The Robert Watson Literary Prize Story WHAT CONSUMES YOU

Spring 2021 / Issue 109

Casey Guerin

Mornings, Saba prepares two eggs. She fries them in olive oil that heats her stale apartment with a mineral scent. When the yolks have just set, she slides the eggs from the pan to a plate and with a knife wielded like an X-Acto blade, separates the crispy-edged whites from the mounded yolks. Those she spreads on toast like butter and eats first. The whites, thin and fringed as doilies, she picks up with her fingers and deposits into her mouth whole.

In the afternoons, she eats nothing but drinks nearly one hundred ounces of water, glass after glass after glass.

In the evenings, she feasts.

 

She made her first video without watching any others. Hers are different in their selection of food. Whereas other popular accounts layer food types—chips, gooey carbonara, fried pickles, cheeseburgers, buns and all—Saba’s focus on individual dishes. In her first video, “PIZZA,” she methodically consumes seven boxes of cheese pizza, the stack of unopened boxes on her right dwindling, then regenerating as a pile of empty, conquered boxes on her left. She eats one slice at a time, sips water between bites, and never slurps, smacks, or speaks. Nearly a million viewers have devoured it.

She has, to date, posted “PIZZA,” “VALENCIA ORANGES,” “DIM SUM,” “OYSTERS,” and “BUTTERED POPCORN.” The latest, “CACIO E PEPE,” is her most popular, and the one that results in the phone call from the museum director.

 

The following Monday, Saba takes the train from her apartment to the Guggenheim. She sees the great spiraling edifice rising against the sky like a wedding cake and makes a note for a new video idea. Inside the museum, she wants to climb to the top of the corkscrew but the director’s office is on the first floor, left of the ticketing desk. The leather chairs facing the gleaming oak desk are plush, but the office is small, with a window facing a too-close brick wall, and Saba feels as if she’s inside a dollhouse.

“I understand that in South Korea, millions watch these videos live,” the director says. He looks to Saba, who only blinks; she doesn’t watch the other videos or read about their cult followings. This man certainly knows more than she does.

The director continues: “There’s a sense of community inherent in the videos, in these channels, that we want to capture at the Guggenheim. To my knowledge, no one has performed a, it’s called a mukbang, correct? Yes, a mukbang, no one’s performed one live. We’d like you to be the first, here at the museum.”

“What might that look like?” Saba imagines the faces staring up at her, her roiling, rumbling stomach, easily edited out at home, betraying her in public. She imagines her garlicky sweat, the audience’s own smells distorting her own sense of the food in front of her.

“We would leave that up to you. You would work closely with our performance curator, Helen, but we’d be taking direction from you.”

“How soon?”

He smiles as he understands he’s passed some test. “One month, if that’s enough time.”

The man is glowing, his cheeks dewy and plump above his beard like two ripened plums, so Saba agrees, then excuses herself to prepare.

 

Saba’s mother fed her children the same thing every day: steel-cut oats with thinly sliced bananas for breakfast, three slices of turkey breast on an open-faced cut of sourdough bread spread with spicy brown mustard for lunch, and butter chicken over jasmine rice with a side of steamed vegetable, whatever was on sale, for dinner. After a while, everything tasted the same to Saba. Her younger sister, Adiva, cried for chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese, the food of their friends, but Saba accepted the lack of flavor and excitement. If her mother said life was so, it was so.

It wasn’t until Saba moved to Manhattan for college that she discovered the way a grapefruit explodes on the tongue, or the layers of flavor inside an empanada. Walking through the farmers’ market in Union Square, the smells alone overwhelmed her. Other students picked at their cafeteria food, complaining of gluey lasagna and chewy chicken piccata, but Saba couldn’t understand. Food tasted of something here! Even the melted square of cheese atop her lasagna melded mozzarella with pecorino and parmesan. It was unbelievable to her that people ate like this enough to find the flavors blasé. She ate and ate and ate, and when she returned home for winter break, her mother pinched her sides and scolded Saba for her lack of control. She realized, then, that her mother knew of this other world and kept it from her children on purpose. Bitterness grew in Saba’s gut like a seed, then a stone.

