By Ismene Ormonde
"Gluttony denotes, not any desire of eating and drinking, but an inordinate desire..."
– Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theolologiae)
“I don't know why they do that. Maybe they didn't do their laundry. I’m definitely the kind of person to wear underwear all the time.”
– Ashley Tisdale (on party girls of the 2000s falling out of cabs without any underwear on).
Sinking into Paris, the horizon was like the rim of a dirty glass. Looking through the window into the darkening November evening, I could choose to focus on two things: my reflection, or the spectre of the city below – lights gold and glittering and promising. I swung between them all the way down until Paris disappeared and became grey-green fields, trees, asphalt, the soft heavy thunk of the plane meeting the ground.
Three texts snapped onto my phone screen the moment I turned it on.
My eyes chewed around the rows of seats, the tunnel that took us from the plane to the baggage claim, the green door declaring nothing, the arrivals area, the taxi rank. Somewhere, across time, I’d developed a game out of always looking out for something beautiful, even, and especially, in the ugliest, most functional spaces. The most reliable sources of beauty were: tricks of light, some strange effect in the sky, bursts of nature splitting apart some man-made thing, the colours in almost anyone’s eyes when you got close enough, girls enchanted by their own conversation on public transport, the bent of someone’s head over a book whose cover you couldn’t see, elements of symmetry (planned or imagined), and weird coincidences of thought and reality. Like just then, I started thinking about the first drink I’d ever had in Paris at the exact moment that my taxi passed a 1950s-style billboard for Martini.
At night, in this city, the game was much easier. Paris wanted you to eat it up. Neon lights, pockets of shadow, sequins and the shine of leather or vinyl, flickers of iridescence on eyelids and cheekbones, the fragile glow on people’s faces in the smoking area, even the grey muted tones of the Métro carriage, could all add up to the right kind of magic. Everyone knew that tomorrow something would shift – mornings could be beautiful, but not mornings-after. And yet, we were all willing to sacrifice a few hours of sunshine and glowing skin for the half-remembered ecstasy of real and pure nighttime in an overly-fabled city. I was happy to slice through the sky and down and into Paris, a few brief times a year, new ephemeral sticky-sweet life packed up tight into the largest suitcase that the cheapest airline would give me.
The taxi swung into more familiar territory. The texts continued to hover in the periphery of my notifications like an optical illusion of something loved. I could feel the anticipation beginning to burst up through my skin, golden and fizzing with promises of where I’d be and what I’d look like in just a few hours.
Anika was standing outside the pied-de-terre in that half-formed state that precedes a night out: curlers in her hair, a flash of skin underneath her dressing gown when she walked, two half-moon cold silicone shapes underneath her eyes. She opened the taxi door for me and hauled my suitcase off the seat. We greeted each other in the way that boys liked to tell us was grating: screaming and clutching, like nothing else existed but us, like everybody’s days had been leading up to the second our bodies collided again.
“I’m starving,” she said into the skin of my neck.
We detangled ourselves, made our way through the door and into the miniscule lift up to the seventh floor. Our noses almost touched. “We don’t have to be there ‘til midnight. What should we eat?”
“Oysters,” I said.
When we were seventeen, in Paris for the first time, we had no money and no French and just the barest beginnings of style and taste, scraped together from films and art and descriptions of seafood and champagne in books we were too young to understand. So we would eat mostly hand-torn baguettes and sit in the Place des Vosges and Anika would say: “What should we be eating right now?”. That was the game, the whole game, and the only rule was that there wasn’t any such thing as too much.
The elevator kept rising and I could feel the laughter bubbling higher and higher up our throats, but we kept it in as long as we could.
“Gluttony and glamour.”
I bit my lip to stop from laughing. The game would always get conceptual when we got too hungry to talk about food.
“Decadence and pleasure.”
I could tell she was on the brink of a giggle, the corner of her mouth twitching up.
I heard the shrill ding of my phone, twice, and slid the silencer button on without looking down.
“Something in its entirety.”
We were both laughing now – and later, on the plane home, I thought about how I’d never be able to explain to anyone why it was funny.
In Anika’s apartment, something felt alive. Thick and luscious bubbles were spilling over from the pasta water on to the gas stove, her tapered candles marched strange meaningful patterns in wax-drips across the kitchen table, the clothes-rail which acted as her wardrobe was bending with the weight of belonging to someone who couldn’t say goodbye to anything beautiful. We sat on silk cushions on the kitchen floor and tore fat basil leaves over penne alla vodka, alternating bites with sips of warm white wine from the bottle.
