This mouth is different. I lift the heavy whisky glass into the light and examine the imprint of the lips more closely. I am used to seeing the leavings of mouths, blurry ovals of pale pink or gentle mauve pressed into the sides of glasses or smeared on the edges of dessertspoons. Six nights a week, I feed utensils and dishes into the restaurant kitchen’s massive dishwasher, noting the mouths’ variations of color and size, and imagining the women who wield them. But this one, a livid red, is mutant in its difference.
Behind me, Manny pushes through the last of the dinner orders while Stephen shouts at a waitress for almost dropping a platter of moule-frites. Before I can stop myself, before I know what I am doing, I close my eyes and press the glass, the mouth, against my lips.
At the end of the night, the rest of the staff goes out for drinks, laughing and smoking as they vanish down the block into the darkness of the city. I spent my first month in the kitchen turning down every invitation to join them, so I am not invited anymore. I go back to my apartment, a small efficiency over a Korean bakery, and sit at the window to watch the street, reckoning with this strange city that makes the boundaries of my body feel porous and permeable. I have lived here for 43 days and I am beginning to dissolve.
I wake at 3am, slumped in the corner of the couch, still wearing my stained, sweaty kitchen clothes. In my momentary confusion, I wait for the flood of milk to hit my nipples, preparing myself to stumble out of bed and lift a heavy breast into the mouth of my wailing son.
But, of course, there is no rush of milk, no snoring husband, and no child to feed. I move back to the window, and wait for the sun to rise and fill the apartment with tepid light.
A pattern develops. She comes every Tuesday for lunch and Thursday for dinner. She orders whisky, the best we have, single malt from Scotland. She eats steak tartare and oysters and always cleans her plate, leaving behind only a thin residue that smells like blood and brine. I recognize the mouth the instant the busboy carries his tray of dirty dishes into the kitchen, her whisky glass clinking amid the water goblets and knives, and soon a secret dialogue develops between me and this mouth, a semaphore of understanding.
On days she doesn’t come in, I feel bereft, like I’ve lost something, and my grief is ungainly and inexplicable. Even Manny notices, asks me what the fuck one evening as I wipe away snot and tears.
Mrs. Park, the owner of the Korean bakery and my landlord, waves as I unlock my front door one afternoon. It is my day off and I only left the apartment to buy tampons and Midol. She comes out of the bakery with a box in her arms. She is a beautiful woman, with thick cords of grey in her black hair, a softly wrinkled face, and a small, spare figure. On weekends I can hear laughter in her apartment above mine, the bright, shrill noise of her grandchildren playing.
“I thought you could have this. Maybe family is coming?”
She pushes the box into my arms and the smell hits me, sesame and honey.
“Songpyeon,” she continues. “For your family.”
I realize she is nodding toward my wedding ring at the same moment I realize this weekend is Thanksgiving.
I try to hand the box back. “No one is coming.”
Mrs. Park smiles hesitantly as if she has done something wrong. “Well, for you then. Enjoy, enjoy,” she says, hurrying back inside.
When I get upstairs I drop everything on my kitchen counter and go into the bathroom where I am sick. The smell of the rice cakes was too sweet, cloying, and I can feel it coating my throat.
When the retching finally stops, I rest my head on the cold of the toilet seat, inhale the sharp scent of toilet bowl cleaner, and pull off my ring. It disappears on the first flush.
My husband hand-built almost everything in our nursery. He was the kind of man who never needed to call a plumber or an electrician, the kind with calloused fingers and a box full of tools. The rocking chair he made—for when you’re nursing, he said—was beautiful. When it was finished he lowered me into it, his hands heavy on my shoulders, and shifted me until the chair began to rock. Every time it swooped forward, I felt like I was on the verge of sliding off, my taut, swollen belly sucking me down into a well of inescapable gravity.
When we first told my mother I was pregnant, she took me aside in the kitchen, placed her hands over my belly and nodded, her lips pressed together so tightly they were white. She was already sick then, frail from the chemo, and I could barely feel her fingers against my skin. She had been happy when I got married but now that I was pregnant her joy was almost painful to see.
At her funeral I stood at the casket, unable to stop myself from staring at her hands, which were folded like tiny broken birds across her chest. Her wedding ring was still on her finger even though my father had left her, left us, when I was still a girl. My mother had been so ashamed of this fact that she had worn that ring the rest of her life and had made me promise to have her buried in it. I had always heard it said that people look different in death, changed somehow, but my mother didn’t look any different in death than she had looked in life.
It was weeks later in the delivery room, with a doctor’s rough hands between my legs that I finally began to cry. The nurses and the doctor, even my husband, thought my roaring sobs were from the pain of the brutal labor that would eventually necessitate a cesarean, but they were cries of grief. And they weren’t for my mother, they were for me.