When the stone became a statue, tall and pointed as the obelisk in Central Park, Saba stopped returning home on holidays.

 

There are anywhere from zero to nine seeds per Valencia orange, which Saba spits into a small blue bowl set out for this exact purpose. She picks at the peel with her fingernail, a collection of zest building beneath the unmanicured margin. Most of the oranges she undresses in a single move, the skin curling onto the table like a ribbon. She lines up the segments in front of her, removing the thick, stringy pith and depositing it among the discarded rinds. Once the entire fruit has been dismantled, she eats the segments one at a time. There’s no music, no background ambient noise; it’s so quiet that when she bites into an especially juicy piece, you can hear the skin pop. The video is thirty-seven minutes long, and she eats twenty-one oranges. When she’s finished, Saba smiles at the camera, stripped rinds piled before her, and her teeth seem to vibrate with sugar.

 

Her channel’s subscribers double in number the following week when the Guggenheim announces the performance. Saba is alone in her apartment and she silences, then turns off her phone to avoid the constant calls and notifications. When she turns it back on that night, she has over 8,000 social media notifications and forty-four missed calls. One of them, she sees, was her sister. This call she returns.

“Saba, this is insane.” She can hear the excitement in her sister’s whisper, voice kept low so as not to wake her husband and two-year-old boy, Jazzy. “People have been calling the house, asking about you. Reporters!”

“Mmm.” Saba examines her toenails, points her feet. Something in her arch twinges and she rubs it.

“What’s wrong? Aren’t you excited?”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“Mama knows,” Adiva says.

“So?”

“Oh, Saba.” In the background, she hears her nephew stir, mewling softly as Adiva soothes him. Saba closes her eyes and lifts the covers of her bed to slip beneath.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says.

“She’s worried. I showed her your videos. She can’t believe this is healthy.”

“Adiva, it’s late. You should get back to your family.” When she doesn’t say anything, Saba adds, “Thank you, for trying. So I don’t have to.”

“We love you, you know. We both do.”

“Sure. Yes. I know.”

Her sister sighs and Saba can picture her sitting up in bed, phone tucked between her ear and shoulder, one hand rubbing her son’s back, the other worrying her own earlobe, a nervous tic she never outgrew.

It’s not until they hang up that Saba realizes she’s been clenching her jaw the whole time, creating an ache that climbs up her temple that she can’t rub away.

 

Two eggs, toast, and today, a tea, milky in its mug. One month to prepare. Saba feels the days tighten across her temples like a vise. With the advance from the Guggenheim, she quit her job at the remote answering service, so there’s no longer the demands of answering calls in her apartment, pretending to be at the defense lawyer’s office in Kansas City, or sitting beside a fish tank like a giant jewelry box at the national dental chain’s Tampa location. There is only the food left to consider. Helen, the museum’s performance curator, has given her carte blanche in that regard. The museum has certain requests about lighting, necessities for videotaping, certain patterns and colors Saba mustn’t wear. But as for the food, that is entirely up to her.

She spends the day walking the city for inspiration, letting smells guide her down this street or that. In Chinatown she stops at her favorite dumpling spot, but she’s done something similar with the dim sum video. There’s the rice pudding place on Spring Street, where she samples Oreogasm, I Gotta the Panna Cotta, and Sex, Drugs, and Rocky Road. Too thick, she decides; the sticky rice coats her throat. Fresh buffalo mozzarella, eaten standing in front of the cheese counter after waiting in an hour-long line, seems like a real possibility for a time, but as she outlines the performance in her notebook on the train back from Brooklyn, it’s too boring, too white, like the museum building itself. For a similar reason she dismisses her original wedding cake idea, inspired by the Guggenheim’s famous architecture—too on-the-nose.

