The craving for lettuce overcame Mei. She felt like a rabbit trapped in a cage.
It all began the year before, shortly after her fiftieth birthday, and she was in the panting frustration of menopause. Her husband had asked her to work only part-time, because he liked her at home when he got home, and she’d thought she wanted more free time as well.
Her days at home were not dedicated to cooking the fine meals she had promised her husband or reading the novels that sat on her nightstand. Instead, they became numbed with Korean dramas and YouTube music videos, which she liked, even though she knew they were eating away at her.
It started out as a whim, a diet she was doing with her friends from church to stay healthy after fifty. They agreed to eat salads twice a week for dinner and walk two miles every other day. She secretly hoped the diet would help with her hemorrhoids. They came every few weeks like a forgotten period but were coming on more and more often.
The church gave them little pink notebooks to track their progress and allow them to use the back room after service for meetings. Pinching the pudge that sat above her C-section scar, she decided that she would lose ten pounds and look like she had in the wedding photo that hung in the bedroom. She went out and purchased salad tongs and dressing and romaine and spinach.
A week after they started the diet, Mei and the women convened in the backroom to discuss what everybody had eaten. Through the window, she observed the youth group in the parking lot. She noticed how the girls, dressed in clothes that were either too tight or too loose, would stand together in a hunched circle watching the boys play, as if they were lions convening before an attack. A shiver ran through her.
Some magazines she had cut images out of were on the floor of their bedroom. Mei had tried to create a “vision board,” like the self-help books had recommended, but stopped after a week when she realized she had no vision and the only visions in magazines were of perfumes and models and yogurts.
She started making salads for her husband at dinner too, even though he told her four times that he “did not like salads” and wanted “real food.”
Mei stopped making noodles and rice. The bland flavor no longer appealed to her. It was too starchy, the way it stuck to her teeth and lingered on her breath. Lettuce was clean and cold and the leaves sparkled under the faucet. He would eat half of his and then leave the rest in the fridge. Often, he went out to the local convenience store after dinner and purchased bags of chips to satiate the appetite that could not be fulfilled by raw vegetables.
The ladies at church were surprised that she fed her husband salads. They said they made separate meals: bone marrow soups or Mongolian beef or whole fried branzino, saving only the eyes for themselves, giving everything else to their families. Mei shook her head, said that if she was being healthy, he ought to be healthy too.
From the backroom, Mei watched the girls play hopscotch, dancing in the parking lot underneath the shade of a large oak tree. Their sweat glimmered like rust.
Mei ate lettuce right from the bag while driving to and from the doctor’s office where she worked, chewing at the stems, biting from the leafy top to the dirtied bottom. At work, her nurse told her she was looking thin. Thin and pretty and young. She had shed the pounds like nothing. The nurse held her own pouchy stomach and opened the crinkly wrapper of a nutrition bar. She swallowed the thing in two bites before going to see the next patient waiting in Room Five.
In the bathroom, Mei pulled down her underwear and her pubic hair unfurled like a flower. Blood still dripped from her asshole. The shit wormed its way out of her, scraping all the edges of her sphincter. The blood was a sharp color in the brown mess of the bowl. She popped another fiber supplement.
Home before five, Mei cut up tomatoes, the juice staining her white sweater as if messy orange hands had pressed against her. Her husband came home from work, saw the assortment of vegetables on the table, her fingers wrapped around the knife’s handle, heard the sharp chop of the blade on the bamboo board. The sun was setting, the sky a streak of menstrual blood.
“I told you I don’t want to eat salads anymore. Can’t you make your dumplings? Can’t you make anything else?” he said.
She did not turn toward him and kept cutting the tomatoes into bleeding slices.
“I can’t stand this anymore. When we decided you were going to work part-time, we said you were going to make dinner. That you’d have time now to make a good dinner. I thought it meant that we’d both be happier than we were before.”
Anger flashed across her husband’s face. He seemed to think for a moment, swallowed slowly as if he had something large caught in his throat, and left the house.
Her husband began to make his own dinners. She had the kitchen from five to six and he from six to seven. Mei ate in her office and her husband ate in their bedroom, sitting on the couch, resting the bowls on his right leg. She was glad when the tender touches in the evening decreased, until there was a hard space between them even when they were sleeping and their faces were so close they were almost kissing. Sometimes she observed him sleeping and imagined that he was dreaming of stabbing her—plunging the knife deep into her chest until blood and organs spilled out.
