It's All For You by Vivian Ludford
I was in a house. I wasn’t sure whose house it was, or exactly what type of house it was, but I could at least tell it was a house—the windows in the room, which I assumed was the living room, looked out onto a green lawn edged in flowering bushes. A stone walkway cut through the lawn’s middle, though I couldn’t see where it led.
I was in a house in what I assumed to be the living room which overlooked what I assumed to be the front lawn, except there wasn’t a door. The walls were freshly white, the furniture new-looking and nice in a vanilla way—the room could have been featured in a catalog, but it couldn’t have belonged to any particular person. There was no taste in it, no dust. You could smell the Windex on the windows.
My mouth started watering, and then something clicked at the base of my tongue and it started watering a lot. Oh god, I thought. I’m going to throw up.
Hello? I called. Is anybody there? I grabbed a nearby vase and leaned over it, but even after heaving a few times, nothing came up.
When I finished, I put the vase down and wiped spit from my mouth. I had the vague sense that I was supposed to go to something fancy that night. I felt this sharp need to get ready.
Hello? I called again. Everything was still but pregnant with movement, like someone had just been here, or everyone was about to get here. There was a glass of water on the coffee table, the water trembling slightly.
I went into the next room, apparently the dining room, as it had a large dining table and six velour chairs. What the fuck? I thought. And then, because I needed to, I said it out loud. What the fuck? I said it to assert myself, to throw my voice outside of my body, into the room. I felt a little self-conscious about cursing, but I couldn’t tell where that impulse came from. I couldn’t remember if I was a person who cursed or not.
On the table was a huge spread of food—croissants and scones and biscuits and those little pinwheel danishes filled with cream cheese, alongside tubs of real butter and margarine, whose packaging read that it was heart healthy and better for cholesterol. There was also a whole roast turkey, the skin completely peeled off so that it was white and smooth, and a jug of cold milk.
Hello? I said again. My stomach was no longer queasy. In fact, I felt very hungry. I might as well, I thought. The turkey smelled good, like bacon. I tore off a leg and began eating.
I finished the leg then ate a croissant, and then I split open a scone and slathered butter on each side and stuffed turkey meat into it and ate that like a sandwich. Then I tried one of the pinwheel danishes. It was stale but I finished it anyway. Then I ate four more.
There were sugar packets next to the milk, so I emptied a few into a cup and poured milk into it, stirring with a croissant. Delicious. I had another cup, then dipped another croissant into a third cup.
Oh god, I thought, as I finished drinking. How am I going to fit into my dress?
Where had the dress come from? I didn’t know. All I knew was that it’d be there soon and that I needed--deeply, innately--to wear it smoothly, needed to feel it zipped up impeccably at my side, my body imperceptible underneath it.
I felt stupidly, urgently full, as if someone had tipped my head back and poured cement down my throat, filling my abdominal cavity. I decided to throw up. It seemed like the only option, the only solution to my problem. But where?
Hello? I called again, louder. Is there a bathroom? I returned to the living room and went through another door, which led to a library, which led to a bedroom that was being used for storage, half the room taken over by stacks of plastic storage bins full of books and winter clothes and beanie babies with the tags still on.
My stomach pressed against the band of my leggings. Throwing up was inevitable, the only possible next step of my life. Every future thing depended on this specific next action.
I decided to do it in a storage bin. I can clean it out later, I thought, once I find the bathroom. I found an empty bin and threw up into it, my vomit coming out in soft, doughy chunks, the liquid of it still cold, from the milk. Then I snapped the lid back on and hid it in a corner, under a blanket. I’ll come back for you later, I said, patting it.
Through the open doorway, I saw a flash of a figure in the next room.
Hi! I shouted. Hello! Can you hear me?
The figure started to run. It appeared to be a man, small and older, maybe in his 60s or 70s. He was wearing a red plaid shirt and khakis. He had on running shoes.