Tired, feet and stomach aching after a whole day exploring, she returns home idealess.

 

It took Saba three weeks to amass enough steamer baskets for the dim sum; the restaurant preparing the food stipulated that she supply her own for such a large order. She wanted something authentic; an Amazon order wouldn’t do. She considered ordering the tea from the restaurant as well, but decided to make it on her own. It’s the only video featuring something other than the starring item, but tea is technically food, she reasoned. She practiced with her chopsticks, to make sure she was fluent before the big meal. It’s not easy with the broth-filled ones.

In the video, each steamer basket contains a different dish—a mix of dumplings and buns. There’s har gua, cha siu bao, xiao long bao, wu gok. Her favorite part is cutting each open, so soft they split beneath the gentle pressure of a spoon. She loves the steam, its heat on her cheeks as she bends over to breathe everything in. She loves the smells, earthy and tangy, though she knows each bite will contain a heart of sweetness.

Commenters note that if you look closely, pausing the video at 26:34, you might catch the small, closed-lipped smile Saba allows herself when she’s halfway through the meal. She doesn’t look up at the video, only smiles into the full steamer basket before her. In all her previous videos, there are no facial expressions. Fans speculate as to what it might mean, what she’s thinking, who she’s thinking of.

They can’t know, though, the memory unfurling in her mind; the hole in the wall, its warmth pushing out of the plastic-tarp false front protecting the front door from the harsh winter. Tables so close together her coat brushed the other patrons as she made her way to the table in the middle of the restaurant. The menu wedged under her left leg, the red tablecloths, the water beading off the sides of her glass. Her face, sweating. Her sister’s, swollen with the final days of pregnancy. The food, the most delicious and spiciest she’d eaten yet. The harried waiter, bringing more, more, more, as she and Adiva ate and ate, and baby Jazzy, five days overdue, kicked and kicked, but did not budge.

The walk home, first snow falling, feeling like relief against her hot, flushed face, and the call six hours later as her brother-in-law tried to hail a cab in the middle of the night in the midst of the unexpected snowstorm, her sister’s voice in the background, laughter in between moans.

 

Saba will name the performance after the food, like all the others, but the Guggenheim’s official marketing campaign for the show is What Consumes You. She begins to see it everywhere. A promotional poster tacked onto the back of a bus stop bench. A billboard rising over Houston Street. A flash as a cab whizzes by. Soon, she can’t look up and down an avenue without seeing the thick white san serif font, the swirling red and black background.

Her sister calls again.

“You were on TV!” Same whisper-yell. This isn’t news to Saba; knowing the interview would air that night, she not only turned off her phone ahead of time but also placed it under her sink and left the apartment, went for a walk. Only now has she turned it back on, and only because she knew her sister would call.

“Mmm,” she says. Elbow deep in dough, she listens to Adiva’s voice fill her kitchen, listens to the way it fills the mixing bowls spread out on her countertop, how it circles back up and over the lips, overflowing the space. It reminds her of when they were kids, the way they were taught to make musical instruments of their water glasses. She can’t remember who taught them that. Maybe it was something they did in school. Certainly it was not their mother.

“We bought our tickets,” Adiva says, and this brings Saba out of her reverie.

“I could’ve gotten those for you,” she says.

“Oh.” Adiva is quiet. “Well, that’s all right.”

“I didn’t know you wanted to come.” As soon as she says it, Saba remembers the last conversation they had, her sister’s unwavering support.

“Mama had me buy one for her.”

The dough Saba works in her hands—moments ago soft and pliable, stretchy and new, the pillowy possibility of sourdough—hardens, feels like setting concrete. She pries her hands from the sticky mass and begins to scratch at the small bits sticking to her.

“I think she’s excited,” Adiva says. “Well, as excited as Mama gets. She bought a new dress, which is something, don’t you think?”

Saba scrapes the dough into the trash can, sets the bowl in the sink, fills it with soap and lets the tap run, bubbles frothing.

