesh kneads together, and when Jace offers his lips to Val for a kiss, she wants to swallow him, too, hold the entire world that she loves inside her belly.
She tells the artist during one of their breakfasts, leaning back in her chair, hands magnetized to her stomach, left hand cradling the cleft beneath the hard bulge, right cinching around the knob of her belly button, fingers fiddling and coaxing it like a loose ring. The artist's expression doesn't change, the gait of his chewing on the slightly-burnt toast uninterrupted. His hair is longer, curling around his ears in bushy tufts. It sweeps across his forehead like thin bird feathers.
He swallows and washes down with a slurp of tea, then sets down his mug.
Val has moved into Jace's three-bedroom condo. Fifth floor of a seven-story building, speedy elevator that smells like cinnamon. They've assembled a crib, picked out a soft green for the walls, bought a rocking chair and changing station at IKEA. In the open-concept living room/kitchen/dining zone, the artist looks out of place, a funeral dirge during karaoke night.
"I know," he says. "About the baby. Already."
"You know. How?"
"I could tell. I feel him kick at night."
"It's a him."
"You can't possibly know that. How would you know that? I didn't know that. We wanted to be surprised."
The artist apologizes. Says maybe he's wrong. "But congratulations. I'm happy for you." His voice is matted, flimsy. He looks exhausted, Val realizes. His eyes like a raccoon's, skin drooping, wrinkles crowding the corners of his mouth.
She shakes her head, changes the direction of the conversation, tripping over the words like they are Spanish. She tells him they're starting a family now, and things are different.
He stands and flicks his fingers toward her with a snap of his wrist, a mixture of dismissal and disgust and understanding, all balled up in one motion. He gets it. He understands.
"It was bound to happen," he says. "I told you."
She wants to say that he never told her. The artist never said anything of the sort. In fact, he said so little, munching on his toast, squawking about her sex life, taking a tiny bit of her breath every time he splashed out of her body. Yet he was so warm. Even though she was numb there where he sat tucked away inside her body, she could always feel him squirming around. She could feel when he was painting, a faint tickle near her sternum, a hiccup in her pulse. Since the baby's conception, it's been a symphonic echo around her heart like the boom in your chest after hearing the smash of a bass drum.
But she says nothing, just uncorks the plastic cap and watches him fizzle and fade, stoppered back into her body, another settled mass.
The mishap occurs during her seventh month. At least the lights are off, the soft fuzz of the moon outlining their bodies. She and Jace are nude from the waist down, sex no longer the prowling, intoxicated drizzle of passion and pleasure but a functional relief for the pressure in her groin. Val's feet are swollen and she craves Diet Pepsi and scrambled eggs at all hours, which Jace dutifully retrieves, stocking their fridge with enough dairy and soft drinks to feed a dozen. They're spooning, his knees pressed against the backs of her legs, and they rock gently like they're in a rowboat, his hands around her waist. At some point he shifts and loses his grip, his hand flicking and pushing the cap open with a light pop, Val so focused on the relief—and tamping down the rising need to pee—that she doesn't notice the artist appear until Jace yells out, pulls himself from her, and covers them both with the kicked-off blanket that has gathered like a snowbank at the bottom of the bed.
"What the fuck," he says, and Val realizes she's never heard him yell before. They've never fought. She thinks, for a moment, that it must be a sign, but she's not sure if it's a good or a bad one.
"What's going on?" The artist's voice is as bleary as he is, shimmery and half-ghost in the darkness.
She can sense the tension radiating off Jace. An exhaustion hits her, all parts of her spilling open, and she caps and uncaps the device so that the artist barely has time to congeal into a real person before he's pulled back in, his voice wobbly like he's yelling from under water, but she can't understand a thing he says. He may be screaming, he may be laughing. She shuts her eyes, ignoring Jace's shifting weight, and barely has time to lock the artist inside before she falls asleep.
On the artist's last day, Val slips her oafish body out of bed early, Jace stirring in his half-sleep. She waddles to the kitchen and lays out the lavish spread she's planned: twin bouquets of baby's breath and carnations, one on either side of the table, on which she places plates full of warm bursting sausage, a wheel of mozzarella cheese, petit fours from the bakery, kept fresh and cool in the refrigerator, sugary white squares that look like toys out of a child's play kitchen. Heaps of fruit whose juice gathers on the porcelain in a pinkish pool. Large glasses of milk and a pot of artisanal tea, the sharp, bitter smell like wet earth flopping her stomach. The baby kicks toward her ribs like he's riding a bicycle.
But when the artist emerges, he looks at what she's done and sighs. "You shouldn't have. I'm really not hungry." When he sees the pinch of disappointment that Val can't help but let seep into her face, he reaches out and plucks up a grape. She can hear it pop against his cheek when he bites into it.
Propped against his feet, hugged to his body so she can only see the off-white backing, is a heavy-looking canvas.