One Thursday after a grueling workday, her husband came home with steaks. He grilled one to utter perfection, the dark gloss on the meat like clear nail polish. Her husband cut it into delicate, thin strips with a side of garlic broccoli. In their bedroom, he set the plate on his leg, as always, and reached for the remote. But the balance was off and the plate toppled to the carpet, the steak and its sauce and its vegetables flinging themselves into the rug.
Her husband dropped down to his knees and began to feverishly scavenge for the meat and ripped the shreds apart in his mouth, even when the hair and dust from the carpet stuck to them. He savored the salt and blood in his mouth, rolling the bits on his tongue so that they touched every taste bud. He bit his lip until it bled and savored that warm taste, sweeter than steak sauce.
After a few pieces, he realized how ridiculous he must look, picked up the whole mess, and vacuumed it as best as he could.
Later, sometimes, if he was observant, he could still see a few stains on the rug and made sure to press his foot down extra hard when he stepped over them.
Mei’s breath had an awful odor, as if a tooth was rotting. She could taste it in her mouth and felt it when she swallowed. She went to the dentist, but they told her nothing was the matter. Her teeth looked healthier and whiter than they had in years. So Mei continued breathing and swallowing her own decaying saliva. It was probably in her head.
Mei went out to CVS and purchased pads. Her bleeding sometimes came without control now, and her underwear was always stained a shit-soaked brown.
The ladies at church simpered about how wonderful she looked; she looked so thin, she could have been fifteen. The diet had worked! And in only a few months! They asked her what she ate, and logged it into their pink notebooks. She told them it was all the salads and her “plant-based diet.”
Mei wore the youthful clothes she had not worn in years: cute little skirts and tight tank tops that accentuated the ringlet of her hip or the swivel of her shoulder. She once found herself wearing the same shirt as one of the girls at church, and laughed, because maybe their immortal flame had burnt her too. Boundaries had no meaning for her anymore. The pad in her underwear grew wet with blood.
She knew her husband did not care how she looked. According to him, her new thinness did not make her more attractive. When they had sex, he often had to pause mid-thrust to tell her to stop digging her nails into his back.
“Stop. You’ll break the skin,” he said. “It’s hurting me.” She would relent and dance her fingers on his skin until he let out a final, frustrated pump.
When her daughter came home for a week in July—she worked in San Francisco now—Mei made all of her favorites: ramen with fried pork cutlets, oxtail lightly salted and slow broiled, and eggplant sprinkled with ground beef. Her husband was ecstatic, but bitter—why did his daughter receive all the pleasure and he none?
“What’s happened to you?” her daughter asked when she saw her mother. “Why’s your skin all yellow now?”
“I’m fine,” Mei said, turning to examine herself in the mirror.
“You look awful. You need to see a doctor.”
“I think I would know if I needed to see a doctor.”
“I’m booking an appointment tomorrow,” her daughter said, shaking her head and pulling her phone out from her pocket. Mei was silent, and wondered how she could get rid of the dark spots underneath her eyes.
In the morning, her daughter drove her to urgent care for blood tests. Watching the needle prick her vein, Mei winced. She had changed into the white hospital gown. They were pumping the blood out of her—it felt like a leech attached to her arm—and she had the craving for lettuce more than ever before. The thought occurred to her that she should rip the needle out of her arm, drive to the supermarket next door, and empty their shelves of romaine. But she did not. Not with her daughter leaning against the door, looking on with a mixture of worry and exasperation.
The tests said she had anemia. Anemia was what the last row of iron pills in birth control were for. The doctor said it slowly, as if he too were considering the effects of iron deficiency. The doctor asked if she had experienced any symptoms. Nausea? Dizziness?
Mei shook her head. No symptoms. None.
The doctor examined her chart and asked her how her hemorrhoids were. He said that often, young women could get anemia from heavy menstrual bleeding, but this was not the case for someone in menopause. Mei said the affliction was getting worse and worse. She rummaged through her clothes and showed him, and inadvertently showed her daughter, the fresh stains on her underwear.
Her daughter began to cry. A window had briefly opened into her own future, and perhaps it was all too much for her to bear. Mei looked away.
The doctor deliberated for a moment. He was a serious type of person. Mei had put off the operation for a few years now. The previous year, the doctor had told her to come back if she noticed excessive bleeding.
The doctor said they could help stop the bleeding with a surgery, a surgery that was quite common for women over fifty really. This type of surgery could stop the anemia. It could end the painful hours on the toilet. Perhaps it could resolve other symptoms? The doctor asked whether she was sure that with this level of blood loss she did not struggle with anything else?
She was certain. In fact, she had not felt or looked this good in twenty years. She had almost the same body as when she got married.