“Say something,” Adiva says.

“Why does everyone love sourdough? It’s not really a very good bread. So bland, too crusty. What’s the use?”

“Oh, Saba.”

“I have to go, I’ll call you later.”

Because her hands are filthy she cannot end the call, so she listens to her sister’s breath for several moments before, finally, Adiva sighs and hangs up for them both.

 

A rare Thanksgiving home, only a year after college, Saba volunteered to cook for everyone. Her family had never celebrated with a traditional turkey dinner, and she wanted to see her mother nibble some crisped skin, spoon thick slices of cranberry sauce into her mouth. For weeks Saba dreamed of falling through clouds made of mashed potatoes. She woke up hungry, smelling phantom butter and thyme.

This was when they were still being kind to one another, walking on eggshells. Saba was a wild woodland creature, something easily scared away. Okay, her mother said when she proposed her idea. I suppose that would be all right.

She went to the store and spent hundreds of dollars, her own money, money she didn’t have but dreamed into existence with the help of her credit card. There were only three of them but she bought enough to feed ten.

At home, turkey basted and roasting in the oven, she shook out the oysters from their plastic-lined paper sack. She’d found a recipe for oyster stuffing, her mouth watering as she read through the ingredients list. Her mother had never tasted an oyster, of that she was certain.

As she shucked, she tasted. How could she resist the shivering soft disk of meat, its salty brine and grit of sand still stuck to the shell? Soon she was gobbling the mollusks, slurping rapturously as she threw them down her throat. It felt like eating the sea.

“Saba! What are you doing?” Her mother stood framed in the doorway, and she saw herself as her mother must—clear juices dribbling down her chin, mound of shells emptied on the counter behind her.

“Mama, try one,” she said. Extending an experience was the only peace offering she knew. She held out the oyster she’d planned to eat next. For a moment she stood suspended from her own body as her mother reached out, hand hovering over the oyster, before she reached back and threw her hand forward, slapping Saba’s wet face. The sound was thick, slippery. She pried open Saba’s hand and let the opened oyster thwack onto the linoleum floor, the shell halves skittering beneath the kitchen table.

What pained her most was not the slap, but the small hope she allowed herself just before it.

In the “OYSTERS” video she shucks each oyster individually, and though it is her longest video ever posted, it is also one of the most popular. She sits among discarded shells like Ursula, a sea queen eating her way through the ocean. She lost count of the oysters while filming, only knew that the amount was enough to swipe clean her bank account. It was many months before she was able to make another video.

Most nights after shoots she spends in the bathroom, alternating between shitting and vomiting up the food havocking across her body. The oysters, though, remained. She swayed in her bed, wishing them up or out, but nothing. The hard rock of seafood anchored her to wakefulness, to the too-hot air in her room. This must be what it feels like to die, she thought. Then: no, to drown. Then: to be a whale that has eaten a giant squid, and feels the beast laying claim to some space inside it, a mistake she must carry now.

 

After the televised interview with the museum director, Saba turns down interview requests for the New York Post and the Daily Mail, concedes an hour-long sit-down with New York Magazine, and grants The New Yorker backstage access before the show. Or, rather, Helen does all this; Saba merely agrees. There are many questions but Saba has few answers for them. What more can be said, that cannot be seen in the videos? She can tell the reporter from The New Yorker is disappointed by her vague, single-word answers. Helen tries to make amends as he stands to go, angrily shrugging his jacket over his shoulders, arms shoved back into the too-tight sleeves like stuffed grape leaves.

After these brief media ventures, the Guggenheim releases a statement, expressing gratitude for the mounting interest but asking for privacy as Saba prepares for the show. It’s only a week away. Within a day of tickets going on sale, it sells out. She and Helen meet once more, agree to a completely darkened stage, like a black box theatre, Saba centered at a long chrome table. Matte, Saba says, and Helen agrees. During the show there’s to be no photography, no music, no speaking. All light will be directed upon Saba, and only turned on once she has sat at the table and is ready to begin, which she’ll indicate to the crew with a small button placed in her palm for exactly that reason. The food should be on the table, prepared, before she approaches.