Then – “Oh my god,” I said, interrupting my own story about the couple next to me on the plane who had either been fighting or fucking under a blanket. “I didn’t tell you–”
So I told her. The man was older than me and he had not yet succeeded in giving me an orgasm. That Sunday morning was maybe the fifth or sixth time we had slept together. Afterwards, tangled and naked in mid-morning light, I explained that I thought we ascribed too much value to the narrative idea of a climax. I wasn’t trying to let him off the hook so much as present a personal analysis of sexual mores in Western culture, but I also felt a little bad because he was very beautiful and kissed me so carefully, like I was a stick of butter that’d melt with too much touch.
“I guess I’ve just got reliant on my vibrator,” I’d told him.
“Maybe that’s something you should try and wean yourself off,” he’d said. (“Oh my god,” Anika said. “I know,” I said.) Then he kissed me and made me breakfast. I couldn’t remember what we’d eaten.
“That’s sort of what I’m worried about,” I said now, to Anika, “It’s like… I don’t know how to do things in moderation anymore. If it’s not sex, it’s – chocolate, or homemade pasta, or dancing, or new shoes, or… the same song over and over again.” I speared the last piece of pasta on my plate, silky and dripping, and gestured with it: “D’you think that’s normal?”
“Isn’t that just life?” Anika said. “Why wouldn’t you eat it, if it’s there and it’s good?”
I shook my head.
“You know what he told me last week?”
We were in bed, again. He’d just listened to my story about the night before: in sparkles and somebody else’s fur coat, I’d gone to a party, met a girl, laughed and kissed her for hours on someone else’s bed, and then, at midnight, went home and texted someone I had met once: come over. When we fell back into my bed, tangled and hot, it was nearly 6am. We slept lightly, I woke up with his face in my hair. I lost my drivers’ licence and a pair of black underwear.
The version of the night I gave the man was only bested in chastity by what I’d tell my mother later on the phone, but even so –
“He listens, and then he goes really quiet, and then he says, there’s a certain hue of a death wish to it all.”
“A certain hue? Does he really talk like that?”
By now we were on our knees, looking through the splayed-out mess of clothes – I’d tipped out my suitcase to join most of Anika’s wardrobe on the floor. We were making little piles of our selections: I picked out a cherry-red Gaultier jacket and white lace stockings with just one small hole in them.
“He always talks like that. He read me a poem in bed last weekend.”
“You’re going to look like one of those frilly cakes from the eighties,” Anika said, “What poem?”
“Auden. ‘The More Loving One’.”
Anika made a face. Sometimes I find myself making this face in the mirror. On Anika, it’s two creases rising between her serious eyebrows, a tilt of her head forward so her hair falls a little too much over her jaw, a quirk of humour in the left corner of her mouth. My face went to match hers like we were tied together with ribbons.
“I know. Remember that guy who sent you–”
“Bukowski. The one about shooting sperm like a whale.”
“I know. What about this?” Anika held up a midnight-blue sequin dress, its sweetheart neckline trickling down to go mermaid at the skirt. “With the boots?”
“Try it,” I said, “I need a visual. I’m still starving.”
Shrugging her dressing-gown down to her waist as she went, Anika walked over to the fridge and took out a shell-pink cardboard box, miraculously the same colour as her nipples. Elements of symmetry (planned or imagined).
“We made these today in class. You’re gonna die.”
The tarts were shining raspberries and perfect pale green pistachio cream. Anika had made the tiny chocolate hearts adorning each rounded bubble of fruit. We tried to eat them slowly and I told Anika some more about the man.
“He’s been texting me today, actually. He keeps asking me stuff.”
“Stuff like what?” There were pastry crumbs on the Gaultier. Anika shimmered around the room, picking up stray shoes and holding them one-by-one against her blue dress.
“You know. How are you? Stuff.” I set the tart down, half-bitten away, on my bare thigh. “I feel awful. I feel like a bad person.”
“He’s making you feel like that?”
“No. Yes. I guess I just keep thinking about all those things he’s said.” I picked up the wine bottle, like the label was interesting. “The death wish and the vibrator. That fucking poem. And if he’s right. If there’s something wrong with me.”