He recommended she have the surgery and she should have it soon, because who knew what could burst inside her and when? And then it would be truly unbearable.
Mei said she needed to speak about it with her husband.
When they got home, she paced and sucked on lettuce leaves while her daughter spoke to her husband. They called her over to discuss the matter at hand. Why should she not have the surgery? It would ease the bleeding. It would ease the pain. Mei mumbled that it was not so bad. Her daughter was on the verge of hysteria; how had her father not known about this? Mei’s husband said it was all like a bad dream and went upstairs to watch television. Mei acquiesced to her daughter and they called the doctor to set up an appointment for that week.
As the surgery neared, Mei grew more and more uncertain. She had problems focusing during the day. She accidentally cut herself with a kitchen knife, right across her knuckles. She accidentally left the stove on for two hours when she went for a long walk. She spilled a whole bottle of olive oil on the table, and the surface was still slick with grease two days later. She thought about eating rubber bands and nails, and held them in her fingers, let them touch her lips. She weighed herself every hour and logged it in her pink notebook.
Mei did not sleep the night before the operation. For dinner, she stuffed spinach in her mouth until her teeth were a hayish green. She believed the past few days had contained portents of misfortune. After midnight, she did not eat or drink, only stared at herself in the mirror, admiring the smooth, straight line of her belly, suppressing all the breath and air and guts that could ruin this pure perfection.
Two months after the surgery, she did not notice it anymore. The pain still sometimes came, but it came sharp and quick and was infrequent. She did not purchase new pairs of underwear, and the brown stains began fading from the cotton. She still took her fiber supplements. But the anemic cravings were all gone. She tried eating the fistfuls of lettuce again, but would automatically vomit them back up in chunks that fell through her fingers into the toilet. Mei did not want to eat raw vegetables anymore. She began cooking dumplings again.
Her husband was happier now that the meats were back.
“It doesn’t matter what you look like,” he said, taking a large bite out of a pork dumpling. Her vitality had wearied and wounded him.
The vegetable craze seemed over. Mei looked happy watching her television shows, tucked into the corner of the couch, her underwear clean and dry.
But the fat came back with a vengeance. It seemed to bloat her face into an unrecognizable round moon and she could once again feel her breasts sit on her stomach like they were old friends. She could no longer wear the same clothes as the teenagers at church, and when she looked at her reflection in the mirror, she had to suck in her guts so she could feign the appearance of a flat tummy for a single precious moment.
She often walked to the fridge when she was not hungry. It was a compulsion, the way she would open the fridge door and feel that cool, refreshing air that sometimes felt like a spritz, sometimes a slap in the face, and take out slices of cheese and bags of bagels and jars of jam. Her breath lost its corrosive, chemical odor. She often woke up in the middle of the night with cooled sweat on her forehead.
Mei saw how her pouch grew thick again. The skirts and tank tops went back into the closet. The ladies at church wondered what had happened to her, and she brushed it off, saying that she had accepted her body the way it was; she didn’t want to change.
The youth group sang for the church. They stood like spider plants, cascading over each other on the stairs. Mei observed how some of the girls were losing their flat chests and gaining a plumpness that seemed too mature for their bodies. She stared into the open mouth of one, singing long, wavering Christian lines, and imagined herself falling into the girl’s throat.
In the morning, Mei went for a walk so she could log her two miles to share with the ladies at church. Sun bathed her face. She hated the maintenance, the pure diligence, that having a body took. Mei pumped her arms up and down, trying to shake off the feeling of dread.
On her walk, she saw fresh soil compacted in a neighbor’s new flower bed. She ached. A few seeds had germinated and their tiny green heads poked up. The first signs of spring. She was not sure if it was sweat or tears dripping down her face, but she wiped it away.
She did not have to do it; she wanted to. Perhaps this would allow her to go back, back before the surgery when her body was hers once more and she bled like she had at thirteen and her hips swayed as they had when she was twenty, and the pain that had once been in her heart had resided in her asshole, but it was all the same anyway, since pain was constant but beauty was fleeting and could disappear with a flick of the wrist or a blink in the mirror. Perhaps she could force herself back into the affliction, to again shed that magnificent and terrible responsibility of age. Mei kept the numbed hope cupped within her like a baby bird in spring.
A thrilling energy seemed to burst from her lips. It was uncomfortable, the way the urge seemed to swallow her up, and yet with it came a sense of quiet peace. She walked over, dropped to her knees, and stuffed the dirt into her mouth, seeking to find and reinstate the origins of that craving, tasting only the warm wetness and sordid movement of earth.