“We have a kitchen here, nothing of chef quality, but certainly we can work with neighboring restaurants or catering companies for the event. Is there someone in particular you prefer to work with?” Helen asks.

Saba shakes her head, dissipates the questions in the air in front of her with a wave of her hand. “I’ll handle all that.” In truth, she has no idea what she’ll be consuming. She hasn’t cooked or baked in days, can barely taste the food she orders. Everything tastes bland, like her childhood: oatmeal, turkey, chicken, rice. Her apartment is littered with scraps of paper, ideas once considered, now thrown out. Mangoes. Banana pudding. Taquitos from the bodega beneath her walk-up. Duck a l’orange. Nothing feels right.

Helen is hesitant. “Really, we insist. It’s our job, there’s nothing we want more than to assist you in this event going smoothly. We only need to know what you’ll need, what food items to prep, and then you can—”

“I’ve got to go, there’s much to rehearse.” Saba stands, so Helen stands, clenched in the small opening between her desk and chair. Her office is not as grand as the director’s. It’s an unfair advantage, Saba’s freedom on the other side of the desk, but she takes it and doesn’t look back as the heavy door closes behind her.

Too much time inside ivory museum spirals makes Saba’s head ache. She needs darkness, a setting akin to the conditions of her show. She walks down 5th then slips into the 86th Street station and onto a 4 train heading downtown.

 

To contrast the nearly neon butter yellow of the popcorn, Saba wears all black. On either side of her rests a clear trash bag filled with the snack—a gift snuck to her from her friend in concessions at her favorite theater. Before her is a simple white bowl filled with popcorn, which she empties in its entirety before dipping it back into one of the bags to refill.

The salt is what gets to her. Her lips feel like the desert; for weeks she will embalm them with Vaseline, day and night, only to feel the cracks splitting open hours later. She bleeds like this for what seems like a very long time. In the video she allows herself a glass of water, but sips from it only occasionally. It seems greedy, or wrong, to gulp at it as she fills her body with salt.

The day after filming the video, she was so bloated a woman stopped her on the street and placed a hand on her belly. “Bambino,” she said, eyes soft and happy. “Congratulazioni!” Saba placed her hand next to the woman’s, felt her own body. She had been up all night, alternating between drinking water, peeing, and Vaselining her lips. Her body felt hard and foreign beneath her hand.

“Grazie,” she said.

 

Film Forum is the first theater Saba visited after moving to New York. She watched A Streetcar Named Desire there for a film studies course, and among classmates loudly falling in love with Marlon Brando, found herself trying to taste the chicory in Blanche and Stella’s coffee. Movies were another thing she hadn’t much experienced. She spent many afternoons there.

The cool, dark theater is like the relief of a damp washcloth on the back of her neck. Saba settles into her seat, one of only a handful of patrons. The movie’s already begun so she tries to sort out what’s happening, watching as Paul Newman washes his hands and kneels before a mound of hard-boiled eggs. She leans forward and relief floods her body, then adrenaline as she leaps up and exits the theater as quickly as she’d entered it. It’s perfect, simple yet visually striking. Exiting, she leaves a wad of bills in the donations bin.

There are only six days to prepare so she must begin instantly. Though the food appears simple, she must practice boiling the eggs so they come out just right, the yolks yellow, no green-gray tinge, with shells that peel off smoothly in one fractured ribbon. She buys dozens and dozens of eggs, her cart at the store filled with nothing else. People stare.

With three days left, she wakes up with a surprise ending. A roast chicken. It will come as she is finishing the last of the hard-boiled eggs: crisp, golden-brown, glistening, smelling of rosemary and thyme, garlic and butter. She imagines that though the audience will have been instructed to remain silent throughout the performance, here they will gasp. She has never ventured outside of one food in a video. The chicken will be big enough to feed an entire family. The audience’s mouths will water.