It took 29 days after the baby was born for me to write the letter. I kept thinking of it as a suicide note, even though I had no plans to kill myself, just to leave. But as I wrote it, scrawling a pathetic goodbye, I’m so sorry in a scratchy pen that was running out of ink, I thought maybe there wasn’t really much difference.
When my husband called that night his voice was raw with disbelief and I thought to myself that I have broken this man, this good man, who did nothing to deserve any of this. I wanted him to scream, I wanted him to say he hated me, but all he kept saying was: why?
And I couldn’t answer because how do you explain that your life had everything you could ever want, except for yourself?
Tuesday. Dinner. The mouth is delivered to me. When I reach for the glass I find it is still warm and the shock is so sharp I almost drop it. For the first time I am conscious of the body of her, this woman who leaves me her mouth, the nearness of it, just on the other side of the kitchen wall. Her body with its skin and fingernails and hair and vertebrae and throat and tongue is only a few yards away from where I stand.
I leave the kitchen, ignoring the shouts of Manny and Stephen, and make my way to the street out front of the restaurant, following the heat of her mouth like a lodestar.
I recognize her immediately. She is tall, with broad shoulders and broad hips, and she takes up space like she isn’t ashamed of it, like a woman who has somehow never learned that to be small is to be beautiful. Her hair is iron grey, pulled back in a messy knot that almost comes undone as she hugs her dining companion goodbye.
When she turns in my direction she stands out like she is limned in silver and her mouth is so beautiful it makes my breath catch somewhere low in my ribs, flexing the bones outward, like wings taking flight.
“I’ve been watching you,” I stammer, which is true in a way that is bigger than facts. “I wanted to meet you.”
Looking at my kitchen whites, splashed with water and stained at the wrists, she asks: “You’re a cook here?”
Her eyes are wide, black, impossible to read. “And why have you been watching me?”
I think of a thousand ways to describe her mouth and what it means to me but all I can do is shake my head. I don’t trust myself to say the words.
“I think you’re new here,” she says, as if revealing a secret.
I nod. “72 days.”
And then she smiles and leads me to her apartment like a kind soul might lead a stray cat out of danger. Her living room is warm with low ceilings, filled with stacks of books along every wall. Riotous ferns flank a sagging sofa and ashtrays overflowing with cigarettes and half-chewed cigars litter the side tables. There is so much art, framed on the walls, propped up against furniture, that I don’t know where to look, so I move to the window, which offers a view of the city lights and a distant glimpse of the bay.
“So what happened 72 days ago?” she asks. Her voice is laconic and dry as kindling.
She turns on music, something old and loose with a throbbing bass line, and comes to stand next to me.
“Are you running away or running toward?”
“Like an animal chewing off its own leg to escape a trap.” She says this like a doctor diagnosing a patient. “And now that you are free, how do you feel?”
In the last months I have hardly spoken to anyone and I find I’ve lost my ability to obfuscate, so I am honest.
“Like I’m dissolving. Like maybe I’m not really here at all.”
And there, in front of the vista of lights, she places a firm hand against my neck and kisses me. Somehow her mouth is nothing like I thought it would be; it is softer, yielding, and finite.
We move to the bedroom, where she slips out of her dress. Nestled at the base of her belly is a scar that is exactly like mine but so different that it makes tears well up in my eyes. Unlike mine, her scar doesn’t scream of recent violence; it is soft and faded and looks like it belongs on her body.
Into her bed and her face is a lamp hovering over my hips, between my legs, hanging bright over my face. With her mouth, her lips and teeth, she sucks and bites and gnaws on my neck, thighs, and breasts, until I gasp from the bright flashes of pain. She shows me, again and again and again, where my body is, where I am, delineating my borders so clearly that as the night goes on, I start to feel them as a constant burning at my perimeter. In her hands, my body begins to feel like a place I can remember being from.
When I wake in her arms at 3am, it is not with confusion but with a gnawing emptiness in my stomach. It has been so long since I felt the sensation that it takes me several minutes to recognize it as hunger, that I am hungry.
Leaving her to sleep, I make my way to the kitchen where I dig through the fridge and find a carton of leftover Chinese food and carry it with me to the living room. Sitting at the window, I pull greasy, chili-laden noodles into my mouth with my fingers, not stopping to wipe the grease from my chin.
When I notice the mark on my thigh, a vicious red welt, I think at first it is a smear of her lipstick until I realize it is a newly forming bruise, a bubbling glut of my own blood pooling beneath my skin. I find more of them: on my stomach, my calves, and running across my chest. I trace them with my fingers, feeling the chili oil heat tingling on my skin.
Sitting at the window, marveling at the mouth-shaped bruises forming across the topography of my body, eating cold, slippery noodles, I watch the sun rise bright and clear over the vast, shadowy city. In the growing light, I see the streets are slick with the leavings of a recent storm.
© Natasha Burge
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Natasha’s interview]