I started power walking after him but stopped once I realized I did not know anything about him. I was, after all, in a strange house, with no apparent way out. How had I gotten here? Was he a good man or a bad man? Would he harm me? Or would he take care of me forever?
I began padding after him, slowly, stealthily trailing him through the rooms.
I followed slightly behind as the man ran through the library and then the living room. He hummed softly as he ran, hunched forward, bringing to mind a hunter travelling through an enchanted forest.
I need to find a bathroom, I kept thinking, to empty out that storage bin. I also had to pee.
In the living room, the man paused to drink the water on the coffee table, then went through another door I hadn’t noticed before. I made myself count to thirty before following him. It seemed like a good rule of thumb, although I couldn’t remember where that idea came from, either.
This room was darker, with a lit fireplace and wood paneling and yet another table covered with food—this time, a platter of boiled skinless potatoes, a laundry basket of dinner rolls, and a dozen little cups of plain yogurt. Someone had left a note that read, Help yourself!
I heard a soft humming ahead.
I was intensely, urgently hungry. So hungry, in fact, that I momentarily forgot about the man and that I was in a strange house with no exit. I needed vitally to be eating, now. I grabbed a dinner roll and began chewing into it. I held its doughy inside to my face and breathed in.
Then I took a potato and dipped it in yogurt and ate that, too. Then, seeing that nothing here would hold much of anything, I decided to throw up while I still had only a little in my stomach. I vomited neatly and quietly into a porcelain bowl with a Pekingese painted on it, and then I ate some more and threw up again, this time into a golden cowboy boot I found in the corner. Then I ate and threw up again, into a cashmere sock I found under a couch cushion. I repeated this cycle many times, until I’d exhausted all of the possible vessels in the room and nearly all of the food on the table, at which point I remembered the man. I could eat on the move. I stuck two dinner rolls into the waistband of my leggings and put a potato in my bra.
This room led to a kitchen, which was as nice and polished as the rest of the house. The kitchen featured baby blue backsplash tiling and a breakfast nook overlooking the backyard. Still, I didn’t see any doors leading outside. I heard footsteps and the humming again, through clearer this time—the man seemed to be humming my name.
Hi? I said now. Excuse me. But I am really in need of a bathroom. And some information!
I wasn’t sure how much to give away. Should I be more assertive? Would I be in more danger if he found out how little I knew? Or would he be more likely to help me if I seemed more vulnerable?
I sat on the floor and began to cry. It was real crying—I felt confused and lost and dizzy and also a little sad, for the pieces of myself that I’d lost by not knowing why or how I was there.
The man appeared instantly. Aw, don’t cry, he said, handing me a tissue and patting me on the shoulder. His movements were stiff and awkward, as if he wasn’t sure this was actually his role. Up close, I could see that his thin lips framed a mouth full of sharp, little white teeth. His skin was pale, almost green-looking, though maybe that was just the lighting. There, there, he said, still patting me. I got the sense that we’d had this interaction before.
Who are you? I asked.
The man withdrew, frowning, and I worried that he might be angry with me. But maybe he was just concerned, or confused.
Do you want some water?
I nodded. As he filled a glass for me, I noticed that the sink had a garbage disposal. Perfect, I thought. I could throw up there later. The man watched me drink the water.
Feel better now? he asked.
Yeah, I said. I could feel the rolls tucked into my leggings. I wondered if he could see the potato through my shirt.
Good, he replied. Then he pulled out a knife. Now I have to cut it out of you.
I jumped up. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t, it was as if my body had forgotten how. I kept opening and closing my mouth, like some gorgeous, dying fish, but no sound would come out.
I’ve got your voice, he said, grinning. Just kidding. He stopped smiling, and swiped at me with the knife.
Ah! I screamed. Or tried to. No words came out, only a gurgling that filled my mouth with saliva.
I started running. Now it was me running and the man following slowly behind. As I ran, one of my flip flops came off, and I saw the man pick it up behind me, cradling it in his other hand.