Now Saba goes to the butcher and fills her cart with chickens, stopping at the farmer’s market for fresh herbs, the bodega for packs of butter. Her apartment windows appear permanently fogged. She smells like butter all the time, catches people on the street leaning closer to her to sniff her hair. Her days take on a new routine: boil, cool, rest; baste, dress, roast; smash, roll, peel; eat, eat, eat. The chicken she only cooks, and does not practice eating. Everything about this performance will be unorthodox. She hasn’t felt so alive, the world so cracked open and unknown, since she first left home and moved to the city so many years ago.

Two nights before the show, she works through the night and does not sleep.

On the morning of the performance, she is ready. Excited, nervous, committed.

Outside her apartment is the town car the museum has sent over, ready to take her uptown.

 

There’s something aesthetically pleasing about bowl after bowl after bowl of pasta, dressed in nothing but a melted sauce of butter, pecorino romano and grana padano cheeses, and freshly cracked pepper. Saba knows this “CACIO E PEPE” video will be a challenge, that by the final bowls, the sauce will congeal into a gluey paste she has to force down. That’s part of the excitement—she isn’t sure she can do it. Starch plus cheese plus changing viscosity of the dish combine to create an uncertain outcome. All the videos have been challenging, have exerted themselves on her body, but she has never assumed she won’t finish one. That she might fail excites her, sends trills down her arms, into her empty stomach, along the braid laced too tightly across her scalp. She breathes deeply before the first bowl. This is her favorite part of making the videos: the moments right before beginning, when she is hungry and calm, poised before the food and the camera. Saba is a professional, dedicated to the art form. She makes no effort to connect with the people who send her messages about their binge eating, their body dysmorphia, the pyramid scheme they’d love her to join. How many—and who—watches her videos has never concerned her, and never occurred to her, until the museum reached out. She cares only about the food.

By the end of the video, she is sweating. Her braid has come unlooped and sticks to her forehead; her blouse is sheer in the places it’s become damp. After she finishes chewing the last forkful of pasta, she looks up at the camera, face smeared with cream, and swallows. Smiles. Big, all teeth. The video cuts to black.

 

From behind the black curtain the museum has erected for privacy, Saba hears the room fill. It’s like being inside a beehive. She’s not alone, as stagehands move quickly all around her, but they’ve been instructed not to disturb her so she remains a silent oasis in the midst of their bustling.

It’s strange, not to be in her apartment. She misses fiddling with her camera, checking the lighting, making sure the tripod is level. A few minutes before the show is due to begin, Helen and the museum director approach her from the side. The museum director smiles and touches her elbow. Helen checks her mic, the button in her palm, the zipper on the back of her dress.

“Ready?” the museum director asks, and Saba nods. A stagehand appears and walks her to the edge of the curtain, then walks her onstage, to the table. She can barely see it except for a slight gleam, the glint of red reflecting off the stagehand’s walkie-talkie onto the edge of the table and back at them. He helps her sit then disappears. Everything is silent and though Saba knows the audience cannot tell she’s there, something in the room feels changed for her, like everyone has sat up straighter in the chairs, if only by a few molecules. The air in the room feels raised. She wants to breathe deeply but won’t allow herself the sound. Instead she steadies her hand on the chrome table; it’s cold to her touch, so different from her own kitchen’s linoleum counter. In her other hand, she finds the button and presses it.

The lights come up but Saba’s view doesn’t change; all she can see is black. Adiva and her mother will be in front, she thinks, and she wills her energy to that part of the audience, but she cannot feel their presence for sure. For all she knows, it’s only Adiva sitting there. For all she knows, no one sits in the five-hundred-odd seats, laid out in careful rows earlier this morning.