There was this part of the Auden poem which had really got me at the time – not the line the man had pronounced so meaningfully, not let the more loving one be me, but the last verse: Were all stars to disappear or die, / I should learn to look at an empty sky. I had never related less to anything. How was it more loving to accept less – or nothing at all? How could that be love? Why was absence and temperance and smallness what everyone seemed to want from me, as a sign of my goodness, my ability to love right?
I tried to say all that to Anika. Her hands were stained red with raspberries and she took my face with them. I could feel the wet juice join up with my skin. “You’re being silly.”
Her eyes, my favourite eyes, widened with intent. “He’s just a guy. I know he’s very pretty and smart but that’s… You’re going to let him tell you what everything is all about?” Her voice went up in a lilt, the way it does when I know she’s about to make me laugh: “Dude, he can’t even make you come.”
I smiled so hard that my cheeks pressed into her palms. She let go of my face and told me to finish eating the tart.
“Do you really think I’ll look like a cake in the Gaultier?”
“I didn’t say cake in a bad way,” she said. The bravado of honesty, later regretted at the slightest tremor of feelings hurt – and that was Anika. She started rummaging through a heap of silver clothes (we’d started organising the piles by colour), and then pulled out a ‘20s fringed dress we’d fought over in Place de la République last summer. “Here. You think he’d like this?”
“He’d hate it,” I said, “It looks too much like something you’d have fun in.” He’d once described an ex-flame’s wardrobe as a bit embarrassing. I’d never wanted to meet someone more.
I pulled my clothes off and when the dress was on my body, I didn’t need a mirror: Anika was enough. The fringe danced around the hideous and vast bruise which covered my left knee, another remnant of my last night-out. The man had made a soft hushed sound when he saw it, like my pain belonged to his sphere of perception. It had felt like kindness at the time; perhaps it was.
Anika reached out and traced the bruise, once, lightly. “This is so gross. What’d you do?”
“I don’t know.”
“The dress is perfect.”
“Mine or yours?
We forgot to wash up our plates, and I did Anika’s make-up, then mine. “What time do you wanna get there again?” I asked.
“Midnight,” she said.
It was a quarter past eleven. “Let’s go.”
On the Métro, we were hungry with it, envisioning a night which straddled bacchanal, bachelorette, and Art Basel. We can’t help turning up with big appetites – otherwise, how would you know what to wear?
“I’m worried we’re going to be the coolest people there,” Anika said. We took up a whole four seats facing each other and passed a bottle of Malbec between us.
“I’m always worried about that,” I said, “But doesn’t everyone think that?”
Anika’s face lit up like moonstone in the light of another passing Métro car.
“I don’t know. I think we’re kind of special.”
The night didn’t satiate: the drinks were expensive and the dry martinis some guy bought for us were all wrong. No one made me laugh and no one was wearing anything I could think about the next day, bad or good. Things got so dire I looked at my phone: the man had texted me and asked if I had touched down in Paris safely? And are you going out with Anika tonight? And I miss you.
But then, in the bathroom before we left, we stood side-by-side in the mirror. I’d patted some of the lipstick high on our cheekbones, and her eyes were wide and dramatic with kohl and wine.
“Are you still feeling bad?” Anika asked.
“You’re right,” I said, “I was being silly.”
“This place is nothing,” she said, and then, more gently, because stories from when you were seventeen are delicate things: “What should we be eating?”
And then, the night bursting with longing, we went home, and we split the last tart. We were hungrier than this city, maybe than the whole sparkling world – but then I was sure there would always be more to eat tomorrow.
This short story stems from moments which come down to a certain gnawing hunger which metabolises in your twenties. The getting-ready which precedes a night-out, when the evening stretches out glimmering and tantalising before you and you work up an appetite with the clothes you wear and the conversations you have. The entrapment of certain kinds of relationship, when you feel the pressure of attempts to curb your hunger and your desire for more. The experience of being a little too much and wanting a little too much: craving decadence and playing with the edges of gluttony. Aquinas and Ashley's quotes point to the tendency we have always had to hold hunger in suspicion. This story says: eat up.
- Ismene Ormonde
About the Author:
Ismene is a writer and arts journalist based in London. She's interested in bodies, objects, spaces, and the pursuit of pleasure.