I ran as quickly as I could, but somehow I kept returning to rooms I’d already fled. It was as if the rooms were in a circle that kept rearranging itself. It hurt to run with only one flip-flop, so I took off the other and held it as I ran, using it to swat doors and furniture out of my way. Still, I found no bathroom or exits.
When I looked behind me, I could see the man padding slowly towards me, staring calmly ahead and without breaking eye contact, softly singing my name. When he saw me looking, he waved the flip-flop. I’ve got your shoe for you, he sang.
I turned away and ran faster. Don’t worry baby, he called after me. It won’t hurt at all. I’ll cut it out of you and you’ll feel so much better. You know throwing up doesn’t get rid of all of it, don’t you, baby?
Don’t call me that! I screamed, or tried to. My voice was still all gurgles.
I turned a corner and lost sight of the man, but I could still hear him humming. The humming kept coming from different directions and I kept running into different rooms. Then I crashed into him in the dining room.
Whoa girl, he said, smiling. He’d been setting out more pastries and I’d knocked the box of them from his arms. The pastries came from a large cardboard box, now on the floor, the goods spilling out in sticky piles of baked dough and cream cheese, 50 or 60 of them at least, all the different kinds mixed together.
Do you want to have some more? He asked, almost sweetly. It’s fine if you do. I’ll just cut it out of you later.
LEAVE ME ALONE, I screamed, but again, only gurgles came out, and then some blood. I realized he was sawing through my cheek.
Hmm, he said, frowning as he withdrew the knife. I guess I missed. He looked down at his knife, fingering it lovingly, moving his fingers up and down the blade. Now, if you don’t mind me asking, he was saying, still examining the knife, and then holding it up to different parts of my body, like a sighting stick. I’m a little ignorant when it comes to these ladies’ issues. Do you know where I’m supposed to insert if I want to cut it out of you?
I started running again. He was running now, too, but I was faster, probably because my legs were much longer than his. As we ran, he shouted, Just give it a try! I swear it doesn’t hurt, it’s actually very pleasurable for both parties!
I ran into the bedroom and closed the door and pushed the storage boxes in front of it. I heard him arrive shortly after. He continued singing my name, calmly, quietly, as if to himself.
Baby girl, he said. Why don’t you open the door? Let me cut the rest out of you and then you’ll feel so good and you can fit into your new dress and your new high heels and we’ll both have such a good time.
Evaporate!, I thought. Disappear! I didn’t want the man to die, only for him to be removed from my life. Somehow, I thought him worth preserving, even if it meant I’d live the rest of my years in increased danger; that he could still add good in some other context, perhaps not to my life, but to another’s.
My cheek was bleeding badly. I could feel the flesh flapping open and closed in the wind from the ceiling fan.
I closed my eyes and cried. I had to make myself do it this time. I couldn’t usually cry unless I forced myself to, unless I closed my eyes and meditated on the problem and gave myself over to it completely—there was normally too much noise—but I always felt really good afterwards. As I cried, I ate the rolls and the potato, which comforted me. The tears dripped down into my mouth and made everything pleasantly salty.
I still had to pee. I opened the storage box from before and urinated into it, on top of my vomit. The mixture smelled sweet and sticky, like dough that had been left out to rot.
As I pulled my leggings up, a tapping sounded at the door. Hello? Sweetie?
My mother’s voice.
Are you in there, sweetie? She called again. I sat up and tried to ask if it was really her or if this was a trick, but I still couldn’t talk.
I know what you’re thinking, she said. It really is me, I promise. This made me more suspicious.
I heard the man whisper something, and then my mother whisper back.
Sweetie, can you come out? Then, more agitated: Linda and I are waiting!
I opened the door just enough to peek through.
Oh, hi, sweetie! She waved. A woman, plump and wearing a black salon coat, stood smiling next to her. You remember Linda, don’t you?