In front of her is a mound of hard-boiled eggs, the same fifty as the film. They’re piled into a lopsided pyramid, as requested, which she knows will tumble and dismantle as she begins. That’s okay; she’s planned for such disruptions, means it to be part of the show, an injected sense of chaos only the audience will feel. Saba knows which eggs she will eat when, in order to avoid one rolling off the table, bouncing away into the darkness. She will, as always, go slowly.

She picks up her first egg and smashes, then rolls it to loosen the shell. With the tip of her fingernail she picks at a crack to unfurl the whole thing. It comes off singularly, just as she’s practiced. She drops the shell, clinging to itself along the membrane. With a knife placed at her left, she slices the egg in half, the yolk perfectly yellow, bright as a surprise. She tilts the halves toward the audience, then looks up at them, takes the deep breath she wouldn’t allow herself earlier.

She begins to eat.

The yolks are chalky, the whites like rubber; none of this is new and yet it is, somehow, in this space where she is alone but not alone, in which she can hear nothing but can also hear the medium-rare ribeye beaten into pulp by the acids in the stomach of the man sitting in the fourth seat in the sixth row; can hear the roiling sea of the fast food hamburgers in the videographer’s stomach, beef patties several days past their prime, gluey cheese product resisting disintegration; just as she knows the exact feeling right this very moment inside her mother’s stomach, the reliable weight and sensation of the broken-down butter chicken and rice, the precise moment later tonight, before bed, when her mother will put down the length of floss and go to the toilet for one final shit.

She is seventeen eggs in and cannot disappear inside the food. The seams between her and the world, and the food and the world, and her and the food, are ridged and impossible to rend. Saba stands, suddenly, the loud scrape of the chair against the floor so jarring she jumps before realizing she’s the one who’s made it.

“The chicken,” she says. “Bring the chicken.”

There’s a hum now, coming from the audience. When no one emerges from backstage, Saba says again, louder this time, “Bring me the chicken!”

It appears as she’s been imagining it would, floating through the black box on a gleaming silver platter, but all she can see are the slabs of turkey her mother carved from the bird she over-roasted each week, slicing breast meat onto the same cheery blue Fiestaware platter. Saba’s mouth is dry and she can’t smell the chicken though she can see it dripping in its own juices.

“I can’t taste anything,” she says, in a whisper though her voice crescendos as she repeats herself. “I can’t taste. I can’t taste anything.” Now the audience lets out a full gasp as she opens her mouth and scrapes at her tongue, flecks of yolk and egg white spraying the black tablecloth. Is this part of the show? The chicken, still steaming, sits like a wedding cake in front of the remaining tower of eggs and without warning Saba stops clawing at herself and reels around to face the table once more.

“Oh, my,” says a small voice in the crowd, as it becomes clear her mouth is bleeding.

Saba never ate a single bite of the many perfect chickens cooked and discarded over the last three days. Such a waste, she thinks. And for what? Her hands curl back against the heat as she plunges them into this bird but she pushes further, feeling the tiny weakened ribcage crush under the weight of her palms. The audience screams. She tears off a hunk of breast meat and stuffs it in her mouth, lets the fatty skin slick her face with butter. It’s food, she yells, or would, if her mouth were not full. This is what we’re meant to do with it!

“No.” It is impossible to say for sure, but Saba knows the tone of her mother’s disappointment. She feels it as she hears it, like a wet thwack across her face.

The primal, depthless scream that comes out of Saba is unholy yet fundamental, wild yet manifest to everyone in the audience. With a seemingly inhuman strength, Saba grasps the chrome table by its edge and wrenches it from its home on the stage, sending it and the mangled chicken and the pile of still-shelled, uneaten eggs clattering, splattering, tumbling into the dark abyss of audience before her. There is the acciaccato noise of the performance’s destruction, then silence.

Then, a child’s voice. Her nephew, Jazzy? But her sister wouldn’t have brought a two-year-old to such a performance, would she?

“Mama,” the voice says. Saba imagines Jazzy, little fingers opening and closing as rubbery eggs roll off the stage, stumbling out of his mother’s grasp and moving toward the mess as everyone else falls back.