"I have a gift for you," he tells her. Then he hefts it up and spins the painting around.
It takes Val a moment to absorb what she's looking at: a massive, reddish eye, swirly and just so blurry. The rusty color of a brick wall, the eye is streaky but lifelike, the lines of the eyelid detailed, pupil on the verge of dilation.
"It's yours," the artist says. "It's your eye."
"What did you paint it with?" Val asks. "It doesn't look like normal paint."
The artist's face lightens, and he grabs another grape, gnashing on it and swallowing before he tells her: it's made of you.
He explains: he has drawn her blood and bone, bits of muscle that he's scraped away from inside of her, all ground down and mixed together and put on the canvas. The eye is made, he says, of hundreds of tiny images of her. When she leans close, she sees it: tiny versions of herself, meticulous and exact, head and shoulders, her chin turned down toward her right shoulder, eyelids shut, hair wafting in an invisible breeze. Though small, they are as detailed as the eye itself, each one just slightly different: an alteration in the angle of her face, the curl of her neck, the square of her shoulder.
Val shuts her eyes. The nickel scent of her own blood brings a bilious wave up her throat.
"Each day," he says, "I painted you after breakfast."
"I don't know what to say," she manages. "It's beautiful."
Which is true. But what is also true, what she doesn't say, is that she hates it. That her body has been excavated, her disparate parts moshed together to make this bloodied mess whose color reminds her of an uncooked steak.
The artist leaves unceremoniously, slipping out the door before she has time to process his sudden absence. When Val sets the painting against a table leg and rushes out after him, the hallway is empty. She considers taking the elevator down, seeking him out, but she knows she will never find him. A certainty settles in her chest that he has disappeared forever.
She also knows she cannot show Jace the painting, that he'll dismiss it as grotesque and inappropriate, so she hides it away in the back of the closet behind her shoes, the eye facing the wall. What Val doesn't know is that she'll put the painting out of mind until, three years from now, when she is pregnant again, she'll run across it as she cleans out the closet when she and Jace are moving out to a suburban ranch house, and her body will clench up when she turns the canvas and finds the eye staring at her. Their son will toddle to her and screech and want to know what the picture is, and before she gives it a second thought, she will drag the canvas out to the garbage chute in the hallway and throw it down. She will not know yet that her pregnancy is ectopic, the baby lodged in her fallopian tube, and that the embryo will have to be excised by laparoscopic surgery. Nor will she see that the artist's portrait will become stuck in the chute when she chucks it down, hovering for days until dislodged by a trash bag full of beer bottles and rotting cabbage when it finally crashes into the garbage bin, slicked with the seepage and leak of strangers' wet refuse.
Labor should be simple, but Val does not want to let go. In spite of the twists of pain as her body contracts and works to expel her baby, Val fights against the emptying feeling creeping from her spine. She's numb below, but she refuses to let her body cooperate, her doctor becoming frustrated and red-faced, snarling at her from behind his papery surgical mask that she has to push. Finally, sweaty and dislodged, Val complies. When the baby finally crowns and slips out like a dropped sock, she is overcome by the emptiness of her body. Like a deflating balloon she wilts, and even when her little boy is placed in her arms still gooey-haired, limbs flailing in jerky movement, his weight pressed to her chest, she continues to seep away. Jace grips her shoulder and smiles down at mother and son, and Val tries to muster the gumption to return his grin, but she feels like there is nothing left in her body to offer.
She brings the baby to the office and on the days he doesn't teach Jace joins them. Instead of quickies in the back, they eat lunch together, Jace armed with roast beef paninis wrapped tight in shiny tin foil. They chew in quiet and the baby gurgles. All of the residential units upstairs are full, so there's never anywhere else for Val to go.
One day, a prospective renter for the last empty commercial unit comes in. Val swallows her bite of sandwich and leaves Jace to watch the baby while she presents the space. The walls are in need of drywall and paint, and the floor's cement is like that of an unfinished basement, chalky and white with dusty grit. As the man considering the space blusters about potential layouts for his office—he's looking to start up his own law practice, thinks he can make a killing helping minors from the college out of alcohol possession tickets—Val takes a slow lap of the space, breathing in the wet, untouched smell. The room is barren, but she can feel its cloying possibility. She runs a hand over the hard space between her breasts. Tickles her fingers across the keys of her ribcage, whose feeling has reemerged, a hard warmth.
The man nods and says he think this will do, screw it, I'll take it, let's do it.
Val drums her fingers along her body, the echo buzzing against her clenched teeth. She lays her hands along her once again flat stomach, and finally comes to rest on the asterisk-shaped scar where she removed the artist's clamp. The skin is raised like Braille, but when she presses her fingers across she can read nothing in the bumpy ridge. Val wonders how one gets this way, taut and slim and emanating body heat while still craving to be filled again, ever tipped and ever hungry.