I couldn’t recall a Linda. I couldn’t recall if this was my mother, either—she looked and sounded like my mother, but I couldn’t be 100 percent sure. She had the same nice, vanilla quality as the furniture—like she could have been in a catalog of mothers, but she couldn’t have been the mother of any particular person. Her forehead was too smooth, as were her hands, pale and lineless, as if they’d never been held or clenched before. Her clothes, too, seemed overly perfect. It was as if they had been planted in my head a long time ago, before I was born, so that every time I thought clothes, the definition of clothes, I imagined this exact outfit, unable to abstract it any farther. She was wearing a pale blue striped button-down with cream-colored slacks and a pink sweater tied around her shoulders.
I wondered how anyone so untouched looking could have ever carried another body in her own. Maybe she never had.
Now they were both in the room, taking me by the arm, the hand, touching my hair. Oh, sweetie, you’re a mess, she was saying, sniffing the air in an exaggerated, revolted fashion. How are we ever going to get you ready in time?
There were so many things I could not recall.
Honey, when I last saw you in my salon, you were up to here, Linda said now, holding her hand flat against her breasts. Now you’re taller than me! She hugged me tightly. A shame about your cheek, she said. But we’ll get you fixed up. By the time I’m through with you, your hairdo will be so shiny and convoluted that no one will even notice. Now, sit, please. We don’t have much time.
She pushed me down onto a storage bin and began twisting my hair into sections, securing each section with bobby pins and hairspray, which she produced from her coat pocket. Every few minutes, she’d curse and then exasperatedly undo the whole thing, forcing her to start over again. The entire time, my mother kneeled on the carpet next to me, anxiously breathing, holding her face very close to mine as she watched Linda’s hands move through my hair.
Finally, Linda began to slow. She added a few more pins to the top then held up a handheld mirror.
Tada! She said, beaming. The hairdo was very elaborate, as promised. She crowned it with a silver tiara. Congratulations!
I looked up to see the man standing in front of me, as well as my mother, who pulled me up to join them. She and Linda squeezed my hands.
You’re married! My mother said. She was crying with joy. I felt something brush against my thighs and looked down to see that I was wearing a white taffeta ballgown. When I looked closely, I saw that the bottom had been hemmed hastily, it seemed, with off-color thread. Someone had released confetti.
Oh, sweetie, you’re going to have the most wonderful time, my mother was saying now, hugging me and stroking my hand. Now, you! she said, turning to the man, who grinned. You take care of her, you hear? She gave him a playful push. And remember to say those three little words to her every night—You. Are. Right.
Haha! The man said.
Hahaha! Linda said.
Haha, I thought.
My mother was laughing, too. The laugh lines were etched into her face – surprisingly deep, as if they had developed in isolation from the rest of her body.
Now, for some wedding cake! Linda disappeared and returned with a silver tray covered with a lid. She lifted the cover to reveal a round, white cake. The cake was surprisingly small, barely the size of a fist. It could not possibly be enough for the four of us.
As if reading my mind, my mother turned to me and said, It’s all for you.
The man nodded eagerly. I’ll just cut it out of you later! He said, grinning.
My mother nodded in approval.
I was so hungry and so tired. I did not want to stay here with this man, my husband, but I also did not want to go anywhere with this woman who claimed to be my mother, or Linda, whose mannerisms felt both deeply familiar and foreign to me. A cake honestly sounded really good.
I thought about staying in this house, the endless cycles of nice rooms and foods going in and out of me, forever soft and milky and white. Didn’t we all have to choose something eventually? Some people chose veterinary science or fashion design or community organizing. Maybe living in this house with this man could be my vocation.
Okay, I nodded, cheerfully so that my mother wouldn’t worry. They looked at me expectantly: Linda, my mother, my husband.
I wasn’t sure how I’d convince him not to cut me open, but I thought I could manage it, at least for a while. Decades, even. I could make a life out of the managing.
Go on, sweetie, my mother said.
Yes, go on, Linda said, excited.
Go on, the man urged, beaming now.
I bent down and, slowly, dutifully, began to eat.
Vivian Ludford is a writer and cellist living in Austin, Texas